Christian fiction is dead. Long live Christian fiction?
In the last months I’ve heard rumbles of doom about the fate of inspirational or Christian fiction, e.g. novels from Christian publishers, just keep getting louder.
Agent blogs, such as this one, hint at big industry-wide changes starting this year, as evangelical publishers will apparently reduce their fiction offerings.
Christian authors, such as Robert Treskillard and Anne Elisabeth Stengl, who had formerly been published through larger evangelical publishers, both announced last month they are pursuing other opportunities. (Stengl said this is because her books have not sold well.)
What’s causing this shakeup? I’ve read a few theories:
- Christian fiction has a lingering reputation (undeserved) for being uniformly bad.
- Christian bookstores and physical bookstores altogether have a dwindling audience, or perception of such. (One bookstore chain fell into bankruptcy but was rescued in 2015. EDIT: Just one week after this article was originally published, the same retailer, Family Christian Stores, announced Feb. 23 that it would close all of its stores.)
- Younger Christians aren’t shopping at Christian bookstores, or for “Christian” things in general, for various reasons—including the above, and for other lifestyle choices.
For my part, I used to purchase books enthusiastically at Christian bookstores. I stopped when I got older, for the same reasons I prefer streaming services over cable television: I like to go directly to the stories I want, while skipping other stories or ads for other things.
But I’m a fan who believes Christians do need their own fiction. We need distinct companies and labels and systems and everything. Apart from faith-based reasons, Christians are a people group, too. And people groups will inevitably develop their own subcultures, just like any other semi-organized fandom. In fact, if we believe in the Church doing the Great Commission, we must accept that we’ll have some kind of culture by gathering together in local churches to learn the Gospel, fellowship, and help one another practice evangelism.
Others have other reasons for avoiding “Christian fiction.” Let’s talk about those elsewhere.
Here, I want to imagine life after the death of today’s Christian fiction. After all, Christians believe in the ultimate death-and-resurrection Story. We believe this so much we repent of our sins, die to ourselves, and receive new life in Jesus. Sometimes we’re even called “born-again Christians.” So what can we do to help Christian fiction become born again?
I’m speaking partly to the next generation of Christian publishers here. But mostly the fans.
1. Figure out what fiction is even meant to do, starting with Scripture.
Recently a biblical pastor Facebook-ranted against another Christian’s article that, in part, reviewed a popular (yet sexually explicit) TV series. I sympathized with his criticism. But I happened to know this pastor has not publicly considered or taught about what fiction is meant to do in the first place. So arguably he had no standing to say of another Christian, “That’s not how you should engage with a story.” At least the other Christian was trying.
The same is true of Christians who criticize existing Christian fiction using arguments that may sound spiritual or even artistically superior, but aren’t ultimately based on the Bible.
If you sally forth to declare that the best Christian stories must first “reach people better,” or even merely be “artistically excellent,” without appealing to biblical texts about Jesus’s Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20, the “reach people” part) or God’s earlier Cultural Mandate (Gen. 1:28, the “artistic excellence” part), it’s not very effective!
2. Find fans who have similar biblical conviction and imagination.
Websites such as Speculative Faith can be awesome. But their outreach is limited, first in focus (we’re about fans of fantastical stories) and then in physicality. We are not members of your local church, or workplace Bible study, or campus group, or circle of live friends.
So spread out to reality. Start by keeping up with Realm Makers. This five-year-old real, live, working creative conference is currently the leading chance to build an organic and excited Biblical Christian-based community, which will help with the fantastical side of any pending Christian-fiction rebirth. Consider going to the Reno, Nevada conference this July.
Meanwhile, start a church story group. Help remind people who have biblical conviction and who like imaginative stories, “This is okay to enjoy for God’s glory. Let’s do it together.”
3. Stride forth with winsomeness, a confident voice, and ‘swashbuckling.’
Sometimes Christian fantasy fans’ articles and remarks can betray uncertainty about our “geekiness” or position in Christianity. That is inevitable in some cases. But as we study these issues, overthrow old unbiblical notions, and find godly friends, it will become easier to grow in confidence even while striving for appropriate biblical humility in these pursuits.
Don’t whine about bad Christian fiction or the death of its genres. Instead, swashbuckle. Doff a feathered cap, retrieve a rapier, and “fight” for this cause while laughing and dancing.
4. Encourage bravery about certain words and topics.
Good Christian fiction can include swear words. There, I said it. If Christians disagree, they are likely either being inconsistent, or ineffective evangelists: inconsistent, because they do not also avoid non-Christian people who voice vulgarities; or ineffective (perhaps even sinfully so) evangelists, because they do avoid these people and therefore cannot show by their actions that Jesus came to preach repentance in an R-rated world, not a G-rated world.
Of course, speech codes are not the only wrong restriction on Christian fiction. Theme codes also do this by limiting the doctrinal span and scope of most novels (more below).
5. However, do nothing for outrage’s own sake—that is the dark side.
There is no surer way to keep other Christians’ bad-words-bans firmly in place, at least in the back of people’s minds, than whining in youthful outrage about the problem.
Many complaints about Christian fiction’s lack of “bad words” are simply immature. They ask the wrong question, Why can’t we do this? instead of challenging the bad-words rules based on the more biblical challenge: According to the Bible, this is why we should do this.
6. Budget each month to buy great Christian novels you’ve heard about.
Last year my wife and I budgeted $10 a month solely for book purchases. We still did not buy nearly enough books. But it’s a start. We are building on it this year. And it’s needed so we can resist that ever-creeping assumption that great stories ought to be cheap, easily accessible, or else perennially free as part of an Eternal Kindle E-Book “Promotion.”
Also, read more than you write. Yes, I’m also writing that Great American-Flavor Christian Novel that will “fix” this whole problem straight away. Guess what? Nobody cares. O author, die to self a little bit. Go out and “evangelize” for someone else’s published fantastical story.
7. Don’t ‘ban’ any genres: romance, fantasy, mystery, literary, popular.
In my personality and circles of friends, it’s easy to diss romance and other genres we feel take over fiction and Christian fiction in particular. Let’s not do that. All these stories reflect God-given human creativity. We may prefer fantastical stories, and want to see Christian-made ones grow among readers. But we should want all genres to be improved by any future reboot, or rebirth, of Christian fiction. I myself have heard of a few “literary” novels by Christians that I need to try. Such stories can only help challenge other genres to grow.
8. This is ‘Christian fiction,’ so let’s see more than generic Christianity.
Finally, for now, I sometimes have to laugh at the label “Christian fiction” because I do not recognize its faith as little more than Elseworld Christianity. In some (not all) novels—and this includes some fantastical novels—Christians are “local color” side characters who assist weak seeker-friendly non-Christian heroes. Or they are members of a single, vaguely megachurch-ey denomination(?) specifically dumbed-down as if to placate members of any other denomination who pick up the novel. Thus, these characters don’t seem real. Because in real life you have denominations, and sometimes Christians even get into fights.
This would also solve the narrowed-theme problem. If a Christian novel limps along, afraid to portray any specific flavor of Christianity, it can’t fully explore many potential themes.
Perhaps my all-time favorite popular Christian novel, Frank Peretti’s The Visitation, easily surpassed this issue. Peretti not only showed denominations but specifically made his hero a charismatic Pentecostal. It opened his story to themes such as healing, false messiahs, and the very real challenges of following Jesus in a world drawn to celebrities and “miracles.”
Go ye therefore
Christian publishers can’t resurrect Christian fiction. They’re businesses. If they end imprints, or publish fewer novels, that’s not because they want to. It’s because their audience “wants” them to. So show them differently. Write letters if you need to. Publish comments to their Facebook pages. Know what fiction does. Find others. Swashbuckle. Challenge when appropriate. Don’t be outraged. Buy stories. Of all kinds. And go deeper.
Christians, of all people, ought to love seeing dead things come back to life. So let’s pray and gather and work and anticipate the birth of the next generation of Christian fiction.