Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Patterns vs. Portraits In Literature (Part Two)

Welcome back to Part Two of Patterns vs. Portraits in literature. This is the last in a two-part series discussion a foundational principle to how we read. We're looking at the benefits and disadvantages of two kinds of literature:
There are two ways characters can act in a book. A pattern shows us how we ought to act. A portrait shows us how we do act, and where that leads.
Think Elsie Dinsmore (pattern) vs. Anne of Green Gables (portrait). As I said last week, we need to read both kinds of books. "If our goal in reading is to know Christ and make him known, then we can't miss the benefits that both patterns and portraits have for us.":
If we never aspire to any kind of appreciation of pattern literature, then we're never going to grasp the full beauty of Christ's perfection--that God has given us each a choice to be good, and obedience isn't out of our reach. On the other hand, if we never learn an appreciation of portrait literature, then we won't grasp the depth of our sin and God's love for sinners.
I'm deeply grateful for all the comments various readers chimed in with, and hope this week's look will prove fruitful as well!  (Need to catch up? Check out Part One.)

Why Do the Wicked Prosper? 
Mark Twain wrote two short stories that I read years ago, and have remembered ever since. The first was a story about a bad little boy named Jim who skipped Sunday School. He went boating on Sunday and didn't get drowned, went fishing on Sunday and didn't get struck by lightning, stole a pen-knife and didn't get whipped for it, grew up as a rascal, and became a successful man in the Legislature.

Twain wrote a flip story about a good little boy named Jacob who always tried to do and say the right thing. He loved his Sunday school books and hated lying and stealing. This boy had a terrible time of sickness and injury, and ended up dying in an exploding glycerine catastrophe. (Disgusting.) He didn't even get to give the touching last speech that Sunday school boys are supposed to give.

Mark Twain has issues, and both stories have a lot of flaws. But they are also important in pointing out the ridiculous twaddle that children were being taught in his day. Loving good behavior is not loving Jesus, and I'm sure many children mistakenly believed that Jesus only loved them because of their puritan restraint.

One of my childhood nightmares was a book by Harvey Newcomb called Anecdotes for Girls. In his stories, every girl who went to a dance died of pneumonia, every girl who came to love Jesus laid down her life in a tragic illness for her sister, and every girl who spoke an unkind word was very wicked and sorry for it afterwards. However exasperating and depressing their method of frightening children into good behavior, these stories contain a lot of truth about what is sin. But they do miss one fundamental truth: Sometimes the wicked do prosper, and sometimes the righteous don't. That's the truth that Mark Twain hit straight on the head.

If you give your children books where the bad boy always punished quick, they'll have no conception of David's plea 'why do the wicked prosper?' They're going to think that everyone will make restitution, or God will punish them. That everyone will live in love, or God will show his displeasure. They will be unable and unwilling to grapple with the hard truths of Bible and history, in which not every bad person gets punished and not every good person gets rewarded.

That just doesn't happen. It just doesn't. Sometimes you're going to live with Josie Pyes who constantly get under your skin, or parents who aren't sympathetic, or children who look into your eyes and say "I hate you". You're going to live with pastors who fall from grace and ministry leaders who never come back.

Good stories, both pattern and portrait, teach how to heal and cope with the wounds of reality's brokenness.

Portrait Literature Teaches the Authentic; Pattern Literature Teaches the Ideal 
I read a book called Soul Friends by Leslie Parrott this week. In it she told countless stories of friends who were willing to be authentic with each other about their relationship with Christ. One time a lady she knew walked out of church before the communion service. Leslie asked her what was going on, and she said "I am angry with God right now about my daughter's chronic disability. We can't share a meal together." She gave herself weeks to wrestle through it, and until she could share communion heart to heart with God, she was honest with Him. She was a portrait of grace, not a pattern of perfection.

One feature of pattern literature is that it always preaches the ideal rather than the authentic. The ideal relationships, ideal behavior, ideal life choices. (Ideal often including extra-biblical rules). That isn't a bad thing. We should strive for the ideal that is living in obedience to Christ.

But sometimes  as a sinful person living with sinful people, ideal doesn't happen. I was flipping through a book last week for parents, and the author repeated constantly "This is the ideal. But we know that life rarely is ideal." They weren't trying to make excuses, but offering solid biblical support for those struggling with broken family scenarios.

Our ideal and God's ideal are sometimes (often) different. Good portrait literature shows that. Portrait literature shows that as messy as we are, and as often as we have to deal with the just consequences of God's discipline, his grace is lavish, and he can bring healing out of great pain.

We need both kinds of literature--one to keep before our eyes what the ideal is, and one to comfort us when we are not able (however we long) to live out an ideal perfect life.

Portrait Literature Asks Questions; Pattern Literature Gives Answers
Andrew Peterson wrote a song on his new album "After All These Years" entitled "Holy is the Lord". It's a song about Abraham's willingness to offer up Isaac on the altar. My favorite part about the song is the fact that it doesn't tell the end of the story. It simply ends with Abraham's step of obedience, while  he cries out in deep anguish that God would "make another way". It's arresting in its poignancy. It has the boldness to end with the question, and not the answer.

Portrait literature focuses on the question. Sometimes it includes the answer, but it allows the character to take as long as they need to explore the question. Pattern literature gives the answer fairly quickly. Both have their merits. Sometimes the person reading just needs a simple answer they can trust. Sometimes they are hurting and resistant, and need a book that includes the struggle as well. Both kinds step in to play, according to reader needs.

One Final Note on Pattern Literature
That being said, I value and appreciate pattern literature. Too often I think we can use "this book was too preachy" as an excuse for "this book was too convicting" or "this book wasn't entertaining enough." Sometimes a book should pinch and challenge. We need to embrace that accountability, when a characters correct actions don't line up with our incorrect ones. We shouldn't rationalize it away--but accept it. Kevin DeYoung, in a sermon at John MacArthur's Inerrancy Summit, said "Oftentimes we call legalism someone who is more serious about disobedience than we are." (emphasis mine) Despising all portrait literature as legalistic is wrong. Some of it is legalistic, and should be avoided. But not all of it. Be careful not to mark people who read pattern literature as sheltered and immature. They may be serious about fixing their eyes on that which is pure and holy--and that's a good goal.

How to Strike a Balance
I'm not a parent yet; but at this point, I'm considering how to mix these two types of literature in my kids diet as they grow up. When they're young, they don't really need to be taught sin. They know how to disobey their parents. But neither does one want to exasperate them with constantly holding up perfect examples. I would give them heavier on the pattern literature to train their affections, with a few portraits mixed in to keep it real and relatable. (That's what my mom did, and one of our favorite portrait books growing up was Gone-Away Lake, by Elizabeth Enright.) As they grow older, and more able to choose the evil and toss the good, I want to start mixing in a lot more portrait literature. They need to grow up to be adults in understanding and discernment. I want them to grapple with questions and behavior choices, constantly bringing them back to the light of Scripture.

Fiction is to train. Viewed as entertainment, no wonder pattern literature is being pumped out so fast. But viewed as war games--then you want to run through all kinds of scenarios and worldviews that children will face in real life. The broken as well as the whole, the sinning as well as the saintliness. That's really what it all comes down to.


  1. Very insightful series, Schuyler, and I'm glad you wrote it. Not only will I keep this in mind while reading books, but also while working on my writing projects.

    1. Glad it could be helpful to you in reading and writing, Victoria!

  2. While I'm not sure that I agree with you entirely, I appreciate your perspective!

    Thanks Schuyler! :)


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