Great novels and recovering a Christian “social imaginary”

By Jonathon Van Maren

Over the past several months, I have been working on an outline for a sequel to my 2016 book The Culture War, conducting interviews and burying myself in the most recent work on the ongoing transformation of our civilization by the sexual revolution. One of the aspects of this transformation that is most interesting to me—and that I write about frequently—is the concept of a “social imaginary,” defined by philosopher Charles Taylor as how people imagine or perceive their surroundings, shaped by images, stories, legends, and everything that makes up “that common understanding which makes possible common practices and a widely shared sense of legitimacy.”

In his essential book Strange New World: How Thinkers and Activists Redefined Identity and Sparked the Sexual Revolution, Carl Trueman notes that the social imaginary we see developing around us (in film, TV, and literature) is not only post-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. During a recent interview, I asked him what it might look like for Christians working in culture to construct or recover the Christian social imaginary. He observed that many particularly powerful examples of this have been Catholic. Trueman himself is a Presbyterian, but has his students read Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and noted that he sees a growing Protestant interest in Sigrid Undset’s Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy, which celebrated its centenary this year.

I began to work my way through Undset’s mammoth work (the edition I have amounts to over 1,100 pages), and it is without doubt one of the best works of historical fiction I have ever read, with detail that brings medieval Norway to life in both its people and landscapes. Undset was utterly deserving of the Nobel Prize in Literature she received largely on the strength of this trilogy. Her work is a reminder of what can be produced when a genius at the height of her powers turns her attention to the sacred. Here, for example, is her description of the clergyman Gunnulf contemplating and envisioning the Crucifixion:

The hill with the three crosses against the sky. The cross in the middle, which was meant to bear the king of heaven and earth, shook and trembled; it bent like a tree in the storm, in fear of bearing too much precious burden, the sacrifice for all the sins of the world. The lord of the storm tents forced it, the way a knight forces his defiant stallion; the chieftain of heaven carried it into battle. Then that miracle occurred which was the key to ever deeper miracles. The blood that ran down from the cross in redemption and penance for all sorrows—that was the visible sign. With this first miracle the eye of the soul could be opened to contemplate those still hidden—God, who came to earth and became the son of a virgin and brother to the human kin, who lay waste to Hell and who, with the released souls that were his spoils of war, stormed toward the dazzling sea of light from which the world was born and which sustains the earth. It was toward that unfathomable and eternal depth of light that his thoughts were drawn, and there they perished in the light, vanishing like a flock of birds into the radiance of an evening sky.

Throughout the trilogy, Undset masterfully portrays the consequences of sin—the guilt, the terror, the unravelling and unforeseen consequences. Kristin Lavransdatter lives within a totalizing Catholic system, but Undset, while being honest about the flaws of both the system and the clergy (with their many illegitimate children), is clear that the moral wounds we inflict on ourselves and others are, fundamentally, at the root of our misery. In my view, she does this as magnificently as Dostoevsky in Crime and Punishment; or more recently, Wendell Berry’s portrayal of marriage breakdown in The Memory of Old Jack. Post-Christian literature often revels in sin, and some of the most talented writers of our time waste their powers in masturbatory fantasies. Better writers highlight a better way.

Both Christians and conservatives have been notoriously bad at culture-building, with “Christian films” largely resembling Hallmark flicks without the self-awareness and explicitly conservative ones coming off as ideological screeds. I am interested in the efforts of organizations such as The Daily Wire to rectify that (although, as I’ll detail in another essay, their offerings thus far leave me deeply skeptical). But fortunately, we can look back at an inheritance of staggering richness. Catholicism produced Greene, Undset, and Tolkien, to name a few; the Orthodox have Tolstoy and Dostoevsky (and who else do they need?); but there is so much more. In children’s literature, as I noted in a previous essay, the works of Johanna Spyri, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Johan Wyss, and Louisa May Alcott are beautiful examples of a Christian social imaginary and a wonderful way to introduce virtues to children (this was the intention of some of these works).

There are many I could add to that. There is John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and The Holy War, of course. The closing lines of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities are among the greatest ever written. There is C.S. Lewis, despite some of his weird theological quirks. The evangelical literary scholar Karen Swallow Prior has recently published an entire series of classics with introductory Christian reading guides. And some more recent authors have also made valuable contributions in the realm of historical fiction that are well worth your time. Even if all attempts to revive a new robust Christian social imaginary fail, there is enough in our inheritance to keep anyone occupied for a lifetime. Revisiting these great works will reveal, once again, why they contain so much power—and remind us of a different world that once was and can be again—at least in our own homes, families, and communities. For as all the great literature tells us, recreation is a work that must be renewed with each generation.

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