Subtitle: Christian novel “preachiness” may be greatly exaggerated.
Last week’s column had questions for critics who say Christian fiction isn’t as violent, realistic, creative, (presumably) sexy or Edgy™  as it should be.
This sequel addresses a related accusation: Christian fiction is too preachy.
As with the previous common criticisms, I’ve often uttered this one myself. I’ve read some Christian books that I would call preachy, and not in a good way. Yes, some Christians seem to think a writing ministry is only God-honoring if they include the whole Gospel call in the novel someplace — regardless of whether the story is based on direct redemption themes.
This may result from confusions over vocation more than anything else, as if direct Scripture quoting with calls for repentance and faith (as vital as that is!) is the only way to glorify God.
At the top of Speculative Faith is a rotating quote from Phillip Graham Ryken (from his book Art for God’s Sake). “The way in which a Christian who makes cars glorifies God is not by painting ‘John 3:16’ on the hood,” Ryken writes. “Similarly, the artist glorifies God by making good art, whether or not it contains an explicit gospel message.”
Direct preaching is vital. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re in a situation where direct preaching would not be apt, someone’s “blood will be on your head” if you don’t witness. Not even Scripture itself proclaims the full Gospel message in every single chapter, page or book.
But other critics who say “that’s too preachy” may mean something very different than that. Those kinds of critics may be impossible to please, and Christians shouldn’t try.
1. What do they mean by ‘preachy’ anyway?
Tomorrow will bring to this site an interview with Kathy Tyers, author of the Firebird series and many other futuristic novels in both Christian and non-Christian markets. Firebird was a groundbreaker with an interesting origin: it began being published by Bantham Books, a “secular” publisher, then transitioned as Extended Editions to a Christian publisher. That, it seems, annoyed some fans of the “secular” versions, as shown by this Amazon reviewer:
I must say I was very excited to read Fusion Fire after having read the 1988 version of Firebird. I was aware that Firebird was redone and that its sequals were writen to follow the new format aswell, but I was unprepared for the differences in the book. I had been warned that Tyres preaches, and that this book is better left to those who wish to read such, but as one who respects but does not choose to folow that doctrine, I found that at times I felt alienated or better yet, uncomfortable. [Sic, sic, sic, sic.]
Those who, like me, have read and enjoyed Firebird as among the best God-glorifying novels available will now be vexed at that — because unlike so many Christian Products, Firebird is not at all annoyingly preachy. So what does this critic really mean?
He must mean: Any Christians who act and speak like it = bad “preachiness.”
And if that’s the case, Christians might as well get used to the accusation and not pretend as if they’re even able to please these critics while also being who they truly are.
Such critics don’t just understandably object to some cheap tacked-on proselytizing, but the very nature of Biblical Christians who include their worldview in all that they do, including writing. Tell me your great story if you have one, they say, but don’t honestly draw out the story’s underlying truths or themes. It’s an impossible request, a catch-22.
This is like many critics of the Church who would only “come back” if the Church quit being what it is. Many valid criticisms of the Church are out there, and I would agree with many of them, but stop being so preachy is an even more ridiculous demand when applied to the Church. You might as well demand the Salvation Army stop being so generous or even an atheist to stop being so Godless. It’s what they do. And preaching is what the Church does.
And preaching, yet in varying forms, is what every individual Christian is also called to do.
Therefore Christian authors should not be falling all over themselves to appease these critics, any more than Christian church pastors or members should be craving approval from those who will only approve if a local Christian church ceases to be what it is.
As author/pastor Kevin DeYoung notes, many Christians should absolutely stop being so happily adversarial, while they revel in the world’s persecution, real or imagined. But:
[… F]or most Christians, there is another danger, the danger of thinking that if we clean up our image, smooth out the edges of our faith, change a few songs, do a few good deeds, then we can get people to think well of us. Sometimes we act like God has promised that if we do the right thing, with the right heart, and say things with the right attitude, then the world will stop choking on the church.
But God makes no such promise.
2. Trying so hard to be ‘not preachy’ could make Christians even worse.
I’ve read Christian novels that were wrongly preachy. But I’ve also read novels that weren’t nearly preachy enough, which made me wonder what the heck was spiritually going on. Nothing about those novels could honestly be called Christian apart from sporadic prayers, references to God or morality or going to church, or maybe exhortations to Have Faith.
Similarly, this past weekend for Easter, many churches (and “churches”) did everything they could to yell about how their church is hip, cool, awesome, amazing and Not Your Momma’s Church — giving away cars, video-game systems and their own sanities. (See figure A, and scream.)
It’s best if Christian authors can be who they are. If they are annoying preachers who force specific Gospel calls into every conversation — and feel guilty if they don’t — then that will show. But if that’s the case, their real problem is their theology behind their storytelling, not just their stories. That’s where they should start: by remembering that even God Himself has often been more subtle in telling His own story of the Gospel. And it’s also okay to “preach” in their own way, when they’re wearing the “hat” of storytelling and not of overt evangelist.
3. All Christian novels are too ‘preachy’ — really?
Even critics with a more-fitting definition of “too preachy” may fall for this generalization. But no one can persuasively prove that accusation is true for 100 percent of contemporary Christian novels. For any inappropriately preachy novel whose “spirituality” is artificially tacked on, or in which religious ranting replaces quality, I can show a novel that does it right. So if these critics persist, perhaps gentle reminders are in order: you sure you don’t just need to get out more? I’d say the same to Church critics who act as though all churches that don’t lean emergent/hipster/liberal are “legalistic” based on their limited experience.
These critics should clarify that they mean most of Christian fiction is too preachy. But even if so, what is the requisite percentage of non-preachy novels in order to lessen complaints? Any art field, genre or subculture will have its more-overt contributors. The same is true for non-Christian stuff. Do it’s-too-preachy Christian fiction critics recognize that also? Or do they pretend as if only Christians are disallowed from including their worldview in stories?
More on that next week.
So what are the bad and good kinds of preaching that you’ve seen in Christian novels? What are the differences? And do you discern between honest critics and the catch-22 critics who do (perhaps without knowing it) really only want Christian novels to stop being Christian?