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The Christian Writer And The Trends

Students and teachers alike, apparently, are embracing “the role that the arts and education can play in galvanizing people around an issue.”
| May 12, 2014 | 40 comments |

UCLA_Entrance_SignAccording to a recent New York Times article, “College Classes Use Arts to Brace for Climate Change,” university courses have begun to shape society’s thinking, using the novel, for the exploration of climate change—not its reality because that’s a given, according to this article, but, quoting Professor Stephanie LeMenager, “about adaptations and survival strategies . . . The time isn’t to reflect on the end of the world, but on how to meet it. We want to apply our humanities skills pragmatically to this problem.”

“Apply our humanities skills”—in other words, the arts, including “the mushrooming subgenre of speculative fiction known as climate fiction, or cli-fi, novels like Odds Against Tomorrow, by Nathaniel Rich, and Solar, by Ian McEwan.”

Apparently this new class of fiction is building upon post-apocalyptic and dystopian fantasy, but is also aiming for “political consciousness-raising,” as did the “muckraker” novels of another era—novels like The Jungle by Sinclair Lewis, The Octopus by Frank Norris, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Students and teachers alike, apparently, are embracing “the role that the arts and education can play in galvanizing people around an issue.”

Are Christian writers once again being left behind? (Pun intended). Are we so focused on “the quality of art” or on evangelism that we are missing the very obvious turn story-telling has taken in western society toward “galvanizing people around an issue”?

Where are the novels that show what society embracing homosexual lifestyles will look like? Where are the novels showing what society with no restriction on abortion will become? Where are the novels (here’s a controversial topic) that show how society will change if feminism rules the day?

Are these novels that Christians should be writing? Or should we forgo the galvanizing opportunities that spill into the political realm?

Perhaps we should focus in our novels on galvanizing people to do justice—stop human trafficking, deal with the problem of illegal immigration, confront corruption in government. Or perhaps our galvanizing efforts should focus on loving kindness—protecting orphans and widows, reaching out to the poor, doing good to those who stand against those who love God. Perhaps we should use our novels to galvanize others to walk humbly with our God—to repent of self-righteousness, complacency, greed, and self-interest.

Maybe we’re writing those book and I’m just not aware of it. I admit, I hear much less these days about writing “art for art’s sake.” However, what seems to dominate the thinking of a good number of people in the Christian writing community is “writing a good story.” As if entertainment is the highest value.

We want to avoid propaganda and we don’t want to write tracts.

UCLA Sculpture Garden

UCLA Sculpture Garden

Meanwhile, university professors are teaching students how to “galvanize people around an issue.”

I don’t think we should copy the way the world is working. I really don’t. But I can’t help but think the Bible already gives Christian writers a blueprint for our work. We have lots of issues around which we can galvanize people, if we would choose to use our writing as an extension of our lives.

The commands God gives the believer, then, would be commands writers should write about. The “good story,” then, and “the art” can and should serve as the vehicle, the conduit for galvanizing people to do what God wants us to do, perhaps starting with Micah 6:8:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
And what does the LORD require of you
But to do justice, to love kindness,
And to walk humbly with your God?

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Laurel C Kriegler
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Laurel C Kriegler

I am aware of Christians who do write on the more realistic topics, using the Bible (and all the flaws of humanity included therein) as a blueprint. Writing art for art’s sake. Avoiding evangelistic propaganda but writing books that deal with the grittiness of life in all it’s non-glory. They are few and far between, but the trend is on the upswing.

Lisa
Guest
Lisa

I agree with this, to a point. I do think we have to be careful about standing on soapboxes. That has been WAY overdone in Christian fiction, in my opinion. I do think the story matters, that art matters. It’s very difficult to write a story about an “issue” and do it well, I think. But that’s not to say that we shouldn’t try.

Amy Davis
Guest

Here’s a thought: What if we just wrote really good stories and let our worldview pepper them? What if our intent was just to write compelling, thought-provoking stories without “reducing them to a tract” (as Francis Schaeffer said)? What if we just focused on creating excellent art because that’s what our Creator has called us to do?

The thing is, if we’re walking in obedience to Him and writing as if writing for the Lord (Col. 3:17), then our worldview will come through naturally.

But I may not be the best commenter on this subject, because I gave up my writing because I felt like I had no place in the Christian writing community or in the secular writing community. My work is too “in-between.” When I write my worldview, secular commenters have said that the work is too clean and the characters too pure, while Christian commenters have said my content is objectionable. I may be a bit (okay, a lot) jaded. Jesus and I are working on that. He has opinions. I’m working on obedience.

Amy Davis
Guest

Side note: I was working on a novel series where feminism was the overarching world philosophy and the women had all of the power. I did want to explore what would happen in that world, because I *do* think women use power differently than men. But I gave it up, because I had given the women magic and called them “witches,” and I knew too many people would object to the very terminology. Thing is, though, if you want to give women power, you have to give them some kind of advantage over men, and the magic was a way to give them a physical advantage. And I called them witches just because I felt like it.

Point being . . . I do think that if you want Christian speculative authors to write books that explore these kinds of subjects with a Christian worldview, you have to make room for them in the Christian writing community. Even if we write content that you don’t like, you need to allow room for Christian liberty, and you need to recognize that this community is where we want to come for support when the secular community says our work is too pure or too Christian.

All that said . . . It’s a moot point for me, because as I said, I gave mine up. I only do commercial copywriting now. It’s much safer that way. (I do write my fiction as a hobby, but I have no intention of ever publishing it again.)

*braces for impact*

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I’d say still write it, but you could flip the setting to a science fiction one. For some odd reason, you can make functional magic if you cloak it in science talk, and Christians usually don’t mind. I actually have a similar concept in my own files, but a bit more radical in scope. I know the feeling of hesitating to write because of the audience.

Amy Davis
Guest

But I don’t write science fiction. And honestly, Christians could just come to terms with the fact that magic is an okay way to tell a story.

 

I’m not sure why I have to change what I write because the Christian writing community thinks I’m wrong. Isn’t that really between me and God? I have prayed about my writing for more hours than I can count, and while I have been convicted of sin in several areas, content has not been one of them. The Spirit has not been shy about conviction. I think if He had something to say, He’d have said it.

 

But as I said–I don’t write anymore. It’s too hard, and I’m not strong enough. No one criticizes me for writing web copy. I’ll stick with commercial copywriting, thankyouverymuch. And I might write the fiction as a hobby, but it’ll stay hidden on my hard drive unless God gives me a very clear and compelling reason to share it.

Leanna
Guest
Leanna

Whoa, I was thinking of you the other day! Nice to see you around the interwebz again. 🙂

Also, I totally hadn’t made that connection before in regards to the magic as a support for feminism in your story world. It’s the same conclusion I came to in one of my wips, but I’m still in the constantly-drastically changing phase of world building so who knows what the final outcomes will be.

Oh, also, you have proofreading/editing listed under services on your website but would you write backcopy for a novel?

Amy Davis
Guest

Leanna, the story I mentioned in these comments was a different one from the ones you read. No one ever read the one I mentioned here–not even my hubby! And no one ever will. 🙂

Yes, I am around on the Interwebz. Just a different corner of it. A friend posted this article on Facebook today, and I couldn’t resist adding my 2 cents.

Will slink back to the copywriting corner of the Internet now that I’m done with my rant . . . (Fast Company, Inc., Forbes, etc.–much, much safer!) I am blogging about copywriting, motherhood, and knitting at amyrosedavis.com, though. Feel free to drop by there. 🙂

Amy Davis
Guest

Oh, and just noticed your other question–yes, I would definitely do back copy, blurbs, etc. for a novel IF I had proofed/edited it. I wouldn’t want to do that stuff unless I had a pretty good idea of what the novel was about. 🙂

Thanks for asking!

D. M. Dutcher
Member

It depends really what you want. If you love the story as is, self-publish or submit to the small presses. A lot of them wouldn’t be put off by using the name witch for a character. Jessica Thomas at Provision Books comes to mind. Or if you want to get the message of the book out to a wider audience, you’d have to compromise; you can’t really expect the mainstream audience to change and there’s a big argument of just how much you have to write to them as much as yourself. I was thinking of how to do the latter without changing much of the actual message.

People will have issues with fiction no matter how you write it, so it’s just how much you want to alter your concept to reach the audience you want. Sounds like you had a bad experience with someone reading your work.

 

 

Amy Davis
Guest

I did self-publish. I had six titles live before I unpublished everything. I even had an agent at a well-known agency for a while. She tried to sell my novel to the big publishing houses. The feedback was actually fairly good, even though the book didn’t sell. The biggest problem people had was with my world-building, apparently. I know that’s my weakness. My characters and writing were praised.

The reasons why I unpublished are numerous and are NOT limited to the feedback I got from Christians, but I would be lying if I said that feeling like I wasn’t able to fit my work into a lens of modern Evangelicalism wasn’t a factor at all. It was. Theologically and politically, I’m as conservative as they come, but that means that I tend to hang out with a set of people who just will not leave room for messy fiction. My characters sin, and I’m not shy about that. And sometimes, they may do things that may NOT be sinful, but are just “icky.” And there’s the magic, which I enjoy writing and I think can be useful in telling a tale.

Almost all of the feedback I ever got about my characters from the secular reader was positive (there was the occasional “too pure” criticism). I think the characters could have been useful in pointing people to the Ultimate Storyteller, because they were flawed, messy, but ultimately redeemable. Mostly. I think the characters were people that the average unchurched Joe could relate to. But secular fantasy is trending very dark, and I just don’t write that dark. So I didn’t fit there, and I don’t fit in the CBA market, so . . .

My books are still on Goodreads, unfortunately. Goodreads wouldn’t take them down. If you are curious, you can see what I had published before. https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/4514379.Amy_Rose_Davis?from_search=true

But as I say, I unpublished everything, and I don’t intend to go back to it.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Yours sounds like work I’d like to read!

Amy Davis
Guest

Thank you, but I’ve been burned by that statement too many times to trust sharing again. I’m done.

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Sorry to hear that.

 

If it makes any difference, I lay out my thoughts on the topic below.

Julie D
Guest

I have a slightly similar story. I was working on a group story, and we didn’t want to have disagreements about inappropriate contact between characters, so we set it up that women had magic that they lost if they had skin-to-skin contact with a man.  Eventually the story feel apart and I considered redoing it on my own–and then I realized we’d inadvertently come up with the most blatant sexual metaphor imaginable.

Still think we had some good potential there, but the implications aren’t going to work.

Hannah Williams
Member

Great inspiration and food for thought!

Although I haven’t read them, I think the dystopian Safe Lands Trilogy approaches some pretty serious issues, such as what would happen if reproduction was controlled by the government. (AAACK!)

Also, in the fantasy, Dragonwitch, there was a society that once had been ruled by men, but was twisted around to be controlled by women.

 

D. M. Dutcher
Member

There are some books that try. That James Dobson series comes to mind. The problem is that those kind of books from Christians are usually very bad because very few of them understand the thing they warn us against, or are willing to speculate realistically instead of just writing a novel based on buzzwords or worse, illusions.

Like homosexuality. It’s not something like typhoid or malaria, that spreads and can be cured. It’s not just writing a man like you would a woman. If you aren’t careful enough to understand the thing, you can wind up writing an awful piece of camp people will laugh at for years. Rona Jaffee’s Mazes and Monsters did this about Dungeons and Dragons, and over thirty years later people still mock it for getting so much wrong.

I think people should write topical novels, but on things that they do understand or can do so without resorting to sin. Otherwise it will lead to bad polemics based on stereotype and misunderstanding.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

The problem is that those kind of books from Christians are usually very bad because very few of them understand the thing they warn us against, or are willing to speculate realistically instead of just writing a novel based on buzzwords or worse, illusions.

This quote should be framed and given to all artists (Christian and secular alike). I am tired of seeing presentations of churches and Christians that are so ignorant, but likewise am tired of people attempting to write about secular situations they know little to nothing about. Case in point: I work in the entertainment industry, mostly theatre, also some film. There are many, many misconceptions out there about how we “artsy” folks work and how we live. It’s not simply “write what you know;” I put no limitations on imagination. But we should always avoid caricature.

For starters, I’d like more realistic portrayals of troubles within the church. Could we please write stories where two are actually both Christians but have fundamental differences about how to serve, without either one being evil? Kirk Outerbridge managed to pull that off in his first Rick Macey book, but such explorations are few and far between. By the way Kirk, if you’re out there, inquiring minds would like to know what Macey’s been up to in recent years.

Henrietta
Guest
Henrietta

Just this Saturday I came across Andrew Kooman.  I am reading his YA fantasy Ten Silver Coins and I plan a review on this site.  I do believe he is working on this model of galvanising people around an issue, his issue being exploitation of the marginalised in South East Asia.

By the way, I don’t think women need a physical advantage to ‘rule’ over men.  A mental/psychological/intellectual advantage is well enough, gives sufficient plot possibilities.  There are societies that practice polyandry, though the woman does not necessarily gain ‘power’ in this arrangement.

How much harder and more fanciful it would be to write a egalitarian novel where power is shared and conflict is subtle.

Amy Davis
Guest

Perhaps I stated that poorly. In the world I created, the women did need a physical advantage, to some degree. You’re right–it’s not absolutely necessary, but it was necessary in the world I created. Also, a significant part of the story I was working on had to do with a movement toward a more egalitarian world–a “men’s rights movement,” if you will.

But, as I said, it’s abandoned now. *shrug*

J A Busick
Guest

I think Russell Kirk is particularly well-spoken on the issue of moral relevance in fiction:

http://www.crisismagazine.com/2013/beyond-newspaper-chewing-why-it-matters-what-is-read-in-high-school-part-i-of-ii

“…the usual courses in literature, from the ninth grade through the twelfth (also, generally, in lower grades), suffer from two chief afflictions. The first of these is a misplaced eagerness for “relevance”. The second of these is a kind of sullen purposelessness—a notion that literature, if it has any end at all, is   meant   either to  stir up  discontents,  or else merely to amuse. Let me touch briefly here on both troubles.
Literature certainly ought to be relevant to something. But to what? Too many anthologists and teachers fancy that humane letters ought to be relevant simply to questions of the hour—the latest political troubles, the fads and foibles of the era, the concerns of commercial television or of the daily newspaper. Such shallow relevance to the trivial and the ephem­eral must leave young people prisoners of what Eliot called the provincial­ity of time: that is, such training in literature is useless to its recipients within a few years, and leaves them ignorant of the enduring truths of human nature and of society.
Genuine relevance in literature, on the contrary, is relatedness to what Eliot described as “the permanent things”: to the splendor and tragedy of the human condition, to constant moral insights, to the spectacle of human history, to love of community and country, to the achievements of right reason. Such a literary relevance confers upon the rising generation a sense of what it is to be fully human, and a knowledge of what great men and women of imagination have imparted to our civilization over the centuries. Let us be relevant in our teaching of literature, by all means—but relevant to the genuine ends of the literary discipline, not relevant merely to what will be thoroughly irrelevant tomorrow.”

Amy Davis
Guest

This is excellent. Thank you for posting.

Todd Boddy
Guest

Can an author be simultaneously entertaining, mentally-morally stretching and bold enough to approach sacred PC cows/bulls/steers without fear of  being pigeonholed, blacklisted, …. or worse, ignored?

The litmus tests of western culture as to the fitness of our civility has arrived, so we can be rooted out simply by who we voted for,  what we privately believe or have contributed to. (nothing really historically new)  If that be the case, we might as well dig in on the issues and develop our creative voices with more than mindless short blurbs; a real live novel with lots of research and layers of understanding.

Speculative faith, for me apocalyptic-scifi-fantasy are perfect for this. Didn’t Jesus entertain and make personal, political, and faith points through narrative?  At the core of his parables especially are paradoxical truths, that as much as many have tried to deconstruct and assail, they still haven’t lent themselves to being extinguished by cultural fads or rationalism.

 

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest
Matthias M. Hoefler

Think of the Berenstain Bears. Maybe preachiness is O.K. or even to be desired. If the message is too subtly turned out, readers may not get what the author thinks she’s put on the page. The message must stand out like a snowball in Hell. Don’t use a feather when a sledgehammer will do 🙂

But I can’t consider that for more than a moment. Preachy books are unconscionable. Fair warning: my degree is from a secular college. I have attitudes and dispositions that came from being there during some of my formative thinking years. And that in the hands of those who did not want God in their lives or classrooms. That’s the way it seemed to me, anyway.

To preach or not to preach. Can we say each author must answer this question for herself on a case by case basis? Even to the point of answering yes for one story, but no for the next?

If we avoid preachiness, it should be possible to write a good novel that tackles an issue. I guess some people feel that way about the movie “Fireproof.” I got ten minutes into that thing and stopped watching. Too preachy. And I’m a Christian.

Jesus’ parables weren’t terribly preachy. The people heard Him gladly, the Bible says. He didn’t explain many of the parables to the crowd. When “a sower went out to sow,” they heard an interesting story that to many of them, until after His death and resurrection, would be nothing more. These stories weren’t unraveled until the disciples penned the gospels. And we’re still unraveling them.

A great example of “preachy lite” would be “Blue Like Jazz.” In some way, this is not a Christian film. Even though penned by Steve Taylor, a musician of 80’s fame. The film contains objectionable material, actually. Yet, there is a message at the end of the thing. Maybe a little preachy. But you enjoyed the ride so much you’re willing to excuse it. At least, I was.

Reconsider the Bible, that masterpiece of narrative. The account of these mens’ and womens’ lives is Literature in the capital “L” sense. But even the Bible doesn’t always indicate when something pleased the Lord, nor else when it upset Him. Many times it does, but not in every case. Case by case basis?

What further implications for our discussion does the Bible have? Or does it have any?

A side note: people, most people, are hungry for meaning and truth. That longing is placed there by God somehow. They may not even know they want the Lord, Truth with a capital “T.” The Truth that is Christ. Perhaps precious few go on longing for it even after salvation.

Think of the movie “Million Dollar Baby.” In case you haven’t seen it yet – spoiler to follow – that movie has story, sure as James Brown had soul. Frankie Dunn and Eddie Scrap-Iron Dupris (the characters of Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman) are fleshed out and enjoyable to watch. It’s a story rather than a tract: there is conflict, and there is the pleasure of winning. Also terrible tragedy: Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) is paralyzed by Billie “the Blue Bear” with a sucker punch. You hate that this happens to Fitzgerald.

Only at the end of the movie does the message come: is assisted suicide ever right? It’s not treated philosophically or religiously. It is played out dramatically. Nobody says, “You shouldn’t do that,” or “Think of euthanasia this way, dear Macushla.” Eastwood’s character struggles and finally does what he thinks is right. He acts, and it’s devastating. It works as a movie. Maybe the great impact it has stems simply from the fact that the message is not preached? The POV does what we think he should, or rather, probably for many readers here, does exactly the opposite.

 
This inversion heightens the impact, as Jack London once suggested.

Laurel C Kriegler
Guest
Laurel C Kriegler

Two of the books (series, in fact) that probably caused me to think the most about God and His nature (aside from reading the Bible and Christian doctrinal books) were from the fantasy and scifi genres. They didn’t even pretend to have a message, and I know that at least the one author was not in the  least interested in making any sort of religious comments through his writing. Yet they spoke to me and made me think about God in a clearer fashion than I had before; realise truths I had till then not realised; be thankful that God is Who He is.

Anything in the universe can speak to someone about God.

Amy Davis
Guest

You sound like a kindred spirit. 🙂

I agree–preachy books, movies, songs, etc. are ALL unconscionable. But there persists in the Christian entertainment industry (and make no mistake about it–it IS an industry) the idea that if we haven’t SHARED THE GOSPEL (just that loud), then we’re somehow failing God.

Personally, I don’t read any books that preach at me. There’s a reason I don’t read CBA books (as a rule) or watch Christian movies or even listen to the local Christian radio station. I have still not seen Courageous, and don’t get me started on Fireproof. But I also don’t read Phillip Pullman because in my view, his books attempt to beat one upside the head with his philosophy. I’m also not likely to read any post-apocalyptic novel that insists on preaching to me the Moral Imperative of Stopping Man Made Climate Change.

But would I read a book about a struggling marriage in which both characters have some growing to do? Sure, why not? Would I read a book written by an atheist? I’ve read Douglas Adams, so I guess I would. But Adams told a really fun and funny story through the lens of atheism and naturalism, and I was able to enjoy the story without subscribing to his beliefs. Would I read a book in which a huge climate catastrophe destroyed much of the world and the survivors have to make a way in it? I’ve read The Road, and it was brilliant. But McCarthy didn’t preach about the catastrophe–he just wrote a compelling narrative about a Man and a Boy and their struggles, and it was relatable and beautiful and haunting.

THAT’s the kind of story I want to read. THAT’s the kind of story we should be writing.

Look, we don’t have to hide our faith. We don’t have to hide our worldview. But would you eat carrot cake that had huge self-conscious chunks of carrot in it that screamed, “LOOK AT ME, FOR I AM CARROT CAKE AND I AM HERE TO NOURISH YOU, YOU SLACKER WHO DOES NOT EAT VEGETABLES!!”? Or would you rather eat carrot cake that is flavored gently with shredded carrots–a cake in which you can still taste all of the other flavors and doesn’t seem to be trying so stinkin’ hard?

That’s all I’m saying.

Zac Totah
Editor

But would I read a book about a struggling marriage in which both characters have some growing to do? Sure, why not? Would I read a book written by an atheist? I’ve read Douglas Adams, so I guess I would. But Adams told a really fun and funny story through the lens of atheism and naturalism, and I was able to enjoy the story without subscribing to his beliefs. Would I read a book in which a huge climate catastrophe destroyed much of the world and the survivors have to make a way in it? I’ve read The Road, and it was brilliant. But McCarthy didn’t preach about the catastrophe–he just wrote a compelling narrative about a Man and a Boy and their struggles, and it was relatable and beautiful and haunting.

THAT’s the kind of story I want to read. THAT’s the kind of story we should be writing.

Brilliantly said, Amy.

Marion
Guest

Human beings are subjective by nature and their worldview will always creep into whatever art they are producing.  That’s why I’ve always thought this argument against Christian Fiction and Movies has been flawed. The problem of the dreaded preachy   story that supposedly both sides of the spectrum (Christian and Non-Christian) hate so much.  However, the secular artists are allowed and even encouraged to be preachy….as long as it’s not coming from a Christian worldview.

It seems to me that this never-ending debate is about killing the growing Christian art scene instead of encouraging to get better and grow.  That is what has been missing from the issue.

I read a lot of blogs and comments from Christians that are quick to type  that I will not read preachy Christian Fiction or watch Christian Movies.  We want the subtle stuff.  Well, I’m in my 40’s and subtle is a very subjective thing.  That is a very slippery slope to be asking for in any artistic endeavor.

Moreover, it seems like of Christian readers are looking for the great novel to put up against our secular counterparts and shout to them…..we can produce great art as well.  However, we are doing it in the name of Jesus Christ.  Well, most of our secular counterparts would still criticize this great Christian work of art because of the worldview it is presenting.

My hope is that as a Christian artistic we community encourage and help those who are producing novels, films, and the like to grow.  Give honest criticism as needed and encourage them to continue.  I understand no one wants to read a bad novel or watch a bad film….but those who are really gifted as an artist need growth and time in order to produce great art. It’s a rare for someone to be a great artist after producing one or two works of fiction or films.

That’s why I have tired of the preachy argument against Christian art.  It really does not advance the ball forward and I want to focus on and support artists (who truly want to do this) bad or good to continue and grow in their craft.  True great art comes from perservance, time, and unexpectedly.

 

Marion

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

 I read a lot of blogs and comments from Christians that are quick to type  that I will not read preachy Christian Fiction or watch Christian Movies.  We want the subtle stuff.  Well, I’m in my 40′s and subtle is a very subjective thing.  That is a very slippery slope to be asking for in any artistic endeavor.

Agreed. “Subtlety” is in the mind of the beholder. Anyway, most people don’t really want that, proved solely by the unsubtle novels and films that most of us actually spend money to enjoy:

  • The Hunger Games. Not subtle; despite its strengths, the over-the-top “this is like Rome with its elitist gluttony and vomitoriums now, ‘k?” stuff in Catching Fire had me rolling my eyes a little)
  • Twilight. Hawt sparkling teen vampire consumerism and SEX!
  • Harry Potter. It’s all about the Power of Love. And racism is bad against muggles and house-elves and presumbly others. Also, HERO’S JOURNEY.
  • Star Wars. HERO’S JOURNEY.
  • The Avengers and all other superhero films: HERO’S JOURNEY. Also, evil is bad, and best combatted by becoming a true hero and/or smashing things.

It begins to sound like the pleas for “subtlety” are often unique to Christian fiction — or are they? Actually I suggest that some pleas for story “subtlety” is preferred only for themes and ideas other than clear condemnations of sins such as gluttony, power abuse, elitism, racism, lack-of-love, greed, and clear representations of evil.

So we may conclude that in some cases, when we say “make the story more subtle,” we really mean: “Please make the less-popular themes subtle — e.g., Christianity’s claims to exclusivity, sexual ethics, repentance, Judgment, etc. The rest are fine.”

Amy Davis
Guest

Stephen, there’s a difference, though, between literary themes and motifs and agenda. Some of what you point out would be under themes and motifs. I haven’t read The Hunger Games trilogy (though I have seen both movies, and I found them rather “meh”) or Twilight, but as for the other three you mention, yes, of course the Hero’s Journey was obvious. So what? The stories were told in such a compelling and entertaining way that it didn’t matter that it was obvious. One could say the same about The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, too. “Oh look–it’s so OBVIOUS that Aslan is Jesus.” Yes, okay–so what? Secular readers (and viewers) also enjoy the story, so they don’t care about the obvious allegory there.

So perhaps what people mean when they say “preachy” is really “preachy without making me care about the characters or the plot, without entertaining me, without giving me something else that makes the preachiness worth ignoring.” So maybe it’s more a matter of creating better art in the vein of J. K. Rowling, George Lucas, Marvel, and C. S. Lewis. If the art is excellent, the obvious themes (and potentially, obvious agendas) don’t matter.

As to the agenda issue–that’s something different. That’s literature written with a very clear purpose to persuade and provoke to action. I wouldn’t read something heavy-handed in any category or genre, but let’s talk about that issue for a minute. The message I got from Rebecca’s post was, “Christians should be writing agenda-driven fiction that I agree with, but without all the icky bits.” So *my* question is, how are you going to do that and make a compelling story that captures the attention and imagination of the secular world? Or does it matter? If it doesn’t matter, then by all means–keep writing what you’re writing. Christians need stories too, and if they don’t want to read all of the icky bits, then I’m sure there will always be Christian writers who are willing to oblige. That’s fine. That’s great, in fact, because we all have different tolerance levels and can handle different things in our fiction.

HOWEVER, what Rebecca was pointing out was that the secular world is suggesting that agenda-driven fiction is a way to provoke and persuade, and she’s wondering how we can be part of that. If you want to part of that, you’re going to have to either 1) let some of the icky bits in, or 2) create such an outstanding, non-preachy book that everyone is willing to take a look. That’s what Rowling, Lewis, and Lucas did. Yes, they were obvious, but it didn’t matter. In fact, in Rowling’s case, I would submit that she created a profoundly Christian story that happened to be so well-told that it captured the imagination of an entire world without mentioning God much at all. (Except in the last book. Seriously, you could write a Bible study on the last book.)

Here’s a good example of how to write a great story without bludgeoning a reader with God: The Book of Esther. What if we wrote like that–great, compelling, exciting, engaging stories where God is in the background the whole time but isn’t smacking us with His presence?

As a footnote, because I think some here might wonder, I have sampled a fair amount of Christian fiction, and I will read it when it’s recommended to me. I *love* Stephen Lawhead, still, after all these years. I read Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, because a friend suggested it, and I did enjoy it very much, obvious parts notwithstanding. I read Ted Dekker’s Paradise Trilogy, and it was . . . Well, it was okay. Saint was excellent, but the first and last books left me feeling rather bludgeoned with symbolism. I’m sure I’ve read some other stuff by Christian authors, but names escape me at the moment. Of course, that’s Christian fiction. I read lots of Christian non-fiction–J. P. Moreland, Greg Koukl, Tim Keller (just starting on my first one today, but have been following him for a while), Eric Metaxas, and of course, C. S. Lewis, my favorite apologist. So it’s not that I’m unfamiliar with Christian literature, but if I’m reading fiction, I look for good storytelling, excellent characters, and decent writing. If there’s an agenda, it better not be bludgeoning me, or I will put the book down, Christian or not.

Here’s the problem I see with this post and some of the comments (and, in general, the tone of Speculative Faith). The problem I see is that you don’t want to leave room for the author who professes faith in Christ, but is called to write the icky bits. That’s not your call. That’s between the author and his Lord. And if God is giving me stories that have the icky bits or the bits you don’t agree with, and if I’m praying my heart out in an attempt to make sure I’m right, that I really should write the icky bits, and if I’m passing it by beta readers and editors who are willing to say, “are you sure?” about the icky bits, then it’s really not your call to say that I’m not walking in obedience. I know there are books out there that tackle these big subjects through a biblical lens, but most of them are hidden in drawers or on hard drives because my Christian brothers and sisters are terrified of sharing with other Christians. Or, they might be published through secular houses or self-published on Amazon, but then they aren’t seen as “real” Christian literature. Look, there was a time when this distinction wasn’t even an issue. There are deep Christian themes in Charles Dickens, but I doubt the CBA would publish him if he were writing today. He wrote a lot of agenda-driven fiction, and he was a professing Christian. But he left in the icky bits of his day. If he were writing now, if he tackled some of the issues Rebecca mentioned, I think he’d still leave in the icky bits. That was his way. And it would automatically exclude him from the CBA world.

This will be my last comment on this post–and indeed, on this blog. Clicking on this link only confirmed for me that 1) I did the right thing in burying my work forever, because I’ve been nothing but irritated since I first read this post, and 2) there’s no room for my fiction in the world of the CBA. I do wish you all the best, and I hope you all find an audience for your work.

HG Ferguson
Guest
HG Ferguson

“Here’s the problem I see with this post and some of the comments (and, in general, the tone of Speculative Faith). The problem I see is that you don’t want to leave room for the author who professes faith in Christ, but is called to write the icky bits. That’s not your call. That’s between the author and his Lord. And if God is giving me stories that have the icky bits or the bits you don’t agree with, and if I’m praying my heart out in an attempt to make sure I’m right, that I really should write the icky bits, and if I’m passing it by beta readers and editors who are willing to say, “are you sure?” about the icky bits, then it’s really not your call to say that I’m not walking in obedience.”

Bravo, Amy.  God doesn’t shy away from the “icky bits” in His Word, nor should any Christian writer.

“The problem I see is that you don’t want to leave room for the author who professes faith in Christ, but is called to write the icky bits.”

There’s not a lot of room for a number of things in the contemporary Christian writing community.  Thank you for being honest.  I hope everyone else who reads this will be just as honest.

 

J M Padoc
Guest

My dear friend Laurel alerted me to this post, and I read the article and comments with great interest. On Twitter yesterday, I noticed that a Christian literary agent (not an agent who reps only Christian fiction, but a literary agent who happens to be a Christian) tweeted something about enjoying a particular book because religion was present, but the book wasn’t religious fiction. I asked her a few questions, and she graciously offered her opinion. I thought you all might be interested in a literary agent’s perspective on this topic.

Grace and peace to all in this debate.

https://storify.com/JMPadoc/agenda-driven-fiction

 

J M Padoc
Guest

I also thought of something I wanted to say as a reader and former writer . . .

From a reader’s perspective, I don’t like a heavy-handed agenda in any of my fiction. There always has to be some compelling, story-related reason to keep reading, or I will give up. I hated Dune because of Frank Herbert’s heavy-handed approach to climate change, but I loved A Fine Balance because Rohinton Mistry showed, rather than told, the painful, humiliating, and horrific results of a society bowed by racism, castes, and totalitarian regimes.

Perhaps what this really comes down to is that old adage, “show, don’t tell.” When the agenda or message is woven seamlessly and artfully into the narrative, perhaps it doesn’t matter quite so much what the agenda is. I know I have read books where I could identify the agenda and disagreed with it, but kept reading because the characters or story were so well-written that I couldn’t look away. And likewise, I’ve read terrible books that were heavy-handed (even if I agreed with the agenda or message) and poorly written, but I slogged through them because I thought I *should* for some external reason (usually because it was assigned or for “geek credibility”). But it’s my considered opinion that very few people will slog through a terrible book because it has a “good message” just because they want to.

I will admit that I read books for weird reasons. I despised every character and all of the situations in A Bend in the River, and I know that V. S. Naipaul is a terrible misogynist, but I kept reading because he writes so beautifully and the setting was so vivid. Yes, I finished that book because of the pretty words. Perhaps not the best reason to finish a book, but as I said, I’m weird.

J M