On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)

I had the pleasure of reading Sheldon Lawrence’s book Hearts of the Fathers a couple of weeks ago. Dr. Lawrence is a professor at BYU-Idaho, and when I requested to review an advance copy, he had it delivered to my husband, who also works at BYU-Idaho. When my husband picked it up and read a page on his way to delivering it to me, he stated that it read like “a book written by a BYU professor.” This worried me. He didn’t mean it in a bad way, but I’ve had some bad experiences with fiction written by BYU professors.

Then I began to read it, and to my pleasure, I was immediately drawn in. The character development is good, the world-building is good. The pacing works well. It reads like a well-written work of speculative fiction.

But I could see what my husband meant, too. It’s definitely got that “self-help, LDS doctrine,” sort of flavor. As I read, I was trying to think where to place it, genre-wise. Self-help? Doctrine? Fiction? It was fiction…

It puzzled me, bugged me, and caused me much enjoyment. It was teaching me some important things. It gave me a lot of “aha” moments, a lot of new and interesting ways to look at the doctrine of the atonement, repentance, forgiveness, the human family and eternal families, heaven and hell. I came away from reading it with a lot of new insights. Enjoyable, complex ones. I’ll be “ponderizing” this book for quite a while.

So what is it? Doctrine or Novel?

I’ve decided that I’m going to categorize it as “Parabolic Fiction.” In order to couch this label properly, I’m going to compare the types and degrees of religious fiction, completely inappropriately, to the types and degrees of romance novels.

Those of us who write adult contemporary Women’s Fiction know (sometimes painfully) that almost all of it can be categorized by the general public as “romance.” If it’s got a love interest or a theme of romantic involvement running through it, and it’s written by a woman, it’s almost unequivocally labeled as Romance.

But there are degrees and types of Romance.

There’s “Chick-Lit,” where the focus is on the development of a strong/interesting/quirky female protagonist, and the romantic theme is just a peripheral element of the plot/story development.

There’s Romance (capital R) where the main theme is the relationship that develops between two characters. There can be other elements to the story–often a unique setting makes up a large bulk of the story, e.g. Historical Romances, Sci Fi or Fantasy Romances, Paranormal Romances; lots of different genres with great world-building. But main plot is focused on a romantic relationship.

There’s Romantica, where the focus is still on the relationship between two main characters, but a drawing element is some sexuality. The relationship brings the reader in, and the sex is kind of sprinkles on the frosting on the cake. It’s part of the setting. Like including swearing to make a gritty character more authentic, sex is included to lend a certain flavor to the relationships between the characters and further the plot, and to bring in some readers who enjoy it.

There’s Erotica. One of the purposes of the Erotica story is actually for a reader to vicariously enjoy the sex (which generally carries the plot forward, but tends to be pretty specific and graphic) and sometimes the entire purpose of the story is, plainly, sex.

(Please pardon me, Dr. Lawrence, and others reading this. I promise I have a point. And I promise I tried to find another adequate comparison, but this one kept coming to mind.)

When we’re talking about religious writings, we could separate them, I think, into similar categories, using similar distinctions.

There are hard-core religious writings, where there might be an overarching theme that ties everything together (for instance, Neal A Maxwell’s book That Ye May Believe which uses letters to his grandchildren to explain and tie together gospel discussions) but the focus and purpose of the book is the doctrine.

There are parables and fables, where doctrine has been shaped into a story, for the purpose of helping a reader understand the doctrine.

There are stories that are told to put readers right in the center of a gospel concept–to help them experience something that will then lead to a discussion of, and hopefully understanding of a piece of doctrine or philosophy important to the writer. Things such as “Atlas Shrugged,” by Ayn Rand and Dante’s “inferno,” are great examples of this.  And I’d argue that this is also where Hearts of the Fathers belongs. I’m calling this type of writing Parabolic Fiction.

And then there are stories that are there mostly for the story, but the inspiring seed of the story is a certain philosophy or doctrine important to the writer. I’d put things such as The Grapes of Wrath, We Were the Mulvaneys, Roots, Love Letters of the Angel of Death, and many other novels in this category. There’s a clear agenda on the part of the writer, but the story flows without obvious doctrinal instruction. These are works of literary fiction that are unapologetically steeped in the author’s beliefs. I think they would just be categorized as literary fiction, but maybe we could come up with a term for these as well, particularly as people who study LDS fiction.

As a piece of Parabolic Fiction, Hearts of the Fathers is wonderful. Sheldon Lawrence’s specialty is after-life experiences. In the jacket blurb, we’re told that the story is inspired by hundreds of near-death experiences (which Lawrence collected). This alone piques my interest and makes the read worthwhile. I found myself wondering, as the story went on, which pieces came from different people and experiences.

Here’s my biggest critique of Hearts of the Fathers:

At times, the language grew a bit scriptural, or, for lack of a better word, “LDS-church-historic-al.” It’s a type of purple prose that I think might be unique to works written about LDS church doctrine. Some examples are phrases like: “in great meekness,” “lower than the dust,” or words like “condescend,” “awoke,” “stupor.” Things that we just don’t normally say in real life, and so they draw attention to themselves at the expense of the story and lend an air of trying to be scriptural. And honestly, I think we do it unconsciously. I know I use these “scripturalisms,” when I write in my journal about spiritual experiences. When I pray. As LDS people, we’re sort of conditioned that way.

Having gotten to know Dr. Lawrence in the last few weeks, I know that he is a pretty regular, humble, funny, self-depreciating guy. I think the scripturalisms are, like I said, just habit. But one that I feel would serve other works well to be broken.

Here’s my favorite thing about Hearts of the Fathers:

It is a very different look at the atonement. As I read the story, I was entertained and startled by the way the story turned the concept of repentance on its head and helped me understand how heaven and hell and eternal glory/damnation fit with the concept of a fiercely loving, paternal (and maternal) God. I don’t want to give it away, because the story really does serve to capture a complex, multifaceted concept remarkably well if you follow it through. But it involves freedom of choice, which does not end after death. The character makes choices… to be damned or redeemed, to repent or not, which is not something I think we often think about or discuss. Often, in LDS culture, we see death as an end of choice. After reading Lawrence’s book, I wonder how we could possibly assume that the one thing God cherishes most, and leaves us with–agency–would not continue throughout eternity.

Now that I’ve written this review, my husband is free to steal it from me and read it. He’s been trying for week now, running off with it his work backpack, hiding it in his overstuffed bookcase, etc. He’s excited to read it because of… wait for it….

the conversations it generated between us.

So go read it, and have some conversations.


8 thoughts on “On Sheldon Lawrence’s Hearts of the Fathers and Categories of Relgious Fiction (with a most inappropriate comparison)”

  1. An interesting review that asks interesting questions, although on a mundane level I’m not entirely sure that I have a clear idea about what the book actually is. I’m assuming that it’s fiction, a single narrative, involving an after-death experience? But I’m not completely sure of that… Also: Who is publishing the book? Do you get any sense from the ARC of how the publisher is presenting/marketing the book? Do you think the marketing does a good job of getting the book into the hands of people who might like it, considering your ponderings on where it fits genre-wise?

    (And for what it’s worth, I think comparing to romance novel categories is great!)

  2. Okay, this is super interesting to me because I’ve been reading a lot of Carla Kelly lately. I first read her Cedar Fort books, which are pretty clean. Then I read a few of her Harlequins, which have some sexual content. What interested me, though, is that the way she introduced erotic elements felt really similar to the way she talked about religion in some of her other books. She’s very matter-of-fact about both sex and religion, so that both seem like a normal and natural part of life. I could go back and compare the way she talked about religion in… oh, that one where the girl goes to be a cook in Wyoming or something, I forget the name of it … and the way she talked about sex in one of these more racy Regencies, and the tone is very similar. It makes both feel more believable.

    Which isn’t really what this post is about, but I think the comparison between writing religion and writing sex/romance is very apt.

  3. Yes, Jonathan. My reviews tend to ramble and lean more to philosophizing 🙂 this story is a first person account of life after death.

    I don’t think it’s marketed very heavily. Independently published, it is.

    Yes. One of my critique group buddies once said that religion and sex go together like chocolate and peanut butter. Not sure that’s the case, but the two do seem heavily connected, in so many ways. And they are both losses content, in need of some justification to be included in a novel directed at a GE week audience, I think.

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