How Should We Then Upgrade Christian Fiction?

How Should We Then Upgrade Christian Fiction? August 12, 2013

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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.

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