Enough To Tell (Love Thy Readers, Part 4)

As Christian novelists, do we have a responsibility to share the gospel through fiction? Discussion on this topic may not exactly rage amongst Christian writers, but it certainly stirs things up. Our culture has an inherent problem with didactic, “preachy” […]
on Nov 17, 2010 · No comments

As Christian novelists, do we have a responsibility to share the gospel through fiction?

Discussion on this topic may not exactly rage amongst Christian writers, but it certainly stirs things up. Our culture has an inherent problem with didactic, “preachy” writing. As writers, our job is to tell good stories, and we recognize that forcing a “salvation message” into a story often makes it bad. Besides, can’t our jobs be seen as analogous to, say, plumbing? We don’t demand that Christian plumbers etch John 3:16 into their clients’ water pipes. Some of us want our writing to be recognized as art, like a good painting or a sculpture. We wouldn’t demand that every painting or sculpture depict Christ now, would we?

Others counter that writing is a form of communication, that writing IS message. So as Christians, what other message would we spread?

Then there is the issue of being, not just of doing. Writing is closely linked to who we are on the inside. If I am a child of God, an ambassador of Christ, as Paul said, the message ought to flow out of me naturally. “Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ’s stead, be ye reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).

I do not have an answer to these questions.

Growing up, I found that most depictions of God and faith in books struck me as shallow. If anything, they turned me away from the desire to be reconciled to God, not toward it. (There were exceptions, most of them “speculative” — Pilgrim’s Progress, Aslan.) So when I became a writer, I shied away from depicting God except in allegory. I was — and perhaps still am — afraid of doing the Almighty One the great injustice of writing Him tritely. I told myself I was just going to keep honing my skills until someday, finally, I could write about God and the gospel and have it be real.

I do know, however, that the principle of “love thy reader” has challenged me. If I love my readers, I’ll want to entertain them, to provide them healthy escape, to give them high ideals. But all that pales in comparison with the desire to move their hearts toward their Creator, and to say, with the clarity of a sounding trumpet, “Be reconciled to God.”

Writing is message. It is not plumbing, it is not even painting. It is art, yes, but it is art that says something clearly. I want it to say “be reconciled.” I am not entirely certain how to say that best. I still fear triteness. I still fear making God  look like a bad plot device.

To love my readers enough to tell them what they most need to hear, I must write with vulnerability and honesty. My writing should adorn the gospel. It should make it interesting, beautiful, new, old, authentic — love doesn’t do cliches. I am sure that in order to love my readers and spread the evangel clearly, I must write out of who I am and who God is.

We cannot, and should not, all do this the same way. We are a many-parted body for a reason. All our efforts work together. To plead, to call, to invite, to say “Oh, be reconciled to God.”

Would you share your thoughts? How does “love thy reader” impact the way you write and the message you choose to convey?

E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Wonderful post, Rachel. I also want all my readers to be reconciled to God. But I’m in the “we don’t expect plumbers to etch scripture in the pipes” camp.

    I think different writing jobs demand different things. I published one short story in a children’s magazine and there was no gospel in it. It was for five-year-olds and it was about the sun staying up all night in Alaska and how it felt unfair to little boys when they had to go to bed earlier than everyone else. I was communicating something that, I hope, was worthwhile for children to read. But it sure wasn’t gospel truth.

    I think we have to love our editors as well as our readers, and we have to write well and to the expectations of the editor who hires us. I also think that our lives are not to be compartmentalized but that all things, for the Christian, are viewed through a scriptural lens. And yet there are many things we read that have no gospel message. When the reader owns the gospel, he brings the gospel to every book. And when he doesn’t own the gospel, he may not see the gospel in any book. It all depends on whether God is opening his eyes or not.

    My goal in my books is not to preach the gospel. My goal is to lift my reader (if I ever manage to find readers, that is) from one place to another. That might mean a Christian girl reads the books and she might get my gospel pictures. She might see more clearly how much God loves her. While a biblically illiterate girl might read the books and not be able to see anything but the surface story. She might end the book thinking she’d like to have a boyfriend who treats her well. Either way, is fine with me. I can’t know where every reader is. All I can do is try to paint something that will make the reader long for lofty things. Then I have to let the book meet each girl where she’s standing and hope that the book will encourage her. I want to leave her standing on a higher plane than she was on when she opened the book.

    That’s my goal. If I ever get published, I’ll let you know how it all works out.

    • Thanks for the in-depth comment, Sally! I definitely do not have definitive answers in this whole area, and I appreciate your input. The story for 5-year-olds makes a really good point. Should we share the gospel as writers? Yup. Should we ONLY share the gospel? Well, sometimes that would get ridiculous.

      One thing I do believe (and your comment reminded me of this) is that as writers/artists, we create a body of work that may say something together that the separate pieces don’t say by themselves. My fantasy novels do not give the gospel message, although they have strong allegorical elements. But a reader who likes them enough to check out my website will find articles that DO give the gospel clearly. I’ve given interviews to secular media about my fantasy books where the interviewer ended up asking questions about my Christian faith because of a “tract” I wrote and posted to my site.

  2. There’s a wise saying, sometimes ascribed to Francis of Assisi, that’s something like “Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary.” While an author must of course use words, we need not be explicit. (Like how the book of Esther is Scripture without explicitly mentioning God once.) And I tend to agree with the Puritans, who had an idea of “the gospel” that included nearly any area of theology. But in any case, I think that as ambassadors of Christ our message ought to be “whatever is necessary for building others up,” but not necessarily “be ye reconciled to God” all the time. (For example, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe presents the gospel even for a rather narrow definition of “gospel,” but The Silver Chair or The Horse and His Boy less so.) After all, our audience ideally includes Christians as well, and the simplest, earliest parts of the gospel are no longer “what is necessary” for their edification.

  3. It seems the answer to preaching the Gospel in our writing includes the “whole body of work” that Rachel mentioned above. After all, can we say that the Psalms include the whole Gospel, start to finish? No, but God, as the Bible’s “artist,” wasn’t done yet, was He? And the Psalms ended up including so many references to the Gospel and Christ.

    “Preach the Gospel. Use words if necessary.” I’ve heard that all my life, and can agree and disagree. Some wag, I think on Twitter, correctly noted that this is like saying “can I have your telephone number? Use digits if necessary.” Yes, the Gospel involves words, and God obviously thought so too. The only qualification here is that God did take a while to reveal all of what He was doing to save His people, over thousands of years. That was His “whole body of work.”

    Such a fascinating topic. I look forward to more discussion tomorrow — after all, some Christians have been overcorrecting for a long time between too much and too little overt Gospel presentation, going from one extreme to the other.

    • I agree that “use words if necessary” is of limited value. The gospel is not just a lifestyle; it’s a message. That’s why we’re to go into all the world and “preach” the gospel to every creature (Mark 16:15), and to “teach” them as Matthew 28:19 puts it. Paul asks how anyone can believe if no one preaches to them: “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:13-17). Moreover, the message of the gospel isn’t just “God loves you” or “have fuzzy feelings as I do something nice for you or point you in the direction of beauty.” It’s a very explicit message.

      The question for me isn’t so much “Do I have to preach the gospel?” but “If I honestly love my readers, how can I NOT preach the gospel?” That doesn’t necessarily mean preaching it all the time, or in every single piece of writing. But I would be sorry if, in all my writing, readers couldn’t find the explicit message of reconciliation through Christ at least once.

  4. I think our lives will seep into our writing. And if our own relationship with God is only lukewarm, he will show up in our work as lukewarm. We can only write about what is real to us. I’ll say the trials I have gone through the last few years of my life have opened my eyes to how powerful the gospel is, how amazing our God is, and how much we have been saved from and saved for. And that seeps into my writing now.

    On that note, when I review a Christian book, one thing I look at is the Spiritual Factor. My definition of this is what about the book brings the reader into a more deeper understanding of God? And does the author accomplish this?

    Sometimes writing overtly will actually turn people away because it does not come across as authentic. And sometimes writing covertly (using symbolism, theme, and allegory) brings a person closer to God when they understand the hidden meaning (however, if its too hidden, no one will see it). I don’t think we can just write about morally good people, cross our fingers and hope our reader finds something in our book. I believe there needs to be some purpose to our writing.

  5. Great discussion. In combination with Marc Schooley’s post today, I’d say we can’t put into our stories what we ourselves do not believe. And if we learn of God, His depth will provide more than enough substance for us to communicate with our readers. Some will see it all, some a little, and some possibly none at all.

    The mistake, I think, that Christian writers can fall into (I know this from personal experience) is spelling out what we’re trying to say. If we need to spell out our point we are either not incorporating the theme well, not trusting our readers, or not trusting God to enlighten the hearts of those He wishes to enlighten through our story. It’s hard for writers who get to control where characters go, what they do, what they think, and what they say not to wish to control how our readers read what we’ve written. But not doing so may be the greatest act of love we can offer them.


  6. Morgan and Becky, thanks! I think you’re both doing a good job of diagnosing some root causes of what I called “triteness” — a treatment of God and the gospel in Christian fiction that almost scared me off trying to write about my faith in any overt way at all.

  7. Rachel, I know what you mean by “triteness”. How can we convey God in our own limited means? He is so much bigger, so much more than we can understand. How can I surpass what he already wrote about himself in the bestselling book ever (aka the Bible)? Portraying God, especially in a made-up world can be very difficult.

What do you think?