(Concluding a rather random survey of recent YA novels for girls from Christian publishers. Part one is here.)
Beautiful, by Cindy Martinusen-Coloma. Thomas Nelson, 2009, 272 pages.
The subtitle is Truth’s Found When Beauty’s Lost. Ellie Summerfield is the iconic high-school good girl: overachieving, daytimer-driven, service-oriented, kind, smart–and beautiful. Until an accident scars her face. That happens on page 67 of a 272-page novel, so the rest is concerned with Ellie’s return to equilibrium. Will she graduate? Will she even go back to school? Will she emerge from this experience a better person, or sink into bitterness like her grandfather? We can already guess the answer to that last question, but the process is fairly realistic and well done. Ellie makes some unpleasant discoveries about herself, i.e., she’s not as pretty inside as out, and not very loving to the people who love her most. Her faith was a shaky structure that comes crashing down at the first serious challenge.
That opens the question of what kind of faith it was. She and her parents are churchgoers, but the ‘rents are never fleshed out and the youth pastor only makes brief appearances that don’t amount to much; no help there. The only real help comes from her peers, such as Megan, her slightly-older sister, and Will, the boy next door–both of whom are counter-cultural and rebellious enough to be challenging. But they’re not Christians, even though Megan is thinking more seriously about God toward the end. Then there’s Ellie’s boyfriend Ryan, who remains amazingly faithful, in spite of her breaking up with him. “You know what I figured out, Els? Everybody is disfigured in some way or other . . . in some people we see it immediately in their faces or bodies. But everyone has broken places. Just like everyone has beautiful places. You’ll use your scars and your beauty for the purpose God made you for.” This shows some inner strength, but we don’t get to see where it came from.
In fact, somebody’s missing. In a Christian novel, shouldn’t there be some mention of Christ?
God is mentioned a lot, especially at the end when Ellie makes her peace with Him. But “God” can mean anything in this culture; Christ is terribly specific and demanding. He claims to be the way, the truth, and the life; he calls sinners to repent. This is demanding for mainline literary conventions, and I suspect Thomas Nelson is hoping for some crossover appeal for this novel.
But that leads back to my original question: How “Christian” can a Christian novel be, and still be considered good fiction? Beautiful comes closest of these four representative novels to conventional literary quality, precisely because it’s rather open-ended. Nobody appears to have the final answer; no one has arrived. Ellie’s recognition of her inner ugliness, in my opinion, doesn’t go far enough to reflect a biblical understanding of human depravity–but that’s just where she is at the close of the story. Fiction is about the journey, not the arrival. As soon as a character appears to have The Answer, the story becomes a sermon–or at least, that’s how it’s often perceived, rightly or wrongly.
This is as true for secular “message” literature as it is for Christian themes. When Philip Pullman (in his atheist trilogy that began with The Golden Compass) starts making his characters speak dogmatically for his own views, his novels become tracts. When William P. Young turns a story of reconciliation into a theological discourse (The Shack), he sins both against story and theology.
Characters have to speak for themselves. It may be hard, for someone who doesn’t write fiction, to see how this could be: characters are under the author’s control, aren’t they? Yes, and a little bit of the author goes into each of them. But at the same time, they have to have their own integrity. It’s a bit like trying to explain God’s sovereignty and human choice: both are true, and neither cancels out the other. Good fiction operates on that dynamic of the author’s omnipotence and the will of the characters. The author’s worldview will come through, but each major character will have to work it out in his or her own way.
Christian novels were once seen as conversion tools, or a way of confirming a believer’s faith. Neither of those is the best use of fiction. Only the word of God speaks authoritatively, to call sinners to repentance or build them up in the truth. What fiction can do is expand our experience (through other lives), increase our sympathy, and illuminate the truth we already know. All these novels do that, to a greater or lesser degree, depending on the reader. But no Christian reader should limit herself to “faith-based” novels. The people you encounter in good fiction, you will also encounter in life–maybe even in yourself. Ultimately, God is writing our story, and all truth belongs to Him, wherever it’s found.
For an in-depth look at exactly how faith can be shaped by literature, even if the literature isn’t explicitly Christian, seem Emily’s thoughts on Anne of Green Gables and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.