How Can They Hear?
A common complaint with Christian fiction is that it’s too preachy. Personally, I’m more apt to be dissatisfied because it’s not preachy enough.
Before you prepare the tar and feathers, please hear me out.
Maybe “preachy” isn’t the word I want, if preachy means, as one source defines it, “Having or revealing a tendency to give moral advice in a tedious or self-righteous way.” The “tedious or self-righteous” bit is a valid objection; no matter what the message, those qualities make for bad writing. They’re not particularly desirable in conversation, either. That sort of thing is just plain annoying.
Merriam-Webster’s definition is a little more vague: “marked by obvious moralizing.” What, exactly, constitutes moralizing? and at what point does understandable become too obvious? Is it only objectionable when Christians do it? or should, say, the makers of the movie Avatar be taken to task?
While you’re mulling those questions, here’s another for you: How effectively can Christ’s disciples carry out the Great Commission if they never spell out what they’re talking about?
Yeah, yeah, I know: Jesus spoke in parables. But how many of those parables were directed toward the lost? Not many. Jesus told stories to confuse the faithless while illustrating truths He wanted His followers to understand (Matthew 13:11-13). And, as you may notice, even the disciples often didn’t get the point until He explained.
Another familiar example of scriptural storytelling is found in 2 Samuel 12. The prophet Nathan told King David about a wealthy man who took a poor man’s pet lamb to feed a his guest, thus sparing his own flock. Nathan got the desired response from David – outrage. But until he explained the parable, the king didn’t get that the story was about him.
In other words, unless they’re accompanied by clear preaching, most parables are lost on the lost.
Moreover, Jesus didn’t only tell parables; on some occasions, He spoke plainly. I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me is pretty blunt, if you ask me.
If we truly believe Jesus is the world’s only hope, I think we have a moral obligation to say so. In 2 Kings 7:9, even the lepers knew they had to share the life-saving good news with the rest of the city. More to the point, Jesus commanded us to tell the world. I’ve never seen any scriptural justification for saying, “No, thanks, I’ve got better things to do.”
And let’s not forget what Paul said in Romans 10:14 (paraphrased): how can they believe in Jesus if they’ve never heard of Him? And how are they supposed hear without a preacher?
I’m not suggesting everything we write must include a Romans Road-style plan of salvation. But as Christians, everything we write (as well as everything we say and do) should reflect His truth without distortion.
In his guest post on this blog last Friday, Robert Treskellard related how the Lord used Christian speculative fiction as a tool to draw him to Christ: “…a friend shared The Chronicles of Narnia with me and explained that Aslan represented Christ. This opened my eyes to things I had rarely, if ever, thought about. Within three years, God brought me to faith.” Don’t miss the part where he said “a friend… explained…”
Because Aslan’s substitutionary sacrifice was so obviously a picture of Christ’s, it was easy for the friend to use it as an illustration. Nor was it difficult for Mr. Treskellard to get the picture.
“But,” you may say, “not every story needs to be about salvation.” No argument here. But whatever the theme, our stories should give an accurate reflection of God’s attributes. Christian characters (or those that represent them in speculative fiction) should be believable and lead lives a reader would want to emulate. Scriptural values should be valued and sin should not be glorified. Let’s show the world what Christianity’s really all about.
Though we should labor to get the point across with skill and finesse, we should, in fact, get the point across. Most importantly, let’s not be afraid to talk about Jesus—because it’s all about Him, you see. We can make all the vague allusions we want. We can write plainly about God and heaven. But unless Jesus Christ is the foundation of our stories, they’re flammable. Wood, hay, and stubble.
As Christians, our prime directive is to take the gospel of salvation to the world. How God would have each of us do this is between Him and the individual. For most of us, I suspect it will be a combination of writing and something else, something carried out through the vehicle of the church. But if we are called to write, let’s endeavor to make sure what we write is in line with our calling.
That is one of the best articles I’ve ever read. You hit the nail on the head. I’d like to add that as a reader the best books I’ve ever read have a story that changes and/or encourages me to a closer walk with Christ. What works best is a message that comes from the story, not a message that has a story written around it – then is comes across as contrived and preachy. Thank you
Amen. For a while I’ve thought that is the key. (See this column, for example.)
Whether a fantasy-world has salvation, churches, or exact (and perhaps annoying) allegorical representations of sin or Biblical figures, God, if He appears, should remain the same. I’ve read too many novels that play fast and loose with His nature.
I have no real disagreement. This post is a good corrective to those of us who have a tendency to drift toward the other end of the spectrum. But there are two things that I’m wary of:
I’m not so sure that embracing the word “preachy” is a good idea. If it were originally a Christian term that had been hijacked and pejorated, I could understand. But it doesn’t seem very likely that the idea of something being “too preachy” is a Christian concept. I think it probably came from unbelievers.
I know that Jesus Christ needs to be the foundation of all of our lives, of all that we do. As God, as the eternal Word, all things revolve around Christ, and we must glorify Him in everything. However, I don’t think that means that we must always talk about Jesus explicitly in fiction. God’s nature is always the same, and He is always there. Sometimes we need to say that He is there, and sometimes we can show Him without stating it.
(By the way, I think to misrepresent God’s nature in fiction would actually be to depict a false god, an idol. Representing God in fiction is risky business.)
Thanks, Steve and Stephen!
I share your discomfort, Bainespal, with embracing the word “preachy.” My intent in championing it here is to point out that some see any religious specificity (ie., showing the difference between biblical Christianity and all the other religions of the world) as a flaw in fiction. I don’t mind it when unbelievers complain that something is preachy; what disturbs me is when Christians shy away faithful portrayals of scriptural truth due to fear of such criticism.
I would tend to shy away from portraying Scriptural truth only because I’m afraid that I might not really know what it is. I don’t want to be a relativistic, postmodern idiot, I really don’t. But a lot of anxiety in my life was caused by the knowledge that some Christian theologians think that a believer can never lose his or her salvation, and others believe that salvation can be lost. If all humans are failable, how can I have any confidence in the theological interpretations of my friends and family who want me to believe in eternal security and not to worry about salvation? Then this gets extended to other areas of theology. That’s my problem.
And if portraying Scriptural truth rightly is so serious, portraying it wrongly is a very serious risk to take.
This used to bother me too — and there is the Biblical truth that believers must examine themselves to see if their professed faith was/is genuine (2 Cor. 13:5).
Yet if God’s nature does not vary, and He was the one Who saved people in the first place, then “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). Other verses, such as those in Hebrews that talk about “falling away,” seem to be speaking of those whose confession was never genuine. (And one should never disregard them; people can fool themselves.)
Either way, I doubt God would fault a reader or writer for accidentally missing a revealed truth about Him. What matters is the honest attempt to glorify God by studying His nature as He has revealed it in His Word, and then to reflect His truth and beauty in our nonfiction lives and fiction enjoyments.
Yeah. What you said, Stephen.
I’m a big believer that fiction written by Christians should be Scripturally accurate however it’s not necessarily up to the author to be so but the reader. (I am one who believes God gave mankind the free will to love Him or not (and that includes after becoming a Christian.)) Take Brian Godawa’s Noah Primordial and Enoch Primordial for example. Both are biblical fiction and both are way off the mark. I knew that going into them but enjoyed them anyway. God was still honored even though Brian changed and exaggerated on the story surrounding the history and events. The Shack however used Jesus Himself but was so heretical that it was the worst and most deceptive book I’ve ever read. It was up to me to know this, not the author. Young is a universalist and only preached what he believed.
They even questioned Paul.
Acts 17:11 Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.
Quite so, Steve; readers must be discerning too. Just because something comes from a respected source or one that goes by the name Christian (unless that source is the scriptures themselves), we shouldn’t think we can trust it implicitly. In fact, the Christian stuff is often the most dangerously deceptive.
While I wholeheartedly agree, Yvonne, that Christian authors should be passionate that their stories be not merely beautiful, but true and good as well, I have to point out that an obligatory, duty-bound emphasis on the latter qualities will almost inevitably cripple the former. Preaching is for pulpits. Those who wish to get smacked upside the head with truth know where to go to get that treatment. Stories, on the other hand, are all about subtlety. We don’t read them because we want to learn a lesson; we read them because we want to look out through another person’s eyes and experience a life that’s different from our own, a life we could never live ourselves. For truth to strike home in such a context, it must arise organically from the characters and the plot and the world of the story instead of getting pasted to the surface just because the author feels a need to justify his or her profession in light of the Great Commission. Truth and goodness must be shown, not merely told.
And Avatar certainly isn’t a good example of how to do that.
I quite agree, Austin! Truth and goodness must be shown, not merely told, with the story bearing the message as a fruit that naturally develops from the root, stem, and branches. And there’s nothing easy about doing that well.
Writing “preachy” fiction isn’t difficult–all the writer has to do is refuse to acknowledge any other viewpoint as valid. The insistence that our faith is right and all others are wrong is a part of what can make Christian fiction preachy. Because, as Yvonne points out, we’re trying to preach the gospel. But clearly presenting a faith isn’t what makes some story-telling preachy.
The black-and-white nature of Christianity, our firm determination to put labels like “good” and “evil,” these are par for the course in Christian fiction. Especially speculative fiction, where dogma and fancy are constantly fighting for the reader’s attention. And since the world is more content to view morality in shades of grey (to avoid facing judgement or consequences), Christian speculative fiction is almost always going to come across as more preachy than its secular counterparts.
But it doesn’t have to.
From the secular market, let’s take two film examples: Avatar and the original Star Wars trilogy (of the later “prequels” and many novels, I shall not speak). Avatar is an extraordinarily preachy fantasy. This is right, that is wrong, convert or die. The beliefs of the various characters (usually portrayed as motives) are very rigid and do not allow for compromise. The *ahem* eco-friendly nature of this message meant it found a welcome in the secular media. Star Wars, however, presented a wide array of characters who had very different beliefs about The Force. Obi-Wan, the faithful old disciple. Luke, the willing acolyte. Vader, redeemable even from a lifetime of bondage. Leia, instinctive but untutored. Han, practical atheist. C3PO, the Martha in every church. R2D2, who could be argued as the ever-present holy spirit. It didn’t garner nearly as much media attention, but it did create loyal followers who could adapt to The Force in their lives.
I am NOT saying that Star Wars is more Scriptural than Avatar. But the parallels of so many aspects of different believers makes Star Wars a much more welcome tool for faith and preaching, because it meets the audience where they are. Whatever your views, at least one character will share them. Is Star Wars formulaic? Of course. Is it New Age? Definitely. Does it accurately communicate the battle between good and evil? From a certain point of view, yes.
Christian fiction, whether explicit in faith or subversive, whether fantastical or mundane, preaches better when it is less about the author’s philosophy and more about the reader’s need for grace and righteousness. The same could be said for secular fiction (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is deliberately atheistic preaching to combat Lewis’s Narnia, and Douglas Adams was proud to be an evangelical evolutionist), but the message is less likely to be an echo of an eternal truth.
“Christian fiction, whether explicit in faith or subversive, whether fantastical or mundane, preaches better when it is less about the author’s philosophy and more about the reader’s need for grace and righteousness.”
Good point — the gospel falls on deaf ears until the hearer realizes his need for salvation. Who’s going to grab a lifeline if he thinks he’s just out for a swim, unaware he’s about to go over a waterfall?
But it all goes back to the fact that biblical Christianity isn’t a philosophy. If we’re pounding a pulpit of “ology” or “ism”, we might want to do that self-examination E. Stephen referred to.
This is something I’ve wrestled with a lot over the years. What I’ve decided, for myself, is that I want to tell good stories. I want to entertain people. If they like my work, they’ll track me down, and then I can share Jesus with them in a non-fiction setting.
I’ve read authors of other faiths who kept their faith out of their book, as regards proselytizing, but who were very open about it on their blogs. I was very grateful for that. It leaked in in other ways–for instance, Twilight is very Mormon–but the book itself didn’t try to convert anyone. The author’s worldview was just part of the story.
I just finished writing a story set in our world, but with magic and werewolves and stuff. At one point, the hero has the Spiderman Problem of “I have to break up with my girlfriend because I’m a werewolf and I’m a danger to her”. As he’s pondering this, he goes to church and listens to a sermon on Corinthians 13, and it makes him squirm, because he can’t parse breaking up with True Love.
That was about as preachy as I got, but it worked really well for the story. It underscored how he thought he was doing the right thing, but the Right Thing is really so much messier than that.
Great discussion! I think this is the best blog Yvonne has written to date. I prefer reading about characters whose faith makes them strong, and those who find out about Christianity from characters who practice their faith quietly and consistently. Then, I think, the faith is organic in nature, and rises from the interaction of the characters. I don’t like the story to be a weak vehicle for “pounding the pulpit” like most of these comments have written. Still, there is a place for expressing one’s faith within fiction. Just keep it scriptural and subtle, in my opinion.
I read an unrelated article this morning on Wired, but reading this quote reminded me of Yvonne’s post and this discussion:
Michelle – Cool quote!
Cathie – Thank you!
Kessie – Thanks for bring this up: it’s true that an author’s decision about what to write is between the writer and God; no one else can (or should!) decide that for you.
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