The power of good literature comes from its ability to reveal us to ourselves in both our glory and our depravity. At its best, literature explores humanity, not just the humanity that we wish we could achieve, though there’s a place for that as well, but the humanity that is, both beautiful and ugly. That is why we read literature, and why it both captivates and disturbs our imaginations.
John Henry Newman captures much of the power of literature in the quote below. And he also explains why he thinks this means that it’s not possible to have an exclusively “Christian” literature. For him, that would inevitably involve emphasizing too strongly the ideal, and, as a result, it would no longer study humanity as it is, but only humanity as we believe it will one day be. So it’s not that he doesn’t think Christians can write literature–they can and should–but that we shouldn’t try to produce specifically Christian literature.
“If Literature is to be made a study of human nature, you cannot have a Christian Literature. It is a contradiction in terms to attempt a sinless Literature of sinful man. You may gather together something very great and high, something higher than any Literature ever was; and when you have done so, you will find that it is not Literature at all. You will have simply left the delineation of man, as such, and have substituted for it, as far as you have had any thing to substitute, that of man, as he is or might be, under certain special advantages. Give up the study of man, as such, if so it must be; but say you do so. Do not say you are studying him, his history, his mind and his heart, when you are studying something else. Man is a being of genius, passion, intellect, conscience, power. He exercises these various gifts in various ways, in great deeds, in great thoughts, in heroic acts, in hateful crimes. He founds states, he fights battles, he builds cities, he ploughs the forest, he subdues the elements, he rules his kind. He creates vast ideas, and influences many generations. He takes a thousand shapes, and undergoes a thousand fortunes. Literature records them all to life.” (John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (Yale University Press; reprint edition, 1996), pp. 158-159)
I think that’s why people often find Christian fiction annoying. I’ve recently run across some pretty nasty reviews on Amazon from people who didn’t realize that a book was “Christian,” and were frustrated to get a “morality tale” instead of whatever story they were hoping to find. The need to accentuate the positive left the reader feeling that the book was shallow and trite. Of course, it probably wasn’t. There’s nothing either shallow or trite about stories of redemption, victory, and hope. But the human condition is far messier than that. And literature loses its power, indeed its purpose, when it tells only one side of the story.