Sunday, May 15, 2005

Historical Fiction of Merit

There is a surfeit at present of Christian fiction on the market, and not much of it is of any enduring or endearing value. Some of it even serves up the Christian equivalent of Harlequin romances, or even worse, bad theology written up as bad fiction (I am referring to the incredibly successful Left Behind series). In this set of circumstances perhaps a guide to the bemused and perplexed is in order. If one asks is there any good fiction out there which actually deals with the Biblical period or even some part of Christian history felicitously the answer is yes.

If one is into who-dunnits or sleuthing ala Sherlock Holmes two series dealing with the Biblical era stand out--- the novels by Stephen Saylor about Gordianus the Finder and the novels by Lindsey Davis. Saylor actually has training in Greek and Roman classics and it shows in his novels. He has also done his homework as well about the first century B.C. and first century A.D. His novels are decidedly more high brow than those of Davis, which are often hilarious and meant more to entertain than inform. The hero of Davis' novels is Marcus Didius Falco and sometimes he is a sleuth more on the order of Peter Sellers than Sherlock Holmes but in the end he gets his man. Davis' novels are fun, and tred lightly when it comes to the historical substance of the period, but still she knows a good deal about the reign of Vespasian and his successors and so about the last third of the first century A.D. Her novels go down easily and do not make major historical gaffs. One could say that neither of these authors is writing Christian fiction, but it is indeed fiction of interest for Christians since it deals with the key period.

Of a whole different and more substantive ilk are the large novels of Colleen McCullough which end with the story of Julius Caesar and beginning with the origins of Rome itself. Her writing deals in depth with the rise of the Roman world, and it has been carefully cross checked by classics scholars. It has enormous indexes to deal with unfamiliar terms, customs, ideas laws, persons. These novels are veritable cornucopiae, offering all kinds of information of relevance to understanding the Biblical period, especially the NT era and what led up to it. These are certainly not Christian novels, indeed some Christians will think parts of them are naughty, but they are honest reflections and even insightful revelations about the period and peoples of the early Christians.

If Kingdom of Heaven has whetted your appetite for all things medieval, then you will find the novels of Ellis Peters and her sleuth Brother Cadfael just wonderful. Of the novels I have mentioned in this blog, Peters' (whose real name was Edith Pargeter) have the most literary appeal and quality. They are often beautifully even elegantly written. There is in addition the fact that Peters was a Christian and so are various of her characters in the Shrewsbury monastery. You will get quite a different view of the crusades and crusaders in these novels than what you find in Ridley Scott's movie. Highly Recommended.


Brian said...

Dr. Witherington,
I know this is quite a bit off topic from the original post but the reference to the theology of the Left Behind series got me thinking. It seems that many modern "experts" of eschatological events in the Bible point to the restoration of Israel in 1948 as a precursor to the Second Coming. What is your opinion of dispensationalism and, more specifically, is it Biblical to make a distinction between Israel and the modern day Church?

Ben Witherington said...

Hi Brian: I am in print on this subject in my Revelation commentary, and even moreso in my forthcoming The Problem with Evangelical Theology. There is nothing Biblical about 1948 and the current secular Zionist governement is certainly not Israel in the Biblical sense. Of course one can make a distinction between non-Christian Israel and the church, but according to the writers of the NT, the prophecies are all fulfilled in Jesus and those who follow him.

John said...

I'm the librarian at my church, and I've seen a marked improvement in the quality of Christian fiction recently -- although it had nowhere to go but up.

There is a very little teen Christian fiction available at the moment. Robin Jones Gunn is at least prolific, and I have purchased about 20 of her novels. They actually circulate a great deal -- far more than the entire adult fiction collection combined.

Terry Hamblin said...

I'm with you on Ellis Peters. Sad that we will see no more of them.