Christian Fiction has often been accused of being so agenda/message driven that story quality suffers. Michael Trimmer quotes author Mike Duran in the Christian Today article, “What’s Wrong With Christian Fiction”:
Christians are so desirous to get the gospels out there, that we tolerate mediocrity. I think that does a disservice to the gospel. We tolerate mediocrity for the sake of the message.
He is probably right in many cases, but because of that, the solution often tends to be to get rid of the message to improve quality. But it’s not that simple. It isn’t the presence of an agenda that is the problem.
Agenda-driven fiction has a long history and not by just Christians.
There are college classes offered on how to use the arts in getting the message out about “climate change,” as reported in the New York Times article, “College Classes Use Arts to Brace for Climate Change.”
Whether you agree with “climate change” claims or not, the article list fiction titles going back into the 60s that focused on climate change. The article ends on the following quote:
“In this sense,” he (Shane Hall) said, “climate change itself is a form of story we have to tell.”
Sums up what most Christian writers would say about the Gospel.
That is just one example. How often did the Star Trek TV series illustrate an agenda, both the original series and The Next Generation? The list could go on.
The answer isn’t to get rid of our messages. The real problem comes in two areas.
One: Treating Fiction Like Non-fiction
This is the cause of Mike Duran’s concern above. What do I mean by it? I’ve mentioned it in a guest post many months ago on SpecFaith and most recently last week in talking about the dynamic behind the debate on the movie Noah.
Stories in non-fiction, whether true or made-up, exist to serve one main purpose: to illustrate a point in an emotionally engaging manner. The story does not exist for its own sake, but is subservient to the message being conveyed. Consequently, the stories tend to be simple, black and white realities that make a clear, unambiguous point. They don’t want the reader to wonder, “Hum, I wonder what he meant to say?”
Christians who write fiction often make the mistake of treating their story as an expanded, non-fiction illustration. As a result, characterization tends to be shallow. Plots exist to drive the reader to one conclusion. Anything like real-life ambiguities that would muddy the message are avoided.
This in direct opposition to what Jesus did. He didn’t give illustrations to make a point. He taught in parables. He was fine letting the hearer figure out the meaning for themselves. He didn’t offer conclusions/interpretations except to the disciples. He trusted that those who were ready to hear the truth, would.
When we move into fiction stories, the purpose of the book can no longer be to illustrate a truth as in non-fiction. Rather, it is to experience the truth lived out in real life. Even if that real life is in the future, past, or a fantasy world.
In fiction, the message and the story take on a symbiotic relationship.
The message, to be effective, is dependent upon the story to have the ring of authenticity to it. To be an engaging, emotionally impacting, and entertaining story. If the quality of the story fails here, few will experience the message lived out.
For the story to amount to more than a good time, but to have meat on its bones, requires a living message/theme running through it. The stories that impact us most are those that open our eyes to see truth lived out in a character, and then in us as well. Any book, no matter how entertaining, that doesn’t say something to us, is quickly forgotten.
Two: Getting Sucked into the Niche Whirlpool
Overt agenda-driven, non-fiction, illustration-styled fiction stories, Christian or not, are primarily red meat for the faithful of that niche. Few outside that niche care to read it. The above “climate change” books and films highlight that. Few who disagree with their agenda are going to plunk down money to partake of that story.
The overwhelming majority of people who will enjoy those stories are those who already agree with them.
This is the irony of the Christian whirlpool effect. The drive to present as clear and unambiguous of a Gospel message as possible ensures few who are not already saved and in the fold will ever read it. The tighter into the niche it falls, the less chance it has of transcending that niche to become truly evangelistic. The story gets sucked into the niche whirlpool.
By creating a symbiotic relationship between story and message, the story can gain a following and those who have ears to hear and eyes to read will get the message. For that to happen requires them getting lost in a world and characters to the point they live the message through them.
The more the quality of the story supports the goal of fiction instead of non-fiction, the more likely that story will change someone’s life.
Agenda fiction is not the issue. Tossing the message is not the answer. Reading stories that marinate us in truth experienced through characters is the goal.