Citizenship Confusion: Why Christians Should Read Disturbing, Dark, and Secular Fiction

Every Monday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.

This summer I have been somewhat dutifully working on my dissertation, which will address the manifestation of signals of transcendence in Twentieth Century American Fiction. Whatever that means. (Maybe I’ll tell you when I know.) In preparing to write, I recently re-read what many would consider to be a quintessential “dark” or “depressing” novel: The Catcher in the Rye.

It is a dark book. But it’s also beautiful, which is part of the reason why I’m writing about it. Salinger has a way of capturing the absurd, brutal baseness of life (think of the old history teacher, Mr. Spencer, with “his sad old bathrobe with his chest showing, and that grippy smell of Vicks Nose Drops all over the place”) along with its incomprehensible niceness (see: the image of Phoebe on the carousel). It is certainly not an easy book to get through, but it is lovely… if you wrestle with it. If, on the other hand, you allow yourself to get stuck on the rottenness of the novel’s world, then you’ll miss all the beauty. (Also See: Books Besides the Bible: The Case for Franny and Zooey)

Which is just about exactly what has happened historically with those who have tried to ban The Catcher in the Rye. As a number of scholars have pointed out, censors tried to ban the novel for its inclusion of the “F word,” as if the novel would spread indecency, even though the whole point of including the word was to show how Holden Caulfield hated that the word was graffitied on walls where children could see it. The word evokes the sense of disgust Holden feels toward the way the modern world ruins the innocence of little kids; ironically, to censor the word would be to shield the reader from acknowledging how ugly the world can be. So, Salinger included it.

My point: Sometimes we have to read hard, ugly, offensive, depressing things to understand our world, and thereby love our neighbor. I’m obviously not saying that Christians need to read The Catcher in the Rye but I do think that the novel’s censors illustrate how we sometimes cut ourselves off from hard truths — truths we would ultimately agree with if we wrestled with them — by avoiding dark, depressing, or ugly works of art. Reading is hard work. It takes time, effort, and reflection. And as Christians, we have a beautiful work of art filled with hard truths, ugly scenes, offensive claims, and moments of darkness at the very center of our faith! So, can cultivating good reading habits by reading unsettling novels help us become better Bible readers? I think so.

A few years ago, I wrote a feature article making this argument entitled, “How Reading Disturbing Novels can make you a Better Reader of the Bible”. In it I claimed:

[W]hen we choose to delve into challenging, disturbing, and even “sad” books, and devote the time to wrestling with the issues we find in them, we will be exercising our ability to read that foundational and central text of our Faith, which also confounds us with disturbing stories, challenging parables, depressing psalms, and depictions of sin and its effects.

It’s a long feature, but I think one of my more helpful pieces. Take a read and let me know what your thoughts are on how reading fiction might make us better Bible readers.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

  • http://twitter.com/#!/Nicholas_Olson Nick Olson

    Are you using “signals of transcendence” by way of P. Berger?

    Can’t wait to read it.

  • http://www.seeprestonblog.com Preston

    Oh, amen. We do need to be able to understand the darkness.

    Coming from the side of someone who writes darker fiction and is also a Christian, I encounter criticism at times from readers who want to understand where the darkness comes from. I try my best to feebly point to someone like O’Connor paving the way here: the purgating power of the Holy Ghost cannot be known if there is nothing to purgate. Some of my favorite books are dark, secular, and sometimes disturbing. They remind me how far Christ’s love and grace extend, they keep me from the precipice of my own damnable self, and teach me something of grace in the process.

  • http://www.theretuned.com Matthew Linder

    I literally just finished listening to a White Horse Inn podcast from a couple of weeks ago discussing a very similar topic. They were discussing how technology has changed the way we read and that we are mostly skimmers of material rather than deeply mining the article, book, etc. we are reading. As someone who has a MM in Music History I have never found 20th atonal music to be my favorite type of music because it has always unsettled me with its harsh tones and clashing notes. I actually would rather avoid those works, yet as a music professor I have to engage my students with this important era of classical music. Your two articles gave me a lot to think about in how I view these musical works and to gain a better understanding of the ugly and dark sound that they exude.

  • Adam E

    I watched an interview with George Martin, Author of the Game of Thrones series. People have written to him telling him how they refuse to read his work because he killed off their favourite character and they were devastated… He said that his work was not designed to make you feel good, and there are others who can do that. His work might be a kick in the groin, and that’s not for everyone, but it’s a lot more engaging.

    What I took from that is that society either reads/watches to be entertained and get their emotional Valium, or we read becausr of the story deserves to be read; it’s merit and truths motivate us. Probably, it’s both, at some level. But no wonder churches struggle to preach from Jeremiah or Job. They are not entertaining. I know I struggle to read them, and would much prefer Romans or the gospels.

    Most of Jesus parables weren’t wrapped up nicely with a Holywood ending. Because he wasn’t an entertainer, but a story teller; living the most important story of all creation.

    I really enjoyed your articles. Made me think.

    Blessings

  • http://www.diannaeanderson.net Dianna

    Agreed. Then again, it’s no surprising that Alan and I would be on the same page (pun not intended) with this, considering we did become friends in a literature program.

    I’m reminded of Dr. Garrett’s Problem of Evil class here – it’s important to wrestle with the way our culture presents evil and the way it’s portrayed. Sure, Chinatown might be a disturbing movie, but it’s certainly worth our time and attention for what it has to say about the nature of evil. Same with The Dark Knight and No Country for Old Men.

    Then again, I was reading Stephen King at 11, so I’m probably not the best voice on “disturbing.”

  • http://geekgirlbetterthan42.blogspot.com/ Sarah Eleanor

    I was just telling a friend how amazing it is the way Catcher so accurately illustrates an adolescent’s viewpoint. I read it in high school and Holden was my hero for voicing so many things I’d been thinking. When I read it again as an adult I couldn’t believe how differently (abeit affectionately) I saw him. It was like reading an entirely different novel. If you haven’t read Franny and Zooey yet I highly recomend it. It’s a faster read than Catcher and just as dark and lovely,

  • http://goodokbad.com/ Seth T. Hahne

    Oh we’ve all read Franny and Zooey.

  • Maddee

    Amen and preach. I struggled with this for some time until I read Crime and Punishment. It’s hard to get more frighteningly dark than Dostoevsky, but it’s also hard to get better, more thought-provoking grace-filled literature than Dostoevsky.

  • Chris

    “…hard, ugly, offensive, depressing…” Do we really ‘need’ secular novels to delve into these arenas? Scripture is filled with such offerings – parents sacrificing their children to the god Molech in the hopes of appeasing his wrath, a guy lying about the true identity of his wife (twice) in order to save his own skin, another guy lying with his daughter-in-law and impregnating her (but in his defense, he didn’t know it was her. He thought he was merely hiring one of the local village prostitutes), a foolish father unabashedly and repeatedly showing favoritism to one of his twelve sons…and then ten of them tossing the golden child in a pit, selling him off as a slave, and lying to dear old dad and saying that wonder boy had been torn apart by a wild beast. And as many of you already know, that’s just a smattering from book 1. The other 65 are replete with every category of human depravity (yes, there really is nothing new under the sun)…from a guy sleeping with his father’s wife to the perfect, spotless Lamb of God being nailed to a cross. Am I against reading secular books? Not at all. It’s all about a balance. How much time is spent dwelling on the words that will last forever versus the words that will pass away? I heartily agree that “disturbing, dark, and secular fiction” can help us to see the pain and suffering of our neighbors more clearly. I recommend Tony Reinke’s recent book “Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading Books.”

  • https://twitter.com/#!/LoveLifeLitGod KSP

    Excellent post. I wrote on this topic with some similar thoughts here: http://www.relevantmagazine.com/culture/books/blog/27262-thou-shalt-read

    Now I’m off to go read Franny and Zooey which has been on my shelf for too long.

  • http://growinggrace-full.blogspot.com/ Chris Donato

    Good stuff. Motivated me to write.

    Also, big fan of Salinger’s Nine Stories. Not as much with Catcher. Many critics have that reversed, for some reason.

  • http://www.pamelakingcable.com Pamela King Cable

    Appreciated this post. As a writer and a Christian, I need reality within the story. There are plenty of wonderful, fluffy, feel-good books out there for people who want nothing more disturbing than an Amish novel. And that’s fine. But I need to read the “real”. The truth. And that’s why I also write it. I want to transport the reader into the pages and pierce their hearts. That, for me, is the ultimate joy of writing fiction.


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