“Christian Fiction” and the Faith of J.K. Rowling and Sara Zarr

I know that many of my fellow Christians are so convinced that J.K. Rowling is a servant of Satan that they won’t be persuaded by anything as insignificant as… oh… the author’s own words about her faith.

But I’m encouraged that the conversation about Rowling’s perspective and beliefs is still moving. Maybe eventually it will persuade a few souls to stop protesting and start listening. Maybe it will inspire others to stop and try to count just how many young people the stories have actually led into lives of witchcraft, as opposed to those who have benefitted from an imaginative tale about growing up and discovering our place in a scary and complicated world.

And… I know, I may sound like a stuck record here… this just makes me want to raise the question again:¬†What is this Christian Fiction category I keep reading about… and why doesn’t Harry Potter qualify for it?

  • The Potter books are written by a churchgoing believer (albeit one who admits to having doubts and questions and struggles.)
  • They echo scripture rather directly.
  • They give us reflections of Christ’s own teaching frequently.
  • And they’re worth taking seriously as mythmaking of spiritual relevance, as Alan Jacobs demonstrates in the latest issue of Books and Culture.

And speaking of “Christian fiction,” why aren’t the websites devoted to such a genre celebrating that Sara Zarr’s Story of a Girl is a finalist for the National Book Award? Sara doesn’t flinch from talking about her Christian faith, and her book is so truthful that it’ll make some readers squirm.

In a recent blog interview, Sara was asked: “Your book has underage sex, curse words, etc., but it is also very much about forgiveness and redemption. I know that you are Christian — did you worry at all that more conservative religious people might automatically (unfairly!) label Story of a Girl as a “teen smut” novel?”

She responded:

I didn’t worry. Participating in AS IF and hearing stories from the trenches made me realize that books get unfairly categorized and branded all the time, and for the most ridiculous reasons. Reactionary people without critical thinking skills aren’t really my target audience. My family, my friends, my church have all been very supportive. There’s actually a pretty large and growing contingent of Christians out there who embrace all kinds of art and its capacity for delving into the gray areas that make up most of our lives. Anyway, I’m not really about making other Christians happy by being inoffensive. Life is offensive. If we, of all people — Christians, who claim to be offering some kind of hope for mankind, in Jesus — can’t grapple with that, then the claims of hope are pretty much empty. If we can’t deal honestly and authentically with the smaller heartbreaks of family and identity and friendship, how can we even open a newspaper? Christians who seek a squeaky-clean, inoffensive version of life are, in a way, denying that we might possibly need help with some of this, thereby rendering faith, well, pointless. That said, I do think there is a place for the good and beautiful and uplifting and clean, as long as it’s not sentimentalized and does not replace an at least occasional head-on stare into the world as it is.

So, what makes a book “Christian fiction”?

  • Being written by a Christian?
  • Telling the truth?
  • Or is Christian fiction distinguished by the fact that its characters engage in obvious religious activity?

According to Borders, Auralia’s Colors is Christian fiction. According to Barnes and Noble, it’s Science Fiction. I’m not sure what separates my approach to writing Auralia’s Colors from Rowling’s approach to writing Harry Potter.

But I’m not here to talk about Auralia’s Colors. I just don’t like the confounding ways in which Christians (and others) categorize art. And these two examples speak to the reasons why.

Christians are writing truthful stories all the time, but many of them avoid using the buzzwords and cliches and allegories and moralizing that often characterizes books published under that banner. I have yet to see a definition or defense of the category that makes much sense.


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  • Rebecca said: What I object to is the focus by some who revolt against the notion of ‚ÄúChristian fiction,‚Äù on telling the truth about the world, while showing a disregard for telling the truth about God.

    That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure I’ve encountered those folks very often. For me, the truth is the truth… and it reveals God, whereever it is.

    Indeed, some people are so bent on showing us the ugliness of the world that they seem to forget that their ability to recognize evil comes from God… and thus there is something greater than the world’s evil out there.

    Seen through the eyes of Christ… all truth, whether it is *about* the world or *about* God, reveals God to us.

    Rebecca said: Showing the ravages of sin on the world is truthful as far as it goes, but why stop there?

    Well, you don’t need to. But when I look at the ravages of sin in the world, I find my own desire for God sharpened. And, alternately, when I look at the beauty of creation, I find my faith affirmed. All truth is God’s truth, and it all serves, in different ways, to draw us toward him. Even when the folks making that truthful art don’t recognize God themselves.

    Scripture exhorts us to speak the truth in love. I would presume that the same is expected of artists: If we show the truth through storytelling, we should do so in love, not arrogance… with care for our audience, but not being afraid to offend them. If we “pad” the truth to make it comfortable, that kind of truth won’t be very useful.

    Good to see you here, Rebecca!

  • “Christian” is used in Scripture to identify one who followed Christ, so I don’t see that we should change the definition. Ironically, I’ve had a couple instances recently where the term “Christian” came with a “no cussing” expectation by non-Christians.

    Language, sex, violence, quality of craft–none of those things, or the lack thereof, define “Christian.”

    What I object to is the focus by some who revolt against the notion of “Christian fiction,” on telling the truth about the world, while showing a disregard for telling the truth about God.

    Showing the ravages of sin on the world is truthful as far as it goes, but why stop there?


  • “Christian” fiction… like “Christian” cookies, it either serves its purpose well (tasting good, for example), or it doesn’t.

    We ought to be loath to apply the “Christian” label to work that’s not excellent, but it’s a sad truth that there’s often an inverse relationship between the excellence and the purported “Christian-ness” of a work of art.

  • josephmcbee

    I am a follower of Christ and a fledgling writer. I often struggle with the same questions you raise here. I also struggle with something else: At what point does “telling the truth” cease to be God-honoring? I know that seems absurd, but think about it; we all know that underaged kids are sexually active, we all know that people use curse words and putting these things in a story is authentic, trying to deny that this stuff exists is a lie, and we all know it. But what do we do with Scripture that says to dwell on the honorable, the pure and the lovely (Phil. 4:8)? What do we do with verses that tell us that it is shameful to even mention what the disobedient do in secret (Eph. 4:12)?

    As an artist, we are called to tell the truth, and how can we have a positive impact on anyone if we don’t? But at what point do we “cross the line?” Perhaps this is a question that each individual Christian; each individual artist must answer for him or herself.

    Personally, I think people like yourself, Sara Zarr and Rowling are needed and doing wonderful work. And I suppose if an artist was interested in reaching cloistered, Christians-in-denial, then your work might be labeled “offensive” but for those who are trying to be an artist of faith who tells the truth, perhaps, you might open someone’s eyes to the hope of Christ.

  • Methinks the word “Christian” isn’t best used as an adjective in any context.

  • jenzug

    “Reactionary people without critical thinking skills aren‚Äôt really my target audience.”

    That’s AWESOME. I may have to use this line when I become a famous author. I will have to pick up Sara’s book.