This Is Fiction Freedom

The solution to fiction legalism is not more rules, grittiness, or evangelism.
on Sep 19, 2013 · No comments

Break this (gritty) chain.

It’s not only fiction legalism putting walls around the world of fantastic Christian stories.

Several factors end up being so limiting. Just this week Rebecca Miller touched on two of those: too-small expectations (an issue closely related to niche-ification) and unnecessary separation. Underlying these are other deeper difficulties.

Enslaving expectations

1. ‘Christian stories must reach the lost at all cost.’

Evangelical fiction often targets — or feigns to target? — non-Christian readers. Following megachurch “seeker-friendly” notions in reality, this supports common story tropes such as cheesy conversion scenes, those wholesome professional non-Christian characters who only need Jesus to heal their hurts, and lack of potentially offensive material such as those swear words (because, you see, our fiction needs to be markedly different from the world).

But it’s taken me a while to conclude this: critics of these tropes base their criticism on the very same assumption: that the chief end of Christian fiction is to reach non-Christians, even to “evangelize” them. Such critics merely say, “Evangelical fiction publishers, you’re merely doing it wrong. Non-Christian readers don’t want ABC! They want XYZ — with Grit®.”

This expectation can enslave Christian fiction, making authors, publishers, and especially readers wrongly beholden all over again to non-Christian readers (or feigned readers).

Yes, non-Christians should feel free to read Christian novels and find them just as truthful, beautiful, and good as anything else, if not better. But the “reach the lost at all cost” notion, whether from current evangelical publishers or the “grit it up, make it real, anything to impress” Christian fiction criticism lobby, only iconizes and patronizes secular readers.

Worse, the reach-the-lost notion gives no ultimate reason for reaching the lost. Like many revivalist strains of Christianity, it treats the faith mainly as an enslaving pyramid scheme. “People, you must be saved.” Okay, then what comes next? “Get other people saved!”

2. ‘Christian stories must be Gritty.’

Christian fiction should be far grittier than John Wayne(?).

Christian fiction should be far grittier than John Wayne(?).

Really, I grow weary of this charge, and not because I disagree with it. Instead I find it’s so often waged with exactly the same evangelical and dare I say legalistic vigor as the opposite “Christian stories must be Wholesome” crusade. If we build a case against Wholesomeness not on clear Biblical rationale but instead rants about sentimentality, bad Thomas Kinkade paintings, and (once again) saying “non-Christian readers don’t like it,” how is this different from building a case against Gritty fiction by appealing to sins of impure unholy thoughts? “Sentimentality is wicked” can become just as legalistic as “it’s wrong to read bad words.”

This expectation also often gives no ultimate reason for making our fiction Gritty.

3. ‘Christian stories must rival the best secular fiction.’

Again, I agree with this principle. God’s people should read and write only the best. What Christian reader wouldn’t agree? But when people say this without an ultimate reason — a reason why our stories should outshine the others, rather than only being placeholders for any of our free time until Christ returns — this also becomes an enslaving expectation.

Fiction freedom

The solution to fiction legalism isn’t more rules for or against certain content, genres, or improved craft. The cure isn’t planning harder to target non-Christian readers, or dumping buckets of blood and intestines and four-letter words onto our pages or tablets.

As with any problem, the solution is Christ. The Word of Christ. The worship of Christ.

I’ve often said this and I’ll always repeat it: the chief end of fiction is not to edify with morals, to evangelize non-Christian readers, or to entertain us. These goals do matter, and a good story includes them. But the better stories do these on the way to a higher purpose.

That purpose, that chief end of story, is to glorify God and help us enjoy Him forever.

Of course, this sounds very spiritual.1 Yet all this presumes is that 1) humans personally exist to glorify and enjoy God, and redeemed saints are made free to do this; 2) for Christians, glorifying God equals the worship of God; 3) we find joy in glorifying/worshiping God in all we do, not only in “religious” activities; 4) if enjoying stories (or writing stories) is not against God’s revealed Word, then this is a task we can enjoy even more only when we intentionally make it part of pursuing His worship.

I’m convinced that exploring, articulating, preaching, and acting according to this truth about God’s glory and worship is the sole solution to finding fiction freedom.

Surely this will help guide our discussions about questionable content, improving craft, reaching readers, and outshining the best that non-Christian fiction has to offer. We’re not as enslaved to legalistic expectations or fears of sin. Instead we’re set free to glorify Christ.

  1. I’ve “exegeted” this statement, derived from the Westminster Shorter Confession, in Beauty and Truth 4: The Chief End of Story.
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. Peter Rust says:

    Well articulated, Stephen, thank you.

    When I first started writing, I thought that I really wanted to put the “full gospel” in every story. It took me a few years to understand how theme works in quality fiction – how it naturally comes out of the heart, thoughts and passions of the writer and how it is better discovered and cultivated than forced. If I’m growing in the Lord and in my study of scripture, the right kinds of themes — not necessarily the “full gospel”, but gospel themes, will emerge in my writing in a natural way that doesn’t feel forced.

    I am still passionate about glorifying the Lord with fiction, but my passion is more directed towards ensuring that I’m continually growing and learning myself and toward cultivating themes that are naturally emerging, rather than forcing the same kind of template onto all of my writing.

    Though at first glance this may not seem as effective as the “reach the lost at all cost” approach, in my opinion it ends up being more effective and results in better fiction for the enjoyment of Christians and non-Christians alike.

    • I thought that I really wanted to put the “full gospel” in every story.

      When not even the Bible’s books do this, I wonder why Christians think other stories must. 🙂

    • notleia says:

      With all the repetition of the word “forced,” it helped me formulate an idea. Perhaps a lot of the problems with Christian fiction (or fiction as a whole, but I find it more noticeable in Christian fiction) can be summed up in forcedness. Forced theme, forced dialog, forced conflict/plot, forced plot resolution, all that jazz. Literature has, especially in the last decade or so, preferred verisimilitude over idealization, and the cheap-n-easy version of “reality” is Grit(R), for pretty much the same reasons that pessimistic news gets better ratings than optimistic news.
      And there’s a topic for somebody’s next article.

  2. Galadriel says:

    Exactly. We have to look at the rational behind each motivation, or risk falling into error.

  3. Stephen’s description of proselytization-obsessive Christianity as a pyramid scheme hits the guilt-trippage on the head. Yes, people are more important than things, and the lost won’t care about art once they’ve been eternally severed from the hope of God’s grace. But was Christ not the Son of God for the first thirty years of His life on Earth? Did He accomplish nothing of value during that time? Did He only begin glorifying His Father after presenting Himself to John at the Jordan? Was His carpentry business somehow a cop-out from more crucial tasks, an excuse to fly under the radar so He didn’t have to “win souls”? Did the Creator of the Universe procrastinate His duty?

    Are you kidding me?

    Not only is it shortsighted for Christians to focus exclusively on evangelization, it’s totally unsustainable. The fact that missionaries can’t do squat without relying on the generosity of their brothers and sisters who work hard in the “secular world” should tell us something. It should indicate to us that there’s no such thing as the “secular world.” It’s a myth. The reality is that the God Who created everything is perfectly capable of being glorified through anything. Can I glorify God by repairing a car with excellence? Of course I can. Do I have to somehow “preach the gospel” through auto maintenance in order for it to “count” on the Grand Exalted Ledger of Good Deeds Done for God? Of course not! So why do Christians assume the value of “godly” storytelling can only be quantified through a tally of Sinner’s Prayers prayed by the time the house lights fade back up? Such expectations are stifling, onerous, and completely ridiculous. They hamstring the storyteller and hobble the story. If your story demands a Christ-figure, then by all means write a Christ-figure. But write him because the story demands it, not because “godliness” demands it! Anything else is, as Stephen’s pointed out, pure legalism.

    To take a stand with those traditional objectivists reviled and dismissed by my college English courses, true art requires three elements: truth, goodness, and beauty. And yes, Christ Himself embodies all three. But if we write about Christ without putting Him in context, if we extol His victory without describing His opposition, if we praise His accomplishments without confronting the circumstances which made them necessary, in the long run we’ll only succeed in diminishing His perceived stature. That’s why “grit” is often valuable, even essential. Of course, if it becomes an end in itself and not merely a means to Christ-glorification, it’ll invariably degenerate into just another form of sensationalistic sentimentality — a pity-party for the human race or sadistic renouncement thereof.

    Christ is the center. In Him all things hold together. Including art. Including story. After all, He invented them.

    • Amen, brother. Well said. My biggest concern about writing “traditional” Christian fiction is that if we aren’t careful, we end up promoting the goodness and sincerity of religious human beings, rather than of focusing on the grace of God to sinners. We write stories about nice people doing good things and learning to be even better people with God’s help, battling briefly with temptation before repenting and overcoming it, standing bravely against evil attacks that come from outside rather than from within, and in doing so, we set up “role models” for an idealized and sanctified humanity to which we should all aspire.

      But this kind of “wholesome fiction” is miles removed from the candid portrayals of human weakness and failure that we find in the Bible, where even the greatest heroes of faith committed some grave sins and made wrong decisions that had repercussions for generations of their descendants to come. God’s greatness is shown in the big picture of His sovereignty and providence and mercy despite all human failure, not by holding up human beings as godly examples.

      I believe true wholesomeness and holiness in a story is not found in the incidental details of what the characters do or don’t do / say / think along the way, but the ultimate message that a book delivers to the reader. We could write a story in which everyone behaves like angels and the tone is bright and uplifting, but the ultimate message is damnably false; we could write a story about human beings in a hideous state of sin which shows the emptiness of life without God and makes the reader long for His salvation. Sadly, I fear that the current CBA market is more likely to publish the former than the latter.

      • Yes. Theme trumps content every time.

        For myself as a writer, maintaining balance between a character’s specific flaws and general likability means treading a fine line. Both are necessary. None of us want to read about an unsympathetic embarrassment to the human race. Our egos usually prevent us from relating to anyone presented in a negative light. But flaws — deep-seated flaws, not just superficial problems — are part of what infuse characters with complexity and realism. So how do I engineer flawed characters whom I still respect and root for? I have to empathize with them. I have to know exactly why they do what they do, and I have to fully comprehend how such actions seem right, logical, or worthwhile to them at the time. After all, Christ sympathizes with my weaknesses (Heb. 4:15). How can I treat my own creations with any less respect?

What do you think?