Now for a question to tie these all together (in lieu of a guest author who needed to re-schedule). What makes novels mediocre? What makes reading them a duty rather than a delight — or even makes you put down the book and refuse to read further?
I’m finally drawing near to the end of a certain Christian-speculative book, and I’m very glad my e-reader shows 97 percent done. Reading this book was certainly more a duty than a delight. And ordinarily I would not have finished it, following a rule of “if by 50 pages you are not satisfied, stop reading.” But I chose to finish it, so I could complain here about it.
We likely know that yes, people wrongly stereotype “Christian fiction” as being worse than “secular fiction.” Yes, we are pioneers in many ways (as in fantasy and even post-dystopian quasi-sci-fi). And yes, it’s silly to suggest all Christian fiction is averse to nastiness, when Frank Peretti’s characters in The Oath say “oh my god,” and a Stephen Lawhead Song of Albion demonic creature is bloated with filthy genitals before it gets worshiped to death.
Yet mediocre novels persist.
Why are these stories mediocre, especially ones by Christians? Athol Dickson wisely spies the main fault line as not in marketing, publishers, or writing skills, but in sin itself:
As creatures made in the Creator’s image, we were designed to use our gifts to their utmost, and to savor excellence in our neighbor’s use of their gifts. It’s impossible to imagine the words “good enough” being spoken in the Garden before the Fall. But we did fall, and one of the things we lost was our ability to throw ourselves into living with complete abandon. “Good is the enemy of great,” as Jim Collins wrote (paraphrasing Voltaire). Thus, in settling for good enough, we have rampant mediocrity in the world.
Another thing we abandoned in the Fall was our ability to perceive the true extent of what we’ve lost. So when expediency and ego dilute the full potential of even our best writers and artists, the audience, being also lost, doesn’t know enough to care. Therefore they applaud what little they can get, and their applause rewards mediocrity. This in turn inspires the production of more mediocrity, and the cycle builds more and more support for itself until mediocrity seems normal, or even (God forbid) good, and because that lie has become pervasive, the truth is difficult for even Christians to remember. Thus we have rampant mediocrity even in the church.
This sinful decline from God-created potential to mediocre expectations in turn makes Christian novels mediocre in many ways. Here I am limiting my observations to Christian fiction, and also flagrantly generalizing beyond the particular book I have been reading:
- Emotional over-analyzing. Especially within point-of-view style, no one pauses and thinks to himself about the two different emotions colliding within. Authors should speak that way to describe machinery cogs meshing together, not feelings.
- A “what if” question too far. Asking, What if God created another world, and it looked like this is a standard what-if question, yet with endless exploration potential. But asking, What if God really did create that rock that’s too big for Him to lift — and it’s been secretly hidden in Forest City, Arkansas! comes off as just plain strange.
- Christians From Another Planet! Why don’t Christian characters act like real Christians? One could think an author must downplay the Bible-quoting, church-attendance, and even sinful behaviors of actual Christians, and add alternative sentiments to appeal to non-Christian readers. But then those actual readers write reviews and say this (actual sentence): “The constant ‘God loves you so much’, and ‘God believes in you’ [slogans] began turning me off early on.” Ah. So it wasn’t just me worsening the problem by also making up Theoretical Non-Christian Readers.
I’m still pondering this alternate-universe “Christianity,” but I believe I can safely say this: It’s not as much a fruit of bad writing but of shallow internalized beliefs.
Here’s an example, paraphrasing a novel’s non-Christian character’s line of thought:
He wondered if it could be true. If there really could be a God who loved him.
Authors: non-Christians don’t think this way as often as Christians would wish. Rather, such responses usually come from “seeker-sensitive” “nonfiction” and anecdotes.
I suggest that if we pay more attention to God’s Story, which reminds us that people do benefit from “common grace” and want God but are also spiritually dead, then our stories and authenticity will improve. Moreover, we’ll truly reach out better to all kinds of readers.
For you, what pushes books into the realm of can’t-read-much-longer mediocre?