O is for Okay (Oke)

What I read: The Bluebird and the Sparrow by Janette Oke

Janette Oke writes religious romances. They are similar to Grace Livingston Hill's romances: the religious context is clearly Christian evangelical but in a rather ecumenical way. Christian Light. People don't swear or behave badly, but there isn't a whole lot of theological discussion going on.

This lack of theological discussion doesn't make these romances nonreligious, however. The books' problems usually center on the heroine's need to change her behavior or attitude in some way. She does this through religious instruction, and there is nothing unrealistic about the instruction or the change. The Bluebird and the Sparrow, for instance, revolves around sibling jealousy and the need for one sister to accept herself before she can accept others. It is a perfectly legitimate religious problem and makes a perfectly worthy plot.

It just comes across as rather, well, flat.

Not boring. The book was an easy read. It made good points. In many ways, it was like sitting down to a long chat with a smart, down-to-earth aunt. But I was left thinking, "Why is it that religious fiction often can't capture the transcendental nature of religion?"

It isn't the subject matter, per se, and even if it were, religion shouldn't be any more off-limits to fiction than, say, romance. And it isn't that the transcendental isn't felt by the writers; it is just so darn hard to express.

The counter-approach--writing that is filled with analogies and metaphors and Yoda-type phrases--isn't much better. Hesse may be a better writer than Oke, but I don't consider him more readable.

There are books that capture the transcendental, but they remind me of a line from Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy Sayers where Wimsey remarks that for some reason, good advertising copy is always written with the tongue firmly in the cheek. Sincerity leaves the copy sounding flat. Likewise, to capture the awe of a religious conversion/experience, the event has to be approached sideways.

Fiction books that capture that transcendental awe:

Passage by Connie Willis
The Monk Downstairs by Tim Farrington
The Path of Dreams by Eugene Woodbury
C.S. Lewis's fiction
Ellis Peters' mysteries
The Great & Terrible Quest by Margaret Lovett

1 comment:

Eugene said...

Hey, I appreciate being included in such transcendental company! I think that's a big appeal of anime, though as with Lewis, fans may not always be aware of it. Anime writers are often totally unselfconscious about throwing religion into the mix--the only overriding question being whether it helps tell the story they want to tell. As a result, they don't get mired down in ponderous "reverence" for the subject matter, and can freely consider all the sly and silly implications while getting to the profound point.

Four examples that spring to mind are the very Catholic Haibane Renmei, the sweet, family-friendly Kamichu! the SF Passion Play (with robots) Scrapped Princess, and the ultra-violent vampire saga Hellsing (the original series, not the remake).