Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Christian Fiction

Let it be noted that what follows is a highly opinionated piece. I'm quite certain that not all of my assertions are correct, and that there are many others who know a lot more about the subject than I do. I don't expect everyone to agree with everything I've said. I simply ask that you take my ideas for what they are - rough and uncensored (in the best possible way). And know that I have the highest respect for published authors (with a few notable exceptions), and that I don't despise anyone's ministry. That being said, I think there's a problem with the Christian fiction market as a whole, and these are things that need to be called out and addressed. (I myself am not immune from falling into these errors in some of my own writing, so this is self-criticism as much as anything else).
    There’s nothing that I love more in the world than a bookstore. I love the smell of books, and the way that they look and feel. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a problem: whenever I enter any sort of store that sells books, I can’t leave without purchasing at least one (at least one). It’s not even that I really want to read all of the books that I buy (but I do), it’s more that I just need to own them, to have them constantly surrounding me at all times. I love stories, I love the way they make you feel, and I love how the best written ones have a soul and a life of their own.

     I believe that great storytellers are some of the most important humans in history. In my mind men like Homer, Virgil, Dante, and Shakespeare are just as important, if not more important, than the leading political and intellectual leaders of their (or any other) time. I’m also incredibly proud, as a Christian, to be a part of the Western literary tradition. Many of the West’s best authors, our greatest story tellers, have been Christians, and have sought to glorify God in their acts of sub-creation. But now, I suppose, I’ll get to the point of all this. It is my belief that the great Christian literary tradition has died out.

     What makes me say this? Well, I’m pretty sure we’ve all been to a Christian bookstore at least once (or at least all the people I know have), and we’ve seen what’s there, and read some (or a lot) of the books. Every time I go into one of those stores or read the latest Christian fiction sensation I come away with a deep sense of disappointment (that’s the mildest emotion that I feel). I’ve been thinking about it for a long time – what happened to the Dickens’ of the world, the Lewis Carrols’? The C.S. Lewis’? The Tolkiens’? Where are the Christians who are writing great literary masterpieces? Well, I’ve compiled a list of how I think Christian artists have gotten it wrong as a whole, and some things I think can be done to raise the quality of Christian fiction as a whole.

Where We Went Wrong (look at that alliteration!):
·         The Commercialization of Christianity: 
       A Christian Bookstore is a business. There's nothing inherently wrong with that, but as a business, and specifically as a solely Christian business, it has to have products to sell, namely books. So, how is this accomplished? Well, there's already a market for Christian fiction, all one simply needs to do is fill it by mass producing books. It is a fact that quantity is valued over quality in this business. If people like what you write, you are expected to start cranking out a crap ton of the same sort of thing, and, if you're popular enough, they'll get other people to write even more books under your name. It's called ghost writing and it's equally as prevalent in Christian authorial circles as it is elsewhere. This kind of framework give rise to three huge problems.
     Number one - Sketch theology. If you walk into a Christian bookstore at any given time you'll see hundreds of books for sale that contain heretical viewpoints. Christian self-help books are a big ticket item with a prosperity gospel message. The Shack is another one with theology that's blatantly heretical. Why would a so-called Christian bookstore sell such things? Answer - these books are best sellers that make a ton of money. As long as the author claims that the book is Christian, and God is sort of mentioned, it doesn't matter what the author is actually saying. Not all books in a Christian books store have flimsy theology, but I would probably argue that most do (well, a little less than most).
     Number two - Poor quality merchandise. I touched on this before, but most of the books for sale in these stores are more of a dime novel quality than of real literary merit. I've read higher quality fanfiction than some of the stuff they sell on those shelves. Now, I know you get that in every book market. In all honesty, the vast majority of books written ever are, how shall I say this, less than memorable.We can't all write the next great classic, and  I think we all know that even most best sellers will be forgotten in a few years. But again, if I'm being perfectly honest (and this is just my experience), there hasn't been any above average quality Christian writing in the past 50 years. I'm pretty sure the last great author was Tolkien. (And seriously, please correct me if I'm wrong, because I would love to find another Tolkien).
     Number three - hyper-specialized market. There was a time when Christians just wrote books. Dickens wrote books that stemmed from his Christian faith, but were not explicitly Christian. Tolkien's faith is never blatantly stated throughout any of his works, yet the Lord of the Rings is arguably as Christian as anything ever written. What's more, these books have appealed to thousands across generations, race, culture, class, etc. Christian literature has lost its mass appeal. By appealing only to Christians (and not even all Christians, but specifically to the born-again evangelical market) Christian bookstores have basically told all consumers and authors outside of its target market that what we have is not for them. A Christian bookstore is not a place frequented by the atheist, Mormon, or Muslim, because the things sold inside are deliberately not meant to reach them. Christians have started writing solely for themselves. This specialized market also creates a bad atmosphere for the aspiring Christian author. There's a sense that if you are a Christian, and you want to write, you have to write a specifically Christian book. In essence the Christian community has alienated itself from the outside world. We're not only not of the world, but we're not even in it anymore. Literature changes hearts and culture, and, as Christians working within a hyper-specialized market, we've given up our opportunity to use literature to change the hearts and minds of a generation.
·         Emotion over substance:
     Christian book mistake number two. Probably two thirds of Christian fiction can be classified as romance novels. I hate romance novels, I'm just putting my bias out there for everyone to see. I hate them, I think they're stupid and ridiculous. That being said, I don't hate romance itself. One of my very favorite books is about a girl named Sophie Hatter who falls in love with a Wizard named Howl, but that's more of a sub-plot than the point of the whole story. I am a girl, and I do think that romance between two characters can liven up a plot, but that's as far as I'm willing to go. I don't like romance novels on principle, and here's why: they're written (for the most part, I can think of several exceptions myself) to emotionally manipulate women. Now, do I believe that Christian romance authors are sitting at their writing tables cackling over their latest work? No. I think most of the authors are nice women who like the romance novel genre too. They like the emotional high that comes reading the books, from watching two characters fall in love. In one sense love is a good thing, romance is a good thing, but if consumed in excess I believe that romance novels can be incredibly damaging. In the end I think that most of the ones that they sell in the Christian book stores are no different in terms of substance than the Harlequin novels that they're attempting to 'purify'. And that's a problem. The manipulation of women's emotions are being used to sell books that have little or no redeeming qualities otherwise. In other words, they're substanceless.
     Now, I pick on Romance novels because they' make up the largest portion of the industry, but I can make he same complaint about the other 'Christian' books. Supernatural thrillers, for example, are incredibly popular and fall prey to the same issues. They exist to excite an emotional response, they have some obligatory mention of God, and then they're done, but they're no Screwtape letters. And I believe Christian supernatural thrillers are actually more spiritually dangerous for both readers and authors alike. Most deal with incredibly dark themes that are not treated, I believe with the appropriate severity. C.S. Lewis himself never attempted anything like the Screwtape letters again, because they were so spiritually draining (and that's coming from a master).

     So, what have we produced? Basically what the Christian world has now is a specialized market that's making little to no impact on the surrounding culture, that's overall poor in quality, unhealthy in theme, and lacking in substance. 

Where We Need To Go From Here:
·         Stop being poorly didactic:
     What do I mean by this? Well, it's simple: there's nothing wrong with a work of art being moralizing or instructive, if its done well. Most Christian books strive to have some sort of a moral theme, or strive to present the gospel within their work, but the overall effect is forced and trite. It's admirable to try and present a moral message, but honestly, it's better to do so with subtlety and tact than with blatant ineffectiveness. Example: Pilgrim's Progress V. The Faerie Queene. Both are Christian allegories with a moral message, and both are good, but the Faerie Queene is clearly the superior work. Why? Bunyan's allegory lacks grace and mystery. He pretty much names the characters what they are and personifies everything. The Faerie Queene, on the other hand, probably has more of an agenda than Pilgrim's Progress, but is infinitely more imaginative and effective than the latter.
     What can Christian writers do differently? Well, for starters, I believe that we should stop forcing God into our novels. Yes, you read that right, if you cannot find a way for God, a gospel presentation, etc. to be easily and nicely placed in your work it's best to not force it. Maybe that means you need to re-write what you've written, or maybe that means you shouldn't write an overtly Christian work, but until Christian authors realize that a work can still be deeply Christian without one single reference to God, it will hurt the overall quality of the work. I've seen it done badly in every genre, although it's probably the most irritating in fantasy. Authors try to be clever, but what they're really doing is inserting the western Christian religious system under a different name into a world in which it doesn't belong. It's simply not necessary, and it serves to distract the reader from other important story elements.
     That being said, I've seen things done poorly the other way around as well. In an attempt not to be preachy authors pass up opportunities to use the western Christian tradition in places where it would be wholly appropriate. If you're writing a story about a priest it would be silly of you to never mention God. The man's a priest, he talks about God for a living. Also certain period pieces can have characters that would be wholly comfortable talking about religious subjects. The point is, all books (should) have a message that they're trying to convey, but authors should strive to not weigh their books down with moral elements that don't fit. And for the love of cheese don't moralize badly, writing is an art, no one wants to read  a diatribe of your plot irrelevant opinions.  
·         Have a real message:
     This is closely related to my previous suggestion, but deserves its own section. You've all heard the saying 'If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all.' Well, I'm adding my own saying: 'If you have nothing important to say, don't write a book.' That may seem a bit harsh, but really, stories aren't simply entertainment, they tools. As Christians we should use the tools available to us to touch the hearts and minds of those around us. How do we do that? But writing things with themes that are universally accessible and important. To pick on Romance novels again, that's one of the reasons I can't stand them. If those books didn't exist, the world would not be a worse place. Sure they're about love, but for most, its not a powerful or memorable love, it's just an emotion, and the books themselves have no real point or message. Do you know who's actually a good romance author (even if she isn't my personal favorite)? Jane Austen. Why? Because her books are about far more than the emotional attraction between two people. Another good one? Elizabeth Bronte. Wuthering Heights is a fantastic example of how love should not look. In each case, the author had something she wanted to convey, whether it was a moral message, or something even deeper, and she conveyed it. That's what the best books do, and that's what Christians ought to do, for we've been given the best deck of cards to deal with (is that a metaphor? I'm making that a metaphor).
·       Strive for beauty:
     This, in my opinion, is the most difficult and most important thing for any author to accomplish. Yet for Christians, I think it should be a requirement. Human beings are made in the image of God. As such we are sub-creators, and what is writing but an act of sub-creation? When we write, we are engaging in an act of worship. When Christian authors write, I wish they would look at their work as an expression of their love for God (and I'm sure many do). To strive to make the words they say, the sentences they construct, the final sum of their thoughts, as beautiful and magnificent as possible. Not everyone is going to be able to move an audience to tears with a single sentence, but if our works are filled with as much love and care as possible, that's a triumph in its own right. Stories are beautiful things. They have a life of their own in a sense. Our job as authors is to give rise to them, and then to help them as they grow. Not all of them will grow up to be great epics, some may only be homely dime store novels, and some may not survive, but if more Christians would strive to create something beautiful, I cannot help but think that God would honor that.



  1. Oh, Wow. So when you had your disclaimer there at the top of this post here I was like "Oh, no..." because, as I'm sure you know, I read a LOT of Christian fiction. However, I agreed with probably about everything you said.

    Though I do enjoy the occasional Christian fiction book- although I read a lot more of them than I actually enjoy- I've been really disillusioned with the Christian fiction market in general because it is, indeed, a business- I've read so many books from the market that are just, as you said, heretical! Or are just really badly written and are just out there to get money (and yes- they are SUPER genre specialized...sometimes I just want a lovely Dickens-esque novel with romance, mystery, suspense and good morals, and there just aren't many books that have all those things together) In fact, my disappointment with Christian publishing is the main reason I decided to forgo the usual route when publishing my books.

    Well, I do like romance novels- if they're not filled with kisses or mushiness because I agree- it's all about eliciting a certain emotion from the reader. I like romance that's sweet and intellectual and godly, not a solely physical, steamy novel! I've been really surprised and disappointed at how many "Christian" novels are like this. (Thankfully, after years of reading, I've sort of found "my" authors that don't rely on this and can actually tell a decent story, though they're not to the level of Tolkien :)

    Also, it's always hard for me to review Christian fiction, because when I give a modern (Christian or nonChristian) book, say, a 9 out of 10, it might be a 9 out of 10 compared to other modern/Christian books, but it would probably be, like...a 6 or a 7 compared to classic books.

    It's hard writing, too...whenever I read modern fiction I'm always like, "yeah, my writing isn't so bad...I think it's better than *this*." And then I read a classic and I'm like, "My Writing is TERRIBLE!"

    Ah, well. Sorry for my super long comment. :)

    1. I'm glad there's someone else who shares my concerns! And the Romance novel thing is mostly a personal preference, I'm just a super unemotional person I guess :p

      Also, I really admire your decision to self-publish. Even a few years ago self-publishing was really the only option for people who weren't good enough to get really published, but all that's changed drastically, especially with the invention of the e-reader. Now people can just go and sort of look for themselves what they want to read, and it's getting easier for first time authors to get noticed!

      And, about writing, I totally have had those moments where I'm like, you know what? I could write a book and I'm pretty sure it would be better than most of the stuff out there, and then I read something and am just like 'Noooooooooo, I'm a terrible writer! I'll never be good enough!' It's a vicious and crippling cycle. Maybe that's why I never finish anything...

      Anyways, thanks for taking the time to read this super long post! I just now realized how long it was... :)


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