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R. J. Anderson on Story Evangelism

“Evangelism … takes place between believers meeting non-believers face to face, and interacting with them. … A book cannot take the place of a person.”

Story EvangelismShould Christian fiction evangelize?

It’s a good question, but it depends what we mean by asking it.

If we mean “Should fiction written by Christian authors illustrate and reflect Biblical truth in such a way that the Holy Spirit might use it to touch the heart of a non-Christian reader, and make him or her more sympathetic to the gospel?” Then I would say yes. After all, so-called Christian fiction that does not reflect or uphold Biblical truth has no right to call itself Christian, any more than a so-called disciple of Jesus who persistently refuses to live in obedience to Christ. And we should all be striving to glorify the Lord in everything we do.1

If, however, what we mean is “Should all or most Christian fiction contain a clear presentation of the gospel message, with the aim of showing the reader how to be saved?” then my answer is, emphatically, NO.

I say this for three reasons.

Firstly, fiction is simply not the right medium for a clear presentation of any doctrine, the gospel included. Stories can shed light on certain aspects of Biblical truth and teaching, but only in a symbolic or illustrative way, not as an end in themselves. They can challenge and inspire readers to think more scripturally, sometimes in a very powerful and even life-changing way, but even so they are merely a signpost to God’s truth, not an exposition of it.

Of course, many Christian authors feel uncomfortable with the idea of merely telling a story which the reader may not be mature or spiritually astute enough to interpret correctly, and they worry that other Christians (including Christian publishers) may say that their book isn’t Christian enough. So they include some prophet, priest or messiah figure (or perhaps even a mysterious voice from heaven) who enlightens the protagonist about the way of salvation.

But as soon as a work of Christian fiction tries to evangelize in the sense of showing the reader how a character becomes “saved” and nudging them to do likewise, then it has ceased to be a story at all. Instead it becomes a sermon badly disguised as fiction, where the characters are merely props or mouthpieces for the message the author wants to convey — something that no one who is being honest can claim is good reading, even if they agree with the sentiment behind it. Such a scene might as well be one of those TV commercials where two women jogging together launch into stilted exposition about hormone treatments or their favorite yogurt. However well packaged the ad might be, we all know that people don’t actually talk that way, and the whole conversation seems fake and even creepy as a result. It’s not good advertising, and it definitely isn’t good fiction.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C. S. LewisSecondly, I say NO to the idea that Christian fiction ought to evangelize in this way because I don’t believe it’s even possible to write a story that, by itself, can lead a non-believing reader to salvation. Ideas and allusions that seem obvious to an author steeped in Biblical language and symbolism often go whizzing past a reader who isn’t actively looking for them — consider all the children and even adults who’ve read The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe without ever realizing that Aslan is a Christ figure, or indeed that there is anything Christian about the book at all. Even the Gospels themselves are frequently misunderstood and misinterpreted by people reading them for the first time, so do we really think we’re going to do better with fiction?

There’s a kind of arrogance, I think, in the idea that if we write cleverly enough we can preach the gospel in our stories and convince readers to accept it. The truth is that it’s the Holy Spirit who opens people’s eyes and hearts to the truth, and He often works in ways we can never expect or anticipate. Our business is not to try and do His job, or even make His job easier (as though He needs our help!) but simply to write the very best stories we can in good conscience, and let Him choose what He will make of them.2

The third reason I say NO to gospel-preaching fiction is because that kind of fiction has no appeal whatsoever to non-Christian readers, and therefore no audience outside the Christian bookstore market. Which means that when we include the equivalent of four points and an altar call in our stories, we aren’t actually leading anyone to Christ — all we’re doing is giving warm fuzzies to a bunch of readers who already believe.

If there is any real value to “Christian fiction” as a distinct genre, then it ought to consist of honest, searching, well-told stories about the challenge of living the Christian life. It ought to inspire readers to dig deeper and grow stronger in their faith, not merely make them feel nostalgic and perhaps even a little smug about being “on the right team”. The message of salvation is precious and even essential, but it’s the milk we give to newborn believers, not the spiritual meat that growing Christians need. So when we insist on peppering our fiction with conversion scenes, who are we writing them for?

Evangelism, as taught and shown in the New Testament, is an activity that takes place between believers meeting non-believers face to face, and interacting with them in a personal (even if not necessarily individual) way. A book cannot take the place of a person, nor can it interact. By trying to make fiction do the work of sharing the gospel, we are not only sharing the good news in a clumsy, unsatisfying and ultimately ineffective manner, we may be shirking our own responsibility to share our faith in the way Christ Himself intended.

Yes, stories written by Christians should reflect what the gospel of Christ has done in our hearts and lives. But unless that truth grows naturally, even unconsciously out of our efforts to tell a captivating and well-crafted story, we will have no audience, and therefore no ministry.

#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.

  1. Of course, no book is going to perfectly or completely represent God’s truth, any more than our own lives as believers do. As human beings we inevitably fall short in one way or another, and so do the stories we create. But we authors who are Christians should always do our best to write for God’s glory, in the humble hope and prayer that He might graciously deign to use some aspect of our stories to draw readers closer to Himself.
  2. Unfortunately, this approach also leaves us open to being misunderstood and even rebuked by other Christians who don’t understand our hearts and motives, or appreciate what we’re trying to say. It’s painful when the very people who ought to be encouraging and praying for you end up belittling your work or even opposing it, because you’re storytelling when they think you ought to be preaching. But God knows our hearts, and He’s the One to whom we ultimately have to give account.
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Pam Halter
Member

Terrific points, RJ! Especially reminding us it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to save. I don’t know about anyone else, but this takes a HUGE weight off my writing shoulders. I keep reminding myself that the book of Esther never mentions God by name, but still shows clearly His hand in our lives. Whew! So, I can write a story – just a story – with no hidden agenda. Love it!!

Parker J. Cole
Member

Wonderful post.  Thank you for sharing!

Dane Tyler
Guest

This is a fantastic summation, and I particularly love this bit:

The third reason I say NO to gospel-preaching fiction is because that kind of fiction has no appeal whatsoever to non-Christian readers, and therefore no audience outside the Christian bookstore market.

A great statement of the position I’ve been trying to find a way to verbalize for quite some time. And it’s a pointed dissection of why I can’t write Christian fiction. Christians who read Christian fiction aren’t interested in what I’m writing. Period. And I can’t write the fiction they are interested in. Period. It’s just…not my game.

Kaci Hill
Member

Lovely post!

Those were huge paradigm shifts for me, once I started branching out and realized that the whole Christian/non-Christian fiction thing existed.  And yes, a huge weight off the shoulders.

Brent King
Member

Your points here are excellent, the first point especially. The thing that helped me out was a realization of who my audience was. I don’t write my books to evangelize those who are outside the faith, but to encourage and teach those who are inside. I can shoot a bit more “straight” with that audience.

Yet the bottom line is as you stated it: no metaphor or series of metaphors ever holds up completely in teaching truth. It is always better to stay true to the story and not try to force it into a box of truth…

Audie Thacker
Member

I’m not sure I can completely agree with your points.

For example, what about the testimonies of people who say they came to faith in Christ through reading the “Left Behind” books? I’ll not get into various ideas about the end times, but if the books did speak about the Gospel and people were converted, and those conversions were at least in part due to the books, then how can it be said that presenting the Gospel in fictional stories cannot have an effect on the readers? Or even that fiction is not a good medium through which the Gospel can be presented?

Another example would be “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, a story considered among the classics.  It seems iffy that this story could be dismissed as not even a story, but as simply a badly done sermon. Nor even to say that it has no appeal to anyone other then Christians.

Paul Lee
Member

As much as I love being on the anti-evangelizing bandwagon, the point about The Pilgrim’s Progress makes a lot of sense. I think the main thing is for Christian stories to present the human existential crisis in a real way. Gross “grittiness” isn’t True Reality that makes for High Art, but existential pain is. I think Christian works that have a strong sense of existential pain could be have literary merit and appeal and have a real potential to reach unbelievers whose hearts might be open to faith. I think John Bunyan’s portrayal of the human crisis in Christian terms was probably effective for his time, though anything like overt moral allegory now would be ineffective now.

(I suppose joy is the flip side of existential pain, but I fear the Christian hedonist movement skips past the mostly necessary step of attaining joy through deep pain.)

Audie Thacker
Member

More than joy or pain, it would be good if Christian writers focused on truth. Creating too-perfect good guys tends to fall flat, because they can come off as not very real.

But especially for Christian writers, while we may want to create characters that are morally upstanding, we also have to bear in mind the reality that for us humans “There is none righteous, no, not one” and “There are none who do good, no, not one”.

And that is right where the Gospel comes in. None of us are good enough, and we need to be careful of making our characters seem that way.

One book I read a few months ago kinda hints at what I mean. One of the characters, a Christian who had a ministry of sorts of helping married couples, gets seriously ill and will soon die. When a friend visits him in the hospital, he tells that friend that “I’ve done these seminars to atone for my sins”. This would have been a good time for that friend to show this man the truth about how his sins were atoned, that his good works were unable to atone for even the least of his sins, but that Christ’s sacrificial death was what atoned for his sins.

Leah Burchfiel
Member
Leah Burchfiel

Eh, Pilgrim’s Progress is generally only considered a classic because it was hugely popular for quite a long time and lots of other stuff references it. Anymore, it’s studied more because of its socio-political context rather than because of any artistic significance. Milton’s Paradise Lost is generally considered more valuable as a classic.

Lisa
Guest

Excellent article, thank you! This series has been really good, thank you to Speculative Faith for doing it. We need more conversations like this where we as Christian writers can think a little more deeply about our craft and dialogue with each other.