In this series of blog posts, I give strategies for finding “clean reads” that go beyond relying on curated book lists. Please see “Part 1: The Toxic Sea” for the introductory post.
As a young married woman in the early 1980s, I was frustrated with the books I was reading. The ones with depth contained profanity, graphic sex and violence, and immoral themes, and the ones that didn’t were so lacking in substance that I always came away from them feeling as if I had wasted my time. I remember saying to my husband in exasperation, “There is nothing to read!” He laughed at me and replied, “How can you say that? You haven’t read anything yet!”
He was right. I had not yet learned to “fish.” Not only that, but I had refused to search for wholesome fiction in the very place that would provide one of the best harvests.
Ruth, by Elizabeth Gaskell (English classic)
“Ruth Hilton is an orphaned young seamstress who catches the eye of a gentleman, Henry Bellingham, who is captivated by her simplicity and beauty. When she loses her job and home, he offers her comfort and shelter, only to cruelly desert her soon after. Nearly dead with grief and shame, Ruth is offered the chance of a new life among people who give her love and respect, even though they are at first unaware of her secret—an illegitimate child.”
Ruth is a deeply religious novel that explores the intellectual, social, and spiritual life of a “fallen” young woman. The depiction of the attitudes and mores of mid-nineteen century England fascinated me and often made me angry. By modern standards, and in many places, the innocent and sexually ignorant sixteen-year-old Ruth would be a victim of statutory rape. I was appalled at the way so many wanted to vindicate the seducer and assume he was “beguiled” by this “very artful and bold young creature.”
After being so carefully groomed, used, and then deserted by her seducer, Ruth is found ill and in despair by a middle-aged minister who takes her to his home to live with him, his sister, and their housekeeper. Thurstan and Faith Benson make enormous social and financial sacrifices to take Ruth into their home, and Faith is, naturally, disturbed by Ruth’s lack of gratitude. Her brother consoles her with these words:
To answer that question, it’s important to understand what Christian fiction is. Depending on who you ask, you may get one of these answers:
- Fiction with a lot of talk about God
- Fiction with very little, if any, sexual content, graphic violence, and foul language
- Fiction that promotes traditional values and practices such as chastity, integrity, and repentance
- Fiction written by practicing Christians for practicing Christians about practicing Christians
- Fiction that explores religious themes in a way that testifies of Jesus Christ and glorifies Him
- Fiction that preaches the gospel of Jesus Christ
- Stories that would fall apart if the religious element were removed
- Fiction that contains universal Christian themes and content that will appeal to Christians from a wide variety of denominations
- A broad genre that contains works from all Christian denominations
- A narrow genre that only contains books published by specific companies and imprints marketing to a conservative Protestant audience or by independent authors that meet the standards of these companies and imprints
Every single one of these descriptions is accurate. Not every work of Christian fiction, however, can be defined by every single description on this list.