As we have seen, early Protestants disliked both drama and opera, seeing these as extravagant, fictional, illusory art forms devoted to amusement rather than education. Protestantism's similarly hostile attitudes toward the literary category of the novel reflect this pervasive, characteristic distrust of fiction as a form of cultured deceit.36 For Puritan writers, ample literary satisfaction was to be had from the literary genre of "conversion narratives."37 Why read fiction when real life was more interesting, instructive, and inspirational?
The breakthrough in Protestant attitudes came with a landmark work of religious allegory that contains a sustained narrative that has led many to characterize it as one of the earliest novels. John Bunyan (1626-88), perhaps one of the best-known Puritan writers of the seventeenth century, became involved with the Puritan cause during the English Civil War. With the establishment of the Puritan Commonwealth, Bunyan turned his attention to preaching and became the minister of an independent congregation in Bedford. His Puritan sympathies caused him to be out of favor when the English monarchy was restored in 1660, with the result that he spent many years inside Bedford jail. Bunyan used his time in prison to write his autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, and to begin work on his best-known work, The Pilgrim's Progress, the first part of which appeared in 1678, and the second in 1684.
The central narrative of The Pilgrim's Progress concerns its hero, Christian. Initially bowed down with a burden of sin upon his back, Christian flees from the City of Destruction and seeks eternal life. He thus sets out on a long and arduous pilgrimage, which eventually leads him over the bridgeless River of Death to be received in the Celestial Jerusalem. The characters Christian meets along the way—with names such as "Faithful," "Hopeful," and "Mr. Worldly Wiseman"—embody abstract qualities and defects, virtues and vices. These characters, who speak in the simple, lively, humorous language of ordinary people, were almost certainly modeled on the men and women Bunyan knew. Perhaps it is no surprise that the work went on to become one of the most widely read works in the English language, reaching the height of its popularity in the Victorian period.
This early novel sanitized the genre by constructing a fictional narrative that clearly embodied biblical images and reified the abstract concepts central to Christian discipleship—such as faith, doubt, and pride. Bunyan's own credentials as a Puritan activist, imprisoned for his beliefs, helped reassure his reading public that the work was religiously sound and could be used for entertainment as much as for education.
This was followed by Robinson Crusoe, a work of fiction that gained respectability partly by being based on fact and partly by representing a version of the conversion narrative genre. Its author, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), was a "dissenter"—that is, a Protestant outside the English religious establishment—who attended the Academy for Dissenters in Stoke Newington, now a suburb of London. There he was taught by Reverend Charles Morton, who later went on to become the first vice president of Harvard College. Although Defoe wrote at least five hundred known books, many of which were political pamphlets arguing for greater religious toleration, he is remembered today mainly for the work of fiction written in his sixtieth year and published in 1719.
Robinson Crusoe, which tells the story of a shipwrecked mariner, is loosely yet recognizably based on the true story of Alexander Selkirk. The main action of the story takes place in 1659, when Crusoe is shipwrecked on an uninhabited island. With great skill, Defoe explores how Crusoe's intuition and skills allow him to survive in his new situation. Crusoe is portrayed as a man who had made his fortune as a trader but now finds himself in a situation in which goods and money are of no value to him. The novel's exploration of the consequences of this "inversion of values" is widely regarded as compelling.
Alongside this, we find an exploration of Crusoe's inner feelings, especially his attitude toward God. Defoe tells a story of a personal and inward journey that leads to spiritual renewal, paralleling the account of the self-sufficiency that allows Crusoe to survive at the physical level. The journal entries for June 16 through July 4, 1660, make it clear that a spiritual rebirth follows this inversion of values. Discovering tobacco and a Bible in an old sea chest, Crusoe begins to browse through the latter and is eventually—like Augustine of Hippo before him—brought to the point of conversion:
I threw down the Book, and with my Heart as well as my Hands lifted up to Heaven, in a Kind of Extasy of Joy, I cry'd out aloud, Jesus, thou Son of David, Jesus, thou exalted Prince and Saviour, give me Repentance!
Robinson Crusoe is a remarkable novel that can be read at several levels—as an Enlightenment account of the individual's self-discovery and self-actualization, as a Protestant account of the awakening of the soul through the encounter with the word of God, or as a theological exploration of a radically individualist reading of the Bible, without any guidance or assistance from church or tradition. Yet its real significance was in awakening Protestant interest in the novel as a literary form with apologetic and didactic potential. It would be some time before its full potential was realized; the process of exploration and reflection, however, had unquestionably begun.
A further landmark in the growing Protestant acceptance of the novel was the publication of Charles Sheldon's In His Steps.338 Sheldon arrived as pastor of the Central Congregational Church in Topeka, Kansas, in 1888 to find depressingly small congregations on Sunday evenings. In an attempt to attract newcomers, he began reading chapters of novels he had written to his congregation. When this approach met with a positive response, he was encouraged to develop it. In October 1896, he began reading chapters from In His Steps.
The novel invites its readers to imagine the quandary faced by a clergyman and his congregation when a thirty-year-old stranger arrives in their midst, clearly in need of help. They resolve to ask themselves the fundamental question: what would Jesus do? As its central characters consider this question, they find themselves changed utterly. A newspaper editor decides not to print accounts of prize fights or local society gossip; nor will he run liquor or tobacco ads. A talented singer decides that she will use her beautiful voice for gospel singing rather than opera performances.
The work was accessible and inspirational, and it rapidly garnered a huge readership.39 Nobody has the slightest idea how many copies it sold, but the figure is believed to be in excess of ten million copies. Why does nobody know? Because Sheldon sold the rights to a religious magazine, the Advance, which published it in book form. The publisher inadvertently failed to file enough copies of the book with the copyright authorities, with the result that copyright protection was not obtained. The work passed into the public domain and could be reprinted by anyone. Its continuing potency can be seen today in the sports armbands and bracelets bearing the letters WWJD—an abbreviation, of course, for What Would Jesus Do?
More recently, the power of the novel to convey Protestant ideas has been appreciated and developed within conservative American communities, particularly those with strongly apocalyptic views of the end times.40 Frank Peretti's two spiritual warfare novels This Present Darkness (1988) and Piercing the Darkness (1989) captivated their readerships, offering a vivid and dramatic account of the spiritual geography of a fallen world. The first of these follows an intrepid born-again Christian preacher and a newspaper reporter as they unearth a New Age plot to take over the local community and eventually the entire world. Described by some critics as "sanctified Stephen King," the novels demonstrate the capacity of the genre to mediate theology and suspense in about equal measure. A similar success has been enjoyed by the apocalyptic "Left Behind" series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins.
In Britain the role of the novel in developing the Christian imagination was developed by the Anglican writer C. S. Lewis. Lewis's own severely austere Protestant upbringing in Northern Ireland, especially when coupled with periods of solitariness following his mother's death, led to his discovery of the power of the imagination to console and to excite, often through the creation and inhabitation of imaginary worlds. Following his conversion at Oxford in 1929, Lewis began to explore the power of fiction to communicate truth through the imagination. In doing so, he drew on the writings of the Scottish Protestant preacher and writer George MacDonald (1824-1905). The outcome was initially The Pilgrim's Regress and eventually the series of children's novels for which he is best known—the "Chronicles of Narnia" series.
Lewis's exploration of the use of narrative to develop the religious potential of the imagination raised hackles in some Protestant circles. Yet the overwhelmingly positive reaction to his books has long since eclipsed such criticisms and concerns. The imaginative impoverishment of Protestantism, widely cited as a major contributing cause to the rise of secularism, appears to have been reversed through the impact of
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Lewis and others. Just as Iris Murdoch demonstrated the potential of the novel to explore philosophical themes, Lewis and others have firmly established the potential of the novel to engage with theology. That exploration has only just begun; its further exploration is likely to yield some fascinating outcomes and insights.
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