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Strange Story Spectrum — From Barn-raisers To Bloodsuckers

Christian fiction is weird. If we didn’t already know that, it’s now reinforced by a Chicago Tribune story revealing how evangelical publishers are hitting all the hot buttons in the book world. And the genres are wholly divergent: creepy vampires, […]
| Jul 17, 2009 | No comments |

Christian fiction is weird. If we didn’t already know that, it’s now reinforced by a Chicago Tribune story revealing how evangelical publishers are hitting all the hot buttons in the book world. And the genres are wholly divergent: creepy vampires, and quiet Amish communities.

This is interesting indeed. But I submit there’s a connection between the two. And I couldn’t have thought of it without the aid of my wife and an amazing discussion we had over greasy fish at Long John Silver’s, just last night, on the way to Bible study. (Yes, I’m now married, and that partly contributed to my absence from Spec-Faith contributions. …)

Of course, Twilight is to blame for the vampire craze, and the only reason I’m not fully annoyed at Christians copying the culture yet again is because John Olson, a terrific guy, good author, and supreme ACFW writer’s workshop host, finally got his vampire novel (Shade) published. But he’s the exception to the vampire craze; I happen to know he’d written the novel years ago and of course couldn’t find a publisher who’d take it on. Then came Twilight and hordes of swooning fangurlz, and — I’m employing some conjecture here — suddenly everybody who had shopped a Christian vampire story concept started getting callbacks.

Author and Spec-Faith contributor Jill Williamson already said everything I’d have wanted to say about Twilight, and even better because a) she’s female, b) she’s actually read the book. (In short: it’s questionable-at-best porn for women, and that’s my extreme phrasing, not Jill’s; however, I believe I can defend it.) She also reviewed Shade and another Christian vampire novel, Field of Blood. (Both sound cool enough. Perhaps I’ll soon read one or both. First I need to finish Williamson’s non-vampire novel, By Darkness Hid — marriage interrupted my reading!)

Yes, I believe in capitalism, and I understand enough about the book business to know that trends can’t just be dismissed with high-sounding rationale if you want to make profits (and nothing is wrong with that). Still I wish Christians wouldn’t just roll out a torrent of vampire stories just because the secular trends decree that now it’s cool. It looks bad, and it won’t last.

Instead — here it comes — publishers risk chasing after this trend and sucking it dry until finally it’s dead and with no possibility of coming back to life for several centuries.

Amish vs. Vampires

But weighing in, in this corner, is what the Tribune says is “the undisputed industry leader” in Christian fiction:

[T]ypically, romances and family sagas set in contemporary Amish communities. They’re a surprise hit with evangelical women attracted by a simpler time, curiosity about cloistered communities and admiration for the strong, traditional faith of the Amish.

The vampires don’t stand a chance. But I’m not sure what’s so surprising about these kinds of stories attracting evangelical women. (I may get in trouble here.) From what I’ve seen of evangelicaldom, these are the very virtues prized even among women who don’t care for Amish stories. What is surprising about that, I wonder? Perhaps the Tribune writer assumes that a more-epic faith — involving a Bible filled with battles, lineages, miracles, special effects, and above all an omnipotent, don’t-mess-with-Him God who loves and yet is holy and wrathful — would naturally lead to more-epic stories, with similar elements, not just Safety-First stories?

I don’t want to knock all the Amish fiction. But the fact that they appeal so much to evangelical women scares me more than vampires. An overemphasis on this is not healthful to Christians.

This is what I mean:

  • The stories are steeped in environments, even “mythology,” that are Traditional. That’s a comforting thought. This has been around for a while. Even the stories with newer elements contain familiar elements. You don’t have to fight much to accept it.
  • In such stories, the environment is highly structured. You can let yourself go, even let the men handle things. If you were a woman in this story, you need only go with the flow, maybe only worry about raising your children. Yes, there may be problems, but (dare I say it) even those are “safe” in a way, because they are predictable.
  • Such stories often contain “bad boys,” either religious or otherwise. Bad boys, to many women, are attractive. They have a strength that real-life “nice guys” often don’t have. They may be bad, but at least they’re powerful. There’s a strange comfort in that — a “comfort” that, unfortunately, leads to so many twisted relationships and enabling of evil abuses by men against women. It’s something I did. At least he’s strong. Maybe he’ll change. There’s a control in being controlled.

Well, isn’t that interesting. All three of those sets of characteristics apply equally to the appeal of legalistic environments and the hunting habits of vampires.

(Now I may really get in trouble.) When it comes to the Amish, I have a different view than many Christians do. Yes, these are just stories about the Amish, and perhaps some of them deal more even-handedly with the good and bad aspects of the lifestyle they practice.

But I know of many people who take the desire for safety, “simple life” and “traditional faith” way too far. They don’t just read stories about the Amish and pine away (which I maintain is itself questionable, when compared with reality and Christ’s commands for His church to engage the unbelieving world for His sake). Instead they want to be almost-Amish. They dress like them. They have the same cloistered views. Some want to live like them. All of the “safety,” and often even less accountability in a Christian community. They want their men to be large and in charge, a dangerous desire for control in being controlled as I said above. In essence, they earnestly desire the conditions that will lead not only to spiritual abuse (sometimes even physical abuse), but to a form of idolatry that puts people, tradition, safety and cloistered living above desires to glorify God and make Him, His Word and His grace the center of our lives.

Still, we have to contend with one little ‘graph in the story:

Christian fiction often has mimicked successful genres: Romance. Sci-fi. Legal Thrillers. But in Amish fiction, Christian publishing has something it can genuinely claim as its own.

Yes, Amish fiction seems at least original. But similar to a Washington Post story that rankled me exactly two years ago, the Tribune leaves out one genre: fantasy. We had it first. J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were not copying modern trends, they made modern trends. And both did it (albeit in slightly different ways) while glorifying God and echoing His truths.

If more Christian fiction continued to follow in fantasy’s path — and moreover, more Christians grew into epic-level faith that didn’t overvalue safety and “tradition,” but an epic God and His glory — we could legitimately claim that genre as our own. Question: how can we help this?

The winner: Bloodsucking barn-raisers

That was the serious stuff, and I’m interested in reading ideas, reactions, critiques, requests for Biblical back-up, whatever. Because of my background and familiarity with almost-Amish types of people (especially in homeschooling circles and on the blogosphere), you may simply not have seen what I’ve seen.

But now I’ll close with some frivolity. As a Christian, convinced capitalist, and aspiring author, I’m sure there’s a way to cash in on the strange saturation in Christian fiction of both Amish and vampires. The answer? Amish vampires.

That could be the title. It cuts to the chase pretty well: Amish Vampires. No vagueness would be necessary. And to underscore the subtle theme, the cover illustration could be one of those little black Amish bonnets, lying in a field, and the little strings that tie the bonnet to the neck would be stained with bright red blood.

And the back-cover summary:

“Run! Zechariah, run!”

They are in your neighborhood. They are in your cornfields. They may even have taken over your buggy. Lights keep mysteriously coming on — and you are not even supposed to have lights.

Don’t go near the barn. They are feeding beyond your cows and now crave even human flesh, the lifeblood of the simple. Long thought a legend, a terrible threat has now awaken as The Blood-Suckers of Lancaster County live again. Now the residents of this quiet community cannot even go outside their homes to make phone calls. They will find you. They will take you. Beware!

I think I have a hit on my hands. Don’t any of you dare steal it. But wait. Perhaps what is even more horrible and unthinkable than anything I have written above — I just know someone will.

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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[…] Say “Christian fiction,” and most people think in terms of extremes. The apocalypse thriller Left Behind series comes to mind, along with a dozen old jokes about how many volumes it has. Or one might think of an even greater multitude, which no one could number, of various romance genres — prairie, historical, cozy, comedic, medieval, prairie-historical, historical-medieval-cozy, etc. Recently, the top trends in Christian fiction are plain weird: Amish-community tales and (Twilight-influenced) vampire stories. (Don’t steal my idea to get rich: an Amish vampire novel.) […]

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