On Behalf Of Young Christian Readers Who Don’t Want Clean, Unrealistic Stories
I’m a millennial, and a Christian, one of those younger generation people that seem to garner such attention in Christian circles. And I love reading weird stories about magical lands, terrible beasts, cunning villains, and flawed characters.
To some, that might sound perfectly natural. To others, however, the mere use of words such as “magic” or “flawed character” would be enough to lock me out of the library and bookstore henceforth until I regain my senses.
It gets better (worse?). I happen to enjoy Harry Potter (still on book four), have a strong distaste for squeaky clean main characters, and rather detest stories that preach at me.
The thing is, I’m not alone. I have friends my age and younger, and friends of friends, and writer friends and reader friends. Christians. Solid, grounded young people.
And we’re tired of the same-old, same-old. Tired of the constant pressure to conform to rigid Christian dogmas, legalistic mindsets, and narrow views of the world when it comes to reading. Tired of stories that are blander than yesterday’s oatmeal. Tired of stories about people whose lives seem so out of touch with reality that it either makes us shake our heads or laugh at the spectacle.
We’d rather have fantastical stories that transport us to other lands, where darkness lurks, yes, but where the light ultimately shines bright as a thousand stars.
We want what I call “dark fiction.”
Sometimes its edgy. The hero isn’t a compliant teenager who memorizes Bible verses for a living and has a crush on the pastor’s daughter (which we never really see develop because appropriate boundaries).
A lot of the time it digs into the nitty-gritty, dirty topics of life. Topics that might be risky or refuse to fit into the “good little Christian” box.
It is, however, relatable. That’s what we crave. Don’t give us stories filled with characters peering down from their ivory towers, removed from the struggle and mess and brokenness of living in a fallen world.
Rather, give us stories with real, raw, vulnerable people. Who deal with hard situations. Who live in realities where life beats them down and doesn’t always work out as planned. Stories that aren’t afraid to use fantastical elements.
Those are the types of stories that let our imaginations soar, flood our minds, and drill into our hearts. We can spot the difference a mile away.
I lived for a number of years in an oppressive Christian homeschooling environment, and it wasn’t fun. Many of the approved stories were as exciting as a breakfast of corkboard. The good behavior of the main characters buried me beneath a load of guilt. The stories seemed written to trumpet Christian morals and agendas. The books generally lacked anything inspiring or invigorating to stir my excitement.
Compare that to a series like Hunger Games, fraught with danger, bubbling with action. Were the characters perfect? Um…nope. Were the themes always beneficial? Nada. Were the story’s conclusions always flawless. Sorry, no luck there.
But it’s easy to forget that the chief job of a story isn’t to preach (though a truly powerful story manages to weave profound themes into a terrific narrative).
And that’s exactly where stories by Christians enter the picture. If they can stop the obsession with making sure nothing offensive, scandalous, or challenging gets within 100 feet of the storyline, they can offer hope.
They don’t live in a timid, perfect world that can’t emphasize the brilliant light of Truth because it refuses to acknowledge the darkness plaguing the world and the characters themselves. They live in stories where rough things happen. Where characters make big mistakes and there isn’t always a clear right answer.
Just like us, our lives, our stories.
Like I said, relatable.
What makes a story resonate, beyond the mechanics and techniques, is that it reminds us of our stories. It’s as if we’re looking into a mirror, and suddenly, we care what happens. We want to follow these characters through the highs and lows. We want to know how it can possibly work out and why there’s any reason to hope.
And the breathtaking beauty lies in those glimpses of hope scattered throughout the pages. It lies in the themes that bring chills because we know them. We’re living them.
Most of all, it lies in the stories whose roots reach down into the rich soil of Truth, to grow and flourish in ways that excite, delight, and cause the soul to sing.
Yes, these are stories of broken people who live messy lives. What makes them truly valuable is when they part the shroud to reveal the piercing light of redemption, sacrifice, love.
These are the stories we want.
What types of stories resonate most deeply with you? Why do you think having “dark fiction” is a good or bad idea?
This. This is what I wanted. My parents weren’t against these types of stories, but they were hard to find, especially in the Christian market. It was so unfair! I don’t want to read about those goody two shoes Spartans or listen to some woman with a fake Southern accent wail about her dead husband! Give me some dragons and princesses! Thank you for this.
I grew up with a devout Baptist mother who, very strangely, raised my brother and me on horror and sci-fi movies. Also a few indie Christian films sprinkled in. Growing up, understandably, I thought Christian films were either biopics about Jesus or End Times schlock.
Today, my mother gets easily offended by swearing despite raising me on seriously dark movies (original RoboCop, Dracula, Alien, Aliens, The Terminator 1+2, etc.). I’m not *as easily* offended, I’m more focused on story elements than on moral standards. The only films that I can’t stand watching due to swearing are Layer Cake (over 300 f-bombs), Reservoir Dogs (can’t get past the prologue scene with all those constant vulgarities), and any given episode of Deadwood. In other words, I have a high tolerance, but I still have a limit.
Nonetheless, I do believe “dark fiction” does have a place.
I’m glad it resonated with you, Tamra. The good (and encouraging) news is, this isn’t the case as much anymore. There are a number of Christian authors out there who write quality stories aimed more toward the Christian market.
I think we do need to have stories with messy and broken characters, because those people are real — and stories can help us learn how to understand them, just as they can help us with other parts of reality. However, while “squeaky clean” stories shouldn’t be the only thing in the library, I don’t think we should go the other way and make messy, broken stories the only thing in the library, either.
I would caution against thinking that only characters with serious flaws can be realistic. Everybody sins in some way, but people who manage to live fairly clean lives and not wreck themselves DO exist. And we should celebrate them. Going beyond that, I even like stories that feature paragons of virtue. They don’t make me feel guilty — they inspire me. Whom would I look up to, and whom would I strive to emulate, if every fictional character were down on my own level? And if we can fantasize about strange creatures and magical lands, why can’t we fantasize about idealized people? I suppose one’s reaction to such characters is a question of how secure one is in grace … if we know that God has accepted us, we can read about a paragon without sweating about the fact that we don’t measure up to him.
I agree that there needs to be a balance. I know my post probably sounded heavy-handed, beating the drum of real/dark stories to the exclusion of having clean stories. Personally, I think there’s room for both, it’s just that in the Christian reading/writing world, more often than not, the clean stories seem to dominate.
Again, great point I agree with. We need flawed characters and heroic characters, Weasley twin characters and Sam Gamgee characters. As I said above, my intention with focusing on the need for messy, broken characters was to emphasize an area that generally seems overlooked or preferred to leave untouched. Thanks for your thoughts! 🙂
So hi, Zachary. I’ve known E. Stephen B. for a number of years, and I’m delighted to “meet” you here and find your modern-meets-fantasy blog posts as well. 🙂 I just finished laughing really hard at modern people meeting fantasy villains. 🙂
Why is so-called “dark” fiction a good idea… I think sanitized fiction (as opposed to thoughtfully-written fiction that makes choices about impact for powerful reasons) expresses a lack of trust, more than anything. Its very existence sends a message that the reader ought not think too much. That’s the opposite of the purpose of literature, in my opinion.
But also, when we structure our communities that way–here’s the library with the “approved” books, don’t talk about the ones you read that don’t fit these categories–we’re creating a community that’s intellectually and morally hampered in its ability to walk through the world. Fiction is the laboratory of philosophy and morality. Really good YA is possibly heavier on that than a lot of “adult” fiction. If I had to choose between Harry Potter or Hunger Games, and a headily-phrased postmodern literary work with no ultimate philosophical development, I’d take the adventure. What resonates for me is reflection on and connection with the world we actually live in, not just the one someone’s invented.
Literature isn’t for navel-gazing, whether religious or or more broadly cultural. It’s for introspection and critique–including of religious and other cultural conditions. Censoring that is a signpost of a power structure that doesn’t want to be challenged, not a sign of virtue. Everyone in our society is caught up in one in some form. The challenge is to transform what we can with love and grace… and probably with writing. 🙂
so much lack of trust!you’re right Mr. Dyck–I talk about this with indie writers all the time… at some point you have to trust that they will draw out the right conclusions from the story rather than guide with a heavy hand (in descriptions AND conclusions at times)
Hi, C.L., it’s great to “meet” you, too. Thanks for checking out my blog! I appreciate it, and I’m glad to hear you enjoyed what you found. 😀
That’s a fascinating perspective I hadn’t considered before, but now that I think about it, what you’re saying makes sense. Based on my reading experiences, I would agree, though as I said, I haven’t done much deep thinking on the subject. LOL Excellent thoughts. Thanks so much for contributing to the conversation! 🙂
I actually don’t think you’re describing “dark fiction,” Zac. Sounds like “good fiction” to me. I mean, where’s the conflict, where’s the struggle, where’s the story, if the character doesn’t have some need, some way in which he must grow?
I was wondering why you think Christian stories are even like your description until I reached the part about a restrictive homeschooling environment. I suppose there might be books written just for such a venue that would fall into the mode you described. But honestly, read speculative books by Jill Williamson or Patrick Carr, put out by Bethany House. Or read any of the books that Enclave has put out, and you’ll see they aren’t what you’re describing.
I could name others out of the speculative genre, too. I just think Christian writers today know much more about what makes a good story and the books are not like the ones you’re describing.
And also… it pays to remember there are plenty of writers working from a Judeo-Christian worldview within general publishing. For instance, the slush editor for Baen Books is a devout Catholic who’s helped organize interdenominational Christian worship services at at least one major con, as I recall. Part of the restriction problem exists in the overly narrow definition of “Christian stories” within more restrictive circles.
Beyond those restrictions, we have all kinds of choices on how and where to interact with stories, readers and writers.
Thanks for your input, Becky! I agree that I was describing good fiction, and the overall thrust of my thoughts was that good fiction and dark fiction (i.e. fiction that isn’t always nice and clean and wrapped in a Christian bow) aren’t mutually exclusive. Along those lines, books that are cleaner can be excellent, as can books that delve into darker, more mature themes and content. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model.
I definitely think Christian stories are headed in the right direction. I read Jill’s Blood of Kings Trilogy a couple years ago and absolutely loved it. I’ve also read the first two Staff and Sword books and enjoyed them as well. And I’ve read and know of many others, like you said, that don’t really fit what I’m describing as typical Christian stories. That said, based on what I’ve heard (this post was actually sparked by a discussion in the Realm Makers Consortium FB group), there are still significant pockets of the CBA that don’t really get it.
Oh, I forgot to add, I find this line ironic:
Why? Because in the general market, publishers are hiring readers to watch for “offensive” subject matter that might be a triggering issue. I mean, those books are getting farther and farther from what we think of as reality. I can only hope that the Christian market doesn’t follow suit.
That didn’t occur to me, but great point! It is ironic, and what’s worse is that in the general market, those “triggers” seem to be far less significant. More and more, writers seem constricted by political, social, religious, etc. agendas that really shouldn’t have any say in what makes a good story or how to write one. At the end of the day, I think there’s a risk that if writers are so worried about writing to be non-offensive, their stories will become bland, shallow, uninspiring, and heavy-handed. Let’s hope Christian fiction doesn’t go down that path.
I’m older, but couldn’t agree with you more. Reading pious stories that bring Christians up in hot-house environments does not equip Christians to live ‘in the world’ – though from a parent’s perspective, I also wanted to protect my kids. Finding a balance is very difficult, but we don’t do anyone any favours by restricting reading to wishy-washy, sterile stories.
I assume you’ve read Madeleine L’Engle’s works. There are some brilliant Christian authors, some recent. I recommend Paula Vince (Australian author).
I’m glad it struck a chord with you, Julie! It’s tough because yes, I get the desire to protect kids (even though I’m young and don’t have any yet). At the same time, protecting them too much, as I found out through personal experience, is actually detrimental. Which, as you said, is why it doesn’t do any good to put them on a reading diet of wishy-washy stories.
Yep, I read her Time Quintet series back in high school. I found some of them odd or difficult to follow, but overall I enjoyed them, and I’m excited that they’re making A Wrinkle in Time into a movie! 😀
I can totally relate. Another angle to this topic is the “feedback” we authors get for not writing pristine stories. It’s important to know who you are called to reach and trust that the inspiration we receive will reach our targeted audience. It is those same narrowminded attitudes that run people away from church, as well as making others not want to deal with Christians. In our limited thinking it’s like we completely miss the Jesus we claim to serve. Each person must be true to their unique gift and write the stories He gives us to share. I dare say we’d be a much more impactful people if we stopped trying to feign a perfection that doesn’t exist. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Appreciated!