What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects — with their Christianity latent.
And that’s why so many of the most important, insightful, imaginative Christians who write will never be published so long as they look to Christian publishing houses.
I’ve talked to plenty of writers who have submitted their best work to Christian publishers only to have it sent back, not because it wasn’t good enough, but because they thought it should be “more Christian.”
Many Christian publishing houses want a big fat stamp on the book cover that says “CHRISTIAN.” Doing this may give them some kind of sales advantage, but it’s guaranteed to scare away many of the readers who need those writers most. Further, they will discourage writers from writing about many of the most important matters, because the best writers won’t be interested in giving their work a makeover to appear more “religious.”
And, to make matters worse, a lot of Christian readers refuse to show interest in books that don’t bear that big fat “Christian” stamp… and so they miss out on much of the wisdom that would help them grow in Christ.
Take this quote from Oscar Wilde… and tweak it slightly. Let’s replace “The public” with “Christians”:
[Christians] have always, and in every age, been badly brought up. They are continually asking Art to be [“Christian”], to please their want of taste, to flatter their absurd vanity, to tell them what they have been told before, to show them what they ought to be tired of seeing, to amuse them when they feel heavy after eating too much, and to distract their thoughts when they are wearied of their own stupidity.
Think about it: Most Christian publishers would never have published Jesus’ parables, because those stories don’t come with an obvious Christian message in them. They weren’t religious stories. They weren’t terribly entertaining. They didn’t simplify the world into “Us vs. Them.” They didn’t puff up the egos of the listeners, and point to another group of people as The Problem. They didn’t promise that life would be full of happiness if you believed the right things. Jesus’ stories confused his listeners and drove them into conversation and interpretation. They were mysterious. They broke down barriers between people, instead of strengthening them. They made people insecure.
I am so grateful for WaterBrook Press. I write the stories I feel inspired to write, and I don’t feel any pressure to compromise them with any obvious “Christian message.” I can let the story become what it wants to become, and I can enjoy the surprise. But I don’t take this for granted. And I have no assurances that what I write tomorrow won’t be sent back to me with this request: “We need you to make it more Christian.”
So my adventures in publishing may be short-lived indeed. But better that than pumping out more of what those readers want to hear.
I’m not claiming to have any great insights, but I know what I don’t want to do: Write “Christian fiction” with “Christian messages” that are safe and comfortable for “Christian readers.” Every time a blogger describes my stories as “Christian fiction,” I know that I’ve just lost more readers, and the stories have less chance to make a difference. All I want to do is tell a good story that will cause readers to wrestle with questions that matter.
Let’s ask T.S. Eliot:
[T]he last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world. What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world; and that by these criteria and standards everything that we read must be tested.
And finally: If we define “Christian books” as books that reflect the Truth with beauty and excellence, than it follows many “Christian books” are written all the time by writers who are not Christians and who would be offended at the implication. It also follows that many books written by Christians fall short of the qualifier “Christian books.” But, if we define “Christian books” as “books written by Christians”, then many Christian books are horribly misleading, ugly, and a royal waste of time.
I’m grateful that I’ve been given a chance to write a story that rings true to me, and that I haven’t been asked to simplify it or distort it for the sake of making Christians, or any other audience, happy. I wish that kind of experience for other imaginative writers.