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Critiquing Critics Of Christian Fiction, Part 1

You’ve likely heard this: “Christians novels aren’t edgy enough. They don’t show what the world is really like. They make everything cleaned-up and black-and-white.” But perhaps we critics should give thought to these questions.
| Apr 21, 2011 | No comments | Series:

Subtitle: What do “it’s not [insert term] enough” critics mean?

Stop me if you’ve ever heard any of this: Christians novels aren’t edgy enough. They don’t show what the world is really like. Instead we get cleaned-up, black-and-white versions of reality limited to two dimensions or less. Also, conversion scenes are clichéd.

I’ve heard these criticisms. I’ve voiced some of these criticisms here on Speculative Faith. But here I’d like to ask: what do some of these complaints really mean?

Last week Becky Miller answered some critics by showing actual excerpts from several recent Christian novels. I also loved her clarification in a later comment: “Some people might think I’m playing both sides of the fence. I think I’m being realistic — Christian fiction has grown, and changed and improved, but it needs to grow and change and improve.”

Amen. Now I’ll join my friend and co-blogger by remembering that among the first Christian fiction novels I read were many that showed scenes of horrid violence, with decidedly non-believe-in-Jesus-and-all-of-your-life-gets-better themes, a grotesque mutated baby resulting from childbirth, hideous plagues that kill millions of people, military strikes, assassinations, profound faith struggles, supernatural miracles and even some Edgy™ doctrinal views.

And all of that is from the Left Behind series, by two older Christian authors (Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins), from deep inside the Evangelical Industrial Complex, and all dating before the year 2003 — before Christian fiction publishing began to shift somewhat.

With that in mind, here are some questions for Christian fiction critics:

Even book 9 of the Left Behind series, Desecration (2001), included blasphemy, blood and gore, military attacks, fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles. These are at least some kinds of Edgy™.

1. When we say “Christian fiction isn’t edgy,” what do we mean?

Many novels are demonstrably Edgy™, certainly when it comes to violence and suffering in the world. Even the Left Behind series shows this (though it gets laughed at for its length of all things).

2. Do we perhaps mean that not enough Christian fiction is Edgy™?

If so, what then is the acceptable market quotient of Edginess? Maybe we should we somehow get rid of all those Amish Angst novels? (You are welcome to try — then you’re sure to experience some suffering.) I’m not trying to be facetious here; that’s what the answer to There’s Not Enough Edginess would thus become: all those other people ought to want better kinds of books.

I’ve had to remind myself that it’s readers who drive sales for those non-edgy Amish Angst novels. Yes, readers and publishers have a symbiotic relationship. But if we want better Christian books, I’d start with challenging readers to broaden and deepen their preferences. That requires heart-level work. Complaining about the publishers is a surface treatment.

3. By claiming “Christian novels aren’t edgy,” do we mean they’re not edgy in our favorite way?

If so, perhaps critics should clarify that better. We might concede that many Christian novels aren’t so squeamish about showing violence (which, after all, the Bible does, and often in detail, and which unlike other sins doesn’t necessarily tempt readers to commit violence themselves). Then we might say, “But there still aren’t enough novels about X.”

As a lead blogger for Speculative Faith, I certainly agree Christians need more novels with speculation. Such genres point to God and His old truths in new ways, and give us a much improved vision of living in this world in light of the next. After all, the prophesied New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21) will be a fantasy universe, where we’ll dwell for eternity!

But complaining because people don’t comprehend why visionary fiction best fulfills this longing won’t help much if people don’t have that longing in the first place. Again we come to that same deeper problem of the heart, which I’ll address in part 2.

Sub-complaint: “There’s not enough sex in Christian fiction.” Sigh. I must admit this one results in my nearly audible eye-rolls — and mainly because whenever I’ve read this objection it’s rarely been articulated well. (Maybe someone can do a better job in response to this?) But when I read a derivative of that line, I wonder: what is it you’re really asking for? Maybe more recognition that sexual sin is rampant in the world and even Christians struggle with it? If so, I’d agree, though likely for different reasons: writers must show in all kinds of art that people are far worse, and Christ is even more amazing, than we too often imagine.

If, however, you really mean that a Christian novel needs to follow characters, married or otherwise, into the bedroom, back seat or whatever, and hurl readers’ minds into exactly who kisses what where and what clothing item gets taken off in what order — that’s where I may just go all “Pharisaical” on your butt (or rear end in some Christian publishing-speak). How exactly would all that vivid description help? We have quite enough porn in the world, thank you very much; let us not toss more in and pretend it’s Art or even Edgy™.

Violence and (I would argue) even Bad Words don’t bring temptations to sin nearly as much as repeating descriptions or images of sexual encounters. So my suggestion: yes, let us not pretend that sexual sin isn’t widespread in the world or even in the minds of many struggling Christians. But let’s not make it worse by indulging in the details. That doesn’t honor God.

Finally, over-description may be a cheap trick anyway. Many of the best storytellers — The Dark Knight and Inception director Christopher Nolan comes to mind —  are geniuses at not showing everything and thus heightening the impact of what has just happened out of frame.

Sub-complaint: “Christian fiction is too preachy.” For this I’d want clarity, because there’s a wrong and right kind of preachiness. I’d like to know we mean the same thing.

But more about that will be in next week’s column. For now, if/when you critique Christian novels, are you careful to say what you mean and what you think would improve them? And how might critics address Christian readers’ heart problems that lead to actual lame fiction?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Kaci Hill

But more about that will be in next week’s column. For now, if/when you critique Christian novels, are you careful to say what you mean and what you think would improve them? And how might critics address Christian readers’ heart problems that lead to actual lame fiction?

There’s a running list of words that no longer have meaning. “Edgy” is among them. I’d probably add “preachy” to the list, too. (Maybe one day I’ll post the whole list.)

Heart problems are an individual matter, and I’m not sure they’re mine to address.

Left Behind gets picked on for being the series that wouldn’t end, having “Jesus quoting himself” (in Glorious Appearing, which I never read), characters that do unrealistic things (I’m going to say the word “Chloe” and nothing else), and disagreeing with someone else’s version of Revelation. Personally, I read up to whichever is the one right before Glorious Appearing and simply decided neither main character could survive and was done with it.

Really, the Blood of Heaven (Bill Meyers) trilogy was much better. And shorter.

Plus, I think as a whole, “end times books” have fallen out of favor. People liked things like Children of Men (which, btw, was not my flavor) and I Am Legend because they didn’t follow the script.

And Left Behind just didn’t make for a great movie.

Oh, and I don’t remember the mutated baby. Huh?

On Amish fiction: I just don’t get the claim “everybody reads it.” Even my friends who love chick flicks don’t read “Amish.” They might read a contemporary chicklit or a ‘women’s fiction’ (whatever that is), but I’d be hard pressed to say they’d read what qualifies as Amish. So I think that whole argument is a cop-out answer. Most people who don’t like the speculative genre enjoy contemporary settings. The additional historical elements are secondary. It doesn’t bother me the subgenre exists. It bothers me the claim that “everybody reads that” or “older women read it” when my grandmother (a Christian) reads Kellerman and Ludlum. (Yes, Stephen, the same one who doesn’t like fantasy.)

Write Amish if that’s really what you like to write, but don’t try to convince me that’s what little old church ladies read or that’s all “good Christian people” like because they “might be offended” elsewise. Not when they’re watching Jack Bauer and Jason Bourne.

That said, I can’t make someone like fantasy anymore than someone else could make me like romance. Sure, occasionally something proves exceptional and I’ll like it. But it’s never going to be a genre I pick up on my own. I can’t expect otherwise from the general readership.

On preachiness: I’m still convinced the art’s in the telling. I read a set of vampire books that’s heavily and shamelessly steeped in Hinduism, to the point that the rebirth cycle is a critical plot device and story element, and, honestly, the Hinduism was one of the key ingredients that kept me reading. Star Wars, Batman Begins, The Last Samurai….you get the point.

Amy Rose Davis

I think sometimes it seems I’m just following Kaci around going “what she said.” This is her Time Zone advantage, I hope.

Regarding Amish Angst novels: Publishers buy them because they sell. Simple as that. Whether “everyone” is reading them is debatable. I don’t read them. I got over Christian romance novels in the early 90s after one too many Jeanette Oke books. But I do see the appeal. They’re clean, easy romances in a time or setting where propriety was just a given, and they’re short, quick reads. They’re probably easier to publish than a lot of other stuff. They’re bread and butter for Christian publishers in a rapidly changing publishing world (along with a lot of other Christian romance subgenres).

Regarding Christian fiction: It’s no different than any other kind of fiction. Everything in traditional publishing has become, to a degree, formulaic. Publishers know what sells, and that’s what they buy. There are just as many people complaining about formulaic, unoriginal fantasy and science fiction in non-Christian circles as there are people complaining about non-Edgy(TM) Christian fiction.

What I predict… Increasing numbers of independent authors (like me) and small indie presses will step in to meet the needs of these squeaky wheels. It will take a while for them to make a dent in the massive behemoth that is NY publishing, but it will happen. It’s already happening. And somewhere in there, I think we’ll start to see authors who write from a faith-based worldview but don’t use a ton of Christianese or even clearly Christian symbols and characters to tell their stories.

Regarding sex in books… I have mixed feelings about this. I probably go further with my sex/love scenes than most Christian writers would go, but I doubt I go any further than a PG-13 or even mild R-rated love scene. There are a lot of us who watch those things in movies that we turn around and recommend to other people.

But one thing I do think about sex scenes that has always bothered me… Christian fiction, in my experience, has presented all sex outside of marriage as bad and unfulfilling. But the truth is–for good of for ill, I have met many couples who are not believers who had fulfilling sex before they were married. I know the statistics–I know all of the facts and stuff–but I think maybe part of what we’re unwilling to admit is that there might be folks out there not living a Christian life (because they aren’t Christians) who are actually quite fulfilled–or at least feel that way. They don’t know any different, perhaps, but part of my thing is that I think it’s okay to present that side of the equation–that worldview–the one that says, “you know, I’m actually just fine, thanks. I don’t really need Jesus.” And that’s where I think a lot of Christian fiction falls flat.

I hope that makes sense. *heading for more coffee now*


Amy Rose Davis

Well, I will say also–I don’t market myself as a Christian writer. If I did, I’d take a much more conservative view on sex in books. I think my stories are good enough to appeal to a wide audience, and I wanted the freedom to explore questions through a lot of things that Christians might not approve of in their reading. For example, my latest novella features a religion centered around ancestor worship. I don’t believe it, and a lot of Christians would balk at that if they thought I was writing for their market. I think it would be unfair of me to market myself as a “Christian speculative fiction” author and then include things like that or mild sex scenes or cursing or whatever. I talk about it here, and I don’t hide it, really, but “Christian” isn’t really a label I seek in my writing.

Also, my views on sex in books and other entertainment could have a lot to do with my husband. That sounds really bad. I just mean it doesn’t bother him, nor does it tempt him. There are movies that he’s found distasteful, but he’s just one of those guys who simply doesn’t care about sex in entertainment. I know, he’s rare. He’s also one of the smartest Christian men I’ve ever met. And lest you think he’s just pulling the wool over my eyes or something… Nuh uh. We have very frank discussions about sex in entertainment. But then, we have very frank discussions about everything. (My love language is words. Shocking, huh?)

For me, to write for the “weakest brother” would probably mean truncating a lot of the story. And it’s really hard to know exactly what’s temptation, too. I have two relatively steamy scenes in Ravenmarked, and the one where there’s temptation that’s avoided is, to me, far more tempting than the one where the couple gives in (two different couples, BTW). Herein lies the problem with Christian romances, too. Certainly, those are “porn” for many Christian women, and yet there’s nothing in them that would even tempt most men. It’s hard to know who the weakest brother is.

Good discussion.

Amy Rose Davis

Oh, and one more thing–because you sort of touch on it in other comments. I understand the difference between tempting to sin through sex scenes and such and just presenting another religion that is so blatantly false that no Christian would be tempted by it. That’s not the issue when I talk about not wanting “Christian” in my author label. What I mean is–a lot of Christians, even spec fic readers, will object to an ancestor-based religion on its face without even looking for any underlying Christian message (such as you allude to in your discussion of Doctor Who and others).

Also… The only underlying Christian message in that novella with ancestor worship is that Jesus isn’t going to micromanage your choices, so for the love of Pete, go do something. But it’s kind of buried. 🙂

Zach Bartels

“Nearly audible eyerolls” is the best combination of words I’ve encountered thus far today.


Amish Angst–what one author I know calls “bonnet books”–are (to my knowledge) a primarily Christian-subgenre (are there secular Amish novels?), and they do make up a sizable percentage of publishing because that’s what sells. While they do have their advantages, I just feel some publishers think that’s the only the that sells, to the determent of other excellent fiction.


I agree with your points–these common degrogatory terms are vague. But surely we writers and reviewers agree that some books DO fall short of good writing. We can all agree that some characters are cliche or dorky, that some plots are weak, and that some metaphors are awkward and clunky.
Aside from this, I think it’s a matter of personal preference. I reviewed a fiction story that contains Biblical reasons why “poor quality of life” is a warped viewpoint, and that advocates a strong father-son relationship. These aspects of the story are marvelous–but the words and actions of the mother struck me as being a tad goody-goody and sickly sweet. (I’d share an excerpt, but I really don’t want to pick on the author since he bravely addresses a heated topic.) I looked up a few online reviews of this story and found that one blogger thought the mother was a great example of strong, beautiful femininity.
So, it’s just preference, I guess. However, reviewers DO need to be clear and to mention when their quips with a story are personal dislikes. 🙂

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Thanks for the link to my post, Stephen. I’m glad that discussion and response fueled your thinking.

From discussions with some who advocate edgy Christian fiction, though they may no longer use that term, it seems to me the issue isn’t so much the topics as it is the execution. Since this isn’t my position, I don’t know if I can fairly articulate it, but I think it’s the idea that not only will some be tempted by moral sin but they will fall and stay fallen. I think it’s a bit of a “not every story ends happily” attitude.

And Stephen, since I’m always onto the anti-Christian fiction gang for not having read any (or much) Christian fiction recently, I have to ask you, When was the last time you read Amish fiction? :-p


Kaci Hill

Hehe. I think the last I read was…when I was in single digits.