Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On Being a Christian Writer

     he's not safe, but he is good.:

      I've long wanted to write on this subject, but I've both been putting it off and have been too busy to give this topic justice. However, this article from Bethany House Publishers came across my twitter account recently, and I thought it made some good points, especially from a publishing house that specializes in Christian fiction (a genre which can in many cases be truly polarizing).

     For example, some people get annoyed when there's too much Christian content in a novel, or erroneously believe that if a book includes discussion of actual theological principles/ideas it's not as high an artistic art form as a book that does it in a more subtle or disguised way. At the same time, there are people who define "Christian fiction" by their own terms and therefore make a checklist of everything they think needs to be in such a novel. (example: conversion scene + undisguised Christian message = only acceptable type of novel).

     First off, I think there is one commonality that should be in every book written by a Christian: it should be a good book, done to the utmost of the author's ability. There is no room in the literary world, Christian or not, for less than our best. We all have different standards and preferences when it comes to what makes a "good" book, but the desire and hard work needed to make that goal happen should be a part of every Christian writer's make-up. When I think of the great scientists, artists, and writers of centuries past, I see an overwhelming Judeo-Christian worldview and presence. Unfortunately, in our current day and age, Christian art has a stigma of being "cutesy,""cheesy," or "unrealistic." What's worse is that in many cases, this accusation is merited. How far we have fallen from our heritage of beautiful, thought-provoking Christian art! It's left a cultural vacuum space that's been filled with talented but lost artists who have wonderful storytelling abilities but a sadly misguided and dangerous view of the world and morality. It's not glorifying to God when we write a well-written but immoral piece of fiction. However, I think it no more glorifying to Him when we slap together a shoddily plotted Christian novel that lacks excellence.
Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men... Colossians 3:23
     To be upfront about my own preferences, I don't like books with obscene language or sex scenes. And a book doesn't have to include those things to be "good" or to be bought by the public. I don't want to read/see graphic portrayals of these things, but I do not mind if characters make ungodly decisions. However, I do expect consequences to these decisions. I do expect the overall message and theme of the book to condemn unwise, ungodly behavior and shady morality. And while even Christian characters should be imperfect, these flaws should not overwhelm them. Too many a book I have read where the Christian character behaves contrarily to Biblical principles and is made to look, not like a sympathetic human, but a hypocrite. (or even worse, I find that these worldly behaviors are considered normal and "okay" even by Christians). Yes, followers of Christ make mistakes. But Christ also lives in us, and finishes the work He has started in us. We were meant to overcome, not wallow, in our sin.
Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. 2 Timothy 2:15
     On the flip side, there is a shallowness to many works of Christian fiction. It's not always that these books don't try to delve into deeper, more significant and heartbreaking truths at times, but there is a decided lack of "messiness." There is a lot of bow-tying and sunshine. Don't get me wrong: I enjoy a heavy dose of sunshine on occasion, and there's a time for it. And I do like things to be resolved. But relying on cliched and overused themes and resolutions is not a good way to do that, and neither is relying on a world-friendly, watered-down form of Christianity. That's what I find to be the main culprit. In fact, this lesser form of our faith is what makes many of these stories so shallow in the first place: they are relying on something that doesn't ring of truth, but feel-good notions. It's a sad day indeed when a book or movie from a secular source gives me more to ponder than those from a Christian one. And this experience is not particularly uncommon.

     I'm not here to tell you that one type of book is somehow better or more godly than another type of book. I simply want to implore you to examine why you are writing what you are: is it because it is a story that has been entrusted to you to tell and you truly believe that, with God's leading, this is the best way for you to do it? Or are you writing to please non-Christian (or Christian) publishers/readers or to fit in with what's "hot" in the current market? There's nothing wrong with getting advice from trusted sources or listening to others' opinions. But are you compromising morality to be popular?
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern  what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. Romans 12:2
      I believe, as a Christian writer, our work should be bathed in prayer and Biblical principles. If we are in line with God's will, I don't think we need to keep some sort of checklist or shove in a specific faith message because we feel like we "have" to. We should focus less on writing "Christian fiction" and more on being a Christian writer. Even if I write a story where God isn't mentioned once, my worldview is going to come shining through in some way. I can't help it. And if I do write a story that isn't overtly "Christian" it does not mean that I am ashamed or somehow hiding my beliefs. On the contrary! Would we accuse the same of a Christian artist who paints a beautiful landscape simply because it lacks a Bible character or scene within it? A landscape can show God's grand majesty and beauty just as much as a scene from the book of Judges or Revelation. There is so much variety in the world and in what is right and appropriate to write about that we should have no trouble in this area. As I've said before, different stories have different needs, and sometimes a stronger or more poignant Christian message can be expressed in a way that's not quite so obvious.

     However, I also want to take the time to say that's it's also perfectly all right to write a book about Christian characters living out their lives, who talk about God and follow His Word. This is most often what we think of when we hear the words "Christian fiction." And sometimes, I do want to read a book like that. Sometimes I write books like that. And in many ways, it's a tricky thing because it's so easy to do badly. Some accuse these types of books of being "propaganda" or "biased." This is true, but every book is written by a biased, flawed individual with ideas about morality, ethics, human interaction, and everything else in life. There is no magically neutral novel. Any book written by a Christian will have an underlying presence of the author's worldview in the same way that a book by an atheist author or a Muslim author or an agnostic writer will. So it's borderline paranoid and ridiculous for a reader to get offended that a novel (which is usually clearly labeled "Christian fiction" in the first place) actually has a Christian agenda. Believe it or not, some Christian readers actually like to read stories about other Christians. Imagine that.

     In fact, despite their lower status on the literary totem pole, these books are dearly needed, especially because they can be encouraging to fellow Christians. As a middle schooler and young high schooler, YA books (even Christian ones) drove me absolutely nuts because I couldn't relate to or be inspired by the characters. They were always focused on social ("youth group") Christianity and extremely shallow and/or basic Christian principles. (Oh, what I wouldn't have done to find a novel about a teenage girl that didn't revolve around boys and dating or being annoyed with "strict" parents) People say we need to write books about the junk kids go through in today's R-rated society. But guess what: we also need books about kids and adults who make good choices and have good family lives because they present an example for us to be inspired by. Not that everything around them should be perfect and rosy all the time, because then you wouldn't have much of a story. But we need heroes worth rooting for. We need the Frodos and Sams who will trek through Mordor for the sake of the greater good; we need the Edmund Pevensies who make tragic mistakes but go on to live redeemed, valiant lives. Those stories are powerful.

     Why? Because they contain Truth.

     That's what I think all good stories do, after all. In a world where "what's right for you" is king, and single answers are deemed narrow-minded, this can be difficult to find. We're drawn to the stories that proclaim truths we share, because those stories seem real. That's why some non-believers find even the best of Christian fiction unrealistic- not because the novel itself is flawed, but because they don't see how it can be true, since it doesn't fit into their worldview. But it's also why some non-Christians also find themselves devouring books by Christian authors. Because when we recognize truth in any type of art or fiction, it draws us. It resonates with us. We understand it.

My ultimate goal as a writer is to express truth.

     Truth in imaginative ways. Truth in fun ways, terrifying ways, awesome ways. Truth might seem boring to some, but I promise you, it's not. Biblical truth is powerful, and I think it's what sets apart great stories from the good ones.


Maria Maggio said...

Thank you so much for this post, Hayden! It truly expresses how many people (I believe) feel about "Christian" fiction.

I love your point that your ultimate goal in writing is to express the truth. To send a good message to the world we, as writers, don't need to have our characters preach just as in witnessing to our faith we don't need to run around quoting the Bible all the time and referencing Jesus in every sentence. Our actions, good actions following the teachings of Christ, can attract more people to the faith than our words in that case. It's similar with books. There is good in quoting the Bible and referencing Jesus etc. but there is also a great good in simply living and portraying the truth.

Meghan M. Gorecki said...

GREAT thoughts here bouncing off of Bethany House's article! :)

Emma Jane said...

PREACH, girl! This is amazing. Thanks for putting it into such clear words.

Kathryn Perea said...


The book of Esther never mentions God's name and yet "all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, and for training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16). Christian fiction doesn't need to have Jesus' name written on every page, but His truth should be undeniable in every word.

"If we are simply tellers of our own thoughts, why should men mind us?"
-Charles Spurgeon

Laurie I said...

Very nice article. As a reader of Christian Fiction I believe it's one of the more difficult genres to write. I believe this is true because people read Christian fiction for different reasons. I read it because I know it won't contain obscene language and excessive violence. My aim is to get a wholesome story with depth that I can enjoy. I DO NOT read it for the sake of learning about Christianity. I am deeply rooted in my faith as a Christian, have been reading and studying the bible consistently for just under 20 years, and so I'm annoyed when I perceive inaccuracies, according to my interpretation of God's word, in a Christian book I'm reading. That's where the problem lies. We all know that depending on which particular denomination you belong to interpretations will vary. So it's a fine line to walk when a Christian writer is writing from their own interpretation because it can offend another's. That has happened to me, particularly when an author gets too preachy in a book. Like one of my fellow believers wrote in a review, she's not looking to be preached to because she already has her own religion. She reads and studies the scriptures regularly so she wants a clean, wholesome read without the moral lecturing or didactic tendencies. Another annoying thing is a book that really doesn't need the Christian additions. I find that to be true with many Love Inspired Suspense books. God is thrown in here or there for good measure, but the story really doesn't need it. It feels forced and that's not good either. Perhaps just write a clean suspense book without the references to faith. I wish there was more like that out there. I could go on and on about this, but it's getting too wordy. Just wanted you to have a reader's perspective on the subject.( :

Hayden said...

Maria: Thank you! To me, part of the way we shine our light as Christians is simply by doing things excellently with hard work- and I think that extends to writing, too!

Meghan: thanks!

Emma Jane: thank you!

Kathryn: Exactly! The book is Esther is one thing I always think of, too. God's name isn't mentioned once, but it's impossible not to see his provision and leading in it.

Laurie: Thanks for the comment! I completely understand your point of view-- I've run into that problem too, where I know my faith and my Bible pretty well and have run into Christian books with views that I perceive erroneous, or something that's just a restatement of what I've heard many times over. I do enjoy books with overt Christian elements when I think it's both organic (and integral) to the story and is deep enough to really make me think. But too often, like you said, many of these references to God and Christianity are just shoved into it to classify it as "Christian fiction" with no other purpose. And of course, I find no problem with enjoying just a "clean" book every once in awhile, either! :)

Hamlette said...

Bravo! What a well-written post, Hayden.

It's so hard to maintain a balance when you're writing as a Christian. You want to tell the story in your heart and head the best you can while glorifying God and helping your neighbor. How can you do that? In the end, I just write the best story I can, trusting that God will shine through even if I don't hit a "Jesus quota" with my wordcount or include a conversion scene.

I'm going to share this on my Facebook page because it's such a great post.

Paula Vince said...

Hi Hayden,
I recently discovered your blog since I noticed we've reviewed several of the same books on Goodreads. I'm a Christian fiction author from Australia, and I think lots of the points you've made here are spot on. Thanks for the thought provoking post. I hope to visit your blog more often.

Hayden said...

Hamlette: Oh, thank you! I agree with you, definitely.

Paula: Thank you very much! I appreciate your comment :)

Natalie said...

Loved this and totally agree. :)

Anna Enderle said...

Great article! Sad but true: lots of Christian art is living up to its reputation as cheesy and two-dimensional (Bad in books, fine in paintings. :) ) Great Christian art should a) be great art, and b) reflect a Christian worldview; that is, a world where truth, love, and beauty exist.

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