I’ve written in the past about dishonesty at work among the avant-garde. I say this because the “art” that so often emerges from such waters is rarely objectively beautiful, technically brilliant, or conceptually ingenious. Rather, its power seems to lie in its ability to shock and flatter.
But there is another kind of deceptive exhibition that appeals not so much to our vanity as to our grim fascination with the dark and the depraved. It is the same impulse that dreamed up gladiators, public torture trials, and the Hostel movies. Though “art” of this variety has traditionally been swept to the seedy nooks of society, it has recently undergone something of a resurgence and threatens to become an increasingly normalized cultural genre. It is known as transgressive fiction.
Now I’ll admit that there are certain caves in society I would just rather not go into. This subject happens to be one. I think it is important, however, for Christians to be aware of the storm that is gathering and to preemptively grapple with reasons for why that might be. Too many of us resemble the guy who missed all the emails in a group discussion and shows up clueless to the meeting. For once, I’d like to be ahead of the curve.
That being said, know that I’ve tried to maintain safe-distancing on this subject as much as possible, both for your sake and for mine.
A Birds-Eye Definition
We can’t get far without some kind of definition so I’ll give you two that fall within PG sensibilities and attempt to follow with a cautious elaboration. The first one describes transgressive fiction as “a genre of literature which focuses on characters who feel confined by the norms and expectations of society and who break free of those confines in unusual or illicit ways.”
The second is from a New York Times article, which defined it as “subversive, avant-garde, bleak, pornographic literature.” It’s darker expressions also include abuse, incest, and pedophilia. I will be sparing with examples as I genuinely fear adding further momentum to this handcart of hell, but Fincher’s 1999 “Fight Club” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” both give a glimpse into the violence and bleakness of a typical transgressive narrative.
In short, it is an unrestrained rollick in the mire of depravity rebranded as sophisticated literary excursion. It is a resigned and cynical hedonism styled as art. It is the essence of shameful glorying under the guise of self-exploration.
How did we get to a point where such fiction is allowed to roam free? Though instances of transgressive “literature” can be traced back to the late 1800s, it seems to have taken on new momentum during the cultural foment of the 50s and 60s. It was during this time that traditional authority structures (which had admittedly failed a generation) were being questioned and torn down, with glistening statues of self being raised in their place.
Francis Schaeffer, one of the few Christians who saw what was happening, tried to alert the church by pointing to specific examples of how art and music were increasingly reflective of the erosion of absolutes. Culture, he argued, always runs downstream from worldview; nations which have abandoned any notion of divine superstructure have typically followed with inhumanity. We only need to cast our eyes back to the death camps of Germany, the Gulag of the Soviet Union, and to the labor camps of North Korea for evidence of this correlation.
In transgressive fiction, I believe we are seeing the firstfruits of such a principle played out once more in our time.
Increasing secularism in North America means that we are increasingly inclined to view human beings with about as much dignity as your garden-variety housecat. For proof of this growing disillusionment, we need look no further than our culture’s enthusiasm for new and creative waves to destroy human life, i.e. euthanasia, abortion, and assisted suicide. It is no accident that these “solutions” have risen to greatness in our time, just as it was no accident that the senseless violence of the French Revolution occurred in the wake of Voltaire’s materialist philosophy.
After all, if everything and everyone is only the value of its base components, then human nature possesses no special worth, and should be treated like any other thing: as an object to be cherish, use, or abuse at will.
Humanism’s Impulse Towards Deconstruction
Transgressive fiction, being a reaction against “the norms and expectation of society,” doesn’t pretend to provide any answers. Nor does it really see any problem. And herein lies the real problem. Rather than acknowledge and attempt to mitigate humanity’s hellish, subterranean desires—something society has always had to contend with—it is the ambition of transgressive fictionists to unleash and even normalize deviance and brutality. It is one thing to rummage around in a festering dumpster. It is something else to raise whatever filth you found in there over your head as if it were a trophy.
Today any at all attempts towards self-exploration receive the humanists blessed benediction: it is very good. Of course, it has no answer for the shell-shocked self-miner who emerges and breathlessly reports, “You don’t know what’s down there!” What does it matter, they say, the important thing is that it’s part of the true you, which makes it a worthy avenue of exploration, embrace and publication. What if one’s truth is ugly, tyrannical, and destructive? That’s easy, the transgressivists say, get rid of the
“arbitrary constructs” of civil society.
But legitimate boundaries have never been an obstacle to happiness or flourishing. At their most surface level, they enable a semi-functioning society; at their most profound they hem us in towards our truest identity as worshippers.
Let me be clear. Transgressive fiction is not an evolution in literature. Neither is it art, since art’s truest self is to function as a window to help us see a world beyond our five senses. Transgressive fiction is not a window to a bright a better world, but a narrow pipeline that opens up into a festering swamp.
How should Christians respond?
I believe there are two ways we should respond.
The first is, in the words of Peter, “to be alert and sober-minded.” Though some things radiate evil more than others, we should never assume we are immune to the dulling forces of euphemism or the siren song of popular opinion. In fact as our culture grows darker, such opinions should become more and more suspect. As a case in point, look no further than the wild success of the Fifty Shades Of series, an abject case of transgressive lit; or even the “respectable” pornography of many TV series’ such as Game of Thrones. We need to keep in mind that the devil, being a hungry lion, and hungry for the swift spread of his misery, has many tactics well-suited to deceive.
I believe our second response should be, in the words of St. Andrew’s College, to take up both sword and shovel. Here let us take a lesson from our King and Savior in the temple-turned-market. See him raise his voice; see him filled with righteous indignation at what his Father’s house had become; see him drive out what had become an accepted sin. If we love people, we should hate the symptoms and philosophies behind transgressive fiction.
In the wreckage which remains, let us take up shovels, hammers, pulpits, brushes and guitars. Let us build, and let our buildings soar upwards and be full of light. Where will we find the motivation for such endeavours? Not in swamps, nor under rocks, but on the heights. As David said in Psalm 27:4 “One thing I ask for, and one thing I seek, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord all the days of my life, and to meditate within his temple.” To gaze on the beauty of the Lord is not only to be spiritually nourished but to be equipped and mobilized towards tangible incarnations of such beauty in our daily lives.
For my own contribution to this reconstruction project, I would commend the following sampling of fiction for your worthy approval:
Till We Have Faces – C.S. Lewis
Hannah Coulter & Jaber Crow – Wendell Berry
Dawn of Wonder – Johnathan Renshaw
The Green Ember – S.D. Smith
Peace Like a River – Leif Enger
Gilead – Marilynne Robinson
Onward Christian soldiers!