What is the Message in the Books You Read or Write?

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Christian works are, by their nature, message-oriented. With our novels, we strive to present a great story first and foremost, but we also want to weave in a strong spiritual message. Writers’ varying personalities determine their specific outreach. Some of us want to edify the faithful, offering hope to the Christian swimmer navigating a sea filled with glass shards. Others among us want to extend a lifesaver to the seeker longing for lift onto a safe ship. Still others want to be favored over the world’s seductive message, reaching those stranded on a desert island. Or perhaps all three.

Our eagerness to get out our message is not without its critics. Yet, a cursory reading of general market books shows they are also preaching. But a different message. Have you read general market books that preached:

You can be successful without God.

Survival by any necessary means.

The need to care for the environment.

The importance of appearances.

How appearances can be deceiving.

The poverty of earthly riches.

How to gain earthly riches.

So the next time someone asks you if Christian novels are too preachy, challenge that reader to name a novel that doesn’t preach some type of message. I would think that would be a hard mission to accomplish. At the very least, it’s a great conversation starter. Have fun!

Your turn:

What message did you take from the last general market novel you read?

Did you agree with the message?

What is the most God-honoring message you have seen in a general market book?

18 Responses to What is the Message in the Books You Read or Write?

  1. RCAtchisson@gmail.com May 15, 2014 at 3:32 am #

    Great article. As an English teacher I have a version of this exchange almost every week with various students. Many want to dismiss the challenge to identify a “theme” that their standard response is “There isn’t one…” What they usually mean is “I don’t want to read this so I don’t want to think about it, and therefore I don’t want to find a message.” It is interesting how critics of Christian work — be it literature, film, television, or music– are so willing to ignore the messages with which they agree but “red flag” as too preachy the ones with which they disagree.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 15, 2014 at 6:27 am #

      Ah, the lament of all English teachers — how to get students to engage. I don’t think I was ever in a class where 100% of the students read and thought about every assigned book. But even though some students red flag the Christian books, at least they are thinking and engaging. I think God has placed you as their teacher to do His work. You may not see the harvest yourself, but God will send a harvester in His time. May the Lord bless you!

  2. Ron Estrada May 15, 2014 at 4:47 am #

    Well timed post. I’ve decided to dive into YA because I finally had to admit to myself that’s what I enjoy reading the most. So I’ve been reading nothing but YA over the last 6 months to prime the pump. Naturally, one must read books by John Green and a few of the other popular YA authors. I suppose I’m not shocked, but still dismayed, about the message these authors are delivering to young readers: sex is essential to happiness, homosexuality is rampant among teens, and Christians are to be pitied, if not mocked. So I decided that, if they can be so bold, so can I. My very first YA novel will deal with abortion, from the POV of the boy (the father), and my character will have a very real experience with God. I understand that this may be a tough sell in both the secular and Christian market, but if I don’t write the truth and face the realities of this generation, there’s no sense in writing at all. I’ll preach and make no apologies.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 15, 2014 at 6:16 am #

      Ron, your book will probably be a hard sell but I hope it does sell. It sounds like a book that is needed. And even though the protagonist is a boy, I think girls might read it also.

  3. Andrea (Wood) Nell May 15, 2014 at 6:03 am #

    I have to admit I don’t read many books from the general market except the occational dystopian YA because that is what my daughter loves and I often screen her book selections before I let her read them. Freedom is worth fighting for themes are common in that genera, but with plenty of I can do it without God’s help thrown in. I agree that every book is preaching about something. Why read a CBA novel if you aren’t expecting some kind of spiritual take away? I think most readers choose CBA because they want a clean read with a spiritual take away they can apply to their lives. So why are some books labeled ‘preachy’ while others are not? The books I most enjoy reading are the ones that have the spiritual take away weaved into the story naturally through the events of the plot, not spelled out in lectures.

  4. Tamela Hancock Murray May 15, 2014 at 6:20 am #

    Andrea, I agree. I suppose the “preachy” label is used when the reader feels the message is too heavy handed, even if a message is expected. If the author seems to be putting the message over the story, then the book will feel like a clunker.

  5. Lisa May 15, 2014 at 6:48 am #

    This is such a great discussion. I’m currently working on a YA Fantasy trilogy that can be described as HUNGER GAMES meets NARNIA via LLoyd Alexander. What I’ve seen lately, in several books, is a lack of true, lasting hope. One author (whose works I happen to love) seems especially to have a very firm grasp of human nature – our greed, pride, longing for power, and inability to maintain peace for long – but she doesn’t pair it with any eternal hope, which is just heartbreaking.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 19, 2014 at 9:15 am #

      Lisa, I tried to comment last week but the site was down. I wonder if such books leave readers a bit depressed but they can’t put their finger on why. Keep writing your trilogy. The world needs books filled with hope.

  6. Thomas Allbaugh May 15, 2014 at 7:04 am #

    This is a challenging post for me, so thank you. Flannery O’Connor once wrote that “When you can state the theme of a story, when you can separate it from the story itself, then you can be sure the story is not a very good one. The meaning of the story has to be embodied in it, has to be made concrete in it.” I think this is true of fiction writing, at least. I have to start with situations, with what I perceive to be real, and then make that as real to my reader as I can (and of course, I fail at this all the time). My faith is the light by which I see the situation, and the problem for me in the writing is always to get past the doubt that the potential reader won’t “get it.” I just have to write the story as a story.

    In her collection _Mystery and Manners_, O’Connor has plenty of great teachings about faith and fiction, and lots of great one liners. Here’s one I’ll end with: “In the greatest fiction, the writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense, and I see no way for it to do this unless his moral judgment is part of the very act of seeing, and he is free to use it.”

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 19, 2014 at 9:17 am #

      Thomas, I was just able to get back on the site today to comment. You are exactly right to let the story take its turn. Leave it to the Lord to touch a reader’s heart. He knows where each reader is in his or her spiritual journey, and He knows what that reader needs.

  7. Jeanne Takenaka May 15, 2014 at 7:10 am #

    What a thought provoking post. I know Christian authors seek to weave in certain messages, but honestly, I hadn’t considered that ABA authors do this as well. Though it makes sense. We all have things that are important to us and that have shaped us. It’s natural that we would write about them.

    I think the last ABA books I read were the Hunger Games Trilogy. There were lots of messages that could be taken from those books. :) I guess that means I should be reading a little more ABA huh? ;)

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 19, 2014 at 9:21 am #

      Jeanne – funny you should mention reading more ABA because this week, upon completing the reading of a certain ABA book, I thought, “Boy, I really didn’t like this at all. I wish I’d read a CBA book instead.” I’d say go for the story you are drawn to, regardless of the label. If you’re like me, you’ll still make some “mistakes” in choosing what to read, but part of the reason we read is to learn about the world, and more about ourselves.

      • Jeanne Takenaka May 19, 2014 at 9:59 am #

        Makes sense, Tamela. I always wonder if I’m a well-rounded reader. I tend to prefer stories that are uplifting, and that I don’t have to worry about what I may come across. But, even in CBA, I’ve made some mistakes. :) I love a story that teaches me about what you mentioned, the world and aspects of myself. Have a great Monday!

  8. J.D Maloy May 15, 2014 at 8:43 am #

    Great stuff here! Tamela, thank you for affirming that the Lord has given each of us a different calling with our theme/message, and the level in which tell it.

    Lisa, your line about the author you like that has “a firm grasp on human nature” is key! Isn’t that what makes for a wonderful story? Authentic and believable life themes? Now, this gets tricky because we write with a certain perception of human nature. Based on our belief (morals, values) system. For me, if those aren’t rooted in God’s Truth, the message will be less applicable.

    Andrea, I agree with your last line. I, too, enjoy stories where the message is weaved throughout the choices characters make in the plot. As do most kid readers these days. Writing that way is a challenge (for me), but crazy fun to practice. Powerful yet subtle. Oh, the balance!

    Thomas, O’Connor has some of the best writing quotes. Thank you for sharing these :)

    • Thomas Allbaugh May 15, 2014 at 10:47 am #

      J.D., O’Connor’s statement that “in the greatest fiction a writer’s moral sense coincides with his dramatic sense” has been my guiding light for about 20 years. Can’t claim that it has made me a great writer. Just good guidance.

    • Tamela Hancock Murray May 19, 2014 at 9:24 am #

      J.D., I think kids are the most perceptive readers when discerning when someone is trying to moralize to them. They’ll abandon a story like that faster than you can say, “Video game.”

  9. Jim Lupis May 15, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    Fabulous point, Tamela. Everyone “preaches” what they believe, some are just not as obvious as others. I just self-published an novella that I was determined to have each chapter reveal the faithfulness of God. And I will continue to minister the goodness of the Lord in all my writings. Without banging readers over the head with it. :)

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