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Done To Death: Exceptions That Prove The Rule

Rebecca suggests that Mikalatos’s book shoots my theory to smithereens, but I disagree. Again, the question isn’t, “Can a non-Christian get something out of a Christian book?” The question is, “Who is this book written for?”
| Apr 11, 2012 | No comments |

So two weeks ago, I posed a stumper:

[W]ho is it that actually reads Christian fiction? I’ll give you a hint by re-asking the question: Who is it that actually reads CHRISTIAN fiction?

I hope I didn’t give away the answer.

Okay, so I did. But there was an interesting response in the comments. Rebecca Luella Miller pointed out that Matt Mikalatos’s latest book, Night of the Living Dead Christians . . . well, I’ll just let her speak for herself:

Interestingly, I think the book the CSFF Blog Tour just finished touring shoots this theory to smithereens. Seriously.

I’m talking about Matt Mikalatos‘s Night of the Living Dead Christian. It’s a book for Christians; it’s a book Christians can give to “seekers.”

And it preaches. My does it preach. But it isn’t preachy. But if you don’t believe me, check out the posts from other people on the tour. I think I’ve read nearly every one and in the 50 some articles, I don’t remember a single one saying it was preachy. Convicting, yes. Holding up a mirror for us to see ourselves, yes. Transforming, yes.

I suppose I could have argued in the comments, but it was the run-up to Holy Week and I thought I’d hold off on that until I could write a longer response.

Rebecca suggests that Mikalatos’s book shoots my theory to smithereens but I disagree. Again, the question isn’t, “Can a non-Christian get something out of a Christian book?” The question is, “Who is this book written for?” I would argue that Mikalatos’s book is primarily aimed at  Christians who consider themselves alive but are really dead or, at best, are undead.

That doesn’t mean that a non-Christian couldn’t pick up the book and get something out of it. I would hope and pray that they do. That would be awesome. Now that Failstate has joined the ranks of the published, I would love to get a note from someone that said that they read my book as a non-Christian and it started them on the path to salvation. That would be cool.

But I’m not holding my breath.

The reason why is because as near as I can see, there are only four reasons why a  non-Christian would pick up Christian fiction and read it. They’re the four exceptions that “prove the rule,” so to speak, and here they are:

1) They didn’t realize it was Christian. Now this may sound far-fetched. Ten years ago, this would never happen. To get Christian fiction, a person would have to either go into a Christian bookstore or wander into “that section” of Barnes and Noble. Maybe they could find something in the library and not realize that it was Christian, but that would be rare indeed.

But thanks to the ereader revolution, this happens with greater and greater frequency. People will stumble over a book on Amazon, not realize that they’re seeing a Christian book, and download it. Then they get angry and vent their ire in the review section over being “tricked” into buying Christian fiction.

So yeah, I don’t think this is a valid way to get Christian fiction into the hands of non-believers.

2) The author has a sizable non-Christian fan base already. I actually have some experience here. About ten years ago, I was browsing through the speculative fiction section of Christian Book Distributors and I stumbled on an author name that looked familiar. I was pretty sure I had never read any Christian fiction by this author, but I couldn’t figure out why I knew that name. So I glanced up at my bookshelf and my gaze landed on The Truce at Bakura and it all fell into place. What I had found was Firebird, and since I had read the Star Wars novel, I immediately ordered the Christian novel.

This episode actually got me helped me stumble down the road to pursuing publication. But that’s a different story entirely. My point is that since I was familiar with Kathy Tyer’s secular book, it prompted me to buy her Christian books.

We’ve also seen that strategy used by vampire-queen Anne Rice. Several years ago, she revealed herself to be Catholic (although apparently that hasn’t exactly stuck) and wrote religious fiction. I’m sure a number of her fans followed her to her new venture.

Only I’m still not sure if this works as a general strategy either. The reason I bought Firebird was because I was already Christian (and a pastor to boot, for crying out loud). Again, I’ve seen reviews from some readers that preferred Firebird in its original, secular form when it was published by Bantam (I think) because they didn’t appreciate the “preachiness” in the new version.

So again, I’m not sure this is a viable strategy to get Christian fiction into the hands of non-Christians. First, you would have to establish yourself as a secular author, which is tough enough. Then you would have to survive the transition to Christian fiction and hope that your fans go with you.

I guess we’d better move on to the third possibility.

3) Write something “controversial.” Back a number of years ago, Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins unleashed the juggernaut that is the Left Behind series onto the world. Now, I have problems with this series from a theological perspective. I’m an ardent and staunch amillennialist, and so I don’t find much to agree with when it comes to the series’ dispensational premillennialism. But that’s not the point here.

Instead, this series garnered worldwide attention. It flew off the bookstore shelves and made headlines. I remember seeing TIME Magazine do a cover story on it at the series’ height. I’m sure that there were a few non-Christians (or maybe more than a few) who grabbed a copy and read it to see what all the fuss was about. And it’s entirely possible that these hypothetical non-Christian readers came to Jesus as a result. I don’t know; I’ve never heard any stories one way or the other.

But again, this is a problematic approach to getting non-Christians to read Christian fiction because really, how can you plan on writing a “controversial” novel? There’s no way you can do that. It’s just something that happens.

That leaves us with the final possibility:

4) A Christian reader passes along your book to a non-Christian friend. This is the likeliest scenario and, I think, it’s the one that Rebecca had in mind when she commented two weeks ago.

Can this happen? Sure! Does it happen? Sure! Could people be converted by reading a Christian book? Absolutely!

Except . . .

Except who read it first? The Christian did. So who would the book be targeted for?

Not only that, but I think it would be highly unlikely that this hypothetical book would be the only contact that the non-Christian would have with a Christian worldview. No, it’s far more likely that the Christian friend would have been witnessing already and would be using the book to help show what they’ve been talking about. Or the Christian friend would use the book to try to prompt further and deeper discussion with their non-Christian friend. In either case, who deserves the credit for the friend’s conversion if/when it happens? Well, besides the Holy Spirit, I mean.

It’s great to want to reach out to the lost and fallen through our fiction, but I think we need to be more realistic about who reads it and structure our stories to that audience. If we can minister to non-Christians along the way, that’s great, but we still have to remember who our primary audience is.

In two weeks, I’ll dive into the pitfalls a little more. Until then, let me know what you think.

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Bethany A. Jennings

Yep, I think that list about sums it up.  Most non-believers will not actively seek Christian fiction unless they have an alternate reason for being interested in the story.

Regarding exception #1 – I agree that most of the time, when a non-Christian reader unexpectedly discovers religious themes in a book, the result is annoyance.  I find it kind of sadly funny when a review by an unbeliever complains, “I didn’t appreciate the religion being shoved in my face” (because these days, just mentioning religion is tantamount to holding someone hostage and wildly preaching at them)…as if the author somehow cheated them by luring them in with a good story, and then – BAM! – hit them in the face with the cross.  Or, some unbelievers seem to almost equate Christian content with bad writing.  “This was a good book, aside from the religious stuff.”  They don’t allow for the possibility that it’s a good book WITH the religious content, although they personally might not appreciate it.

I fear my book will be the kind that unbelievers will pick up “innocently” and then get religion “shoved in their faces”.  There’s no reason to introduce Christianity in the first few pages, so they’d have to get well into the story before they realized the main characters are actually ardent Christians.

E. Stephen Burnett

Great stuff, John.

Your point no. 4 aligned perfectly with some recent thoughts I’d had — about whether I would want to pass along my favorite, non-wrongfully-“preachy,” fantastically written novels to nonbelieving friends. The answer is: no. For the same reason, I would not recommend these novels for small children. Even if they can read them, they would not comprehend them. So the reason is mainly artistic: I would rather the person read and enjoy the book only when he can begin to work his mind and heart around the themes.

Which of course brings to mind another flawed assumption under the “let’s all write novels for non-Christians, to get them saved” practice.

That assumption is this: the main reason nonbelievers reject Christianity is because They Haven’t Been Told What It Truly Is. Their main issue with it is Lack of Information Presented in an Attractive Way. Once more Christians can do that, once they persuade people they’re Special and need to Accept Jesus, we’re all set!

Or, the problem could be, not lack of information, but lack of a regenerated heart.

“Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17) It does not say “faith comes from Information Presented in An Attractive Way” (though God can certainly use this). A Christian’s true-life story is far more powerful evidence.

This is why I, perhaps along with you, believe that while some may write stories for “secular” readers, we need just as many or more Christians writing for other Christians.

Fred Warren

I would rather the person read and enjoy the book only when he can begin to work his mind and heart around the themes.

Christian authors frequently employ language, metaphors, and cultural references only Christians will understand and appreciate. They think they’re writing evangelistic fiction, but they’re functionally preaching to the choir. From the non-Christian’s perspective, they might as well be writing in Sanskrit.

Or, they take the “slipping past watchful dragons” approach and try to camouflage the Christian message within a fantasy setting while simultaneously making it obvious enough so there’s no chance it will be missed. It’s like trying to disguise yourself as a tree by holding a palm frond in each hand. The dragon is not fooled–and he’s annoyed at your low opinion of his intelligence.

Kessie Carroll

I think it comes down to Christians just being another demographic. I think it’s a symptom of our “circle the wagons” mentality. We only want to read books from other people inside our circle and thus insulate ourselves from the culture more thoroughly.
Spec fiction doesn’t fit into the circled wagons precisely because it asks questions. Or, if you’re Ted Dekker, who tries to shock Christians awake. (He outlines it in the Slumber of Christianity, actually.)
But Christian books don’t usually cross the genre any more than other types of books cross genres. That’s why YA is such a fun market, because it mixes and matches genres with impunity, inventing such delightful abominations as paranormal romance. 🙂

Patrick J. Moore

This article tempts me to consider not writing “Christian” fiction… I don’t want my target to be confined to the circled wagons that Kessie describes. Yet the themes of my writing would make it very hard to go any other way with it. I’m trapped!

Kessie- I disagree that Christians only want to read Christian books thus insulating themselves from culture. I don’t believe I personally know any Christians who don’t read secular books (other than the ones who don’t read any fiction books). The bias is a one way street. Secular culture shows aversion to the Christian label, but Christians seem to read both secular and Christian works, and they don’t often show any preference for Christian books either.


I will read both secular and Christian novels, but I’m more cautious of secular novels just because I’m not sure if they’ll have certian elements. There was one fantasy novel once that sounded great, and then the fairy godmother jumped into bed with the second son and I slammed it shut. Just…no

Fred Warren

Good points all, John. I think you’re on to something here. Like Hollywood producers making movies for each other, Christian fiction, by and large, is written for the consumption and approval of the Christian community, even if it’s declared to be aimed elsewhere.

#1: Really, anybody in this day and age who claims they were tricked into reading Christian fiction simply wasn’t paying attention or was decoyed by the guy with the palm fronds I mentioned above. Either way, they got what they deserved. Caveat Emptor.

#2: I think the net outcome is they pick up Christian readers (since they’ve provided the necessary shibboleth and are now “safe” to read) rather than bring non-Christian readers into the Christian market. As with Anne Rice, they don’t often plant themselves in the Christian market forever, and their fans will tolerate a little religious eccentricity.

#3: Left Behind is evidence that there’s no such thing as bad publicity. I agree that it’s hard to identify a profitable controversy in advance, but fringe theology or outright heresy seems to cross over well.

#4: Yes, I think this is the most likely scenario, and Christian writers should recognize it and own it. But I also think it’s only going to get passed along if it’s a well-written, absorbing story with interesting characters who make an emotional connection with the reader.

E. Stephen Burnett

My question, which some may already be thinking, is:

Christian fiction is read mainly by Christians, so is this a good thing?

It sounds like everyone, including John and Fred, are clearly agreeing that this is inevitable, and it sounds like a few claim this is a good thing.

I say, unequivocally, that it’s a good thing.

First, because Christians have not “arrived.” We need to grow through great stories, and keep exchanging frivolous “fun” for Godly “joy,” as much as anyone.

Second, because “preaching to the choir” is so needed. Some of the choir aren’t true Christians. But they have the religious background, fluent in the “jargon” and even themes, and may even frequent Christian bookstores. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say, then, that Christian fiction is mainly read, not just by true Christians, but by evangelicals — many of whom, sadly, aren’t (yet) true Christians.

However, I’m convinced writing stories that honor God, in their reflections of His truth and beauties, is a good work of believers, not necessarily an evangelistic one.

Fred Warren

I say, unequivocally, that it’s a good thing.

Yes, it is. Where it misses the mark in spec-fic is in writing the story for the wrong audience, meeting the needs of neither the intended or the actual readers. Say what you will about the prairie romance writers, they understand their target audience.
There’s certainly a need, and a market, for speculative fiction “by Christians for Christians,” but it’s a narrow and constrained niche, expectations are almost schizophrenic, and writers chafe at the restrictions and limitations. Well-crafted stories are rejected because the message is too subtle or is perceived to be doctrinally suspect. Stories that put the message front-and-center are rejected because they’re “preachy” or aren’t well-written. Stories are driven toward an inoffensive mediocrity that falls short of excellence from any perspective,  and then we feel frustrated and oppressed if reaction from the wider culture is less than enthusiastic because, as stories, they’re simply not that good.

Are we getting better? Sure, but we’re still trying to reclaim a standard of quality that was set over 50 years ago.


The “Christian Fiction” genre has been designed from the beginning to be marketed to Christians as an alternative to non-christian books.  There was little intent for it to reach other audiences. So even authors who would like to appeal to a broader section of society, are rarely going to achieve that through a Christian publisher.

Sure, there will be an occasional crossover for one reason or another. Left Behind rode the Y2K craze to the top. Many Christian novels are very explicilty so and may not appeal to others, but there are many out there that would. So, in some cases, we have put these books into an artificial sub-genre. No one calls Narnia “Christian fiction” in spite of its obvious themes. In fact, it’s over on the fantasy shelf, published by a
non-Christian publisher.

If more and more Christian writers don’t want to have their audience limited, maybe we should rethink this “Christian fiction” label. After all,
what other religion has its own fiction section at the bookstore?

E. Stephen Burnett

The “Christian Fiction” genre has been designed from the beginning to be marketed to Christians as an alternative to non-christian books.

[Citation needed.] 😀

But! seriously. I ask this question: if that’s true, how come few Christian novels (that I have read, anyway) offer stories that more closely match a Biblical worldview? How come many stories like that instead explore the lives of nonbelievers who perhaps find (or “re-find”) faith?

One answer: we like stories for ourselves, but we don’t like to see ourselves reflected. Thus also an unwritten prohibition on naming church denominations in Christian fiction. I’ve seen only Frank Peretti, in The Visitation, do that.

Mind you, I’m not lambasting all Christian fiction. I only wish we had more stories, speculative and otherwise, that specifically explore life on this side of the Cross.

Left Behind rode the Y2K craze to the top.

Not sure if I’d attribute that entirely to Y2K. Even in 2003, the series craze was still going strong when the “final” novel released, Glorious Appearing.

Many Christian novels are very explicilty so and may not appeal to others, but there are many out there that would.

I’m curious what you’ve been reading! In most bookstores, anyway, I see novels that are explicitly evangelical/moral, but not so much Christian. By “Christian” I do not mean an evangelistic tract that repeats the whole Gospel in story form, but one that fleshes out or “simulates” Gospel-affected events in a character’s life.

I’ve long since grown weary of stories about strangers just joining my family. I’d rather read stories, speculative and otherwise, about existing family members.

No one calls Narnia “Christian fiction” in spite of its obvious themes. In fact, it’s over on the fantasy shelf, published by a non-Christian publisher.

I call it Christian fiction. But it’s better at the “disguise,” and readers are ignorant.

Moreover, Lewis is a notable exception for several reasons, including his secular career, his culture, and his pioneering new genres at the exact time the cool authors were endorsing Realistic stories for children instead of all this fairy-tale nonsense. (Sounds like a good column.) The solution today is for Christian authors to be similar pioneers, for God’s glory, rather than try to copy popular “secular” stuff.

If more and more Christian writers don’t want to have their audience limited, maybe we should rethink this “Christian fiction” label. After all, what other religion has its own fiction section at the bookstore?

Me, I like the limited audience. It’s the limited genre(s) and simplistic, shallow themes in Christian fiction that annoy me. Rather than exploring the matchless riches of God, His beauties and truths, in fiction, many authors are content to dabble in general moral themes, or else (as mentioned above) only explore nonbelievers’ lives from the perspective of the Christian life. That’s what is limiting, across all genres.</p<

As John observed, a Christian novel — even a good, subtle, non-wrongfully-“preachy” one — will inevitably annoy the closed-minded secular reader. If a Christian fan has enjoyed the book, he can personally recommend the novel to his non-Christian friend, in the context of the preexisting relationship between the two. But without the Christian being available personally to bridge the gap, the nonbeliever will be understandably put off by the contents of the Christian novel (again, even a good one). That’s not only because he’s offended by particular morals, or else artistic inferiority. It could be because he hates Christ.

That’s a truth vital to discuss whenever this question comes up: the fact that some readers truly would prefer better Christian novels, but others (perhaps a majority) would only ever read and appreciate a Christian novel if it quit being so bleeping Christian. At that point, the Christian author must quit trying to please everybody.

Paul Lee

I just posted my thoughts about this topic on a different blog.  I’ll quote myself here to add it to this discussion:


The clerk from Books A Million had a point, I think. Only people can be Christians, not books. We can’t decide what “Christian fiction” means. Does it mean that Christianity is the main element in the story? Does it mean that the writers deliberately used Christian themes in a positive way? Mostly, I think it just means the book is being marketed to Christians, whether or not the book is part of the CBA or published by an indie publisher or self-published. That’s not enough of a criteria to have a separate genre.

Christianity is not a genre. I don’t think Christianity is a separate culture either. It’s more of a calling, a vision, and a way of life. Our ideas have shaken the world and inspired many of the prevalent themes in the arts. We shouldn’t be hiding in a corner with our own fantasies. Our fantasies are for the whole world, because our vision is the highest and most universally relevant that has ever been revealed to mankind.

I’m glad Christian fiction did not exist when Tolkien and Lewis were writing! I wonder what they would have thought of Christian fiction being a separate genre.

I would like to add the disclaimer that I’m not saying that Christians should write with an explicitly evangelical agenda. I also don’t think that Christian writers should hide their faith. I’m just saying that I don’t really like “Christian fiction” being a genre label. The blog post on The Call of the Creator that I was replying to is also relevant to this discussion. It’s about the practical consequences on marketing of Christian (speculative) fiction being a closed genre.


Last year I read The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson (A Mormon). After reading it I felt more inspired to love God than after reading ANY (Tolkien excluded) “Christian Fiction” book EVER. The Way of Kings is marketed as High Fantasy and there is no real amount of “Preaching” (or any overt Christian themes) in the book. All it is is a very awesome and very truthful story with responsibility as a main theme. Since we are writing stories, we should write truthfully and awesomely and it will speak to people. If we want to evangelize or overtly edify we should stick to The Bible, the best Christian story around (And All-Time bestseller for Centuries). That Books A Million clerk was right.


Good post. Christian books are to Christians. Secular books are to secular people.  I agree.

However, when it comes to writing fiction where my main goal is to glorify God (I don’t hold to that “story is king” doctrine), I don’t really care what I’m supposed to do, or who will read it.  If I write that novel in accordance to God’s will and in His Spirit, then why worry about it?

Some books I write for Christians.  Some books I write for whoever will read it.  It all depends on what God calls me to do. 

E. Stephen Burnett

Greetings again, Jake! Glad you found your way over to this post. (I’m not stalking you. As webslinger of this friendly neighborhood, I happen to notice comments.)

Christian books are to Christians. Secular books are to secular people.

Or to Christians who are called to start conversations, and appreciate God’s gift of “common grace,” in “secular” stories, a la the prophet Daniel and the Apostle Paul.

Christian readers are not limited to Christian stories. “The earth is the Lord’s, and all the fullness thereof” (1 Cor. 10:26, cf. Psalm 24:1). This is also, by the way, why the spiritual Christian does not simply do “spiritual” things like ministry or evangelism, but is also assumed to, say, go have dinner at an unbeliever’s house, or enjoy meat (or stories) at our homes. Whatever we do, we do for God’s glory (Romans 14:29).

But, that was more a reference to your comment here. I’ll address that one later.

I guess we need to figure out what God’s will is for a storyteller, wouldn’t we? And the Spirit never tells someone what to do, independent from Scripture.

So, for the one who loves God’s written Story, the Bible — with all its other literature and sub-stories within — that is the only sure source of God’s will, revealed. From there we could ask at least two questions like these:

  1. What in Scripture is prescribed, i.e., a commandment for the Christian author of a story’s truths and beauties, how to show sin, and how to reflect God?
  2. What in Scripture is described, i.e., what literary forms and examples do we find that also, even without commandments, have something to say about stories?

I don’t really care what I’m supposed to do, or who will read it.  If I write that novel in accordance to God’s will and in His Spirit, then why worry about it?

Because “marketing,” and worshiping God through storytelling, is also an act of service to other readers. For example, you may feel “moved” or “led” or whatever your favorite fun jargon is, to bellow out praise in a church worship service — but you must also take into account the “culture” and potential reactions of those around you. This is one reason why Paul encouraged orderly worship (1 Cor. 12-14). Worship is not only spontaneous, for God. It’s also orderly, for humans.

I don’t hold to that “story is king” doctrine

In a way, a story is king. But one must define story Biblically. Themes must be organic. Issue-based fiction is often annoyingly dull, whether for Christians or secular folks, especially if the Issue is tacked-on.

All this is founded in the question of what story is for. Is it for entertainment, or for motivation (e.g., “inspirational”?) Or is it for us to be reminded of God’s truths and beauties? I see story as not merely intended to repeat the Gospel account or to push for its resultant moralities, but to flesh out that Gospel in a fictitious “simulation.”