By Christian themes, I mean a point a story makes—either as a major or minor issue—that aligns with the gospel, the Good News that Jesus Christ came to save sinners, which includes all of us. For a number of years, even after books published by “Christian publishing companies” included better prose, better description, perhaps better plots, they were still being dinged by the reading public because they were “too preachy.” That’s just another way of saying, they laid out their Christian theme in a transparent way.
Friday, in response to our Spec Faith guest article by Jillian Boehme, author of the soon-to-be released Stormrise (there’s still time to enter the pre-order contest—see details here), a discussion arose concerning forgiveness, certainly a theme I would consider Christian. At the human level, forgiveness is not the exclusive property of Christians, but neither is love or grace or kindness or any of the other qualities we see in God and Christ in His life and act of sacrifice which provides us with an escaped from sin and its consequences. Nevertheless, it is a key component of the gospel message.
So forgiveness is in Boehme’s novel Stormrise, but is it the “right” forgiveness? That seems to be where the discussion started.
Here is a critical point for Christians, I think, both readers and writers: must Christian themes be totally unambiguous and on-the-nose to be properly considered, Christian? Must a book that includes the theme of forgiveness show reconciliation as a result (because that’s certainly what God’s forgiveness of us entails), or can it reflect a “one-sided” attitude that does not bring a relationship full circle?
Actually, all this is another way of asking, How Christian must Christian themes be?
I tend to think that Christian fiction can be preachy (and some still is today) because authors don’t want an incomplete message. They don’t want readers missing what they want to say. They want to deliver the whole gospel and not part of the gospel. They don’t want their Christian theme to be misunderstood.
I can identify because I went through a self-analysis of my own writing some years ago. Was I willing to be misunderstood? Did I have to “spoil” the story by making the themes crystal clear?
In truth, themes should be crystal clear, but even Christian themes should not overshadow the story. They are not morals added on to make the point the way morals are added to fables. Rather, the best novels and short stories make the reader think about what they are saying; wonder what happens next as a result of what happened in the story; think about whether or not the character made the wisest choices; whether they stumbled on something true or not.
Themes we think about are not delivered in a perfectly wrapped package with a nice, neat bow on top. In other words, in a book that includes the theme of forgiveness, there well may not be a definition of forgiveness or a discussion of the ramifications of it. Those things might seep through as a character struggles to reach a point of forgiving—or not. They simply don’t have to be there.
Great themes, including great Christian themes, actually are great because they require some introspection on the part of the reader. When they are crystal clear, a reader can nod and close the book (and forget the story in days, most likely); or shake his head, throw the book across the room, and write a review telling everyone how preachy this book is. People who agree will have some affirmation; people who disagree will criticize. But neither one thinks much about what they read, because they got the point and don’t need to go any farther.
Great Christian themes should generate more questions. Great Christian themes don’t give all the answers.
Consequently, Christian themes won’t necessarily contain the whole gospel. It’s not impossible, certainly, but laying out all that God did for us, in a story, will likely not be unambiguous.
In part this is true because Christ has great name recognition in the world. It’s polarizing, as Jesus said it would be. Should that keep Christians from writing books that contain Christian themes that point to Him or His work or His plan or His purpose? Not at all.
But those Christian themes don’t have to always be fleshed out and fully explained. They can be suggested. They can generate thought such as this: I’d love to know unconditional love like that; I wonder if there really is such a thing. Or perhaps like this: Why would someone forgive anybody who has hurt them so much; is that even possible?
Christian stories today seem to fall into two camps: ones that are just good, clean, entertaining stories; or ones that make some effort to present the gospel either for Christians or about characters who are or become Christians.
Nothing wrong with either of those. But it seems to me, there is a need for the third kind, the story with the great Christian theme that makes readers think about some element of Christianity.
A number of years ago Peace Like A River by Leif Enger made a great splash (no pun here), even winning awards and reaching best-selling status. To be honest with you, I didn’t like the book. At all. It had some good features, truly, but that didn’t change the fact that I didn’t like it. Yet I have to say, it made me think. I couldn’t walk away without wrestling a bit with a theme of the book: does God involve Himself in the personal and specific affairs of men?
In a sense that book was an eye-opener for me. Stories can make people think about God without being preachy . . . if they are willing to risk the possibility of being misunderstood or debated or disagreed with. But of course, with great risk comes great reward.