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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
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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.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

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Been seeing you around more, Soni! Thanks for stopping by Spec-Faith and for your encouraging comments. Let’s see if I can provide some clarity …

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.

My contention is that Gospel-believing writers may talk openly about the Gospel and overt, specific-revelation Christian themes in their fiction. They need not feel limited to “I need to write this to Get Someone Saved” any more than some other authors have thought that the best way to write is entirely in Christianese.

So, not should talk openly, but may talk openly. And it’s not failure to follow the Great Commission by “preaching to the choir.” Some of the choir isn’t saved anyway.

This, though, brings up the question of what kinds of stories would fit most naturally with specific spiritual themes. I’ve seen them done. A Francine Rivers novel And the Shofar Blew, for example, though not speculative, is set almost entirely in an American megachurch whose pastor goes the religious-industrial-complex route instead of faithful service to the Gospel. You couldn’t write that kind of story without talking openly about Christian particulars. And we need more of those kinds of stories.

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?

Here’s a distinction:

“Common grace” — the theology term for grace that God gives even to people who still hate Him. He keeps the universe together, physical laws of nature working consistently, provides Moral Values to keep society from falling apart, and even works in secular governments (references available upon request). I believe this is partly referred to in Romans 1. God has “communicated” enough even apart from the Bible for people to know that they are “without excuse” and that there is a God.

Specific/regenerating/saving grace (I’m not getting into Reformed/Arminian stuff here!) — the kind of grace that ultimately results in people getting saved. It’s the spiritual things that only “spiritual people” can discern, not because they’re better but because God has saved them and changed their hearts. It’s the specific Gospel message. It’s the truth that goes beyond “there is a God” and even “you are accountable to Him” and instead into “here is what God has done,” and “here’s some about why He does it,” and “here is Who Jesus is, why He came, and why He needed to die and resurrect,” and of course: “Jesus is coming back to rule His Kingdom physically for eternity!”

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?

That may depend on how one interprets it.

For example, in both superhero films I named, Thor and Captain America sacrifice their own lives to save others. I believe that’s a common-grace concept that is reflected even in pagan myths about dying heroes. (Lewis would say that doesn’t prove Christianity equivalent to the pagan myths, but merely elevates the pagan myths a bit).

How one reacts depends on how one views the world.

I as a Christian could say “Yes, that matches my worldview, which says that even non-Christians can do good things, even if (ultimately) it’s for God-ignoring reasons.)

But a non-Christian viewer could see this and conclude something very different. He would conclude, “What a great story, confirming that man is basically good in his heart and will fight to save others and even give his life (and doesn’t need faith in God for it).”

Should I avoid the movies because the non-Christian concludes that? Not at all. He’s responsible for his own sinful interpretation, just as I would be if I thought wrong.

However, I also would suggest again that Christians don’t need to feel they must limit themselves to those kinds of stories, trying to be the “good cop” that makes the unconverted feel comfortable with Christianity, enough for the “bad cop” preacher to come around and talk about all those less-popular teachings like Sinful Nature and Hell.

Of course, it may be some Christian novelists’ jobs to be the “good cop” and aid someone, in a “common grace” way, to come into “specific grace.” But that’s not all Christian novelists’ jobs. Christians need stories about them behaving like Christians, too. And well-meaning writers, readers and “missional” types who ignore the Church in their haste to get to the world are in effect saying “because you are a writer mainly for the Church, I have no need of you.” Of course, it would also be wrong to say the reverse.

Hope that helps! Thanks, and I look forward to more discussion on the issue.

 

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… 🙂

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

About secular books, or even Harry Potter (which does have some Christian themes), I suppose I would ask this … with a little setup …

Last night I was listening to a Christian talk program featuring Chris Rosebrough and Phil “Pyromaniacs” Johnson. They’re strong, apologetics-oriented guys, yet with grace and fairness, and they seemed to keep that in mind as they were expressing concerns about an interview between two Christian leaders. And one thing Phil said, in response to one author’s nonfiction Christian book, was something like this:

I’m not worried about there not being enough Gospel in there for God to use to get someone saved, because God can use anything to prick the conscience and bring about repentance and faith in Christ. But I am worried about there not being enough truth in the book for a non-Christian to reject. As a result, we’re getting false converts.

For some Christians who do believe they are called to write for secular audiences, with a goal not just of adding to the “common grace” chorus but providing echoes of the Gospel, I one might ask: is there enough truth in there for a non-Christian to reject? Or does such an author mainly want to join the “chorus” so he/she can be “good cop” — talking about all the popular truths, while not addressing (even in a common-grace way) the unpopular stuff like sin, Hell, God’s righteous wrath, things like that?

Mind you, I’m not suggesting all authors (regardless of audience) need to touch on all this stuff or else they’re Compromising. But, a writer with a balanced and robust faith and love for the Savior will not seek to avoid those truths should they come up, will he?

So in a broad sense, a book series like Harry Potter, like a sunset and man’s “common grace” morality (often without a real foundation), is great for starting the conversation with readers. And maybe for some authors, their role is only to help start the conversation. Yet others may feel they’re called to do more, exploring direct Gospel proclamations for Christians and unbelievers alike. Either “audience” needs Gospel explorations, because the Gospel isn’t just an admission ticket that Christians can safely toss away once they’re within the Kingdom. 😀

The Gospel changes everything. Without recalling how God saved us, we’ll go rogue or legalistic. We’ll increasingly miss the point of this faith: not just a better life, but Him.

Anyway, more on why both audiences need the Gospel, in next week’s column.

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

Stephen is fine …

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

Hope that was clear in the piece, and added some balance. Again: it seems most of the louder voices are endorsing only writing for non-Christians in a “common grace” way, about Morals and Sacrifice and such. I think there’s a place for that. But there’s also a place for writing about overt Christian themes, for Christians and otherwise. (If some people don’t, who will? We already have a lot of common-grace-endorsing materials.)

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.

Multifunctional … I like that. Though of course God hasn’t revealed to us specifically how He works, it does seem clear from Scripture that His grace is given in different “modes” or even “dosages.” Regardless of one’s theological shade here, Christians can agree that one “mode” of grace can be resisted to an extent, and/or merely serves to maintain creation, not save. It’s like His will: one “kind” of will (will of command) is the kind that people can flout, and the other “kind” (hidden or secret will) can’t be broken.

I’m getting this from overarching Scripture, yet a book like Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem helps also. (I find nonfiction-doctrine books inspiring for fiction.)

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.

Well … here’s a few questions I’ve asked myself, starting in my personal ministry …

Do I “prefer” (if I had the option) ministering “overtly” or “covertly”?

My answer (yours may be different): very often, both. I enjoy direct Gospel discussion a lot of the time, and yet also find fascinating “common grace” fiction and more-direct fiction that explores how the Gospel shapes a Christian’s life and worldview.

Do I “prefer” ministering to or writing for non-Christians or Christians?

On this I think I have a firmer answer. I have an apologetics bent and enjoy mixing it up, I hope with grace, with skeptics/atheists and occasional professing Christians whose beliefs and attitudes reveals they likely aren’t. Some folks seem to have a hard time reconciling God’s sovereignty and human meaningful choice — so far, I haven’t yet. I truly believe God initiates salvation 100 percent, and still want to help share and live out the Gospel. (My guess is that my own difficulty with the debate is in the future!)

However, what really seems to give me energy and pleasure in God is encouraging and being encouraged by other believers in the Church. This is nonoptional for the Christian, who’s meant to work and have joy in an organized and Gospel-driven local church … yet for me, anyway, I find I really, really want to help re-introduce the Church to fascinating stories. They help us “look along the beam” (Lewis quote again) instead of simply at the beam and find truth-based delight in our Creator, the ultimate Storyteller. And they help Christians prepare in advance for eternity in the fantastic and physical New Heavens and New Earth, when our “fantasy” and “science fiction” will be real. That’s probably what really set me in this direction. But more on that later …

I think more of this has to do with the doctrine of Christian vocation than anything else. All Christ’s people are “ministers” in a way, with some more “officially” church pastors or teachers or missionaries, and others in other ways. If you like, I can outline some of the nonfiction books, blogs and such that help me on this. Meanwhile, some more thoughts:

What seem to be your gifts in the “nonfiction” area?

At your local church and in church-based individual ministry, do you “drift” (because of your personality and God’s secret, can’t-know-in-advance “leading”) to encouraging or helping out around youth? Children? Singles? Couples? Non-Christians or Christians?

Among either “side,” do you find God uses you to encourage, say, friends or others with histories in legalism? Physical abuse? Materialism? Family issues?

In your reading or any teaching material, do you like mainly heart-level compassionate care for Christians, such as counseling? Or, perhaps, more mind-and-heart approaches, perhaps mainly for non-Christians, such as creation science or cult-busting?

I really do believe God gives Christian writers some supposed plain and ordinary gifts that will overlap into whatever a writer writes, and his or her main intended audience.

And on the purely “materialistic” side, this can also help with marketing. 😀

For example, if I were a hardcore apologetics guy only — which I know I can come across as being! — it might not work for me to write a cozy romance. (From the author of There is a God and There Is a Real Hell so Repent! comes a new heartwarming saga in the tradition of Janette Oke and Karen Kingsbury. … Yeah, not gonna work.)

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.

That’s a good “hook,” I think. Care to share, here or another 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!

I’m quite sure someone reading will know of an online critique group! Thoughts?

As for me, though, I wonder if the above questions will help.

Adam, I hope to engage your comment later … this one is already too long!

A. T. Ross
Member

Stephen, I look forward to your thoughts! Iron sharpens iron, after all! I had two thoughts when reading over your comment, and I would be interested in your take. 

You mention in passing that themes like sacrifice and so on are common grace themes. I think if we’re going to look at this as Christ’s world, we need to make note of the fact that sacrifice isn’t a neutral theme. Why do people respond to the theme of sacrifice? Because we’re made in the image of God, and we all know deep down and repressed, that we need atonement. Sacrifice, far from being common grace, is straight, explicit gospel. The earth is the Lord’s, so He gets to define it. His sacrifice was first, so sacrificial themes are objectively Christian.

I would also want to think about the purpose of Christian fiction. Why do we write it? Is the goal evangelistic? Educational? Informational? Devotional? To me, the point of Christian fiction ought to be the point of fiction generally – to tell a story. The general consensus among readers is that the sort of Christian fiction to get in that section in the bookstore are heavy on doctrine, cheap on story. 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.” 

On your series on Potter, you suggested that those trying to make it Christian are trying to justify their reading of it by making it “safe” to handle Isn’t this exactly what Christians do to stories generally by fretting over whether there’s enough truth in fiction? I’m no theological lightweight, and fiction isn’t “just entertainment,” but it is art and not a systematic theology. I can’t help wondering if this overemphasis on rigorous doctrinal truth reveals that we still think of fiction as nothing more than a container to be filled up with non-fiction ideas and facts.

Marion
Guest

Stephen,
I just read this great post.  It’s got me thinking.
Let me paste this:
“Those who capture the culture not only tell their own stories but reinterpret the stories of their opponents through their own worldview. This is not necessarily dishonest; we all interpret and reinterpret history through our worldviews. Christians should tell their own stories of martyrs or missionaries, but we should not neglect to retell the stories of atheists or humanists like Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud and others through our worldview. Subversion
is the nature of storytelling, and storytelling is how anyone wins a culture.”
(Word Pictures by Brian Godawa)


I wrote a review on my blog about this book, Word Pictures by Brian Godawa concerning this very topic.
http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2011/02/28/book-review-7-word-pictures-by-brian-godawa/
I do agree with you, Stephen that we must have balance in Christian Fiction.  And we need stories that cover a wide range of Christian thought and themes and notbe  limited to “I need to be saved”  or  “end-times scenario” or  “Christian Romance” stories that dominate this genre.
But, Brian Godawa’s book resonated with me because of the paragraph I pasted at the beginning of the post. 
It seems to me the secular writers are allowed to be subversive and use Christian themes to tell their stories and maintain their own worldview.  But, Christian writers either have not attempted to be subversive or the marketplace has kept from being subversive.
Storytelling has an important place in our culture and it somehow “the story” is taking a backseat to the message and the worldview of the author.
Art should not be propganda….but being covert is just as important as being overt.
This is a fascinating topic and something I will really have to think deeply about as fledging novelist.
Thanks, Stephen.
 

Soni
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

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

From Adam:

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.

I think we’ve heard from some readers/reviewers who don’t like Christian fiction because it’s absolutely “preachy” and in the wrong way — a way that doesn’t genuinely advance the story or show the characters realistically.

However, based on reviews from those who don’t like great Christian books because they’re supposedly “preachy” — even Lewis’s fiction — we do see that plenty of simple haters are out there too.

More thoughts on “preachiness” right and wrong, in Critiquing critics of Christian fiction, part 2. That includes this:

I’ve read Christian novels that were wrongly preachy. But I’ve also read novels that weren’t nearly preachy enough, which made me wonder what the heck was spiritually going on. Nothing about those novels could honestly be called Christian apart from sporadic prayers, references to God or morality or going to church,  or maybe exhortations to Have Faith.

[…] It’s best if Christian authors can be who they are. If they are annoying preachers who force specific Gospel calls into every conversation — and feel guilty if they don’t — then that will show. But if that’s the case, their real problem is their theology behind their storytelling, not just their stories. That’s where they should start: by remembering that even God Himself has often been more subtle in telling His own story of the Gospel. And it’s also okay to “preach” in their own way, when they’re wearing the “hat” of storytelling and not of overt evangelist.

More from Adam:

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).

The kind of sacrifice — who is dying for what — is where the “pagan” stories about sacrifice (whether Greek myths or Marvel superheroes) differ from Christianity’s account of Christ’s true and ultimate sacrifice. More on this in a moment …

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.

Whether Rowling is a Christian, I think, doesn’t necessarily relate to what’s in the series. A non-Christian can repeat Christian truth or overtly or in fiction, and a Christian author may be lousy at basing a story on Biblical particulars!

While I enjoy the Potter series, and think it can echo Christian truth — maybe enough to be used by God to reinforce specific Gospel proclamation — I would repeat my question from above. There might be enough truth there for God to use as part of the salvation process. But is there enough truth for someone to reject? If the former, it’s a “common grace” fiction. If the latter, it leans more toward “specific grace”-inclusive fiction.

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.

Agreed. And this applies to the part-myth,-part-truth of the lines most Christian fiction is “preachy” or if more Christian fiction was better written or had broader appeal, more nonbelievers would like us.

More from Adam, in comment number 2:

You mention in passing that themes like sacrifice and so on are common grace themes. I think if we’re going to look at this as Christ’s world, we need to make note of the fact that sacrifice isn’t a neutral theme.

My question, though: sacrifice to save from what? The answer makes a difference as to whether we’re talking about “common grace” sacrifice themes, which are part of the Christian idea of sacrifice but not all of it, and a fuller Christian concept of sacrifice.

Why do people respond to the theme of sacrifice? Because we’re made in the image of God, and we all know deep down and repressed, that we need atonement.

Atonement — exactly. And yet, in many “secular” stories in which a hero dies for others, from what is he attempting to save them? More than likely, it’s from an Enemy or other entity outside themselves. The victims may be portrayed as helpless, and the hero blameless, which is very close to Christian truth. The enemy may be portrayed as genuinely evil, which is also close to the Christian conception that Christ’s sacrifice was partly to defeat the Devil and his evil that is outside ourselves.

However, the Christian concept of sacrifice for salvation first and foremost points to the theme that something innocent must die not just to save you from an Outside Thing, but your very own guilt. Christ did not only die to save us from outside enemies. We were His enemies.

I think that is a uniquely Christian concept that doesn’t often get reflected in “common grace” echoes of sacrifice — though those are still helpful and we need them. (And I do enjoy the rare times in which a heroic character is shown willing to die for his enemies.)

Yet even the “analogy” God gave His people that  something innocent must die for you — over and over since Adam’s and Eve’s sin, Cain’s and Abel’s sacrifices, and of course in the Hebrew sacrificial system — despite its limitations, it clearly showed the innocent must die not only to save you from an outside enemy, but yourself.

Sacrifice, far from being common grace, is straight, explicit gospel. The earth is the Lord’s, so He gets to define it. His sacrifice was first, so sacrificial themes are objectively Christian.

I do believe someone can be saved by being reminded of Jesus’ sacrifice for them. That’s all it takes. Yet there’s also a place for Christian authors to realize that this conception of sacrifice is limited, and it’s worth it to grow in knowledge — given by the Bible and echoed in teaching and story — that Christ died to save His enemies from themselves.

Yet at this point it does seem I’m simply coming up with a friendlier wrapper for a nonfiction product, so let me address that point from Adam

I would also want to think about the purpose of Christian fiction. Why do we write it? Is the goal evangelistic? Educational? Informational? Devotional?

Based on a Christian writer’s gifts, he may have many different motives. That may affect the quality of the work, but not always. And it may affect who ends up reading it, and whether they are challenged or simply have their beliefs reinforced, but not always.

To me, the point of Christian fiction ought to be the point of fiction generally – to tell a story.

Yet the best stories are based on in-depth truths — so far, anyway, I’ve found those inspiring, not simply as ingredients to add into the story mix to make it more Healthful and thereby sell it as Organic or something, but as the very base for the recipe.

The general consensus among readers is that the sort of Christian fiction to get in that section in the bookstore are heavy on doctrine, cheap on story.

Whereas many of the books I’ve read are not heavy on “doctrine” or story. They are light on story and doctrine — unless you count “evangelicalese” as “doctrine.” There is a God and He Cares For You, Have Faith, God Will Use Bad Things for Good, God Will Help You Catch the Serial Killer, etc. … those seem to be the most common themes.

That may actually result because authors may think, I just want to tell a good story, and doctrine doesn’t matter as much — assuming doctrine functions as an optional, artificial additive. (The same is true with the careless phrase Deeds, not creeds, or I don’t go for all that “dry doctrine stuff; I just want to love Jesus. Gospel doctrine taught rightly motivates our deeds and drives us to love the Jesus Whom we know better!) Rather, I suggest a Christian who loves his Savior, wants to grow in life-giving knowledge of Him and His-Story, will love studying truth, even theology and expositional sermons, and this flavorful meat will naturally affect his “cooking”!

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 would almost suggest the reverse: if you study the doctrine, it will come, and for the Christian storyteller, the story will also come! It would be cliched to reference Lewis here, but that won’t stop me; for him, nonfiction and fiction were inexorably tied. But an even better case could be made from what we do know of Christ Himself: He told His stories as a means to carry truth, proving that at least this can be done while also yielding memorable, fantastic storytelling. But this could be a “chicken and egg” issue. A similar case could be made for what a new Christian has done “first” — seen God as loving and amazing, or seen his sin as disgusting? Often all this seems to happen at once.

Finally, a Potter comment:

On your series on Potter, you suggested that those trying to make it Christian are trying to justify their reading of it by making it “safe” to handle

I think some are, and I think they fall into the trap of trying to “make” something overtly Christian while forgetting that Scripture would not require them to, to enjoy it. But others may do so with better intentions — I just haven’t read ’em yet!

Isn’t this exactly what Christians do to stories generally by fretting over whether there’s enough truth in fiction?

My case is not merely to fret about whether there’s enough truth in fiction, but why Christians seem to want to give up on Christians who don’t like fiction and instead head toward a (real or imagined) Secular Market who will be more receptive. Those with the desire to tell God-exalting, more-specific-truth-echoing visionary stories will resonate with this reminder; for those who don’t, maybe this truly isn’t their calling! But it would be wrong to stay silent and let only the market-to-secular-readers crowd have their say.

I’m no theological lightweight, and fiction isn’t “just entertainment,” but it is art and not a systematic theology.

I agree: it’s art, not systematic theology. Yet if one’s theology doesn’t inform his art — see also: life, church, family, leadership, humility, emotional response, and especially love for Christ — then the problem is not theology at all, but bad theology.

By the way: I can tell you’re no “lightweight,” for sure! I haven’t seen one comment on Spec-Faith yet, I don’t think. That’s partly why I’m enjoying this exchange.

I can’t help wondering if this overemphasis on rigorous doctrinal truth reveals that we still think of fiction as nothing more than a container to be filled up with non-fiction ideas and facts.

I hope that overcorrection doesn’t happen. That’s partly why I’ve started this quick series right after a long one about how even a “secular” work like Harry Potter can be okay for some Christians, and motivate us to discern whether we are discerning Biblically and consistently. I also don’t want to assume that folks understand what I mean by “applying doctrine” and such, especially when I’m still figuring this out.

Here’s an example someone gave (I think it was John MacArthur?) …

Biblical doctrine is like blood. No, you don’t carry it around in a bucket just to display or even to throw on people! Yet you also don’t consider it strictly optional. You need it inside you, flowing, giving you life, powered by your Spirit-resurrected heart, and making you do everything you do for Christ.

Finally, Marion, after your comment I’ll be checking out that author and the link. Thanks for your encouragement and reminder about the importance of subversion.

I’d already had in mind another near-future column about whether some Christians who genuinely want to “penetrate” secular markets are really being as subversive as they could be, even in that task, or whether they might accidentally slip into being “subversive” in ways that are popularly subversive. … This will help a lot!

A. T. Ross
Member

Great stuff, Stephen! And, incidentally, Ryken’s The Liberated Imagination is absolutely stellar, as are both of Godawa’s books on story (Godawa’s an acquaintance I’ve known for years, and he’s a great guy). Ryken’s book is hard to find used, and expensive new, but absolutely, totally worth it. I was lucky enough to run across it at a book sale like, five years ago. I would also highly recommend Jeremy Begbie’s Voicing Creation’s Praise to dig deeper into the theology of art.

 As regards truth in fiction, or having enough truth to reject, and that entire subject, I don’t think we’re that far from one another, but we’re talking in the abstract. Are there any books anyone here can recommend that to you think exemplify the sort of thing you’re talking about? I’ve tried Batson’s Door Within – bad, bad, shudder, and bad. Couldn’t even finish the first one; and incidentally, the problems weren’t the theology, but the story and the prose. But some recommendations could help move my understanding of what you’re trying to say from the abstract to the concrete. 

 What I’m trying to get at with regard to sacrifice and all of that is that this world is objectively Christian. Christ is Lord, and the world tells the story of redemption; we’re built to resonate with the Story God is telling. All acts of sacrifice, from killing your child to appease the rain gods, to laying down your life for the world, is, however veiled and however effective, an act of acknowledging that the Triune God is real and that we need atonement. To depict sacrifice at all is to assemble a story stolen from God’s tinker toys. The very structure of Story itself -to tell a story, any story – is to steal the Christian’s lincoln logs. Rocks are Christian rocks; trees are Christian trees, logs are Christian logs, houses are Christian houses, just by the fact that they exist. This world is not neutral; all of creation loves God and obeys him. Creation can only find its meaning in Him.

That’s not common grace. Common grace is God’s grace of not killing unbelievers instantly like He has every right to do. I’m talking about the doctrines of creation and incarnation. I don’t like categories like Christian and secular, because it grants too much authority to unbelievers. We act like they have the right to define the world, but they don’t, and by their very using the materials of creation, they are participating in a Christian world. So symbols and themes have objective, Christian meaning. A unicorn is a symbol of Christ regardless of what use it is put by an unbeliever; if they are trying to depict it as something other than Christ, they are basically trying to cut wood against the grain.

With regard to Potter, you say that it can reflect Christian truth, but that it might be more “common grace” fiction. Again, I think you might be conflating the doctrines of common grace and creation. Rowling is an incarnational writer, but the growing and substantial Potter scholarship reveals that literally everything in the books were carefully crafted within the Christian worldview – if a slightly more mainline than evangelical one. And, incidentally, a lot of people rejected Deathly Hallows for its explicit Christian themes. Statistically, Christians tend to think Hallows the best of the series, while unbelievers generally found it a disappointment. 

 Nonetheless, your comment, “While I enjoy the Potter series, and think it can echo Christian truth — maybe enough to be used by God to reinforce specific Gospel proclamation,” suggests to me that we’re still caught on an incorrect calling for works of Christian fiction. Of course Potter can be used to reinforce the Gospel – it’s a Christian world. I could use Pullman’s books to reinforce Gospel truth. But that’s not the intention of fiction, and it’s not the calling of the writer. Within myself and many of artists I know, such demands create undo and unnecessary pressure to choose between a false dichotemy: tell the story I need to tell and give up being a “Christian” artist, or be a Christian artist and cater my story to the pietistic demands of my demographic audience. And this is the question I asked above, which is, where do we get the idea that the Christian artist must present “enough truth to be rejected?” It looks like this is just the inverse of evangelistic fiction; instead of including enough of the gospel to draw people to Christ, we must include enough gospel to drive unbelievers away from it. Of course, if we want to use fiction for evangelistic or to tell-the-hard-truths, there’s nothing wrong with that, but I do think it’s a bit of a disingenuous use of fiction. Why wouldn’t just evangelizing work better? It’d certainly be a lot easier. Neither view allows the artist to rest in their calling – which is to tell stories that bring joy to their brothers and neighbors. 

I completely agree about reading the truth, and reading it a lot. We should read deeply and widely, from many of Christendom’s glorious traditions. I’m currently working through the writings of the Church Fathers, and before that I read a lot of Puritan writings, and before that a lot of the original writings of the Protestant Reformers. But the point of reading them is not to get story ideas, but to ingest the glorious doctrines of the universal church, and to internalize them. If they become nothing but a part of who I am, when I write it will come forth without having to sit down and think it through. Once the themes become clear in the act of writing, then we can strengthen them and make them clearer.  

God Will Help You Catch the Serial Killer . . . heh, I like that. It’s almost like the writer of something like that thought that just catching a serial killer generally wasn’t quite good enough. And this is what I mean by tacking God onto something He’s already a part of. Catching a serial killer is a good thing, approved of God, but we seem to need more justification than that to tell the story. 

Stephen, you wrote that “I would almost suggest the reverse: if you study the doctrine, it will come, and for the Christian storyteller, the story will also come! It would be cliched to reference Lewis here, but that won’t stop me; for him, nonfiction and fiction were inexorably tied.” Yet, to be more accurate, Lewis saw that fiction and nonfiction both convey truth, though he acknowledged they come in different ways in each. And his procedure with fiction was the opposite of what you say here. Lewis never started with doctrine and moved to the story. He started with the story, and moved outward from there to doctrine, discovering the meaning and morals of Narnia after the story was well on the way.

So I’m not against truth or doctrine in fiction. In fact, as an example, in one of my novels (outlined at this point) the central story plays around a barbaric tribe that worships a Black Tree, a Tree of Death. It produces rotten, putrid fruit and flows with foul, sickly, black sap. These barbarians commit human sacrifice to the tree, and worship it as a god and live in fear. At the story’s end, my hero picks up an ax and goes and hacks down the tree, proving that to touch it is not death. Not exactly your pluralistic, all religions are dandy stuff here. Now, when I wrote the outline the religious element wasn’t present. It was only after much meditation and thinking that I realized I had taken the idea from one of the Church Fathers who went into Europe, before Rome fell, and preached the gospel to the Norse tribes that worshiped the Tree of Odin. So this missionary chopped down the Tree and built a church out of the logs, proving that Odin was powerless to stop Yahweh. 

Here’s a few quotes from great theology thinkers on the arts.

“The terrifying question facing the Christian artist, therefore, is, Do I dare trust the resources of my art to express the truth? Am I willing to run the risk that my audience will do its half of the world of artistic communication? What this means is that the Christian poet must master the poetic diction–metaphor, image, and figures of speech. Simply to put Christian ideas into verse will not make one a Christian poet. A Christian writer of narrative must learn to invent the kinds of characters and events that will completely absorb the vision or theme. Christian dramatists must learn the knack of creating characters, dialogue, and dramatic situations that will incarnate what they are trying to communicate.” – Leland Ryken, The Liberated Imagination, p. 209.

art has its own task and meaning. There is no need to try to justify one’s artistic activity by making works with a moralistic message, even if one is free to emphasize moral values. Nor is there any need to think one has to serve as a critic of culture, or always provide eye-openers to the non-artists, or teach, or evangelize, or do whatever other lofty thing one can think of. Art has done its task when it provides the neighbor with things of beauty, a joy forever. Art has direct ties with life, living, joy, the depth of our being human, just by being art, and therefore needs no external justification. That is so because God, who created the possibility of art and who laid beauty in his creation, is the God of the living and wants man to live. God is the God of life, the Life-giver. The Bible is full of this. … [Art] is meaningful in itself, not only as an evangelistic tool, or to serve a practical purpose, or to be didactic. Art must be free: free from politics (including church politics); free from traditions of the past, free from mode of the present, free from the judgment of the future; and free from our economic and social needs. Art cannot be turned into a mere function of any of these without losing its indispensable place in human life. After all, Christ died for us in order to restore our humanity, and to give meaning back to God’s creation. Not only is evangelism Christian, but all of life is Christian, unless we would make Christ very small.” – Hans Rookmaaker, The Creative Gift, pp. 120, 114.

“The beginning of human knowledge is through the senses . . . you cannot appeal to the senses through abstractions. . . . most people who think they want to write stories are not willing to start there. They want to write about problems, not people; or about abstract issues, not concrete situations.” – Flannery O’Connor, quoted in one of my posts.

Soni
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
 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I don’t believe Biblically doctrine should be applied directly to someone’s writing. That would indeed be artificial, and I think we’ve had enough of that already!

Instead, we should want to study it and apply it to our lives. To the source.

Then it will naturally infuse our writings — no matter our audience, or preference for covert or overt truth-echoes — and make them deeper, more powerful, and better stories.

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.

Soni
Guest

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

?

Soni 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Loved that book. It has been a while since I read through it again, though.

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.
 

Soni
Guest

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

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

My only minor drawbacks about that book are, first, that its material applies to  all of a Christian’s creativity and not just fiction-endeavors, so it’s very broad. That’s a great start, of course, but that leads to the second minor drawback: when the material touches on fiction, it is very classically minded. That’s also a great start, and I heartily agree that we need higher-level art and themes in our fiction! But when most Christian and even readers simply don’t attain to those levels — I think we need more-specific encouragements to raise naturally the style and substance of our popular fiction, not just classical material.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

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.

Marion, I’m glad you said that, because it showed me I had gotten the titles confused. I haven’t read Ryken’s book The Liberated Imagination: Thinking Christianly about the Arts either. Instead I was thinking of The Christian Imagination and its Ryken-edited collection of essays from various Christian authors. All my comments above are about that — and last night I cracked its pages again and hope they’ll mean even more to me now!

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Hey back, Adam,

Sounds like we might have differing definitions about all Christian fiction. Let me check.

First, we both seem to have, as part of our operating definitions, something like:

1. The Bible, and the Christian-as-direct-preacher, should tell the Gospel. (That’s nonoptional. A Christian doing his job in that capacity, without sharing the Gospel, is not merely taking another option, but is in fact disobedient.

2. Secular novelists, though not redeemed, are not only echoing God’s truths by “accident,” but by the very virtue of trying to tell a start-to-finish story.

We’re agreed on those. Here is where we might differ — though let me know if I’m wrong.

You seem to be saying:

3. Christian novelists should only “hint” at the Gospel in the ways God’s world does — general revelation through the remaining goodness of creation — and in the same way nonbelieving novelists do. (These would start by saying “Hey, I just want to tell a story, working organically from God’s truth that I’ve already been internalizing.” In this they join the chorus of creation as the “warm-up act” for the Epic Story, should the Spirit wish to bring them to that source in His own time, using the specific revelation in God’s Word, and the proclamations of Christians fulfilling their “nonfiction” callings to preach the Gospel in word and deed.)

Whereas I would be saying:

3. Christian novelists may only “hint” at the Gospel in general-revelation and/or common-grace ways, joining creation chorus, etc., etc. Or they may also more-directly explore the Gospel and its fruits, even by name, or Christian culture, or the world from the Christian worldview (the kind of subversion Marion mentioned above). Or they could even — I believe — take a direct truth and build a story on it (though with you I agree, we don’t see this successfully done very often now; it’s more been in the past). And this could be intended for nonbelievers, sure, but also as a way of building up the Church.

But in either case, we completely agree: tacked-on morality or doctrine not only does not work, and ruins a story aesthetically; it ruins it thematically, especially because “tacked-on” morality or doctrine is a false doctrine anyway. It’s a fiction based on a lie, rejecting the internalized study and application of truth to life and fiction, which the best Christian authors would have.

Methinks I must have poorly worded my thoughts about Lewis — or more likely rebutted an imaginary critic in place of you. I completely agree with this:

Lewis saw that fiction and nonfiction both convey truth, though he acknowledged they come in different ways in each. And his procedure with fiction was the opposite of what you say here. Lewis never started with doctrine and moved to the story. He started with the story, and moved outward from there to doctrine […]

Exactly. And sticking with Lewis’s terms — it helps to be reading Planet Narnia during the last week — this is equal to the difference of “looking at the beam of light” (contemplating truth, or telling) versus “looking along the beam of light” (enjoying the beauty that truth reveals, or showing, letting that light reveal real life as it truly is).

And that was also what I was trying to capture when I wrote this, about how the doctrine/life-giving “blood” of Godly truth should flow through the author. It should not be synthetically splashed onto the pages of a story — much less on another person! — to try to make it more pious, as you said. (However, I might add that encouraging someone only to look at this truth commits more of the same error. Thus the Christian must show in both “lyrics” and music — to switch the metaphor — how this is.)

Rather, I suggest a Christian who loves his Savior, wants to grow in life-giving knowledge of Him and His-Story, will love studying truth, even theology and expositional sermons, and this flavorful meat will naturally affect his “cooking”!

So it seems we’re agreed on that! Again, my main question is about whether you believe a Christian novelist should only be limited to “general revelation”-style explorations of internalized truth, or whether some Christian novelists (not all) can more-directly explore the Christian worldview — again with internalized truth, like blood inside the body, and not carried around in a bucket for piety’s sake.

That’s contrasted with your description of what, I believe, should be any Christian novelist’s — or any Christian’s, for that matter — prescription for spiritual health.

We should read deeply and widely, from many of Christendom’s glorious traditions. I’m currently working through the writings of the Church Fathers, and before that I read a lot of Puritan writings, and before that a lot of the original writings of the Protestant Reformers. But the point of reading them is not to get story ideas, but to ingest the glorious doctrines of the universal church, and to internalize them. If they become nothing but a part of who I am, when I write it will come forth without having to sit down and think it through. Once the themes become clear in the act of writing, then we can strengthen them and make them clearer.

Amen times ten.

Unfortunately, I don’t see the results from a lot of contemporary Christian fiction, and to some extent I expect it. Instead we seem to see overcorrection, in two ways.

One one hand, some sectors of Christianity do seek to emphasize doctrinal integrity, and even applying this to life and spiritual mission, but neglect equal application to how we perceive the physical world, and secular stories; they’re the types of folks who do seem to think that any voiced appreciation for a sunset or for a secular fantasy epic like the Harry Potter books could be seen as challenging the sufficiency of Scripture. We don’t see a lot of fiction from these kinds of denominations — yet.

On the other hand, other Christian sectors emphasize engaging the culture, the goodness of creation, and “just tell the story” while downplaying Gospel-doctrinal integrity applied organically and naturally to the joyful Christian. That doesn’t improve their doctrine any or their fiction. We get exactly the kinds of inauthentic, truth-lite, shallow stuff you mentioned. Despite all the manufactured “authenticity,” their authors try too hard and ultimately the results don’t reflect the reality of either Scripture or the general revelation in creation. (Witness the offense, against both God-glorifying truth and human creativity that reflects His own magnificence, that was The Shack. All of the sentimentality of evangelicalism, and even less of the truth.)

God Will Help You Catch the Serial Killer . . . heh, I like that. It’s almost like the writer of something like that thought that just catching a serial killer generally wasn’t quite good enough. And this is what I mean by tacking God onto something He’s already a part of. Catching a serial killer is a good thing, approved of God, but we seem to need more justification than that to tell the story. 

Amen again. And it’s why I ask — perhaps with a pragmatic rationale — why we need more stories about that “from a Christian perspective.” We already have “the Christian perspective,” and it was in the original stories in which good guys catch the bad serial killers. Yet only Christians can — optimally based on their natural internalization of truth — write the stories with unique Gospel-fleshing-out messages.

A good secular story may include and honor Law, which is far better than a secular story that would include and honor anarchy. Yet the Christian story can include both Law and Grace. A non-Christian can truthfully state there is. A Christian can add why.

A good secular story could show a detective catching a serial killer. Its theme, based on the Christian world, is that good must triumph over evil.

Yet only a Christian could, if he so chose, craft a story from the natural elements of the Gospel about, say, what would happen if the detective caught the serial killer, and the killer turns out to be his long-lost and beloved son.

A good secular story can, most likely, show a hero sacrificing himself for the innocents.

Yet only a Christian could, if he so chose — if this is where his internalized truth and God-given creativity led — write a story in which a hero dies for his enemies.

A re-clarification, by the way, on my above statements that “sacrifice” may be a “common grace” theme. Again, this is based mainly on the concept that Biblical sacrifice entails the innocent suffering, not just on the behalf of other innocents, but for the guilty. Harry Potter dies for his friends, not his enemies. Thor and Captain America (in the recent films) both sacrifice themselves for their friends. Even Frodo Baggins sacrifices for Middle-earth, a place he cares for, and for friends he loves. All those are wonderful and we need them! Yet these themes of sacrifice, as Christian as they are, still point to a better and greater sacrifice: Christ’s own, for those who were His enemies.

I just don’t see these a lot in secular stories.  Maybe it should not be there! Yet my point is not that these are negative at all, but simply incomplete; they are half-Christian.

Still a great discussion. I have a feeling — as you seem to be concluding — that we agree on more than we might have thought initially, especially when it comes to the author adding truth to himself, which flows naturally to the story. Yet it would also help discussing specific examples. I can think of one, of course: my-own-novel-which-is-unpublished-and-will-you-read-it-for-me-yesterday-because-it-does-all-this-stuff-perfectly!Ha ha! Or not. In fact, I have one or two in mind. Perhaps tomorrow …

A. T. Ross
Member

Stephen, great food for thought there. A lot of good stuff, and I think we’re getting closer to hitting on the center of the thing. A couple of thoughts:

We are indeed agreed on points one and two you listed. I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant in point one when you wrote that “That’s nonoptional. A Christian doing his job in that capacity, without sharing the Gospel, is not merely taking another option, but is in fact disobedient.” It all turns on that pesky phrase “sharing the Gospel.” It sounds, though I don’t think this is what you meant, like you’re saying that a Christian artist’s duty requires him to “share the gospel” in his work, like the work must be evangelistic in intent or he is being disobedient. This I would flatly deny. I do not think it is the duty of every Christian to be evangelistic; people are given different spiritual gifts, and only some are given the gift of evangelism. But I certainly do think the Christian artist should embody the gospel in their work.

 But the central issue revolves around your understanding of my view in point three. You write that I am saying “Christian novelists should only “hint” at the Gospel in the ways God’s world does — general revelation through the remaining goodness of creation — and in the same way nonbelieving novelists do.” 

Except that this is emphatically not what I’m saying. I suspect you may be reading me through your own categories. I am talking about integrating the gospel into the story on the level of story. Through structure, narrative progression, symbolism, character development. But that isn’t hinting at the gospel or relying on general revelation. It is explicit gospel and grace, hidden in plain sight, on the level of story. Can you have people praying and talking about God? Sure. Christian freedom, baby. But that is devotional fiction, and to claim for it all the space under the rubric of “Christian fiction” implies that anything that is not devotional in nature (for “building up the church”) is secular or, as you say, “half-Christian.” Ryken, in the Liberated Imagination, writes that “by devotional art I mean art whose subject matter is the specifically religious aspect of human experience or the theological doctrines of the Christian faith,” (198).

I deny that what I am suggesting is common grace, general revelation, hints at the gospel only, or is half-Christian. So when you ask, “my main question is about whether you believe a Christian novelist should only be limited to “general revelation”-style explorations of internalized truth, or whether some Christian novelists (not all) can more-directly explore the Christian worldview — again with internalized truth, like blood inside the body, and not carried around in a bucket for piety’s sake,” my answer is of course they can, because I’m not interested in general revelation. Here’s what I am saying:

1. Jesus is Lord of everything, and this is a Christian world. We need to develop a transformed vision to see grace and gospel everywhere, in consistent keeping with our affirmation of these doctrines. 

2. Following the Medieval theologians, as well as contemporary theologians like Peter Leithart, and literary critics like Northrop Frye, we must see that the devil has no stories. All stories are Christian stories, just by nature of being stories. As Joseph Campbell (denying obviously his monism and purely psychological interpretations of story)  has shown, all stories follow the Hero’s Journey, and the central part of the Journey is that the Hero descends symbolically into death, dies for his people, is raised to life, puts the world back to rights, and returns home with the elixir of life. All stories follow this structure, including romance, drama and “secular” stories.

3. This means, in particular, that the Christian can “undistort” the stories of unbelievers by examining their symbolism and narratives, and “re-investing” the Christian meaning (the real meaning) into the contents. Peter Leithart gets into more detail on this in his introductions to his books Brightest Heaven of Invention and Heroes of the City of Man. More accessibly, Leithart distills some of his thoughts on reading literature Christianly here.

 Again, I think that, as odd as it may sound, the Potter books are the premier example of how different our visions are. I view the Potter books as the greatest example of incarnational Christian literature this side of Narnia and Middle Earth – you view them as essentially secular echoes of generic “common grace” truths. This suggests to me we are not looking at the books in the same way, or looking for the same things in the books. Incidentally, you say that Harry dies for his friends, not his enemies, and note that these are “half-Christian” echoes. But actually, a man hath no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends. That’s 100% Scriptural and Biblical, which would put it in the wholly-Christian category. But I don’t even think it’s true that Harry dies only for his friends. I don’t know if you’ve read the books or not, but Harry dies for Hogwarts; he dies for everyone defending the castle, to stop the death and killing; he dies to protect them all, the ones he knows and loves, but also the ones he doesn’t know at all, the new students just arrived, for those who have suspected or believed the worst about him over the course of the books, he dies for Snape, and he dies for Malfoy, the long-time enemy who Harry had only chapters earlier risked his life to rescue from certain death. After he is resurrected, he extends mercy to Narcissa, desperate for news of her son, and after the battle is over the Malfoys are not excluded from the celebration in the Great Hall. We know this to be true, because Harry’s sacrifice serves to protect everyone in Hogwarts the same way that he was protected by Lily’s sacrifice. They are all covered by the blood of Harry. He dies for them, and when he returns to life, the power of the evil one, the Serpent King, cannot touch them any longer. “You won’t be able to kill any of them ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people . . . I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them,” (Deathly Hallows, 738). I don’t really think that counts as “half-Christian,” do you? It sounds more like the “heart of the gospel.” It is a perfect example of the Christus Victor doctrine of the atonement. For full readings of all the books in similar directions, check this book out, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this delightful collection of essays.

So, again, I’m not talking about writing on the level of unbelievers – we’re Christians. We ought to have truth in our fiction; I just don’t think the artist’s calling is to evangelize through his medium. The intention of our fiction, then, shouldn’t be to convert anyone (or drive them to reject the faith), though in our content, narrative, and story, our stories must contain truth. Which I think then brings me into agreement with what you were saying about Lewis.

Whew! Hope that clarifies somewhat. I’m very much enjoying the discussion. It’s really helped me think these things through in a fresh way!

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.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

First from Marion:

It seems to me…we are looking for a Literature Messiah in Christian Fiction so our Secular Counterparts can see that Christian 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 way that Conservatives are looking for the next Ronald Reagan to come along.

There is a similarity, isn’t there? And oddly enough, those who may have missed Reagan at the time may have been waiting for another (name of previous conservative leader) whom they remembered from the past. Perhaps in about 15 years, American right-wing folks will even be awaiting “the next George W. Bush” … and so on and so forth.

Christian writers seem to want another C.S. Lewis. That seems to neglect a) Lewis was unique and can’t be equaled; b) God gives different gifts to different members of the Body; c) Lewis was countercultural, not by intention but as a result of his commitment to truth and exploring it, more-overtly in fiction, and in both the contents of his fiction and the medium of that fiction itself (because Story is part of our Christian World).

More on that, replying once again to Adam, right after this:

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.

Two words: New Earth. 😀

From Adam:

I wasn’t entirely sure what you meant in point one when you wrote that “That’s nonoptional. A Christian doing his job in that capacity, without sharing the Gospel, is not merely taking another option, but is in fact disobedient.” It all turns on that pesky phrase “sharing the Gospel.”

My reference was to Scripture and to “the Christian-as-direct-preacher,” specifically about a Christian serving in the capacity of church leader of evangelist. This part here turns on the doctrine of vocation, it seems. The Apostle Paul said he must preach the Gospel, overtly and constantly, yet I doubt he did that even while sewing up tents! Similarly, a Christian novelist would be a “double agent” of sorts. With his “preacher” hat on he will preach Christ crucified; yet while assembling a car, or voting on a city council bill, or fixing pipes, he also glorifies God in how he does his work.

It sounds, though I don’t think this is what you meant, like you’re saying that a Christian artist’s duty requires him to “share the gospel” in his work, like the work must be evangelistic in intent or he is being disobedient. This I would flatly deny.

And I’d flatly deny it along with you. Refresh Spec-Faith a couple of times to find a quote from another Ryken, in this case Phillip Graham Ryken, from Art for God’s Sake:

“The way in which a Christian who makes cars glorifies God is not by painting ‘John 3:16’ on the hood. […] Similarly, the artist glorifies God by making good art, whether or not it contains an explicit gospel message.”

My emphasis is on the whether or not. Christian artists shouldn’t feel they must include “explicit” Gospel content, any more than they should feel a need to avoid it (in favor of only letting implicit Gospel influence, in the medium itself, do the “talking”). I think you would agree; in fact, I’m beginning to conclude that we might be talking past one another even though we agree, perhaps wrongly assuming the other guy is different?

I do not think it is the duty of every Christian to be evangelistic; people are given different spiritual gifts, and only some are given the gift of evangelism.

Methinks we ought to check Scriptures about evangelism; a call that I believe does apply to all Christians. But they preach it in different ways, at different times, customizing their approach due to their varying environments and callings and roles …

But I certainly do think the Christian artist should embody the gospel in their work.

That I would call evangelism. Just a different form. So it seems we do agree, even if we have different ways of including similar truths — hmm, just as Christian novelists might.

Except that this is emphatically not what I’m saying. I suspect you may be reading me through your own categories.

Just checking, then! I’m glad I was wrong in that guess; I suspected I might be.

I am talking about integrating the gospel into the story on the level of story. Through structure, narrative progression, symbolism, character development.

Amen again — something that gets neglected too often because of Gnostic assumptions or piety, well-intended but seemingly nongenuine — a “plain” story with overt Gospel sauce dumped on top (or, more likely, bland sauce that isn’t even that spicy).

But that isn’t hinting at the gospel or relying on general revelation. It is explicit gospel and grace, hidden in plain sight, on the level of story.

Gotcha. I’m fully open to that, and I think Christians who have been taught well (likely through the use of nonfiction) will absolutely be able to discern that and find it perfect for feeding their imaginations in God-honoring ways.

You mentioned thinking through my own categories, and I think I’ve found one of those. It’s very likely my discussion here has been limited through my own hope to craft stories that themselves, secondarily, will serve as catalysts for helping Christians change their views on Story altogether. I have in mind both “it’s just entertainment” types who ignore bad and good stories, and the “fiction is at best useless and at worst violations of the Ninth Commandment” sorts of believers. They need great stories too. And it would start with re-proving that Scripture is the Epic Story.

Can you have people praying and talking about God? Sure. Christian freedom, baby. But that is devotional fiction, and to claim for it all the space under the rubric of “Christian fiction” implies that anything that is not devotional in nature (for “building up the church”) is secular or, as you say, “half-Christian.”

I hope I haven’t implied that — because again, my reminder hasn’t been that this approach is wrong or inferior but that those who are already Christians could appreciate more-direct content as well. That would be a story whose medium is based on the Gospel (good versus evil, sacrifice, etc.), yet also the content itself explores more-overt Christian themes.

Let’s have an example now. The most recent “overt” Christian novel I read, this year, was Marc Schooley’s Konig’s Fire. Here is a story that one simply cannot honestly call “preachy” in a bad way, and it reflects the Gospel both implicitly in its structure and craft, and explicitly in its content. Moreover, though Christ and His truth are both very present in the story, the story-world’s “rules” also contain fantastical and paranormal elements that blur the distinctions between “literal” and “metaphorical.” It’s an incredibly unique novel that, I believe, serves as a good representation of a story that has both implicit and explicit Christianity, with no hint of “piety” or synthetic content.

Ryken, in the Liberated Imagination, writes that “by devotional art I mean art whose subject matter is the specifically religious aspect of human experience or the theological doctrines of the Christian faith,” (198).

I need to get that book; I’m interested more about how he draws the distinction.

At this point, though, I’m prepared to freely admit seeing a place for “devotional art” at least until such time as every Christian sees the truth that “the Devil has no stories” as you wrote. 🙂 If Christ could incarnate as a Man, and Paul could take from a Greek poet’s misapplication of a truth about God to Zeus, I ask mainly if some Christian novelists — not all — should consider thinking incarnationally, not only about unbelievers (as vital as that is!) but for their brothers and sisters who are ignorant of Story. And it will take showing, not just telling, to prove this. And it may also take writing “devotional”-type novels, well-crafted and based on Christian theological doctrines or even modern churches — whose struggles and real stories are fertile ground for fiction — to do it.

Already I’d had a few lines written for part 2 (coming this Thursday) about C.S. Lewis’s famed “watchful dragons.” They’re still watching. And this time they’re guarding the doors of many churches, whose members have been trained (wrongly) to suspect fiction of being useless or “just entertainment” or even Satan’s device. And for Christian novelists who find the passion to sneak past those watchful dragons, it will take both nonfiction reminders about the Bible’s story, and re-training in doctrine to weed out Gnosticism and other wrong ideas, and stories that reach them where they are.

This means, in particular, that the Christian can “undistort” the stories of unbelievers by examining their symbolism and narratives, and “re-investing” the Christian meaning (the real meaning) into the contents.

I read that and I think, with a silent grin — Absolutely; and that itself would be an excellent theme that could work its way into someone’s already-in-progress story.

More explorations about Harry Potter in a future comment. (‘Ware spoilers! :-D)

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

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

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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