I’ve been reading a lot of articles lately that ponder what’s wrong with Christian fiction. It’s a conversation that never ends. No one can ever figure out why stories by Christian authors aren’t held in higher esteem, why men aren’t reading Christian fiction, why we can’t measure up to C.S. Lewis, why Christian publishers are reluctant to deal in Christian speculative fiction, and so on, and on, and on. We never get to an answer, but we have a crackin’ good time arguing about it.
Author and reviewer Jeffrey Overstreet had an interesting take on this issue a few days ago:
If truth and beauty and mystery — those things that make us wonder about God and salvation and the meaning of life — are what make a book “Christian,” than I’d argue that most of the best “Christian books” were not written by Christians, and you can find them all over the bookstore, not just in the “Religion” section.
And some of the responses to his article, there and elsewhere, protested that it can’t simply be about quality or worksmanship or beauty or objective merit. You have to teach the reader something, leave them with a moral to follow, convince them of the truth, inspire them to action, obtain a quantifiable response. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean anything. I ran into this idea a while back when talking with a dear lady who’d read a couple of my books:
“Well, I enjoyed them, but I didn’t understand them. Not my cup of tea, really. I prefer reading books where I’ve learned something when I’m finished. I didn’t feel like I’d learned anything. I read a nice history of Eastern Kansas recently…learned a lot from that.”
There’s nothing wrong with history, and historical fiction can be wonderful, but if you write to an agenda that demands teaching the reader be your first priority, you probably end up with a textbook.
Likewise, I’m frequently told a Christian story must evangelize. It may have any number of admirable qualities, but if it doesn’t impel the reader toward conversion, it’s not really a Christian story, and the last thing any Christian writer wants is to be accused of writing stories that aren’t Christian. It implies there’s something defective about their Christianity. So, many write according to that agenda of explicit evangelism, often producing stories that are thinly-veiled sermons or tracts ending with the protagonist’s stereotypical conversion–but those sermons are preaching most frequently to an audience of the already converted. As my friend and fellow Kansan author Lyn Perry observed in a blog post today, “Some readers don’t want their fiction to be art, they want it to be a treatise reflecting their own beliefs, values, and worldview.”
The writer’s conscience is salved, but the unconverted reader left the room a long time ago because the story was speaking at him rather than to him.
Secular authors aren’t immune to this phenomenon either. If they want the admiration of their colleagues and publishers, it helps to promote agendas near and dear to their hearts. So, we see a profusion of stories about social issues, and politics, and advocacy for this or that oppressed faction. It’s not that those are bad topics or can’t be compelling elements of a good story, the problem is that these issues too frequently overwhelm the story or even become the story. We’ve moved from illustrating a problem that deserves contemplation to telling the reader what to think about it. It’s a secular tract. We’ve crossed the line from literature to propaganda. Some of my favorite young secular writers have become so taken with this or that political issue that it’s beginning to dominate their writing—to their detriment, in my opinion.
Sometimes the agenda is commercial. It revolves around what we think people want to read or are likely to buy. We write stories that look like whatever’s on today’s bestseller list. Vampires and werewolves are hot? Time to write some vampire and werewolf stories. We’ve moved from creation to imitation. It might work for a while, but public tastes evolve so fast and unpredictably that people have moved on to the next big thing just in time to reveal our work for the shoddy imitation it is. We’re following a market that’s always two steps ahead of us.
When we write or publish according to some agenda, hidden or explicit, we’re writing and publishing from a position of fear, and that fear is suffocating. We follow the agenda because we’re afraid we’ll be misunderstood, afraid the reader won’t hear what we’re trying so very hard to tell them, afraid of criticism, afraid our stories will be lost in the crowd, afraid no one will buy our books, afraid someone will question our faith, afraid we’ll misrepresent the truth, afraid we’ll lead someone into error, afraid of being different, afraid of taking chances, afraid we’re not good enough. Ultimately, we’re afraid we’ll fail.
And the crazy thing is, when our writing is driven by our fears, we get exactly the results we’re afraid of.