If you want to ridicule or denigrate a subculture, you read the worst diatribes and pulp fiction that subculture has to offer, use excerpts to support your prejudices, and go merrily on your way. If you want to understand a subculture or group, you could read the best fiction or apologetics that group has to offer and see if there’s a connection, something to value. So because I read and learn from fiction, I try to read fiction by all sorts of authors in lots of genres: young adult fiction, science fiction, Islamic authors, African authors, graphic novels, postmodern novels and many others. Sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. At least I can say I tried.
I say all that to preface my contention that “Christian fiction” has gotten a bad rap, partially deserved. Some so-called “Christian fiction” (just like some YA fiction and some post-modern fiction) is nothing more than a bad sermon disguised as an even worse story. However, some of the fiction published by Christian publishing houses is not only exemplary and literary, but also just good reading. If you are a Christian and you want to be challenged to think more deeply about the world and about God’s hand in this world, or if you are not a Christian and you want to read something that challenges you to see Christians and the world in general in a new light, from the inside out so to speak, I have two authors to recommend who are “under the radar” because their books tend to be marketed only in Christian bookstores or in the religious section of Borders or Barnes and Noble.
Jamie Langston Turner: Ms. Turner lives in South Carolina. She graduated from Bob Jones University, and even worse, she teaches there. (I’ll admit to a little prejudice myself against BJU.) However, put all that aside, and take a look at her novels. Her first novel, Suncatchers, was published in 1995, followed by Some Wildflower in My Heart, By the Light of a Thousand Stars, A Garden to Keep, No Dark Valley, and Winter Birds. Winter Birds, published in 2006, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and a Christy Award for excellence in Christian fiction. It was the first book by Ms. Turner that I read, and I found it fascinating and insightful.
Here’s my review. I then started looking for Ms. Turner’s other novels: not in my library system. That would be the entire Houston library system. I just checked, and despite the fact that Ms. Turner’s latest and greatest won a Christy Award, there are only three copies of Winter Birds available from any branch in the Houston Library System. (I’m a former librarian; I know the library can’t buy all the books. Don’t tell me.)
Anyway, I found one of Ms. Turner’s other novels, A Garden to Keep at a used book sale. I read it and liked this story of the dissolution and redemption of a marriage just as much as I liked Winter Birds. Not only does Ms. Turner have stories, she also creates real characters: an 80 year old woman who bribes her relatives with promises so that they’ll put up with her bitterness and sarcasm, a substitute teacher who loves poetry so much she takes night classes, a teenager whose parents homeschool her to keep her away from a toxic boyfriend, a nephew who talks too much, is somewhat pretentious, and still turns out to be a decent guy. My descriptions of these characters are, however, over-simplifications. The characters in Ms. Turner’s books grow and surprise you and stick in your mind. If I’ve managed to pique your interest, you can read my review of A Garden To Keep here. Then find the books. You may have to search a bit.
Athol Dickson also won a Christy Award in 2006 for his novel, River Rising. That same book was also selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006 and a finalist for Christianity Today’s Best Novel of 2006. (This time I find six copies in the Houston Library System–yay!) Here’s my Semicolon review of River Rising. Briefly, it’s the story of Louisiana Mississippi delta town with a big secret and of the preacher who blows the secret wide open. Rev. Hale Poser is a little odd for a preacher, and the town of Pilotsville doesn’t know quite what to make of this black pastor who doesn’t know “his place” and doesn’t conform to the established mores of this 1927 Southern enclave. The book is disturbing and provocative, two qualities you may or may not expect from Christian fiction.
Dickson’s most recently published novel, The Cure has a completely different setting and characters, but continues in the same disquieting and thought-provoking vein. In this novel, the premise is a question: what if there were a cure for alcholism, a pill that would take away the craving for alcohol completely? There’s a catch, though, of course. If, after being cured, the patient touches even a drop of alcohol again, the cravings come back even stronger and more destructive. You’ll have to read the book to see what Dickson does with this set-up as he mixes in a couple of homeless characters, a huge pharmaceutical company, and some missionaries in South America. Here’s my review.
So as Levar Burton said many times on Reading Rainbow, here are some great books, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Read them for yourself. Gain some insight and understanding. Enjoy.