A complete change of subject: evangelical fiction

A complete change of subject: evangelical fiction October 23, 2011

Over the years I’ve heard many people who love novels decry the lack of good, popular fiction written from an evangelical Christian perspective.  There have been some (in the last few years) written from a generic Christian perspective: Gilead and Peace Like a River come to mind as excellent examples.

But what popular novels have been written by evangelical Christians that reflect an evangelical worldview AND are well-written?

Well, of course, The Shack comes to mind.  What else?

I’m a fan of John Grisham novels; I’ve read or listened to all of them and seen all the movies based on them.  While Grisham is himself a Christian and perhaps even an evangelical, his books don’t explicitly work from that perspective.  I can detect Christian themes in them (especially justice), but they are not what I’m asking about here.  (One exception to that may be The Testament which revolves around a Christian missionary in the Amazon jungles of South America.)

Recently I was looking for something new by Grisham and came across a reference to his latest novel The Litigators (due out this week!).  But buried in and among the references to Grisham’s many novels I saw one to a book by an author I’ve never heard of–Joshua Graham.  (Look at the list of books by Grisham at Amazon.com and you’ll see one by Graham in the middle of them!  I’m not sure how that happened.)

The book by Graham is entitled Beyond Justice and it comes highly recommended by many readers and is inexpensive.  The plot sounded a lot like Grisham’s books.  I had just purchased my Kindle and Beyond Justice is only $3.95 (for a 400 plus page book!) so I downloaded it and read it on my trip to California.  I did not know it is explicitly evangelical (even “Third Wave!”) when I purchased it.  If I had known that I might not have bothered; my experiences of trying to read novels by evangelicals have been mostly disappointing.

Beyond Justice is different.  It’s gritty, raw, realistic–about crime and punishment and injustice and justice.  Graham doesn’t shy away from the language and behaviors one would encounter in a justice system dealing with murder.  I couldn’t stop reading it.  It may not be great literature or even as good as Grisham’s stuff (although I think it’s not far from it), but it is to date the best explicitly evangelical novel I have read.  And there’s no rosy ending one might expect, even though the ending is very satisfying.

Beyond justice is about sin, redemption and forgiveness.  It’s also about spiritual warfare (but not the Frank Peretti kind!).  IF you like novels about crime and justice (like Grisham’s) you will like Beyond Justice UNLESS explicitly evangelical Christian themes and events and behaviors (e.g., prayer) bother you.

What are your favorite novels written from explicitly evangelical Christian perspectives with evangelical themes?  Stick to ones that are either in print or easily accessible (e.g., from a local library).  Put your recommendations here and say a little about why you are recommending them.

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  • JohnD

    I have been a fan of the Christian legal thrillers of James Scott Bell for quite some time. Breach of Promise and No Legal Grounds are my favorites. He is (or was) a lawyer himself so the books are quite authentic, but never preachy.

  • Adam L

    I’m not entirely sure what criteria must be met for something to be an “explicitly evangelical novel,” but one of my very favorite novels with Christian (and conversion) themes is Stephen Lawhead’s BYZANTIUM (http://www.amazon.com/Byzantium-Stephen-R-Lawhead/dp/0061057541). His book PATRICK: SON OF IRELAND (http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/006001282X) is also an excellent read, but BYZANTIUM is by far my favorite. Many of Lawhead’s books are exceptional. They deal with “Christian” content unabashedly, but not distastefully. He doesn’t sacrifice the art of storytelling for the sake of making a theological point.

    Lawhead is a member of the Chrysostom Society along with Eugene Peterson, Richard Foster, (formerly) Madeline L’Engle, Philip Yancey, and several others.

    One other author I would highly recommend is Jeffrey Overstreet’s AURALIA’S COLORS (http://amzn.com/B003E7EXVS). It is book 1 of a series, but I’ve only read the first book so far. Overstreet is also a member of the Chrysostom society. It is in the fantasy genre and is written masterfully. He is an evangelical, and deals with some Christian themes in a very subtle and sophisticated way (actually better than C.S. Lewis’ Narnia IMHO). But he is very wary of when people talk about his writings being from “an evangelical/Christian worldview” as if something has to be from such a worldview to be “OK” to read.

    • rogereolson

      Thanks, Adam. I tried reading Lawhead’s Byzantium once but got bogged down. I’ll revisit it.

      • Adam L

        I actually had trouble getting through the first part of it, but it was completely worth it. 🙂

  • John Mark

    Michael D. O’Brien is Catholic, but I have found his novels consistently satisfying. Father Elijah, Island of the World, Strangers and Sojourners are my favorites. I just got his newest, but haven’t touched it, I am saving it for the holidays.
    I have enjoyed Jan Karon the Episcopalian, her last book is her best. Davis Bunn’s books aren’t always evangelical, but are informed by an ecumenical Christian worldview. (His early books were pretty evangelical, recently he has been writing for the general market audience as well as the Family Christlan Store crowd) I think lovers of good fiction would enjoy Maestro, The Presence, Elixer, The Book of Hours and others. What marks these books as different than a lot of the run of the mill Christian book store fare is that I want to go back to them; that for me is the acid test of any kind of fiction.

  • Novels by Randy Alcorn

  • Lu G.

    I like Randy Alcorn’s first two novels DEADLINE & DOMINION. They are both murder mysteries, one set around abortion and the other around racism. I noticed Joshua Graham has a bunch of short stories also for $.99. Did you happen to check out any of those?

    • rogereolson

      Not yet. I prefer to read long books. If a story is good I hate it when it ends! 🙂 But I did really enjoy Grisham’s book of short stories entitled (I think it is) Ford County. The one about capital punishment is amazing.

  • Anne Lamott, Imperfect Birds (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010). It is about a family: husband, wife, one high school aged daughter. Mostly about the mother and daughter, how the mother repetatively wants to assume the best of intentions in the daughter, and believe all the daughter’s lies, how the daughter does a pretty good job of scamming the mother. Toward the end, the daughter is sent to a purgatory, and in the end you are left wondering if she’ll make it out That part is almost certainly non-evangelical!

    Almost thirty years ago I spoke with David James Duncan, The River Why? (Bantam, 1984) about novels (and The River Why? is probably more evangelical than Imperfect Birds). I asked him about novels and Dante’s Inferno, Purgatorio, Paradiso. He thought every good story follows that sort of trajectory: descent into the pit of hell, getting rid of the traits that damned you, and a glimpse of a restored life.

  • bill crawford

    James Huston is a lawyer in San Diego, a PCA elder and Naval officer (reserve). He has written some good (and prescient) military mysteries/thrillers a la Tom Clancy. Haven’t rwad him in a while and don;t remeber how explicitly evangelical he is.


  • Madeleine L’Engle’s Wrinkle in Time quintet is a perennial favorite. Also, Lewis’ Till We Have Faces is phenomenal. Tolstoy’s Resurrection, as well, is worth a read, although maybe calling that “evangelical” is pushing the boundaries of what you have in mind.

    • rogereolson

      Yes, it is. I’m well aware of L’Engle’s and Lewis’ fiction, but what I was asking about is fiction written by explicitly evangelical Christians–people who identify with the evangelical subculture in America and Britain without being co-opted by evangelicals because they seem to think somewhat like us. Your mention of L’Engle brings back a memory of one of my life’s most embarrassing moments. I was on the college’s committee for special lectures by guests and was assigned to call L’Engle about her impending appearance on our campus. I had put in a call to her and left a message for her to return my call. (Her office then was in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NYC.) A few days later my office phone rang and a strange voice with a very strange accent (some kind of British accent) said “Is professor Dr. Roger Olson there?” The accent was so foreign sounding and nobody addresses me that way that I assumed it was my friend who teaches Old Testament at Westmont College (we went to seminary together) and he was playing one of his pranks on me. I responded immediately, and in an extremely exaggerated English accent, “Yes, this is professor Dr. Roger Olson” (rolling the “r’s” and in a high pitched female-like voice). The person on the other end paused and then said “This is Madeleine L’Engle’s secretary calling.” I immediately hung up the phone, having no idea what to say next. I have blocked out any memory of what happened after that!

  • Cody

    Andrew Petersen’s “Wingfeather Saga” (4 total books) is really great. At least the first three were spectacular and I’m still waiting for the 4th to come out this winter.

  • I enjoy Jan Karon’s Mitford series. They’re not too deep, but fun and relaxing to read.

    Regarding Grisham’s novels – I enjoy the thriller aspect of them, but sometimes find the moralizing distracting (even if it’s an issue I agree with him on). Often whatever justice issue he’s highlighting gets too much emphasis and interrupts the flow of an otherwise good story. I also recall one novel (which one escapes me now) where one of the characters had a salvation experience.

    • rogereolson

      I think it was The Testament.

  • Andy

    I highlight Grisham’s “The Testament” as a Christian Novel. It seems 2 or 3 of Grisham’s novel approach the literary level of “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Testament” is certainly one of those. [schools are assigning Grisham’s “A Painted House” but I have not heard of “Testament” or “A Time To Kill” reaching high school assignment status.]

    It seems, also, that labeling a novel “Christian” or “evangelical” would put most people off. Perhaps Grisham’s approach is better: tell a great story with great characters and let the honest portrayal go where it will, often touching on “evangelical” themes.

    But I’m working through “Against Calvinism’ for now!

    • rogereolson

      “Working through!?!” C’mon. It’s bed time reading. 🙂 I loved A Painted House. I would put it up there with To Kill a Mockingbird.

  • Rev. Olson peace of the Lord!

    I am writing to ask that one of the site contributors ‘Arminians’ (http://www.arminianos.com/).
    It is likely that the English translation is not very clear, this is due to the fact that not even read English, and I’m Brazilian gets tough, then the only way I found I was in communicating through the translation of google translator.

    Professor Olson, like once a week you send us an article you do not need to write one, may be those on your site.
    I do not know if you know, but in Brazil we are in need of Arminian theological works, most published are Calvinist, and because of that, the Calvinist influences have taken the seminars, and unfortunately we do not have a good theological orientation on the subject and this is embarrassing when we are asked by teachers Calvinists because we Arminius, and many of us do not know what that word and what it means.
    I am of the Assembly of God, and I have been in contact with CPAD (www.cpad.com.br) so that the books tell you that the subject is published by it, but you can not imagine how difficult this is.

    Finally, I expect you to contribute!

    Contact me at: jeanpatrikcontato@hotmail.com

    I’m currently reading your book “History of Christian Theology ‘it is highly recommended in seminars here, and would be happy to spread his books on the site, if you allow it.

    A hug!
    Jean Patrik

  • Clay Knick

    I love Grisham. Jan Karon’s books are a gift. Ron Sider says they are the best apologetic for the Christian faith since C. S. Lewis. They helped bring Lauren Winner to the faith.

  • Jerrine Regan

    If you like Grisham, you’ll like Robert Whitlow, a Christian, lawyer, turned writer. His first novel, “The List” is very intreging and was made into a movie. Another book he wrote, “The Trial” was also made into a movie recently, starring Mathew Modine. But the book was better. I also liked “The Sacrifice” very much. Give Robert Whitlow from North Carolina a try. You’ll be glad you did!

  • Jerrine Regan

    If you liked “The Shack”, you should also like anything by James Rubart. He has written, “Rooms”, “Book of Days”, and “The Chair”. Of course, nothing really compares to “The Shack”, but these books are a little out of the ordinary but with definate Christian themes. (I work in a Christian bookstore and I’m in charge of the fiction department).

  • Demetrius

    If you liked Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, you also must read her companion book entitled Home. Home (like Gilead) is not a plot driven book, so much as it is a deep character analysis. Her prose has a leisurely and elegant gait to it. And all of it is inundated with powerful gospel theme’s. Forgiveness, acceptance, and the providence of God came through in marvelous way. When I finished the last page I felt I was on holy ground. A very rewarding read.

    Another interesting novel is Saint Maybe, by Anne Tyler. Talk about a well-written book with so much color and texture. It almost plays out like a motion picture in your mind. And Tyler takes on some major themes in this work, namely guilt, getting on with life, and what redemption can look like… but, her angles are slightly unconventional. This book definitely messes with evangelical sensibilities, but enough to make one think about what he may so blithely believe. People handle grief in extraordinarily complex ways and Tyler doesn’t allow for reductionism to rob from the realities people face. Thought-provoking, indeed.

  • John Inglis

    Personally, I found The Shack to be dreck, and if that’s the bar, then it’s set very low. Though I must admit that it did deal with relevant but difficult ideas in an intriguing and novel manner. Still, I couldn’t get past the writing and woolly thinking.

    I’ve never bothered to read a fiction novel sold in any variety of Christian bookstore for the reason that any I’ve ventured to open were poorly written and often preachy and boring. The posts above, however, give me authors to try; it’s good to hear that many do believe that there is some good evangelical fiction. I have heard about Lawhead, but I’ve not yet picked him up as I read very little fiction nowadays.


    • rogereolson

      I don’t generally peruse the fiction sections of Christian bookstores. (I call most of them “Holy Hardware Stores.”) The authors being recommended here would probably not be found in them and I don’t think I have ever purchased a novel found in the fiction section of a Christian bookstore. I have looked at some. What I was asking about is whether there are good evangelical novels–like the one I recommended for people who like legal thrillers. I doubt most Christian bookstores would carry the one I mentioned (that I read and enjoyed recently) because it contains vulgar language and descriptions of extreme violence.

  • John Inglis

    I try to read to my kids at least 3 nights out of the week, from classics that bear rereading and from which one can get something fresh at different stages and times of their lives–Tom Sayer, Robin Hood, Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings, etc. The latter epic was enjoyed as much by my 5 year old as by my 10 year old (at the time). To this day the drop phrases from the novels in their conversations–as do I. It truly is, as Tolkein wrote, that the best stories are the myths that reflect that truest of all myths, the story of God’s redemption of mankind. The best story tellers are those that recognize this and engage in the act of subordinate creation; they are not merely tale tellers–though they are that as well. Too many evangelical story tellers do not take their act of subordinate creation seriously enough, and they try to make their story a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

    The above partly explains my negative reaction to The Shack. It was self consciously using story as a means to an end, and was engaging in philosophy through the vehicle of a tale. The writing was merely secondary to the author’s self-imposed task of putting his various theological thoughts into a story form. Now I do agree that it was imaginative, and that it engaged Truth–though in the form of philosophical truth rather than other forms. I think that it became popular for the reason that it did engage truth, and also because it dealt with tragedy in a real and unhappy manner.

    It seems to me that evangelicals and anabaptists (my own background) have produced less than they could have in the way of of lasting cultural and artistic value because of their antipathy towards both art and engagement with Truth (meaning not just Biblical sermons, but the entire creation of God). Everything is subordinated to moralism, soul-winning, teaching and other such ends. They write what they think they are supposed to write, they write so that their readers will be somehow improved or edified as a result of reading. (they are not the only culprits, however. I volunteer in Scouts, as a Beaver leader, and the story “Friends of the Forest” is one of the worst things I have ever read to a child. It makes me feel like a sell-out).

    I have read and enjoyed Grisham, though have not read either Painted House nor Testament. His writing does not rise to the level of a Twain or a Hemingway, but he does weave a good tale and keeps the pacing up.

    I understand that Ben W. III has written a couple of novels. Has anyone read them? Are they good?

    Dr. Olson raises an important issue wrt violence and story telling. The Bible is often violent, graphic, and gruesome. I think it is important to be true to creation as we find it.


  • Rachel

    My favorite Christian novel is “Redeeming Love” by Francine Rivers. It´s based on Hosea. It´s a book that´s been very healing to me and to some of my friends. I recognise that it may be more suited to women, but I thought I´d mention it anyway.

    Recently I´ve been enjoying Terri Blackstock books. She´s written several series. I find them gripping and action packed. They keep me hanging on.

    I can´t stand it when Christian novels are full of cliches, platitudes and everything will be ok if you just become a Christian type of stuff! Francine Rivers writes very well, as does Terri Blackstock.

  • Lee Strobel has written The Ambition, it seems to be some kind of “evangelical thriller” or something like that. No clue though if the book is something to read, but have liked his apologetics books and perhaps he is skilled using the pen to write stories as well.

  • Kevin Corbin

    It’s encouraging to hear there might be some good fiction out there written by evangelicals. Most of what calls itself Christian is incredibly badly written, sickeningly sweet, preachy, theologically suspect, trash.

  • It’s not legal fiction like Grisham’s others, but “Skipping Christmas” is wonderful. Although I’ve seen several movie adaptations of his books, I haven’t read any Grisham other than that one. (But I refused to see the movie based on it — the trailer looked like the movie wouldn’t do the book justice… no pun intended.)

  • Jay Mullinix

    I realize I’m quite late to this posting, but I’ve been working through past posts and only just came across it and thought I’d throw a thought or two out just in case they might be worthwhile.

    I emphatically second the Lawhead recommendations. He’s very much an evangelical, having attended Northern Baptist Theo. Seminary (he’s since become an Anglican) and been a former editor at Campus Life, as well as for a time managing Christian rockers DeGarmo & Key. His historical fiction is first rate (his gritty and dark reworking of the Robin Hood legend – the King Raven trilogy – is a delight) but I wouldn’t say that technically it is evangelical in that Lawhead strives to be historically faithful in his representations of the Christianity of his characters and he generally writes about the dark age and early medieval periods in his fiction. Lawhead’s own evangelical worldview certainly peeks through from time to time (espcially in the climax of “Byzantium”) but it’s usually subtle.

    A noteworthy book is “The End of the Straight and Narrow”, a short story collection by David McGlynn that deals exclusively with characters who are all evangelical. The stories are not bedtime or light reading, however, but deeply thoughtful and at times gut-wrenching examinations of grace, brokenness and forgiveness. The characters are complex people with at times deep flaws who are also genuine in their evangelical faith. McGlynn is a professor of English at Lawrence University whose prose is considered and thoughtful in a way that evokes the tone of Marilynne Robinson’s latest two novels. He’s worth a read.