How To Fix Christian Fiction: More Christianity

Christian fiction really can be terrible, and there’s only one cure: more Christianity.
on Jan 26, 2017 · 16 comments

Christian literary agent Chip MacGregor loves Christian fiction, but thinks these genres are dying. Or rather, these genres are transitioning to something new: “a handful of houses” that sell “clean” and “values”-based stories such as romance and end-times thrillers.1

Some people would effectively say it’s about time, because we don’t need more Christian fiction, we need more Christians writing fiction.2

Others, myself included, would like to reclaim and redeem the “Christian fiction” label.

Christian fiction could be rebornBut I also wouldn’t mind seeing the current “Christian fiction” industry die and be reborn.

Already I’m sure skeptical readers are roused.

How would rebirth help? Won’t the same problems just come back all over again?

Even if we fantasy fans stage some revolution, won’t we just have badly written fantasy that ignores the real world, and that refuses to show real people cussing and killing and whatnot?

Isn’t the problem with Christian fiction, well, because it’s too Christian in the first place?

Not so.

All complaints about Christian fiction are because the fiction isn’t Christian enough.

I started to write “most,” then settled on “all.” Because I think this is true without exception.

Why? Consider: if a Christian story shows only sentimentalized or “clean” reality, that is not a problem of being “too Christian.” The story’s issue is that it is not Christian enough. Real Christianity deals with our non-sentimental reality in which God is the infinite supreme Center of the universe, and all spiritually dead humans must reckon with this fact.

If a story is poorly made, implicitly deceiving readers that “this is what reality is or ought to be,” the problem isn’t too much Christianity. The problem is that it’s not Christian enough.

If fiction emphasizes “values,” as if morality is gospel truth, that’s not Christian enough.

Christians are called to truth, including the truth that people often swear. If we don’t like that reality, or never want to see hints of it in our stories ever, that’s not very Christian. I see much pushback  against this legalism (though most of it seems based on the question-begging objection why can’t we? rather than why should we?). But the notion is still around. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas recently noted of an Oscar-nominated film:

After counting more than a dozen uses of the f-word in the first 15 minutes [of a movie], I ejected it from my DVD player. Screenwriters actually think average people talk like this.3

This is naïve. If you spend any time with average Christians or conservatives, of course they don’t talk like this. If you hang with average non-Christian people, to say nothing of most screenwriters, they almost assuredly do. Ignoring this truth is not very Christian.

Truth: Reality is messy and beautiful and ugly. People can feed the hungry and love their children on their way to Hell, while professing Christians may be hateful or racist.

This truth is a Christian truth. Stories that deny this truth aren’t very Christian.

Truth: Our excellent God ought to inspire us to enjoy and make excellent stories.

This truth is also a Christian truth. Stories that deny this truth aren’t very Christian.

Another truth is that if society really keeps going with this whole “men and women are interchangeable” notion, you could logically get a sex dystopia. Christian publishers and secular publishers would avoid such a novel, not because it’s “not Christian enough,” but because it’s too Christian. And at present, both sets of readers—secular or mainstream evangelical—don’t want to explore those Christian ideas because they’re too scary.

Many of the most lackluster Christian stories I’ve seen or read don’t really seem to want the Christian fiction label either.

They don’t star strong Christian characters. They star secular or backslidden characters.

They don’t offer strong Christian readers a “simulation” of people and realities. They feign to teach nonbelievers, or else backslidden Christians, how to recover faith basics.4

Of course, these stories are still meant only for Christians. We just like to pretend the story is made to evangelize, because we think this is the highest purpose of a supportable story.

A deeply Christian story would not make such a pretense.

Deeply Christian stories would own our depths, own the cultures, and even own the abject anime-level strangeness of worshiping a miracle-working carpenter who died long ago.

So if lesser-Christian stories are dying, good. Let the straw burn away.5

In the ashes, we may find a glorious, blazing creature that may take us to far better stories.

But you don’t fix Christian fiction by eliminating it entirely, or basing the stories around non-Christian figures, or making it more “secular,” or sticking with basic Christian themes.

You can only fix Christian fiction by making it more Christian.

  1. Chip MacGregor, Publishing Predictions: What Will Happen in 2017? January 13, 2017.
  2. I disagree, because Christians can do both for God’s glory, and Christians need subcultures to thrive while we engage the world.
  3. Cal Thomas, Tarnished Gold, January 10, 2017.
  4. This role seems to be transferring to contemporary Christian movies now than books.
  5. 1 Cor. 3:10-15.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of 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. Steve Taylor says:

    I’m in agreement. Mostly. When a book is subtitled as “clean” fiction is ignore it. I’m not looking for clean I’m looking for truth. Steven James’ Patrick Bowers series is a great example of Christian fiction that is far from clean, so much so it’s disturbing. Yet there is no sex scenes or foul language. It can be done and his series is proof. While I would like a stronger message it does the story off and on. The message should be woven into the story, not just added to make it “Christian”. That’s where good story telling and writing comes in. And that’s why I’m not a writer.

  2. Alexander Preston says:

    One thought on the topic of profanity. As Steve already pointed out, it is possible to deal with the reality of swearing without including the profane words themselves. I find the “realism” argument to be a largely spurious one – the current level of profanity in popular entertainment (both visual and literary) far exceeds what is actually used by the general public (even the non-Christian one) in everyday speech. Many Hollywood directors knowingly use it at the EXPENSE of realism. One particularly egregious example was Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, where the F-word of was used repeatedly and constantly for film set in a period of history where that particularly word was virtually unknown (something that can be readily verified from a simple check of the historical record). I also remember not being able to make it through Tom Clancy’s “Sum of All Fears” because the constant swearing (with the F-word on virtually every page) was just so completely and utterly over the top. Having worked at an office job for the past three and a half years, I honestly could not imagine any kind of professional environment where that kind of vocabulary would be tolerated (unless our political class is exempt from the same conduct codes they’ve legally mandated for much of the civilian workforce).

    In short, I not only object to profanity on the familiar moral-spiritual grounds, but I find it aesthetically ugly. In no case where I’ve seen it has there been anything added to the narrative as a result. In fact, it debases the narrative by its presence and usually indicates lazy storytelling. It’s like painting a picture and then consciously spattering it with manure. If the writer is looking to add some sort of “power” to the situations portrayed, it’s quite easy to use sentences like “he erupted in a torrent of obscenities” or “he cursed silently under his breath” or even “he looked him straight the eye – his final word a defiant curse.” This is the approach I follow in my own writing – my next novel will even feature a character for whom constant profanity is the outstanding feature of his personality (along with malignant narcissism). I have seen clear evidence that both the Christian and secular reading public has a significant unmet demand for books of this type – contemporary authors, in my view, are doing their readers a great disservice by mindlessly continuing current writing trends rather than doing something to change them.

    • I agree that the obsession over vulgarity and blasphemy is just as unrealistic as a refusal to allow even the faintest hint of bad language.

      Either view seems to sentimentalize reality.

      I recall astronaut Jim Lovell also insisting that he and his fellow astronauts never swore like their film adaptation characters (Tom Hanks, Bill Paxton, and Kevin Bacon) in Apollo 13.

    • notleia says:

      On the other hand, there was one scene in some cop drama (looked it up: The Wire) where all the dialog was variations on the F-bomb. All the comments I saw online were along the line of “it’s funny ’cause it’s true.” Granted, I don’t know any cops to verify this.
      Linky full of f-bombs:

    • Jo M says:

      Basically, the more profanity that is used, the less impact it has. Soon, it becomes a meaningless, ugly weed word in a lot of books and movies today.

      But it can be used effectively in the right place and only very sparingly. For instance, the best use of the F-bomb I’ve ever seen on television is in the climax of Broadchurch season 1:

      The word is never used up until a moment of extreme emotional shock and outrage. In that moment, it seems like the only word one *can* say in response to what that charicter has just been told. And in that moment, the word hangs in the air like a monstrous physical presence, reflecting the emotional state of the speaker.

      This is only possible becuase the show doesn’t callous the viewer to its use before.

      (If you haven’t seen Broadchurch, I highly recommend it. It’s a brilliant show with brilliant writing – and I’m not just saying that becuase it’s got David Tennant, although that was why I started watching it to begin with. 😀 )

      • Alex Mellen says:

        I agree with you, Jo. Too much of anything becomes irritating. But occasionally, profanity is the only thing that can be said. I would like the freedom to include it occasionally in my writing, though I’m hoping I can get better at writing around it in a way that doesn’t distract a reader.

        And I disagree with you, Alexander. Lincoln only includes the F-word once (, and the s-word a handful of times. Also, the desk job I’ve worked at for the past two years features an r-rated amount of crude language on a daily basis. Some days it’s all I can do not to spit some back out, but other days I’m thankful I’ve developed more of a immunity to hearing it all the time.

  3. Terry Palmer says:

    The sour curl of her lip and her down and away look from me gave away her answer before she spoke. Even then she shook her head in disgust, not wanting to look me in the eye. You see… As a Christian writer, I had dared to ask my Christian cousin what she thought of Christian fiction. “Christian fiction today isn’t worth…” Her voice trailed off.
    I smiled as her answer reflected similar answers from other cousins and friends. We had an entire church library of ‘Christian’ books, some from long ago, and some current issues. None were checked out. Our youth weren’t seen near the library corner, even though it was well lit, with signage showing new labels and authors.
    No, indeed, the older kids chatted away at the lower level, huddled around their cell phones, anxious not to miss the latest bit of social media. You see, for many of them, especially those not grounded in the word, social media was way too much of a lure to them, no longer just a means to keep in touch. No way, for these kids, social media was and is a very real god, way more relevant than what they saw or heard in church.

    As a Christian writer, the scene stabbed me hard. I had two series in the works, full of action/adventure, with older teen, Y/A in mind, with very ‘real’ scenes and characters, but discouragement and lack of funds have kept these from market – and still do. I think my situation reflects other Christian writers as well. Discouragement and lack of funds might be keeping some good stories away from these kids – and lets the gods of this world take first place.

    To me, that is the real issue, not having good Christian writing ‘in the works’, but the enemy of darkness doesn’t want these to be read by anyone else but a few beta readers and that’s about it…
    Author Terry Palmer

  4. Tony Breeden says:

    This reminds me of a quote from GK Chesterton:

    “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried.”

    I think that quote applies equally to Christian fiction.

  5. Paul Lee says:

    I’d like more Christianity in great stories — both literally more Christian references and content, and in the sense of really showing the legacy of incarnate truth, confessed, believed, and transforming the world across great depths of time and through many ambiguities and conflicts. For that matter, Christianity often doesn’t contain nearly enough Christianity, not in the sense of the compelling legacy.

  6. CaveatTies says:

    I think the crux of a lot of issues I have with both Christian and secular art, is how does one illustrate ugly realities without glorifying them?

    • That is indeed difficult. For my part, I’m okay with stories that contain “bad words.” But I would not want to force them on someone not prepared for them, or who cannot be exposed to that story without violating his/her actual conscience and being tempted to sin (note: I do not mean simply “being offended,” which is different).

  7. Eleanor Watkins says:

    I agree with much of this article. We, as Christians and writers, need to address life as it is, not some ‘clean; sanitised version that takes care not to offend. Maybe it would do us good to be offended.
    In my last novel ‘To Everything a Time’, I sought to portray life as it is in the experience of an ordinary Christian woman. I did not use profanity on every other page. But I did include within the 100,000 words of text, about 6 or 7 words that would be considered swearing, in the UK sense. (I’ve discovered that swear words in the US are not always the same as those in the UK). Before publication, a reader commented that maybe this would put Christian bookshops off stocking the book. She didn’t advise me to take them out. I thought long and hard about changing them, but decided to leave them in. I couldn’t for the life of me see how the characters, uttering the words in extremity, would have spoken in a different or ‘cleaner’ way. I’ve no idea whether this affected the sales of books, and it doesn’t bother me at all. But many things in life are not nice, and I see no point at all in trying to pretend they are, even in fiction.

What do you think?