One of my ongoing reader complaints is that there isn’t enough good Christian fiction. (I am, of course, doing what I can to remedy that personally). That, of course, leads to the inevitable question “What do you mean by Christian fiction?” There’s “fiction written by Christians,” which could include an awful lot of mainstream fiction; “fiction written by Christians explicitly including Christian themes, but addresed to a mainstream audience,” of which I think Marilynne Robinson’s books are the best current example, and then there’s what most people mean when they say “Christian fiction”: fiction written by Christians, for Christians, including explicitly Christian themes and subject matter and published by Christian publishing houses. And it’s in this latter category that we find, sadly, a lot of bad writing.
I think there’s room in the writing/publishing world for Christians to be writing in all three of these categories, but I do lament the fact that we don’t see more high-quality writing coming out of the “by Christians, for Christians” category of books published by Christian presses. I’ve said before that I think Lisa Samson might be a shining exception to that rule, and now, having read The Passion of Mary-Margaret, I’m sure of it.
The Passion of Mary-Margaret is a novel about an elderly Roman Catholic religious sister looking back on her life and the rather unexpected twists and turns her religious vocation has taken. It’s a unique perspective for the modern reader who always assumes that anyone who takes religious vows is giving up a great deal, primarily the prospect of marriage and sexual love. Instead, Mary-Margaret is portrayed as a character who has known from an early age that she has a vocation, and when life leads her in a different direction — towards the compelling, troubled man who has loved her since she was a girl — her sacrifice is to give up the life of service to God she had planned, and discover how to serve God in a different way.
The narrative is far more ambitious than one usually gets in Christian genre fiction, with Mary-Margaret’s story weaving through past and present. Her voice is compelling and likable, and the characterization is strong. There were times when I had issues with the writing style, particularly in dialogue, but I’m not sure whether that’s actually a flaw in Samson’s writing or a matter of personal taste. Generally, I found this a strong, well-written book, and far more compelling and complex than 95% of what comes out of Christian presses.
I’ve always assumed Lisa Sampson is a Protestant, evangelical Christian writer, like most of those who publish with the Christian presses — although to be honest I have no idea whether she is or not. She certainly writes sympathetically and believably from the perspective of a Catholic religious, and demonstrates a strong background in theology. Best of all, Mary-Margaret is a mystic, something that’s often difficult to portray believably in fiction, but the scenes where Jesus drops by for a chat and a cup of tea are among the most beautifully-written and believable in the whole book.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and will definitely be seeking out more Lisa Samson to read.