If some novels are “Christian,” then the rest of them are not. We have chosen to call those “not-Christian” novels “secular.” Secular novels aren’t necessarily bad (in the moral sense), they’re just not “Christian.” Or “Christian” enough.
Early in an author’s career, they are forced to make a choice and decide what kind of novel they will write — “spiritual” or “secular.” For the most part, Christian authors are the only ones faced with such a dilemma. It is a very important decision, one that often defines a writer’s career. Problem is, the line between the “spiritual” and the “secular” is rarely as definitive as we’d like it to be.
Case in point: I recently finished reading a friend of mine’s first novel. It will be released later this year. It is a “secular” novel. However, it was not always a “secular” novel. For a long time, it was a “Christian” novel and passed through the hands of Christian publishers… publishers who eventually deemed it was not “spiritual” enough. So now it’s a “secular” novel, published by a “secular” house, to a bunch of “secular” readers. But this itself is problematic because the novel contains lots of “spiritual” themes. Even though it is “secular.”
And that’s the corner we have forced ourselves into.
Recently, by way of research, I’ve been re-reading C.S. Lewis’ essays on myth. During one such reading I was struck by the overlap of these two topics, how our approach to mythology often mirrors our approach to “secular” art in general.
The C.S. Lewis Institute has distilled the author’s work down to Seven Key Ideas, one of which involves Myth:
Early in C.S. Lewis’s life he noticed the parallels between pagan myths and classic Christianity. In his education it was assumed that the pagan myths were false and Christianity true. Why was this religion–and this one alone–true? This is one factor that led to his unbelief.
He resolved the problem and wrote about myth in a number of places. A key to his resolution was the increased understanding that if God created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure, it is not surprising that patterns reoccur. The only question is, Are any of these myths truer than others or, more precisely, Are any of these myths also fact? He came to believe that Jesus was the “myth become fact.”
Later he defined myth as an “unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” (emphasis mine)
Notice how the exclusivity claim initially turned Lewis off to Christianity. The assumption that “pagan myths were false and Christianity true” did not jive with his experience. A blanket condemnation of all myths — especially myths that are so rich in spiritual allegory — does not do justice to either myth or Christianity. Which is why on Mars Hill (Acts 17), rather than condemn the pagan poets, the apostle Paul quoted them, highlighting elements of their art which corroborated biblical truth. Maintaining a dichotomy between Christianity and myth did not serve the Church’s purpose nor accurately represent God, man or art.
Likewise, by dividing art into “sacred / secular” camps we do injustice to the nature of man, truth, and art. Because God “created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure,” we should anticipate an “unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” Even “secular” imagination can reveal reoccurring God-“patterns.” In other words, if the pagan poets can occasionally “get it,” can’t “secular” authors?
By dividing the “spiritual” and the “secular,” not only do we create potential animosity or suspicion between camps (the same animosity that forced Lewis towards unbelief), we simply miss God’s larger work in the world.
Frederick Buechner wrote, “The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is worldly language.” Yes, the world “speaks of holy things.” They just use “worldly language.” Instead of posturing ourselves in opposition to the “secular,” Christians would be better off looking for the “unfocused gleam of divine truth” in their eyes. And, occasionally, quoting them.