How Should We Then Upgrade Christian Fiction?

Picture: pear83 via sxc.hu

It’s a truth globally agreed upon: Young evangelical readers should be able to find Christian fiction beyond historicals, Amish romances, and subpar stories in all genres.

What isn’t as universally acknowledged is how to fill this need.

On July 29 The Weekly Standard’s Jon L. Breen arrived to this conversation and extolled author J. Mark Bertrand’s crime novels from Christian publisher Bethany House. In Breen’s view, Bertrand’s talents have been underappreciated and likely restricted:

J. Mark Bertrand deserves a wider readership than a religious publisher affords. Many writers are able to carry readers along by employing nice phrases and descriptive passages, bits of humor, character involvement, and curiosity about how it will all turn out. But few have Bertrand’s relentless narrative power.

This is encouraging. First, it’s great to see a Christian author gaining recognition. Second, Breen moves beyond Christian-fiction stereotypes, recognizing that publishers are relaxing restrictions and even exploring new genres.

Still, Bertrand is now without a publisher, and as paranormal author Mike Duran wrote, “The real victim in this tale of intrigue is not J. Mark Bertrand. It’s the industry that forces him to look elsewhere.”

Yes, despite some changes, excellent Christian novels of crime and other genres don’t gain success. But I believe it’s up to readers to encourage this change. And that starts by diagnosing why current demands for better Christian fiction are simply not working.

Crime fiction is not my favorite genre, I admit. But I’ve known a few Christian crime authors and spent a year working at a Lifeway Christian Store. Most evangelical publishers target such stores, which are patronized by what one indie press founder affectionately called the “little old lady brigade.” For these dear folks, it doesn’t matter if fiction is written well; ergo, all the blogs I’ve read about the need for deeper writing or better marketing won’t accomplish much if these customers aren’t buying. Many of them only want to be entertained safely.

“Yes,” some might reply, “and that’s the problem! Christian readers want subculture ‘safety.’ So let’s have more unsafe fiction, less rules against language, and more gritty content.”

But that “solution” only brings two further problems.

First, many readers think tamed-down, swear-word-free crime fiction is the “unsafe” stuff. They love reading about a severely decomposed body floating in a cabin’s Jacuzzi (an actual scene from Brandilyn Collins’s Violet Dawn). To them, that’s thrilling. It’s gritty. It’s edgy. They’re quite happy to dispense with fiction censorship — to an extent. Thus, evangelical publishers can simply insist, “You want grittier content? That’s what we’re already doing.”

But the second problem is worse: If readers insisted only on loosening content restrictions, fewer authors — let alone readers — know why. Do we want to evangelize more readers? To entertain better? To prove to non-Christians that we’re also cool and gritty? Those are at best secondary goals, and it only repeats the pragmatism behind older content restrictions.

Instead of proposing surface-level solutions, Christians must consider this question:

According to the Bible, what is the “chief end” of story?

Is it evangelism? Gritty realism? Entertainment? Or a higher goal?

Only when we’ve explored the answer can we better promote the stories we love, and even pressure publishers to go beyond Amish books and crime novels where even street-gang murderers aren’t allowed to give a darn.

About E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett is a journalist, aspiring novelist, and editor and webslinger at Speculative Faith. His mission: to explore and enjoy epic stories that reflect the truths and beauties of the first and greatest Epic Story, God’s Word. He also writes for a dynamic news franchise in Austin, Texas and delves into Christ-and-culture doctrine at Christ and Pop Culture. He also enjoys nonfiction, soundtrack music, and spending life with his wife, Lacy, in their Texas headquarters.

  • Randy Streu

    It so often comes back to the same argument. The answer to “what’s wrong with Christian fiction” seems to boil down to: “There’s no cussin’.”

    I’m not trying to get all puritanical on language or anything (and I’d be a huge hypocrite if I was), but I get really annoyed that the “answer” for better Christian fiction seems to nearly always revolve around mimicking secular work. Plenty of secular books have quality without grit. If Christian writers NEED grit for quality, maybe the answer is simply that they suck as writers. (And since we know that’s not the case, maybe it’s high time we look elsewhere for a solution.)

  • bluegrassgospel

    I’m 54, I *love* crime fiction, and I have never once darkened the door of a Lifeway. Bring on the grit, I say. And, as Randy Streu says, there’s more to it than cussin’. Brandon Clements, Michael Robert Wolf, Chris Well (the only crime novelist among these) — I love ‘em all. Thanks for this wake-up call to Christian publishers, and for the names of other novelists to check out.

  • Nick Robbins

    I agree with the sentiment that “Christian Fiction” is empty as a stand alone genre, much like “Contemporary Christian music.” So much of it has been an attempt at mimicry so that Christians can maintain their “safe” bubble, pretending to be as interesting as the world around them. Like so many half-a** measures, it falls flat. In maintaining the “safe” bubble, creatives remove so much of the reality that *real people* deal with on a daily basis, they leave a caricature of Leave it to Beaver-like plastic characters. We can no longer deal with cultural issues by trying to bury them.

    Like Randy Streu said, there is a need for Christians who are better writers(or musicians, filmmakers, etc…) in the broader market. No one wants drawn out and contrived Sinners Prayer scenes, or much religion at all unless it advances and serves a purpose within the story. Christians can be as character driven as the next sinner, and portraying that balance is rare from either side.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Bring on the grit, I say.

    To which, again, I ask: why?

    If Christians don’t have any more well-thought-out and above all Biblical reasons for “grit,” then we have no more reasons for Grit than we have against the Bad Language. All our “solutions” are just as artistically shallow.

    EDIT: Again, I agree Christian fiction needs more realism and less restrictions. But without reasoning why, we’ll only fall into legalism all over again, a new legalism of the “you must have this” variety, as opposed to the current legalism of the “you must not have this” variety. It’s first absolutely vital to discuss what Biblical purpose fiction has in the first place: What is the “chief end” of story (and art)?

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I agree with the sentiment that “Christian Fiction” is empty as a stand alone genre, much like “Contemporary Christian music.

    I share neither sentiment, by the way. :-)

    So long as there is a place for “Christian” anything — and there is, because in at least one sense the Church must act as a called-out people — there will be a place for Christian Music and Christian Fiction.

    I say this because I do not answer my above question — what is the “chief end” of story? — with the word, “evangelism.”

    There is more to the Christian life than evangelism. Or moralism.

    And do recall that one of the original reasons behind many of the wrongful bans against cusswords and Grit™ in fiction was “we are trying to show that we are different and reach the world.” If the Christian’s mantra for art or doing anything is first and foremost “we must be different from X,” e.g., reaction-based, we have failed.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I get really annoyed that the “answer” for better Christian fiction seems to nearly always revolve around mimicking secular work. Plenty of secular books have quality without grit.

    Thank you. Yes. This.

    As mentioned in the above comment — and in the original column — people are too eager to skip to let’s-do-this application without the why.

    Let’s not be so unimaginative as to cry “more cusswords! more Grit™!” (which, again, isn’t working anyway) without first exploring this question:

    What is the “chief end” of story?

    Without that, I could shut down every single argument regarding Christian fiction or art or anything like that with a simple: “Why waste time with fiction and art anyway? People are dying in foreign lands and all this is worthless.”

  • bluegrassgospel

    Biblical reasons? More verses than I can list here. The authors I’ve cited tell the truth — as in the freeing kind — not gratuitously, but to remind us to take up our cross daily, to be where Jesus is with the oppressed and the broken. The attachment of a huge swath of consumers to their creature comforts and their prejudices does not mitigate the need for Christian authors to get real and to use fiction to remind us of why and where we are called. Just because grit is used gratuitously by some doesn’t mean it should be abandoned by all. As for why to evangelize through art, it’s where people are. The fact that they have clean drinking water doesn’t make them any less worth saving. And the purpose of evangelism doesn’t have to make art any less artistic. You say why, I say why not, I guess.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I’ve seen both sides of the “moralistic evangelical” coin. On the one hand I became good friends with someone who ended up burning me over the disputes we had about his moralism. I don’t think I’ll ever meet anyone else as extreme as he was. On the other hand, I know some people who aren’t quite that extreme but still pretty strict (no PG movies, not allowed to say “darn,” etc.) and they’re my best friends in the world—actually some of the most fun and generous people you’ll meet.

    It’s what’s in the heart that counts.

  • Sarah Eleanor

    Those who love Christ and are called to write need to pray, learn how to become a skilled writer, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite, and then pray again that God will open doors to the right publisher. When we over-think the marketing angle of our work we often forget that what may be impossible for man is indeed possible for God. I have to believe that if my master was a master storyteller who shared the gospel through parable as often as He did through direct statement (if not more), He is more than able to make me by His Holy Spirit into the best writer I can possibly be. So in answer to this article’s question-I think we need to create an environment that fosters good writers who also happen to be Christians.

  • Annie Vocature Bullock

    Truth. That’s the end of storytelling. The truth about love, beauty, God, death, sex, and what it means to be a human being.

  • Nick Robbins

    If the Christian’s mantra for art or doing anything is first and foremost “we must be different from X,” e.g., reaction-based, we have failed.

    I think we agree on more than you think, and answer your question of “chief ends” with another: Who are you trying to communicate with? The chief end of any story is communication, deeper than simple speech, blending concept and feeling into a complete image.

    On that point I may have been reactionary, since the idea being communicated depends on the target audience. Christians communicate differently with other believers than they do with the world. Those differing levels leave room for “Christian” media as you say.

    Deeper Christian concepts can be expounded on effectively with fiction, and the extent of “grit” depends on how effectively it helps express the end concept, same as any story. But if one is simply trying to tell a good story, why limit it to the “Christian” market? Downton Abbey had a point with the line “Profanity is no substitute for wit.”

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    The authors I’ve cited tell the truth — as in the freeing kind — not gratuitously, but to remind us to take up our cross daily, to be where Jesus is with the oppressed and the broken.

    I agree, but still consider this only a step toward a better answer. If the purpose is telling the truth or moral edification, as you described, we can do this more efficiently with nonfiction. Beyond truth-telling, beyond encouraging evangelism and edification (all good things, yet also all reasons cited by restrictive Christian publishing, by the way!), what purpose fiction and art? Would we have had any place for them in a world never fallen? Or will we have any place for them when Christ makes the world new? If not, why waste time with them now?

    Methinks the phrase “chief end” is a dead giveaway for doctri-nerds. And perhaps a future CAPC feature will more proactively explore “The Chief End of Story.”

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I also think we might agree, though I would challenge with this: “Communicating … to what end?” It sounds like every one of the attributes you listed are just as easily communicated by nonfiction. And in fact, many Christians would argue that if this is the only purpose of story, why not simply skip the extraneous stuff and go straight to the point with nonfiction?

    Understand, I’m mainly hoping to spur discussion here, and not set up myself as having “the right answer” to the question. But I do believe I may have reduced the answer to a simple statement, based on Scripture’s main purpose and also clarifying language from folks like (of course) C.S. Lewis, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, and John Piper (who, alas, has not publicly and more fully explored his life’s thesis’s applications to art and fiction). And I think that simple statement about story/art helps clarify and put in perspective all the other reasons Christians offer for it.

    Either way, another CAPC feature on this may be in order.

  • Nick Robbins

    Why do preachers use anecdotes in their sermons? Such little fictions provide depth and illustration to their non-fictional core. “Skipping straight to the point” evades any exploration of a concept beyond the creator’s immediate experience. How are we to communicate when consumed with our own experience, without considering others?

    I’m enjoying this discussion, as I wrestle with the issue myself quite a bit. Your reduction of “To what end…?” would be well used in many aspects of Christian life apart from art.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    You looking for volunteers? I’ve got a piece I wrote a while back that might do you very nicely for that topic if I dusted it off and touched it up a bit.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Yet truth without beauty becomes deceptive.

    I agree that stories should be based in truth. Yet what advantage has story above plain didactic doctrine or nonfiction? One answer, as one Christian novelist said at a conference: “‘Thou should not’ touches the mind. ‘Once upon a time’ touches the heart.” “To touch the heart,” then, is another purpose of story — “to touch the heart” in ways nonfiction simply can’t.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I’m enjoying this too, Nick, which is why I keep following it even while on vacation and without regular internet access.

    For me this has been a life-changing topic, along with the truth that Scripture has all along been announcing Christ’s redemption of the whole person beyond specifically evangelical concerns such as church life and evangelism, and the whole physical world, and has been encouraging our application of these truths to our own lives and to our practices of urging others to repent and also join Christ’s transforming kingdom.

    That’s why I tackle such topics, because while I agree with the impulse behind “Christian fiction is lame,” I’m eager to challenge even those impulses — which often focus only on externals — by asking, “Aren’t we trying to do the same thing the original Christian fiction rule-makers were doing? Aren’t we simply reaffirming their subconscious assumption — that ‘the purpose of story is to Reach Those Unbelievers’ — and only adding: ‘Yes, but we need to do this more effectively!’”? What does Scripture say?

    This gently satirical piece on Spec-Faith, How To Be A Silly Christian Fiction Critic (to which CAPC so generously linked), was one of the reasons I joined CAPC. Here’s a relevant quote from the satirical tips toward such criticism:

    ——————————
    7. Don’t challenge your silent acceptance of evangelical change-the-world tropes.

    Many evangelical readers, authors, and publishers seem to think something like this:

    We must change the world through our fiction. Story’s purpose is not to glorify God by exploring beauties and truths of Himself, people, and His creation. Instead story’s purpose is to entertain, or evangelize, or morally edify, and Change the World.

    So as a silly Christian fiction critic, you are bound to respond:

    Yes, oh evangelical fiction industry, your core assumptions are exactly correct.

    Your only problem is: you’re doing it wrong.

    Your stories must be more entertaining, and not so “cleaned up.” That way you’ll be able to do evangelism better, and will not put people off Christianity.

    Also, in all your moral edification — family values and patriotism and anti-abortion are nice, but they’re also very off-putting. Let’s have more stories about the values I support, such as challenging intolerance or hatred of gays, or caring for the poor, or even squishy beliefs like ecumenism or universalism.

    Maintain this line. Never give up, never surrender. Never consider whether subpar stories result because of these assumptions, not despite them. Never consider what Scripture says about great stories: that they’re not for its own sake, or ours, but to reflect our Author.
    ——————————

    Note: I am not insinuating any such attitude here, but I have seen it in other articles, blogs, and reviews, and I have often suspected this view in myself.

    Of course, I don’t mean to imply at all that I have every answer to this! But, I do hope to look back to how Biblical Christians have Biblically and historically approached how we live in every field of life — specifically the truth of “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). And I believe:

    1. Art/story doesn’t come from a reaction-based, Avoid X first-principle, e.g., as a response to some sin. Its mission is foremost a positive: “do this to the glory of God.”

    2. “Glorify God” means to get more of God. To worship Him. Learn of Him. Love Him. Be like Him.

    3. “Glorify God” does not mean specifically “religious” activities. For the Christian modes of worshiping Him may even occur subconsciously. Though sin still corrupts, we are being redeemed to glorify Him.

    Perhaps that will help explain where I’m going with this challenge about the “chief end” of fiction.

  • Susan_G1

    Not by conscripting someone else’s famous book title for a lesser use. That is now a cliche.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    So, I share two stories that are pure personal experience, and someone disliked it. Oh, hi Susan.

  • Susan_G1

    Can you explain what you mean by ‘truth without beauty becomes deceptive’? Is there not ugly truth that can be told in a skillful manner? I just read The Tattooed Soldier. It is a tale about revenge, and the cost it exacts to one’s soul. Because I’m a Christian, I find God’s truth in it as well. There is precious little beauty in this sad story.

  • http://www.fromnothingcomics.com/ Steve Crespo

    http://www.marcherlordpress.com is trying to make a difference in Christian fiction.

    Check them out.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Ecclesiastes seems a good example of what Christian fiction could be based on. Lots of grit for sure and no cussing. And end of story here is the end of story in all our affairs.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I can’t speak for Stephen, but here are my brief thoughts (it would take an entire article to flesh these out in detail). I think that truth presented harshly, without any hint of light, hope or redemption, is not as valuable to the Christian as a truth that is informed by those things. This is why I’ve always had trouble getting into Flannery O’Connor. For the majority of her stories, with a couple exceptions, it seems that she’s trying to shock the reader and then leave them hanging and numb at the end of the sordid tale, without much of a point beyond “People can be really rotten to each other.”

    A steady diet of hopeless fiction darkens the mind and leaves it starved for something more. This is particularly true when an author revels in shocking, gory details. Fiction should nourish, not starve. If one must needs walk through a dark valley to get where he is going, he must not leave the reader in the valley without at least showing him a glimpse of what lies beyond.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I think I’d agree with Esther. I would also suggest, in the words of Doctor Who one-off character Sally Sparrow (from the series 3 episode “Blink”), that “sad is happy for deep people.”

    I’m not familiar with the story you referenced, Susan, but it sounds to me to have a kind of “backward beauty,” a beauty-by-contrast, a beauty in the how of the writing even if not as much the what. Did the story’s truthful representation of the consequences of vengeful thinking bring a kind of darkness? And yet thanks to that truthful darkness, did the colors of beauty outside the story seem even a little brighter? Then the story had beauty by proxy — even if that beauty was despite itself.

    That’s also why I enjoy some “darker” fiction, such as The Hunger Games (though this is not my favorite genre), because even though the story itself contains some hints of hope, and is clearly not meant to endorse darkness-and-ugliness for its own sake, it is at least “beautiful” because it’s well-written, and because its contrast helps the common-grace beauty in our world stand out even more. Yet there’s a difference between this and the stuff that’s only meant to indulge in darkness.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    Steve, after the recent Realm Makers conference, I’ll have a feature about Marcher Lord Press and other small Christian-speculative presses coming up here on CAPC. How did you know?

    Advance disclaimer: I’m a fan of MLP, hope to join ‘em, and eagerly promote several of its books. One of the best is Konig’s Fire, a paranormal historical fantasy following a reluctant Nazi guard at a prison being besieged by groaning, vengeful nature itself. That story is as Gritty as you like, yet without cussing (no need!) and with purpose behind the Grit. The author is mature enough to know the why behind the what, and explore it with honest darkness yet for God’s glory.

  • E. Stephen Burnett

    I’m afraid it’s even worse in the first two ‘graphs of the piece.

    The point there was to tribute/reference Schaeffer without directly quoting him — and to reference the other as a better example of a “Christian novel.”

  • Susan_G1

    Esther, I find myself largely agreeing with you, that even in the darkest novels, the best ones leave you with some hope. But novels which leave no hope (just finished “Swimming Home” in which all the characters are left hopeless and the main character indulges in the ultimate hopeless action.) I don’t have a steady diet of these; that would be sad indeed, for I’d be missing out on a lot of good books. But I can appreciate them as deep reflections on some of life’s deepest truths: life is often simply awful for many, with no answers but to acknowledge despair. I don’t see this as a drawback to good fiction, even great fiction. I think “beauty by proxy/contrast” says it best.

  • Esther O’Reilly

    A related article, perhaps: The 5 Worst Books for Your Children.

    http://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2013/07/22/the-5-worst-books-for-your-children/

  • Susan_G1

    Oh dear, now we get to disagree. My homeschooled kids read 4 of these five books. Do you love Roald Dahl? We do. Parents being killed by rhinos on the first page… When we were studying governments, I read the boys “Animal Farm”; when Boxer died, my youngest said he’d never let me read him a story again (that lasted a few hours.) How could one tell them the story of Noah if you’re trying to protect them?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    Actually I’ve never read any Dahl books, though I’ve seen some of his work in the screenplay for _Chitty Chitty Bang Bang_.

    I think the writer of the article is trying to get at the fact that if children read a gruesomely violent description of death with little explanation, it’s not good for them—the gruesomely violent part or the little explanation part. The story of Noah doesn’t go on and on about the screams of the dying as they choke on the rising water, etc., etc., and there’s redemption brought out of the story. Notice too that she actually compliments one or two of the books on literary merits (though I am dubious that _The Monster_ is worth reading by anyone after her description of it—nobody needs to read about a homosexual gang rape).

  • Susan_G1

    no, that’s left for the imagination… glub glub

  • Susan_G1

    Who do you blame, Ester, when you get two down votes?

  • Esther O’Reilly

    I’m not surprised to get several when I say something polarizing. I just think it’s silly when I write something extremely innocuous and you dislike it just ‘cuz.

  • Joanna

    As I’ve gotten older, I’ve embraced the “grittier is more realistic, therefore, it’s better writing” mindset. I sought out the more gritty books to read. And then for the first time a few months ago, I blasted through the Harry Potter books, which left me on an extended “book hangover.”

    Searching for a book to follow, I started to read a free novella by the “Throne of Bones” author, Vox Day, set in that world (I haven’t read “Throne of Bones,” when I downloaded this free ebook, I figured it would be a way to determine if I wanted to buy the full novel. Everyone says how good an author Vox Day is, so I figured it would be good enough to take away the edge of my HP book hangover.) And it just felt so flat and dead after Harry Potter. I actually stopped reading it.

    It made me start thinking about the writing craft in the books more, and something crystalized for me just recently – HP communicates real emotions, real victories and failures and issues of life and death, all while avoiding “gritty.”

    The more I think about it, the more It’s making me re-think my earlier opinions. I’m now thinking of re-reading the books, this time with an eye on the craft JKR uses to tell the story. At the same time, other writers come to mind who are equally “un-gritty” but convey real moments, such as GK Chesterton.

    Could it be that today, writers, especially American writers, try to replace good story telling with gritty? Is there another way? I intended to spend the next few months studying this about JKR and GKC’s novels.

  • Joanna

    Further thoughts:

    I wonder if it has something to do with a tinge of surrealism, which communicates largely on an emotional level. Are we actually *stripping* the emotion from our writing and replacing it with realism?

    They say “Anything that’s too stupid to be said is sung.” Is it that there’s something about emotion that is best conveyed in a surreal way?

    In “gritty” fiction, are we zooming in so close on the sweat and dirt that we miss the sweeping – heartbreaking – grandeur of the moment?

    Just some questions I intend to follow further…..

  • WK Parks

    This is a great article on a topic that needs far more discussion. I’m about 2 weeks away from pressing PUBLISH on my first self-published Christian fiction title. In writing it, I asked myself what was it about traditional Christian fiction that had turned me off as a non-believer. I did everything I could to keep those elements out of it but, at the same time, keeping it rooted in Christianity.

    Anyone that has read the Bible should be able to handle grittiness. There’s a pretty good amount of grit in some of the darker moments…darkness that is much worse than some of what we see in today’s fiction.


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