The Truth About Fiction

Mixed Media
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Have you heard? The Reading Crisis is over.

The National Endowment for the Arts released new survey findings this year indicating that literature is no longer in danger of extinction brought on by competition from other media, contrary to earlier NEA reports. The so-called Reading Crisis, while it lasted, was only one of several death-of-reading controversies to grace editorial pages this decade. Cooler-headed researchers have insisted all along that the debate was overblown, but that doesn’t make for good headlines.

Confused and curious, I decided to examine reading habits for myself—specifically, best-seller lists from the past 100 years. If fiction was in trouble, I wanted to know.

Written fiction has a unique truth-telling power. Unlike other forms of storytelling, it investigates both our total depravity—our capacity to deceive ourselves—and language’s role in that deception.

I didn’t find much evidence of apocalyptic change over the past century, but I did notice, in the past 15 years, two subtler trends: the rise of the info-novel and the memoir.

Bad best-sellers have always shoved characters around in service of a sexy story. Info-novels—The Da Vinci Code, Sophie’s World, and, yes, Left Behind—go further, subordinating both characters and story to a series of bulleted talking points.

Memoirs, meanwhile—though they’re often as contrived as any novel, or even outright fabrications—have gotten so popular that a few editors have resorted to re-labeling novels as memoirs.

These developments are no “reading crisis”—let’s leave melodrama to the NEA. But they’re troubling nonetheless. Do richly imagined novels not seem “serious” enough, so that we have to lard them with factoids or pretend they really happened?

During the same 15 years we’ve repeatedly found ourselves at the mercy of institutions possessing, at best, a memoirist’s commitment to truth. Whether it was a U.S. administration that (as one Bush official told journalist Ron Suskind) governed by the relativist maxim “We are the Empire, and we create reality when we act,” or that infinitely expanding credit bubble on which so many nations gambled and lost—or even the Reading Crisis itself—we’re as self-deluding as ever.

We need literature to remind us of that fact.

Faith Like Potatoes

reviewed by Ron VandenBurg

In this film based on a true story, African-born Scotsman Angus Buchan resettles his family on a South African farm after escaping political unrest in Zambia. Angus’s life changes when he comes to Christ. He begins sharing his faith with local Zulu workers and white farmers, and in conditions of drought and doubt he plants potatoes. Though his family’s faith is challenged repeatedly, this film reveals people of faith seeking God’s direction and God’s provision for their needs. (Sony)

The Orthodox Heretic

by Peter Rollins
reviewed by Bryan Berghoef

This unique collection of parables, stories, and tales will challenge your understanding of faith, discipleship, and what it means to be the church. Rollins retells familiar parables or biblical stories; he also spins contemporary tales that embody an uncompromising critique of typical religion. Written by a fiery Irish philosopher/theologian, this collection is guaranteed to provoke you, unsettle you, and call you into a deeper understanding of what true faith is. (Paraclete Press)

Extra Credit

by Andrew Clements
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

To boost her chances of passing the sixth grade, an Illinois girl named Abby takes on an extra-credit project by becoming a pen pal with an Afghani boy. Abby and Saheed’s exchange of letters stirs up opposition in both their communities, but it builds a bridge between them in their disparate worlds. Abby voices what each comes to realize: “People are simple, but the stuff going on around them can get complicated. And even dangerous.” Ages 9-12. (Atheneum)

A Saint on Death Row: The Story of Dominique Green

by Thomas Cahill
reviewed by Sonya VanderVeen Feddema

In his indictment of the death penalty, Cahill relates how Dominique Green, an African American man charged with murder, “was convicted and executed by a system that has no regard for fairness and no regard for human life.” Learning from other death-row prisoners that “coming here is not the end of their lives but merely a second chance,” Green used his second chance to better the lives of his fellow prisoners, to fight for justice, and to pursue the abolition of the death penalty. (Nan A. Talese)


Age of Persuasion

reviewed by Ron DeBoer

Terry O’Reilly, a former advertising executive and now examiner of trends in advertising and the media, hosts the CBC radio program Age of Persuasion. Some of the topics in O’Reilly’s half-hour podcasts include “Selling War,” a look at the history of persuading young men to join the army and the new challenges of recruitment; “Nasty Is the New Nice,” an exploration of the new, meaner tone of the latest advertising trend; and “Selling God,” an examination of the delicate, always-controversial relationship between faith and advertising. All-new episodes start Jan. 4, 2010. (ageofpersuasion.wordpress.com)

Food, Inc.

reviewed by Otto Selles

The North American food industry produces a remarkable amount of food at a very low cost. But if we knew how this food is produced, would we want to eat it? After watching this riveting documentary by Robert Kenner, you will think twice about what you put in your grocery cart. Discussions with farmers, businesspeople, and activists, including the likes of Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), trace the high price that workers, consumers, animals, and the environment pay for our cheap food. Recommended for adult church group discussions. (Magnolia)

The Lowdown

Last-Minute Gift Ideas

A Year of Yancey: Drawn from his many writings, Grace Notes is a book of daily readings by Philip Yancey. (Zondervan)Tough Choices: Would your older children prefer Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Warner) or Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (20th Century Fox)? Both are out on DVD.Mission-Minded: Aunt Tena: Called to Serve is a collection of the journals and letters of Tena Huizinga, a missionary nurse in Nigeria. (Eerdmans)Casting Call: Casting Crowns is back with more worshipful rock on their new CD Until the Whole World Hears. (Reunion)

About the Author

Phil Christman teaches English at the University of Michigan and attends St. Clare's Episcopal Church in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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