Truth In Labeling

The world isn’t helped when Christian books further confusion about the faith.
on Sep 18, 2013 · No comments

file000161791775Wikipedia is a handy resource, but it has its limitations. Take, for instance, its description of Christianity as being “a monotheistic, Abrahamic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ as presented in the New Testament.” Close, but no cigar.

I realize not everyone will agree, but I have to take issue with the definition for two reasons. 1) Though it’s a cliché, it’s a fact that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.  2) Christianity is not based on the life of Jesus; rather, it’s Jesus’s life being manifested in another person (Galatians 2:20).

Rather than being adherents to a theology, Christians are individuals who have been supernaturally and eternally transformed by the same power that raised Jesus from the grave. (Notice that Paul’s explanation of this in Ephesians 1:19 – 2:6 speaks in past tense: not that we will be raised from the dead, but that we have been).

We’re talking some weird stuff here; no wonder the unbelieving the world doesn’t get it. What’s sad is that many Christians don’t get it either. And it doesn’t help when titles on the Christian bookshelf support the misconceptions.

I recently read a book billed as Christian and recommended by a friend. I found it well written and professionally produced. It mentioned God, yes, and it quoted a couple of Bible verses, interpreting them with contextual integrity, as far as it went. But you don’t have to be a Christ-follower to believe in God or to agree with those Bible passages. I read that book from the dedication to the discussion questions and every word in between, and found nothing that had anything to do with the unique nature of Christianity. How, then, is it classified as a Christian novel?

Yes, I know; technically, Christian novel is an impossible term because a novel is inanimate and cannot be a Christian. But even using the phrase as it’s generally understood, I don’t see how the book qualifies. In my opinion (and no, my opinion doesn’t mean much), that sort of novel should be called inspirational, not Christian.

There’s nothing the matter with inspirational stories, and I’m certainly not the type who says Christians should only read512px-Bible-open Christian literature; quite the opposite. I just think we need to be a little more careful about how we portray Christianity.

The best way to get God’s definition of a term is to see how it’s defined the first time it appears in the Scriptures. (Some Bible students call this the “Law of First Mention.”) Not surprisingly, a great number of these words are first found in Genesis, the book of beginnings. But because “Christian” is a thoroughly New Testament concept, its first mention is in the first thoroughly New Testament book, the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 11:26).

“What about the gospels?” you may ask.  “They’re in the New Testament before Acts, you know.” True; but when speaking of dispensations, the New Testament age began at Calvary, not Bethlehem. This is because, according to long-standing secular legal practices as well as Hebrews 9:15-16, a testament doesn’t go into effect until after the death of the testator. If this intrigues you, go ahead and read all of Hebrews 9—better yet, chapters 8 through 10. It’s worth your time, because understanding this simple concept helps us keep our bearings as we study the Bible.

But back to those folks in Antioch who were first called Christians. I’ve been told, though this isn’t mentioned in the passage, that it was a term of derision meaning “little Christ,” but these early Christ-followers liked it and used it themselves.  I won’t take that anecdote to the bank, but it’s interesting.

But who were these people? For them, Christianity wasn’t a nice thing; it wasn’t something they did because their parents did. It wasn’t socially acceptable. It wasn’t something they could do casually. At that time, to be associated with the name of Christ was to put your life on the line. There have always been pretenders, of course. But the description we read of these early Christ-followers is of a people willing to give up everything—family, career, reputation, possessions—to obey His calling.

Nowadays, though, “Christian” is used to describe a whole variety of people and philosophies and behaviors and objects that weren’t originally included under the designation.

Like “Christian” fiction.

Don’t get me wrong; a story doesn’t need to be about Jesus for me to enjoy it. In fact, I love to read things written from different viewpoints, as it gives me a better understanding of other people, religions, cultures, and philosophies—and sometimes, it helps me understand my own faith better. No, my complaint isn’t that everything isn’t Christian; my problem is with labeling.

Suppose a person who doesn’t know what Christianity is all about chooses a book from the Christian shelf, thinking it might help him understand it better. Let’s say he reads about people who, in the midst of some interesting adventures, learn about doing good. Or forgiving those who have wronged them. Or having faith. That’s nice, but where’s the “Christ” part? Where’s the God-powered transference of the soul out of the devil’s kingdom to sit in heavenly places with our Savior? The reader may enjoy the book, even find it uplifting; but he’s no closer to understanding the gospel of salvation than he was before.

file0002089066633 Genre designations are more for the purpose of bookselling than for any other purpose. Writers need to know where to focus their marketing efforts, and readers need to know where to look for the sort of thing they like. Okay, so toward that end, how about employing a system that’s a little more accurate?

If a Christian reader likes romance (though I’ve never been able to figure out why anyone would) but prefers to avoid the steamy stuff, she’d have no difficulty finding something suitable if the Romance category were subdivided into something like Squeaky-Clean, Titillating, and Torrid. Mystery and Suspense might have designations like Detective, Sexy, International Intrigue, and perhaps Gory. Speculative fiction could branch out into Scientific, Light Sci-Fi, Paranormal, High Fantasy, etc. Tweak the subfolders all you like, but I think this makes more sense than calling something Christian that has little to do with Christ.

It doesn’t take much review-reading on Amazon to find there’s a segment of the reading populace that objects to anything “religious.” Funny, though, how they like to review Christian fiction, which they lambast as being too Christian. These tortured souls, so delighted to spread their pain to others, would be able to get their nasty fix even with these proposed labeling changes. Taking note of a book’s publisher is a good starting place, and reading the blurb should confirm where the story fits into the scheme of things. Under this labeling method, anyone who enjoys writing a scathing review would have no trouble finding books to attack.

Maybe I’m wrong about all this. The current system, especially with the gazillion tags and designations on Amazon, might be the most workable way after all. But it bothers me to read something that’s filed under the Christian heading but fails to portray the vital essence and uniqueness of Christianity.

Yvonne Anderson writes fiction that takes you out of this world. Her first novel, The Story in the Stars, debuted in June 2011 and is an ACFW Carol Award finalist in the Speculative Fiction category. Her second, Words in the Wind, released August 1, 2012. Two additional titles will complete this Gateway to Gannah series. She is contest administrator for Novel Rocket's Launch Pad Contest for unpublished novelists. You may follow her wise words on the blog YsWords, or find her on Facebook or Twitter.
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  1. Yes!

    I was just re-reading a Tale of Two Cities, and while that’s never been called a “Christian” book, it hit me how it’s way more Christian than a large number of “Inspirational fiction” out there.

    One of the most beautiful passages Dickens ever wrote is the night Sydney Carton is wandering around Paris, holding onto the one truth that this “losing play I’m going to make” really is the the wining hand. Because “I Am the resurrection and the life, he who believes in me, though he may die, yet shall he live.”

    • It’s been decades since I read A Tale of Two Cities, but it’s always been my favorite of Dickens’s work. I believe he was a Christ-follower, so it makes sense that his faith would shine through. That sort of thing was more acceptable in his day; now, we’re sometimes afraid to be open about these things, as Austin pointed out in his comment below, for fear of making people’s hackles rise. Thanks, Joanna, for prompting me to add “Tale” to my sprawling TBRA list (To Be Read Again).

  2. Peter Rust says:


    I’m curious how you would label the Narnia series, particularly the books after the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. There is certainly some gospel truth in them — though not a lot — and it is conveyed through the fantasy world and fantasy characters, rather than being quite as blatant as it could be. The stories seem to be written for a non-Christian audience — perhaps even the “tortured souls” you mention (though some people are offended by anything).

    • I’d put it in the “Christian” category, Peter, because Aslan is so obviously representative of Christ. Even in the books that follow The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, his work of redemption undergirds the story line. To my mind, that book represents the salvation experience, and the others build upon it as the characters grow in faith and learn how to follow Christ.

  3. Galadriel says:

    Labels are not the best way to find an audience–other readers are. That said, I really don’t know how I’d label anything if I had control.

  4. A few years ago I read a novel by one of the most popular contemporary authors of “Christian” speculative fiction. It made no mention either of Christ or some fictional equivalent, and concluded when its protagonist learned to levitate rocks through the power of sheer, raw, concentrated spirituality. True story.

    Unfortunately, Christians tend to be suckers for straight-up moralism. But while it’s easy to believe in “God,” and while “good and evil” are no-brainers, those concepts are about as unique to Christianity as the cheeseburger is to America: though it might’ve originated here, it’s been co-opted by the world.

    It’s a real challenge to name Christ in a serious context in fiction. Polarizing. As a writer, you know your audience will react strongly to that name — either positively or negatively. It’s a name-drop that goes off like a bomb, as likely to distract readers as to focus their attention. It’s rare to see it done well. Which is one reason I feel no compulsion to limit my imaginative intake to those works which actually warrent the moniker “Christian.”

  5. Austin: Haha, I read that book, too. Believe it or not, that was one of the author’s better books!

    I always wondered what was the difference between Inspirational and Christian. Christian has the gospel message and Inspirational has some fluffy morals? Okay! No wonder romances are usually billed as Inspirational.

    So if I write an Inspirational Christian Paranormal Werewolf Romance ….

    • You could write a sequel to Amish Vampires in Space in the venerable tradition of the Jane Austen and [Insert Monster-of-the-Month] series.

      • I actually did find a Christian werewolf series. The first book is Cry For the Moon, and it was actually pretty good. I read it out of sheer curiosity, and I think there needs to be a LOT more like it. The Christian is a werewolf hunter. 😀

        • Hmm … that does sound interesting. I’m tired of the “scary-monsters-are-actually-just-misunderstood-victims” zeitgeist in modern fantasy. Dragons and vampires and werewolves are so much more interesting to me when they’re played straight.

  6. bainespal says:

    1) Though it’s a cliché, it’s a fact that Christianity isn’t a religion, it’s a relationship.

    That’s true when the definition of “religion” is given as “man’s attempt to reach God by human effort” or something like that. However, I’m not convinced that that’s a very good definition of the word “religion.” Only Evangelicals define religion that way, and if we define words completely differently than other people, we can’t talk to them.

    I believe that a much better definition for religion is “man’s reaction to and relationship with the Ultimate.” Relationship is definitely part of it, and I think Christianity is definitely religious.

    Even with a lower definition of religion, such as a definition based on rituals and ceremony, Christianity is legitimately religious. By that definition, the religion symbolizes the relationship.

    • You make an excellent point, Bainespal. But personally, I’m not comfortable with putting a living, thriving personal love relationship with Christ in the same category as empty religious practice.

      “Religion” is generally thought of as external, what we “do” in an effort to improve ourselves or our world — like someone who brushes and flosses “religiously” or who relies on their outward religiosity to curry favor with God. Rituals and ceremony CAN be part of Christian worship, but they aren’t necessary to it, nor are they necessarily even related to it. It’s easy to do these things without experiencing the relationship they’re intended to symbolize.

      Which is not to say we shouldn’t do these things; my point is that doing religious things is not necessarily representative of a thriving relationship with the Lord.

    • I find myself concurring with both of you. Yet whether and how we use the term “religion” depends on context and audience. Some understand “religion” only to mean empty traditions, man-centered attempts to reach God, doing good for pride- and sin-based reasons, and so forth. Yet a right understanding of the term “religion” would see “religious practice” in terms of our relationship with God, a relationship that God alone has restored with His people.

      The apostle James did not mind using the term that many English Bibles translate as the word “religion,” and he easily contrasted false religion with true religion.

      If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person’s religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.

      James 1:26-27

      Accordingly, I don’t want to fear corruption of the word “religion” and thus feel compelled to use another word, just as I don’t want to fear the word “Christian” and opt for some other term. What’s the point? Somebody will corrupt any word.

      • So true, Stephen. Both words — any word, really — will have different meanings depending on the context and the experience/perspective of the hearer. My experience causes me to tiptoe around “religion” and “Christian” in many situations because of how I expect those words will be understood. But that isn’t always necessary or wise. Sometimes it’s simpler to just say what we mean.

What do you think?