Christian Fiction, What’s Wrong with It?

Photo: A Bible and cross on the Sibley family marker in the South Douglas Cemetery in Douglas, Massachusetts; photo © 2009 Svadilfari CC BY-ND 2.0

Sunday, a friend of mine in church was wearing a T-shirt from a band I didn’t recognize.

I asked, “Who are they? Is that a Christian band?”

“Well,” he said, “they’re a bunch of Christians who are in a band, but they’re not a Christian band.”

I understood immediately. “Like I’m a Christian who writes novels, but I don’t write Christian novels.”

But why don’t I write Christian novels, when that’s such a large and growing market? Or maybe a better question would be, why don’t the books I write fit into the “Christian” category?

I sometimes write characters who are Christian. Sometimes, my characters even go to church. In my next Ardor Point novel, I expect the main character to reach a spiritual crisis, which will transform her and redefine her life, and she will credit God with the solution. The last Ardor Point novel, From the Ashes of Courage, at its core is a story about unconditional love, which is a Christian theme. And in this story, Gail faces a crisis of meaning, which is a spiritual crisis. And I write from the perspective of a life-long Christian and Bible scholar. Why then can’t I sell the story as Christian fiction?

Because I’m still too much of a maverick. Neither Gail nor Eddie think much about religion, must less about Christianity. Gail is too caught up in her business and her own feelings about her life. And Eddie is too preoccupied with making ends meet on an ever reddening deficit, all while appearing to everyone else to be loaded with wealth (which he’s not). Neither of these characters go to church, but they are real people. They could even be you.

But that’s not the worst I’ve done. Not only does Eddie not go church, he also sleeps around, in a search for love and meaning. Moreover, Gail and Eddie end up sleeping together before they get married. The description of this act is more tame than some that you’ll see in mainstream YA novels, but that doesn’t matter. Premarital sex is not “Christian” (even though it’s so human that Christians themselves do it all the time).

I could fall back on the old writer’s chestnut, “My characters have to do what they do, because it’s part of their nature. As a writer, I have to follow their story; I can’t change it just because it’s politically incorrect.” We’ve all heard writers say something like this. “I didn’t make my character a philanderer-homophobe-sexist-racist; I just told his story.” But that’s disingenuous. As a writer, I create the characters. Yes, they have to do and say what’s in their nature, and yes, I have to follow their story as it plays out. But I get to define their natures, and I get to affect the story. Ultimately, as a writer, I can take the story anywhere I want it to go, and my only challenge is to make it seem plausible within the context of the story universe. So when Gail and Eddie make love, it’s not that “I have to follow their story.” Rather, this is simply part of the story I want to tell. There’s a deeply Christian message buried within that event, a message that relates directly to two of the major themes in the novel. The message is not preachy, and you may not even get it. Indeed, many Christians may not be able to find it, because you have to dig for it.

In general, Christian novels avoid any subject, like sex or violence, that makes its readers uncomfortable, but my stories I intend to stretch you out of comfort zone and challenge the way you think, to cause your mind to grow and your life to expand. If the story doesn’t make you a little uncomfortable, it’s not doing it’s job.

There are no preachers in my novels, and no preachiness— what the industry calls “didacticism.” No one trying to pump up their faith with pep-talk about church, or belief in Jesus, or love for God, or anything else. There are no stellar shows of faith. Even a Christian character (in an earlier story) needed to look up “Romans” in her Bible’s table of contents, because she simply didn’t know where it was in that oh-so-thick book. (To Bible scholars, that’s like needing to look up the letter “M” before you can find it in the dictionary.) My characters do not forgive those who hurt them— because real Christians don’t, either; rather, Christians struggle with forgiveness, and too many even rationalize that God wants them to be angry and bitter, and then they call it “tough love.” None of my characters stand steadfast, confident, peaceable, in their faith, because real Christians don’t do that either, because that’s not human nature. Many real-world Christians advocate war against our “enemies,” and they lobby the government to force others to behave in one way or another. Neither of these is a steadfast, confident, peaceable display of faith; rather, it is a display of fear, because it is human nature to be fearful. Love in faith is the antidote to our natural fears, and that’s a message you might find in one of my stories. My characters are never saints, because real people are not saints. Even the saints themselves weren’t saints, but they accepted God’s grace from the perspective of their own depravity, and they succeeded despite their own humanity. Similarly, my characters struggle with their own human nature, just as real people do.

My stories have no simplistic solutions, no religious clichés, no catchy slogans, no meaningless platitudes. I don’t appreciate these in a preacher’s sermon, and I don’t admire them in fiction. Rather, I write fiction that I would enjoy reading: stories that have realistic characters in interwoven conflicts and that inspire the reader to hope.

But this also means that I will probably never be able to sell my work as Christian fiction, or at least not as mainstream Christian fiction. Because in Christian fiction, the characters are always Christians (or at least the main characters are). Often, my characters are not, because most real people—even hard-core Christians—at best only give lip service to whatever faith they may claim. Christian fiction can be preachy, because its characters preach at each other (or even at themselves) simplistic platitudes and claims to faith, none of which address their human needs— That actually happens in real life, too, so if I were to write a Christian novel, it would only demonstrate how useless such sermons really are, and that would probably disqualify it from being called “Christian fiction” in the minds of many. In my Christian novel, the characters would search for faith in all the platitudes and wisdom that preachers try to inspire us with, and they would get a little emotional boost, but they would still be left empty in the end. They would look to God, and He would not be there. They would pray, but He would not hear them. Despondent, they would discover that real faith has little to do with any of that.

Religiosity pops up in fiction, and in real life. It used to make me uncomfortable, because I thought that I was supposed to be excited by it. Now, I react the same way I do when someone praises me for my performance during Sunday morning music: “Thank you,” I say. “I appreciate it,” which I really do. But I also know that for me, it’s no big deal, because it’s just what I do. In the same way, if someone says, “Praise God!” I can say “Amen,” and I really mean it. I smile politely, but these simple words cannot touch what my love for God and my faith in Him really mean to me. And that’s why I feel compelled to avoid them in my own stories, because they cover up true meaning. Only by digging to the root of the issue can we hope to see truth unfettered by platitudes, and that’s what I try to do in my stories.

So they’ll probably never be “Christian fiction.”


P.S. I don’t want you to get the idea that I don’t read or haven’t enjoyed Christian fiction. I do, and I have, and I want to continue reading more of it. But unless the expectations of its readers change—or unless I’ve severely misjudged them—it’s likely that my stories will always be on the fringe with respect to that genre.