Should Christian stories evangelize?
Since I’m both a preacher and apologist on the one hand and a sci-fi author on the other, I get asked this question a lot. Typically, it’s a young Christian struggling to do the right thing with the gifts and talents God has given them. We’ve been given the Great Commission. The Bible also says to do everything we do as unto God Himself,1 after all, which would certainly include how we enjoy our fiction as Christians. On this, we can all agree.
How exactly we carry out these Scriptural mandates as readers (and writers) is where we start to differ.
First and foremost, we have to decide what we mean by Christian fiction. This matter alone is hotly debated.
Christian fiction or fiction by Christians?
There are those that believe that there should be something distinctly Christian about our fiction (what we might call overt Christian fiction) and others who affirm that Christian fiction is simply fiction written by Christians (passive Christian fiction, if you will).
Some of those who hold to a passive view of Christian fiction claim that anything a Christian writes will necessarily be written from that Christian’s worldview; that is, the Christian’s worldview will necessarily shine through even if that material is not overtly Christian. After all, in the realm of nonfiction Christian literature, the book of Esther never once mentions God and yet it manages to convey His providence, right?
But in my experience, the idea of an intrinsic worldview in our fiction is more truism than truth. The person who holds to this view of Christian fiction tends to craft his writing in such a way that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy; however, Christians can be utterly inconsistent and we’ve all read fiction that was so secular that we were surprised to later discover that the author was a Christian.
This brings up an important point: Christian fiction is as Christian as we make it to be. The Christian element is intentional. If we wish our fiction to be recognizably Christian in any sense of the word, we will have to want authors to write it so on purpose.
One the other hand, if your view of Christian fiction is simply a synonym for excellent craftsmanship, so be it. As a preacher, I would remiss if I didn’t point out that you certainly have a Biblical precedent for your position and, more importantly, the Bible says absolutely nothing about how to outline, write and edit fiction.
To draw a parallel, Christian comedian Tim Hawkins says that when he’s asked about Christian comedy, he responds, “I mean I’m a Christian and I do comedy, but Christian comedy doesn’t really make much sense to me. I mean, there’s no Christian plumbing.” This resonates with what Martin Luther said about Christian shoemakers: “The Christian shoemaker does his duty not by putting little crosses on the shoes, but by making good shoes, because God is interested in good craftsmanship.” John the Baptist gave similar advice to Roman soldiers and tax collectors.2
Prescriptive vs. descriptive
For those who wish to read overtly Christian fiction, we have the further question, also hotly debated, as to whether we ought to enjoy fiction that accurately describes Christians and the world we live in or fiction that is prescriptive of how things should be. Questions like, Should characters cuss? Should sex scenes be explicit or off-camera, so to speak? These days, the lines are generally drawn between authors adhering to CBA/EPCA publishing standards and those who don’t think authors should sanitize things quite to that extent.
The latter camp may safely point out that the Song of Solomon contains pretty graphic sexual references and the Bible is full of graphic violence throughout, particularly in the Old Testament. They can also support their bid for edgier Christian fiction by the fact that the Bible includes the gross character flaws of its human heroes. Granted, we’re dealing with fiction versus nonfiction here, but if Christians do not look to the Bible for a precedent, whence shall we look? Descriptive Christian fiction has the added benefit of telling stories of real people with real problems that a real Savior can remedy rather than what often comes across as a sanitized alternate universe where non-Christians live in a society where Christian morals are observed almost without fail.
If I may be frank, we live in a reality where even Christians often fail to live that way. We certainly don’t live on “The Andy Griffith Show,” yet Christian books of the prescriptive type are written as if the Hayes Code were a requirement for Christian fiction. The protagonist tends to be a believer or gets saved somewhere in the book, typically with no learning curve. They also tend to include what I call plastics: characters who are role models or paragons of an ideal type of Christianity in much the same way and extent that Barbie dolls reflect an ideal type of the female physique. Real people have problems. Real Christians aren’t always able to quote exactly the right Scripture or give exactly the right argument at exactly the right moment. Real Bible believers have doubts from time to time. Even the most zealous Christians can have pet sins and vices. Bad things happen to good people. Even our best evangelistic efforts may be met with indifference rather than acceptance or rejection. The Psalms testify that the bad guys don’t always get their earthly comeuppance.
The reason for the plastic alternate Earths of prescriptive fiction is that Christian fiction of the CBA/EPCS stripe is intended for a Christian audience AT LEAST; that is, they hope that non-Christians read their books, but their primary audience are the folks who make up the bulk of their sales: Christians. Safe plastic worlds filled with plastic role model Christians are the least likely to offend Christians and relate experiences that might cause them to sin vicariously, as it were. That Aslan (as a type of Christ) was good but not safe is oft-quoted; what is not often discussed is that safe fiction does not necessarily equal good fiction, especially since good fiction challenges us in some way rather than catering to our ghettoism. Likewise, we may write Christian fiction that isn’t safe that is nonetheless good. God is not safe; why would He ask us to write safe fiction?
Evangelical vs. edifying
I’ve said all of that to say this:
The trouble with storytelling, as far as Christian fiction is concerned, is that all stories have a message. If an author has written a book well, there is a message or moral that every reader is supposed to come away with. For example, the message of Johnny Came Home is that who we are is not determined by our genetics or our upbringing but rather by our actions. Christians realize that stories have messages and morals so a lot of us insist that Christian fiction should deliver a Christian message. There’s a lot of Biblical precedent for this. Nathaniel told a story to illustrate King David’s guilt. Jesus taught in parables, which are essentially teaching stories.
The question then becomes whether these stories should deliver the Gospel or whether it’s OK to simply edify. I find it ironic that those who write prescriptive CBA/EPCA fiction tend to be the ones who insist that we need to use Christian fiction to evangelize. I find it ironic because plastics and CBA/EPCA fiction are better suited to edify the Church than to evangelize the lost. Follow me here: Prescriptive Christian fiction offers us an ideal of Christianity. It says, Look, here’s what a Christian ought to look like. Here’s how a Christian could effectively live and share their faith. See? You can do it too! The trouble with it is that it delivers role models in an unrealistic alternate Earth, making us wonder just how effective it is as a tool for edification. At best, it seems a better tool for the reinforcement of USAmerican evangelical cultural expectations. Propaganda for the stained-glass Sunday school version of Christianity that supposes Jesus turned water into grape juice and that the Song of Solomon is about our relationship with Christ.
Which brings up my biggest objection to prescriptive Christian fiction: If CBA/EPCA standards were applied to all Christian literature, it would condemn huge sections of the Bible. Think I’m overreacting? Read the last chapter of Judges and get back to me. Shouldn’t the moral standards of our Christian fiction at least be consistent with the revelation of the Christian Sourcebook? Granted, we wouldn’t read such passages to children, but we aren’t supposed to remain children. Prescriptive fiction is meant to provide Christian audiences with a safe alternative to secular fare so that they don’t have to exercise discernment much, if any at all. How is this a good thing for a church that exists amidst an increasingly non-Christian world?
Descriptive Christian fiction is potentially better suited to evangelize. It presents the world as it is, warts and all, just as the Bible does. When such a story connects those problems to the Solution, it has the chance to more effectively resonate with unbelievers. A real solution for real problems. The questions, I suppose, is whether non-Christians ever really read Christian fiction. In other words, are we just wasting our time? I’m really not sure how we can know that. One plants, another waters, but God gives the increase. One thing we can be sure of is that descriptive fiction is a better tool for edifying believers who live in the real world with all its real problems.
To preach or not to preach?
Of course, the question is not whether Christian fiction should edify, but whether it should evangelize?
We all have a mandate to evangelize; we are ambassadors for Christ. We are commanded to do everything as unto God. These points are indisputable fact. Nevertheless, we also realize that we do not overtly proselytize in everything we do. We do not feel compelled to spell out “Jesus Saves” in our alphabet soup. Despite all claims to the contrary, a cross or fish on your car does not evangelize so much as it advertises your brand: you’re a Christian. Don’t get me started on Christian breath mints.
As I noted at the beginning of this essay, there is a legitimate Biblical precedent in just doing a great job in your profession. Some folks think that’s not Christian enough. My response to that as a preacher is, “Who are you to judge another man’s servant? To God alone is a man justified.” This position is perfectly fine from a Biblical standpoint. Luckbane, the first book in my Otherworld series, follows this philosophy.
There is also a Biblical precedent for message-driven Christian fiction. Jesus did it, as did prophets of old. I did it in Johnny Came Home, which is essentially an action-packed book of descriptive apologetics fiction about superheroes trying to figure out where they came from while they save the world. The choice to write message-driven evangelistic fiction does not give us an excuse to produce inferior literature. Ephesians 6:7 and Colossians 3:23 still apply to authors who wish to evangelize through their fiction. If we’re going to read well-written Christian fiction, we need to eschew the CBA/EPCA model of prescriptive fiction in favor of a more realistic descriptive storytelling that accurately describes the world with all its problems, so that we can enjoy fiction that resonates with more readers and shows how the Gospel is relevant to those problems.
So should Christian fiction evangelize? It’s not Biblically imperative, but if you do, do it right.
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.