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Agenda Fiction Is Alive and Well

The purpose of fiction is to experience the truth lived out in real life. Even if that real life is in the future, past, or a fantasy world.
| Apr 8, 2014 | 13 comments |

Lion, Witch, and Wardrobe movieChristian Fiction has often been accused of being so agenda/message driven that story quality suffers. Michael Trimmer quotes author Mike Duran in the Christian Today article, “What’s Wrong With Christian Fiction”:

Christians are so desirous to get the gospels out there, that we tolerate mediocrity. I think that does a disservice to the gospel. We tolerate mediocrity for the sake of the message.

He is probably right in many cases, but because of that, the solution often tends to be to get rid of the message to improve quality. But it’s not that simple. It isn’t the presence of an agenda that is the problem.

Agenda-driven fiction has a long history and not by just Christians.

There are college classes offered on how to use the arts in getting the message out about “climate change,” as reported in the New York Times article, “College Classes Use Arts to Brace for Climate Change.”

Whether you agree with “climate change” claims or not, the article list fiction titles going back into the 60s that focused on climate change. The article ends on the following quote:

“In this sense,” he (Shane Hall) said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”

Sums up what most Christian writers would say about the Gospel.

That is just one example. How often did the Star Trek TV series illustrate an agenda, both the original series and The Next Generation? The list could go on.

The answer isn’t to get rid of our messages. The real problem comes in two areas.

One: Treating Fiction Like Non-fiction

This is the cause of Mike Duran’s concern above. What do I mean by it? I’ve mentioned it in a guest post many months ago on SpecFaith and most recently last week in talking about the dynamic behind the debate on the movie Noah.

Stories in non-fiction, whether true or made-up, exist to serve one main purpose: to illustrate a point in an emotionally engaging manner. The story does not exist for its own sake, but is subservient to the message being conveyed. Consequently, the stories tend to be simple, black and white realities that make a clear, unambiguous point. They don’t want the reader to wonder, “Hum, I wonder what he meant to say?”

Christians who write fiction often make the mistake of treating their story as an expanded, non-fiction illustration. As a result, characterization tends to be shallow. Plots exist to drive the reader to one conclusion. Anything like real-life ambiguities that would muddy the message are avoided.

This in direct opposition to what Jesus did. He didn’t give illustrations to make a point. He taught in parables. He was fine letting the hearer figure out the meaning for themselves. He didn’t offer conclusions/interpretations except to the disciples. He trusted that those who were ready to hear the truth, would.

When we move into fiction stories, the purpose of the book can no longer be to illustrate a truth as in non-fiction. Rather, it is to experience the truth lived out in real life. Even if that real life is in the future, past, or a fantasy world.

In fiction, the message and the story take on a symbiotic relationship.

The message, to be effective, is dependent upon the story to have the ring of authenticity to it. To be an engaging, emotionally impacting, and entertaining story. If the quality of the story fails here, few will experience the message lived out.

For the story to amount to more than a good time, but to have meat on its bones, requires a living message/theme running through it. The stories that impact us most are those that open our eyes to see truth lived out in a character, and then in us as well. Any book, no matter how entertaining, that doesn’t say something to us, is quickly forgotten.

Two: Getting Sucked into the Niche Whirlpool

Overt agenda-driven, non-fiction, illustration-styled fiction stories, Christian or not, are primarily red meat for the faithful of that niche. Few outside that niche care to read it. The above “climate change” books and films highlight that. Few who disagree with their agenda are going to plunk down money to partake of that story.

The overwhelming majority of people who will enjoy those stories are those who already agree with them.

This is the irony of the Christian whirlpool effect. The drive to present as clear and unambiguous of a Gospel message as possible ensures few who are not already saved and in the fold will ever read it. The tighter into the niche it falls, the less chance it has of transcending that niche to become truly evangelistic. The story gets sucked into the niche whirlpool.

By creating a symbiotic relationship between story and message, the story can gain a following and those who have ears to hear and eyes to read will get the message. For that to happen requires them getting lost in a world and characters to the point they live the message through them.

The more the quality of the story supports the goal of fiction instead of non-fiction, the more likely that story will change someone’s life.

Agenda fiction is not the issue. Tossing the message is not the answer. Reading stories that marinate us in truth experienced through characters is the goal.

 

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13 Comments on "Agenda Fiction Is Alive and Well"

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Austin Gunderson
Member

But I can already hear the protests: “Gospel-centric stories aren’t comparable to environmentalist propaganda!  Climate change is a scientific fad, whereas the gospel matters forever and ever amen!”  This is true, but it misses the point.  The point here isn’t to diminish the importance of the gospel, but rather to communicate it in as effective a way as possible.

If you want the gospel message exposited clearly, systematically, unambiguously, then listen to a sermon.  The pulpit is a medium suited for didactic instruction; fiction — whether on the page, the stage, or the screen — is not.  An audience knows how easy it can be for the writer of fiction to cut convenient corners, to “bend the world to his whim,” and if it becomes apparent that the whole point of a fictional story was some religio-political messaging, then said message will be summarily rejected as obvious, forced, patronizing.  The story will rightly be viewed as nothing more than wishful thinking on the author’s part.

The opposite reaction, experienced by those already in agreement with the writer’s beliefs, is almost as bad: the smug complacency of unchallenged belief-bolstering.  In order to present his agenda in an unambiguously favorable light, the writer will have avoided confronting its weakest aspects and strongest threats.  In effect, what the writer will have done is to create a fictional straw-man argument — a delusion which quickly crumbles when exposed to the merciless elements of the real world.  If an audience swallows the writer’s wishful thinking, they’re gonna be in for a rude awakening down the road.

These are the two likeliest reactions to an agenda-driven work of fiction.  Either the audience already disagreed with the message and therefore rejects the story, or the audience already agreed with the message and therefore embraces the story.  Neither reaction involves much thought.  Neither takes much notice of the story itself.  And neither achieves the end ostensibly sought by the writer: persuasion.

Compare this approach with the one cited by R.L. Copple above: that of Jesus in His parables.  Jesus told stories which contained messages.  But the messages weren’t spelled out for His audience — not even the disciples, His closest human confidants, grasped their meaning at first blush.  The messages of Christ’s parables were left implied.  Accessing them required work on the audience’s part, an intellectual and emotional participation in the storytelling act.  Instead of fearing the undirected interpretation of an autonomous audience, the parables invite it.  Here is a story; make of it what you will.

In this sense, Christ’s parables, along with all the best human stories, are still alive.  They’re not dead messages set in the concrete of clearly-spelled-out, incontrovertible exposition.  They live in conjunction with a reader’s interaction.  “What does this mean?  What is it saying to me?”  As it says in the adage, ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’  But if you can get a man to convince himself, then he’ll be convinced indeed.  That’s why storytelling’s at its best not when telling people how to think, but when giving them questions to think upon.

Julie D
Guest

symbiotic relationship.  Exactly. My college environmental science class actually listed types of natural relationships (hang on, I have a point):

 Predation: A living organism kills another
Parasitism: A parasite derives nourishment from a host–doesn’t usually kill the host straight off, but weakens it over time.
Mutalism: both members of the association benefit
Commensalism : one species benefits and the other isn’t affected

Some ( most?) Christian fiction suffers from parasitism. The message may not  kill it right off, but the message/agenda makes demands on the plot and characters that weaken the overall story. And just as parasites eventually kill their host and are left without a home, so some agendas can kill themselves by trying too hard.

 

Jill
Guest

As an avid reader of nonfiction, I resent the notion that nonfiction should be agenda-driven. Agenda-driven nonfiction is an insult to my intelligence–most of the time. There is a time and place for  rhetoric whose attempt is essentially to persuade through appeals to rightness and morality or emotions, but the agenda is softened by appealing to the audience’s humanity. Although nonfiction often deals in concretes rather than in the ambiguities of fiction, this doesn’t mean that all nonfiction is meant to persuade or pound out the agenda of the writer. Much nonfiction is, ultimately, idea-oriented. It’s about playing with ideas.
As far as gospel-driven fiction authors, I believe there are some people who are very evangelistic by nature, and they will use any medium available to them to preach the gospel. If they happen to be good with words, they’ll turn to writing. Most of the time, artistry becomes secondary because, to them, nothing is as important as winning lost souls–and they often can’t imagine how that can be done without being very clear and precise about the message. I can’t criticize people like that. They are giving their own gift to the world; it just isn’t art. I probably won’t read their books, but the right person might. Shrug.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

So the solution to the dilemma is to find a Christian version of Hayao Miyazaki. Which is kinda like saying, “Oh, no big, we just have to find another Saint Paul.”

Hannah Williams
Member

Aw, I don’t think the odds are THAT stacked against us. 🙂

Christian Jaeschke
Guest

Now I really want to see Hayao Miyazaki’s take on The Chronicles of Narnia. He enjoyed the books and is brilliant at what he does.

Austin Gunderson
Member

And he’s also, tragically, retired.  Twice over.

Christian Jaeschke
Guest

Sadly, that’s true. What’s the name of his latest movie? I have yet to see it. Cheers.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

brb, going to cry in the corner because this is a thing that doesn’t exist.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

I’m really enjoying your posts, Mr. Copple (great choice, Spec Faith!) I especially like this phrase: “Getting Sucked into the Niche Whirlpool.” That’s exactly what we want to avoid (with anything, not just evangelism).

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