A Call For Deeply Real Christian Fiction
Conventional wisdom says Christian fiction is lame, unrealistic, unhelpful, unneeded.
It says: “We don’t need more ‘Christian fiction.’ We need more Christians writing fiction.”1
But the conventional wisdom is wrong.
In fact, we actually need deeply real Christian fiction now more than ever.
Let’s consider this. Biblical Christians have already been a minority in other countries for decades, sometimes centuries. Now, even in the supposed “Christian nation,” the United States, Biblical Christians realize they’ve also become a minority.
We’ve surrendered cultural influence, or else have seen others take it away from us.
We break apart our own many colorful cultures, starting with the saving gospel of Jesus Christ at the heart of all of them, because we’ve felt this strategy will attract more people. And we’ve used too much of our own fiction not to explore and share and reflect Christians’ real cultures, but to explore idealized, saccharine-fairy-tale versions of Christianity.
I will certainly agree that we don’t need more of Christian fiction like this:
- Morality fables, in which the Lesson or lack of Bad Content stands in for “Christian.”
- Faux evangelistic novels, in which the main character is the author’s best version of a “nonbeliever” who meets Christians and/or Jesus and learns to have faith again.
- Rage-rousing movies that stoke Christians’ anger against real or imagined enemies.
- Strange alien worlds, supposedly like our own, neatly divided between “Christian” and not-Christian, with no room for strange people, false teachers, and confused elderly souls, bless their hearts, who love Jesus but keep televangelists in business.
- Strange alien worlds in which Christians don’t even have denominations.
Instead, I call for deeply Christian fiction—stories that are almost scarily saturated in the world of real Christianity. A world in which real Christians, who believe the real gospel, have real disagreements even while they try to gather in real churches, denominations, and groups, and preach the gospel, fight their sin, raise their families, care for the poor, and await Jesus and Heaven (or, to go deeper, our resurrection and Jesus’ renewal of creation).
These stories will not only aim to glorify God in general ways, such as through already God-reflecting acts of artistry and imaginary world-creating.2 And these stories will not be labeled “Christian” mainly to bait-and-switch, then feign to sort-of preach a sort-of gospel to some non-Christian reader who is not in the room at the time.
Instead, deeply Christian fiction will explore, challenge, reflect, and celebrate the actual, real-world Christian culture (even in fantastical stories) in which this fiction was made.
I thought of this while viewing the first few episodes of the Netflix series “Luke Cage.”3 Some critics complain about this show being “too black” (I suppose in cast and aesthetics) or “too white” (I suppose in themes of justice and heroism). I find both critiques bizarre. As far as I can tell, the show is absolutely saturated in the symbols and ambiance of African-Americana: people, music, culture, clubs, temptations, heroes, villains, good, and evil. The story-makers don’t shy from showing this culture. They go all-in. And they should.
Because when you are a minority group, your popular culture becomes more important.
Thus, as Biblical Christians are becoming a minority, they will need their own deeply Christian popular culture more than ever before—including deeply Christian novels and stories.
In practice, here are a few starter attributes of deeply Christian fiction:
- Explicit about the gospel. In reality, serious Christians don’t go about nuancing the gospel in shady allegories or oblique hints. We are (or should be) clear about what we believe. We do quote verses and argue gospel doctrines. We do preach. And we don’t replace the gospel with moralism, but rebuke these things.
- Truly evangelistic. Biblical Christians believe non-Christians should get saved. Evangelism is our culture. We don’t want people to fall under God’s wrath. We want them to share in God’s grace. So these novels will be very clear about that. But they will show how Christians struggle to follow Christ’s Great Commission, from the inside.
- Honest about enemies. Some enemies really do want to see the Christian world burn. They don’t simply hate Christians because they haven’t heard about how much Jesus loves them. But many enemies also don’t simply hate Christians because they are simplistically evil. Often they have a relatable backstory. Often Christians have done them wrong. Sometimes Christians themselves are the villains. Admitting this is essential for a story that deeply, realistically reflects the story’s cultural origin.
- Clear about human weirdness. These stories will reflect bizarre cases not often seen in novels, such as when you can’t tell if someone is a Christian, or when a real Christian who loves Jesus buys into horrid theology or conspiracy theories. There are no easy answers to these quandaries. Stories can help us concede these faults.
- Direct about denominations. Christians have long and glorious traditions of various church organizations that believe and act differently in many ways. These must be reflected in Christian fiction. If not, the story is not authentically Christian. It is an Earth-2 “Christianity” that readers only pretend to sort-of recognize. (And eventually we complain that our churches don’t look like these airbrushed models.)
Sure, we need Christians active in general-market stories. We do need “more Christians making great stories.” But we also need “Christian fiction” from Christian authors, from Christian-run publishers, for Christian readers—who are becoming a minority in American culture and need their own popular culture to survive and grow strong. Yes, the “Christian fiction” label still needs redeeming and many of those “rules” must be abolished. But every other group of people gets a popular culture to explore, challenge, and celebrate itself. How much more so should we, who serve the ultimate Author who provides us stories to enjoy? 4
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- Already the conventional line assumes too much—that all/most Christian fiction includes saccharine themes, shallow characters, bad writing, and concern for correct doctrine over healthful imagination. This is not true. And I don’t mean that the only exceptions are classic fantasy novels or literary works by Christians in the general market. I mean that popular-level novels from specifically Christian authors and publishers also show excellence. ↩
- If you believe a story can only be “Christian” or else God-glorifying by overt verse-quoting and/or evangelism, then we must have words. However, I am not writing about that subject in this article. ↩
- Personal lust-avoidance discernment alert: like its predecessors “Jessica Jones” and even “Daredevil” to an extent, the “Luke Cage” creators saw fit to front-load a sex scene in the first episode(s). This is why Netflix’s thumbnail-enabled fast-forwarding is so helpful. ↩
- In pursuit of this goal myself, I am likely taking the next two months off from regular SpecFaith articles. We will open my regular Thursday spaces for guest reviews and other guest writers. To suggest an article topic, click here. To write a guest review (that is, a deeply Christian review of a fantastical story found in any genre), click here. ↩
But who would read that stuff?
Who would spend money to read it, rather?
Who is HUNGRY to read it, I should ask?
We need a big enough group of people to sustain (financially) the authors who write “Real Christianity” instead of “Mere Christianity” . Ideas? Does God have any?
I wouldn’t call the other stuff “Mere Christianity”-ish. It’s more like an Earth-2 “Christianity” that never offers fiction that acts inside itself. Consider: if the world of Christian fiction novels (set in contemporary times) does not itself conceivably include the Christian fiction industry, then it’s not the kind of deeply Christian fiction I’m talking about.
As for readers, I’m the first person to say this need ought to arise from reader demand that publishers and authors will then hasten to meet. It will not do to whine at publishers for not leading. Publishers can lead, but they also respond to market wants.
“Earth 2″: that never offers fiction that acts inside itself.”
I’m in love with that quote, very nice clarity. I understand what you mean now. To be fair to Christian publishing trends, I do see this woodenness in every genre of movies in Hollywood and most art. Self-reflection is lacking in marketable art of all kinds these days. If Christians want to be “counter cultural”, this proposition you make is the way to do it.
The worst enemy of meaningful Christian fiction is Christian publishers…they all want the next great book but no one is willing to take the chance. Many publishers are closing their fiction areas.
TLDR: I agree that real Christian fiction includes disagreement and ambiguity, because those things make our faith authentic, instead of something artificial and human-made.
I was pondering my own weird and ambiguous and personally troubling history of my spiritual and mental problems that have separated me from many people in the Christian community I grew up in, and I realized that God must allow Christians real differences, or else our spiritual sub-cultural conventions are the only gods we worship. Because we’re only fighting for our tribes and our own inner perspectives, but neither our culturally sanctioned ideas or our own inner spiritual systems are equivalent to the real truth that must exist outside of humanity, or else humanity really is the last straw and the secular humanists are right. Maybe one reason God allows our differences is because doing so forces us to acknowledge a greater reality than our cultures and our minds. If one kind of Christianity was the only Christianity, it would soon become a grotesque self-parody. We would live in Chickland. Or the Roman Catholic Church as its worst cardboard Hollywood stereotype.
Still I about Christian culture and gatekeeping. The comparison with African American culture is apt, because I think much has been written about African Americans who are outcast by the sub-culture for being too intellectual or whatever.
But why can’t we Christians have a popular culture? Because we profess to be devoted to something that transcends culture, and when we try to gather around mortal cultures, the knowledge that the Infinite Create we profess to worship must truly be universal and beyond comprehension — and even historically in the Bible far removed from our century and our lands — that any sense of a popular Christian culture feels inauthentic to me personally.
God was there before it was cool. So was the Bible, and even the historic Church.
I try not to keep excluding myself but I always feel left out, that Christian culture will define itself out of existence and leave my frail faith and my well-being in shatters.
I find the talk of denominations interesting since I’ve seen very few books that had them. Another thing I’ve found Christian fiction (and any fiction in general) guilty of is lack of moral diversity on the good side. It’s pretty common for all good guys to agree on anything moral related, which tends to reduce conflict.
In my own space opera, I decided instead of having conflict derived from an anti-religious group and a Christian group, I’d have the two factions both be different denominations of Christianity. The sticking point of these two groups is Romans 13. One side believes that the governing power is ordained by God, the other side believes the government is NOT ordained by God, so they refuse to acknowledge it and tend to fight at every turn. It doesn’t help matters that the side loyal to the government can get loyal to the point of harming innocents when they’re ordered to do so. This leads to good and bad people on both sides.
Love this post, Stephen, thank you. And I agree that part of the problem is that the lack of demand for this kind of fiction tends to stifle the creation of it. I mean, I would love to read this. And I’m sure many others do too. Where do I find it? I also strive to write it. But where does a writer go to sell it? This is probably my biggest frustrations as a writer. It seems to be a vicious circle – no market, so nowhere for these stories to be seen, so no one reads it, so no demand for it, so no market…..
FANTASTIC article. I’m so tired of Christians attacking each other over who should/shouldn’t be writing what. We just need to be real, to show Christ in our brokenness. That we’re all in this mess together.