Monday, November 28, 2011


I just returned from a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Israel and Jordan. It was not your typical tour of the Holy Land because the emphasis was on history and archaeology. The forty-two of us on the tour tromped around the major excavations including Hazor, Tell Dan, and Tell El Hammam (the newly-discovered site of Sodom.)

One day in Jerusalem we went to the site that people traditionally identify with the tomb of Jesus. Now, I’m staking my eternal soul on the fact that Jesus rose from the dead, emerged from some tomb outside Jerusalem. But from an archaeologist’s point of view, the tomb I visited is in the right place but probably several hundred years off on the dating of it. I suppose for that reason I felt reverent there, but not emotional at all.

Where did I become emotional? At the synagogue in Capernaum, first excavated early last century. When I realized that it was built by one of my personal heroes (the centurion of “astonishing” great faith in Matthew 8:5-13), and that Jesus had taught in the very synagogue this Roman man built for his Jewish neighbors, I trembled. I took a picture of the actual floor tiles where Jesus once stood to teach. I had someone take my photograph standing right next to where Jesus did.

I let myself yield to emotion there because I knew my feelings could rest securely on an authentic foundation. I could enter that story. In fact, I knew I must enter that story as I stood there.

I wondered about why some Christian fiction rings true, and is helpful and nourishing—and why other books that may mention religious things leave us feeling uneasy and dissatisfied. Could it be because we don’t feel we have a reason to believe the story? Like me respectfully standing before an open tomb and thinking, “This cave is like where Jesus was laid, but almost certainly is not the actual place,” I wonder if sometimes readers think similarly:

“This is like real life, and the characters are very close to authentic, but I’m not buying into their situations because both author and reader know it’s just a story.”

Now, a good book doesn’t have to re-tell a Bible account to be true. But if there were a formula for writing authentic Christian literature, it would be a priceless commodity indeed. And yet we know it when we see it, the story that has a foundation as solid as two-thousand-year old stone pavement.

What are some of the characteristics of such authenticity? Can you share with me any books you’ve read recently that were authentic in just the way I’ve described?


Patti Hill said...

First, Latayne, the synagogue in Capernaum? I just read that story! And you stood where Jesus stood! Such a great example of authenticity.

The last "Christian" fiction book I read that blew me away for its authenticity was Home by Marilynne Robinson. The story is about a rogue son coming home in a great time of need and loss and the open-handed love his Presbyterian pastor father and sister offer him. Redemption comes in a very unexpected and authentic way. Although a gentle story, the tension was palpable, especially for those of us who have prodigals.

I also like Lisa Samson's writing for the Jacob-like wrestling many of us do before surrendering to the love of Christ. I read Resurrecting May last year. Very good.

Megan Sayer said...

Haha...I'd like to say almost exactly the same thing as Patti!
Reading through your post Latayne I was amazed at your Capernaum story - what an amazing experience. I read through it one book I've read recently stood out in my mind as one of the most authentic of stories and characters, and that was Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson. I haven't read Home yet, but I'm not unaware of the irony that the two books are about the same story!

I will say one thing different though. I recently read a very enjoyable book that had one of the most inauthentic characters I've ever read: the guy was a main supporting character, and although the female protag was authentic enough, this guy appeared only to exist in order to preach to the reader. Sure, what he said was valid, but he came across as far too 2-dimensional and more than a bit contrived.

Marian said...

If everything is whitewashed and superficial so that the Christians never have even one unholy thought, the story loses me.

Karen @ a house full of sunshine said...

This is such a great challenge, Latayne. What a journey you've had!

I keep hearing about Marilynne Robinson. MUST read one of her books.

Latayne C Scott said...

Patti, only twice in Scripture was Jesus "amazed" at anything. Both times involved the faith of people -- the Syrophoenician woman and this centurion. I was hoping some of their faith was still hanging in the air. :)

Megan and Marian, I see you understand. It seems that lack of authenticity drives more people away from Christian fiction than even preachiness. Or maybe they go hand in hand?

Karen, I'll get in line with you. I'll confess I haven't read Robinson yet either.

Anonymous said...

I'll never forget the post that talked about how people don't come to Christ to become.churchgoers, so why would we want to read a novel about such a character? If our characters don't grow and struggle and learn and fail in their faith as real people do, our characters will be inauthentic.

I think Michael Philips captures this well in most of his books, especially his Secret of the Rose series. Thus, they capture the authenticity and truth of the Christian walk.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I'm in the middle of "Home" right now, so no spoilers, please! :)
It's so authentic that I feel as though I'm in the kitchen with Jack and Glory, and I think I smell apple pie baking...
Love the book.

Latayne C Scott said...

Debbie, that sounds like authenticity -- right down to the cooking aromas!

Vonda, I agree. People want to hear about how real people solve real problems. If you use God's Word as a model, people are redeemed when a Savior draws them, not when they join an organization.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Pacing in important to authenticity. A character can't swear undying hatred of something and immediately associate or do that thing even in the heat of passion. Or instantly meet up with the longed for fill-in-the-blank.

Latayne C Scott said...

Henrietta, your comment about pacing reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, from Alexander Pope:

“Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As to be hated needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”

Henrietta Frankensee said...

Exactly! Notice the perfect pacing,
"endure, then pity, then embrace."

This sequence makes for absorbing novels if handled with good timing.

Another thing is the number of times a thing happens. Too often or too few and it loses credibility.