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Kat Heckenbach on Story Evangelism

“If I, a Christian, never thought for a moment to look in a Christian store for books, why would a non-Christian?”

Story EvangelismUntil I began writing in 2008, I didn’t know Christian fiction existed.

Sure, I’d read the Narnia books and Madeleine L’Engle’s novels, but those were classic works and were/are right out there on bookstore shelves with all the other sci-fi and fantasy books. But I’m not talking just about sci-fi/fantasy—I mean I never knew there was Christian fiction of any genre. Nothing officially labeled as such. I assumed all that could be found in the Christian bookstores and Christian section of Barnes and Noble were Bibles and Bible studies. Nonfiction made sense to me because that’s what you read when you want to learn. Fiction is what you read when you want a story, entertainment, fun, adventure, and escape.

Then I read the Harry Potter series, and found all this Christian symbolism. I hadn’t really seen much of that since Narnia and L’Engle. It made me thirsty for more. I wanted books that had depth behind the story. Not a message … more like a secret code. Or a backbone that matched the framework of my own worldview. Still, I would read those books for story, not for learning—it was just cool finding things that made me think, hey, I see what you did there.

Then, when I began writing myself, I looked into attending a Christian writers conference. It wasn’t really intentional—I just wanted to go a writers conference, and there happened to be one in my area that happened to be Christian, and I thought, “Hey, my writing has Christian symbolism. I’m going to check this out!” I did, and lo and behold, one of the faculty wrote YA Christian fantasy. I thought, “This is a thing? I must learn more.”

Thus began my first dive into officially labeled Christian fiction.

I found some to be pleasant reading. Some not so much. Stiff dialog, contrived plots, and preachiness made many of the stories boring and irritating to me. I wanted my characters more realistic. I wanted the writing to be more subtle.

Maybe this is all because of my science background. I see the entire world as a testament to a Creator, and yet I’ve yet to find the word “God” stamped on anything. Not once has a tree or bird or spider or alligator spoken the word “Jesus” and yet I can look at all those things and see His presence. From the infiniteness of space, to the intricate structure of a butterfly egg, God ‘s signature is everywhere, but it’s woven into every molecule. That’s how I prefer my stories.

Most of the books I found just weren’t for me.

What shocked me was the discovery that many of those books actually weren’t written for me—they were written with hopes of reaching a non-Christian audience. There were Christian authors writing in hopes of sharing the gospel with non-CBA readers …

… and this confused me.

“Why,” I asked myself, “would non-Christians be shopping in Christian bookstores? For fiction?” If I, a Christian, never thought for a moment to look in a Christian store for books, why would a non-Christian?

It made far more sense to me—and still does—that the books would be meant for Christians. They are labeled Christian. They are in places only Christians go. They talk about things only Christians “get.”

I have no problem with Christian fiction being a thing. People who love horses write books with horses. People who love spaceships write books with spaceships. So why can’t people who love Jesus write books with Jesus?

What I don’t agree with is Christian authors expecting non-Christians to read Christian fiction.

Are we called to share our faith with others? Sure. I don’t hide that I’m a Christian. I answer questions, and I share my personal stories. I weave my faith into my fiction because it is part of who I am, but I do not force it into a message in my writing. My purpose is not to evangelize. Not in my stories themselves. Of course, it would be great to have someone love my stories, then see me as a Christian and feel pulled toward Christ. Stories are like the start of a conversation between the author and the reader, a conversation that should continue, bit by bit, over time. They are not—or should not be—a sales pitch.

#StoryEvangelismShould Christian stories evangelize?

This is a crucial issue for anyone who loves stories but loves Jesus more, and wants to glorify Jesus through our enjoyment of stories or our making of stories.

During October our new SpecFaith series explores this issue.

On Thursdays, reviewer Austin Gunderson and writer E. Stephen Burnett host the conversation with interactive articles. On Fridays and Tuesdays, guest writers such as novelists and publishers offer their responses to the question.

We invite you to give your own answers to the #StoryEvangelism conversation.

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Kat Vinson
Member

Well said. I agree, though I have always known about Christian fiction (even the regular bookstores usually always had an inspirational fiction section). The preachiness has always confused me as it is preaching to the choir.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Great post, Kat. I did know about Christian fantasy because my father bought me books like John White’s The Tower of Geburah and Stephen Lawhead’s Taliesin every Christmas, but the only time I ever visited my local Christian bookstore looking for fiction was when I’d already read and enjoyed the first book of a series and knew I couldn’t get the sequels anywhere else. Part of the reason was that the Christian bookstore was far out of my way compared to the convenient chain bookstore in my local mall, but the very limited selection and the difficulty of finding real, engaging stories that could hold up to comparison with the general market SF&F I was reading tended to put me off as well.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

“Inspirational” … one of the squishiest, open-ended descriptors in bookdom.

It has enabled much poor writing and worse (and life-harmful) theology under the vague notion that the content is somehow “Christian.”

Audie Thacker
Member

I can’t completely agree. For one thing, Christians need to be reminded of the Gospel, too. It’s too easy for me to fall back on putting trust in my own works, to think that I’m somehow tallying up brownie points with God by doing good works. I need reminding that Christ came to die for me, not because I’m such a good and special person, but because I was dead in sins and in rebellion to God, but God loved the world so much that He gave His only Son, that Christ came into the world to save sinners like myself.

For another, I can’t assume that simply because someone picks up a Christian story that they know this Gospel. Even in churches, there can be legalisms and other kinds of distractions, and the Gospel can be forgotten.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

From what I’ve seen, though, some of the books that include this kind of “Gospel” content is indeed including ideas that even people steeped in churchy culture would already know and would not be challenged by.

It’s not even really an “issue” with Gospel content, but with watered-down sub-gospel content. Themes like “no God really does love you” or “take a leap of faith” are not in themselves objectionable. But they’re not tantamount to sharing one’s faith. Therefore I see little reason to base entire novels or genres on these sub-gospel ideas that don’t actually do much.

But at this point we would probably need examples. I wonder which kinds of books (with or without actual titles/names) Kat was talking about above?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Fascinating. Some critics would suggest that adding swear words and sex references would fix the problem. Unfortunately, as you said, there is an “ambiance” in some Christian-written fiction that is difficult to put into words, no matter how much “content” one adds to the story. Maybe this results when Christians have not read widely in their attempted genre(s)?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

But moreover, this also occurs when Christian readers have a utilitarian culture about things like stories and art. If all these things don’t really have any value, apart from being “carriers” of the correct information or the correct morality, then why should we favor better-written stories?

This promotes a culture that can only encourage poor stories. As Austin noted in Chapter 2, the solution starts with the doctrine of vocation.

R. J. Anderson
Member

Maybe this results when Christians have not read widely in their attempted genre(s)?

I think that is absolutely the case with many Christians when they first attempt to pen general market fiction, Stephen — and I have also observed a similar problem in Christian-market genre novels, which perhaps still seem fresh and original to those who have read little or nothing of that genre (or else have only read the very small selection of Christian books that fall into that category) but seem depressingly ho-hum and hackneyed to anyone who’s read more widely.

When speaking to young authors I always remind them that the best thing they can do to make their stories feel fresh and original is to read frequently and widely — and that means also reading outside the genre they plan to write. If we only read one kind of book, we will only be capable of writing books that follow that same pattern… and that, I think, may be where the “bubble” Kat mentioned comes from.

Audie Thacker
Member

One thing I’ve thought about a few times, though I’ve not reach any conclusions, is the idea that Christian authors maybe should be considered teachers. We use our writing, fiction or non, to tell other people our ideas, worldviews, morality and ethics, how to be made right with God, and so on.

But with that privilege also comes responsibility. James 3:1 tells us that teachers will be judged more strictly. But who determines if an author who publishes Christian stories is doctrinally sound? Who can tell us that the author understands the Gospel correctly?

R. J. Anderson
Member

I’d have to disagree, audie. I think non-fiction authors may be (indeed should be) teachers, but fiction authors are illustrators, and those are two very different things. Illustrations can be powerfully used for the glory of God and for the edification of those who hear them (indeed, the parables of Christ are one example), but they are also subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation by the spiritually immature or ignorant. However, attempting to micromanage the reader’s understanding by interpreting every facet of the illustration for them results in bad, even unreadable fiction.

In the best of all possible worlds, fiction should be allowed to do what it does best, which is to evoke emotion and paint a picture, and teachers should do what they do best, which is to expound spiritual truth in a systematic way — while sometimes drawing on good fiction to help make their point even more meaningful to the listener. How many sermons have been enriched by quotes from the Chronicles of Narnia, for instance? Yet there are still many readers of Lewis’s books who have no clue that Aslan is a type of Christ, which is why evangelists and teachers still have important work to do.

Lisa
Guest

Coming late to the game here, but I very much agree with the article. I too find it weird that it seems like many Christians think that Christian fiction exists as some kind of evangelism tool, when the reality is that the vast majority of non-Christians have no interest in reading in that genre. I have no problem with Christians writing for Christians, why not? Although I do think the standards of storytelling, writing, etc need to come up a whole lot more, but that’s another discussion. Too many of us try to hide in the Christian bubble, I think, and settle for poorly written stories.