In the world of books, readers, and reviews, Christian authors live in fear of one simple word: preachy.
Now, I entirely agree that a book that pushes the forward momentum of the plot aside to sermonize on the author’s latest soapbox deserves to have a star or two knocked off a review, not for the author’s viewpoint, but for ham-fisted delivery.
But a great many authors, new to the game of navigating the minefield of public opinion, develop a new fear after hearing their writing comrades share the woes of one-star reviews and Twitter trolling. “Preach fear” broadens its infectious influence and drives some writers to ask, with trepidation, “Are themes no longer allowed in fiction?”
To me, this feels a lot like the subset of church culture that leans heavily upon the mantra “Come as you are” as they seek to draw in unchurched readers, with the motivation of wanting to express that personal perfection is not a requirement of attending a service.
Don’t get me wrong, I fully support the notion that having it all together is nothing more than an illusion and an excuse. Where “come as you are” sometimes goes wrong is when it putrefies into the non-confrontational practice of avoiding any mention that believers are to be transformed, to turn from habits that hurt their relationship with Christ.
A total avoidance of themes in fiction is like a church that never elaborates on “God loves you.”
So, as a writer, I’m pretty adamant that books (and churches) don’t have a duty to be non-confrontational. Stories can carry intense thematic elements without being preachy. Unfortunately, not every reader/reviewer knows the difference between encountering an idea that makes them uncomfortable and being hammered with an author soliloquy.
I’ve been exploring the notion of “Come as you are, but face your flaws and overcome them in Christ’s strength” in my fiction.
My Windrider Saga trilogy began as an experiment in writing an unlikeable protagonist, and I know that I’ve lost readers who struggle to put up with my main character’s deeply flawed personality. He’s ornery, impulsive, speaks his mind when he should hold his tongue, or just picks ungracious words to express himself. But it’s all a cover-up for his brokenness. The rejection he’s lived. The trauma of his childhood and his present-day. These are deep wounds, and just as we wouldn’t expect a long-time alcoholic to suddenly be sober and have every aspect of their life together the moment they hear the gospel, so it is with my Windrider.
As of September 10, I’ve reached the finale of a long cycle of re-releasing my four previously published books under my own self-publishing banner. It’s been an exciting time of recognizing some of my newbie writer mistakes (which I very much was when Divine Summons came out the first time) and having the opportunity to improve upon them. I “came as I was” in 2011. But here in 2019, I know my writing craft and my relationship with God had transformed. Now that the re-release process is over, I’m beginning to view my time being out of the published author game as a blessing—a needed time of growth and equipping.
And so, as I build these improved editions of my backlist and forge onward to writing new novels, I walk a hazy line in the realm of themes. I must tread carefully between offering the theme of hope: “You’re not stuck. Small steps in the right direction are valid. And God can use you even if you’re a serious work-in-progress” and indulging my characters some easy preaching. It’s nervous work to weave inspiring character transformation into an engaging story, especially when an author can’t control whether readers who catch a whiff of a Judeo-Christian worldview in a book will sound the Preach Alarm.
When it comes down to it, the work is worth it, though. Who wants to read (or write) a book that simply unpacks a series of events, that doesn’t endeavor to offer some points of reflection? As an artist, my ultimate goal centers on reflection, to offer stories in which readers see a reflection of some aspect of themselves, and ultimately, for my themes to reflect the character of the Creator, the one who has inspired me to make stories in the first place.