I just finished reading a book in a genre I haven’t touched in years- Christian fiction. Unfortunately my local branch library decided to stuff all the genres of adult fiction together, rather than having distinct sci-fi, fantasy, westerns, romance, and inspirational sections apart from the main fiction section. This means that for my Read Your Library project, in order to read all the books on a shelf I have to tackle genres I would not otherwise read. I decided that I could skip any romance or ‘inspirational’ author or book, IF I HAVE A GOOD ENOUGH REASON, but just not knowing anything about the book besides its genre isn’t a good enough reason.
I have skipped books. I’ve skipped any further Cherry Adair books, for example, because I read one of her books and it was truly awful, one of the sloppiest novels I’ve read in any genre. I’ve read a lot of books with mostly naked men on the covers that were actually fairly well written, so I had to give that one novel a chance. A woman looking into her father’s death by returning to the site of her father’s last archaeological dig in Egypt sounded entertaining enough, but there were so many inconsistencies that it felt as if, for the author, the majority of the book was just filler to pack in between formulaic sex scenes that would sell the book. I can now safely skip other books by that author, because I have a pretty good idea I will not enjoy her many other novels either.
The book I was reading tonight is called The Inheritance, by Tamera Alexander. It is marked as “Inspirational” at the library, a term I always find faintly amusing because I like to think that books with such a sticker are actually inspirational, like self-help books about being true to yourself, or about being more creative. As a sort of euphemism for Christian fiction, since almost no other religion is included in that category at our libraries, it seems a bit dishonest. Still, it’s a fault of the library system, not of any particular book that has the misfortune of being so labeled. In fact, I could imagine how some authors would resent being marginalized as inspirational fiction writers, knowing how much that sticker will shrink their readership. And, there are many works of fiction that have Christian characters, and play out Christian themes and stories, without being stickered as inspirational. Most classic novels from certain eras center around theology, church settings, and Christian values, for that matter. So, in any case, I, a staunch atheist reader, made it all the way through Alexander’s modern Christian novel, and actually got through it more easily than my dread warranted.
The Inheritance is a western, a lot like a Louis L’Amour book, only much longer and written from a woman’s perspective. Actually I would have preferred if this novel had been edited down to a length closer to what most of L’Amour’s books run to, about 100-200 pages. The writing in Alexander’s book is too loose, and tends towards telling the reader lots of introspective stuff about what is going on within the characters in the story, rather than telling the story and showing us. I’ve read much worse, but still this book could have been stronger with tighter editing.
What bugged me more, though, was the theology. Not the part about it having theology- I’ve read plenty in all sorts of other books, after all. With this book though I was drawing up old theology arguments about the nature of the Biblical God, and of God more generally. This book feels like it draws a lot more from the Old Testament; there is a strong focus on characters being broken by God, as if the God these characters believe in and worship is sadistically torturing them to weaken them. It is hardly a new idea that a god might wear down one’s resistance to worship and subservience, but even when I was solidly Christian, as a kid and teen (a very well-read kid and teen), I leaned heavily towards a more C.S. Lewis style God. In that theological vein, evil is just distance from God and from his righteousness, so God doesn’t create evil or cause bad things to happen to challenge us; we simply experience bad things when we and/or the people around us are distanced from God. It is an awkward argument, since it really doesn’t answer questions about why God doesn’t protect his people from bad things that are not of their making, and there are other problems with this approach when used in theological debate (something I enjoyed as a kid- can you tell?) but I could at least want to worship a God like the one in Lewis’s books.
The version of God in The Inheritance is one I could not respect and admire, let alone love and worship. No one should have to break someone down in order to win their love and respect. In any relationship, if this sort of abuse is going on it is a sign that the abuser feels he or she cannot win or maintain love and respect without making the other party weaker and vulnerable first. I can’t imagine that a real God would need to make any human feel helpless, worthless, or in any way less, in order to be able to win that human’s love and respect. Most humans respond quite well when they are valued for who they are and for what they do well, and the only sort of god I could respect as a God would be one who can attract and deserve the respect of strong, healthy people who are not afraid and are freely choosing their allegiance.
Thankfully, the majority of Alexander’s novel is not theological, but simply a story about a young woman making a life for herself in a small town in Colorado. It was not the best novel I’ve read, but it was entertaining enough to be worth reading. Hopefully the other “Inspirational” books on my reading stack are at least as readable.