Years ago, I was being interviewed on some Christian radio program or another when a question caught me off guard: “Who are your favorite novelists?” I rattled off a few from the sci-fi universe (Arthur C. Clark, Ben Bova, etc), a few from the action-adventure neighborhood (Clive Cussler, etc); some from the tech corner of the world (Michael Crichton and others), and — oh, yeah — one from the Christian market (Jack Cavanaugh). That’s when it hit me: I read more general market stuff than Christian.
Oddly, all of my 40 or so books have been published in the Christian market. Why didn’t I have a longer list of Christian authors? Don’t get me wrong. I’ve had read a bunch of Christian titles and still do, but when asked my favorites, I defaulted to the secular end of the spectrum. This demanded some inner noodling.
So noodle I did.
I thought about many things. I grew up reading general market stuff. As a child, I read what was in the library. As a young adult I feasted on sci-fi. As I grew older, I added action-adventure and tech stuff like what Michael Crichton used to write. So, general market fiction had been my diet for decades.
During that time, I read one or two Christian-themed novels. Christian novels were new and rare, at least in the genres I consumed. Both books were horrible. Badly written. Poorly edited. It left a nasty taste in my brain so I restricted myself to the tastier fare from the other side of the aisle.
It was sad, really. Why couldn’t there be good novels with Christian protagonists? Well, Christian fiction was still new and just learning to walk away from its crib. Since then, the quality and quantity of such novels has increased. Today, we can read fiction by Christian novelists that are on the same level or superior in craft to what is found in the general market. To be fair, there are many well-written secular novels. There are some real craftsman penning stellar work. And there are some stinkers too. Such is the world of books.
Secular novels were my mentors. When I first determined to take a few tries at writing fiction, I studied the best writers in my genre. Most were on the secular side of the fence. Hence my answer to the interviewers question.
The secular market blessed me with more than some good reading, but also with a pattern of writing from the best craftsman. Today, I can say the same is true on the faith-based side. Authors like Steven James, James Scott Bell, Jack Cavanaugh, and scores of others, have raised the bar and done so in short order. For that we can be thankful.
I’m also thankful for those who write on the secular side. They’ve forced me to think, to reassess, to challenge my reasoning. In the end, my faith has been enhanced by books that have nothing to do with Christianity.
This is the value of reading. Every reader brings something to the table of communication. Few are those who can read a novel and not filter it through their life experience. Books, fiction and nonfiction, are there to entertain, instruct, and yes, argue with, and by arguing, exercise our thinking.
I recall reading a series of mysteries about a rabbi. Nicely done, sensitive, and instructive. I learned a great deal about reformed Jewish thinking; I also learned how misunderstood the Christian message is. The rabbi — in some bit of dialogue — would say, “You Christians believe this, and this, and this . . .” To which I would respond, “No we don’t. I’ve got a couple earned degrees in this field and I’m pretty sure very few Christians believe what you describe.”
There’s a lesson there. It taught me that the Christian faith is often misunderstood and misrepresented. I needed to know that. It made me sensitive to the assumptions held by non-church folk. It also gave me a desire to show what Christians believe and how they behave, and what better way to do that than in my novels?
I still read secular work and enjoy it very much. I have much to learn and reading is a great way to learn it.