Fiction is Not Something We Do, But Something We Are

I’m thankful for Christians doing the hard work of writing or promoting fiction.

I think of fiction writers like Randy Alcorn, who challenges skepticism toward Christian fiction in this refreshing article. I think of non-fiction writers who choose to write novels—Jared C. Wilson, author of Otherworld, and Trevin Wax, author of Clear Winter Nights. Of course, I can’t fail to mention great works of literary criticism like Karen Swallow Prior’s On Reading Well.

I’m hopeful these works will inspire not only an increased enthusiasm for reading fiction, but also an increased dedication to writing fiction. By all means, let us read Flannery O’Connor. Let us read Tolkien and Lewis. (Let us also read contemporary works.) But we shouldn’t stop there. Reading great works should compel us toward writing great works.

Fiction Is Sustained Conflict

Many who want to do this stop due to a difficult question: Why do fiction? What problem does it solve? What is its functionin the Christian community?

There are many good answers to these questions, including some great ones by S. D. Smith. But these answers are more helpful for readers of fiction than writers of fiction.

A fixation on what fiction can do reinforces a stifling idea: Fiction is only valuable when it uses narrative to teach us about some non-fiction category—psychology, theology, virtue ethics. If I’m always thinking about what I should say, then I’ll lose sight of how I should say it.

We need to re-orientate ourselves to the how of fiction: Simply put, fiction consists of characters with goals who face tough conflicts. A fixation on the what—the moral, the message, the answer—may tempt me to solve my conflict too quickly, overlook my characterization, or rely on clichés to define characters’ goals.

Fiction is sustained conflict. In this line of thinking, a specifically Christian kind of fiction would be a sustained conflict that stems from being in Christ and living in the world.

Let fiction be a means of coming to terms with the conflict you face on this earth—an attempt to understand your own longings for God and bring to light your rebellion against God’s Spirit dwelling in you.

Here is such a conflict: All Christians long to be in perfect union with the God who created us, dwells within us, and promises to perfect us. Before I say more on this, let me unpack this conflict with the help of two famous authors.

(1) T. S. Eliot and Historical Sense

First is the 20th-century modernist poet and Anglican social critic T. S. Eliot. Eliot was particularly keen on modern fiction that took the form of something old, like Irish writer James Joyce’s Ulysses, a novel set in Dublin but framed like Homer’s Odyssey. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot reveals why he liked Joyce’s novel so much. He says any mature poet has something called “historical sense.” This term:

“Involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence . . . [it] is a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together” (406).

In other words, Eliot wants his readers to know that good literature—fiction included—is defined not by what it does for the reader, but by how accurately it reflects the temporal tension emanating from the author. James Joyce lived in Dublin with concerns vastly different from Homer’s. And yet a sense of timelessness connects them both: There’s something about this tension, between the temporal and the timeless, that is essential to humanity and expressible only in fiction.

(2) Karl Ove Knausgaard and the Driving Force of All Literature

The second writer is the globally acclaimed 21st-century Norwegian novelist who wrote a six-volume, 3,600-page novel about himself trying to write his six-volume, 3,600-page novel. You may wonder how this could be at all interesting, and if so you’re not alone.

For me, its main intrigue comes from the struggle caused by the desire to be something great and the hard work it takes to achieve that desire.

Knausgaard, perhaps like many of us, has an urge to be great, divine even—not at the expense of others, but more so for the benefit of the self. Knausgaard’s desire is a kind of secular, literary form of denying himself to strive after something transcendent: literary greatness. This pursuit brought him great fame and fortune, a place in the literary canon forever, but it also brought him great pain.

Like Eliot, who wanted literature that stems from the tension between timelessness and temporality, Knausgaard wants literature stemming from a similar tension. Knausgaard was invited to speak at a lecture series at Yale University in 2017 on this prompt: Why I Write. He said:

The contradiction between the illimitable that dwells within us and our simultaneous limitation and earthboundness is the driving force of all literature and all art . . . but not only that; the longing to equalize the difference, suspend the contradiction and simply exist in the world, undifferentiated from it. (43)

What I want us to get from his answer is this: We are finite, and there is something infinite within us. We are mortal, and there is something immortal within us. Fiction then, as Knausgaard sees it, is​ the capturing of a personal journey to both articulate and seek a remedy for the tension created as longingto make our limited selves one with the illimitable “that dwells within us.”

As a writer, I hold fast to this idea. And as a Christian, I’ll morph the language a little bit: Christian fiction is sustained conflict where the writer both articulates and seeks to remedy the tension between our human nature and God’s holiness working in us.

This means fiction writing doesn’t have to perfectly teach or represent God’s holiness, but it can demonstrate my pursuit of holiness.

Fiction can be a story that describes and sustains the intense, personal struggle between our sinfulness and our sanctification. For who among us has seen this struggle resolved?

We are mortal, and there is something immortal within us.

This emphasis on the struggle between sinfulness and sanctification gives Christian writers a unique, biblical conflict that can be useful for any genre of fiction.

No Choice but to Write

I think of writing, then, as stemming directly from the tension between our finite selves and the Infinite One who says our body is his temple.

Fiction isn’t the resolution to that tension. I agree with Knausgaard: Tension is the driving force of all literature, of all life, and that’s why every story needs conflict.

What makes fiction good is not its resolution, but its tension.

I say this not to discourage any writers from caring about resolutions, or to stop everyone from wishing to use their narratives to shed light on theological or historical matters. I say this primarily to writers who are looking for a place to start, and want to know if it’s okay to write if they don’t know where they’ll end up. The answer is yes.

Let fiction be a means of coming to terms with the conflict you face on this earth—an attempt to understand your own longings for God and bring to light your rebellion against God’s Spirit dwelling in you. So let tension reign in your fiction. Never let it go. Hold on to it as long as you can, and don’t settle for cheap resolutions.

Christians, we are beings in tension. And this is biblical. We live in an already/not yet world, where God has promised to resolve all things, eradicate all evil, and redeem all his elect to him. His victory is assured. Nothing can stop his plan, but he hasn’t yet brought everything to completion.

Fiction offers a unique and unparalleled way to point to God’s glory without diminishing the tension we experience. That is the nature of fiction, and that is why we have no choice but to write.

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