There are three basic inspirations for the main tide of Western literature — the classical world, the enlightenment, and Christianity. In this article I will explore, mainly for writers but also for others interested, what Christianity is about.
Five fundamental narratives: Creation, Fall, Redemption, The Christian Life, Heaven & Final Judgement
There are five fundamental narratives in Christianity which have had the largest impact on writers and readers. These are:
- The Creation — a sine qua non of Christian belief, the key inspiration for JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis in the artistic creation of their own worlds
- Fall — the rejection of God by mankind, and also by rebel angels, the primary inspiration for Milton's Paradise Lost
- Redemption — the core of Christianity, the account of Jesus Christ becoming human, living life as a man, dying on a cross to restore fallen mankind to a relationship with God, and rising from the dead, the main reason why redemptive themes are so common in Western literature
- The Christian Life — becoming a Christian and living as a Christian are at the heart of the Pilgrim's Progress, but also in such unlikely novels as Robinson Crusoe
- Heaven & Final Judgement — less popular as a theme now than even a hundred years ago when writers were quite happy to follow their characters right to the gates of heaven, they are nonetheless alluded to frequently. Modern apocalyptic literature plays heavily on the 'end times'
The heart of Christianity
The heart of the Christian message is the sum of the five narratives. Simply put, Christians believe that the universe exists because God called it into being — this does not mean that Christians adopt an anti-scientific perspective: most would argue that science tells us the mechanisms by which the world exists and operates, but is unable to tell us Who made it, or whether it was made at all. The Christian God is a unique, all-powerful creator, and Christians believe that there are no other gods. God's primary attributes are described as holiness — an utter rejection and intolerance of evil — and love — an ascription of enormous worth to His creatures (ie, humans).
This same God created mankind — explicitly, both males and females equally — 'in his own image', which most people take to mean having some of God's characteristics but in a finite, limited way, and He desires to have a relationship with human beings.
However, human beings have universally turned their backs on God by choosing to disobey Him and 'sin'. As a consequence, death, disease and pain are at work in the world, which is described as 'fallen'.
Unable to tolerate evil, God is no longer able to have a relationship with human beings in their fallen state. But, filled with love, he devises a way to restore the original relationship for which He created people. To do this, he sends Jesus who is God, and becomes man (see The mysteries: The trinity, below) to live among human beings as a man. Although Jesus tells parables and performs miracles, his main purpose is to die. The story of the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus Christ remains one of the most resonant and most retold in Western literature (actually, probably the most resonant and the most retold). Christians believe that the voluntary death of Jesus —being God— is sufficient to be counted as the punishment for all the evil of all people through all history. By this means, God has created a way to restore humans to a relationship with Him, if they want it. The resurrection of Jesus is God's demonstration that the sacrifice has been accepted (taking a religious perspective) and the sentence of the crime has been served (taking a judicial view) and that the price has been paid (taking a commercial view).
Christians believe that some definite decision of faith is necessary to become a Christian and to enter the newly restored relationship with God. How this decision is understood varies from culture to culture and from church background to church background. Those who do come into this new relationship receive the Holy Spirit, sometimes described as 'the spirit of Jesus', who comes to live (invisibly) with the Christian. Christians expect someone who has become a Christian to live a changed, or changing, life, as they set aside old patterns of wickedness and pursue holiness and love. However, Christians also recognise that they frequently fail in this, and need new forgiveness (which is always available).
Christians believe that life does not end with death: the Christian message is one of a confidence of a resurrection and eternity in heaven, with God.
Additionally, Christians believe that the world only has a finite duration, and will be wound up one day with the Second Coming, when Christ returns. The end-times are the main subject of the book of Revelation, sometimes called the Apocalypse (which is Greek for revelation). The book Revelation is written in highly symbolic terms, and has fascinated both authors and theologians from the earliest records of Christianity.
An aspect of God's being which has fascinated writers since the earliest days of Christianity is the mystery of the trinity. In essence, Christians believe that there is only one God, but that God is in some incomprehensible way 'three in person, but one in being'. Probably the best way to grasp this is to recognise that Christians believe God to be a more complex or sophisticated kind of being than humans, and that this aspect of His existence is not reflected in the make-up of His creation. The trinity is God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit, all of whom are fully God, but work in a different way in relation to humans.
The last supper
The last supper was the last meal which Jesus ate with his disciples, which Christians celebrate regularly, though in different ways. Christians believe that they either symbolically or actually share in 'the body of Christ' and 'the blood of Christ' when they take part in the Communion, Mass or Eucharist.
The devil and demons
Christians believe in the existence of the unseen. That is to say, they believe that the universe which we can physically see, experience and measure is only a part of all that exists. As well as God, who is outside (and greater than) the created universe, there are supernatural beings which are either angels, or, if they took part in the Fall (see above), demons, also called 'fallen angels'. The Devil or Satan is the chief of the fallen angels. The work of the Devil has also fascinated writers throughout the Christian centuries. One criticism of Paradise Lost is that it makes the Devil by far the most interesting character. It's important to understand that the conflict between God and the Devil is not an eternal struggle of good versus evil: the Devil is a finite creature, more powerful than any man, but infinitely less powerful than God, and is due to be destroyed (or eternally punished) at Judgement Day, which comes as part of the end times (see above).
The problem of pain
Christians throughout the centuries have rescued with the problem of pain. Essentially, the question is why a loving God would allow His creation to suffer in the way that humans do suffer. The reason for this suffering is explained in The Fall (see above) — man was created good, but chose to do evil, and the consequences of that evil are directly man's inhumanity to man, and, indirectly, a decaying, collapsing world, subject to accident, disease, and, ultimately, death. The answer to this problem is put fundamentally through Jesus Christ: God chose not to set aside the results of the fall (often called 'the curse of the fall') but to suffer alongside mankind. Christians are also called to suffer alongside others.
The problem of sin
Many Christians have wrestled with the problem of the Christian life — that, in as much as they want to do good, they still find themselves doing evil. For writers, this is one of the most fruitful sources of tension when discussing Christians and the Christian life, although it's sometimes a cliché of modern television writing that any character who appears to be 'good' (eg, they are a Vicar, a missionary, a Salvation Army chaplain, etc) must naturally be the bad character.
Odd stuff that most people get wrong
There are a lot of mistaken beliefs floating around about what Christians believe.
- Adam and Eve's apple — the fruit in the garden of Eden is usually called an 'apple' in English writing, but the Bible just says 'a fruit'
- The three kings — the New Testament describes 'wise men from the east' (not kings) who brought gold, silver and myrrh to honour the infant Christ. Although they brought three kinds of gifts, it's nowhere indicated that there were actually three of them.
- The holy grail — from about the tenth century AD, so almost a thousand years after the events, stories of the 'the holy grail' began to circulate. The holy grail was said to be the cup that Christ drank from at the last supper, brought to Britain (!) by Joseph of Arimathea. The holy grail is central to Arthurian mythology and writing, though it appears to be a fairly late addition. It has no historic connection with Christianity.
Christian authors writers should read
The most read Christian author up until about 1600 was Saint Augustine, especially his City of God.
Pearl, by the anonymous author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, is a 1390s description of heaven.
Dante's Divine Comedy has been frequently translated into English, and represents a tour of heaven and hell.
Milton's Paradise Lost is generally regarded as the central epic poem in the English language, focusing primarily on the Fall. A shorter poem by the same author, Paradise Regained, is less well known.
John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress is the English language's best known allegory — in fact, it holds such a dominant position that allegory is generally little used these days.
Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, regarded by some as the first modern novel, is actually told as the conversion story of a bad man who becomes a Christian.
Hans Christian Andersen's writing, again frequently translated into English, focuses strongly on heaven in many of the stories, and he is quite happy to follow his characters to the gates of heaven.
CS Lewis was the most influential author writing about Christianity in the 20th century. His seven Narnia books have elements of allegory, though they are probably better seen as 'parallel narrative'. The plot of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is essentially a retelling in another setting of the life of Christ. His other books, including the Screwtape Letters, have also had a strong influence on other literature.
JRR Tolkien writes about being an author who is a Christian in Tree and Leaf, explaining why belief in a Creator causes authors such as himself to want to create worlds, and why belief in the Resurrection reshapes the plot climax of his own favourite literary form, fairy-tales.
TS Eliot became a Christian after his early successes with poems such as The Waste Land. He went on to write a number of famous Christian poems, including Journey of the Magi, and to argue forcibly in his critical works for the involvement of the church in literature. His play the Cocktail Party explores themes in the area of conversion and the Christian life.