By Nick Park
(From the January - March 2018 issue of VOX)
Around 350 years ago, when the English Civil War was still fresh in people’s minds, a Puritan called John Milton published an epic poem about a civil war in heaven between God and Satan. Paradise Lost, modelled on the great Nordic and Celtic poetic sagas, remains a landmark in English literary history. A few years later, John Bunyan, while languishing in Bedford Gaol for his religious beliefs, wrote his famous novel Pilgrim’s Progress (described by The Guardian newspaper as “the ultimate English classic”).
Over the years, many other committed Christians, in various countries and languages, have employed fiction as a powerful way to provoke people into thinking about biblical issues. Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrestled with the problem of evil in The Brothers Karamazov, while CS Lewis explored biblical themes of sin and redemption in his Narnia books, and also in the lesser-known Space Trilogy.
JRR Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and saw his Lord of the Rings books as fundamentally religious – not as an allegory but in making people think about the age-old battle between light and darkness. Tolkien was also a biblical translator, translating Jonah for the Jerusalem Bible, and also contributing to the translation of the book of Job.
At times Christian fiction has changed history. The most notable example being Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which, perhaps more than anything else, was responsible for the abolition of slavery in North America.
This historical context makes me all the more frustrated at the current state of Christian fiction publishing. If you look for fiction in a Christian bookshop, you are likely to be swamped by a range of insipid Mills-and-Boon-style romances set in Amish country.
Part of the problem is that many Christians have become so obsessed with heresy-hunting, and finding fault with each other’s theology, that authors are afraid to be imaginative or creative in case they get lynched (in love, of course).
A case in point is William Young’s 2007 novel The Shack. I didn’t particularly enjoy the book myself but I recognised it for what it was – a novel, a work of fiction, designed to get people to think outside the box, and making no attempt to teach doctrine or theology. For some reason, however, a posse of self-appointed doctrinal policemen felt they had to condemn it for not being theologically accurate. A pastor friend of mine, with tongue firmly stuck in cheek, posted on Facebook, “The Shack is heretical for portraying God as a black woman whereas every good evangelical knows that God is a lion who lives in a kingdom called Narnia.”
I have written and published 11 non-fiction books. But recently I ventured far outside my comfort zone to work on a novel that seeks to challenge dysfunctional societies that routinely abort unborn children diagnosed with Down Syndrome. The Missing Chromosomes imagines a world where everyone has Down Syndrome – until children that are ‘different’ begin to be born.
The novel is due for publication at the end of January. No doubt some people will like it and some people will hate it. We all have different tastes. I pray that, albeit in a smaller way, it might follow Uncle Tom’s Cabin in stirring some consciences and promoting a more compassionate and inclusive society. But I have another prayer, that it might encourage more Christian writers to be brave. The church needs writers who will refuse to play safe, who will not be cowed by those who are suspicious of imagination and creativity, and who will dare to dream of producing great Christian literature that can reach and inspire the world around us.
Nick Park is Executive Director of Evangelical Alliance Ireland.