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Why We Should Write Fiction For Christians, Part 1

Many voices encourage Christian novelists to aim for secular audiences, and that is surely a worthy calling. Yet less frequently do we urge storytellers to explore the Gospel more directly in fiction that is by Christians, for Christians.

Lately Speculative Faith seems to have been emphasizing recommended to-do lists, not just for Christian visionary fiction readers, but specifically for Christian visionary fiction writers.

Last week, guest author Matt Mikalatos reminded us that visionary authors should also write contemporary fiction. On Tuesday, Fred Warren added three reasons to write secular fiction. Last year, also, author Marc Schooley reminded us that all Christians, including fiction authors, should frequently delve deep into nonfiction, particularly Bible doctrine and theology.

While Spec-Faith’s mission is to offer blog columns, Library resources, and (soon) FAQ articles for visionary readers and writers, this what-writers-should-read-and-write topic is important.

So if you’re a Christian visionary writer, come on up into the secret treehouse club. We’ll pull the rope ladder up after us. Yet if you’re only a fiction reader, not a writer, keep reading anyway, because this matters for us all. And I may have some I-hope-grace-minded ranting to do.

First off: none of this applies to you writers who do have callings to read or write contemporary fiction. And from what I know of many friends here, including Fred Warren, they seem to have unique gifts for writing secular fiction. God does call different people to different jobs: here a butcher, there a baker, over there a church candlestick-maker. The Apostle Paul was clear in 1 Cor. 12: don’t take the “eye” lightly if you’re an “ear,” and definitely don’t think that because you don’t have the job or spiritual gifts of someone else, you aren’t a vital member of Christ’s Body!

Yet if the whole body — of novelists in the Church — were writing contemporary fiction and only urging others to do the same, where would be the sense of visionary fiction?

And if the whole body of Christian novelists were writing for the Secular Market and promoting this, where would be the sense of fiction for other Christians?

Again, some Christians should be writing for secular audiences. I’m writing this series not to fault their endorsements of writing for secular audiences, but to add balance. Whether it’s about more-overt missionary work or writing new novels, it seems the loudest voices at present talk most about storming secular mission fields, cities, countries and publishers — without equal reminders that existing Christians also desperately need truth and truthful, wondrous stories.

But we need authors in all these fields, not pushing primarily into one or the other.

One gift is not less than another. The Body needs us all as its diverse, Spirit-gifted organs.

Here, then, I’ll give reasons why the Church needs authors writing fiction for Christians.

1. We may have a glut of common-grace-endorsing visionary stories.

When it comes to false dichotomies between “secular” and “sacred,” or “the world” and “God’s Kingdom,” I’m fully on the side of those who dislike accidental Gnosticism and fire off Biblical truths that God is redeeming not just human souls, but the whole physical universe. Even now, under the corruption of sin, this world is in fact a Christian world. It is destined to become the physical and wondrous New Heavens and New Earth (Rev. 21), under Jesus Christ’s kingship.

Therefore a Christian writer need not feel constrained to believing he must write about only specific religious themes or Faith Crises or spiritual things in order to write a “Christian story.”

To think otherwise not only falls into Gnosticism, but ignores the Biblical teaching that God’s Spirit gives His people various gifts to glorify Him, both within the Church and outside it. And I doubt the gift lists in Paul’s epistles are exhaustive or limited only to clearly “churchy” gifts.

Also, because God gives “common grace” gifts to non-Christians, and even evil people know how to do good things (Matthew 7: 9-11), we would do well to learn from their talents and excellence.

Secular writers may unwittingly be foot soldiers for the truth, and we do need them. Yet a Christian novelist could write truth injected with super-serum.

That said, I would go on to ask: don’t we already have a surplus of authors, artists, filmmakers and more, giving us “common grace”-style echoes of truth in general markets? So if even the (presumably) non-Christian producers and writers of superhero films like Thor and Captain America can echo themes of true heroism and sacrifice and true love and respect for men and women, why should all or most Christians feel they need to join that particular cultural chorus?

Could not some of us instead say, “Well, thank God a lot of that is taken care of!”, and then feel free to explore in our stories the particular grace truths of the Gospel? So far, such truths are being overlooked in both secular storytelling and Christian fiction. That has left a vacuum. And both Christians and non-Christians may want to explore these depths.

Plenty of bands already crowd the stage to perform the warm-up acts. But all the “songs” about God’s general revelation — how God reminds us about His wonders in sunsets, secular stories that echo good and evil, and vaguer reflections of Hope and Goodness in the World — can only go so far. Again, perhaps some Christians should join that chorus; that is their task, and it matches their unique gifts. Yet the true Star of the show has arrived. So let us remember that …

2. Only Christians can best explore God’s specific Gospel in stories.

From Spurgeon.org's "Emergent Motivational Posters"

If — because this is a Christian world in which God give common-grace gifts to sinners — secular writers are echoing general truths in their stories, and Christians also want to echo general truth in their stories — who’s left to explore in fiction the specific story of the Bible?

And if everyone writes for a “secular” audience, who is left to challenge and exhort the Church?

Author Steve Rzasa — who is coincidentally our guest author tomorrow — put it this way:

I can’t help but wonder if “secular” writers sit around talking about whether they should try writing religious/Christian fiction. Oh wait — they don’t need to, because Christians already read secular work.

Contrary to the myth that most people would get Christianity only if they heard or saw it done better, and without hypocrisy!, many nonbelievers already know the message of Christianity. But they do not care for it. Nor would they explore in a novel the natural results of the Gospel worldview. All they can give is messages about Hope and Love and Faith and perhaps Sacrifice. That’s great, if compared with the opposite “values.” And those messages do help, coming from non-Christians and Christians who are so gifted. But only Christian storytellers can take Biblical truths further and deeper and do more than simply recite them — they can apply and explore them, fleshing them out realistically in ways that only fiction can do and mere recitation cannot.

The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

1 Corinthians 2: 14-16

Coming on Thursday: let’s not accidentally endorse “the Gospel is only for nonbelievers” myth, or neglect sincere Christians who’ve simply only heard legalistic discernment cautions, or else make up an imaginary secular audience that would love us if we only wrote better stories.

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SoniCido
Guest

Stephen, you said: 

Could not some of us instead say, “Well, thank God a lot of that is taken care of!”, and then feel free to explore in our stories the particular grace truths of the Gospel? 

Are you meaning that, Gospel-believing writers should talk openly, using their characters, about the Gospel message? or are you saying that we should hint at it by using grace-truths.

Are you meaning grace truths that are directly related to why we are saved? or, grace truths  that are common in the goodness of man, planted by God in to undeserving hearts?

For instance, would stories where the character sacrifices for the other, as in “My Sister’s Keeper” be an example of , Christ’s Love? or, is it an example of the goodness of mankind, that is overlooked by hell-fire and brimstone preachers?

Need your thoughts….
Soni 

Galadriel
Guest

Thank you for reminding us that while common grace is important, you can only get so far with it. Lewis once said that MacDonald’s Phantasties made him long for the holiness of another world…and then Tolkien showed him that Christianity was the true myth that answered that longing.

Tim George
Guest

Thanks for some food for thought on the role of overt Christian messages in our writing. There really is a place for both, sometimes from the same writer in different novels as God leads.

SoniCido
Guest

Do you want to be addressed as, E. Stephen or, Stephen? 

Yes, the key is, “may”, not “should”. Thank you.

And, thank you for taking time to address so specifically. I copied it to my documents so I can review in the future, as I mature I am sure what you said will continue to teach me something new.

I always been aware that grace is multifunctional (is that the word I want?) but I could never come up with the exact function and purposes.

It has been a huge hindrance for me to decide if I am being led to write to speak to the true choir, the unbelieving choir, or those who have not joined the choir! or maybe all of the above. I know God can use it for all, but, I need to choose an audience and get organized for that.

I have been reading and lurking for a while, but having had my own Faith used against me in an overwhelming, live-changing way, I  have been off to the side, licking my wounds.

I joined the Christian Writer’s Guild in 2003 and am finally continuing on with the Apprenticeship program; I plan to go all the way to Craftsman. It is time.

If I sent you a short description of a story I am working on, could you give me your view on which audience I may wish to target? I know you are busy!

Thank you again for what you have helped with! I needed that!

Soni

 

A. T. Ross
Member

Great column, Stephen. Lots to chew on!

It needs reminding sometimes that unbelievers just flat don’t like God. Then again, unbelievers also still posses the image of God, marred though it may be, and Paul also tells us that against the fruit of the spirit there is no law (Gal. 5:23), because everybody acknowledges that these virtues are good things. So sacrifice, defending the helpless, etc., are things even non-Christians approve of. Yet these are all still explicitly Christian virtues. They don’t really turn up in ancient paganism much (though occasionally).

That being the case, can we not say that unbelievers actually respond to Christian stories? The Potter books, written Christianly to extol Christian truth by a Christian author, are the most popular books behind Chairman Mao and the Bible. I hear Shakespeare’s still pretty popular. Most people these days know that Lewis and Tolkien were Christians, but it hasn’t hurt their sales any. The English Literature tradition is itself essentially Christian. I think the “myth” of better stories gets exaggerated or becomes the only problem for some people, but I do not think it is entirely a myth.

SoniCido
Guest

…. maybe targeting agnostics is the key… 🙂

SoniCido
Guest

Thank you thank you thank you for taking time to write.. Stephen, Adam and Marion! (this is my third attempt Safari crashed three times and I lost my posts– I know to use Google docs, then cut and paste 🙁 what was I thinking!

It is a relief to know that “God can use anything…”– that’s one part of Grace that I surely rest in…

Marion, the blog was fantastic thanks for sharing. These kinds of conversations can be returned to over the years as I mature as a writer. I am sure that they will continue to shed new light– as the insights are timeless and true.

Stephen, nope… no sharing my hooks here.. you will have to read my book (s) hehe…

However, if anyone has some, I need online critique groups as I do live too far from physical groups. Please post.

Because of you all, I dug out the first book CWG assigned me in 2003 (before my life went upside down for the second time and I had to set writing aside–again).

The book, “An Introduction to Christian Writing”–Ethel Herr. I would like to share some of her quotes that I forgotten:

“What the world is indeed waiting to hear is that bit of acquired insight…” p24

Our writing as a ministry has two functions:
1) …to arrest the attention of a readership already saturated with ideas and pressures, almost to the point of insensitivity to anything we have to offer them. (it is easier than ever to get it into their hands but harder than ever to penetrate their hearts.) p.25

2  To present all of life from the Christian viewpoint, bot to non-Christians and Christians. Our world is dying for the lack of a good, clear image of what God is like. Thousands of people have rejected erroneous picture of God that they’ve seen in a church or in the lives of religious persons or in the work of a non-Christian who write about things they don’t understand. Few people have rejected the accurately portrayed person of God, for few have had even a fleeting glimpse of Him. In the Weymouth translation of Ephesians 1:12, Paul told the newborn church in ta pagan society that they had been chosen to “be devoted to the extolling of His glorious attributes.” Our challenge is the same today to provide a clear, accurate biblical picture of God. p.25

Thank you again for stirring this up…
Soni

SoniCido
Guest

I have to agree here with ADAM: “To press for more and more doctrine, it seems to me, just weighs down the imbalance even more. We need to focus on telling even better stories and we’ll find the doctrine comes along with it. It’s one of those cases where “if you tell it, doctrine will come.”

I guess after my struggles of, “to be, or not to be…” (secular or faith writer)… I am going to just write the stories and let God sort them out and use them as He pleases. And if He doesn’t, at least I have them out of my head!
I have had so many in me for so many years; and I have just been way too hung up as to the “how” rather than just getting at it.

“There is always the danger that what begins as a humble service to God will become a desire to be the greatest” Ethel Herr’s pastor
 

Marion
Guest

Stephen, you are welcome.
Godawa’s book has really made me look at Christianity and Art in a new way.  And there is a biblical foundation for it.
We should be able to tell stories using biblical themes and be subversive in applying them in our work.

Marion
Guest

Soni, thanks for your kind comments.  Good luck with your work.

SoniCido
Guest

Has anyone read, “The Liberated Imatination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts” -Leland Ryken

?

Soni 

Marion
Guest

Soni,
 
I have not read that book by Leland Ryken.  But, I have read another book by him called, “The Christian Imagination” where he is the editor.
He has collected articles from Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Schaeffer, Annie Dillard, Walker Percy, and many others about applying Faith in their writing.
The work that really caught my attention in that book was by Richard Terrell titled, “Christian Piety Is Not Enough.”
Here’s a sample:
“The human creation of stories and our participation in them are activities of profound theological significance in which even unbelieving humanity shares in the nature of God’s reality. Because this is so, storytelling has special significance in the life of people who acknowledge the truth of the Bible and its worldview.
Madeline L’Engle reflects: I’m particularly grateful that I was allowed to read my Bible as I read my other books, to read it as story, that story which is revelation of truth.  People are sometimes kept from reading the Bible itself by what they are taught about it, and I’m grateful that I was able to read the Book with the same wonder and joy with which I read The Ice Princess or The Tempest.
This book along with Godawa’s book and the Ecclesiastes (my favorite book in the Bible) has really changed my thinking on Christianity, Imagination, and Art are not in separate universes…but are all intergrated together.  Also, it has strengthed my faith tremendously and show me Christianity is much deeper than I thought when I first became a Christian.
 

SoniCido
Guest

Ok, I’m ordering it with the other… thank you! 🙂

Marion
Guest

It seems to me…we are looking for a Literature Messiah in Christian Fiction so our Secular Counterparts can see tha tChristian Literature can be as thematically significant as secular literature and that Christian Fiction has depth..even though you have rejected our religion. I look at this in the same waythat Conservatives are looking for the next Ronald Reagan to come along.
If that’s so….that is both naive and not truly understanding human nature. Also, I believe there will always be tension between Art and Marketplace..because Artists don’t want to be tied down with a label for their work and the Marketplace demands a label so an artistic work can be sold to the public.  Until that paradigm changes (if it ever will )…we will always hope for a great artist in each generation to break out the genre ghetto.
Moreover, artists like Tolkien or Lewis (or even Reagan in politics) come very rarely and while we can appreciate what they have done by releasing us from the genre ghetto…you can’t expect other artists to do that same thing or hope those that have remained in the genre ghetto to be exactly like they were.
I do agree with Stephen’s premise that we need artists writing for Christians as well as artists subverting Christian themes into Secular literature. But finding that balance ..especially when the marketplace demands more of what is selling can be difficult.
Moreover, people can be fickle and we can look at the Israelities leaving Egypt to show fickleness at its worst for an example and that hasn’t changed throughout human history.
What’s the answer….I don’t know and maybe we are getting an answer from this dialogue.
Recently, I did a book review of Athol Dickson’s Lost Mission.  It was an enjoyable novel and while the Christianity was out front…the novel didn’t provide any easy answers and was written pretty well.
http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/book-review-9-lost-mission-by-athol-dickson/
So there are possibilities (like Athol Dickson) and I believe we have to promote and recognize both sides of pendulum and not wait for a Christian Literature Messiah to show the world the greatness of our literature.

A. T. Ross
Member

Stephen, thanks for your always thoughtful response, and for taking the time to have this discussion. Hope I haven’t stole too much of your writing time! 

I think we’re definitely at a place of understanding now. Just as you realized “my own hope to craft stories that themselves, secondarily, will serve as catalysts for helping Christians change their views on Story altogether” was a big self-revelation, I realized that this too was what I wanted, and that I had basically written off those Christians as uselessly and hopelessly locked into their pietism to ever see otherwise. It took some repenting, but that was also a a hidden assumption I had.

I absolutely adored the idea of the “watchful dragons” guarding the doors of the churches, and writing stories for that “Christian Fiction” shelf as a means of slipping past the Church’s dragons. Loved it, and I look forward to seeing what you have to say on Thursday. That’s the sort of thing I could wholeheartedly get behind, a sort of subversion of the Church’s faulty assumptions rather than the World’s. This threw everything you had been saying into sharp relief for me, and I felt like I finally was able to stand right where you are standing and go, “ahhhh, okay. I get where you’re coming from now.”

As to evangelism, I should perhaps clarify. By “evangelism” I mean the act of going around to houses or at community events in order to “witness.” Not everyone is called or suited for that purpose; I know I am not. I also know some wonderful people that seem to have that gift, and God seems to just send people in rows to them, and they explain the gospel, and people get saved. That’s wonderful and glorious and more power to them. But American evangelicals are unique in the history of the church in their insistance that it is the duty of every believer to get saved and then get out there and “share the gospel” in that way. I think this puts undo pressure on those people who don’t have that gift, and creates guilt where there ought not be any because they don’t like doing this thing everybody says a “good” Christian should do. So that’s what I meant, in context, by “evangelism.” I do think that there are other forms of witnessing, such as what is called holistic or lifestyle evangelism, which is simply living life in the glory of God’s grace to such an extent that people round about look at us and go, “what is it they have that I don’t?” Radical hospitality and full-body living are another form of evangelism, and one that the early church practiced.

But I’m in substantial agreement with you, and am rather pleased to find us suddenly not facing each other, but both standing side by side and facing in the same direction.

stardf29
Guest
stardf29

Funny thing is, I was just thinking how there are definitely books about people becoming Christians, and books that show Christian truths without explicitly mentioning Christianity, but I wish there were more books that were actually about Christians themselves, and how they live their lives. (I’m sure they are out there, but I know not where to look yet…)

This has given me things to think about as I prepare for my next writing project. Thanks.
– Frank

stardf29
Guest
stardf29

By the way…

Adam, you may be interested to know that, of the many times the word “witness” appears in the Bible, it is *never* used as a verb. The Bible never says we should be “witnessing” to other people (I’m not sure that’s even a proper use of the word!), but rather, we are to *be* a “witness”.

In that sense, evangelism is so much more than just the direct, confrontational method you mention. There are many other methods and principles behind it all. One method you only barely hinted at, yet is probably most helpful, is to form friendly relationships with non-believers and use that friendship as a platform for faith discussions.

What does all this have to do with story-writing? Well… it could make a good Christian story to write about. 😉

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