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By Luke Hawley
I had an undergraduate course aptly titled Novel, in which we read twelve novels over the course of the semester. The professor opened up class with Matthew Arnold’s idea of “sweetness and light”, which I took to mean that beauty and intelligence—and thus good art—must be measured by sweetness and light. I loved the idea—I was in the midst of a deep capital-R Romantic phase and I’ve always been a sucker for hope and redemption, so the professor and Arnold both got hearty amens from me.
Then we read Crime and Punishment. And while I don’t remember all the details of the novel, I do remember being fascinated by the narrator’s question about whether or not he could get away with murder. And I remember—though I may not have said this at the time—nearly cheering for him. Maybe not about the murder, per se, but about his pursuit of such a fascinating question. At the very least, I was interested in him, possibly even empathetic, despite his utter lacking of sweetness and light.
This weekend, I was at Calvin College for the Festival of Faith and Writing. I helped head a writers’ circle with my friend Sam Martin— “Genre-Bending for the Misfit Writer.” I work in both songwriting and fiction writing, one informing the other, so it made some sense for me, but I had no idea what to expect from the people who signed up to talk about genre-bending. We got a mix of mixed genres—one person working in realistic fiction with a paranormal twist, another writing a sci-fi, fantasy, multiverse mashup, another with a project that seemed to be a book but might also have been songs or possibly a podcast. It was great.
We also got a number of questions about working in the space between Christian books and secular books. What do you do about Christian publishers who think books are not Jesusy enough and secular publishers who think books are too Jesusy?
My first suggestion was that maybe we should burn down Christian bookstores. This was, of course, hyperbole—you’ll not find me burning any books anywhere. But the dichotomy is one that I reject and actually find to be a bit dangerous. Christian bookstore fiction has a habit of painting the world in a bit of a Thomas Kinkede way: nothing too bad ever happens and even if it does, everything turns out alright in the end, there is always illumination at in the middle of the frame. Just like life, right?
But there’s a problem with Matthew Arnold’s sweetness and light. It’s just not true. Can art be sweet and light and beautiful? Yes. But can it be bitter and dark and broken? Absolutely. And if you take God to be as big as God can be (or bigger!), then isn’t all of it created under the umbrella of God’s creation? Where can I go from your spirit or flee from your presence and all that?
My second–and much better–suggestion was that maybe we ought to just forget that dichotomy. Maybe there is not Christian fiction, but just fiction, some of which is written from a Christian perspective, all which can be read from a Christian perspective if you open yourself up to it.
And maybe we ought to embrace the sweet and the bitter, the light and the dark, the beautiful and the broken. This is, after all, the story of Easter, isn’t it? And the human condition. It’s the complicated nature of living in the world. The impossible dissonance of God-become-flesh. The bitter and the sweet braided together, the tangle of light and dark, The beautiful and broken God. And man. The Both And.