October 7, 2010

What is "Christian" Fiction?

I don't read many contemporary novels, Christian or secular. It's difficult to find ones of any worth amid the muddle of copycat authors, immorality, and skeleton-strewn covers, so I primarily stick to those whose authors have been dead for, oh, at least forty or fifty years. But I also run a review site and I wanted to get it set up to receive free copies of books to review, and, of course, those books are contemporary - hot off the press, actually; so, since I received a copy from a publishing house, I recently read a contemporary Christian novel.

I'm not going to go into rant-mode about the atrocities of modern writing, etc. I was more shocked by the realization (I had known it before, but, sticking to the classics as I do, I had never witnessed it) of how the word "Christian" is used as a label, on books, on music, even on churches. The book I read was basically a romance, sprinkled with prayer and a few moral revelations, such as "Oh, lying isn't a good thing!" and "What do you know! God is sovereign!" This, apparently, makes a book "Christian," despite the fact there was no hint of the Gospel message in the pages.

Now, I can very easily appreciate a novel without its depicting a clearly Christian worldview. Most classic novels take a moral stance in looking at the world, like Dickens and Austen, but not one that is founded on the heart of Scripture - the complete depravity of man and the need for the gift of redemption through Christ's sacrifice; rather, they are built on the basic moral code set in every man. Not that these writers were utterly godless, for Dickens often speaks reverently of God in his works; Jane Austen wrote some very stirring prayers and defends the Church in some of her novels; Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre had many facets that seemed to be more than just moral; and Louisa May Alcott's stories are extremely moral and works-based. But are they Christian? No; they merely reflect the emerging deistic or theistic philosophies of their time.

So how do contemporary novels of the same brand gain the right to be labeled "Christian"? There are several different possible answers that spring to mind immediately. The first is what I already posited - they get called "Christian" because they're moral and they have God as a fairly central figure (even if He does seem like a bit of an afterthought crowded in there). But does that really count as Christian? If an unbeliever picked up a book after seeing that it was labeled "Christian" and read it, might he not come away with the misunderstanding that the God we claim to worship is really nothing more than a sort of appendage stuck on our lives, or a prayer machine, or perhaps that it is mere morality that we are celebrating? And even if we say that unbelievers aren't likely to be reading it anyway, and that it is for believers, I can't help thinking that the result isn't going to be much better for Christians, either. These sorts of novels with a bit of God shoved in cultivate an attitude of regarding the Sovereign, Almighty God - the One who "holds all things together by the word of His power" and "in [whom] we live and move and have our being" - of regarding Him as something less than the focus of our lives.

The second possible reason is that the books are called Christian because their authors profess to be Christian, and perhaps they feel guilty writing something that doesn't at least have some Christian teaching clearly tacked on. I don't believe that this is a valid argument, for two reasons. One is essentially what I talked about above: if you paste that label of "Christian" onto a book, you have to remember the possible readers and consider what they will take away from that novel about what Christianity is. And the second is that, generally speaking, not every story that comes to mind is going to deal with the Gospel itself, and it is not necessary to try to wedge it in where it doesn't fit. I do believe that no story a Christian writes ought to be written for shock value, defy the truths of Scripture, or go against the principles of our faith in any way, and I think that this cleanliness of our literature ought to stand as a light amid the general darkness of secular books. This is our witness: not our stuffing the Gospel where it really doesn't fit and showing ourselves awkward through the awkwardness of our writing, but keeping our works pure, letting the themes come as they will, and boldly allowing our faith to show itself in the pages when and where it fits.



    Of course, you're somewhat preaching to the choir, since I've often thought this myself in a much more scattered fashion. Thanks for collecting these thoughts and articulating them all together. You do it so beautifully. ^.^ It's nice to look at this - especially that last paragraph - and say, 'Now THAT's what I'm aiming for.'

  2. I say likewise. I've wrestled with the concept of 'sticking' my Christianity in everything I write, but it dawned in my slow brain that my Christianity cannot be used thus. My faith wholly permeates my being, and as such it will colour my stories and be adequately reflected in them as it ought to be. Not forced, not squeezed, but easy and fitting. There are times for Paul's several-ton book of Romans weighed down with theology, and there are times for the easier message of John's epistles. Everything has a place, and everything is dictated by our submission to God's will.

  3. I get a bit bummed sometimes with how little Gospel there is in some of my stories, like Wordcrafter. But the theme there isn't redemption, it's friendship, basically drawing from the Biblical account of David and Jonathan - and that wasn't even intentional. So I could never keep Scripture entirely out of my stories, even when the story doesn't focus on it.

    And Jenny, I thought you said "not forced, not sneezed."

  4. Ugh! Don't get me started on "Christian" fiction... I abhor books that drag that word and so the name of Christ into them - while having absolutely nothing worth reading in them! Flat characters, lame storyline, a perhaps somewhat cleaned-up romance, rotten writing style... and a few verses thrown in here or there to prove that it's a Christian book. And we're supposed to like it because why? Because on page 89 someone prays? Ack!

    :) I don't comment a lot, but that subject drives me nuts. :D

  5. That's what I generally find with Christian fiction, Katherine. I'm sure there are some good ones (I've read one or two - perhaps just one!), but generally speaking they seem to abuse the term "Christian."

    Thanks for commenting! It's always nice to hear back from people.

  6. I find that when I comment late there is usually little to be said than what has already been writ, but I do want to say that I quite agree, and you wrote it beautifully, and I've often thought the same myself. Also, your heart for the Almighty God shines through when you write on things such as this, because half of the readers of such novels who are self-proclaimed Christians would get through the book and neither notice nor care.

    Brava. ^.^

  7. Good post. I stopped reading "Christian" novels years ago, for the most part. I felt they were pandering to a small niche of Christians (usually women), who wanted cotton-candy romance and just enough moralizing to make themselves feel good about what they were reading. Not my cup of tea. I prefer fiction that challenges, in its stories, its themes, and its writings.

  8. Sparrow - I like comments, repetitive or not: especially ones coming from you! Just babble enough to make me feel good about getting a lengthy comment, and I'm good.

    K.M. Weiland - I've really only read one contemporary "Christian" novel that I enjoyed, and then I got the sequel and found it abysmal. So, like I said, I tend to go for the classics or for books that are pre-1950s, with a few exceptions. Thanks for commenting!

  9. I also get pretty irritated at "Christian" fiction novels that only have a hint of a true Christian theme. Usually these type of novels, as you said, only have good morals - they're clean. Not particularly Christian.

    I wrote a post a few weeks ago along the lines of Christian fiction being either too subtle or too preachy, check it out if you'd like: http://bit.ly/e7JCZ4

    I understand that some Christian authors are so in fear that they will turn out too preachy that they completely try to stay away from truly witnessing to the reader. But it's Christian fiction, and I feel that we need to stay within the genre, which is what I explored in the post I gave above.

    However, Karen Kingsbury's novels I feel are good examples on how contemporary Christian fiction novels should be. Not too in-your-face-religion, but also not I'm-going-to-stay-far-away-from-religion-in-fear-of-offending-someone... if that makes sense. ;)


meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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published writings

The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
finished writings

Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
currently writing

Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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