Last week, I read in the Baptist Standard that Lifeway would no longer carry the DVD of the film "The Blind Side" because it contains some mild profanity and is therefore, apparently, inappropriate for Christians. Apparently, the Holy Spirit told a Florida pastor about His preferences on this matter and the pastor communicated them to my denomination's publishing and merchandising retailer. I would like props for not throwing the paper across the room, please, or using some "mild profanity" of my own. This happened about the same time that I started reading A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby and about the same time that I decided to do a few mid-year book reviews here on the blog. Can you see where this is going?
Hornby's other book, How to Be Good, is a cynical and challenging look at what it means to live an ethical life and is also a poignant picture of what can happen to a marriage and a family when things go subtly wrong. A Long Way Down, however, has the same bleak outlook on life but turns out to be a funny and on-target look at the inner lives of four troubled people who find authentic community and in that, find some warped redemption.
The characters in this book are people you know. At least, they're people I know--I recognized each one intimately--and I felt like I was invading their privacy by reading their thoughts and listening in on their reasoning. Nick Hornby is that good. Some of them use pretty foul language (let's just say that it goes beyond "mild profanity"), they have sex even, and they don't find their answers at church. In fact, only one of them goes to church and it's not working out real well for her so far. But what they do find is the power of community to heal and to restore and I found myself smiling all the way through the last improbably chapter.
I think it goes without saying that Lifeway wouldn't carry this book. They also don't carry works by Mother Teresa and Walter Brueggeman and they put special warning labels on popular (read: bestselling) evangelical works that dare to be controversial. And you know, that's fine. They need to figure out who their customer base is and cater to that audience, like any business.
What isn't fine is the idea that Christians can only be uplifted by a sanitized, cleaned-up version of reality. The gospel shines brightest against the backdrop of brokenness and is sometimes found most beautifully in the context of ugliness. The gospel is neither an anesthetic nor an antiseptic and, thank God, it isn't found most powerfully in a Christian gift shop. Christians who create art are a credit to a creative God; "Christian art" is too often an abomination of banality and mediocrity.
So, two things: I read both of these books in the last year and I really appreciated both of them. If you find yourself with the occasional existential angst but don't have the energy for literary fiction and if you have a strong stomach for unanswerable questions and bleak pessimism and almost-but not-unlikable people, I recommend them. And if not, that's really fine. Just don't tell me that the Holy Spirit can't show up for me even in the work of Nick Hornby. Or Wendell Berry. Or Anne Lamott. Or even Sandra Bullock.