Piety, by Literature

7:30 AM


We all know her. She's rude, insensitive, hypocritical and distasteful. She has morbid interests in death and musty churches and punishment for children. She sticks her nose in other people's business with a "But this is the Word of God!" and a shake of her finger. Everybody hates her and stabs her in the back. It's not as if she's a real human being.

And she isn't. I'm talking about the depictions of Christians in literature.

Somehow, somewhere, someone got the memo that Christians, for all their talk of piety and holiness, can be hypocrites just like the rest of us. To them, the fault lies in having a standard - not in failing to keep that standard. Not for the Real World are rules and regulations - they operate by an internal code which is honorable no matter how marred by immorality or lack of self-control or any other sin. The only true sin (says the honorable person) is saying you adhere to a standard. Breaking that standard is close second.

(Never mind that Muslims or Jews or any number of other religions have rules and a God who ordered them. To parody them would be intolerant, don't you know.)

I collect stock characters and stereotypes, and the collection is rather swollen due to a long reading career. I love the ditsy innocent types - the fools and the peasant people who make you laugh no matter how many times you've seen them pop up in a million different tales. I love the mysterious, dark men and the silent strength of the mothers. I love the doting papas and the fun-loving uncles who toss their nephews in the air and ride their nieces around on their shoulders.

What I don't love? The stereotypical religious person. I would come across this embittered, senseless Bible-thumper - the one and only portrayal of religion (save for tolerance, which came in the form of feminist aunts and other liberated females who had their own views and didn't need anybody to tell them how to live, thank you very much). I would just sit there, angry and hurt and shamefully contemplating whether my Jesus could ever have any part of that religion the author clearly mocked.

Have you ever read Jacob Have I Loved? You'll know what I'm talking about, then. The grandmother alone is enough to poison the joy of any Christian.

Recently I picked up a novel which told the story in letters (a New York Times bestseller - if that didn't tip me off, then...). One of the letters is from the town meddler, a hypocritical woman who felt compelled to tell the protagonist about the secret sins of other people. Yours in Christian consternation she signed off, after spilling the tale of immorality, made-up slights and general impiety. Her letters reappear to gossip about more faults, and the protagonist is very happy to find out someone slapped her - hard - when she made a group of children cry because of her talk about death and heaven and being good children.

So much for religion. It made my blood boil. That's not me. That's not my church. That's not the majority of brothers and sisters in Christ I know. Yet to the author - to many authors - the very word Christianity is dirty. In their worldview it's a far more terrible sin to have standards than a child out of wedlock - it's a strength to slap someone or use foul language when a more rotten person does something despicable - it's to be praised to defend glaring sins to others (unless, of course, it is the sin of conviction).

I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's accurate. It's a cheap shot at Christianity and a triumphant victory over a strawman. And it's poor characterization (which is a sin in my book, but anyway).

You'll notice that no other depiction of Christianity is offered. The hypocrite never changes his ways. He is heartless to the core and in the story for no other reason than for the other characters to throw darts at. He's not even a character.

He's a moral statement.

Why can't authors deal with real conviction, with genuine Christianity? Why can't we have an overly piestic woman who gives generously and offers wise counsel? Why can't we have a stingy old man who, despite his hard ways, ends up being right after all? Why can't we have characters dealing with and being tolerant of Christians, instead of creating a stereotype and steamrolling it right over?

In our world of tolerance and relative morality, we've been brainwashed to think that secular authors profess to have no worldview and merely tell the world as it is.

I don't buy that anymore. Until the piestic parodies fall from the face of literature, I say that being objective is not the authors' motive. Who's the hypocrite now?

(And don't get me started on the hopelessly out-of-date, "the Bible is my only guide" people who are ignorant and naive and harm only themselves in their humdrum state of religion. They are even more frustrating.)

But in the same turn, perhaps we should strive to be the kind of Christians who cannot be spoken ill of - who perhaps get parodied and ridiculed, but only by those desperate to avoid conviction themselves. The kind of Christians with whom the majority of the unsaved will gladly rub shoulders. Not compromising conviction, of course, but actually living the Christian life.

You can't steamroller over a real man without consequences. Let's put life back into Christianity and stuff the strawman back into the attic.

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13 impressions

  1. dare I mention Miss Dinsmore? - those are the stock characters I hate.

    The perfect lovelies who turn out from the perfect lovelies into annoying people who cry every ten seconds.

    Sorry Elsie Dinsmore - though it would be so dreamlike and lovely to be the "perfect" Christian - it simply isn't possible.

    And besides, reading fairy tales to your cousin isn't a sin, btw. In fact, you just threw out a chance to serve your cousin - but since we're talking perfection...

    Sorry for any of those Elsie Dinsmore fans - yes - she's great sometimes - but it's so unrealistic!

    Take A Basket of Flowers. I love Mary - she's amazing. But she runs really close to all those Christian short stories published in the 1900's where the perfect angel ladies go through trial after trial (perhaps even die) and in the end (after fifty pages of tears) either get forgiveness from the person who wronged them - or become respectable again...

    So you can make Christianty look bad (like you said) or perfect - which doesn't work. *coughs*

    ~Bethany

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  2. Ouch, Floppeth, you are the fiery one today.

    Good point, though. I agree wholeheartedly. Perfect characters can be inspiring to a certain point (I prefer Mary to Elsie - that's just me), but I dunno...dealing with personal sin is inspiring too. It's practical. It shows how to grab onto grace when you realize you cannot be perfect like a 19th century heroine.

    Besides, from a reader's standpoint, stock characters get old really fast. That "lovelies" - as you put them - permeated Victorian literature. Even Dickens fell prey to it. Ugh.

    But Elsie did change my life. It's all about balance.

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  3. I agree thoroughly with Bethany! Don't get me wrong, I enjoy Elsie Dinsome books and the godly standards presented throughout, and I also have most of the series... but my personal favorite characters are Lulu and Zoe who actually display character growth; I can relate to them and their faults! ;)

    Thanks for stopping by my blog, Bailey, and commenting; nice to "meet" you!

    Really like your blog and honest writings. Mom and I enjoyed perusing your site last night!

    Lacheln,
    Taylor

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  4. As a young Christian, a verse in the Bible that says "Let no man despise thy youth, but be thou an example of the Believers in word, in coversation...etc." is what I remember after reading your post. :)

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  5. Elsie Dinsore? Don't get me started. There's just to much to say!
    On quite a different note - Bailey, I think for a little while recently your posts took on a sort of staring-at-the-sky, almost abstract flavor, but that your even more recent ones have been a bit more focused and down-to-earth. Thank you.

    Yours Truly,
    Natalie

    P.S. Not to say that they weren't stuffed full of truth.

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  6. Thanks, Miss Taylor! I can certainly say the same about you. I love how blogging can bring likeminded hearts together. :o)

    *phew* So far I have not offended any Elsie Dinsmore lovers out there....but they are certainly welcome to speak out. ;o)

    Natalie - truly, that is one of the best compliments I have received. Thank you.

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  7. Hi Bailey, your blog has been listed at www.youngchristianbloggers.blogspot.com

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  8. I know just who you mean! They're usually sanctimonious old skinflints who are constantly making acerbic comments about their neighbors. Like Rachel Lynde from Anne of Green Gables, Mr. Parry on How Green Was My Valley, and many others ...

    The problem is that most of these characters are very good people; but they're given such painful personalities that the reader (or movie viewer) comes away with the feeling that it's wrong to be upright and point out others' sin. It's better to have a bad temper or commit adultery than it is to be a committed Christian. Interesting, isn't it? It's a very subtle way to make people view Christianity as a drain and a problem.

    Fantastic post! I love it!

    Love in Christ,
    Vicki
    http://butgivemejesus.blogspot.com/

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  9. Yes! Exactly! There's a reason why "puritan" and "piety" have such negative connotations.

    Love,
    Bailey

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  10. Hmmm, making a stereotypical character...All the writing tips that I've read tell me to AVOID doing that. Why is there an exception for the Christian? Those make me angry, too. But they do inspire me never to act in such a hypocritical fashion.
    I do wish more authors (and film-writers) would take a more honest look at Christians. We are a diverse group, and we have struggles, temptations, and character flaws, just like they do.
    There are hypocrites, who act religious but are terrible people. But true Christians do not act that way (at least they don't want to act that way).
    Thank you for this post, Bailey. It's given me some ideas for my story (the one that might be a book one day).
    <><

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  11. I'm guessin' that just as we break the tolerance rules in regards to Christianity, so do we break the stereotype rules for the same reason.

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  12. I know exactly what you're talking about! It hurts...

    There's something interesting which I learned at school by listening to fellow students' persuasive speeches; You see, there were a few people with topics like "Euthenasea should be legal" and "Stem cell research is a good thing". Both of these people where sure to point out that christians are against their ideas. But shockingly to me, what followed out of their mouth was "But they [christians] are just a group of people and here in America, we shouldn't get rid of these ideas just because they don't approve"
    I can't recall their words exactly, but this was the general attitude.

    In short, what I got from this was that the world doesn't just put us in a stereotype, it renders us as not even human (in exaggeration)and not intitled to opinions. I understand that we are aliens to them, but it's just sad how they depict us as the antagonists when we have the very secrets to save their souls. Not to mention, Christian ideas are what America was founded on (but you already know that ;).
    Painfully interesting, huh?

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  13. Ugh. That's harsh. Mean old Christians with their morals, destroying science and ruining the lives of thousands of innocent people.

    Though, interestingly, it was Christianity who promoted literacy, science and the political theory that's lasted this long in our nation. We have the upper hand when it comes to advancing the good and knowledge of the common person. People should be more willing to interact with and respect Christian ideas than blow them off.

    Tolerance hurts.

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