Faith and Fiction: Didacticism in Contemporary Novels

Faith & Fiction
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Sometimes critics denounce Christian authors for their explicit use of didacticism, which is the literary form of teaching of morals to readers. However, while didacticism has become unpopular in the last century, Christian authors can use didacticism without being preachy.

“Preachy” is telling the readers how they should live their lives, as exemplified by a novel’s characters, and some critics think that Christian authors go too far in creating stories that exemplify Scripture without regarding what really happens in life. One example of a didactic novel is William P. Young’s The Shack, which reveals the healing process of a father, Mackenzie Allen Phillips, who forgives a serial killer for murdering his daughter. The novel ultimately shows that when one forgives one’s wrongdoer, one will be healed within one’s spirit.

While Christian authors should be commended for promulgating Scripture, some critics denounce them for their blatant Christianity. It’s as if the novels are compelling readers to obey the novels’ biblical morals, and these critics seem to think that Christian novelists should show readers what the Christian life is like without telling them how to live a Christian life. However, Christian authors will inspire their readers no matter how explicit the use of didacticism is, and whether the use of didacticism is inappropriate for the novel is up to the author to discern.

Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Christian author, says that Christian authors can still portray morals without being preachy. In her essay, “The Church and the Fiction Writer,” O’Connor explains that some Christian authors tend to create their plots around a certain theological message that they believe their readers need to hear. While this evangelism is not wrong in itself, O’Connor says the job of evangelism should belong to the evangelist, while the storyteller should reveal the story’s morals through the plot of the story itself. In her own short story, “Good Country People,” O’Connor writes about a middle-aged woman who loses her wooden leg to a Bible salesman who runs off with it after she flirts with him. This plot seems awkward, O’Connor admits, yet from the life of the lonely woman, readers infer that the wooden leg carries more meaning than simply an object of transportation. It symbolizes how the woman values herself, and when the salesman steals it from her, he is essentially stealing a part of her personality.

When authors write their novels, their faith will show through no matter what they write, even if they don’t mention God. Novelists don’t necessarily need to quote Scripture to be Christian or didactic, but they shouldn’t infuse Scripture or biblical references into their books if their readers are unaccustomed to such references. Instead, the authors should make the spiritual references or moralistic themes flow within the context of the story. Kate DiCamillo’s Because of Winn-Dixie reveals the hope of a 10-year-old girl, Opal Buloni, who finds that even when her mother leaves her, she is loved by her “preacher” daddy, who comes out of his reclusive “shell” and becomes the father that Opal wants. Although the novel doesn’t necessarily gives Opal what she wants, it satisfies her with the thing she needs most: love and support from her family. Further, DiCamillo portrays Christianity in a subtle manner. While most of the characters in the small Floridian town are Christian, they do not necessarily preach (except for the “preacher”) or lecture each other on goodwill. The only instances when Christianity peeks through is when the town’s dame, Gloria Dump, gives Opal the advice she needs about reconciling herself with her mother’s absence, and when Opal finally accepts that fact and becomes closer to her father, she says her heart is “full all the way up,” and the readers are assured that all is well.

Sometimes didacticism is acceptable in literature. It seems that no matter how many biblical allusions or Scriptural references are in the novel, some readers will resonate with these morals, because they accept the fact that these morals are appropriate within the chosen genre. DiCamillo’s novel shows what didacticism ought to be: It doesn’t always mean the characters receive what they want, nor out of their piety do they get what they deserve all the time; but almost always, didacticism shows that by honoring one’s God or one’s people, one will be blessed in some fashion even if the circumstances do not always align with one’s desires.

Some authors portray the world in a way that compels readers to admire the characters’ integrity, and by creating characters with seemingly flawless faith, even when the characters endure suffering trials, the authors paint a picture of Christian life that some critics think is inaccurate. But what may seem inaccurate or too moralistic may be the perfect thing that will attract readers to those kinds of novels. If the readers are blessed by the novel, who is to judge how the author should tone down the use of didacticism? That is up to the authors to decide, and when the authors remain true to their convictions, the readers will respect the authors’ decisions.

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3 thoughts on “Faith and Fiction: Didacticism in Contemporary Novels

  1. What an interesting topic! I agree with you that middle ground seems like the best place to be. Yes, didacticism can be annoying in some novels if they are too preachy. However, it can be used in a helpful and interesting way.

  2. This was super interesting, Hannah! I love all the examples you give. I think this goes for movies also. You can tell when the writers are working too hard to fit in a moral and it can be annoying, but there is nothing wrong with promoting good things in your story. It is a thin line, but strong morals can improve a story if you do it right.

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