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Getting too real?

How far is too far for a Christian writer?

Larry Woiwode has chided Christian readers and writers for their infatuation with fantasy. Christians, he argues, should be oriented to reality, not escapist fantasies. Realism-describing the world God has made, in all of its human-made imperfections-is the best form for Christian fiction, he maintains. Mr. Woiwode says that novels aren't supposed to be about ideas-they are supposed to be about people. It isn't that ideas are unimportant, but that the proper form for them is the essay. Novels are about characters and the interaction between them. Ideas might emerge from the story, but it is primarily the people, the setting, and the action that the novelist must concentrate on. Many Christian readers will thus find Mr. Woiwode's fiction rather frustrating. Though he often quotes the Bible and has his characters wrestling with religion, he seldom uses his plots to dramatize an explicitly Christian theme. Though Mr. Woiwode holds to a rigorous, conservative Reformed theology, he is not a stereotypical Puritan. He often depicts dirty minds and dirty words and dirty deeds. He is not only realistic; he may be too realistic. His approach to writing seems to be to take people, usually drawn from the sort he knew-or was-from his North Dakota childhood, put them into a vividly described environment, and let them unfold, developing them inside and out, following their seemingly ordinary lives for good or for ill. The natural landscape, too, he writes about in evocative detail, seemingly for its own sake. But Mr. Woiwode has said that the very facticity of nature, the hard-edged details of everyday life, partakes of God's glory. This reveling in the actual places him in a long tradition of Christian writers, from Thomas Traherne to Gerard Manley Hopkins to G.K. Chesterton. Mr. Woiwode won acclaim from the secular literary establishment for his very first novel, What I'm Going to Do, I Think (1969), about honeymooners in an empty, doomed marriage. Then he blew away the critics with Beyond the Bedroom Wall (1975), a chronicle of four generations of a North Dakota family. The story begins in the 1930s with Charles Neumiller having to wash his father's body for burial, and continues through the years as his son Martin grows up, gets married, goes to work, and has children of his own-whom we also watch growing up through the 1960s. It's clear why the literary establishment thought so highly of the novel, giving Mr. Woiwode a basketload of literary prizes, fellowships, writer-in-residence posts at major colleges, and a regular gig writing for The New Yorker. It is experimental-told from multiple points of view, jumping back and forth in time, lacking a single narrative center or plot line. The mood is relatively bleak, like most contemporary literary fiction. Certain details shock-for example, a motif of little brother, little sister incest will make nearly any reader squirm. But the novel is different in other ways from most contemporary fiction. Mr. Woiwode is celebrating the lives of ordinary small-town people-farmers, high-school teachers, construction workers, insurance salesmen, housewives-with not a trace of condescension. He unfolds the complexities, tragedies, and heroism of everyday folks, who are the nation's strength though usually snubbed by the intelligentsia. Mr. Woiwode's characters also show a strong, compelling sense of family. The lifelong bond between parent and child, which goes both ways, ties the novel together. Likewise, the bond between husband and wife is inexorable. The courtships are sometimes questionable and the married couples go through troubles and suffering, but they are in it for life. Moreover, the characters, like most ordinary Americans, care deeply about religion. The Neumillers, like Mr. Woiwode growing up, are Catholics, and the priests, observances, and teachings of that church play an important part in the texture of their lives. As he was writing Beyond the Bedroom Wall, Mr. Woiwode was becoming captivated by the Bible. The spiritual pilgrimage that began then brought him to a Reformed understanding. His next novel, Poppa John (1981) was explicitly evangelical. It is about an aging soap-opera star who plays the role of a wise, Bible-spouting grandfather figure on TV. When the character is killed off, the actor must face the bitter truths of aging, unemployment, and uselessness. Although he descends into alcoholism and despair, he has a loving wife and that Bible whose lines keep running in his head. Eventually, those words change him. The actor grows into the truth of what before he had been only acting. Mr. Woiwode goes so far as to give us a conversion scene. Mr. Woiwode's next novel, Born Brothers (1988), continues the Neumiller saga. This time he gets us inside the mind of a single character, "bad" brother Charles, whose close relationship with his "good" brother Jerome helped define his life. Even though we are still subjected to Charles's sexual experiences-described not pruriently, just unpleasantly-the incest in the earlier novel is seemingly expunged from his character. We follow his degradation in a skid-row boarding house but are also given glimpses of an odd flash-forward to a time when-like his author-he will become Reformed, move back to the North Dakota countryside, and build what he calls a "covenantal" family life. If fiction is about people and ideas are to be expressed in essays, Mr. Woiwode's realism took the next step in his subsequent writings: He began writing nonfiction. Acts (1993) explains in detail his Christian beliefs. The chapters alternate between straight Bible commentary on the book of Acts and personal reflections and descriptions. The effect is not literary; it is more like getting to know someone by going through a Bible study with him. Mr. Woiwode's hyper-realism can be faulted, but not so much on the grounds of Philippians 4:8, a text usually cited against "negative" books. For Mr. Woiwode's literary art is "true," "admirable," "excellent," and "praiseworthy"-though it perhaps sometimes (and only sometimes) falls short on being "noble," "right," "pure," and "lovely." The text could with even more justice be used to keep Christian readers away from more popular Christian writers, who often violate the scriptural requirement of being "excellent." Still, Mr. Woiwode admits he should have been more restrained, and wishes he had left certain parts out of his early work. His latest book, Silent Passengers, is a collection of short stories about men living on the plains. But the hard-edged realism, soul-baring honesty, and tough-minded complexity of Mr. Woiwode's fiction are a refreshing change from typical contemporary Christian fare. And his materiality is an important counter to a hyper-spiritual rejection of the physical realm; such Gnosticism (an ancient heresy) now influences much of American religion. Mr. Woiwode has not yet written the great evangelical novel, but if anyone can do it, he can.