Monday, June 16, 2008


Many Christian readers of sf, apparently feeling burned by the bad output for which explicitly Christian sf publishers have become famous, have drawn the conclusion that religious content in a work of fiction ought always to be slight, referenced only in delicate, tangential ways. Usually, in their support, they cite J.R.R. Tolkien's well-known dislike for religious allegory. I used to be in this crowd myself.

I have since moderated my views, mainly because of the many good books with explicit religious content. Anyone who lays a blanket condemnation on allegory or preaching will be at a loss to explain The Pilgrim's Progress, which is basically a collection of sermons and ham-fisted allegories as well as an acknowledged classic.

The problem with Christian sf is, I'm inclined to believe, more complex. First, it's possible that its badness has been exaggerated, as there are some decidedly talented authors writing in the field. Second, it's possible we have judged a fledgling sub-genre with the standards of a fully developed one: sf in its early days was largely literary tripe; standards of quality improved over time as the genre developed. Third, while religious content, in and of itself, will not ruin a story, the content of the religion in question might: I am inclined to believe that pop psychology-influenced Fundamentalism does not make a solid basis on which to build good fiction, yet it forms the basis of far too many Christian sf novels. Fourth, some authors may approach their fiction in the wrong way, forgetting that good fiction must begin with certain aims, the first of which is to tell an entertaining story. A Christian author who forgets that may fall prey to what I have decided to call Sheldonism, the belief that storytelling ought to serve no purpose other than to preach a Christian message.

Sheldonism, the bad new term I'm blatantly trying to coin, is the tendency to write like Charles Sheldon, or more accurately, write according to Sheldon's view on writing. Charles Sheldon, a Congregational pastor, advocate of the so-called Social Gospel, and novelist, was fond of telling extended parables, called sermon stories, to his congregation in place of a regular sermon (Smith 2007:201). Such stories would also be published. In His Steps, Sheldon's most famous novel, is a collection of such sermon-stories, preached in 1896 and subsequently published (Tanner 1999). In it, he presents the question that would later come to adorn key chains and tee-shirts, "What would Jesus do?" or WWJD for hip young people who, unlike me, are not acronym averse. Sheldon's gimmicky basis for Christian morality is well meaning but inadequate, mostly because it's vague and almost entirely subjective. Nonetheless,

The answers in the novel exude Social Gospel confidence, suggesting that any "genuine, honest, and enlightened Christian" could figure out what the Savior portrayed in the Gospels would do. Sheldon's characters come up with the answers with a good dose of sociological analysis and a minimum of biblical citation. [Lovin 2006:35]

Sheldon's novel was a bestseller even though it has no particular interest in entertainment per se and even though it keeps going for about a hundred pages after the story is over. Though Sheldon certainly lays it on thick, his prose and characters are interesting, and the plot, all things considered, isn't too bad. To the modern reader, the heavy focus on the Temperance Movement may seem quaint or naive, but the novel is of course a product of its time and doesn't deserve to be judged by Americans who live after the period of Prohibition, when alcohol is well regulated in both production and sale, when people no longer speak of a significant "whiskey lobby" in Congress, and when the western frontier and its associated alcohol abuse are in the distant past. Sheldon did not write of social evils from an arid academic post, either; he spent a good deal of time with people on the streets and became an early Civil Rights advocate after discovering that racism was causing the poverty of the Black population in Topeka, Kansas (Armstrong 2005:45).

In His Steps has something to say not only to Christians generally, but to a few specific occupations in particular: pastors who preach the word, newspapermen who can expose the roots of society's evils, and novelists who can potentially write inspiring stories are all featured in the book. It is not surprising that the novelist holds a special place, for, according to Smith, In His Steps is one of a number of Social Gospel novels that appeared during the Third Great Awakening, all of which were "self-consciously about print culture, making clear that founding the kingdom of God here on earth depends on making appropriate use of books and literacy" (2007:194). As Smith describes, some other books of the period such as Mary Augusta Ward's Robert Elsmere, which influenced Sheldon, or Wiston Churchill's Inside of the Cup, depict books, especially books of biblical criticism, as a means of salvation from orthodox Christianity, destroying the faith of the orthodox but rebuilding them as social reformers and truer followers of Jesus (2007:195-199). By contrast, though some describe Sheldon as a "liberal," and though he held, according to Smith, unorthodox views on certain matters such as the Virgin Birth (2007:199-200), his novel is shot through with supernaturalism. Nonetheless, it avoids getting mired in the theological debates between liberals and Fundamentalists. The wide popularity of the novel is probably due in part to this self-conscious ecumenicism; the denomination of the characters is ambiguous, and they spend no time discussing theological matters, which are clearly placed in a subordinate position to the matter of "what Jesus would do."

Rather than describing literature as a means of liberation from Christian doctrine as some of his contemporaries did, Sheldon prefers to limit its usefulness; the really important thing is whether any written work inspires people to be more Christlike. Anything else is a waste. In the same vein, Sheldon generally avoided serious theology because of "the irrelevance of doctrine to his practice-based religion" (Smith 2007:200), a way of thinking that still characterizes some strains of Evangelicalism. This dislike for doctrine may explain why Sheldon's famous ethic consists of four words that defy interpretation.

Admirable as Sheldon's philanthropy is--and the call to social action in In His Steps is still powerful and stinging--his novel breaks down precisely because of this lack of doctrine. What, exactly, would Jesus do? The question is always posed as an intensely personal one, one nobody can answer for anybody else, one that has no objective answer. The question becomes all but useless, "What do I think is the best thing to do?" with Jesus slapped onto it. When all is said and done and the novel is over, we find that every man did that which was right in his own eyes: it just happens that in Sheldon's world, every man is noble and self-sacrificing (except the novelist, but more on that in a moment). The book has good intentions, of course, but is as unrealistic as the more liberal Social Gospel novels to which it might be considered an antidote. In the real world, behavior stems from belief, and people work to shape the world to accord with their ideals. Noble ideals inspire noble behavior: a gracious god incarnate who offers stern threatenings and great comforts, who says, "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me," is an ideal from which a Christian can readily work to improve social conditions or do anything else worth doing. But if the Christian believes nothing specific about Jesus, or if he believes Jesus is nobody particularly special, he has no basis for saying what Jesus would do or not do, and no reason for wanting to imitate Jesus anyway. In the world of Charles Sheldon, every man gets his own personal Jesus, and not only that, he gets to be his own personal historical Jesus scholar: you too can redesign Jesus according to your preferences, just like Marcus Borg or John Dominic Crossan, no arduous classroom study required. In our own age, we can see what this has devolved into: our liberals champion improving the lot of the poor even as they advocate murdering people by the millions. There is no telling what awful things Jesus might do if everyone gets to invent Jesus for himself.

Sheldon's view on fiction is similar to his view of doctrine: it is useful only insofar as it serves a practical purpose, which is "eliciting powerful emotions, changing people's hearts and minds" (Smith 2007:201) so that they may serve the cause of the Social Gospel. This is the goal of In His Steps, and in that sense may be seen as similar in aim to Dominique Lapierre's City of Joy, though it lacks Lapierre's finesse. It is in his view of fiction that Sheldon's ideas become visibly self-contradictory. Even though he strains against judgmentalism and tries to keep the question of what Jesus would do a personal one, he condemns novelists who do not serve the Social Gospel; apparently, Sheldon knows exactly what Jesus would do if Jesus were in their shoes. As Smith puts it, "Sheldon did not think most authors met their obligations to make the world a better place, one Christian heart at a time" (2007:201).

This is clear in Sheldon's treatment of his novelist character in In His Steps. To lay out the situation, we have a talented novelist, Jasper, who is in love with a talented singer, Rachel. Both of them, along with the other central characters in the book, have pledged, for an entire year, to do nothing before pondering that famous question, WWJD? In the relationship between these two, Sheldon presents the classic (or perhaps cliched) motif of the sensitive, idealistic artist in love with a cold woman who spurns him, thereby inspiring him to starve in a garret while creating his masterpiece.* This is the motif, oft repeated in both fiction and real life, of which Dante's love for Beatrice is the most commonly cited--and extreme--example, and which George Bernard Shaw parodies in Man and Superman. Sheldon gives this familiar story an interesting twist by adding a spiritual dimension--which doesn't bode well for poor Jasper.

Two passages in the novel are of particular importance to this discussion. The first is the one in which Jasper openly proclaims his love for Rachel. He chooses a bad time for this, at least according to Rachel's clock. In the scene previous, Rachel had sung at a tent revival meeting, the Holy Spirit had swept through the tent, and many of the city's most destitute and besotted citizens had given their life to Christ and a future of betterment away from the bottle. Shortly after that, moved both by Rachel's singing and his own passion, Jasper reveals his heart. The quote is long, but please bear with me:

"Rachel," Jasper had said, and it was the first time he had ever spoken her name, "I never knew till to-night how much I loved you. Why should I try to conceal any longer what you have seen me look? You know I love you as my life. I can no longer hide it from you if I would."

The first intimation he had of a repulse was the trembling of Rachel's arm in his. She had allowed him to speak and had neither turned her face toward him nor away from him. She had looked straight on and her voice was sad but firm and quiet when she spoke.

"Why do you speak to me now? I cannot bear it--after what we have seen to-night."

"Why--what--" he had stammered and then was silent.

Rachel withdrew her arm from his but still walked near him. Then he had cried out with the anguish of one who begins to see a great loss facing him where he expected a great joy.

"Rachel! Do you not love me? Is not my love for you as sacred as anything in all of life itself?"

She had walked silent for a few steps after that. They passed a street lamp. Her face was pale and beautiful. He had made a movement to clutch her arm and she had moved a little farther from him.

"No," she had replied. "There was a time--I cannot answer for that--you should not have spoken to me--now."


Rachel went up to her room and faced her evening's experience with conflicting emotions. Had she ever loved Jasper Chase? Yes. No. One moment she felt that her life's happiness was at stake over the result of her action. Another, she had a strange feeling of relief that she had spoken as she had. There was one great, over-mastering feeling in her. The response of the wretched creatures in the tent to her singing, the swift, powerful, awesome presence of the Holy Spirit had affected her as never in all her life before. The moment Jasper had spoken her name and she realized that he was telling of his love she had felt a sudden revulsion for him, as if he should have respected the supernatural events they had just witnessed. She felt as if it was not the time to be absorbed in anything less than the divine glory of those conversions. [pp. 81-82]

Ouch. Apparently, in Sheldon's (or Rachel's) world, God and love occupy separate spheres that are not to be intermingled; to profess love shortly after a detectable movement of the Holy Spirit is to do something profane in the presence of something holy.

Personally, I much prefer the depiction of the spurned lover in Caryll Houselander. Says Houselander, Jesus himself can be seen--

In the lover who, with his own hands, has laid his heart bare and shown all the subtlest tenderness of his sensitive mind and all the holy secret of himself, only to be scorned or met with indifference. Is not he Christ stripped of His garments? All that is holy looks absurd; all that is beautiful looks ugly: all that is secret is violated. He stands and bleeds. [The Reed of God, p. 117]

In Houselander's view, then, it would actually be Jasper who in this scene most resembles Christ, who is doing WJWD, revealing his love and in return receiving a scourging, which is given on a religious pretext, no less. Alas, Sheldon sides with Rachel in this matter, and from this point forward, the depiction of Jasper, when he is mentioned at all, is negative. So it always goes for the idealist romantic.

Alas, how easily things go wrong!
A sigh too much, or a kiss too long,
And there follows a mist and a weeping rain,
And life is never the same again.

Rachel's "revulsion" for Jasper and her and the other characters' subsequent badmouthing of him behind his back (prefaced with "I don't like to judge him but") make a fine example of where Sheldon's vague ethic leads. Though supposedly free from judgmentalism, anyone who holds to this personalized moral code can immediately turn it around and use it to whip someone else. Because Jasper doesn't have the same personal spiritual or emotional experience at the tent meeting that Rachel has, she decides he is base and unspiritual. With no sound objective truths to which they can anchor themselves, the characters of the novel find anchor in their own sentiments and experiences, which can be cruel taskmasters, especially when they are used to rule someone else. Many, many Rachels can be found at emotion-driven Charismatic churches.

In the next passage to be cited, Sheldon dispenses with Jasper completely. I beg your pardon again for quoting at length:

Early one afternoon in August, after a day of refreshing coolness following a long period of heat, Jasper Chase walked to his window in the apartment house on the avenue and looked out.

On his desk lay a pile of manuscript. Since that evening when he had spoken to Rachel Winslow he had not met her. His singularly sensitive nature--sensitive to the point of extreme irritability when he was thwarted--served to thrust him into an isolation that was intensified by his habits as an author.

All through the heat of summer he had been writing. His book was nearly done now. He had thrown himself into its construction with a feverish strength that threatened at any moment to desert him and leave him helpless. He had not forgotten his pledge made with the other church members at First Church. It had forced itself upon his notice all through his writing, and ever since Rachel had said no to him, he had asked a thousand times, "Would Jesus do this? Would He write this story?" It was a social novel, written in a style that had proved popular. It had no purpose except to amuse. Its moral teaching was not bad, but neither was it Christian in any positive way. Jasper Chase knew that such a story would probably sell. He was conscious of powers in this way that the social world petted and admired. "What would Jesus do?" He felt that Jesus would never write such a book. The question obstruded on him at the most inopportune times. He became irascible over it. The standard of Jesus for an author was too ideal. Of course, Jesus would use His powers to produce something useful or helpful, or with a purpose. What was he, Jasper Chase, writing this novel for? Why, what nearly every writer wrote for--money, money, and fame as a writer. There was no secret with him that he was writng this new story with that object. He was not poor, and so had no great temptation to write for money. But he was urged on by his desire for fame as much as anything. He must write this kind of matter. But what would Jesus do? The question plagued him even more than Rachel's refusal. Was he going to break his promise? "Did the promise mean much after all?" he asked.


...he turned to his desk and began to write. When he had finished the last page of the last chapter of his book it was nearly dark. "What would Jesus do?" He had finally answered the queston by denying his Lord. It grew darker in his room. He had deliberately chosen hs course, urged on by disappointment and loss.

"But Jesus said unto him, no man having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the Kingdom of God." [pp. 137-138]

Did you get that, novelists? What you care most about are money and fame. Even if your work is decent, if you don't write in any "positive" Christian way, then to hell with you. Literally. In Sheldon's "most famous work, the one unredeemed sin is not drinking, prostitution, or a life of crime, but instead the writing of conventional, popular society novels" (Smith 2007:206).

There's something faintly absurd in what Sheldon says about what Jesus would write. We know what Jesus would write: nothing, exactly what he did write. There is little purpose in asking what Jesus would have written had he been a novelist because Jesus was not a novelist. Jesus has left the novel-writing to us.

This is Sheldonism, a view of writing into which a Christian writer must not slip: fictional works should serve only the practical purpose of forwarding the Gospel, with no particular concern for entertainment or artistic quality. It is this kind of attitude that has probably done much to damage Christian fiction; a Christian writer who holds the presentation of his personal platform, or the theology of his church, as the goal of a novel, is almost certain to fall into the kind of poor, preachy writing for which Christian fiction has become infamous. The Christian writer who places sermonizing first and artistic concerns second or not at all, is in effect condemning art as a justifiable pursuit and beauty as a good. He is perverting beauty into a mere means of conveyance, one he can dispense with if he finds it inconvenient or too difficult to master.

Sheldon's viewpoint is somewhat understandable, though extreme; Smith hints that Sheldon was reacting to Aestheticism, which championed art for art's sake (2007:201), insisting that "all art is quite useless," as Oscar Wilde put it in The Picture of Dorian Gray. These two viewpoints, that art should be useless and that art should be useful but nothing else, can be considered two extremes that the Christian author would do well to avoid. Many of the poorer Christian works with their preachiness, flat characters, and unengaging plots, appear to fall into Sheldon's extreme, but now in reaction, many Christians are falling almost, but not quite, into the other extreme, insisting that good books will have at most only bare, nearly undetectable hints of religion. This is the other evil, the view that morals or religion are somehow ugly and that truly beautiful art has little or no concern for them. In reality, many books have proven that it is quite possible to create works of high artistic quality with religious meaning, even explicit and plain religious meaning.

However, though explicitly religious works of good quality are possible, this does not mean that every book must therefore be explicitly religious. We have no clear reason to think Jesus would condemn a novel in which the moral teaching is "not bad." If the moral teaching is not bad, then it is good and therefore does the very thing Sheldon thinks fiction should do, though such a book would not beat its readers about the head and shoulders with morality the way In His Steps does. Every book, whether the writer wills it or no, will teach something. Every novel has a moral element that may be good or bad, that may uplift the reader or drag him down. Oscar Wilde himself demonstrates this; in his relentless pursuit of art for art's sake, he somehow couldn't stop writing Christian morality tales. There is a use both for the good book without blatant Christian themes and the good book with blatant Christian themes. Each can do its readers some good, each can serve a noble purpose. The key to constructing each is careful craftsmanship that gives serious thought to the key elements of writing, like characters and conflicts. Outright preaching should be kept to a minimum for the same reason infodumps should be kept to a minimum, but if the author finds that either infodumps or sermons are absolutely necessary, they must be good infodumps or sermons, well constructed and provocative. The reason pop-psych Christian novels are bad is not because they're Christian, but because their sermons drone and have little real content. To be quite blunt, the explicit Christian novel needs more content than In His Steps if it is to be a work of art.


Armstrong, Chris
2005 "Holiness of Heart, Life, and Pen," Christian History and Biography 85:44-45.

Lovin, Robin.
2006 "Faith Matters." Christian Century 123.20:35.

Smith, Erin A.
2007 "'What Would Jesus Do?': The Social Gospel and the Literary Marketplace." Book History 10:193-221.

Tanner, Beccy
1999 "More than a century after he first asked his congregation 'What would Jesus do?' Charles Sheldon's book on the subject is one of the best-selling novels of all time." Wichita Eagle 16 June.

*Incidentally, I remember WWJD merchandise being popular when I was in high school. I used to interpret them as "We Want Jack Daniels" or "What Would Judas Do?" (My animosity toward acronyms has been life-long.) I also heard tell of a tee-shirt that read, "What Would Jesus Do for a Klondike Bar?" I stopped mocking WWJD when a young woman, on whom I had an overwhelming crush, rebuked me soundly. I subsequently retired to my garret, as was fitting, though I have yet to produce a masterpiece, probably because I haven't done too well on the starving part; after all, poets and horses should be fed, not overfed.
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