Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Before The Shunning, Lewis was known as a prolific writer of inspirational young adult fiction that encouraged readers to embrace the love of Christ and the good news of the Christian gospel. The Shunning was her first foray into adult fiction. Although she meticulously re-creates Amish ways (particularly the courtship and marriage rituals) and lovingly describes her native rural Lancaster, Lewis is not Amish. Hence, she does not endorse its lifestyle—her narrative disputes the sect’s rigorous tenets, specifically its views of women, its suspicion of music (Lewis is a classically trained pianist), and its harsh xenophobia. Daniel Fisher has introduced Katie to an entirely different reading of the Christian God (he has been secretly attending a Bible study group), a reading that suggests it is faith—not works or commitment to a church community—that opens the soul to God’s love. In tracking the difficult liberation of Katie Lapp, Lewis parallels Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850). As in that text, a woman of powerful emotional and artistic sensibilities is trapped within an oppressive patriarchal religious community (suggested in both cases by a wild mane of auburn hair kept under a cap), where passion must be suppressed to maintain a place (the discovery of the rose-colored infant’s gown early in the novel parallels the Surveyor’s discovery of the scarlet letter). Clearly Lewis cannot endorse Christianity when it becomes unyielding and cruel, suggested by the shunning, a vehicle for enforced conformity.

Here the powerful message of Lewis’s Christianity must be indirectly perceived: Christianity encourages, rather than discourages, expressions of the heart, a respect for both sexes, a celebration of aesthetics (beauty, color, music), the embrace of the powerful pull of love (although Lewis shies away from sexuality), and ultimately the consecration of each individual as an expression of the love and wisdom of the Creator. Unlike Hester Prynne, however, Katie is finally freed.

Despite the lack of tidy resolution involving Katie and her birth mother and the sudden resurrection of Daniel Fisher (Lewis continues Katie’s story in two subsequent volumes in the Heritage of Lancaster trilogy), the book is complete in itself—Katherine does not need her birth mother or her boyfriend to begin her journey. Rather Katie is ushered toward a moment of emancipation appropriate to Lewis’s conception of the individual as a celebration of God’s handiwork.