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:
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).
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.
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?