Why Christian Fiction Is Often BadBlog, Books, Essays — By Larry Shallenberger 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.