Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Are Authors a Product of Their Times?

This may seem like a simple question to answer. Of course they are.

Take for instance, Charles Dickens. A well-known author whose works spanned in setting from the 1770s to the 1860s, he used biting satire and hilarious wit to indict the British with their poor social justice. The themes of class snobbery, factory workers,  and government ethics pervade his stories, showing that they are very much addressed to the time in which he lived.

Take Isabella Alden. A woman who lived during the Second and Third Temperance Movement in the United States, her works clearly show her as a product of her times. Strongly anti-alcohol and extremely moralistic in tone (reminiscent of the Victorian literary standards) such stories as Esther Ried, Tip Lewis and His Lamp, and Three People teach the lesson that drinking alcohol sets you down the path of destruction, and good children who love Sunday School are blessed beyond measure.

Take Victor Hugo. An enlightened Freethinker who saw the prostitution and evil around him and was grieved by it; his views of the church came after an era of agnosticism on the part of the majority of the French population. And so his works spoke against the biblical doctrine of original sin and used instead the main tenants of secular humanism. His ideas were very much affected by this era of French history, a godless era that they have never recovered from.

Lastly, take George MacDonald. A pastor in the Church of England, he live in an era when Calvinism focused more on the idea that no-one could really know if they were saved--that predestination was a great mystery, and you could only hope for the best in your Christian walk. This of course was a very faulty explanation of predestination, and it's heavy legalism and uncertainty caused MacDonald to turn away from Calvinism (though certainly not from Christianity). Leaving his pastorate, he instead wrote numerous Scottish novels and fantasies to preach to his flock about God's love. (Though he may have succumbed to the idea of universalism, the idea that everyone goes to heaven, his works still hold great value in guarding against the wrong interpretation of Calvin's doctrines.)

Why is it important to discuss this question? Well, when we talk about an author being a product of the times, we're basically saying that their beliefs are shaped by the events and ideas surrounding them. Their worldview is affected by the era of history in which they live. When we  choose to read a book, we're choosing to enter a world through the eyes of the author. That means when we read The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, we're reading a social critique from the perspective of an agnostic free-thinker who doesn't hold basic foundational tenants of Christianity. It is vitally important to understand the foundational worldview of the books we read, because books have great power to shape our theology and course of life. If we don't know the author's perspective going into the book, then we won't know a wrong idea when it appears, especially disguised as a sympathetic character. An author's worldview pervades every single book they write, with no exceptions.

On the surface the answer to this question is simple, but dig a little deeper and you'll find that an author's worldview, and thus the book itself are shaped on much more than prevailing ideologies. Today, I wanted to discuss six factors of an author's worldview, many of which will be familiar to you. We've already discussed the first factor (the times they live in) above.

2. The Times They Came After
Many authors are a product of the time they came after. For instance, if I were to write a book, it would not merely be a product of the rampant wickedness in today's church and society. It would start back a generation with the little compromises and the indifference of the evangelical community. That is part of my national heritage, and much of my life will be spent dealing with the long-term results of a previous generation's weaknesses. The same will be true for my children; they will be facing the problems of their times, but their times will be shaped by my times. So if you have difficulty discerning where an author is coming from, start with the ideologies from a generation before them, and that will help form the picture of why they think the way they do today. For example: Why do we see so many social justice novels in today's Christian fiction? Stories of rape, prostitution, orphans, abuse and government intrigue have over-saturated the market. But the fault of that lies a generation back, when Christian publishers refused to look at manuscripts with anything controversial in nature, and social justice stories were frowned upon by the general public. Because people refused to deal with these horrible issues openly then, we have an over-abundance of them now.

3. Their Religious Beliefs
Taking the positive side of the coin, an author's religious beliefs help them to transcend the weaknesses of the time they live in. If you have good solid biblical beliefs, then this will only help you to overcome, to use the themes of this generation as a launching board for advancing the Kingdom of Christ. We are not hopelessly trapped in others' compromise, and that is why I say an author is a product of their times, but they are not a victim. A rising generation of writers is proving that they are bringing reform to the giant dragon of the publishing industry, refusing to be at the mercy of past precedent and popular opinions. This is a glorious thing.
Religious beliefs (at least, Christian religious beliefs) do not change. When we trust in Biblical standards and abide by them, we do not have to be concerned that we are hopelessly lost in worldwide compromise. Through Christ's grace we can overcome our present and prove that we have the ability to shape our times. 

4. The Prevailing Sins and Virtues of the Times
Sins and virtues are transcendent of the culture. No sin is new sin, even if it seems new to us, and
the cure for sin is an unchanging one. However, different sins come to the forefront. Take Charles Dickens. The prevailing sin of his time was class snobbery and cumbersome government red tape (somehow things haven't changed as much as we thought) therefore his whole literary career addressed these issues, to try to show his generation where they needed to change.
Gene Stratton-Porter, on the other hand, used her writing to appeal to the virtue of her era. In an age of industrial expansion she showed people through stories and example about the beauties to be found in nature. The biblical roles of men and women, and positive examples of bravery, family, and stewardship of our natural resources, encourage her readers to explore an area that was in jeopardy with the rise of technology.

5. Their Fears
Authors' works are also affected by their fears. Some show more clearly than others, as in the case of George MacDonald's works and his terror of man's eternal fate. Trying to rationalize fears is oftentimes a large factor in shaping an author's worldview, and therefore their theology.

6.The Books They Read
It would be unfair to leave out the last and perhaps most important factor of an author's worldview. The fact is, mankind has never been limited to a certain era of history. At least, literate mankind. We live in a time where the world is open to us and all of history as well. Even in the last year I have learned to think more globally, to understand different cultures, and to think with more grace towards different applications of God's truth. Truth is rock-solid and can't change, but how it applies allows room for variation. Much of this has been shaped through the books I read. In my literary journeys, I have discovered that the same sins and virtues, the same truth and falsehood, the same fear and faith has affected all cultures throughout all time. And the books I've read have had a profound impact, in some aspects even more than real-life people, on my theology.

Authors have different factors that affect their worldview: personal struggles, societal struggles, agendas and eras of history. They are not locked into a few decades, for many of the factors transcend time and root back to the struggle between good and evil in the garden of Eden.

This concept is an important foundation for Friday when I review Jane Austen and Vampires, the audio message produced by Anna Sofia and Elizabeth Botkin.

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Dear Lady B.,
    Insightful and absolutely true. These factors of influence on the author are important to think through, both in the realm of fiction and the realm of non-fiction (including *cough cough* HISTORY). This post was very timely and helpful for me, as I am currently wading through reams of books and documents drenched in personal bias.
    Thank you!
    ~The Philologist

    1. Dear Philologist,
      I am most intrigued by your historical research, and look forward to lengthy discussions after you have reached your conclusions. ;) We'll give E.H. a break (*cough*)and have a good time chatting it up together. I have been explaining the scenario to family members, and find it amazing how much time it really takes to lay it out properly, but it is so fascinating that I could talk about it for a very lengthy period before tiring of it.

      I'm glad you enjoyed the post!


      P.S. I can't wait to hear what you think of Thomas More! :)

  2. Dear Lady B,
    Excellent post! I read a history book once and it had a little bit about Charles Dickens. (I'm hoping I have all my facts straight. :P ) He worked in the factory when he was younger and many boys made fun of him (because wasn't his father in debtor's prison?) But there was one boy who stood up for him and I think that made an impact on his novels. I've only read one, but you said that in a lot of his books there's a boy who will stand up for others. (like Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations) It's really interesting how that made an impression on him.
    I loved how you said we are products of our times but not victims. ;)


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