I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately, and thinking over what it means for a Christian to read fiction well. A fiction novel, liberated from the world of “things that actually happened” can often resonate with more actual truth than non-fiction. This is of course provided that the author’s worldview is infused with truth. Because of common grace, even non-Christian authors are often able to deftly communicate truth with their stories. For example, the novels of Cormac McCarthy are dripping with the truth of man’s depravity, and the presence of evil in the world. Redemption of course, is one of the most popular and universal of all themes in stories (because all men are woefully aware of their need of it). Flannery O’Connor, a Southern Christian novelist, goes as far as saying that we demand redemption in stories. And then she goes even further and says something very interesting.
“There is something in us as story-tellers, and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemptive act, that demands that what falls at least be offered the chance of restoration. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but he has forgotten the cost of it. His sense of evil is deluded or lacking altogether, and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. He has forgotten the cost of truth, even in fiction.” (emphasis mine)
For redemption, even fictional redemption, to really grip us, to really ring true, it must be costly. Only when redemption is costly will it resonate, because only then is it reflecting the true redemption.
O’Conner demonstrated this brilliantly in her own fiction. In many of her stories the characters are blind in their sin and self-righteousness, and only a violent, costly wakeup call is able to snap them into reality. The most famous example is probably the grandmother from her short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find”. She was enamored with her own goodness; she referred to her “good blood” and that “she’d never hurt anybody” as evidences of her goodness. It took the violent death of her family and her own imminent death to slap her into an awareness of her need for grace. In that moment, amid that violence, she found her redemption.
For most of us, such violence will not have to touch our lives in order to find redemption. But the violence is still there. Redemption is not free, and our salvation from the bondage of sin will always cost someone, and cost them dearly. Galatians 3 says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. This was both violent and costly. Philippians 2 says that Christ “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” and that he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Fictional stories have the power to captivate us with dramatic stories of heroic self-sacrifice and costly redemption, but all human stories pale in comparison to the true story. Only one redemption has ever been infinitely costly. Christ was infinitely pure, infinitely just, and infinitely worthy; his death for our atonement is the most dramatic moment in history, and it is the redemption to which all others point. This is the story which must captivate our hearts.
I always look for biblical themes when I read fiction, with a special eye out for acts of redemption. Now, instead of only looking at the object of redemption, I want to pay special heed to its cost. And in that cost, I want to be reminded of the cost that I no longer bear; of the cost absorbed in Christ for me.