What Makes a Christian Book “Christian”? (Part One)


I had this discussion over a year ago on my blog, but thought it would be a good discussion for all of you, too. In some ways, publishing is in a state of unbelievable flux. In others, it’s utterly grounded and unshakeable. Good and bad on both sides.

But here’s what I find fascinating–and a bit worrisome. There’s a seemingless endless debate on what makes a Christian book Christian? Is it the context of the book or the faith of the author? What’s in the book or what isn’t? The tone or the specifics? Believe me, when I find myself in this debate, the answers come fast and furious and are as varied as can be. But before I share any thoughts or conclusions, I want to know what you think.

So, as a reader or a writer, what are you looking for in a book from a “Christian” publishing house? Or from a Christian writer.
What do you expect to find.
What do you expect NOT to find?
What makes a book “Christian”?

Please share your thoughts. And then I’ll let you know some of the discoveries I’ve made about this topic…and what other questions it’s led me to.

Peace!

 

 

 

 

 

 

57 Responses to What Makes a Christian Book “Christian”? (Part One)

  1. Mercey V September 21, 2011 at 3:36 am #

    I’m so glad I saw this because I have a lot to say but won’t say it all. I’ll attempt to sum up by a comment I heard this morning when I dropped my kids off at school. It’s book festival day where the students get to dress up as their favourite character from a book, and to be frank, I was feeling a little bit shuddery at the amount of witches, Harry Potters, and fairies walking around. A 15yr old high school student walked past me with his friends and I over heard him say, “We go to this amazing Christian school and everyone is dressing up as witches and wizards? I wonder if anyone will dress up as Jesus.”

    Wow. I almost turned around and said, “Dude, I am so with you on that!”

    In my opinion, the same goes for Christian fiction. We’re in the world but not of it, supposedly. Apparently we’re meant to think about whatever is pure and lovely and edifying. Shining our light is okay as long as it’s done when peeking out from under the bushell just so we don’t offend anybody…

    For me, a decent Christian fiction will be edifying while on the level, it will point readers to Jesus without reading like a devotional (because if we want a devo, we’ll buy one), and for cryin’ out loud it won’t contain actual swear words or characters screaming OMG and it won’t be endorsing stuff that wastes our time here on earth that we simply just don’t need to spend time thinking about. Life is short and for the sake of God, we ought to live like it even while we enjoy it. Yes, there are people with real and devastating problems, but the details don’t need to be relived in brilliant colour to make a scene ‘real’.

    Some of my fave authors are Linda Chaikin, Susan May Warren, and yes, Karen Ball because their morals are undeniable and the message is clear and able to be given to those who don’t yet adhere to faith. My thoughts are not limited to the ones here, but suffice it to say, I don’t like reading novels that feel like a watse of time because I could have bought them at a local bookstore. We don’t need to be seeing how far we can push it just to appear edgy and world-savvy.

    God made us smarter than that.

  2. Timothy Fish September 21, 2011 at 5:03 am #

    What I expect to see from a Christian publisher is pretty much anything that remotely resembles a Christian worldview, as long as it will make money, but thats not necessarily what I would like to see.

    At the very least, I would like to see Christian books that are consistent with scripture. Unfortunately, Ive been seeing books coming from Christian publishers that arent. Im not talking about doctrinal differences. I realize we dont all agree on some things, such as what “the world” means, etc. I understand and expect those differences. What I have a problem with is when the book goes against what is clear in scripture. For example, one book I read recently is about someone who went to heaven. The gates of heaven were described as “made of gold and there were pearls on them.” That grits my gourd because the Bible clearly states that “every several gate was of one pearl”. Had the book been sold as a novel, I might not have minded so much, but it was portrayed as a true story.

    Another thing I dont like seeing are attempts to appear worldly in order to attract lost people. The theory seems to be that we can attract the world with worldly stuff and then somehow win them by telling them how to be saved. Ive never seen any evidence it works and I highly doubt it does because people dont get saved until they see that they have sinned. When Christians look as dirty as they do, it is hard for them to see their own sin.

    What makes a book Christian? In my way of thinking, what makes a book Christian is that it elevates the name of Jesus. Forget all this “Christian worldview” stuff. The real question is, does this book lift up the name of Jesus and promote the preaching of the gospel of the virgin born sinless Jesus crucified, buried, and resurrected the third day for the salvation of the world? Does it promote the mission of the churches, which is to preach the gospel, bring those who accept it into the fellowship, and then teach them what Jesus taught? If a book doesnt do that, it isnt Christian.

  3. TC Avey September 21, 2011 at 5:37 am #

    I agree with both Timothy and Mercey V, not much else to add, I think they captured the basis of it…Bottom line: A Christian book should be Christian.

  4. Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 8:45 am #

    Hi Karen. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially since I’m currently writing my first novel. When I was asked to write short stories for my bachelor’s and master’s fiction classes, I always felt that if the story didn’t end in death or some other horrible thing, it wasn’t considered acceptable to the academic community. This is because fiction is supposed to be a small reflection of the real world; in the world, there are not always happy endings. Things don’t always go the way we want them too. That’s true even in a Christian’s life. Still, in my opinion, there is something missing in secular fiction.

    That thing is hope.

    I read novels in the Christian market largely because the stories are just as entertaining, they don’t contain swear words and other junk that isn’t really necessary for entertainment, and they have a message of redemption. They remind me that Jesus can turn around any circumstance and God can use any situation to glorify Himself. There is something so powerful in reading about characters who I can relate to going through something awful and bouncing back because they discovered Jesus’s power.

    I do believe that Christians can also write secular fiction, and that’s OK, because they’re reaching another market and can infuse aspects of their faith in their writing regardless of the market. For me, though, what I define as “Christian fiction” is a story written by a Christian that contains a message of hope and redemption.

    Thanks! I look forward to the second installment of this discussion.

  5. Mary Young September 21, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Go, Lindsay!

    It’s been a long time since I’ve tried to “define” Christian fiction, and I don’t know that this comment is going to do it, but here’s what I want to find when I read a book that’s marketed as fiction.

    I want to see a God who’s real, and involved in people’s lives. I want to see a Christian character who is 3-dimensional, not a die-stamped cut-out of someone’s concept of a Christian.

    I yell at God. I ask him if he really means what he said. Sometimes I tell him he must be crazy. And even as I react that way, I move forward with the instructions he has given me, that I’m reacting to in ways that others could consider non-Christian. The God who loves me is real to me, and while I fully recognize his status and power as creator of the universe, savior of my soul, etc, he is also my friend, and I trust him with the “real me.”

    I want the books I read to have that same understanding of him. This is why I love Terri Blackstock. Her characters could be people in my daily life.

    If you have a message to preach, write a non-fiction book. Fiction is for entertaining stories. YES, stories can abound with truth, but there is no need to hit the reader over the head with said truth. Fiction, first and foremost, needs to entertain. That’s why people buy it.

    • Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

      Mary, I totally agree! Deep, real characters are a must no matter what genre of fiction you’re reading! If I don’t believe the characters are real, then I don’t believe what they’re going through is real. What I don’t want is a book with a bunch of cliche characters saying, “Well, this must just be God’s will.” Yeah, like any of us ACTUALLY can say that in the moment we’re going through a crisis…

  6. Mary Young September 21, 2011 at 10:22 am #

    Ya know, no matter how much you proof-read before hitting “send” you still miss things. *sigh*

    Last sentence of first full paragraph should have said: here’s what I want to find when I read a book that’s marketed as Christian fiction.

    Seems I totally left out the word Christian in my original sentence. *ducks under rock to hide embarassment*

    • Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 5:08 pm #

      Don’t worry, Mary. It happens to us all. :)

    • Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 5:11 pm #

      Ha! Actually, I read back over my initial post and found an error. Woops…

  7. Michelle Sutton September 21, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    Well I don’t expect a Christian book to make me feel icky when I finish reading it. Sometimes that happens and it bothers me. I’ll have someone else read the same book and if they feel the same way then I know I wasn’t imagining it. I don’t expect a book to make me feel icky. I want to feel inspired to know the Lord more and to love other people more. I like to see consequences of sin because when there is darkness in a book the love of God shines so much brighter. At the same time I can’t stand overtly preachy books. I don’t mind a sermon in a book or scriptures in a book if it’s part of the story. If I feel like the author is sitting me as a reader down to tell me something I don’t like that. But if it flows seamlessly with the story I love that. I also love flawed characters who mess up and lose their self-control. I like characters who act in the flesh and deal with the consequences as long as they learn something from them. Real Christians don’t always act spiritual or in the spirit so why would characters in a book always do the right thing. They can do the wrong thing as long as they learn something in the process and eventual want to change. I like risk-taking books that keep me guessing. Predictable is boring. Toned down situations in life are also boring. Show me the dark side, but show me how good overcomes evil and I am a happy reader. People who do this well will have a fan (in me) for life. People who show evil in books just to be creepy annoy me and they will lose a reader. I don’t like a lot of gore. If it must be gory, then I don’t want it to be so graphic that I see rotting flesh when I close my eyes. That’s my opinion. I don’t like to read disgusting things. It seems like a lot of Christian suspense glorifies the disgusting things in life. I avoid those types of books.

    • TC Avey September 21, 2011 at 11:53 am #

      I agree. I don’t believe a Christian book should be all sunshine and roses, but I don’t want to it to leave me feeling depressed either.
      I also must relate to the characters. Life is messy and we all make mistakes, characters need to do that as well. It’s part of why we need Christ…none of us are perfect.

      • Michelle Sutton September 21, 2011 at 12:04 pm #

        Thanks for the affirmation, TC. So far I have read few “Christian” books that have left me depressed, but there are a few out there. Not many, thankfully.

    • Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 5:14 pm #

      Have you read Francine Rivers’ “Redeeming Love”? It’s definitely an amazing example of a novel that does a great job of showing us the dark side of life (abuse, prostitution, etc.) without too much gory detail and then showing us how God can turn it around for good. An inspiring read for sure!

      • Michelle Sutton September 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm #

        Oh yes, I read Redeeming Love back the year the book released. :) One of my favorite books. In fact, I’ve read most of Francine’s books. The only ones I haven’t read are the ones about the men of the old testament.

  8. Michelle Sutton September 21, 2011 at 12:13 pm #

    Karen,

    I just had a thought here. About five years ago I read one of Francine River’s books that she’d written before she gave her life to Christ just to see where her head was at when she wrote the story. Interestingly enough I could see that she was searching for God in her writing. And she wasn’t even a believer yet. But I could see that she wanted to know the truth and I found that inspiring. Now the book was too sexy for me to read again–once was enough–so I got rid of it (I think I donated it somewhere) but the spiritual search for truth in the book stuck with me. I found that element in the story inspirational and even cooler because I know that in real life the author gave her life to Christ a few years after that book I read came out. There are some secular books that have inspirational elements in them and sometimes I don’t think the author even realizes that they’ve inserted their own search for truth into the story. But this comment is an aside. True Christian books need to inspire hope and have redemptive themes in them. They don’t have to be overtly Christian to do that, however, and sometimes that even takes away from the story. But life is too short for me to read books for mere entertainment. There must be takeaway value in the book or I won’t read that author again.

  9. Natalia Gortova September 21, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    I read a lot of Christian novels, and a lot of secular novels. One thing I’ve noticed in the secular books I’ve read is that the characters have to solve their problems in their own strength. And the theme I’ve noticed in my own writing is this: my own strength is nothing. God’s the one who’s strong on my behalf.
    And my friends above have hit it on the head: Christian novels have hope.
    I don’t think they necessarily have to preach the gospel (at least not overtly), or have a ‘conversion’ scene.
    What I love are flawed characters coming into contact with a perfect God.
    I also agree with whoever said ‘predictable is boring’. That’s the key to fiction: give the reader the unexpected (not implausible), twist it up.
    I want grace, forgiveness, and excitement!

    • TC Avey September 21, 2011 at 1:07 pm #

      Good point! I hadn’t thought of that difference before between secular and Christian (though it is very obvious)novels, it is wonderful to have hope in God, to know He will help us through and we don’t have to accomplish anything on our own. That is a key difference, thank you for bringing it up.

    • Lindsay Harrel September 21, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

      Conversion scenes are tricky. Some can be very corny and something about them sometimes strikes me as false. However, when they’re done well, they’re inspiring.

      I agree that all Christian novels don’t have to have scenes like this, although most usually have some sort of “realization” scene, where the character turns toward Christ after attempting to deal with things in his/her own strength.

    • Timothy Fish September 22, 2011 at 5:07 am #

      That sounds very similar to the distinction I once made between women’s fiction and men’s fiction. My claim was that in women’s fiction there is a tendency to have a

    • Timothy Fish September 22, 2011 at 5:09 am #

      That sounds very similar to the distinction I once made between women’s fiction and men’s fiction. My claim was that in women’s fiction there is a tendency to have a “knight in shining armor” character who comes to the main character’s rescue, whereas in men’s fiction the main character must take the action. The nature of man is to take charge. We got that from our father Adam (I Timothy 2:12-13).

      It gets interesting when you start talking about “letting go and letting God.” While that fits nicely in women’s fiction, it is difficult to handle in men’s fiction. Perhaps that’s why there is so little Christian men’s fiction. The key, I think, is to focus on submission through obedience rather than focusing on the need to hand the problem over to God. In reading the Bible, the great men of God are always men of obedient action. I don’t want to say that “letting go and letting God” isn’t a good theme, but there are so many examples in the Bible in which the men didn’t need to let go as much as they needed to “trust and obey”. Just look at Barak, if he’d done what God had told him to, a woman wouldn’t have been the one to slay Sisera; he would have been.

      What I like to see in books and what I try to write is a story in which the main character is a character of faith. At first, he may not know where God is leading or he may come to that faith over time, but at the end of the book the character is boldly taking the action, whatever the consequences of that action might be.

  10. John Sleeper September 21, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    The bottom line of my consideration would have to be whether or not the overall tone of the book leaves the reader with the feeling that justice had been served. If there have been scenes where killing or prostitution have been portrayed in the interest of the background realism necessary to the believability, then this is not a problem. And I do not consider a brief tasteful description of normal love making between consenting adults objectionable in any scenario.

    Portraying wanton sex and violence is pure sensationalism and I would not consider this acceptable in the genre you prescribe here.

    Expecting to read such things as, “Praise Jesus” in every other sentence or saying that strict bible morals should be followed is unrealistic to the point of being preposterous. The bible is so contradictory within itself that anyone could pull a quote out of it to justify almost any action they wished to portray.

  11. Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 21, 2011 at 8:06 pm #

    Not so long ago Nicole Petrino-Salter ran several posts (Parts 1, 2, and 3) about this subject, having interviewed a number of people involved in the writing profession. The responses were interesting, but I think some miss a key point: Secular writers can write stories without profanity or gratuitous sinful behavior. On the other hand, C. S. Lewis wrote wonderful novels identified by most as Christian without naming the name of Christ.

    My conclusion is that the externals of a story should not delude us into thinking it either is or is not Christian. What matters is whether or not the heart of the story tells the truth about God.

    Believers in Jesus Christ as the One in Whom all the fullness of deity dwells are the only ones who can tell the truth about God (apart from secular writers inadvertently telling the truth about Him because of His revelation in the natural world). So something in Christian fiction, whether overtly or symbolically, must reveal truth about God that can’t be found anywhere else (apart from Scripture).

    That being said, I wouldn’t expect any novel to tackle all of revealed Biblical truth about God. That’s unrealistic. So a novel that doesn’t lay out the plan of salvation may still point to Man’s inability to save himself, for example, while offering hope that salvation exists. I think that kind of “seed planting” fiction is still Christian.

    Becky

    • Timothy Fish September 22, 2011 at 5:41 am #

      That’s interesting that you mention justice be served. In Christianity, the whole concept of justice takes on a very strange form. The central truth of Christianity is that justice is served by Christ’s death on the cross rather than our own death. A few years ago, I wrote “For the Love of a Devil”, which is a modern retelling of Hosea. It tells the story of a man as he watches his wife fall deeper and deeper into a sinful lifestyle. You know from reading Hosea that he buys her back when she reaches the very bottom. But the thing is, he would’ve taken her back long before that. I tried to follow Hosea as closely as I could with my character and throughout the book I found him begging, pleading with his wife to come home. Even though she came near the bottom, by God’s concept of justice, she hadn’t received justice because she wasn’t dead yet. For me, it isn’t that justice must be served in Christian fiction, because it never is. I think Christian fiction needs to make it clear that justice is required, but grace provides a propitiation.

      • Mary Young September 22, 2011 at 5:47 am #

        Good point, Tim(othy). Christ is about MERCY, not justice. Weak sinful human that I am, I much prefer other people get justice, while I get mercy. *sigh*

    • Timothy Fish September 22, 2011 at 5:49 am #

      Sorry, Becky, my reply was actually meant to be for John Sleeper’s post. All of the JavaScript that the web page designer put in this blog messes with my system and I have to create a stand along html page with the form on it to reply. I must have copied the wrong comment number or something.

      • Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 22, 2011 at 11:31 am #

        No problem, Timothy (I lost my first attempt at responding to you, so I know there are … challenges! ;-)

        I thought your comment above about the difference between men’s and women’s fiction was insightful. The thing is that whole “let go and let God” concept makes me bristle on two fronts — theologically and writerly.

        I agree that women in general desire a rescuer, but I don’t see that as giving us a pass when it comes to obedience. “Love your neighbor” for example, is a command that requires our action, just as much as it does of men.

        On the writerly front, I think a character is engaging when she (or he) is the agent, not a bystander, or worse, a victim. I don’t find a character taking action in response to what’s happening around her nearly as compelling as one that is going after her goal, trying to make things happen.

        I guess what I’m saying is, some readers may be settling for a weaker character simply because they’ve not seen a lot of proactive characters with whom they can identify.

        Becky

  12. Wade Webster September 21, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

    I think a book can be Christian without mentioning Christ (I mean the book of Esther doesn’t mention God, but He’s in all the details of that story); but, the reader must be drawn to Jesus in some way. I think just giving hope as a theme falls short, (there are countless stories that are inspiring, yet, clearly without Christ). My goal in everything I write is to lead people to a closer walk with Jesus. If someone comes across anything I write after the rapture has taken place I won’t be around to explain to them all the nuances that picture Jesus. They’ll be looking for real answers, we need to give that to them so they can join us in Heaven for all eternity! Don’t tell me people won’t be saved then… where do you think all those martyrs come from in the book of Revelation?

    • Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 22, 2011 at 11:47 am #

      Wade, I agree and I think your example of Esther is excellent. In fact the Old Testament is filled with pictures or types of Christ, though they are never directly identified with the Messiah. Still, we see Joseph sent to a foreign land to preserve life and Moses very much a prophet, priest, and king. We see Noah as a type of firstborn from the dead as Paul described Christ in Colossians.

      Why then shouldn’t writers today use that same method? Just as those Old Testament figures point to Christ but are not He, I think there’s an important place for fictitious characters pointing to Truth without spelling out the particulars. Such stories rely on their ability to show more than to tell.

      Becky

  13. V.V. Denman September 22, 2011 at 5:19 am #

    It seems that books in the Christian fiction genre mirror the different “types” of Christians themselves.

    Two examples:

    Some Christian fiction is fluffy, and unrealistic. That’s not real life for anybody. In my opinion, those books mirror Christians who attempt to live in a bubble, piously ignoring the problems of the world. (I find these books, and people, frustratingly narrow-minded.) *not to say that those authors live that way, who knows?*

    Other Christian fiction titles mirror Christians who are in the world, but not of it. They do their best to avoid blatant sin, and they rely on the hope of salvation to make sense of the world. They relate to Christians as well as non-Christians because they gently expose what all of us are searching for. (Those books, and people, are a refreshing example of real-life Christianity.)

    On the other hand, I’ll occasionally pick-up fluffy fiction just to escape to an easier world. Two in a row puts me over the edge, though.

  14. Fay Lamb September 22, 2011 at 5:59 am #

    I believe what constitutes a Christian book is as varied as the category and the genre one writes; however, one theme must run through every title: Christ. One truth should flow through ever work: The word of God (not diluted or misrepresented as I’ve been seeing in titles produced by “Christian” publishing houses).
    I truly believe the differing opinions come when we ask each other who our audience should be. Some writers pen their stories for a Christian audience. They want a safe story for Christian readers, a nice entertaining read. For me, those are “fellowship” or “showing” titles. Others desire to present issues relevant to Christian readers, to assist Christians on the issues we all present. Those, if written solely for Christian readers, I call “growth.” Now, if the writers of these issue-driven stories or books tailor their stories in a way that we can reach out to a secular audience (without compromising Biblical truth or writing in a way that does not glorify God)those I like to think of as “sowing seeds.” Then there are your purely evangelistic books, the ones that reach out to non-Christians to let them know Christ is relevant, He’s the only answer. Those I call “knowing” as in introducing someone to a relationship with our mighty God.
    I truly feel too much Christian fiction is meant to entertain only the Christian. While there is a place for those stories or those ideas, the Christian publishing industry should give a little more focus on Matthew 28:19-20. We need to reach across the bookstore aisle and draw non-Christians to the “inspirational” shelves (again without compromise). After all, the secular world has no problem calling Christians across the aisle.

  15. Mary Young September 22, 2011 at 6:12 am #

    Bottom line: What do you want a book to do? Forget adjectives such as Christian/non-Christian for a minute…

    Fiction as a genre is designed and intended to ______? I read fiction because I want _________.

    My answer to both those questions is primarily entertainment/escape. Growing up, books were my best friends, and helped me escape from what I now realize was a rather unpleasant family life. They gave me a window to other worlds, and whether it was historical or contemporary fiction, showed me different varieties of “normal” to counterbalance my own variety of “normal.”

    We also have to consider audience. As a child/teenager, the above paragraph was adequate. As an adult, I want a little more (sometimes a lot more). Unless I’m purposely picking up a “beach book,” I want to learn something about myself from the books I read. I don’t read fiction to learn about God. I like it if God’s in the book, but if I want to learn more about God, I go for teaching books, not story.

    That might be short-sighted of me, but I can honestly say I have never reached for a work of fiction thinking “This will give me a deeper understanding of Christ’s sacrifice,” or “this will bring my loved ones to salvation if they read it.”

    I’m not saying a book can’t do that, I’m just saying it’s not my purpose when I read it. I trust God to speak to me in whatever I read, and he usually does.

    So back to Karen’s question… What makes a book CHRISTIAN fiction? Is it the fact that I bought it in a Christian bookstore/website, or found it on the Christian/inspirational shelf at B-N? No, it has to be deeper than just a genre classification, doesn’t it? That’s why we’re all discussing it.

    When God permeates the book the way he permeates my life, that to me is a Christian book, regardless of where I bought it or who wrote it or how it was classified.

    And yes, that’s a very subjective answer, but each reader will have their own answer to that question, and in the end, it’s all subjective. Unless you’re dealing with non-fiction, the very act of reading and writing is subjective. That’s what makes it so wonderful.

    • Timothy Fish September 22, 2011 at 7:18 am #

      I can only speak for myself, but for me, though entertainment and escape are a big part of why I read fiction, there’s more to it than that. I can’t imagine reading “Pilgrim’s Progress” for entertainment value only; with a book like that, I want to know what the author is trying to say. I don’t do well with fluffy books. But then, it might be beneficial to consider what it takes for something to be entertaining. I’m entertained when I’m learning something or when I’m challenged by something. I’ve read computer books for entertainment. I find sermons to be entertaining. I believe that part of what makes a novel entertaining is that it shows us the world through someone else’s eyes. I’ll probably never be a physician, but through a novel I can learn something about what that is like. I’ll certainly never be a woman, but a novel can give me an opportunity to consider how a woman might see things. Even in my chosen profession, I look at all of the computer books that are available to tell people how software ought to be developed, but non-developers will never read them and even if they did, they still would know little about the daily life of a software developer. However, if I were to write a novel about a software developer, it would do nothing in terms of teaching someone to write software, but it would allow them to experience the life of a software developer.

      • V.V. Denman September 22, 2011 at 10:34 am #

        “However, if I were to write a novel about a software developer, it would do nothing in terms of teaching someone to write software, but it would allow them to experience the life of a software developer.”

        Well said.

      • Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 22, 2011 at 12:00 pm #

        Timothy, I agree that what entertains may vary. But I also think there are some Christian writers who have swallowed a placebo and don’t know it. “Writing shouldn’t preach” and “writing shouldn’t be agenda driven” has come to mean “writing shouldn’t say anything,” and that’s a false cure. There’s a reason all those college lit classes labor over identifying various themes in stories.

        Writing first and foremost communicates. We writers should have something to say. We should want the world — or at least our readers — to gain a new perspective or to re-think their own. Secular writing instructors (Donald Maass, John Truby, Sol Stein) have no trouble telling writers this.

        The truth is, a good story isn’t one without a theme. This idea that we can write a good story for no other purpose than to entertain shows a lack of understanding of that aspect of story.

        Becky

  16. Mary Young September 22, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

    Good points, Becky, and yet there’s nothing wrong with writing a story or book for the sole purpose of entertaining with no higher agenda, as well.

    All are needed, and each has a different purpose to fill.

    • Lindsay Harrel September 22, 2011 at 4:19 pm #

      Well said, Mary!

    • Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 22, 2011 at 5:00 pm #

      Mary, I agree, certainly, that nothing is wrong with writing a story or book for the purpose of entertaining. I wrote stories for the newspaper for three plus years, and they had no higher, spiritual purpose. I wrote to inform and perhaps entertain.

      But my question is, why should such stories be called Christian fiction? If our entertaining stories are moral, that’s great. But non-Christians and people of other religions can write moral fiction.

      If we want to write moral fiction, then let’s call it moral fiction. If we want to write Christian fiction, then there should be something about it that is distinctive — whether in an overt or symbolic way — to what Christians and only Christians believe. Otherwise the term makes no sense to me.

      Becky

      • Mary Young September 23, 2011 at 5:03 am #

        Becky, re: your last couple paragraphs…

        Are you saying that Christians (and by extension, Christian fiction) can’t just have fun? That every waking moment of our life has to be filled with some higher purpose that we are always cognizant of? Or that we have to look to secular fiction for entertainment?

        I am a Christian, and I read fiction to be entertained, not to be preached at. If your agenda overpowers your book, I won’t finish your book (or buy another). If your book keeps me on the edge of my seat, turning pages when I should be sleeping, the message you embedded in its DNA will reach me.

        I don’t have a grand, over-arching purpose to the words I write, other than to be faithful to transcribe the ideas that God gives me, and to ensure that I don’t violate Scripture as I interpret his thoughts.

        My stories might have a theme (grace/forgiveness/redemption seem to be the current ones), but it’s not really a conscious decision on my part. It’s something I realize is there when I read the final draft.

        I don’t sit down and say “Today I’m going to write a piece that will illustrate the redemptive power of Christ.” My brain isn’t wired that way when it comes to writing. If I were writing NON-fiction, then sure. I can do that til the cows come home (and have done so, for several jobs).

        But fiction – a thought pops into my head…. “if eyes are the window to the soul, who can see into the soul of a blind man?” From there, I start pondering the man Christ healed who was born blind, and wondering what it was like for him when the Messiah walked by and spoke to him. Next thing I know, I have a story from this person’s perspective, redolent with grace, redemption, forgiveness, etc, but none of that was my stated intent when I started. My intent was just to explore this one person and his interaction with Christ.

        I have to call my writing Christian fiction, because I don’t know what else you would call an exploration into the backstory of Bible characters. It’s not secular, not muslim, not hindu, not reality… it’s fiction, and it’s Christian.

        Do I HOPE that my readers will see themselves in the story and realize that what God did for those Biblical people he can do for the reader as well? Heck, yes! But if I start the story with that intent, the story is lifeless and without power. When I push that aside and focus on telling the story (showing, not telling), I find the rest is added in as part of the story’s DNA.

        God permeates my life, my thoughts, my heart. He cant’ help but permeate my writing as well.

      • Timothy Fish September 23, 2011 at 9:19 am #

        Mary Young,

        A Christian can go out and have fun. Let’s say there’s a Christian who goes bowling. Maybe he goes with some friends. Does that make bowling uniquely Christian? I don’t think anyone would say that it does. But if that Christian happens to be a youth minister and his friends are the kids in the church youth group, that trip becomes a Christian activity. The thing that makes it such is the higher purpose it serves.

        I think the same thing can be said of books. An author might write a clean book that is pure entertainment and it is just a clean entertaining book. But if the book has a higher purpose that is compatible with the higher purpose of the churches, then it becomes a Christian book.

        I think it is possible for an author to write a book with a higher purpose without setting out to do so. The author may intend to use a book one way, but God may intend to use it in another.

        You mentioned a book keeping you turning pages. I think it was James Scott Bell who recently wrote that what makes a book a page turner is that there is something that just can’t be. We turn the page because there is something we don’t know that we must know or there is some wrong that must be righted. The very thing that makes us turn the page is our thirst for knowledge and/or our concept of right and wrong. While we don’t want to be preached to, if the author doesn’t make some kind of assumption about what is right and wrong and if the author doesn’t make some kind of promise to give us more knowledge, there’s nothing to make us turn the page. Every good book does that, but a Christian book is more focused on what God says is right and wrong.

  17. Rebecca LuEllaMiller September 23, 2011 at 10:06 am #

    Hi, Mary, thanks for engaging in this dialogue. You said Are you saying that Christians (and by extension, Christian fiction) can’t just have fun? I think Timothy’s answer is excellent, so I’ll say, What he said!

    Because Christian publishing houses have put out some “clean fiction,” stories that are moral and told with minimal potentially offensive elements, some have come to understand those as defining Christian fiction. I think that’s misleading at best. There really is only one thing that makes Christians distinctive — the fact that we are redeemed people and therefore reconciled to the God who saved us. The fact that this is a HUGE distinctive gives us lots of fodder for our fiction, I think.

    I’m not saying anyone has to start with theme, no more than I can dictate to other writers that they must start with a character instead of a plot. However, I think we need to craft our themes as well as we craft our characters, and this is something that many Christian writers apparently don’t believe.

    I don’t think we can write good characters simply because we are human, and I don’t think we can include meaningful themes simply because we are Christians. Both take work.

    I also don’t think having a theme means that a story will be preachy or read like it has an agenda. Those stories are examples of ones with poorly crafted themes. It’s not the existence of the theme that’s the problem but the crafting of it.

    I also think that one problem in Christian fiction is the occurrence of the same theme over and over. This happens, I believe, because writers are not crafting their theme. It’s similar to a writer who writes in the same character from one novel to another, just with a different name and color of hair or eyes.

    God is an infinite God, and I think we believers ought to have a lot to say about Him and that we ought to work hard to say it in a way that is engaging. That elevates the need to tell a good story. A boring story with a blatant message, who will read?

    For what it’s worth, the story you outlined in your comment sounds intriguing. Writing Biblical fiction has its own challenges, but it seems to me it’s tailor made for showing Christian distinctives.

    I feel the same about fantasy — my chosen genre. The struggle between good and evil is a natural for showing God. But to do it in a lazy way makes the story ho-mum. I don’t want to represent Christ that way.

    Becky

    • Mary Young September 23, 2011 at 3:04 pm #

      Timothy – love the bowling analogy – thanks! Re: page turning — I turn pages because I want to see what happens next. I’ve never once thought about the stuff you quoted (paraphrased?) from James Scott Bell, at least not consciously. A book either keeps my attention, or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, I’m not likely to finish it, no matter how highly regarded it is (2 notable exceptions: Robinson Crusoe and Pride & Prejudice, but those were for school. I’ve read Crusoe twice, and it took me 2 weeks each time. And no, I don’t know why I felt the need to subject myself to it again. LOL).

      Becky – I agree that there’s a difference between “moral fiction” and “Christian fiction.” LM Alcott wrote “moral fiction” (and did so in protest of the preaching, message-laden fiction of her day, from what I’ve read).

      You also said: “However, I think we need to craft our themes as well as we craft our characters, and this is something that many Christian writers apparently don’t believe.”

      I’ll buy that. :-) By the same token, just because God gave us the idea doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our best work with it. Just because we’re only sharing with friends/family or only self-publishing doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be our best possible product. (describing myself and my own conversations with myself, there. Not directed at anyone here).

      For what it’s worth, the story I outlined in my earlier comment is proving to be exceptionally stubborn, and is currently on hold. *fond smile* Haven’t found the right approach to it yet, so it’s waiting for the idea to ripen. Love the concept, and want to see where it goes.

      (sudden topic shift, I think)
      We have stereotypes on both sides of the church doors – none of those stereotypes belong in our stories. God doesn’t see stereotypes when he looks at us — he sees individuals. Someday, I’ll have that so internalized that it permeates my thinking and writing, as well.

    • Timothy Fish September 24, 2011 at 6:21 am #

      Becky said: “I also think that one problem in Christian fiction is the occurrence of the same theme over and over.”

      That’s a good point. There is an author I’ve been trying to read recently that I’ve struggled to finish some of his books because they seem like the same book as before, but with different characters. I think that part of the problem we face as authors is that for us to write the most affective themes requires us to examine our own lives first, before we hold the mirror up in front of our readers. We need to remove the beam out of our own eye first. Rather than write novels with themes based around our own struggles we start pulling stuff from the pastor’s sermons. The result is that the theme is hollow and preachy.

  18. D Chase September 23, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Some years ago, Francine Rivers was interviewed on TBN. Asked to define Christian fiction, she said it’s when Christ is essential to the plot. That stayed with me.

    • Mary Young September 24, 2011 at 3:03 am #

      Sitting here with my chin on the desk, thinking DUH! How simple! and how TRUE.

      Thanks, D Chase!

  19. Mary Young September 24, 2011 at 3:04 am #

    Karen, thanks for starting this discussion — I was telling someone recently how I was missing the old AOL Christian Fiction/Christian Publishing boards and the conversations that took place there. This felt like “home” to me.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller September 26, 2011 at 5:26 am #

      Mary, I agree that this is has been a valuable exchange — reminds me of Dave Long’s Faith in Fiction discussion board. ;-)

      Hope you can unlock the block on your story.

      Becky

  20. Chris Lovie-Tyler September 26, 2011 at 1:56 am #

    I don’t think there’s any such thing as a “Christian” book, per se. People are Christians, not books.

    My take is, if a person is a genuine follower of Jesus, the love they have for him will spill over, naturally, into everything they do—writing included. That may come out in an explicit way, or it may not, but there will be a sense of life to it (whether they’re writing about gardening or theology). I don’t think that should be contrived.

    We should focus on our relationship with God first, devoting ourselves to him, then write with everything we’ve got: passionately and truthfully, seeking to honour Christ in it. If we do that, there’s a lot of scope for subject and approach.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller September 26, 2011 at 5:43 am #

      Hi, Chris, thanks for joining the conversation. You said People are Christians, not books.

      I’ve heard others say something similar, and I’ll be honest, it bothers me. It seems as if we hold the word Christian to a higher standard than we do other nouns.

      If we can make an adjective out of American, why not Christian? Of course only people can be Chinese, but does that mean I have to say “food cooked according to recipes originated by the Chinese”?

      Language makes it clear that a noun used as an adjective is describing. In the case of “Christian fiction,” that means the book espouses beliefs consistent with Christianity. This is the way language works.

      A Victorian home does not mean the structure itself has become Queen Victoria. We all know and understand this, so I don’t think we’re unreasonable to use Christian in the same way.

      Chris, I would hope the love we have for Jesus does spill over naturally into all we do, writing included, but fiction requires work. There’s a reason we say we need to learn the craft — fiction takes careful crafting. We may bring the love of Jesus to our writing, but I don’t think that negates the crafting element.

      When God commissioned the tabernacle, He assigned two craftsmen to be in charge, men who He gifted with the skill to do the work. He didn’t tell Moses to appoint the two people who loved Him most.

      I agree, however, that we should focus on our relationship with God first. I don’t think writing Christian fiction is an either/or proposition — either you focus on your faith or you focus on your fiction. I think we need to major in both. And part of learning to craft fiction well is to learn how to incorporate our themes in a seamless way.

      Becky

    • Timothy Fish September 26, 2011 at 9:12 am #

      Chris,

      In the sense that “Christian” means “like Christ”, I might be able to agree with your statement in that Christians should be trying to be like Christ and that every book they write should reflect that, no matter what the topic. But there is a big difference between a book on gardening and a book on theology. Yes, we would hope that anyone who read the book on gardening would recognize the humble, Christlike spirit of the author, but unless it were a book about growing the plants of the Bible, I don’t think anyone would call the gardening book Christian, whereas the theology book would most definately be called Christian.

      I don’t know what else we would call it, if we didn’t call it Christian, but I think it is important to realize that when we call a book Christian we aren’t basing that on how Christ-like the author is or how much of that spirit has flowed into his writing. I believe it comes down to the treatment of the subject.

  21. Chris Lovie-Tyler September 27, 2011 at 2:50 am #

    REBECCA:

    I take your point. Although, I think there’s more at stake in calling something a “Christian book” than there is in calling something “Chinese food”. (No offence to any Chinese readers! :-))

    I guess I’m thinking a few things:

    So often, the definition of what is a “Christian” book is very narrow, and even arbitrary. You can see this by looking at the differences in books stocked/not stocked by various Christian bookshops. Of course, the owners have a responsibility to make good choices, but what is thought to be “good” and “Christian” (or not) varies quite a bit.

    Labelling things “Christian” or “not Christian” can contribute to the (often false) secular-versus-Christian mindset, causing us to think that expressions of faith in one form are more legitimate, and valuable, than others.

    Will the fact that a book is not labelled “Christian” stop us reading it? Or, conversely, cause us to read it uncritically?

    We have to be wise about what we read, but if we only ever read “Christian” books, we’d miss a huge opportunity to enrich and strengthen our relationship with God by finding him in other, seemingly unlikely places.

    Sorry, I didn’t at all mean to imply that because a person loves Jesus, that is all that is needed to make them a good writer! I agree with you entirely about craft. I am constantly learning and practising it myself!

    I just meant that it has to start with loving him. If that relationship is not a burning, living reality, anything “Christian” we try to write will be lifeless. That’s what I meant by contriving something.

    And yes, it’s never an either/or proposition.

    TIMOTHY:

    Absolutely, there’s a world of difference between a book on gardening and a book on theology, in terms of their content, but does the fact that a book is explicitly about God make it more “Christian” than one that is not, if it has been written out of a place of faith and wanting to honour God? In one sense, yes, but in another, I would argue, no.

    Here’s a parallel:

    Doing the dishes can be as much an act of worship (sometimes more so, depending on where your heart is at) as singing an explicitly Christian “worship” song.

    In the same way, a book written about gardening can (potentially) be as much an act of worship, and therefore entitled to the word “Christian”, as a work of theology. Or maybe I’m stretching it? :-)

    For the above reasons, I’m hesitant to call a book “Christian”.

    Having said that, I understand that in the publishing world things need to be categorised, so this isn’t a clear-cut subject. And, maybe I’m being idealistic.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking topic, Karen. (And sorry the lengthy comment, everyone!)

    • Timothy Fish September 27, 2011 at 5:21 am #

      Chris,

      I agree that doing the dishes can be as much of an act of worship as singing. I would even go as far as to say that doing the dishes is more of an act of worship than singing when we consider that so many churches have turned their attention entirely to praise songs and worship is forgotten. The attitude with which you do the dishes is important, but that alone doesn’t make it worship. There’s a big difference between going over to an elderly church member’s house to wash the dishes and washing the dishes in the bar down the street or even the everyday chore of putting the dishes in the dishwasher at home.

      In the same fashion, we might ask what it takes to make writing a gardening book an act of service to God. I believe that requires that the book be written in such a way that it helps to carry out the mission that God has given us. If a book does that, it can rightly be called a Christian book, though from a marketing standpoint it may not be wise to limit it to Christian bookstores.

      But not every book written out of a desire to honor should be called a Christian book. We should always beware of offering “strange fire”. So often in the Bible we see examples of people who thought they were worshipping God, but God rejected their worship. Not only that, he killed them. A Christian book should be written in fear of the holy God. So many times in recent years, I’ve seen books that have been passed off as Christian and the authors seem to believe they are serving God by writing them, but the book is inconsistent with the Word of God. It would have been safer for the author and publisher if they had produced a plain Jane gardening book.

  22. Chris Lovie-Tyler September 28, 2011 at 12:57 am #

    Some good points, Timothy. And I think, to some degree, we might be talking at cross purposes: you’re focused on what might be required to legitimately call content “Christian”, and I’m focused on the legitimate expression of faith in all kinds of content (if that makes sense).

    I’m still hesitant to call a book “Christian”, per se, but I can appreciate much of what you, and others here, are saying.

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller September 28, 2011 at 11:51 am #

      So often, the definition of what is a “Christian” book is very narrow, and even arbitrary.

      I think that’s why I continue to engage in discussions like this, Chris. I don’t think the term should be narrow in one sense or arbitrary. In another sense, I think it should be very narrow.

      As I said in my first post, Christians know God in a way no one else does. That’s our distinctive and that’s pretty narrow and not at all arbitrary. But how we show this distinctive has broad application. There’s no “one way.” Some can write a story with Christian characters who struggle overtly with their faith or with putting it into practice in their lives. Others might write in a symbolic way, using their characters as types of Christ to show His forgiveness and love, His redemption and mercy, or even His justice and wrath. Some might write with a desire to encourage and edify the saints and others might write to introduce the unsaved to Christ.

      What I want to stand against is the idea that moral fiction (which some call clean fiction or safe fiction) is Christian fiction. That idea somehow pushed its way into the mix, it seems, but for anyone who believes the Bible, it’s clear that Christianity is not about following a list of rules (not to mention that any person espousing a different faith, including humanism, can write a moral story). It’s about a relationship with God made possible because of Christ’s sacrifice.

      I think some people resist this definition of Christian fiction because they think our stories will be limited and predictable, but I don’t believe that for a moment. God is infinite and Christ’s relationship with Peter was not the same as His relationship with John, or with Judas. Why, then, can’t our stories show His character in more depth and our relationships show variation?

      Becky

  23. Chris Lovie-Tyler September 29, 2011 at 12:14 am #

    Great points, Rebecca. I agree with everything you’ve said!

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