As we consider the question of what makes fiction Christian, one of the first things we have to wonder is: Why are we asking this question? Does anybody else? Are there agnostics or Hindus batting definitions of agnostic or Hindu fiction back and forth? Were Christians trying to define Christian novels a hundred years ago, or were novels just novels then?
I don’t claim the authority to answer all these questions. It can’t be a coincidence, however, that our attempts to define Christian fiction are occurring after “Christian fiction” became an identifiable genre – with its own publishers, its own section in bookstores and libraries, its own awards, even its own style of covers. (Forget the back covers. Many – not all, but many – Christian novels can be identified solely by their front covers.)
The Christian publishing industry has inevitably required a defining of Christian fiction. If you’re going to sell Christian novels, both you and your audience need to know what you mean by that, just as people who go to the theaters have a general understanding of what a superhero movie or a family film is. In an unintended way, it has even encouraged a redefinition of Christian fiction. I am convinced that part of the Christian fiction debate is driven by people who want Christian novels, but a different sort of Christian novels, and wish to expand the definition of Christian fiction and the Christian publishing industry in the same direction.
What makes fiction Christian is, or often is, a business question. But it is also an artistic and a philosophical question, as even those who ask it from within the industry know. Christian publishing itself is part of a larger phenomenon, the rise of the Christian subculture in America. And I’ve come to wonder if all these things – the Christian subculture, the Christian publishing industry, and all our cultural debates – figure into an even larger picture.
I wonder if they are all driven, in part, by the ever-widening gulf that we, as Christians, experience between our religion and our culture. Gone is the easy talk of Christian civilization, and Christian nations, and (the phrase makes one shudder) a Christian race. I would not oversimplify the past, or our ancestors. History is always messier and more complex in the making than it appears when we look back on it finished. Yet I think it true that in older days, the Christian religion was often taken as part and parcel with western civilization, like Shakespeare and the common law and scientific advancements.
Today we are conscious of Christianity as something distinct, and in no way inextricably bound, to our society; society could go on without it, and many days seems to intend to. This separation, like all separations, may be painful. In some respects, it is no doubt to be regretted. But the old association between Christianity and society, while more comfortable than the present distance, could be too comfortable. There is value in being forced onto new ground, in being forced to define again how our faith and culture meet and ought to meet.
There is value in reevaluation and redefinition, even of Christian fiction.