“The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”
– C. S. Lewis
This quote, from one of the literary greats of the twentieth century, is one I’ve heard often in Christian circles. It’s a quote I generally agree with. Christian fiction has historically had quality problems and we need to emphasize the production of good literature rather than just literature with the Christian brand slapped on it.
However, some Christians take this quote in another direction. Not only should we de-emphasize the Christian fiction genre, but according to some, we shouldn’t even have a genre for Christian fiction in the first place. In the minds of some, “Christian fiction” is a retreat from the world where we insulate ourselves in closed communities with sub-par fiction.
Which leads to a question: should we really be avidly reading works of Christian fiction if the genre insulates us from the rest of the world?
Or, to put it another way: what is the purpose of reading Christian fiction? And how can we defend the genre to those who believe it’s automatically sub-par?
Tolkien vs. Lewis: two approaches to fiction
Since Lewis’s quote often comes into play in these debates, it may be helpful to compare the books he wrote to the books his fellow Inkling Tolkien wrote. Lewis, in The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy, very much fell into the genre of Christian fiction as the books clearly displayed a rather explicit Christian worldview. Tolkien, on the other hand, in Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, shies away from an explicitly Christian worldview and doesn’t really fall into the Christian fiction genre.
While some readers may prefer one approach over another, neither is wrong—and it goes without saying how much these two works have shaped the speculative Christian genre. Indeed, few naysayers of Christian fiction that I know fault Lewis for his genre decisions. But why is that the case? What kept Lewis’ work from becoming escapist literature?
Let’s look at what Lewis did more closely. The Chronicles of Narnia don’t target Christians because Lewis wants Christians to become comfortable or insular in their subculture. He targets Christians because he wants to challenge and equip them to go out in the world and act like faithful Christians. In Prince Caspian, Lucy learns to follow Aslan and live out a life of faith even when no one else believes her. In The Horse and His Boy, Avery learns to stop worrying about what everyone else is doing and simply do the right thing herself. In The Silver Chair, Jill and Eustace learn to follow the right path and not be turned away from it.
In contrast to stories like God’s Not Dead which pat Christians on the back and vilify the other side, Lewis is far more concerned with challenging Christians for the flaws they fall into in his stories. As a result, far from isolating Christians from the world, Lewis equips Christians to engage the world.
One way to look at Christian genres
I frequently hear other Christian writers asking how explicitly they should tie their faith into the stories they write. The way I frame it for writers deciding between Christian and secular genres is to look at it between a choice between two options:
- General fiction (secular fiction) should explore what it means to live as a human in general.
- Christian fiction should explore what it means to live as a Christian in particular.
This principle has helped me understand the purpose of these genres as a reader. While a biblical perspective should influence everything that we do, God has revealed himself through general revelation and so general fiction can lean on that to showcase true aspects of the world we live in. But we need fiction that explores more than simply what general revelation reveals. We need stories that explore life as a Christian. These are stories that may not interest secular readers. And that’s fine.
We don’t need to feel guilty that secular readers may not enjoy works of Christian fiction. We shouldn’t fear that this means Christian fiction isn’t objectively good. Sometimes certain themes are much more applicable to one audience than another. Here’s what that can look like:
The Promise of Jesse Woods by Chris Fabry looks at a man who returns to his hometown to try and steer a woman away from a potentially-disastrous marriage. In doing so, the book questions our ability to save others, specifically in the context of the Christian life. The moral quandaries the protagonist struggles with may not be quite as relevant to unbelievers, but they are exceptionally relevant for believers.
To give an example from the Christian speculative fiction genre, Echoes from the Edge by Bryan Davis explores the struggle of a young man to forgive and move past his girlfriend’s sexual past before conversion. An unbeliever may not care for or sympathize with this struggle. But Christians will—and Christians need this kind of story.
Finally, while this last one is a film, Believe Me by Riot Studios is one of my favorite Christian films because of its critique of American evangelicalism. Because half the film satirizes various elements of evangelical culture, many secular critics don’t understand its references or point. But for Christians, it’s a thought-provoking and engaging story.
None of these stories have much to appeal to secular readers. But they’re not supposed to because they’re aiming at issues particular to Christians. As long as they’re good stories which aim to challenge Christians, we shouldn’t feel guilty about enjoying such stories. Far from isolating us from the world, they equip us to better engage as Christians with the outside world.
The purpose of Christian fiction
It’s certainly possible for works of Christian fiction to unhelpfully pander to readers rather than challenging them. God’s Not Dead would be one instance of this in the film realm. But bad apples shouldn’t cause us to write off the genre as a whole or bemoan the fact that there is a commercial genre targeting Christian readers. There are good reasons for enjoying and seeking out Christian fiction. We just need to make sure we’re finding works that actually challenge and equip us.
If you’ve largely written off the Christian fiction genre because in the past you’ve seen it as sub-par pandering, perhaps the problem is that you haven’t been reading the right works in the genre. There are many works of Christian fiction out there that are legitimately good stories and that challenge Christians in appropriate ways.
You don’t need to view Christian fiction as a sub-par genre. Some writers may treat it that way. But we can demand better as readers and seek out works that truly challenge and equip Christians to live more faithful lives for Christ.
The world may not need more Christian literature—but Christians do need Christian literature.
Read great Christian stories and even if the world may not care for them, that hardly makes a difference.