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The Purpose Of Christian Storytellers

Even if the CBA bombs, or if it survives and spec-fic (or other genres) struggles to grow like a rose in the arctic tundra, that’s not the end of the story. Because our focus should be on our purpose as storytellers.
| Feb 21, 2017 | 3 comments |

Why do we create stories?

More specifically, why as Christians do we create stories?

As I writer, I’m well-acquainted with the long journey of crafting a tale. The lonely hours, countless revisions, fear that what you’ve written is no good. The life of a typical storyteller is as far from the glitz and glam as the Shire is from Mordor.

Yet we continue to tell stories.

What sparks the passion in our hearts? What spurs the motivation and shapes the desires and goals we pursue with our craft?

Ask ten different creatives, and you’ll receive ten different answers. In my experience the goal for the Christian storyteller, in simple terms, can be boiled down to a single theme: write stories that show the Truth.

How we go about this is as varied as the commanders of the U.S.S Enterprise.

Speculative stories are near and dear to my heart. They, unlike any other medium I’ve encountered, are perfectly positioned to present epic stories that resound with the clarion call of truth while wrapped in a compelling narrative.

Sadly, though, when planted in the soil of the CBA, these fantastical stories may just as well have found a home in the Sahara. And even the overall industry seems in decline. What to do?

  • Decry the abundance of Amish, romance, and other genres that dominate the market?
  • Mourn over the lost opportunities for a vibrant spec-fic slice of the CBA pie?
  • Worry about the shrinking market in general?
  • Throw up our hands and say, “Beam me up, Scottie”?

In a word, no.

Last week, E. Stephen Burnett discussed the resurrection of Christian fiction (and not just spec-fic). As he said, the rumbles of doom and gloom regarding the fate of Christian fiction are strengthening. How should Christian storytellers of all genres respond?

1. Wait for (or help bring about) the resurrection

The resurrection of Christian fiction, that is. Stephen’s post made some excellent points, particularly:

We need distinct companies and labels and systems and everything. Apart from faith-based reasons, Christians are a people group, too. And people groups will inevitably develop their own subcultures, just like any other semi-organized fandom. In fact, if we believe in the Church doing the Great Commission, we must accept that we’ll have some kind of culture by gathering together in local churches to learn the Gospel, fellowship, and help one another practice evangelism.

In a previous post, he advocated for deeply real Christian fiction, an area too often neglected in the conversations about Christian fiction, Christian spec-fic, and the fates and woes and downsides of the entire industry.

Personally, as a reader and a writer, I think it would be grand to see the entire Christian market thrive. Meantime, though, the outlook grows bleaker. Where does that leave storytellers?

2. Despair of ever making it and move on to other things

Let’s just say NO and leave it at that. The temptation is there, I’m sure. Why struggle, why pour your heart and soul into something that will never escape an obscure existence on your hard drive or in your desk drawer?

I’m going to suggest that view is too narrow. It’s too easy for Christian storytellers to become content boxing ourselves into an either/or scenario. Either we publish Christian fiction or we don’t publish anything.

“But self-publishing,” you might say. “That’s a viable option.”

Quite true. But who’s the target audience? Probably all the other Christians who aren’t satisfied by what the CBA has to offer. How does that help, though, if the market is shrinking and readership is down?

Perhaps it’s time to turn our attention elsewhere.

3. Explore other options

This is where the idea of purpose comes in. In order for our storytelling to matter, need we focus solely on a specific market (e.g. the CBA)? I think not. In fact, I think it’s healthy that we expand our horizons.

Some have done an excellent job of this. I’ve attended the Realm Makers conference the past three years and have met authors who are seeking publication in the ABA. Maybe, if Christian fiction experiences the rumored doomsday, this could provide a good resource.

Focus on the Purpose

The point is this: the market doesn’t matter as much as the purpose. Certainly, each author has a distinct style and motivation, and each story takes on a unique quality. But if our ultimate goal is to present timeless truths through story, why limit ourselves to this market or that market?

Why depend on a Christian publishing industry?

Is our purpose to write stories that fit into a box? Or rather, is it to be sub-creators, as Tolkien put it, whose work reflects in small fragments the Greatest Story? To tell tales of heroism, sacrifice, love, loyalty, and redemption?

That’s the crux of the matter. Even if the CBA bombs, or if it survives and spec-fic (or other genres) struggles to grow like a rose in the arctic tundra, that’s not the end of the story. Because our focus should be on our purpose as storytellers.

To paraphrase Field of Dreams, “If we tell good stories, people will read them.”

So let’s roll up our sleeves, crank up the music, and tell some truly epic, God-glorifying tales.

How do you think Christian storytellers should face the coming changes and challenges?

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Brennan S. McPherson
Member

Great post. I totally agree that the focus needs to be on telling compelling stories, not trying to manufacture something fit to certain market needs. I know that this site is dedicated to readers, but this post strikes me as being more focused on writers (which I actually think is still useful to those who “just read”). So, the rest of my comment is more focused toward writers. . .

I think that if it’s true that Christian fiction is “dying,” it’s due to a lack of boldness. If we write a thriller from a Christian perspective, we should be bold enough to not feel the need to inject artificial sermons, yet also bold enough to speak about God when it’s evoked naturally from within the story and characters. The reason I don’t read a lot of Christian fiction is because I often encounter fiction turned non-fiction self-help.

The truth is that you don’t need to rely on a small market of middle-aged females who are looking for a conversion in every story to sell Christian fiction. If you tell a story powerfully, organically, and boldly, non-Christians will buy and read it.

The Passion of the Christ found a huge audience with non-Christians. The message was evoked naturally from the story. It wasn’t forced. It wasn’t a “Jesus Juke.” People knew what to expect going into it. And it spoke boldly. That was what made it powerful. It’s also what made it financially successful.

Sure, some non-Christians are going to dislike any creative work that talks about God. But CBA readers are going to dislike any creative work that speaks uncomfortable truths. And for the most part, you can talk about God if it makes sense to the story, and no one bats an eye. Just go up to someone on the street that you’ve never met, ask them the single greatest thing that’s happened to them, listen well, and then ask if you can tell them the single greatest thing that’s happened to you, and go on to explain your belief in how God’s changed your life, and you’ll see that people are far more receptive to the Gospel than you might imagine. The problem is that we’re not bold enough in speaking about it.

Because we’ve not been bold enough in writing about truth, CBA fiction has grown a reputation for being a bit of an aberration. A sort of Frankenstein of fiction and moralizing sermons. Christ didn’t come to make Frankensteins of us all, but to bring us back to life. Real life. Full life. Don’t try to convert people with your books–that’s not what fiction does. Don’t try to convert the characters in your books–unless that’s what the story is about. Don’t be afraid to speak truth–even if it offends people. In fact, it will offend people. Do it anyways.

Then, when you get bad reviews from people saying they were offended by what you said, we can go comfort each other in a lonely corner, because I’m right there with you. Writing is hard. Having people hate what you write because you spoke uncomfortable truths is painful. But telling honest stories is worth the pain. Because I need to read honest stories.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

Brennan, in a time when we’re being told we must do everything we can as writers to NOT identify ourselves as Christians either on our websites and/or interviews sites lest we give “offense” — i.e, hurt sales….thank you for being bold. Stay strong. Stay true.