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Done To Death: Milk!

There’s a time and a place for “spiritual milk” (Hebrews 5:12). People who need the milk need it. But we can’t keep going back to it. At some point, we have to grow up and start on “solid food.”
| Apr 25, 2012 | No comments |

Over the past few posts, I’ve been writing about how, as writers, we should be aware of who our audience is or will be. And I’m not talking about focusing in on, say, “women between the ages of 18 and 25 who were fans of Twilight” or “older teen readers who like a good superhero story” or “men over the age of 18 who liked Star Trek and the Bourne movies” (guess which two of those I’ve written for). I’m talking about our audience in a more general way: who are we writing for? Who should we be writing for?

Now I’ve suggested that, as authors of Christian fiction, we should focus our efforts on writing to Christians. Part of the reason why I’ve suggested that is because . . . well, it kind of makes sense. If we’re writing Christian fiction, who is the audience going to be?

But there’s another reason why I think we need to remember our audience, and that has to do with milk.

In the New Testament, Christian teaching is referred to as “milk” three times. The first time is probably the most well known:

Like newborn babies, crave pure spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow up in your salvation . . . 1 Peter 2:2

In that passage, St. Peter urges his readers to seek after milk so their faith can grow. The milk is seen as a positive thing, something to be desired. But the other two times, “spiritual milk” doesn’t have such a positive connotation:

I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. 1 Corinthians 3:2

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food!  Hebrews 5:12

In both of those cases, we see the same situation: Christians who should have been “weaned” off the spiritual milk can’t be because their faith hasn’t grown. Paul chastises the Corinthians because their faith isn’t ready for “solid food.” And the author of Hebrews says pretty much the same thing, although his words are a bit more scathing. His readers should have been teachers and yet they still need the milk.

I don’t know about you, but I see a pattern here: there’s a time and a place for “spiritual milk.” People who need the milk need it. But we can’t keep going back to it. At some point, we have to grow up and start on “solid food.”

This point has been driven home to me in recent months. Nine months ago, I became a father again when we adopted a son. From the day he was born, our son has been a milk fiend. He loves his bottles. But in recent weeks, we’ve started him on baby food. Carrots seem to be his favorite. Within a few more months, he’ll be eating the same food we eat. He’ll be off the bottle and drinking whole milk. It’s all a part of his growing up.

But suppose for a moment that my wife and I kept trying to force feed him a bottle. Would that benefit his growth? Sure, maybe he’d do okay with it for a while, but eventually, his health would start to suffer. He needs to move on from the milk/formula eventually.

I think the same thing is true when it comes to “spiritual milk.” It has its place. Non-/new Christians need their milk so their faith can grow. Just as I wouldn’t give my son a steak and expect him to dig in, so too we need to consider where our readers are in their faith journey. Do they need milk or solid food?

And that right there is the key question we should ask: who typically reads Christian fiction? How far along are they in their faith journey? Do they need milk? Or are they in need of solid food?

It’s my belief (and yes, this is my unscientific opinion) that most people who read Christian fiction aren’t non-/new Christians. These are folks who are stronger in their walk, who are in need of “solid food.” And that’s the reason why I think we can’t and shouldn’t target our writing for non-/new Christians. It’s offering milk to those who should be on solid food.

We see this sort of thing happen in the New Testament, actually. Consider two of the most diametrically opposed passages in the New Testament:

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. Ephesians 2:8-9

In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead. James 2:17

Now, on the surface, it seems like Paul and James are contradicting each other. Paul says it’s faith, not works. James says it’s works, not just faith. So which is it?

Well, that’s a question that would take a whole ‘nother blog post to sort through, but here’s where part of the confusion comes from: who are Paul and James writing to? If they were writing to the same audience, I would say that yes, this is a contradiction that has to be dealt with. But I don’t think that’s the case. I think that Paul is writing to “baby Christians” in Ephesus, people who need to be reminded that salvation is by grace alone, through faith, and not by what they do. James, on the other hand, was writing to veteran Christians, people who knew the grace alone business but lost sight of the fact that faith, to be living, has to be active, a faith that works. Two different audiences at two different points in their journey, thus two seemingly different messages.

Now obviously, the analogy of milk and solid food breaks down if you poke at it too much. Can a non-/new Christian get something out of a book written for mature Christians? Absolutely. I’m not discounting that possibility. My point is that as writers, we should remember who will be reading what we’re writing and tailor our message to them. And it’s my belief that if we’re writing Christian fiction, our readers are more mature than we seem ready to give them credit for.

So that’s it for me this week. In two weeks, I’ll talk about some books/series that seem to “get it” better than others. Until then, let me have it.

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
Member

Nice analogy!  I heartily agree.  New and non-Christians rarely pick up Christian books; it’s usually more mature Christians who do, and while conversion stories could be faith-building and edifying, there should be more books out there with deeper content and “meat”.  🙂

I think that as Christian authors, we often have a hard time justifying our writing unless it’s in some small way an evangelistic effort.  We fall into a trap of feeling like glorifying God in our writing must mean sharing the Gospel with unbelievers.  That’s certainly a part of glorifying God, but we tend to forget that building up the church is just as noble and important a work as bringing new believers into it!   It is, after all, part of the Great Commission.  (Matthew 28:19-20.)

Morgan Busse
Member

I think there is still a place for conversion stories. After all, the Gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16). However, many stories seem to lack that power (in my opinion). Perhaps it is because we have forgotten that power, or have not fully experienced that power. I know for myself, it wasn’t until I wrote the arc for one of my characters that I understood fully God’s love, and the amazement that “though we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6).

However, it is also good to write about the journey after we are saved. Many times it seems like life becomes harder. This is in part because the world now hates us and because we have an an adversary. Showing how a character faces the darkness and valleys realistically (not just “I trust God” and move on) but wrestling with doubt and fear and the difficulty of choosing the right way rather than the easy way can encourage believers who might be facing that right now in their own lives.

Jill
Guest

This is a good point. Could you give some examples of books you consider to be “meat”? What about writing to the general market rather than the Christian market? Should we speak in parables at that point? Should we speak more plainly to a Christian audience?

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

From Morgan:

I think there is still a place for conversion stories. After all, the Gospel is the power of God (Romans 1:16). However, many stories seem to lack that power (in my opinion). Perhaps it is because we have forgotten that power, or have not fully experienced that power.

I also believe there’s a place for conversion stories. Even those, though, could stand to be deeper. “My life was terrible until I became a Christian, then everything is wonderful” — well, this is not impossible, but it is rarer than we’d like to think!

About that power: Conversely, more stories could emphasize the miracle of regeneration. Man must make a meaningful choice to repent. Yet God’s spiritual resurrection of his heart is indeed miraculous. I can’t recall the last time I read a conversion scene that was violent. Reality must be the basis, of course: surely not everyone is converted after, or during, an intense scene of emotional crucifixion, as the “old man” dies and a stone heart is ripped out and replaced with a heart of flesh. Some people, however, are. Our fiction should reflect that, for even in fantasy worlds, it should reflect reality — and the true God must be the axiom of all alternate universes.

Real people never move beyond the Gospel. But we do move deeper into the Gospel.

So should it be with a Christian novel character.

From Jill:

Could you give some examples of books you consider to be “meat”?

John said he would two Wednesday from now. Until then, I have a few …

  • The Visitation by Frank Peretti. The book does not “preach.” Nor does it ignore themes of faith. It’s simply an honest, gripping, almost “biographical” overview of one former pastor who isn’t sure who Jesus is anymore — and is confronted with a false christ who brazenly does everything the true Jesus hasn’t done. You get denominations in this novel. Humor. Supernatural suspense. And in-depth themes of not just the Gospel in justification, but sanctification — the Gospel is “fleshed out” in the lives of many characters, particularly the protagonist.

    I wish Peretti had written, or will write, more novels like this one!

  • Konig’s Fire by Marc Schooley is the most in-depth novel I’ve recently read. Always orbiting around the Gospel, even if it’s not directly seen (which no Christian should want to “go beyond”), Schooley explores themes of good and evil, and faith in the midst of terrible suffering — and a surprising, heart-wrenching reminder that man has sinned not simply against God, but against creation itself, which groans as it awaits redemption (Romans 8).

    Here I emphasize the themes, mainly because of this column’s discussion focus. Yet Konig’s Fire‘s characters, pacing, and historical magic-realism elements are equally as vivid and skillfully portrayed.

Jill
Guest

I should check out Konig’s Fire. Thanks!

Galadriel
Guest

I have to admit, I haven’t considered this side of writing for the interior market (aka ‘Christian’) before.  But as I consider it, I definately can see how some of the weaknesses in the CBA market ties to milk instead of meat. If I’m reading correctly, you say this is best  corrected by writing meat, while some others claim the market is milk by default. 

One article I’ve read that seems to be coming down on that side is titled  Why Writing Mainstream or Crossover Books Pegs You as a Serious Writer.  I thought she had some good points, but it also downplayed the danger of whitewashing/ignoring/downplaying your faith.

Kessie Carroll
Member

Interesting article. Thanks, John! I think discipleship is one of those things that is full of interesting story potential, but everybody wants to write about the awful McNasty sinner who gets gloriously saved and forgiven from all of their McNastiness.
I had a story once where a character, after being saved, wrestles with the concept of slaves vs. sons. (This was fantasy, of course.) The idea being that now that the Jesus figure had saved him, the character owed the Jesus figure his allegiance … so how was that different from being his slave? The character goes back and forth with another character who tries to explain that the son offers service out of love, whereas the slave has no choice. 
 
I was studying Romans at the time, and writing all that helped me figure out the concept for myself.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

I wonder if the reason why people shy away from discipleship topics might be because that would then set us up as authorities about Christian living when so many of us are still trying to figure it out and would hesitate to set ourselves up as “experts” on the subject.

A good novel, though, would not try to offer All the Answers, but some of the answers — and of course not outlined, but “simulated” with imagined people, plots, and settings. As readers grow, so will what they learn by “experience” shared with a great story. The same is true with authors, as they live and, as Chila noted below, write what they do know.

Kirsty
Guest

Not spec fiction, but Patricia St John’s Rainbow Garden is good this way.
The main character becomes a Christian maybe about half way through (can’t remember exactly). In the rest of the book she learns to live as a Christian. For example, she learns that being a Christian is not just about the good things she receives, but also the responsibilities she has to others – including having to make a very hard (life-changing) decision.
And it’s a kids’ book!

Morgan Busse
Member

Excellent point Kessie. One thing I am exploring in my own series is who McNasty is after salvation. He learns to embrace who he is, who God made him, and not what others think he should be.

Apart from our sin, we are exactly who God made us to be, with our different personalities, likes and dislikes, how we explore our world, and think.

Sadly, most Christians try to look like each other. I was one of those people, secretly struggling with my type of personality. I was a Martha in a Mary world and constantly told to conform. Since then I have learned that there is nothing wrong with my analytical ways and with God’s help, can learn to love people.

Chila Woychik
Guest

Galadriel mentioned my blog post up above   (http://chilawoychik.com/2012/04/23/why-writing-mainstream-or-crossover-books-pegs-you-as-a-serious-writer-while-writing-christian-books-often-doesnt/  ) as being one which “downplayed the danger of whitewashing/ignoring/downplaying your faith,” when in reality my post was not about writing for the Christian market as Christians at all, but writing for the /mainstream/ market as Christians. 

My thesis was / is simply this:  as a Christian, I see a great need for us to be taken seriously as writers and we often can’t do that in what frequently amounts to a circular market where Christians write for other Christians, and buy what other Christians write simply because they /are/ Christian books, not necessarily because they’re well-written, engaging, socially-impacting books written by Christians.

Further, I submit that if Christians write excellent material for the mainstream market, we’re far more likely to be taken seriously, our faith will likely take on greater credibility by those who read our work (even though we’ve not specifically addressed faith), and we’ll not have to be relegated to the sometimes “laughable” segment of book buyers and sellers called the “Christian” market.  [“laughable” – see the quote in my post by Christianity Today magazine]

So, yes, if one is writing for the Christian market, one can do as they wish, and “whitewashing/ignoring/ or downplaying our faith” is entirely up to the author.  I certainly don’t suggest such.  When, however, a Christian writes for the mainstream market, their faith can and should remain strong, but they’ll obviously have to be very careful how they portray it in their books – in other words, they’ll have to do as they should be doing with their family, friends, neighbors – LIVE IT OUT rather than TALK ABOUT IT in a piece of fiction.

~Respectfully,
Chila Woychik, Port Yonder Press 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Some thoughts regarding Chila’s articulate reply.

Trying to impress readers, regardless of their spiritual state, is at best a secondary goal. Trying to “impress” God — that is, to work out the truths and beauties He reveals in a fictitious setting, being a subcreator after Him as Creator — is the primary goal.

It also seems easier to identify the problem, like this:

My thesis was / is simply this:  as a Christian, I see a great need for us to be taken seriously as writers and we often can’t do that in what frequently amounts to a circular market where Christians write for other Christians, and buy what other Christians write simply because they /are/ Christian books, not necessarily because they’re well-written, engaging, socially-impacting books written by Christians.

(Agreed!)

… than to follow up the diagnosis with proposed cure.

For example, I have a bookshelf filled with nonfiction works, particularly those themed around What’s Wrong with the Church Today, that start strong. The books’ first halves identify the problem very well. Then their second halves fly off into silly-land. One book, for example, about why men dislike most church services did very well showing what’s wrong with churches. But among its solutions? Riding motorcycles onto church stages and putting guys on manly-sounding committees, such as for construction.

Furthermore, such a solution must account for the fact that no matter how well Christian authors write, some readers will still hate them.

I say this frequently. That’s because I don’t see it acknowledged enough. It’s easy to advocate for an unproven, untested Magic Bullet: do this and the world will love us. But not only is this unproven, Christ Himself assured us this can’t happen with 100 percent results. The world hates us, because it hated Him first. And it always will.

Conversely, that’s still no excuse to write or read shoddy, shallow stuff.

But the primary reason to oppose shallow stuff is not to impress pagans. It’s to glorify God. Then it’s to reflect His glory to pagans. (See also: social action, sexual purity, family care, seriousness about truth, helping the poor, etc. — all primarily to honor God, and secondly to reflect His glory to pagans.)

Once an author’s priorities, not just outwardly stated but internalized, are in that order, it would seem many of these issues are somewhat easier to resolve.

LIVE IT OUT rather than TALK ABOUT IT in a piece of fiction.

(In the voice of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark): “Is it too much to ask for both?”

This seems a false dichotomy. Certainly, a Christian author has freedom in Christ to choose how much overt “Christian content” to include in a novel. However, “living it out” and “talking about it,” that is, faith, are inseparable. One is a means to another.

Possible definition: A truly “Christian” novel always orbits around God’s revealed Story, and its truths and beauties — even if that Center is unseen.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Thoughts so far have been limited to one audience: As Writers, we should/shouldn’t …

That in itself is a limitation. What do Christian readers think about story “milk” versus “solid food”? What should be their purpose in experiencing either in a story?

Not every reader is a writer. But every writer is a reader (and should be a reader first).

But, as an unpublished reader-first, I’ve thought that way for a while about the Christian-speculative-author sectors … enough to swear off writing “As Writers”-style columns. Of course, that may be only my “calling” for now. I also feel a strong pull toward reminding God’s people that God’s truths and beauties, not simply Moral Themes with Functional Fiction, are reflected in great stories, whether those are by Christians or by other authors.

Chila Woychik
Guest

Let me continue the theme of my blog post, Stephen, which should address your reply.

You said, “But the primary reason to oppose shallow stuff is not to impress pagans. It’s to glorify God.”  In your own words, “Is it too much to ask for both?”  I don’t think that striving for the second would or should necessarily negate the first.  

Further, I don’t think I ever implied that our “goal” should be to “impress pagans.”  No, but when we strive for excellence, “pagans” will likely be impressed, especially those with an eye / ear toward the arts & literature.  When we’ve done our best, striven for a beyond-mediocrity mindset, people, whatever their religious affiliation, will be impressed, and I bet God will be smiling too.  Who does so first or second or third isn’t really the point.

There is no doubt in my mind that ” no matter how well Christian authors write, some readers will still hate them,” but that’s true no matter what we do.  I guess that wasn’t the issue on the plate either, but since this is a subject that isn’t often addressed by Christians, it seems we have a rather difficult time coming to terms with the actual material as I presented it.

To recap:  Christians should be writing mainstream books of excellence.  That /will/ give Christianity more credibility whether people like the fact that a Christian wrote that Pulitzer Prize winning book or not.  Whether the Christian wrote it because he wanted to glorify God or reflect God or impress “pagans” shouldn’t be enough of an issue to warrant our time; it’s like parsing for needles in a haystack.  Who cares?  A work of beauty or excellence by a Christian /will/ glorify God and reflect him and impress people.  I fear we sit around far too much and wonder about who’s wondering about whether or not this or that is happening rather than living according to what we understand truth to be, striving for excellence in what we do, seeking to be real and genuine toward “pagans,” and letting God be God.

And no, very sadly, “talking about it” takes far more precedence in most Christians’ lives than “living it out” and hence my suggestion that Christian writers only secondarily write about faith.  Live it first, and in the midst of that hard living, write a line here or there about it, but not until then.

~C