Why Christian Fiction Is Often Bad

Blog, Books, Essays — By on March 17, 2012 at 12:32 pm

This Saturday I sat down with an aspiring writer who has a disdain for Christian fiction. I happen to share his conclusion but kept quiet. I wanted to hear his reasoning without coloring his opinions at all. My friend’s complaint was that the resolution of Christian books are often determined by our meta-narrative. We do have big redemptive theme in our faith it seems to provide a sort of irresistible gravity in many of the fictions stories we tell. According to my friend, the characters in the books we write come off as inauthentic because they aren’t driven by internal motivations as much as they are the author’s need to make them conform to the template.

I have some other friends who blame the gate keepers of the Christian publishing industry. The argument goes that editors and agents disallow gritty writing in favor of Amish romance novels and tales of angels fighting demons. These friends blame the condition of Christian fiction on the conservative bias of the publishers. I suppose there is some truth to this. But ultimately, it feels like blaming Hollywood for movies filled with sex and violence. My friend Derek likes to point out that those movies do well, not because Hollywood makes them, but because we all run out and consume them. The problem isn’t with movie moguls but with our hearts. If we stopped watching them, they’d stop making them. Hollywood’s not a charity only produces what sells. If the bulk of Christian fiction truly is shallow (Disclaimer: I don’t read a lot of it anymore. Perhaps its gotten better and I’m just missing out.) and doesn’t accurately reflect the human condition, then it’s because that’s what the market is demanding. Christian publishing houses aren’t charities either. They produce exactly what we demand. The problem then lies with you and I.

There’s something about the way we choose to understand religion that reflects our discomfort with being honest with the human condition. We like to understand Christianity as the story of how we were once sinners and then had a conversion experience which resulted us living lives with pure motives and moral excellence until Christ returns. Amen. We tend to cling to this story despite the lack of evidence in our lives. We like the feeling we give ourselves by disassociating with the darkness in us. One of the many problems with this strategy is that it dooms our art. My wife recently introduced me to a quote by Francesco Clemente:

“If I have to be honest, I have to bring bad news. The bad news is that I believe that an artist is an artist because he chooses not to tamper with reality; he chooses not to better reality. The creative mind comes at a price, so ultimately, an artist makes an ethical choice—he deals not so much with the world of ideas, but with the world of forms. And the world of forms does not make deals.”

Maybe our fiction lacks punch because, on the whole, we’re afraid to be honest with who we are. There’s probaby more than one reason for that. We fear punishment or disapproval from our religious peers. We enjoy feeling better than others. Perhaps some our issue is being spoon-fed bad theology . Our faith is quite different from that of the Apostle Paul. Paul was the first missionary and the architect of the early church. And he had no problem being honest with himself or others. He famously wrote in Romans 7 about his spiritual schizophrenia and how he wanted to do the right thing and was drawn to evil. Somebody once told me that good writers don’t waste ink protecting themselves. When a writer gets defensive and worries about how the reader perceives him, he (or she) stops being authentic. We have Paul just laying out his human condition, completely disinterested if he disappoints his readers’ religious expectations for him. Paul didn’t make any deals with his readers. He didn’t ask them to believe he had spiritually arrived in exchange for giving them tools to create the myth of their respective goodness either.

I think this is why I love reading Dostoevsky. He was a Christian, but deeply flawed himself. He had a gambling problem that forced him to become a prolific writer just to pay the bills. He also did some jail time and had plenty of time for observing plenty of colorful characters. He both good and evil in his fellow inmates and in himself. This spiritual realism showed up in all of his writing. His saints were flawed and his villains had nobility in them. Dostoevsky’s realm allowed him to touch on themes of grace and redemption in ways that wouldn’t have been possible if he pretended that faith in Christ ended spiritual struggle. So perhaps we don’t have a problem with religious fiction.

The problem just might be that we living a religious fiction and our bad art is merely its by-product.

Larry Shallenberger is a pastor and author in Erie, PA. He’s had three non-fiction works published and is now diving into the world of fiction. He’s currently editing his first novel.

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  • jo hilder says:

    Aargh, I really do have a disdain for Christian fiction. I’m so allergic, I haven’t even been able to bring myself to read Ann Lamott’s novels, even though I know they’re not Christian fiction, just fiction written by a Christian. I am sure we’d buy the flawed stories of the authentic Christians life – if they published them. Are we writing them? I certainly hope so.

  • Jim Barringer says:

    I think this is a crucially important issue, Larry, because the fiction we consume defines the reality that we expect. There’s a psychological process called “normalizing” (sometimes called “priming”), such that when we see something acted out repeatedly, it becomes normal and even expected. We as Christians are very eager to warn others about this phenomenon, suggesting (correctly) that repeated exposure to sex and violence desensitizes us to them through normalization.

    However, the real danger is that we ourselves become normalized by the fiction we consume. If all we consume are happy-ending Amish love stories, that will become normalized and we’ll be utterly unprepared for a world where love doesn’t work like that. (Now that I’m on the back end of my twenties and have gone through a Christian college and seminary, I can say that, in my own anecdotal experience, there is widespread discontent among my Christian friends at how romantic love works – or doesn’t work.) We set ourselves up for failure by reading unrealistic books; we prepare ourselves for a world that doesn’t exist and leave ourselves unprepared for the world that does.

  • Kelsey says:

    Why does there even have to be a “Christian Fiction” genre? There are plenty of authors who write interesting, intense, wonderful novels that aren’t filled with vulgarity, but don’t center around a “Christian” plot. Read any of the classics–Tolstoy, Dickens, Austen, Twain, etc ,etc. I would argue that besides the intellectual and emotional dishonesty in Christian novels, they are just plain badly written. They are full of cliches’ and terrible writing.

  • I do not entirely agree that we should blame the consumer in this case. My reasoning is that there have been a lot of Christian bands banned by Christian retailers because of their lyrics or even style of music. Given that there were Christian record labels behind these bands, perhaps the gatekeepers are the Christian retailers. But maybe I’m wrong. Perhaps if the retailers carried controversial merch (be it albums or books) alongside their Precious Moments, it would frighten off the suburban moms, who had the money.

    Extending the Christian music metaphor, it’s been said a) Christian music is lackluster, safe, copying secular trends and b) some bands market themselves as Christian because they think they can find more (financial) success that route (ie, they can’t make it in the secular world) but that once they find fame they crossover to the secular side. Perhaps the same holds true for Christian fiction. Perhaps the literary quality isn’t as high (message vs. artistic value) in the Christian market, so it’s easier to get one’s foot in the door that route.

    I think part of it is that the Church suggests that Art has to be instructional and bolster morals.

    • Jim Barringer says:

      We’re sort of shooting in the dark since we’re just making guesses about people’s assumptions, but in my experience, publishers will generally publish anything they feel can make money. A lot of times publishers will take a chance on something that’s bizarre and quirky, and more often than not, it flops, and they feel justified for slipping back into their time-worn trends. A great example of this is the secular movie industry, where an innovative and unique movie like “Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World” flops despite huge support from the studio, so the studio shrugs its shoulders and goes back to making a zillion and one sequels and superhero/vampire movies.

      As a Christian author I would say that you kind of have it backward; it’s much harder to get a book published in the super-saturated Christian literature market than it is in the secular market. I’ve had secular authors come at me with contracts for my Christian novels when Christian publishers were scared away. Secular publishers, for whatever reason, seem much more willing to have a punt on weird, unique, niche-market, or other odd stories.

  • Nan Roberts says:

    cOne of my favorite writers is Elizabeth Goudge (mid-20th Century English 1900-1982.)
    She wrote stories about people. Some historical fiction, some kid books (most famously at the moment is The Little White Horse, loved by J.K. Rowling, and massacred as a movie). Also what was contemporary fiction before and during WWII, and after. Green Dolphin Street was about New Zealand and the Channel Islands, made into a pretty good movie in the ’30s. THere are Christian themes in all her books, and they influenced me before I became a Christian. Her kid books have fantasy elements. Her grown-up books have people struggling with real problems, choices, suffering, and none of it is overtly “Christian.” My friend and I tend to go to these books to find out what to do in similar circumstances. How did this or that character handle this problem? Her characters suffered, had to make choices, struggled. She showed that they could make the right choices, and then suffer through the result, and survive. But they weren’t all “fine.” And they were flawed.

    I don’t know how her stories would be viewed today by you all. She’s in most libraries. Some titles are The White Witch, Pilgrim’s Inn, The Scent of Water, The Dean’s Watch, Gentian Hill, The Rosemary Tree, Linnets and Valerians, The Valley of Song.

    There are more, too.

  • Hi Larry,
    I like your point about bad fiction being a product of a lack of honesty about the human condition, and this partly due to being spoon-fed bad theology. But I wonder if theology, and our very way of perceiving the Bible, doesn’t actually play the lead role? Here’s what I’m thinking:

    Evangelical theology views the Biblical story as THE story—a narrative both all encompassing (it covers all of time) and all important (it deals with the “big” questions of human origins, existence, and purpose). The upshot of the Bible’s grand story is often that our own stories are marginalized. I may be told that my story fits wonderfully into God’s story (or that it’s supposed to), but either way my world is subsumed by the biblical world. The day-to-day outworking of this view is that many Evangelicals “read” life in light of the Bible. So they downplay or ignore scientific theories of the origin of life, because the Bible doesn’t tell it that way.

    My point is that maybe we aren’t honest about the human condition, and so cannot capture such in our fiction, because many Christians have lost a sense of their own stories (via a theology that does not teach them about the mutuality and symbiosis between divine and human stories) AND many aren’t engaged with (i.e., honest about) real life because our theology teaches us that the Bible trumps all. So information derived from life (science, philosophy, literature, and even our own emotions and experiences) is marginalized.

    If this is so, I cannot see how Christians can produce “good” fiction unless they contend with their theology: assessing not only how it is bad but why, and engaging with what needs to be reformulated.

    • Gregg,

      Thanks for the thoughtful post. Having grown up in a religious subculture that was high on shame and that had a separatist attitude toward culture, I can see truth in what you are saying about the Big Narrative overrunning ours.

      I would caution that even though our religious traditions can mishandle God’s story in a way that feels like a tourniquet, that ours stories truly are subordinated to God’s.

      The different, I think, is that God is more generous and creative that we think, and there’s room for both.

  • Derek says:

    Ouch. That’s a really revealing critique of Evangelical culture. You’re right. Looking at the fiction of a culture isn’t just revealing something about that culture’s fiction writers. It’s revealing something about the consumers. There is something wrong with Evangelical culture when we flock to Redeeming Love over Crime and Punishment. Killer article. Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Showing up late, but just found this article. Thanks for a thoughtful piece, and I couldn’t agree more. I’ve tended to hit evangelical writers pretty hard (mainly because they’ve heard, and mostly ignored, those who soft-soap the issues of quality, exclusivity, etc.), and I hope that least one or two are “getting it.”

    Take care.

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