Saturday, June 13, 2009

Fragmenting the Narrative World: Losing the Effectiveness of Story

Here's my paper proposal for the CSC:

Before the Enlightenment, the worldview of western civilization was fairly consistent, yet after the Age of Reason, it split into a Christian worldview and a naturalistic one, which further fragmented into existentialism, postmodernism, multiculturalism, and so on. This fracturing is amply evident in the literature produced from the 18th century onward. Most narratives are an attempt to tell the truth, or at least to explore some facet of it, but if western culture has removed God and ultimate truth as a unifying force, how else can one approach “story” but from fragmented identities—race, gender, ethnicity, or some other type of self-defined category? There must be some kind of drive, unifying force, or “truth” behind the narrative: Women are oppressed; African-Americans are oppressed; British imperialists commandeered our culture; God is dead.

Of course, not everyone abandoned a Christian worldview, and some only compromised. Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer calls this compromise the top story/bottom story dichotomy. Compromisers buy into a naturalistic worldview based on logic and reason for everyday life (the bottom story), and take a “leap” into the upper story when they want to practice their “faith.” Many believers are so conditioned by society that they are not even aware of the fragmentation, and non-believers are not threatened as long as believers leave faith in the upper story and don’t try to incorporate it into “real life.”

This paper will explore the effects of a dichotomized worldview on narrative—both how it shapes the narrative we choose to tell and how effectively we are able to tell it. Does a fragmented worldview cause us to move from a comprehensive approach to narrative to a fragmentary one? Does the existence of “Christian Fiction” as a genre mean that some have bought into this dichotomy as it applies to literature? Is there a bottom story—Fiction, and a top story—Christian Fiction? Does a synthesized worldview, whether consciously or unconsciously held, lead to writing Christian Fiction to compete in the multicultural marketplace of Chick Lit, African American Lit, Post-colonial Lit, Gay and Lesbian Lit, ad infinitum? Instead of “all truth being God’s truth,” a belief resulting in stories of real people grappling with real issues in a real world, do some Christians today feel they have to tell “Christian stories,” which are often sanitized and unrealistic? If we truly have a Christian worldview, will we choose to tell stories that incorporate all of life—spiritual and physical, good and evil, victory and defeat—in realistic ways?

And how does this fragmenting of narrative affect the role of literature as an exploration of truth, a pathway to God? Many authors of “Christian Fiction” look at their work as a form of personal evangelism, but is choosing to tell stories from this platform really effective? Is it not just preaching to the choir and reinforcing the idea of faith as separate from real life?

Now, all I have to do is write the thing! Any ideas to contribute? Suggestions will be duly considered, and if used, full credit will be given. :-D


lisa b said...

I am already getting excited.
I don't have any scholarly input at the moment, but I do know that the more I come to grips with myself, the less patience I have with Christian Fiction. I am flawed; my life has glitches. Reading Christian Fiction can be downright depressing with its typical "everything turns out well" plotlines.

There are a few works from the genre that I do love -- Francine Rivers' Redeeming Love, Frank Peretti's This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness come to mine. Some of Brock and Bodie Thoene's historical fiction is very good, but I've yet to read a piece of CF that makes me think, "Wow. That should be taught in a lit class."

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

Oh my. You should know not to ask an academic whether they have any ideas to contribute, because my UChicago-ruined brain has been going haywire over this from the first sentence to the last.

So I'll skip over the history-of-philosophy warrants and stick to what I think might be of most immediate help (or annoyance).

To me, Christian fiction as a genre seems to negotiate three different premises.

The first is economic: It's the assumption that Christians are less likely to want to read "regular" fiction because it does not adequately reflect their preoccupations and struggles, and are more likely to want to read fiction that reflects a "Christian" paradigm. Ergo, publishers come up with "Christian fiction" in order to sell books to that market. Analytically, that "Christian" paradigm appears to me to be less one that wrestles with deep Christian questions and more one dependent on "Victorian" values regarding sexuality, social behavior, and gender roles (thus also capturing the nostalgic market) -- values that are frequently understood as coequal to "Christian" ones. This societal construct is overlaid with a patina of supposed Christian discourse, i.e. certain unoffensive stock phrases regarding "spirituality" and not-so-deep faith struggles, "witness" (especially in Christian romance, where frequently one Christian partner is witnessing to a heathen one), a set of tropes that pass as faith struggles, and an accepting portrayal of the opinions and attitudes of the North American "Christian" sub-culture, as well as a more positive portrayal of figures like priests or missionaries, whom "regular" fiction uses as trope villains. This first set of accommodations is almost entirely technique/rhetorical (conscious or not) in order to sell books to people who seek validation (which readers often refer to as "inspiration") and who seek familiarity in the fiction they read/watch/listen to.

Intertwined with that economic reality is the second premise, which is a question of aesthetic philosophy. That is, "Christian" fiction almost universally accepts the view of fiction so eloquently argued by Sir Philip Sidney in "An Apology for Poetry" and most recently incarnated in the "Christian" academy by people like Leland Ryken: Fiction's purpose is (a) instructional for moral betterment and (b) to create "realms of gold" to show its readers what life could and should be like. That's why there's a strong allegorical tradition in "Christian" fiction -- allegory is always didactic -- and why Christians often react with hostility towards "regular" fiction's portrayal of the seedy, amoral, immoral, or of moral failure even on the part of good people. After all, such failures communicate a world in which God is not in control, in which Good does not triumph, and which does not act in a devotional manner. Moreover, such "regular" fiction asks the reader to create a world in her head that runs contrary to the laws of God, and there is a perceived danger that this will lead the reader to mimic the "false" world of "regular" fiction in her own life rather than follow the decisions practical for the world of moral truth. (This is an ancient approach to literature, of course, resurrected with a vengeance by Zwingli and Calvin, advocated in force among Puritans, Pietists, and Catholics, and reflected in the Victorian habit among the Frozen Chosen to dismiss all novels as immoral -- due to a certain theology of leisure). In other words, according to this aesthetic premise, "Christian" fiction is to set a counterpoint to "regular" fiction by portraying a world where "Christian" values function as primary and victorious, in order to better the reader and guide her imagination in fruitful ways.

Jonathan G. Reinhardt said...

The third addresses your idea of the top/bottom dichotomy, which I think might also be expressed in terms of competing imaginary paradigms. Clearly, the "reality" portrayed in "Christian fiction" creates a sort of world for its characters to operate in that ranges from a re-imagined ideal past that was supposedly more Christian to Thomas Kinkade-esque glows of comfort-as-moral-superiority, to novels that try to actually engage the present as it is experienced by people from Christian subcultures. Your point is, I think, that these are actually imaginary situations because the very subculture that conditions a Christian worldview is also imaginary. In a sense, all of society is. The trouble you may run into is that "regular" fiction is equally working out of an imaginary "normalcy." The world of the Roths, Updikes, DeLillos, Pynchons, Bellows, etc. are no more "realistic" and no less conveniently constructed and assumed than the "Christian" ones are. They may be less explicit about their elements of self-validation, but they operate under them with no less force. It is a Christian habit to define our own POV as bifocal and assume that others in the "regular" culture have got the real, comprehensive thing, but I don't think that serious literary study bears that out.

So my question is whether the Schaeffer model of explanation isn't countermanded by its own logic. If everybody negotiates between the imaginary world we turn to for norms (an "upper story") but actually lives pragmatically in a social consensus structure (the "lower story"), then isn't all literature "upper story"? If, say, I'm Marion Zimmer Bradley and I imagine an ancient past where society was matriarchal, am I not doing what "Christian fiction" does? Or if I write a novel where everyone obviously is accepting of gay relationships? Or of interracial ones? Or where all authors are also deep philosophers and Don Juans? Or where the prince rescues the overlooked princess? Or where there is no meaning to anybody's life and no plot because that's the point, it's deep, get it?

I think the rhetoric of literature derives its power in part from the idea that there is a "normal" and "real" literature that deals with "real life" and is "serious," and then there is ideological literature that operates from the margins. But frankly that's not true. There's more influential literature and there's less influential literature, and the more influential literature defines what is considered acceptable to its own conversation, and the rest is genre that can come to the party but should stand in the corner until spoken to or generously nodded at, and it sure won't go home with the prom queen. But that's not a value judgment. That's just how any old party works.

Stephanie said...

Thanks, JGR. I agree with pretty much all you've said, but you've also brought up some angles I hadn't thought of. This is one of the things I've missed working in isolation this past year. It's always helped me to talk about my ideas and get feedback from other thinkers before I write about them. Sometimes my ideas are validated, and sometimes my blind spots are pointed out to me; either way, I end up with a better paper.