When I did get it I turned straight to browsing. If I was going to read the entire thing, I wanted to be sure it was worth the time it took to do so. And in the end, parts of it weren't bad at all. The characters were border-line cliché, and the writing was border-line sentimental, but not nearly so bad as the other books normally produced in mainstream Christian fiction. There were only two things that made me pitch it. First was the main hero's perpetual smell of bay rum cologne. The numerous mentions of that scent drove me crazy. The second was the presentation of the Gospel.
*spoiler alert for The Tutor's Daughter*
In the climax scene, with the tide rising, in which the main hero and heroine are trapped and about to drown, the heroine gives her life to Christ. Maybe it was my fault--but the effect didn't work very well. It didn't make sense that the heroine wasn't a Christian in the first place. Every time she thought an agnostic thought throughout the book, it rang false with what the reader knew about her. Almost as if she really was a Christian, but she couldn't be because the author was obliged to insert a conversion experience at the end.
*end of spoiler alert*
It is thus that the Cross of Christ is often emptied of it's power; when it is inserted because it has to be, not because it should be.
This statement will sound odd, but characters in a story have just as much personality as real people. Sometimes the author knows right away they are Christians. With others the author is quite sure they aren't. Take for instance, Dorothy Sayers' Peter Wimsey; she was quite sure he was an agnostic, and was equally convinced he always would be. But today's Christian literary market is slightly different than it used to be. Instead of growing individual characters and working them over and allowing them to have a certain amount of personality, we are given a pack of playing cards with obligatory traits and plot-lines, and expected to divide it up among the cast. Almost without fail, the main character is required to have a conversion experience, whether it's suited to them or not.
Part of this lies in our changing of the Great Commission to read something like this: Go therefore and make converts of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and inviting them to pray the salvation prayer.
But Jesus originally put forth a mighty order, with a glorious implication, that reads like this:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:19-20 (emphases mine)
The primary purpose is to grow us in our knowledge of Christ, and that means discipleship in addition to evangelism. We must not neglect spreading the Gospel, and telling the message of a crucified and living Christ, for that is our hope. And in addition to this, we must expand our perspective to include teaching all nations to observe every one of the commands God has given us. This means that not every book needs to have the salvation message; some books are written to cover other aspects of the Christian faith and life. While the salvation experience is the driving center, it is the beginning of the Christian walk, not the end. The people of God are thirsty for stories that show what should happen after the prayer as well. In a way, today's offerings compare to always writing books that end with the wedding and never writing stories that show how characters interact in the years of marriage. Since we don't understand the Great Commission, authors believe that if they're going to write a Christian book, the main character must start out as unsaved. And because of our misunderstanding, we're now inserting the Gospel as a guilty obligation, instead of a loving and heart-felt obedience.
So how should the gospel be preached? Well, there are two methods often used, and both of them have their good points.
Some people choose to preach the Gospel of Christ through the everyday actions and themes of the characters. An earthly marriage is used to direct us to our Heavenly Bridegroom. The sacrifice of a friend for another friend reminds us of Jesus' sacrifice for us. When a character forgives horrible wrong, we thank God for offering us an even greater forgiveness. This method is a great means of circumventing pride. I was quite surprised to see it used in Mrs. Georgie Sheldon's A Lost Pearle. Her gospel presentation was there, and but never a sermon or even a theological discussion from one end of the book to the other.
But some books, like Douglas Bond's The Betrayal, or even the Pella/Phillips Stranger at Stonewycke, include it as an obvious struggle the main character has, and this method too has its benefits. For one thing it helps people like me, who generally miss the obvious and need to be knocked over the head. For the other, it helps people who are really annoyed by imagery. God used both methods in Scripture: the imagery and the obvious, to minister to different peoples' learning styles, and it is permissible for us to do so as well. The Obvious method has the most pitfalls to be avoided, but is also the most powerful when done correctly, because we're given a clear and unequivocal presentation of Christ.
But either method used should be part of the story, not inserted in by force. Sometimes it may be a side character, sometimes a main character, and sometimes perhaps nobody at all, to craft a God-honoring and excellent tale.
The gospel of Christ is indispensable. But I hope that if certain portrayals of it in literature have ever put you off, this mini-series has shed a little light on why. As I said in passing several posts ago, a book that winsomely and genuinely gives the clear message of Christ's love and salvation is a book to be treasured and valued and passed on.
And praise the Lord that his message can never grow stale or old, or lose it's power. Sometimes we blunder in the telling of it, but by the grace of God we still have many opportunities to try again.