Why Christian Fiction Doesn't Work
Christian writing is a ticklish subject and I have friends on both sides of the fence. Among my acquaintance are writers who have thrown away all of their stories which did not explicitly mention or glorify the Lord, and other writers whose material might be considered secular for their lack of obvious Christian content.
I respect the convictions of other writers and would encourage any writer to seriously explore this topic, but for myself, I feel that both extremes miss important principles that underlie Christian writing. For me, all of it comes down to ultimate Reality and Truth. I capitalize those two words because they are manifestations of God Himself; He is Reality and He is Truth. When Christian fiction fails, it is because it does not reflect the essence of Reality or Truth.
The Christianity is too overt.
The first most common mistake in Christian literature is the belief that a Christian message must be overt in order to be valid. I see two different misuses of God in literature. Sometimes God is stuffed into a book that is otherwise completely secular. Apparently, as long as the main character prays and does devotions, or asks God to bless a romantic relationship, then the author has done his Christian duty. At other times, God is so present in the story that the character can never buy deodorant without asking for God's will in the matter and must never consider a career choice outside of the ministry. While that may be a slight exaggeration, my point is that many writers tend to assume that explicit mention of God automatically “hallows” a written work and places it in the Christian fiction category.
While I respect the convictions of those who feel that this is true, I personally disagree with this method, because it becomes cliché very quickly and actually loses the essence of daily, elemental Christian living. Most of these stories result in a version of a conversion story or a learn-to-trust-God story, which gets old quickly. To many readers, blatant mention of God is the first sign that the story will lack freshness and excitement. I can sympathize, because my feelings toward most Christian fiction is unfortunately much the same.
On the other hand, if readers cannot tell a Christian's writing apart from a non-Christian's writing, then that writer is in a very dangerous place spiritually. The problem is not with the fiction, but with his relationship with the Lord. No one can know the Lord and remain unchanged, and there is no aspect of life over which the Lord does not exert His influence. If an author's relationship with God is real, it will influence his writing automatically. If an author has to work to stuff God into the story, then the story will suffer, because Reality and Truth will not be authentic and integral to the story. It's unfortunate, but writing a Christian story is not the same as writing a true story. Christianity (as a religious institution) today has gotten mixed up with Western culture, modern psychology, specific definitions of "goodness" and "orthodoxy,” and other extra-Biblical connotations. Truth, however, is still the same as it ever was--the unmoving and ultimate God-ordained standard by which all life is measured—in fact, God Himself. When I write, I have learned not to ask, "Is it Christian?" but rather "Is it true?" As soon as I focus on the Truth, God comes through more clearly, but He does not come through as a separate entity within the story--rather He is the story.
If this is difficult to understand, let me illustrate the concept for you. I am a woman; therefore everything that I write is influenced by my femininity. I do not need to announce that I am a woman for the reader to guess at my gender; women tend to write in a certain way and touch on certain topics more than men do. My femininity is obvious without being stated. Likewise, I am a Christian; therefore the Lord should be evident in my writing even if I do not mention my Christianity. The fact that I am a Christian should be evident in the way that I portray life, the way in which my characters behave, and the final sum of the story’s message.
C. S. Lewis explained this well when he wrote that Christianity should not be the topic of discussion, but rather the underlying assumption behind every topic. He wrote in God in the Dock:
“We can make people (often) attend to the Christian point of view for half an hour or so; but the moment they have gone away from our lecture or laid down our article, they are plunged back into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted. As long as that situation exists, widespread success is simply impossible. We must attack the enemy’s line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent. You can see this most easily if you look at it the other way round. Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.”
I agree with Lewis. Let there be so many Christian assumptions in the material that the reader has to "think Christian" while enjoying the book. The books that challenge non-Christian thought-patterns aren't always the Christian ones, but the ones that assume that Biblical truths and morals are the only ones out there (which is true) and then show how and why they work. Fiction is the ideal vehicle for this, because it does not preach—it shows.
We need fiction that invites the reader to dance, and the reader does not know that he is really dancing to a hymn in worship. We need fiction that shows the beauty of a building and invites the reader to partake in the celebration within, and the reader does not know that he is within a chapel. We need fiction that breaks the reader’s heart with the beauty of a picture and makes him weep with joy, and the reader does not know that he is seeing a picture of Christ. It’s easy for a non-Christian to pick up a Christian book, see “God” written everywhere, and decide not to read the book. It’s another thing for a non-Christian to pick up a story that promises to be entertaining, and there to encounter God without having his bias provoked. This is Christianity that cannot be skimmed off the top like cream, but rather Christianity homogenized so that the reader must imbibe the whole thing or nothing at all. This is Christianity so integral to the story, so necessary for its entire construction, that taking Christianity out leaves no story.
The story is too sanitary.
Secondly, Christian fiction is more sanitary than God Himself. To read about idolatry, blasphemy, sexual sin of all types, lying, murdering, greed, and any other crime, the Christian does not have to look very far, since the Bible is rife with examples of these sins. An accurate dramatization of the Bible on TV would result in a public outcry and the immediate removal of the show from the channel. For example, Noah's ark would transform from a cute child's fairytale to a nightmarish event that exceeds the horror of any modern apocalyptic film. David and Bathsheba wouldn't be a dramatic "forbidden love" episode (as it has been portrayed in films) but a gut-wrenching betrayal and murder of a faithful friend because of a king's unlawful sexual desire—not quite the right entertainment for the family hour, and it only gets worse from there. Unlike modern Christian fiction, the Bible does not hide or soften sin. It simply says it like it is.
Now, I understand the desire to avoid portraying the full extant of human depravity. Christian literature should raise peoples' minds out of the gutter, not explore the gutter. At the same time, Christian literature that sanitizes reality in order to be more palatable to modern "civilized" and "Christian" ideals is not Real and it is not True. It's simply religious idealism, and readers sense it.
Life is rough. Life is gritty. Life is painful. How then is a Christian supposed to portray Reality without wallowing in sin? Answer: The way the Bible does it—by portraying the sin without glorifying it. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert does this well. In this story, Madame Bovary is bored with her marriage and decides that a secret life as a mistress will fulfill her desires. The story follows her as she experiences the first thrill of her adultery (the intimate details of the encounters are not given), her heartbreak when her plans go awry, her growing loneliness and hopelessness, and finally, her suicide. The author does not moralize, but simply lets the story speak for itself. The sin was portrayed, but it was not glorified, and the story followed the natural consequences of adultery. Oddly enough, I could even sympathize with Madame Bovary's consuming desire for love, even while I understood that she was looking for love in the wrong places. This, too, was realistic, for rarely is someone completely evil; Madame Bovary was simply trying to fulfill desires that only God could truly fill. It wasn’t a “clean” book as far as family-friendly values go, but while many Christian books faded from my mind, this one burned its mark into my memory.
God is not tame. God is not civilized. As Jordan Taylor from Messy Mondays says, “God is love—and Love is terrifying.” God Himself uses explicit sexual imagery to describe His people’s spiritual adultery against Him. He uses crude language when pronouncing a curse on Ahab’s family line (if you’re curious, check out 1 Kings 21:21). He made one His prophets walk naked for three years to prove a point. His Son was a carpenter who associated with fishermen and tax collectors, all professions that were not known for being cultured and mannerly.
As Christian writers, we can be real in many ways without being sinful. Some of what we consider necessary to Christianity is really just cultural. Christian writers who aim to represent Christianity will fail to touch the core of Christ. Christian writers who simply write about life, who write about truth, and who write about the one way—those Christian writers are not deviating from the Lord but rather touching on all three aspects of Christ, Who is the Life, the Truth, and the Way.
The story is too black and white.
The third most common mistake in Christian literature is that morals and characters tend to be very black and white. Now, I believe that reality is very black and white; there’s one right way to do things (God’s way) and everything else is wrong. However, because we live in a fallen world in which sin taints every good thing, and in which God plants redemption even in the most hopeless places, we tend to encounter a mix of good and bad. The choices are not always between a good choice and a bad choice. The people are not all good on one side and all bad on the other.
For example, let’s look at the Biblical hero of Jacob. On the one hand, Jacob becomes the patriarch of the twelve tribes of Israel and is chosen for a special blessing of God. On the other hand, Jacob steals his brother’s birthright, lies to his father, and makes deals with God (“If you will bring me safely back, then You alone will be my God”). Jacob, to me, appears to be part hero and part scoundrel. It would be convenient if he was all one way or all the other, but he’s both. To make matters more confusing, the Bible doesn’t comment on his behavior; it just reports it.
In Christian literature, we tend to divide a Jacob and make him into two characters—the good character (representative of the Christian) and the bad character (representative of the non-Christian). If the “good” character has a fault, it’s usually a petty or “acceptable” sin. But is that realistic? David, for example, was a man after God’s own heart, but he did kill his friend in order to steal the guy’s wife. And are “bad” characters all bad? I have found some atheists more genuine, more approachable, and more consistent to their avowed principles than than some Christians. Even though their worldview is wrong, I can respect them. Christian literature that reflects the “us-them” mentality deviates from reality. Truthfully, there’s a relatable bit of “us” in “them,” and more of “them” in “us” than we would like to think. We are all corrupt images of God. What is more holy and more blasphemous than that contradicting reality? God will separate us on the Judgment Day based on trust in His Son, but until then, I think Christian writers would do well to remember that the final conflict is not over—and that human personalities on both sides still reflect that conflict between flesh and Spirit.
Sometimes in real life we don’t get to choose between a good choice or an evil choice. In The Story of the Other Wise Man, Artaban has three jewels that he plans to give to the King of the Jews. Three times, he finds himself in situations where his treasures could mean the difference between life or death to someone. Should he save his treasures for the King at the expense of human life? Should he give up the gifts meant for God in order to meet a physical human need? Which is more right? The story answers the question in a beautiful way, but the torment of Artaban’s choices illustrate for me the reality of trying to pierce through conflicting messages to see the Truth. We don’t always know if we’ve chosen rightly; we just know that a choice must be made and that God must be trusted with the outcome.
Furthermore, even when we make what we know to be the right choice, we often suffer. In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo chooses to destroy the One Ring. Even though Frodo succeeds, he retains permanent physical and psychological damage because of the Ring. In the movie, he expresses this loss by stating, “We set out to save the Shire, and it has been saved—but not for me.” Christian writers, while meaning well, often put too optimistic a spin on the real struggles of life. Perhaps it is because they fear that a story with suffering that has lasting consequences will reflect badly on God; after all, who would serve a God who lets such things happen? But then again, aren’t we saved because a certain Someone has scars for eternity? If we represent Him on earth, can we expect our stories to be much different than His?
Christian writers must speak the truth. People, sides, and countries aren’t either all good or all bad. We do good things for wrong reasons and wrong things for good reasons. We sometimes must choose between bad and worse. The stories that have stayed with me—Christian or non-Christian—have been those with characters whose choices weren’t easy, in whom good and bad struggled daily, but who aimed for Truth, even when they hardly believed in its existence.
The responsibility and freedom of the Christian writer
Before C. S. Lewis became a Christian, his encounter with books by Christians had a profound effect on him.
“George MacDonald had done more to me than any other writer; of course it was a pity he had that bee in his bonnet about Christianity. He was good in spite of it. Chesterton had more sense than all the other moderns put together; bating, of course, his Christianity. Johnson was one of the few authors whom I felt I could trust utterly; curiously enough, he had the same kink. Spenser and Milton by a strange coincidence had it too. Even among ancient authors the same paradox was to be found. The most religious (Plato, Aeschylus, Virgil) were those on whom I could clearly feed. On the other hand, those writers who did not suffer from religion and with whom in theory my sympathy ought to have been complete—Shaw and Wells and Mill and Gibbon and Voltaire—all seemed a little thin; what as boys we called ‘tinny.’ It wasn’t that I didn’t like them. They were all (especially Gibbon) entertaining, but hardly more. There seemed to be no depth in them. They were too simple. The roughness and density of life did not appear in their books… The upshot of it all could be expressed in a perversion of Roland’s great line in the Chanson--Christians are wrong, but all the rest are bores. (Joy 213, 214)
I am convinced that many Christian fiction writers fail because they are not thinking about God, or truth, or life—they are thinking about their readers. On the one hand, they are thinking about their Christian readers, and they want to ensure that their stories conform well enough to accepted Christian norms so that evangelical readers will recommend the book to their friends and family as “good Christian reading.” On the other hand, they are thinking about their non-Christian readers, whom they hope to convince of the truth of Christianity through thoughtful explanations and allegorical principles. I personally know every little lie that authors use to convince themselves that they are not reader-conscious in this way, but I highly disbelieve anyone who makes such a claim. The temptations and the pressures are astronomical. We are afraid to offend Christians (or to damage our reputation as Christians) and we want to attract non-Christians, but in the end, we hurt ourselves because our focus is on man, and not on God.
When I decided that I was going to write whatever message of truth was burning to be shared, no matter who did or did not accept it, my allegories and stories began to take on a depth I didn’t know I could produce. Sometimes the truths don’t seem very spiritual, such as the difference between our romantic ideals and our realities, and sometimes they are truths that seem very spiritual, such as the subtle twisting of the truth by which the enemy deceives us. Personally, I think every truth is spiritual on some level and I don’t try to figure out which ones are more or less spiritual than the others. Sometimes the most seemingly unspiritual realities are the areas with the subtlest snares.
When I told my father that I did not want to be a Christian writer, I meant only this: I do not want to be a writer that people can easily confine to a CBD catalog. I want my books to be True, true for Christians and true for non-Christians because they are true to the realities of life. I know that if my books are true to life as it really is, then they are true to the Lord and therefore profitable to all readers.
If I’m not a “Christian writer,” I’m sure some people will guess that I am a Christian, but I don’t see the need to advertise; what, after all, will that prove? It will only put me in a box where Christians will expect me to conform to “Christian fiction” and where non-Christians will never give me a chance to speak to them and show them that I actually see reality on a deeper and clearer level because of, and not despite, my relationship with Christ. I prefer to write what I know to be true and let God take care of the rest.
A Christian theologian or preacher has a responsibility to make doctrine and truth as easily accessible as the books of the Law, or the New Testament epistles, or other books of the Bible designed for teaching. I am not a theologian or a preacher; I am a storyteller. My patterns are the historical records in books like Judges, the Kings, the Chronicles, Job, Ruth, Jonah, and Esther. If God is content to preach Himself in Esther, in which He is never referenced, then I think I may faithfully do the same on occasion. My patterns are also the parables of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not always explain His parables, but they are profitable nonetheless to those who are willing to take the time to consider them. I believe that Christian fiction likewise has value if it embraces the role for which it was made—telling the God-given story.
If you like something I wrote here, you are free to share/quote it with credit and a link back to the original page on my website.
7/17/2017 11:35:47 pm
Well written. We are currently in the dilemma of having to find 6 Christian fiction books for my son to read and report on in order to fulfill his home-school requirements.
12/23/2018 05:16:07 pm
Great article. Tim, we studied that in Sunday School recently. The scripture reads in KJV by today's standard as it possibly being rape if consent is the issue. Bathsheba was brought to David and no doubt had no say in the matter. Who says no to the King and lives? Scripture says she mourned her husband. So my world view perspective says at a minimum the encounter was an egregious abuse of power. Also rape was very possible. After all, didn't his son rape his daughter? David brought that curse upon his family by what he did to Uriah and Bathsheba.
12/23/2018 07:19:15 pm
Thank you for your thoughts, Tim and BDL! I appreciate you taking the time to add to the discussion. You're right; I should have probably said something more like "David killed his friend in order to cover up his adultery with said friend's wife." Accuracy is always important when we're talking about the Bible.
4/18/2021 09:10:36 pm
I feel like the story that I am thinking of writing would be a "good" Christian book according to these points. I am making each of my characters flawed (as they should be) and the consequences of sin are very much there. However, I do plan on directly mentioning God.
1/26/2023 04:21:04 am
" I am a woman; therefore everything that I write is influenced by my femininity. I do not need to announce that I am a woman for the reader to guess at my gender; women tend to write in a certain way and touch on certain topics more than men do."
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