God created and thus set an example for his creation. As His children, we have the authority to create as well. That’s not to say that we must create, but that we can. God created the Bible: a series of stories told to us through the written word. They aren’t fictional stories, but in the New Testament, Jesus told parables, fictional stories that taught some sort of lesson. It was a way to reach the people, but it was also subtle. Christian fiction should follow His model. Christian fiction is full of stories that don’t portray human beings as fallen creatures or as beings of weakness. This genre distorts life by presenting a model of perfection. No matter which sub-genre one delves into there is a glossy shine that makes it all look plastic. There are rare exceptions to this and rarer still are those that come from modern authors. Most lived in a different age, when Christian publishers didn’t run amuck and Christian audiences weren’t looking for a quick fix. Contemporary “Christian” fiction is not an accurate portrayal of reality or excellence in the fiction genre. Christian authors should not write with an agenda in mind, but should write descriptively instead.
Reality in Fiction
It may seem oxymoronic to say that fiction is unrealistic. It is, in part. Fiction isn’t meant to be realistic; it’s fiction. However, all fiction needs a basis in reality. An author can come up with new worlds and fantastical circumstances for his or her characters to go through, but if the characters aren’t real or don’t react in a way that the audience can relate to the author has failed. It is not important or necessary to have a realistic setting. If they were science fiction and fantasy would be highly inappropriate genres. Characters are what drive good stories. Characters that struggle, that have serious flaws, that are human. If a novel’s characters are anything but authentic, the reader is robbed of knowing what would have actually happened and the author is lying to them. If characters don’t act in a realistic manner, the connection between reader and writer is lost and the book becomes irrelevant.
Christian Novels: A History
Religious stories are nothing new. Since the beginning of time man has written stories of his or her gods. Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, The tales of Gilgamesh, Beowulf even all showed the worldview of the author. John Milton wrote Paradise Lost and started the tradition of the Byronic hero, an image that Byron encouraged. The Bronte sisters and Jane Austen wrote what they saw in society. The Brontes wrote dark stories, while Austen was lighter while still scathingly satirical. Their themes are Christian although they never come out and state that. Jane Eyre, for example, is full of redemptive themes. The protagonist firmly holds to her beliefs, and that’s why the public loves her. Mark Twain wrote novels that showed the wrongs of slavery; Flannery O’Connor wrote stories that showed the depravity of man. Many other authors continued to write what they saw and integrate their beliefs through the novel without pushing their own agendas.
The Evangelical novel, as it is thought of today, wasn’t known as such until the 1960’s. This time period ushered in a rigid divide between “liberal” and “conservative” in the political sphere. Because Christians were pushing their political agendas, much of their literature was rejected by the public (Gandolfo 14). Christian fiction seemed irrelevant to the masses, and influential writers started questioning the existence of God. As they denied Him, Christian authors had to turn elsewhere to publish their fiction. (Mort 2). Who better to turn to than evangelical publishing houses? But something else was going on underneath all that. The evangelical movement was becoming one of consumerism. Christianity was being thought of differently, so it’s byproducts were being produced differently. Anita Gandolfo’s book, Faith and Fiction, provides much more insight on this subject. “The emergence of evangelical Christian fiction as a publishing phenomenon is a symptom of a major shift in American religion” (Gandolfo 180).
The evolution of the evangelical novel continued, dividing Christian Fiction into sub-genres, following the pattern of secular fiction. Christian romance as it is today began with Grace Livingston Hill, but it was capitalized on with Janette Oke’s novels (Mort 3). Oke was one of the first people to publish romances with a Christian imprint (branch of a publishing house), Bethany House, in 1979. Christian thrillers started with Frank Peretti. He brought the concept of spiritual warfare to a whole new level and added the menacing side that was absent in much fiction of the time. However, he always wrote the darkness in a way that urged the reader to have hope. Ted Dekker took it a step further with his books like Three and Skin. Dekker and Peretti even collaborated and wrote House. Travis Thrasher has contributed, recently publishing three novels with David C. Cook, but his books exceed the genre of thriller, crossing over into the realm of horror.
What It Looks Like Today
Most of the genres mentioned are dull echoes of secular ones that came before. The Christian sub-culture has spawned a new race of literature, one that has the label “Christian” and is driven by the message, rather than laced with subtle hints and themes throughout the written word. This is nothing new. For years Christians have just been making poor copies of what the secular world has made. We copy, paste, and insert Jesus.
It should be noted that not all Christian fiction is bad. It’s not all poorly written or stuffed with too much theology. However, the majority of it is washed down, with God tossed in for good measure. Most of these books would be considered easy-reads, and they aren’t all bad. They just dilute life, instead of enhancing it. There are many examples of this, throughout Christian fiction, but here are two.
That Certain Spark by Cathy Marie Hake takes place in Gooding, Texas in 1892. Taylor Bestman arrives in the small town as their new veterinarian and doctor, but the local folks don’t like the fact that a woman could be so independent. One man in particular, Karl Van der Vort, has issues with her occupation. Coincidentally, Karl becomes her first patient. As Taylor fights for respect in the town, Karl becomes more protective of her, and “his protectiveness flares into a different emotion altogether” (Hake back cover). The book starts with an old woman talking to Karl about his life. She summarizes the book in a sentence, saying that he’s going to get right with Jesus and then find a wife. Karl struggles throughout the novel to “get right” with Jesus and is helped along by the perfect Taylor, whose only flaw is a 21st century mindset. By the end of the novel, the reader is left with a sense of satisfaction as Karl asks Taylor to marry him, and the assurance that their relationship will be Christ-centered because Karl has learned his lesson. This man is the Christian version of a Byronic hero: brooding, moody, handsome, muscular, menacing, a little rough. By the end, he’s a disciple of Jesus, although still all of those things as well. The only reason this is any different from secular fiction is because Karl “gets right” with God. In the end he gets the girl and declares his undying love. “I love you, Dr. Taylor MacLay Bestman. Come with me through the years. Whatever God has in store, I want you by my side.” The incredibly cheesy ending is magnified by the fact that Hake added God into his declaration of love. It seems unrealistic. The characters don’t act like real people. However unlikely the circumstances (her being a doctor, him just happening to hurt himself, the prophetic woman at the beginning), if they had acted in a manner consistent to reality, it might have been a good story. However, because they don’t, this book is inviting ridicule.
The Sword by Bryan Litfin is an adventure novel placed in an historic view of the future. After a nuclear war and a contagious disease tears the world apart, civilization must be rebuilt. The story begins in an age much like the Middle Ages, except with no knowledge of the Bible. The hero and heroine, Teofil and Anastasia, can’t seem to keep out of danger. On one of their many adventures they find one of the few editions left of the Old Testament. They ask the perfect questions as they discover the deeper meaning, but they realize that they’re missing something. They recognize almost instantly that there is a section of the book missing and that the entire Old Testament points toward a Savior. They start weekly meetings in worship of Deu, the God of the Sacred Book, but are cast out of their city for speaking against the pagan gods. Throughout the book, Teo and Ana fall in love; though they would never act in a risqué manner. Litfin wrote all kinds of cliches into his book, down to the red-headed temptress, the blonde angel, and the wise mentor. Every page seems to be full of theological insights. Anastasia has remarkable insight to the Book of Deu. In this section, she properly exegetes the book of Genesis.
“First of all, why are we making this so complex when it doesn’t need to be? The narrative should be understood plainly, not according to secret symbols. It’s obvious: Deu was angry at the sin…In fact, I believe he requires blood sacrifice in exchange for it. Remember when Adam and Eve were kicked out of the garden? God clothed them with animal skins. Notice that their sin required the death of an animal.”
Most people need commentaries and months of study to come to the conclusion that God required the sacrifice of animals for the sin of Adam and Eve. Ana comes to that conclusion in a few weeks with only her wits.
Because it is stuffed with theological insights, the book loses some of its appeal. And Ana is the perfect woman. As she and Teo fall in love, he hurts her by fiddling around with another woman. Most women would take time to heal from that, but Ana forgives him almost instantly. Litfin admitted in an interview that he wrote stereo-typical characters on purpose. He started with the theological ideas, and the idea of writing a novel for young men who are new Christians, instead of starting with a story and letting the rest come naturally.
The Gatekeepers (or why crappy fiction is currently being published)
One concern a reader might have is why these kind of books are being published. Don’t publishers realize that these novels are shallow and something of a joke amongst the literary community? Yes, they do. Christian publishers are full of people who have good taste in books. These people are passionate about literature and long to produce something that will change lives. However, that’s difficult to do when the good stuff isn’t selling.
Christian romance is one of the top genres under Christian fiction. It’s readership is primarily women and they sell like hotcakes. If a publishing company stopped manufacturing these novels they would lose a large chunk of their audience and readership loyalty. It is for this reason that many publishing companies continue to publish books like That Certain Spark. It’s popular. It makes them money. Without these books, they would argue, they wouldn’t be able to publish good books. What would happen if they refused to publish anything that failed to stand up to certain standards? Would readers pick up good books then and realize their error? Or would the publishing company shrivel and die because they aren’t selling anything? Publishing houses aren’t willing to take the chance, so they privately ridicule what they publicly endorse.
The Idea of Excellence
Books like The Sword and That Certain Spark aren’t bad, but they lack the excellence that Christians should be showing in their writing. Readers who pick them up aren’t sinning, but they are settling. Instead of reading something with substance, they are settling for the cotton candy of literature. There aren’t any books that have been published in the last 30 years or so that would be considered “classics”. The most recent we have are The Chronicles of Narnia or perhaps Christy by Catherine Marshall. It would seem that Christians are incapable of producing good fiction. We are called to be excellent in everything that we do. 1 Corinthians 10:31 says, “Whether, then, you eat or drink or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” This includes writing fiction. If an author isn’t writing for the glory of God, they shouldn’t pick up a pen. Writing to glorify is more than just the intent. Many authors come to the table wanting and intending to write to glorify God. However, the product of many of these endeavors isn’t glorifying at all. There are stacks of books attesting to this fact. Writing isn’t something everyone can do well. Often working for God’s glory means not writing at all or working on the craft until a good story is created. Stephen King, a brilliant writer who is not a Christian, believes that their are four types of writers: those that can’t write and can’t learn, those that write badly, but can learn to be better, those that can write skillfully and have nothing left to learn, and geniuses, a status that no one can ever earn (King 142). Not everyone is a genius. Not everyone is a skillful writer. There is always room for improvement. If a writer thinks that they can write a book that will pass or get published, but knows it’s not a good story, has bad characters, or is full of Christian cliches, they should stop.
1 Peter 2:9 says, “For you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession, so that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.” This is Christianity–a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God. Is this how God’s royal priesthood will be known in the realm of fiction publishing? As those who publish cheesy, often theologically incorrect books that make the public feel better, but don’t challenge them? We are called to higher standard of excellence in this world because we belong to the most excellent. There should be more expected of followers of Christ, not less.
There are several novels published in the last ten years or so which were heralded as some of the best in Christian fiction. Left Behind is probably one of the greatest examples of this. The authors show the end times and attempt to convey the theological ramifications of what will happen when the world comes to an end. The biggest problem with the book and the series is that it pushes an agenda, much like Litfin’s The Sword (Gandolfo 105). Flannery O’Connor writes in her novel, Novelist and Believer,
“The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty in the process as possible,” (O’Connor 157).
This seems sadly true. Authors push their agenda while avoiding the difficulties and sorrows that make up daily life. In That Certain Spark, the worst thing that they deal with is whether or not Karl can actually love Taylor, despite her profession. He comes back to Christ through that conflict. In The Sword, they start a house church and while that isn’t a walk in the park, it ends on the note that God will take care of them no matter what. The idea of suffering isn’t realistically addressed.
A good book will be well-written in a literary sense and include biblical themes that aren’t contrived. A writer ought to be able to write from the heart and include his or her beliefs without force-feeding the reader. It’s impossible to write without infecting a work with the author’s world view. So why do so many think that they must stuff them into their works?
One of the greatest works of fiction that Christians love to claim as their own is The Lord of the Rings series by J. R. R. Tolkien. Tolkien, however, did not write his series with the intent of showing his religious beliefs.
“The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism,” (Tolkien no. 142).
There are others as well. Flannery O’Connor, as mentioned above, despised “religious literature” and wrote what she saw in the world. Her stories are a mixture of depressing realism and underlying hope. John Updike wrote much the same way. He saw the spiritual emptiness in America and wrote about it, particularly in his novel In the Beauty of the Lilies (Gandolfo 169).
These are the authors that future writers ought to emulate. They take reality and write what they see, not what they want it to be. They write the truth, and they write it to the best of their ability. They should not be copying a plot formula or giving the public what it wants, but showing people what they need.
“Fiction may be perfectly serious, in that people often express their deepest thoughts, speculations, etc. in a story” says C. S. Lewis in his Letters (261). Fiction, including Christian fiction, has always been a barometer of the times, showing the moral, emotional, and political standings of society. How shockingly shallow we must seem. If Christians are to be salt and light, as Christ called us, we must change the quality and content of the stories that are published.
(Or Works Consulted)
Brand, Hilary and Adrienne Chaplin. Art & Soul: Signposts for Christians in the Arts. Piquant. 2001.
Gandolfo, Anita. Faith and Fiction: Christian Literature in America Today. Praeger Publishing. 2007.
Hake, Cathy Marie. That Certain Spark. Bethany House. 2009
Lewis, C. S. Letters of CS Lewis. Harcourt Brace Javanovich. 1966.
Litfin, Bryan. The Sword. Crossway Publishing. 2010.
Mort, John. Christian Fiction: a guide to the genre. Libraries Unlimited. 2002.
New American Standard Bible. ed.Donald Burdwick. Zondervan. 1999.
O’Connor, Flannery. Novelist and Believer. Mystery and Manners: occasional prose. Macmillan. 1967.
Tolkien, J. R. R. Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. ed. by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien. Houghton Mifflin Co. 2000.