Where we fail to see Christ’s presence

  • October 4, 2011

An American novelist I know recently found himself front-page news because of parental complaints about the language in one of his books.

The work, which is on the recommended reading list in the local public school system, belatedly drew the ire of a couple who protested that the frequent swearing and vulgarity of certain characters offended their family sensibilities.

According to a front-page story in the Charleston, S.C. Post and Courier, James Pasley and his wife want author Bret Lott’s novel, The Hunt Club, deleted from their son’s high school reading list. They have been loud enough that county school authorities have convened a hearing to try to resolve the issue.

The result has been a firestorm that started with attacks blasting the Pasleys for advocating “censorship,” moved on to racial conspiracy theorizing and also included attacks on Lott’s moral character.

One paradox is that Lott, a renowned writing teacher whose earlier novel Jewel was selected for Oprah’s Book Club in 1999, is a Baptist Sunday school teacher. He used the rough language in The Hunt Club as contextual authenticity for the novel’s exploration of good and evil, something that deeply concerns him as a novelist.

A second paradox is that the book, while not written as juvenile literature, is one of the best I’ve come across in years for its potential to whet the literary appetites of adolescent readers. It is a romping mystery that pays off in intrigue and redemption. It’s also a serious work by a serious, and seriously good, Christian writer.

The most significant paradox, though, is that the wrong-headed parental demand for removal of the book is actually a powerful form of validation for the rightful importance of literature. They clearly don’t understand what makes literature. But they do understand, and are prepared to act on their conviction, that novels actually matter in shaping the ethics and the morals of readers. In that regard, they are friends of writers.

Just as there is a wrong way to be right, there is a right way to be wrong. These parents have managed the latter. They erroneously believe literature’s ethical and moral effect stops at risqué language when, in fact, it extends to uncovering what is present and absent in the human heart. Still, they are on the side of the angels in their inherent belief that writing and reading are foundational to real life, and to the good life. And they have not, contrary to some accusations, advocated censorship. They want public accountability in a democratic context. Their request should be accounted and denied, but not faulted.

What can be faulted here is the Christian, not the literary, limitation. Complaints of this kind arise in large measure from a misreading of our Christian relationship to the world — and to Christ.

At an event I recently attended, someone said: “For too much of my life, I experienced Christ as an absence, as a measurement of everything in the world that isn’t Christ. I changed this way of encountering Christ only when I realized that Christ is not a priori.”

His sentences hit me hard because I saw the truth of what he said in my own relationship to Christ, and can intuit in many Christians I encounter. I have been reflecting on his comment since and become convinced of the negation Christians impose on ourselves when we respond to Christ as a priori, as justification for a series of propositions aimed at proving what is not Christ in the world.

The reality is that Christ is not some kind of values scale from zero to infinity. He is eternity bending into history: present perfect tense precisely because He is unendingly and perfectly present. What is forgotten when we persist in the a priori approach is that, for a Christian, Christ-absence offers (requires?) a lived recognition of Christ-presence (the empty tomb meant the fulfillment of the Resurrection).

When Christians reduce Christ to a series of banal ethical precepts, when we see only the absence of Christ in a perceived violation of, say, some primness code for literary language, we begin to fail to even look for Christ’s presence. By that I mean, for example, the way Mother Teresa saw the obscene poverty of Calcutta as an opportunity of absence. She recognized Christ in the distressing disguise of the poor, and saw a call for full Christian charity, a full living in Christ presence.

Literature has the power to move a life; Christ infinitely more so. Our responsibility is to be fully there to witness all that the movement demands.

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