Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Unlike much contemporary Christian literature with saintly heroes and cartoon villains, Songbird, which won the Christy Award for best contemporary Christian fiction, reflects Samson’s background as a writer of historical romances and her admiration for realist writers—such as Anne Tyler, Larry McMurtry, and Somerset Maugham—who probe the complicated nuances of imperfect characters. Samson refuses simplistic characterization: Her Christians are noble and flawed (for instance, Harlan Hopewell, the charismatic preacher who provides Charmaine spiritual guidance, is a consummate egoist who sports a toupee and finds irresistible the siren call of televising his prayer meetings; the televangelist couple whose lavish lifestyles become the subject of the scandal that rocks Charmaine’s world are the first to recognize Charmaine’s gifts and give her national exposure to begin her ministry.)

That sense of authenticity is underscored by Samson’s thematic use of the parable of the woman at the well (John 4:4-42). In it, Jesus stops at a well in Samaria and meets a woman, a pariah married four times and now living with a man. Jesus nevertheless offers the woman the uncomplicated gift of his healing through the symbolic offer of water, an emphatic reminder of how the lowliest sinner is significant within the dynamic of Christian forgiveness. That is crucial to Samson’s Christian vision: the willingness to extend compassion to others, a reaching out that reflects God’s outreach to sinners. Charmaine alters the lyrics to the familiar pop tune: People who love people are the luckiest people in the world. Samson argues that God, allowed into the emotional mayhem that defines the lives of her characters, will provide saving direction, the confirmation of his intrusive love. Samson dismisses coping mechanisms indulged in by those unwilling to ask God for help: drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, riches, and the busyness of friends and family. Satisfactions on the horizontal plane can never sustain happiness; it can be sustained only by the vertical vision, embracing God as the centering authority of life’s unfolding narrative. Samson affirms the compelling viability of trusting in God without the distracting drama of doubt—when the lavish televangelist empire begins to collapse, Charmaine goes to the National Religious Broadcasters Convention and sings an unadorned rendition of “The Old Rugged Cross.”