1. But I can already hear the protests: “Gospel-centric stories aren’t comparable to environmentalist propaganda!  Climate change is a scientific fad, whereas the gospel matters forever and ever amen!”  This is true, but it misses the point.  The point here isn’t to diminish the importance of the gospel, but rather to communicate it in as effective a way as possible.

    If you want the gospel message exposited clearly, systematically, unambiguously, then listen to a sermon.  The pulpit is a medium suited for didactic instruction; fiction — whether on the page, the stage, or the screen — is not.  An audience knows how easy it can be for the writer of fiction to cut convenient corners, to “bend the world to his whim,” and if it becomes apparent that the whole point of a fictional story was some religio-political messaging, then said message will be summarily rejected as obvious, forced, patronizing.  The story will rightly be viewed as nothing more than wishful thinking on the author’s part.

    The opposite reaction, experienced by those already in agreement with the writer’s beliefs, is almost as bad: the smug complacency of unchallenged belief-bolstering.  In order to present his agenda in an unambiguously favorable light, the writer will have avoided confronting its weakest aspects and strongest threats.  In effect, what the writer will have done is to create a fictional straw-man argument — a delusion which quickly crumbles when exposed to the merciless elements of the real world.  If an audience swallows the writer’s wishful thinking, they’re gonna be in for a rude awakening down the road.

    These are the two likeliest reactions to an agenda-driven work of fiction.  Either the audience already disagreed with the message and therefore rejects the story, or the audience already agreed with the message and therefore embraces the story.  Neither reaction involves much thought.  Neither takes much notice of the story itself.  And neither achieves the end ostensibly sought by the writer: persuasion.

    Compare this approach with the one cited by R.L. Copple above: that of Jesus in His parables.  Jesus told stories which contained messages.  But the messages weren’t spelled out for His audience — not even the disciples, His closest human confidants, grasped their meaning at first blush.  The messages of Christ’s parables were left implied.  Accessing them required work on the audience’s part, an intellectual and emotional participation in the storytelling act.  Instead of fearing the undirected interpretation of an autonomous audience, the parables invite it.  Here is a story; make of it what you will.

    In this sense, Christ’s parables, along with all the best human stories, are still alive.  They’re not dead messages set in the concrete of clearly-spelled-out, incontrovertible exposition.  They live in conjunction with a reader’s interaction.  “What does this mean?  What is it saying to me?”  As it says in the adage, ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’  But if you can get a man to convince himself, then he’ll be convinced indeed.  That’s why storytelling’s at its best not when telling people how to think, but when giving them questions to think upon.

  2. Julie D says:

    symbiotic relationship.  Exactly. My college environmental science class actually listed types of natural relationships (hang on, I have a point):

     Predation: A living organism kills another
    Parasitism: A parasite derives nourishment from a host–doesn’t usually kill the host straight off, but weakens it over time.
    Mutalism: both members of the association benefit
    Commensalism : one species benefits and the other isn’t affected

    Some ( most?) Christian fiction suffers from parasitism. The message may not  kill it right off, but the message/agenda makes demands on the plot and characters that weaken the overall story. And just as parasites eventually kill their host and are left without a home, so some agendas can kill themselves by trying too hard.


  3. Jill says:

    As an avid reader of nonfiction, I resent the notion that nonfiction should be agenda-driven. Agenda-driven nonfiction is an insult to my intelligence–most of the time. There is a time and place for  rhetoric whose attempt is essentially to persuade through appeals to rightness and morality or emotions, but the agenda is softened by appealing to the audience’s humanity. Although nonfiction often deals in concretes rather than in the ambiguities of fiction, this doesn’t mean that all nonfiction is meant to persuade or pound out the agenda of the writer. Much nonfiction is, ultimately, idea-oriented. It’s about playing with ideas.
    As far as gospel-driven fiction authors, I believe there are some people who are very evangelistic by nature, and they will use any medium available to them to preach the gospel. If they happen to be good with words, they’ll turn to writing. Most of the time, artistry becomes secondary because, to them, nothing is as important as winning lost souls–and they often can’t imagine how that can be done without being very clear and precise about the message. I can’t criticize people like that. They are giving their own gift to the world; it just isn’t art. I probably won’t read their books, but the right person might. Shrug.

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Jill, agenda here is being used in its generic meaning, which means if you have a message to deliver, an idea to promote/discuss. Non-fiction should have a purpose, a goal to accomplish. That’s an agenda. It is why I write non-fiction. It is not a negative thing. There should be an agenda to non-fiction. I should be saying something.
      For instance, when I wrote my non-fiction book, Healing Infidelity, my agenda was to encourage people dealing with that issue that it can become a vibrant relationship through relating my own story and articles on how to deal with it.
      If I were to attempt the same thing in fiction, it would be to write a story that would help the reader experience the event, and leave it at that, without attempting to tell them what message to get out of it like I would in non-fiction.
      Hope that clears it up.

      • Jill says:

        Yes, I see the difference between the two when you’re specifically writing that kind of nonfiction about adultery vs fiction showing adulterous relationships. I guess I look at fiction and nonfiction the same way. I’m looking to grapple with or explore ideas, and when I feel that an agenda is being pushed on me, instead, I get a little insulted. Take my regular subscription of Sci Am, for example. Most of the articles in Sci Am are grappling with ideas based off scientific research and discovery, but every once in a while, the articles are agenda-driven drivel that push aside logic for the sake of upholding the agenda. That was what I was talking about, but I understand what you mean, now.

        • R. L. Copple says:

          Jill, I’ve been thinking on this a bit.
          The type of agenda you are talking about is just one part of the whole spectrum of what I was referring to. What I am referring to is any message or idea someone is wanting to “sell” with their writing, whether non-fiction (direct exposition/illustration) or fiction (experienced). You’re referring to anything you find is not logic driven. In short, it doesn’t add up for you, so their arguments appear baseless. Is that a fair assessment?
          The reason people get that vibe is in relation to someone attempting to get out a message they don’t agree with. For example, if I wrote an article on the evils of slavery,  a big majority of people would agree with me and wouldn’t conclude that I’m pushing an agenda as you’ve described it, even if my arguments weren’t ideal. But the few true white supremest would feel that way, no matter how logical I thought my arguments were.
          Then I write an article on the evils of abortion, and you’d see a lot of more people decry me as having that agenda, while a good number of people who might agree with me wouldn’t at all. They would feel I’m being perfectly logical.
          How much any one person agrees or disagrees with a point of view in non-fiction will determine how much they feel something is agenda driven in the negative sense of the term. The more controversial a topic is, the more likely it will be perceived that way by the other side.
          IOW, how agenda-driven something is in your sense of the term is relative to the person reading any non-fiction based on how much one sees the agenda in my sense of the term as being wrong and the emotional energy one has invested in defending a particular point of view.
          My original point is “preachiness” or what often makes for bad fiction is when that non-fictional template and goal is overlaid upon fiction, superseding fiction’s goal: to enable us to experience a different reality. In the later, since it should reflect real life, the less it reflects the messiness and ambiguity of life, the more like non-fiction’s goal it becomes. Instead of a story, you have an extended sermon illustration.

  4. notleia says:

    So the solution to the dilemma is to find a Christian version of Hayao Miyazaki. Which is kinda like saying, “Oh, no big, we just have to find another Saint Paul.”

  5. I’m really enjoying your posts, Mr. Copple (great choice, Spec Faith!) I especially like this phrase: “Getting Sucked into the Niche Whirlpool.” That’s exactly what we want to avoid (with anything, not just evangelism).

What do you think?