Christian cringe is real.
As our Fantastical Truth podcast explored in episode 126, Christian fiction shares plenty of campy conversion scenes, bad parodies, and simplistic Christ-figures to poke fun of.
There’s a reason many of these tropes come off as cringy: they don’t feel true-to-life. We know cringey events can only work in a fictional world. And so many readers rightly want more in the fiction they read.
But some Christians may be concerned with calls for honest or realistic fiction. In some circles, this “honesty” means bringing more darkness and sin into stories. And that raises ethical questions. Should we really desire more depictions of sin in fiction? And does honest fiction mainly mean “depicting more sin”? Or does honesty call us to something more?
Why honesty matters in fantastical fiction
This idea that honesty is a virtue of fiction may cause some readers to scratch their heads. After all, isn’t fiction’s goal to entertain us? And as some Twitter pundits have claimed about fantasy, does honesty matter in fantastical genres that already call us to believe in mythical creatures and races?
The truth is, however, that Christians believe honesty must matter about human nature. Solomon endeavored to write words of “delight and truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:10), and good fiction has always done this. Without honesty, fiction becomes vapid entertainment. With honesty, fiction can reveal new facets of God’s reality along with entertaining readers so we can better embody our Christian callings.
While fantastical settings often call us to “suspend disbelief” at points, good fiction draws the line at human nature. Tolkien asks us to believe in Elves and talking trees. But the personality and values of each character always feels realistic. And when authors try to change human nature (as Patrick Rothfuss attempts to do with his “casual sex without consequences” society in Wise Man’s Fear), the intelligent reader understands that something is up. It’s why we’re excited to see grown men fight with lightsabers, but groan at the same man saying, “Love can’t save you. Only my new powers can.” (See, secular films have plenty of cringe as well!)
Settings and abilities can change, but human nature ought to represent reality. As the famed literary critic Samuel Johnson put it in his introduction to Shakespeare, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.”1
Great fiction always exemplifies honesty in how it depicts human nature. But what can we make of the desire to show more sin and darkness in Christian fiction?
Looking for honesty about the darkness
Certain critics of Christian fiction point out that these stories should show us the darker sides of human nature. And they have a point!
When Christian fiction avoids showing sin’s true ramifications, the result sometimes feels like a false view of the world, teaching that human depravity isn’t that bad and we aren’t truly in need of serious grace and forgiveness. Such stories can do harm to us as readers by obscuring the true sin in our hearts and the devastating places sin can lead us. As a result, discerning readers ought to beware stories that whitewash our fallen world and obscure the piercing need we have for a Savior.
While honesty about sin is important, however, it’s also possible to take this desire too far. One long-running trope in fiction suggests that “realism” means depicting a grim, gritty world devoid of altruistic motives or true heroes. But such an approach isn’t biblically honest. The vision Scripture presents isn’t a grimdark world but a fallen Eden. The remnants of Eden are just as important as its fallen components. Both cynicism as well as idealism are fundamentally wrong about the nature of the world. Being honest shouldn’t turn us into pessimists.
As discerning readers, we shouldn’t simply ask if a story honestly depicts the fallen state of human nature. We also need to ask if the story honestly depicts the remnants of common grace and redemption that elevate human behavior.
Discerning the honesty of the books we read
What then does all this mean for the discerning reader?
As I wrote about a couple months ago, we ought to pay attention to our stories’ depictions of truth, if we want to celebrate good fiction without becoming blind supporters of anything with the Christian label. Every story claims something about human nature. Reading with discernment means paying attention to that instead of blindly consuming these hidden truths.2
As we read, we should be asking ourselves:
- Is this story being honest about the prevalence of sin?
- Is this story being honest about the common and special graces that can help unbelievers and believers alike make good decisions?
- Is this story being honest about what it’s like to be human?
When stories live up to those standards, we should praise them! And when they don’t, we should note and reject them. No story is perfect in its depiction of human nature. And we want to display honesty ourselves in how we review a book, as opposed to idolizing or villainizing books of mixed quality.
Engaging thoughtfully helps us celebrate stories that present an alternative to the “cringe” we want to avoid. But we need discernment to make sure we’re not replacing one form of “cringe” for another.
When we embrace this kind of discernment, we become honest readers who better understand the true nature of our world.
This is part 2 of this series, How to Discern Christian Fiction. Start with part 1: How to Celebrate Christian Fiction Without Becoming Blind Supporters.
- Samuel Johnson, “Preface to Shakespeare,” page 225, The Critical Tradition 2nd Edition by David H. Richter, ed. (Bedford: Boston, 1998). ↩
- And, of course, honesty about human nature encompasses more than just sin and grace. But these are two core components, so I’ve mostly focused on those in this piece. ↩