1. Jessica says:

    Thank you so much for sharing, Carole. I enjoyed this, and it connected to my heart. Letting go of the shackles of expectation and truly seeking what God desires and not what others expect is a challenging journey, but it is worth it. It’s also so important to realize what culture and tradition have infused within Christianity itself. Until that is recognized, especially on the denominational level, it can be hard for people to communicate at all. Your ability to trust God and release is quite inspiring.

    • Thank you! And so true, Jessica.
      Most evangelical Christians writers seem to feel that speaking about the gospel is about speaking about sin. Did Paul talk to the Athenians about sin? He talked about the unknown God who called people to know and worship him. But by equating the good news of our redemption with the need to show people how sinful they are, many Christians end up just picking at the speck they perceive in other people’s eyes. And all the time, they are so ignorant of the beam in their eyes. It makes us look like we major in sin. “Jesus loves me, this I know” has saved people also.

  2. Wonderful post Carole. It got me to thinking about my own writing and how I hope to get better. I liked how you mention what makes American Christianity (as a whole anyway) weak and how we need to address other issues too.

    This falls tangent in your post but I think it relates. It’s fascinating but I was just listening to a podcast about a theological view of environmentalism, climate change, and global warming yesterday. The guest on the podcast made some very good points but the one that struck me the most was the poor. In all the discussions about climate change, I’d never heard anything about the poor at all. In fact, it was the first time I’d even been exposed to that aspect of godly stewardship in our relationship with the earth around us.

    So when you mentioned the quote about wealth from Basil the Great it struck a chord with me. Not that I begrudge anyone their wealth. Have at it But in preaching our class, agenda, culture, denomination, we forget what matters.

    Great post!

    • Oh yes! I heard a non-Christian discussion on climate change and how so many poor countries are being affected. And if one thinks about all the other issues that involve stewardship of the earth, there is such a lack of the Christian voice on caring for the earth.

      I have no doubt that people who want to take care of the earth might not connect to Christianity because they see us as close-minded indoctrinated fools under the control of Monsanto or Big Food. If we could show them that Christians are also honorers of the earth, they might open their eyes to seeing us as humans who care for the earth.

      And I do think the fear of not writing doctrinally — according to our denomination, etc– totally hamstrings us. It’s not generally sin that keeps people away from God. It’s the cause and effect of sin that does that. Woundedness in the heart, hurt from a Christian, fear of bullying authority, etc. The fallow ground has to be broken up before one can sow proper seed.

    • Carole, thank you so much for contributing to the #StoryEvangelism topic.

      I have no doubt that people who want to take care of the earth might not connect to Christianity because they see us as close-minded indoctrinated fools under the control of Monsanto or Big Food. If we could show them that Christians are also honorers of the earth, they might open their eyes to seeing us as humans who care for the earth.

      I am among those uncertain about this approach, particularly when:

      1. Christians are already faulted, often rightly so, for conflating biblical concepts of good works with nationalism and certain political postures. How would adding to or reversing our political polarity help?
      2. The concept of attempting to “show people” that “we’re not really like X” is fraught with flaws. The Christian’s goal is first to glorify God in all things, not to attempt to contradict any possible perception or misperception of us by nonbelievers. In fact, this perspective easily leads to the kinds of squishy fiction “evangelism” that only address made-up “unbelievers,” or else “whitewashed” unbelievers the author has met. They do not seem to take into account that often unbelievers’ “good” reasons for rejecting Christ are a cover for very bad reasons, e.g., “I like sinning more than I like the idea of worshiping a Creator.” Acting otherwise can apply a sentimental sheen to our nasty world.

        For example, I am all for discussing how Christians frequently minimize our role as our planet’s caretakers — or rather, stewards. There is a myth about that God only cares for souls and not things that He has created such as oceans, coral reefs, cliffs, and gila monsters. But I want to repair our faulty thinking about this topic based not on what I believe unbelievers want to hear, or what I believe the scientists are saying, or what a politician says. My motives may be mixed, but theirs are (at best) even more mixed — or else downright corrupt.

        Moreover, I am wary of crafting a response that is first and foremost a response to other people, rather than a proactive obedience to my Savior and His written word. Living life based on an “anti” (whether it is “anti-conservative” or “anti-liberal”) can be dangerous. And it is not helpful in training to live life forever, in a world when there will be no antis but only a forever-glorious pro — the worship of Jesus Christ.

        I do not say that is what I read here; only that this is a tendency among some who say, “Yeah! Christians need to do better at [engaging in X popular social/political issue],” based out of dislike for purported Christians who have purportedly done a horrid job at this before.

        At the same time, many Christians have done badly at many issues, such as combating racist ideas and institutions, so this requires care.

      3. In some sense, shouldn’t most Christian-made stories be above all that anyway? Today’s political issues are fleeting, but they are grounded in timeless questions of humanity and morality. For example, the issue of abortion is a vital one, but I would be far more interested in a story that explores the whys and not the whats of abortion. Science fiction is particularly good at this, when it challenges our temptation to treat human or sentient life with a cavalier pragmatism.

      I enjoyed this piece! Yet these points certainly merit further discussion. Which is why the #StoryEvangelism conversation is going all month and I look forward to the conversation in response to this installment.

      • True, Stephen, when we try to show the world what Christians are “really like” or “not really like” we are still inside our American minds. Yet, although politics is fleeting, we should respond to politics and social situations around us. And unfortunately, we Christian writers are always thinking about pro and anti. Except we do that among ourselves. It would be good if we could be free to write whatever. But we know other Christians will question our work. We are aware of church members and church friends who will ask, “Are you sure this won’t lead people into sin?” “Are you sure you are saved?” So we are affected by the pro-con dichotomy. Even before we put pen to paper. And we often write in a very Pro-Christian doctrine.  All I wish is that Christians be aware of the way we trap our writings and the way we speak to non-Christians. Approaching a non-Christian as someone who needs to be saved from the evils of his sin might work in some evangelical fiction, but I know of few people who have come closer to Christianity because of that type of Christian fiction.

        Re: abortion stories — I keep wishing Christians could write a true abortion story. By this I mean, the world writes abortion stories that in effect question whether all pregnancies are valid. Christians write about abortion mainly as a guilt and murder issue. I would so like someone to write about the male/family/wealth power dynamics in abortion…and not about how abortions are done in the evil world but in Christendom. For instance, Christian family forcing daughter to have an abortion so they will look good. Or the feminist angle, ultra-intelligent College kid forcing his poor girlfriend to have an abortion because he doesn’t want to mess up his life. But the first of these stories would probably not be written by Christians because we want to appear to be a shining city on a hill. The second has not been written yet (as far as I know) because we Christians often fall into the world’s ways of thinking and we don’t show that this abortion issue is about male oppression. That would be making abortion a truly feminist issue. But Christians are so defined by the world that we sometimes can’t see clear enough to refrain larger political issues.

        Same thing for something like eating natural foods. Whenever Christians talk about it, there seems to always be some discussion that we can eat any food because it is blessed and purified by prayer. We get so caught up into the idea of everything being a sin question or a power of God issue or an American issue (we’re the bread-basket of the world and our way of life and eating is the best) or a denominational issue (7th day Adventists versus meat-eaters) that we simply cannot see clear. And if we can’t see clear, we can’t write clear.

      • Here’s my thought, though. These sound like very “contemporary” stories. I come to fantastical stories to escape from the contemporary trappings. I get enough headlines and politics in my nonfiction. That is what I need, yes, and Christians must engage here. But I also need to escape — that is, usually to escape deeper into the whys and wherefores of humanity and our grace-mixed-with-idolatry-mess of a world, and our good/holy God who is still sovereign and using all this to tell His story.

        Which is why stories about natural food-eating and even contemporary power dynamics in abortion sound dreadfully boring to me.

        I like the plot idea of, say, a professing Christian family forcing someone to have an abortion to save face. (This is an act so contrary to faith that an honest story could not show this to be anything but a spiritual disaster.) But this seems to be to be still surface-level. What’s going on beneath the surface, in rebellious and broken humanity, that leads to such nonsense? What lies do we tell ourselves? What would happen if we those natures and those lies were transplanted them to a world unlike our own, so that we can see them more clearly? That’s the role of the fantastic story, and that’s what I seek as a reader, and find in the best stories.

        For example, I recently read an article that touched on a contemporary issue. Despite its encouragement and challenging tone about what Christians need to do better about this issue, it included a mention of someone on the wrong side of this issue, who was behaving in such a way that can only be described as “bratty.” I read this, and I thought about it, and I tried to understand why a grown adult — who holds what can only be described as a secular “ministry” role — would do this.

        Then I thought of C.S. Lewis’s description in Perelandra of Dr. Weston, once a brilliant scientist, who begins to practice mystic arts and ends up giving his body and mind over to be possessed by the Devil. And Lewis’s descriptions of the results, known as the Un-Man, still chill me — including his frank analysis of the creature’s pathetically bratty behavior.

        I wouldn’t have benefited from this if Lewis had not gone deeper — taking contemporary events and personality types and ideas, yes, but also asked what if and compared/contrasted them with eternal truths and beauties.

  3. Lisa says:

    Oh yes, yes, yes and yes. Thank you so much. You have articulated what I so often struggle to express about the kind of stories I wish we as Christians would write more of. You nailed it on the head in that last section for me. I will refer to this post often, I know that already!

    And now….off to check out your work!

  4. Julie D says:

    Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin.

    Amen. It’s like trying to paint a picture in only mustard yellow, but the picture is supposed to be a realistic landscape. Nobody recognizes it; whereas, if the color were used more sparingly, it might be more faithful


    • In one sense, engaging the culture faithfully must be “all about” sin. Otherwise we actually risk being more sentimental and withdrawn from the real world. What are the criticisms of things like Thomas Kinkade paintings based on if not the fact that his potentially sentimental and ridiculous “world” appears not only untainted by sin, but never-was so tainted?

      And yet in another sense, our culture-engagement cannot be “all about” sin when we focus entirely on a shallow and sentimental notion of sin.

      As if “sin is what you do,” rather than first who we are apart from Christ.

      Or “sin is your brokenness,” rather than first our breaking of everything else.

      Or “sin is lack of love,” rather than first our abject hatred of our loving God.

      Or “sin is not caring for others,” rather than first our rejection of God.

      These “seeker-friendly” modes of evangelism, not actual evangelism, are what I see in some shallow Christian fiction. At the same time, the myth persists that Christian fiction is limited to this shallowness. This is not so.

      • Christian fiction is at its most sentimental when it’s about sin. Because our definition of sin is sometimes so ridiculous. Because it is accusatory. Because in many stories removing people from sin often leads people to start attending church and being good. This is what I mean where I say that this notion of sin often leads to legalism and leading people to the tree of knowledge of good and evil instead of leading them to the tree of life.

        In much American fiction, the sinner repents at the end of the book and vows to become a good person. The depiction of God’s love is often contingent on the character’s new behavior.

        Christian fiction is full of sentimental good grandmas who are depicted as righteous people rather than as loved-by-God people. We are saved by God’s grace, not by our righteousness.

        I don’t mind these perfect holy people in stories. But for me the important issue is the freeing of the Christian writer’s mind.

        Writing a book that is based on our idea of what is good behavior doesn’t help us to write freely. And writing a book that will be approved of by our church friends is what has created safe fiction that is only read by Christians.

        • notleia says:

          I find that first paragraph of yours intriguing.

          • Too many Christians and non-Christians believe they have to be good enough to go to heaven. That is a problem. The gospel says righteousness is a gift. People don’t go to heaven to avoid going to hell; they go because they love God and believe that Jesus saved us because God so loved the world.

            I remember a news report — absolutely true story– about a support group for people who had had NDE’s about being in hell. The docs had brought them back and they were afraid to die again because of their hell experience. So they were there supporting each other because other folks wouldn’t understand what they were going through. The funny thing was there were a lot of Christians in that group, folks who kept saying, “I went to church, I believed in Jesus, I was a good person. Why did I go to hell? I was good all my life.”

            That left a deep mark on me — whatever might have happened in the brains of those formerly dead people. There are many “good” people in church who left their evil sinful ways and became “good” so they could get to heaven. They left sin once they were taught what good thing to do, what bad thing to not do. So, the tree of knowledge of good and evil was awakened in them and they understood the law…but did they understand love, the tree of life, and God’s love in saving the unrighteous. Jesus came to call the unrighteous. We are not to stay in sin; we are to live good lives. But we must always focus on the riches of his grace and not on earning salvation by avoiding evil.

            The roman way is: If you will believe on the Lord Jesus in your heart and confess Him with your mouth, you shall be saved.

            John wrote, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whoever might believe in Him would not perish but might have everlasting life.”

            John wrote, “This is love…that God loved us.”

            In my novel, The Constant Tower, I specifically created a rule of laws for that book’s planet (laws no one on that planet really obeyed perfectly, by the way) and then I had their God save them. The God doesn’t overwhelm them with their sins because they already know their sins. He overwhelms them with His love and His righteousness. This is how they begin to see the depth of their sins. Incidentally, the laws I created for that planet were unlike-but-somewhat similar to laws here. Some Christians might be upset that the laws that planet’s creator gave to them were so different from the laws our planet’s creator gave to us. But in the long run, it was not the laws or the dos and don’ts that mattered. I didn’t want to bring the characters to perfection by having them perfectly obey the laws and perfectly do the “good” side of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. I wanted them to come to a the tree of life, the living loving Creator.


    • Thank you so much!

      I’m waiting for a Christian version of Jacques Cousteau or some Christian anthropologist to be on the bestseller list. (Not some person focused on finding Noah’s ark, but ya know.. someone who is totally into cultural anthropology.) It wouldn’t hurt to show that we aren’t solely about finding sin in God’s world.

  5. chrisd says:

    Thank you so much for saying the truth. Generally I do not read Christian fiction for just the reasons you listed.

    • Exactly, Chris!

      So much Christian fiction is like a safe retread.

      As a reader, I want to read a story which makes me feel as if my imagination got baptized in wonder and awe. As a writer, I want to write a story and not know how it’s going to end and be utterly amazed that Holy Spirit and creativity has combined to write something I could never ever write if I hadn’t braved my cultural and personal demons, safe-zones, and tropes.

      • “As a reader, I want to read a story which makes me feel as if my imagination got baptized in wonder and awe.”  I love that!  I’m going to quote you on my writer page, if that’s okay. 🙂

  6. Paul Lee says:

    I think Christian fiction could improve by being more cosmology based. And not the usual cosmology of angels but about some personal dear truth that touches the writer’s unique soul.

    This. My experience of American evangelical Christianity is that people are very afraid of pursuing truth and conviction to the cosmological level. Most people ignore me when I start saying things like Truth is God and God is Truth (which is a parenthetical statement in the Westminster Confession), and meaning flows down from God, and Jesus is the source of the river of infinite meaning. Suggesting that some people in non-Christian religions might potentially be saved by Jesus got me rebuked heatedly. Maybe I deserved the rebuke; I don’t know. But I do know that many evangelicals seem to be afraid of thinking very deeply about Christian spirituality. I’m dying inside because I can’t help wondering about God’s truth in broad and fuzzy ways all the time constantly.

    If the exclusivity of salvation through explicit knowledge of the Gospel story here on earth is an evangelical truth that needs to be guarded against heretics like me, maybe I can learn to live with that particular fence. But all these doctrinal fences get locked down on arbitrary practical things, like specifically how to tell everyone about Jesus in so many steps.

    We Christians have the greatest cosmology that has ever been proposed in any belief system. Too bad we’re often afraid of it.

    • Exactly! Some of the stuff we consider mere doctrinal fodder hint at some weird worldbuilding on God’s part.

      But everything exposed by the light becomes visible–and everything that is illuminated becomes a light. Eph 5:13


      In Him we live and move and have our being


      The rocks would cry out if the Judeans withheld their praise.


      The sun rules the day and the moon rules the night.

      We Christians have to learn to go deeper into the worldview we were given. And by worldview, I mean the wonderful strange cosmology being hinted at in the universe.

      When Jesus declares, “If I have told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe when I tell you heavenly things?” I just have to sit still and be amazed.

  7. notleia says:

    For what it’s worth, I like you, Carole, and your taste in George MacDonald, though I think I know that story under the name Photogen and Nycteris.

    I’ve seen other commentary on the emphatically, almost myopic, focus on individualism in (esp. American) Protestantism, probably from the Slacktivist. We focus so much on the individual that we don’t think about systemic things like social justice or how things work beyond our tribal bubble.

    • Very true. Yes, Photogen and Nycteris. I remember their names but I didn’t know the book was also sold under that title.

      American doctrine theology is VERY American in many ways that we Americans don’t realize. I remember a book about Calvinism and how obsessed Americans are with it and how peculiar it is to our own Christianity to have American folks identify Christianity with Calvinism to such an extreme degree (that if you’re not Calvinist in certain ways you aren’t really a Christian.) Before that, it hadn’t occurred to me that the emphases on certain doctrines could be so regional and tribal.

      And yes, the individual is so important to American Christian tradition. And after that, the nation. Salvation of the person, then salvation of the United States…which many Christians really feel is God’s country and God’s country alone. As if Christianity and American history are synonymous and Christianity would end if the United States of America fell. It just makes me cringe sometimes at how parochial and self-satisfied, denomination-satisfied, and race-satisfied we American Christians can be.

      • Interesting thoughts, Carole. I admit that as a Canadian believer with VERY different experiences from my US brothers and sisters, I find a lot of the assumptions and priorities in American evangelical Protestantism (the emphasis on Calvinism especially) to be bewildering and even disturbing at times. The conflation of a staunchly stated belief in the Bible with belief in certain extra-biblical political, social and economic (and more relevant to our topic here, artistic) ideas can be very strange at times, and I think an unnecessary stumbling block to new disciples as well.

        • Exactly! Is it necessary to indoctrinate new Christians into all the denomination’s beliefs? Must all Christians who trust Jesus for their salvation believe in predestination or other flaky facets of Calvinism or even in certain political and social tenets?

          We should bring people to God and say, “This is your Creator who loves you and who is very righteous. Befriend and love Him. Read your Bible and follow it. His holy spirit is within you and will guide you into understanding it. You have no need for anyone to teach you because the teacher resides within you but you should go to a church that believes in the Bible because we are all travelers from another spiritual country and we need each other to remind us of how different this earthly world is from the heavenly world. And we need to bless and be blessed by each other. You can go to my church if you wish or you can search around for a church where you feel God wants you to be. There are many denominations in the world. Just don’t go to a church that is a cult or that denies the Bible. God will lead you.”

          Nothing else is necessary. God will show them their sins as He works on them.

        • RJ, I was thinking my experiences here IN the US are quite different, too. 😉


        • I’m with Rebecca. My experience has also been very different from what has occasionally been described in this excellent discussion.

          I certainly affirm that many Christians conflate politics with Gospel.

          But I also affirm that many critics of Christianity have much to gain from claiming this is what most/all Christians do. Many such critics have a competing religious morality to promote, and/or their own invalid perceptions or experiences to fight against. And Christians are not good at discerning between truth and their critics’ propaganda.

          Moreover, however disagreeable ideas labeled “Calvinism” may be, “flakey” is not a good descriptor. Reformed teaching is a prestigious line of work, with a long and glorious tradition (in church history). 🙂

          I do not know anyone who thinks a “non-Calvinist” is a non-Christian. I am sure they exist. Yet I am equally sure there exist non-“Calvinists” who believe the false notion that God cannot know the future in advance (open theism) or who believe that God has a separate plan of redemption for non-Christian Jews (extreme dispensationalism). I think that in any case it’s unfair to conflate the label with the extremes.

          But that’s another discussion, and a discussion that is more rooted in the broader issues of how one reads the Bible and how one views the centrality of the Christ’s atoning work to the Gospel. I would rather point out that I would agree with Carole’s description of an evangelistic message if it included, say, 80 percent about who Jesus is and what He did, and then 20 percent what the person must do in response. Though a God-honoring Christian story may not reflect all this message about Christ’s person and work, this is an absolutely essential ingredient to personal evangelism. Otherwise you may be doing good work — such as improving society or helping people — but you are not evangelizing.

  8. The Day Boy and the Night Girl is one of my favorites, too. I encountered it first in an anthology called The Golden Key and Other Stories along with other MacDonald fairy tales like “Little Daylight”, “The Light Princess”, and of course, “The Golden Key”. It was published as part of a four-volume set along with the two Curdie books and The Lost Princess, another MacDonald classic. There is so much beautiful spiritual truth in those stories, both subtle and overt. But I really wonder if any of those books would pass the test of what is commonly viewed as “Christian fiction” today.

  9. I really enjoyed this post, Carole.  There were a lot of thought gems here.  particularly liked what you had to say about telling our own stories rather than what we think fellow Christians want us to write – and also the myopia of American Christianity, which is something I’ve thought about too (and I I’m speaking as a Calvinist here).  I’ve even see people question whether Christians martyred by ISIS are “really Christians” because they don’t believe all the same things doctrinally as we do.  Sigh.  Ultimately it’s just an excuse to feel apathy, in that case.  (And I know this because I am by NO means innocent of such thinking myself!  Double sigh.)  Sometimes we are so reactionary to other Christians’ experiences…especially if they use the words “I felt”…because we tend to emphasize the use of the brain and book-knowledge of doctrine, rather than heart- and spirit-knowledge of God’s Spirit within us.  He IS a Spirit after all, dwelling in our hearts.  “Feelings” are part of how He works.  But I think as Calvinists (particularly in the Reformed traditions where I am) there is a kind of reactionary “uh oh” when feelings are spoken about, because feelings don’t necessarily equal reality.  And it’s true, feelings can be inaccurate.  Feelings can be sin.  But we have to acknowledge that God works in our hearts too, not just through our heads.

    I shared this post in my Simmer Starters, linked with the CommentLuv.  Thanks for a good, thought-provoking read!

    • Yes. The Christian heart is very deceitful at times. I’ve often found myself thinking things I shouldn’t, or trying to find a way not to love. This is because the tree of knowledge of good and evil is still within us and we are very legalistic. Even though we are under love, we still live with “standards” that make us feel “more righteous” than others. Or standards that give us a right to judge or not love another. Whether it’s race, denomination, church clothing, church songs, books we don’t read, movies we don’t see, spiritual stuff we think we know and others don’t know, we are still not quite free from legalism. We may not say some other Christian has “sinned” but we can say that we are somehow better and we can see the speck in their eyes because they aren’t up to snuff in some way.

      I’m not a Calvinist. I just don’t believe that Jesus is present in the eucharist. And after reading about Calvin’s life I tend to think he was a petty vicious mean-spirited vindictive person. I just can’t take anything he says seriously. To me Calvinism stands against Jesus who said we should preach to everyone and against Paul who said God wants everyone to be saved. But in the US, Calvinism and the doctrine of total depravity seems to be considered necessary to personal salvation.

      But I am able to separate my need to write evangelically from my need to support or pull-down Calvinism. A lot of Christian writers feel that unless a piece of fiction shows some pet belief or denominational belief then they haven’t evangelized. Life is short, we are humans. It’s best to check some of our isms –Arian or Calvin– before we force them into a story.

  10. “Christians are just not good at engaging the popular culture without making it be all about sin. ”

    I had to chew on this for awhile. My legalistic side screams and claws against the side that fights for grace. I know you are correct; the woman at the well went after Jesus for legalistic reasons (Jew/Samaritan, man/woman) and He answered her with grace. He didn’t bring down the law upon her, but graciously approached her from where she needed to hear His words.

    This entire series has been an eye opener for me, in a fantastic way. Thank you for your stellar article, Carole.

What do you think?