Third-Rate Fiction

I have a habit of celebrating the end of the semester by reading something that doesn't fulfill any assignment. The more sophisticated and significant my professional reading has become, the more worthless and banal my recreational reading. When I was in college, I still chose good stuff. One of my end-of-semester reads was A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is eminently worth reading. Another was The Undertaking, which remains one of my favorite and most-recommended books. (I made the mistake of starting that one before the semester was actually over, which made it genuinely painful to turn from it to reviewing my poorly-written Old Testament textbook.)

Now, however, I tend to gravitate toward junk with no discernible redeeming value. I read these selections with a combination of morbid curiosity about why anyone would write or publish or read such dreck and horrified self-disgust when I find myself getting sucked into such mediocre storytelling.

Last semester, I turned to a piece of Christian chick-lit, a sort of Bridget Jones meets Jesus endeavor, about which more later, perhaps.

This semester, I succumbed to what looked like a The Da Vinci Code-style religious thriller, but turned out to be a third-rate Left Behind knock-off. (A third-rate knock-off of a third-rate series is, what? Sixth-rate? Ninth-rate?) Since I have pretty low esteem for both The Da Vinci Code and the Left Behind series, I went into this with pretty low expectations. Still, I have enjoyed the religious hoax/conspiracy/thriller genre in the past (A Skeleton in God's Closet is my favorite), and the premise (the cloning of Jesus from living resurrected cells found on the Shroud of Turin) seemed like it had potential, so I thought there was a chance that it would be fun, even if it wasn't "quality" literature.

Uh, no.

I'm no popular fiction expert, but ... people actually like this stuff? Have the people who blurbed the back cover and wrote gushing reviews on Amazon been smoking something? Do they just not notice the gaping plot holes? Does it not bother them that the book skips over decades at a time without ever explaining, or even acknowledging, the most intriguing questions it raises?

(Then again, maybe people don't like this stuff, and that's why I found it on the "if it were marked down any further we'd be paying YOU to take it out of the store" table at Barnes & Noble.)

And what the heck is up with the FOOTNOTES? Yes, footnotes can be employed to great effect in fiction (e.g., Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell), but this is not that. This is pedantic citing of non-fiction sources and Biblical quotations (no, I'm not suggesting that a novelist should plagiarize, but this is what appendices are for), combined with a repeated reminder to the reader that the ideas expressed by characters in the novel are not necessarily held by the author. WELL, DUH. But I guess, in the world of The Da Vinci Code, you can't take that for granted.

By halfway through the book, I had lost any interest I might have had in the characters of the story, and just skimmed the rest of the way through to find out what happens. This was a thoroughly unsatisfying experience, since, as the first book in a trilogy, the novel leaves everything hanging. But rather than make me want to rush out and read the next two volumes, this simply confirmed my decision to call it quits.

What's interesting to me about this book is the way it represents the mainstreaming of mediocre Christian fiction. Apparently, the book was self-published in the 1990s, then updated and sold to a major publishing house in the wake of the run away success of the Left Behind books. It's not on a religious imprint. The "Important Note from the Author" at the beginning of the book seems apologetic to any Christian sensibilities that it might offend, and does not assume a Christian audience. If you know your way around the Evangelical subculture, you would probably recognize from the jacket copy that this book is situated within that world, but it's not overt and obvious that this is a "Christian" novel. The unfolding of the first novel gives its loyalties away -- Messianic Jews are good guys, New Agers are bad guys. A reader with a basic familiarity with the dispensationalist End Times scenario can fill in the blanks and decide she doesn't need to waste her time reading the next two books. (Although, I was rather embarrassed by how long it took me to pick up on the Antichrist motif.)

So, I wonder, what is the aim of these books? Once upon a time, Christian fiction was a niche genre that existed to entertain and edify (?) the faithful with tame rip-offs of bestsellers that protected readers from the pollution of dirty language or gratuitous sex (or any sex at all). (This is why the used bookstore where my Mom works keeps its theology books next to the bodice-rippers: when it first opened, the best-selling religious books were the inspirational romances, which were shelved next to the mainstream romances, with the rest of the religion books on the other side. Now inspirational romance is a tiny fraction of the religious fiction, but the old arrangement remains.)

Some of the more successful Christian novels have been peddled within the subculture as potentially evangelistic. And then something like Left Behind becomes a mega-money maker. The Christ Clone trilogy seems to me to be having something of an identity crisis -- it is trying to pass as a mainstream novel, but it still has the telltale signs of the kind of fiction that until the last decade you would have had to go to a Christian bookstore to find. It's not that the quality of the product has come of age, ready to compete on equal terms with the Michael Crichtons and Tom Clancys of the world, jacket copy notwithstanding. But Christian fiction has broken into the mainstream (just look at how many religious titles, fiction and non, are featured at you major chain bookstore of choice), so why shouldn't a Christian fiction author try to take advantage of this expanded market? But then, what on earth is your average Da Vinci Code reader going to make of something like this? There's enough confusion of truth and fiction going on already in the world...

I guess I shouldn't complain. It's stuff like this that keeps us religious educators in business.


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