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The London Institute for Contemporary Christianity

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Lessons from history?

Lessons in Chemistry, the bestselling debut novel by Bonnie Garmus, was published earlier this year. The story of Elizabeth Zott, an American scientist, has been described as life-enhancing and brimming with courage.

But it’s a controversial read. Critics claim that, far from being a revealing commentary on 1960s America, it’s a searing diatribe against men, God, and the church.

Garmus, a disillusioned church-goer, describes herself and her character Elizabeth Zott as humanist. Interestingly, though, even Zott admits ‘some days the human race makes me sick.’ In the book, professing Christians are abusive, mean-spirited, unkind – which may or may not be based on the author’s own experience. It’s completely understandable that people turn away from Jesus when his followers behave like that.

And we know, as Jesus did, that stories have power. So how can we have positive discussions about faith when faced with such negative images of the faithful: sexist, judgemental, abusive?

First, we need to admit these things happened, and still do. There is no defence. The church has played its part in perpetuating patriarchy and abuse, staining our collective integrity. Perhaps we should thank people for portraying them in fiction, so we remain horrified, and do our part to ensure it doesn’t happen again. Jesus reserved his most scathing words for those who taught God’s ways while remaining dedicated to their own: hypocrites, vipers, whitewashed tombs.

Second, we can highlight more positive depictions. In the book, a Presbyterian priest, Reverend Wakely, shows kindness and integrity. He speaks honestly about how science has challenged his beliefs. He talks of ‘needing more inventive ways to tell his flock to stop being so mean to one another’. These are opportunities for faith discussions. Can scientists be Christians? What does Jesus expect from those who love him? ‘Faith isn’t based on religion, right?’, asks Zott’s daughter, Madeline. Is there a difference between religion and faith? What is it?

The negative messages about Christianity portrayed in this book could be balanced by recommending books which depict more positive ones: Jennifer Worth’s Call the Midwife, the Isabella Smugge series, or the books of SL Russell. Even better, be the book. Living examples of Jesus-followers are most compelling of all.

Stories have the power to change culture. We need to write and tell more stories of Jesus-followers who are like him: generous, inclusive, kind. Christians have the right to create characters who mirror their own experience. And so does Bonnie Garmus.

Deborah Jenkins
Deborah is a freelance writer and the author of Braver. She blogs, and teaches part-time.

 

 

Comments

  1. I totally agree. I haven’t read the book, and really don’t want to now. The images on TV series, films, adaptations of Christians are mainly negative and at the least portray Christians as odd, quirky.
    The “positive news” reel on line is helpful. Christians are marginalised and Misunderstood like many groups. I suppose this is part of our Christian journey

    By Louise Ross  -  1 Sep 2023
    • Yes, I think this can be the case at times. I understand why you don’t want to read the book. But although I’ve majored on the negative portrayal of faith, for the purposes of the discussion, I enjoyed it and found positive messages in it too. It also reminded me of various reasons why people are so vehemently anti-Christian. This made me sad but is helpful in some ways too.

      By Deborah Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
  2. This is so reasoned and well thought out. Thank you Deborah for mentioning my Isabella M Smugge books. It matters so much to me that faith is portrayed in a gentle and authentic way

    By Ruth Leigh  -  1 Sep 2023
    • Totally agree. This is so important and something Christian creatives have a tremendous opportunity to do.

      By Deborah Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
  3. Fiction is an enormously powerful tool. According to my own experience, I have tried in my novels to portray Christians who are human, flawed, with sometimes difficult histories, yet who are doing their best to emulate the Master they love. In particular, while striving to be realistic, I have also tried to counter the image of ministers in the media as abusive or ineffectual. Those I know are faithful, wise, hardworking, tender to their flocks. Thank you Deborah Jenkins, for mentioning me in your article, and for writing it.

    By Sue Russell  -  1 Sep 2023
    • Thank you Sue. I enjoyed writing it very much. Much of what we think about Christ depends on our experience of Christians, doesn’t it? A powerful reminder for us all!

      By Deborah Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
  4. An excellent article which makes some very good points – about the need for Christians to take a brave and honest look at the Church, and the damage that it has sometimes done to faith, and also about the ways to redress the balance. I strongly agree that books written for the mainstream market but with a strong Christian world-view at their base can be an important part of this.

    As a writer myself, that’s perhaps not surprising, but it isn’t a new strategy. C.S. Lewis spoke of ‘creeping past sleeping dragons’ – that is, offering Christian points of view to people in ways that do not trigger anti-church reactions (often caused by bad experiences of the past).

    There are some good writers and good books out there seeking to do just that. I’ve read some of those mentioned in the article, and would add my recommendation. It would be good for more Christian publishers to get that vision as well.

    The arts in general are the most powerful tools available for communication at a deep level. Let’s not neglect them in our witness.

    By Paul Trembling  -  1 Sep 2023
    • Thank you Paul. I think your comments are spot on. And I love that quote from C S Lewis (that I did once know but had forgotten).
      Totally agree about the story-telling impact of the arts generally too. They are a powerful tool and can communicate so much.

      By Deborah Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
  5. Thanks for writing this piece Deborah. You make important points we need to face into.

    I thought the book was brilliant – a compelling and challenging read. What is particularly depressing is that the struggles faced by Elizabeth Zott 60 years ago are still the experience of many women today. The church is far from being out of the woods on this matter.

    Sadly the stories that will also be told in future years will be about the church’s attitude to people who identify as LGBTQ+. Although we might personally experience the church and fellow Christians as generous, inclusive and kind, that is not how others often experience the church.

    You are right to highlight the power of story. Our youngest daughter reported of her schoolmates that they all knew the church’s stance on human sexuality and identity but didn’t have a clue about what the church believed about Jesus.

    By Mark Withers  -  1 Sep 2023
    • I’m glad you liked the book Mark (and the piece). I enjoyed it too. You may, sadly, be right about the stories of the future and it is true that some Christians are not generous, inclusive and kind. But many I’ve come into contact with over the years could be described like that. And I, and other writers, can include similar sorts in our books/plays/TV shows as a reminder that this is how Jesus meant it to be.

      I suppose it’s the old ‘start with me, Lord’ thing. I like to think I have these qualities in shedloads, but the challenge is to be like that with everyone, even Christians who disagree with me (sometimes the hardest thing of all!)

      By Deborah Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
    • Thanks for the article, and the excellent comments. Mark – your last sentence is a very telling nugget – both for our stance on sexuality and our portrayal (or not) of Jesus.

      By Peter A  -  1 Sep 2023
  6. I totally agree with you in that the disillusioned churchgoers are perhaps the ones we should most listen to. Their perspective, whether expressed in fiction or otherwise, should teach us much about what goes wrong in churches and how people are affected.

    By Fran  -  1 Sep 2023
  7. Such an interesting thought and discussion to be had around this. I haven’t yet read this book but it’s definitely on my radar (as it is on anyone else’s who follows the bookish world!). There is something to be said about how we can portray faith and God’s Kingdom through everyday people and activities in fiction, while fighting against larger perceptions of the ‘Church’ in society that is often so far removed from the person of Jesus or what He came to do. In my own writing, I try to portray these things in a different world where ‘religious’ activity doesn’t really exist so everything can be stripped back to the simplicity of the gospel: love, faith, and relationship. The danger with ‘religion’ is that things become more about routine and practice than the love and obedience to God. Really captivated by this, Deborah, and while I’ve been put off reading this book because of a few things I’ve heard, I’m now wondering whether its one I must read. Thank you!

    By Lydia Jenkins  -  1 Sep 2023
  8. Thanks for writing about this. It’s good when I connect with the aspect of culture being discussed. Here’s what I said in my Goodreads review “I thought this was great. It’s funny which is a great base for making the feminist case which it champions. One minor downside – I’m a Christian and I thought she was unfair in her portrayal of Christians and church. Looking forward to seeing it on TV.” I hadn’t heard of the authors you recommend and will give them a go – good that they are readers!

    By Will Parker  -  1 Sep 2023
  9. Our little office book club were discussing this just this week, we all thought it was a great read. I can see why it could be seen as anti church /God, but sadly real people get hurt by the church and people who are part of the church. In this novel 2 such people, scarred by their upbringing fall in love, and they aren’t going to be positive about God.
    Yet the pastor is a real example of good, but fallible, the best any of us can hope to be! And who knows how Mad could turn out through his kindness.

    By Karen  -  1 Sep 2023

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