Have you ever come across novels that appeared to be populated entirely by Precious Moments figurines? You know the kind I mean: They're full of treacly, sentimental characters who seem to live in the one place on earth not affected by the Fall. The reality of sin has been written right out of the plot line. Syrupy stuff—you know what I'm talking about.
Then there's the alternative: graphic sex, violence, and nihilism—offering no redemption from the world's evil. Christian novelists need to avoid both of these extremes.
One author who has done this beautifully writes about a sleepy southern town called Mitford in the hills of North Carolina. Her main character is an Episcopal priest whose flock ranges from abandoned children to alcoholic adults.
The author is Jan Karon, and as my colleague Gina Dalfonzo notes in a BreakPoint Online article, Karon's latest book is flying off the shelves.
Mitford is, Dalfonzo writes, "a town where getting the Internet installed on one's computer is a big deal . . . where old friends regularly meet for lunch at the only diner for miles around, and where people pray for each other and show up at each other's doors to borrow a cup of sugar."
The characters range from Uncle Billy Watson, an old man known for his corny jokes, to Sadie Baxter, the feisty, warmhearted town benefactress. And they interact with Father Tim Kavanaugh, a priest in his sixties who struggles with personal problems while opening his heart and home to an abandoned child.
Now, critics charge that Karon's readers are addicted to escapism, that the stories are cornpone, and—the greatest crime of all—they lack diversity. But what these critics are missing, Dalfonzo writes, is Karon's ability "to blend innocence and realism."
Thoughtful readers will understand this. There's nothing escapist about Uncle Billy's struggle to cope with his schizophrenic wife. And other characters, too, endure life-threatening diseases, abusive spouses, loneliness, and poverty.
Yet throughout the stories, Dalfonzo writes, "the grace of God is present in Mitford as we see it through the eyes of its priest." Hope permeates the books.
This realistic literary balance between hopeless evil and sentimental mush is not always welcome. As the great Christian novelist Flannery O'Connor put it, "By separating nature and grace as much as possible," the average Christian reader "has reduced his conception of the supernatural to pious cliché and has become able to recognize nature in literature in only two forms, the sentimental and the obscene."
O'Conner adds: "We lost our innocence in the Fall of our first parents, and our return to it is through the redemption . . . brought about by Christ's death and by our slow participation in it." Sentimentality skips this process, leading the reader to "an early arrival at a mock state of innocence."
Karon's ability to avoid this trap is one reason her books are literature, not just novels, and one reason they appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike.
Why not consider giving one of her books to someone on your Christmas list? They'll be getting a story that is warm and wonderful—populated, not by Precious Moments figurines, but by the simple, sinful people of Mitford, where the God of all grace is marvelously at work.
By Charles Colson