A Christian Who Writes Or A Writer Who Is A Christian?
Madeleine L’Engle, an author of 50 some books, most notably her science fiction-fantasy A Wrinkle In Time, famously said when she was asked if she was a Christian writer,
No. I am a writer. That’s it. No adjectives. The first thing is writing. Christian is secondary.
Understandably, that oft repeated statement as stirred a fair amount of debate within the community of Christians who write. What exactly are we to be? Writers first, Christians second? Or Christians who declare the gospel with every word we use to craft our stories?
The first idea has been supported by a number of people who say that we should be writers first because God made us in His image, so by being creative we are, in fact, pointing back to Him as the One who gave us the skill to do what we do.
Certainly there is a measure of truth in that position, but the issue that has constantly tripped me up here is the fact that godless men can use the same talent which originates in them from God, as a means to mock Him or discredit Him. See Philip Pullman as a poster boy for this position, with Dan Brown hanging his own poster right along side.
The point, as I see it, is that SOMETHING ought to set the Christian who writes—or who waits tables or cleans hospital rooms or puts out fires—apart from those who do the same activity who are not believers in Jesus.
Recently I picked up a book entitled Total Truth by Nancy Pearcey, and in it she actually addresses this subject in a way that was more thoughtful than I’d heard before (because, yes, this discussion has been around for a while—perhaps the latest post here at Spec Faith on the subject was one Travis Perry wrote a year ago. Certainly that wasn’t the first, and clearly, since I’m writing this one, it isn’t the last.)
In one section specifically on creativity, Pearcey says
Christianity needs to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture. That is the task God originally created humans to do, and in the process of sanctification we are meant to recover that task. Whether we work with our brains or our hands, whether we are analytical or artistic, whether we work with people or with things, in every calling we are culture-creators, offering up our work as a service to God. (9 59, italics in the original)
One of the points I think that’s significant here is the idea that we are “culture-creators.” I’ve asked before if writers should be reflecting culture or molding culture. Pearcey seems unequivocally to be saying that we are to mold, not reflect.
Secondly, she emphasizes that this approach to culture is not unique to writers. In other words, she is clearly saying, we should be Christians first, and then go out into the world and do the thing that God has called us to do.
In an earlier section she refers to the “Cultural Mandate”—God’s direction to Adam and Eve to subdue the earth, fill it, and rule over it:
God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Gen. 1:27-28)
According to Pearcey, our sense of fulfillment and satisfaction in our work comes as a result of completing the thing God has call all of us to do.
The ideal human existence is not eternal leisure or an endless vacation—or even a monastic retreat into prayer and meditation—but creative effort expended for the glory of God and the benefit of others. Our calling is not just to “get to heaven” but also to cultivate the earth, not just to “save souls” but to serve God through our work. (p 48)
For God’s glory and for the good of others.
I think that simplifies things, both for writers and for readers. Part of our evaluation about any story should be, Is God glorified and Are readers built up, encourage, give something essential they need?
Unapologetically Pearcey builds the case that all Christians should be engaged with the world as Christians, instead of compartmentalizing our faith, instead of segregating it from the other parts of knowledge in which we traffic on a regular basis:
“Thinking Christianly” means understanding that Christianity gives the truth about the whole of reality, a perspective for interpreting every subject matter. (p 34)
The two functions of Christianity can be summed up with two statements:
First, it is a message of personal salvation, telling us how to get right with God; and second, it is a lens for interpreting the world. (p 35)
From my perspective, much of what receives the classification of “Christian fiction” deals with personal salvation. Very little deals with creating a lens to interpret the world. In fact, a growing group of writers seem to think that ignoring Christianity, as if it belongs in church or in the privacy of a person’s own heart, will be their approach to writing stories.
To their credit, they do not pretend to write “Christian fiction.” But I wonder, then, what impact Christianity has on their writing. Are they content to write “clean” stories? Does that provide for readers in a “Cultural Mandate” way?
I can see an argument being made for that approach, but then I wonder, are we saying that what sets a Christian apart from the culture is the words we don’t write or the sex scenes we don’t include in our stories? I’m not sure that’s creating a lens to interpret the world.
I would think, at a time when the world seems steeped in unrest—from violence and disease and fear and uncertainty—Christians have more to say than a critique of the F-words plastered on the walls of businesses in the CHAZ/CHOP area of Seattle. Or in the latest fantasy release we’ve discovered. Or that we’re writing.
I enjoyed this. My biggest beef with a lot of overt Christian fiction, at least the bit I’ve read, is how cheesy and unrealistic it is. I feel like we do a disservice to God by not making our fiction as realistic as possible, if that makes sense, and all of these personal salvation stories just don’t seem very real to me. And if we are to glorify God, and to show His glory to those who are not Christians, I highly doubt the way to do that is to write a Veggie Tales story of someone who was saved after an encounter with a Christian at the beach or something of that sort. I don’t think many nonbelievers would be hampering to pick up such a book. I believe God can be glorified without even being mentioned. After all, the Book of Esther doesn’t mention God once to my knowledge, and it seems that it is plenty realistic (concubines and such galore). I just don’t think we should stick our writing in a bubble. That’s not Art’s purpose.
It is an interesting topic, to be sure. In a lot of ways, though, I’m wondering if there’s really only one specific answer that everyone needs to follow. My faith does impact my writing, and I do try to be the best person I can, which means trying to live according to Christian principles. But there’s been times during my interactions and writing where I was glad people didn’t know I was a Christian, or where I was glad I didn’t say a particular char followed Christian principles. It wasn’t because I was ashamed of my faith. It’s just that, during those times, I was writing and communicating in the best way I knew, which was of course flawed. Implying that my flawed perceptions were how Christians believe/should believe would have done little except make God look bad.
I define a lot of my stories as Christian fiction in some way or other, whether or not it’s to a notable extent. But I try to be careful when approaching labels of any sort, especially when it comes to something this important. In spite of having opinions and sticking up for them, I try very hard not to act like I’m somehow the only person that is privy to the ‘true nature’ of spirituality. Instead I try to write deep, three dimensional characters with honest struggles. They may or may not come to the right conclusions…just like people in real life.
A lot of the purpose behind my stories has been to illustrate underlying issues in hopes of helping people understand certain things better. Christianity influenced a lot of my perspective, but that doesn’t mean I should wave a banner around that says ‘Look at me, I’m a Christian!’. It’s more like I’ll go about my writing business and talk about Christianity when it’s relevant to the story and my personal background. But a lot of people seem to think they have to slap an obviously Christian label on everything and talk all about that, rather than just letting it be revealed as part of the story’s DNA later on.
But although this approach works for me, there’s perfectly legitimate reasons for people to take a different one. And it’s ok to have multiple definitions of Christian Fiction and Christian Author, so long as people explain them when need be, that way everyone knows what’s being discussed.
Pretty much same. This is one of those things (writer/Christian vs Christian/writer) where I’m not sure there’s even a difference within the distinction.
If we try to draw any practical information from the concept, we usually end up with pitfalls about stories that aren’t REALLY(TM) Christian or stories that end up as zombies to spread the particular virus of theology that the writer prefers, which are boring and lifeless and tiresome.
Because we’re getting stupid answers, I feel like the question we’re trying to ask is therefore a stupid one.
Well, the question itself isn’t stupid. It’s usually not good to completely forbid ourselves from wondering or discussing certain things. But we should keep certain things in mind, like the fact that we are all fallible human beings and therefore cannot be right about everything, even our spiritual beliefs. And we have to realize that there isn’t one set approach every Christian needs to have, and that it may actually be good for people to have different approaches and mindsets.
I suppose that possibility exists, notleia—that someone “throws stones” like LA said above. But I see a huge difference. Basically what Total Truth says is that Christians need to live integrated lives—that our Christianity shouldn’t be reserved for Sunday or for the privacy of our home. But our Christianity should inform everything we do—how we do what we do, how we treat people when we do it, and what we say as we do it. The writer who is a Christian can segregate the two—Christianity over here when I’m at church, writing from the lens of culture at large during the writing part of life. The idea of the Christian-first writer is to allow the love of Christ to transform, to spill out of the churches and into our every activity. It’s the taking every thought captive idea.
Eh. I’ve answered the question in a way I don’t think is stupid. So I don’t think your logic about a stupid question isn’t valid.
Though it may be you think my answer was stupid. To which I’ll reply your hamster is stupid, your donkey is stupid, your nose is stupid and yes, I’m being stupid silly. 🙂
But it is clearly kinda lazy and sloppy to define “I don’t like that thing” as equaling “stupid”…
I am unapologetically a Christian writer. I am a Christ-follower before I am anything else. Finding the talents and abilities that He gifted me with, and then using them to share His glory, is what my life is about. Weak, ineffective, one-dimensional stories do not bring Him glory. Using every gift He’s given, every skill I’ve learned, every (I hate when the words disappear as you’re writing them…) The point is, I write for one purpose: to bring Him glory and honor. I do that with the best writing I can, I study, I learn, I grow, I rewrite, I learn some more… all to craft the very best story I can. So I’m a writer. It’s what I do. But I’m a Christ-follower first. That’s who I am.
Amen! Weak, ineffective, one-dimensional stories do not bring God glory! Praise God that you approach the stories you write as a follower of Jesus. I do think that needs to be our perspective. How can we separate our Christianity from our writing?
Hooray for you, Becky! This is so what I’m trying to do in my mid-school fantasies. I want to present a Christian world view, meaning a world in which God is alive and active. If writers present a world that doesn’t have an active, sovereign, good God in it, then it doesn’t seem to me that it is a realistic world. God is active. God is sovereign. God is good.
A writer should have characters who struggle and mess up big-time. That is definitely real too. But to leave God out seems to me to be totally non-realistic.
I’m not saying it’s easy to make God a character in a story. It’s not easy; it’s maybe even presumptuous. But it’s better than the alternative–leaving Him out.
Sally, blessings on you as you write to show the world through the correct understanding of an active, sovereign, good God on the throne. You’re right—not an easy task.
I think my biggest problem with Christian fiction, especially fantasy, is that it’s not really Christian. It’s Churchianity. Particularly the brand engineered by the Industrial Evangelical Complex, and has nothing to do with the actual Bible or the real God at all. It’s like Jesus Calling made into a book. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a Christian fantasy and been horrified at the bad theology. Like, do these authors even know what they’re talking about? I mean basic things, like the nature of sin and redemption. And don’t get me started on the author who had God being tempted by sin (not Jesus. God.)
If you’re going to write Christian fiction, go all in. Brush up on theology and worldviews. Really understand what you believe. Like that Carman song says, you can’t teach what you don’t know, and you can’t lead where you won’t go.
Kessie, I understand what you’re saying. But I think the stories are more “Generic Evangelical Churchianity,” since publishers don’t want to promote any one denomination or present any red flags to those from a denomination other that that which is named. So they just present a rather bland idea of what believers who go to church might look like. There are some books that have broken from that mold, and I’m happy to see them (though I disagree with some of the particulars! 😉 )
You’re also right about the theology, though. I cringe at some of the things I’ve read in the fantasy category, too.
For a long time I wouldn’t read Christian novels. Just nonfiction and classical literature. (Much of that was by Christians. Tolkien, George MacDonald, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Jane Austen, Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Charlotte and Anne Bronte.)
95% of the novels were written by women for women in CBA bookstores. Pretty shades of powder blue, pink, and lavender. They all had some pretty girl of 18 or 20 on the front.
Prairie romances, historical romances, occasionally contemporary romances…All as mind numbingly frothy as 50 Shades. But with all the sex cut out.
These books nearly all had the same plot. Nice girl of 18 or 19 (no older) tries to find place in big, bad world.
Meets a Bad Man or two with nefarious–but understated–erotic evil on his mind. On occasions he would allude to “wanting her” sans clergy. This would cause the ingenue to clutch her pearls before swooning away. The villain always departed then.
Or Mr. Bad Man would want to marry her but demand she send all her orphaned siblings to an institution or neglect her aging parents or quit going to church or wear lipstick and mini skirts or he’d be drinking, gambling (with CARDS!!!) and cursing on the sly.
Meets Mr. Good Man. As good looking and morally upright as a cardboard cut-out. Sometimes he’d save her from Bad Man. Other times she would outwit the villain by persuading the hero to marry her in a surprise wedding, ending with Bad Man jumping on his hat and indulging in profanity. Such as “Curses! Foiled again.”
They were usually about 200 pages long. The heroin was usually non Christian but “nice” on page one. By page 100 she would fall under conviction of her sinfulness (often by the testimony of Mr. Good Man saying things like “I don’t drink.”)
By page 175 someone would lead her through the Sinner’s Prayer. Pages 190-200 would describe the wedding in great detail. The guests would go away under conviction due to the absence of liquor or dancing at the reception.
These books taught us valuable lessons. Such as:
What these books lacked in quality they tried to compensate for in quantity. The two tops in this genre where bulk was all that counted were Grace Livingston Hill and Janette Oke.
I quit reading this “literature” in the mid nineties. Now I understand they have Amish romances.
These books and the narrow mindedness they espoused almost drove me from the Church. My college education with a major in English helped me appreciate good writing and the lack of it in the CBA market. Especially the simple-minded, legalistic pap all us women were expected to enjoy.
Then I compared them to the Bible and decided they were hogwash. I stayed in the Body but threw out the trash. Give me Mark Twain, Thackeray or Flannery O’Connor any day over Rosalind’s Resolve by Mable Syrup.
Your description of Christian romance is so spot-on that I almost choked on my coffee.
It is a question we as Christian writers keep coming back to, isn’t it! It is a more complicated question than it looks. I like the idea of being “culture creators” as opposed to being “culture reflectors” but….this doesn’t have to be explicit. You don’t have to have a specifically evangelical book to do this. There are broad themes of culture and specific ones. One of the broad themes of culture right now could be identified as “the supremacy of self”. Therefore any novel that subverts this theme is pointing people away from that idea and towards the idea of selflessness is one that is pointing readers down the right road, instead of reinforcing the wrong road. Of course, that road also has many branches. Another novel might point to the ultimate reason for selflessness being the example of Christ and therefore we should imitate that. Yes, that is the correct “Christian” answer. But it’s like Paul and the building blocks example…some lay the foundation, others come along and build the tower. All are needed. Giving people pause to think about what their unconscious assumptions about how the world works might be the work of one Christian author, once readers have stepped on that road, another can come along and take them a little further down the path. All are needed, in my opinion. There is also room for the specifically evangelical novel. But not all novels by Christian writers need to include that theme or message, in my opinion. And the worst thing we can do is to have Christian writers in one camp throwing stones at Christian writers in the other camp. I don’t think this article is doing this, by the way, it’s just a danger that we should avoid.
This is so true. There are countless novels on the market right now promoting ideas and attitudes that sound good and right to modern readers — often because they’re a reaction against some previous extreme or unjust attitude in society — but some of the philosophies they reflect are profoundly anti-Biblical and destructive to those who believe them. For instance, like you’ve pointed out, our North American culture’s obsession with self (in the form of exalting individual feelings, determination and self-expression as the highest good).
So in a world that insists that heroism consists of demanding one’s personal rights and liberties and refusing to compromise or back down, a book which affirms that a great hero is not one who demands that others respect and reward them but one who behaves in a way that is worthy of respect even if they suffer for it, not one who triumphs over his/her enemies through violence or public shaming but who loves their enemies and does good to those who persecute them, not one who forms their own tribe of followers and admirers they consider worthy, but who humbly chooses to be a servant of others even when people are ungrateful or unworthy… that’s a profoundly counter-cultural and Christian message.
To show readers what healthy guilt and conviction of sin looks like, what genuine repentance looks like, what redemption looks like, what servanthood looks like, what reasonable, practical faith being lived out on a daily basis looks like, and to uphold those things as admirable and desirable instead of the caricature and mockery the world makes of them can be a powerful testimony. Even if Christ Himself is never mentioned on the page.
In a lot of cases, it’s not actually the ‘obsession with self’. A lot of the ideas promoted have a sense of extreme interconnectedness about them. People promote interconnectedness because they think it will pave the way for their own self actualization. Or because they think it’s the only valid way to cause societal change. People will say that we are all interconnected, and that it is our social duty to take certain actions at certain times(no matter what) and promote certain ideas in certain ways. If a person doesn’t do that, Cancel Culture might decide to intervene. It’s like they fear they can’t self actualize at all if a book doesn’t represent them, or if one character in the book has a character flaw that is deemed ‘backward’ by our modern standards. Yes, stories have an influence on culture, and yes, it’s good to discuss whether they’re good or not, but people act like it’s their social duty to destroy anything they deem remotely problematic. So instead of having productive discussions, a lot of people act more like they’re on a permanent search and destroy mission. If they see something they deem negative and don’t immediately rant about it, they fear they are letting other people get away with injustice(even though that isn’t always true. There are many other ways to handle things…)
So they use ‘interconnectedness’ as a tool to obligate and control people into becoming mouthpieces for one group or another. Partly because they felt like society’s backward ideas kept them from self actualizing and they fear more of the same from anyone that happens to disagree with them. In some ways that fear’s understandable, but in either case, people take it way, way too far.
Or you have people that want socialism because they think it will make a paradise where they can do what they want instead of having to build their own life. That would involve interconnecting people a lot more, and set the precedent of people having to completely abandon their own autonomy if the government or society deems it necessary.
People do have an impact on each other, so I’m not saying they should be selfish or irresponsible, but it’s kind of dangerous when people think that social responsibility means controlling other people, or acting like it’s an emergency whenever someone is ignorant and wrong about something.
So well said, R. J. You’ve given such a practical, clear example. I do think promoting the way the world works with God on the throne, is a valuable part of influencing and affecting culture. It’s very different from promoting right behavior, as if it’s possible for someone to walk through life in a godly way, without Jesus Christ in their life. This has been a very good discussion, I think.
LA, I agree with you. I think your example of selflessness is excellent. It subverts the way the world tells us things should work, and we need the message of ME First, and revenge, and getting even at all costs, to be subverted. And definitely, not all writers need to write the same way. Thanks for clarifying that you didn’t think this article was throwing stones. I didn’t think that’s what you were suggesting, and it certainly isn’t something I would want anyone else to come away thinking.
I am a Christian writer of Christian fantasy. That is where my heart is and I write from the heart. Is my fantasy acceptable? Well, not to everyone. It is too dark and too gritty for some. And yet, I feel called to write books that have a bit of an edge, like Rocky Road Ice Cream versus Vanilla. I have had Christians say they started The Sorcerer’s Bane (book 1 of my The Seven Words series and my first novel) and stopped reading because it was too dark. (It is clean but gritty and includes child abuse. If you are going to have a battle of light and dark, there will be pain and suffering, that’s just reality.) But I’ve had other Christians thank me for writing in a way that helped bolster their faith.
I’ve also read that we should write books we would want to read. I, myself, prefer reading stories that touch my heart with characters that come alive through real adversity. But those books would not necessarily be acceptable according to ‘acceptable’ standards of ‘Christian’. Perhaps that is why most of the books I’ve read lately have been Indie published. Christian but unafraid to face the hard stuff.
I’ve also seen reviews where readers bashed books for sneaking Christianity into the story, as if they needed a warning label. Well, that’s another reason I specifically market my books as Christian even though it means I’ve limited my market.
Ultimately, each author must choose for him or herself how to express the creativity God has given. As I said, I am a Christian who also chooses to write fantasy with strong Christian themes, but I will honor and respect others who choose differently.
I like Stephen Lawhead myself. I think he’s a Christian but his books aren’t preachy.
I’m all for well written sermons. But the novel/sermon is not a good hybrid.
I think that’s what we all should do—honor those who choose a different path from the one we choose. But I would hope that Christians will see how being a Christian is fundamental to who we are, as much as being a human is. As such, it should make a difference in our choices. If God then calls that person to write in a way that shapes culture differently from the way He has called me, that’s not an issue. The issue, I believe is compartmentalizing our Christianity as if it has nothing to say about what or how we write.
Thanks for adding to the discussion.
I feel Christian fiction authors should create a story first, then let morals or lessons come naturally through it. I hate reading a story that seems like a morality lesson with a plot tacked on as an afterthought. I also feel more Christian authors should include sex scenes–between lawfully wedded and loving married couples. Song of Solomon does that in the Bible itself, so it’s not a sin to portray sinless marital sex, even in detail. I feel disappointed when a married couple in a Christian novel is about to make love, and the author cuts away rather than depict it, as though something “naughty” was about to happen. But sex is only naughty when it’s not between a husband and wife. Otherwise, it’s supposed to be beautiful.
I think also we would attract more non-Christian readers if we portray Christianity not as a set of rules of don’t do this and don’t do that, and stuffy church services, but the mystical side of it–we can have a redeeming relationship with the very creator of the universe. That is what I try to do with the fanfic I write. Being heavy-handed only drives readers away, including myself sometimes from Christian fiction, and I’m a Christian myself. I want a story, not a sermon.