It’s not only fiction legalism putting walls around the world of fantastic Christian stories.
Several factors end up being so limiting. Just this week Rebecca Miller touched on two of those: too-small expectations (an issue closely related to niche-ification) and unnecessary separation. Underlying these are other deeper difficulties.
1. ‘Christian stories must reach the lost at all cost.’
Evangelical fiction often targets — or feigns to target? — non-Christian readers. Following megachurch “seeker-friendly” notions in reality, this supports common story tropes such as cheesy conversion scenes, those wholesome professional non-Christian characters who only need Jesus to heal their hurts, and lack of potentially offensive material such as those swear words (because, you see, our fiction needs to be markedly different from the world).
But it’s taken me a while to conclude this: critics of these tropes base their criticism on the very same assumption: that the chief end of Christian fiction is to reach non-Christians, even to “evangelize” them. Such critics merely say, “Evangelical fiction publishers, you’re merely doing it wrong. Non-Christian readers don’t want ABC! They want XYZ — with Grit®.”
This expectation can enslave Christian fiction, making authors, publishers, and especially readers wrongly beholden all over again to non-Christian readers (or feigned readers).
Yes, non-Christians should feel free to read Christian novels and find them just as truthful, beautiful, and good as anything else, if not better. But the “reach the lost at all cost” notion, whether from current evangelical publishers or the “grit it up, make it real, anything to impress” Christian fiction criticism lobby, only iconizes and patronizes secular readers.
Worse, the reach-the-lost notion gives no ultimate reason for reaching the lost. Like many revivalist strains of Christianity, it treats the faith mainly as an enslaving pyramid scheme. “People, you must be saved.” Okay, then what comes next? “Get other people saved!”
2. ‘Christian stories must be Gritty.’
Really, I grow weary of this charge, and not because I disagree with it. Instead I find it’s so often waged with exactly the same evangelical and dare I say legalistic vigor as the opposite “Christian stories must be Wholesome” crusade. If we build a case against Wholesomeness not on clear Biblical rationale but instead rants about sentimentality, bad Thomas Kinkade paintings, and (once again) saying “non-Christian readers don’t like it,” how is this different from building a case against Gritty fiction by appealing to sins of impure unholy thoughts? “Sentimentality is wicked” can become just as legalistic as “it’s wrong to read bad words.”
This expectation also often gives no ultimate reason for making our fiction Gritty.
3. ‘Christian stories must rival the best secular fiction.’
Again, I agree with this principle. God’s people should read and write only the best. What Christian reader wouldn’t agree? But when people say this without an ultimate reason — a reason why our stories should outshine the others, rather than only being placeholders for any of our free time until Christ returns — this also becomes an enslaving expectation.
The solution to fiction legalism isn’t more rules for or against certain content, genres, or improved craft. The cure isn’t planning harder to target non-Christian readers, or dumping buckets of blood and intestines and four-letter words onto our pages or tablets.
As with any problem, the solution is Christ. The Word of Christ. The worship of Christ.
I’ve often said this and I’ll always repeat it: the chief end of fiction is not to edify with morals, to evangelize non-Christian readers, or to entertain us. These goals do matter, and a good story includes them. But the better stories do these on the way to a higher purpose.
That purpose, that chief end of story, is to glorify God and help us enjoy Him forever.
Of course, this sounds very spiritual.1 Yet all this presumes is that 1) humans personally exist to glorify and enjoy God, and redeemed saints are made free to do this; 2) for Christians, glorifying God equals the worship of God; 3) we find joy in glorifying/worshiping God in all we do, not only in “religious” activities; 4) if enjoying stories (or writing stories) is not against God’s revealed Word, then this is a task we can enjoy even more only when we intentionally make it part of pursuing His worship.
I’m convinced that exploring, articulating, preaching, and acting according to this truth about God’s glory and worship is the sole solution to finding fiction freedom.
Surely this will help guide our discussions about questionable content, improving craft, reaching readers, and outshining the best that non-Christian fiction has to offer. We’re not as enslaved to legalistic expectations or fears of sin. Instead we’re set free to glorify Christ.