Friday, November 1, 2013

What is Christian Fiction?


“Every good story, well told, is a moral story” 
Ben Marshall*  

Over the last few months CWD contributors have reminded us 1) of the call not water down our faith just “to fit in” to society and 2) thechallenge to write fiction that connects with non-Christians. And for others, the aim is just to write good fiction. This forms part of a wider debate among faith inspired writers about whether or not to write “cross-over fiction” – fiction that breaks through the Christian “bubble.” The debate can become very passionate as different writers take a strong stand on what they believe to be paramount.


So, what is “Christian fiction”? Do we need “cross-over” fiction?  Where do you stand on the spectrum between a strong, pure message and culturally relevant fiction?

It seems that in the U.S., “Christian fiction” is strictly defined – no sex scenes, no swearing, avoidance of controversial or unsavoury subjects (such as drug use, unwed mothers, avoidance of (extreme) violence). It often includes saintly characters, conversion scenes, long prayers and scripture verses. These strict criteria don’t necessarily reflect the Australian Christian fiction scene and there is a move to write edgier fiction even in the U.S. Nevertheless, the criticism of such highly sanitised fiction is that it is unreal and a total put off to most non-Christian readers. Such fiction is written by Christians, published by Christians, sold almost exclusively in Christian bookshops (or shelved in the Christian section of secular bookshops) and read by Christians.

In reaction to this ghettoisation of Christian literature, a number of vocal Christians seek to write fiction for the general market, for example Mike Duran, PortYonder Press (PYP). Chila Woychik of PYP wants fiction “devoid of preaching, Bible verses, conversion scenes” and prefers fiction that deals with “universal themes.”  

Other less narrow definitions of Christian fiction include fiction that is prepared to deal with the nitty gritty of real life in the context of (redemptive) Christian themes; fiction that portrays a Christian world view without necessarily having conversion scenes or overtly Christian content; or even fiction that is written by a Christian. After all, Christians are engaged in most occupations. Do Christian builders only build churches and other religious buildings?

As I think about all this, I wrestle with a number of questions:

  •           If characters are so saintly that they never struggle with temptation or the realities of modern life or fail in any significant way, isn't this escapist? Not only does it not connect to people outside the Christian bubble, it gives Christians a dubious picture of what it means to be a Christian.
  •           Could the Bible be published under such strict criteria? It deals with realities of life, tells the stories of prostitutes, incest, massacres, murderers and doesn't spare the details.
  •           Does all Christian fiction have to conform to one template? The Bible is composed of 66 books – different authors, contexts and genres – some put prayer, conversions scenes, revelations, supernatural occurrences etc at the forefront (Genesis, Exodus, the Gospels, Acts) while others are more subtle (e.g. Ruth, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Esther, Jesus’ Parables) or highly symbolic or cryptic (Parts of Ezekiel, Daniel, Revelation). In fact Esther doesn't once mention the name of God though His presence and actions are clearly implicit in the story.
  •           On the other hand, if prayer, reliance on scripture and even miracles (God at work) are a genuine part our Christian experience, why shouldn't these be portrayed in our fiction?


While the Christian fiction scene in Australia doesn't seem to display such passionate polarisation, these questions are still relevant. In many ways, it reflects the difference stances on how Christians should engage with the wider society. Should we be part of a holy enclave (a beacon of light against the darkness of night that draws people to them), should we be ambassadors of hope (who learn the language and rub shoulders with people Jesus died to save) or is it our job to change society (moral crusaders against decay)? Jesus uses the analogy of both salt and light - a light on a hill that attracts but also salt which needs to mix with the world to do any good (Matt 5:13-16). We are to be in the world but not of it (John 17:15-16). This is as much about who we are as what we say. Jesus embodied this – as both the light of the world and the incarnational saviour who eschewed religious jargon and rubbed shoulders with the wrongdoers.

Western society is changing and at a rapid pace. It is becoming increasingly secular, postmodern and even (in some quarters) virulently anti-Christian. We need to be its salt and light.  So let’s avoid being hermetically sealed off from society – so foreign that we might as well be speaking an unintelligible language. On the other hand, let’s beware becoming so like everyone else that we have lost our life giving “savour”.

Our God loves variety. We can see this in the created world, in the nature of the Bible, in the body life of His people (one body, many parts and giftings). In fact, the health of the body depends on the functioning of its different parts. Love builds the body up, disunity destroys it (1 Cor13).

So let me encourage you to be true to the calling God has given you. Hold on to the truth of the gospel, the need to incarnate it to a dying world and to do everything in love. Let’s acknowledge that what it means to be a Christian writer is different for different people. Let’s continue to encourage each other and to explore what means to write as Christians – whether this is overtly Christian, cross-over or just good fiction that subtly radiates the grace of God.

Jeanette O'Hagan

Jeanette lives in Brisbane, has practiced medicine, taught theology, spoken at various groups & is currently caring for her children, studying writing at Swinburne & writing her Akrad series.




  Images by Jeanette O'Hagan 

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20 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    1. Hi Jenny
      You make some great points. Generalisations are often flawed. Thanks for your comments.

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  2. That was a great post Jeanette. We certainly need to be salt and light through our writing, though as you say, "what it means to be a Christian writer is different for different people". I think there's a place for the more sanitised fiction, but I also don't like reading books where the Christian characters are too perfect and don't have struggles. I've read a few where the hero or heroine were too good to be true. One of the best books I've read this year was "The Light Between Oceans" by M. L. Steadman. It was published in the mainstream market and became a bestseller. As the characters worked through a complicated moral dilemma, it really got me thinking about right and wrong and the grey area in between. There were brief mentions of God and prayer, but the dilemma in the book really got me thinking about where I stood spiritually on the issue. I read lots of Christian books that are mainly marketed at Christians and I've enjoyed them. They certainly have their place and have been a blessing to many people. But I'd also love to see more Christians doing the kind of book that Steadman has done. The popularity of Jodi Picoult's books also shows that mainstream readers are hungry for books that deal with moral dilemmas. If we can write good fiction from a Christian worldview that is not preachy, we may have a greater chance of reaching those who wouldn't step inside a Christian bookstore.

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    1. Thanks Nola. I've got "The Light Between Oceans" on my to-read list as well as Jodi Picoult's "My Sister's Keeper". I agree with you that fiction written for Christians has an important place. I've read, enjoyed and benefited from such works. I also like your statement "If we can write good fiction from a Christian worldview that is not preachy, we may have a greater chance of reaching those who wouldn't step inside a Christian bookstore." There is a difference between adapting our presentation of the message so that it connects with those with little or no contact with the church and altering (or downplaying) the core. Both Paul and Jesus are our models. Paul who "became a Gentile to win the Gentiles to win some" and Jesus who put aside the prerogatives of his divinity and became human - to win a world.

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  3. Thanks, Jeanette, for a very thoughtful blog on this topic. I've always said I'd love to be called a Christian writer of fiction rather than a writer of Christian fiction, because of the difficulty of defining exactly what 'Christian fiction' is. As you say, it's all about knowing what God has called you to write, then writing it! And Nola, now you've whetted my appetite to read that book by Steadman!

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    1. I really loved it Jo. What seems so black and white at the beginning of the book becomes greyer as you go on. Well worth the read.

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  4. “Anything a Christian writes must reflect the truth of God’s account. If as a Christian we don’t write from a biblical worldview, we’re not portraying reality as it is.” Ann Tatlock

    I agree with Ann Tatlock - as a Christian, we can only write based on truth as we understand it. That may be for the Christian market, or for the general market (and it's probably saying something about both that I misread 'saintly characters' as 'sanctified characters', perhaps reflecting how out of touch with reality characters in some Christian novels are).

    I've also explored this idea in a couple of articles on my website: http://christianediting.co.nz/how-to-write-a-christian-novel-defining-your-genre-4/

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    1. Hi Iola
      I knew I had read an article by you on this area and went searching for it to reference - so thanks for providing the link. I like Ann Tatlock's comment.

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  5. Thoughtful post, Jeanette.This is always an intriguing discussion.

    One of the things I find is often left out of the discussion is reading Christian fiction helps in our disciplining process. I wrote Angelguard with the typical (?) Christian in mind. I believe spiritual warfare and prayer's power can be understated so I wanted to encourage believers to better understand both ideas.

    We've got to write the stories we're called to write. If we're called to write the next Les Miz or Lord of the Rings then great. It's like any vocation, if we're in the office it's generally not a great idea to stand up on the soap box and preach, however, it's in how we love our fellow employees and such that has the strongest impact.

    As an author we have lots of opportunities to love others who may not be believers and demonstrate the light & saltiness in us.

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    1. Hi Ian
      I agree - good Christian fiction can have a huge impact on our Christian development. I made a similar point in my earlier post The World of Books http://christianwritersdownunder.blogspot.com.au/2013/08/the-world-of-books.html . Sometimes the influence is subtle - sometimes it was more dramatic. For example, as a 11 year old, reading Patricia St John's The Tanglewoods Secret helped me to more fully understand the concept of living by faith that transformed my walk with God.

      I like your thought "It's like any vocation, if we're in the office it's generally not a great idea to stand up on the soap box and preach, however, it's in how we love our fellow employees and such that has the strongest impact." Those opportunities to speak about our faith may arise but it is not just what we say but how we live that counts - and of course, the Spirit of God at work in the minds and hearts of people.

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  6. Great post Jenny. I am not a fiction writer primarily. But I fully agree with you that each of us needs to stay true to our calling - no matter what we write. That we should encourage each other. That we should let God be known through whatever means we use - whether implicitly or explicity. Thank you for your words of wisdom. Well said.

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    1. Thanks Anusha

      BTW I wrote a response to your blog yesterday, just before dashing out to pick up the kids from school - and at the last minute clicked sign-out (google account) rather than publish. Needless to say, all my good words were lost in the ether. I'll have to tell you about my grandfather another time ;) I enjoyed your post, as always.

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    2. Thanks for that response Jenny. Don't worry it being lost in cyberspace - perhaps it will be uncovered in the new heavens and the new earth one day! :) Will look forward to hearing about your grandfather sometime.

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  7. Thanks Jenny for a really thoughtful post. I, like Anusha, write predominantly non-fiction (biographical) however, have been recently stretched to include a fantasy story in snippets at the beginning of each chapter of my current non-fiction WIP. Never done anything like this in the past so it was a real challenge but I found it to be both fun and frustrating.

    My first book was written for the trade market and contained an element of forgiveness. We certainly didn't hide the fact that Ken forgave his daughter's killer but we didn't focus too heavily on that aspect of the story either as in the Christian meaning of forgiveness, why we should forgive in all circumstances etc.

    Nevertheless, we have been continually wowed by comments about forgiving in such an extreme circumstance by people who don't necessarily have any 'religious' affiliation. A couple of years later we released a book covering the same story but including much more about the issue of forgiving in all circumstances not just the extreme ones. Again we were wowed by the feedback we got.

    My point is that as Christian writers we should write what we believe to be what God would have us convey to our target audience. We have the opportunity to be both salt and light through the gift of words and I do believe that as Christian writers we must write the truth about the hope we have.

    Really enjoyed your post and the responses from all of the above writers. Well done.

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    1. Thanks Lesley. Ken's story is such a powerful story and it's wonderful that it has reached the hearts and lives of many. Thanks for sharing it.

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  8. Great post Jenny. Loved it. I believe we have Christians who write rather than use the term Christian fiction. As writers if we want to reach those outside the church we need to be able to write believable characters struggling with problems and coming through with God's help.

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    1. Thanks Dale. I agree - that is what we find in the Bible - real people, real problems and a real God.

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