What Isn’t Christian Fiction

It can be hard to define what makes fiction Christian. So let’s define, instead, what doesn’t make fiction Christian.
on May 11, 2016 · 14 comments

It can be hard to define what makes fiction Christian. So let’s define, instead, what doesn’t make fiction Christian. These are things that might come from a Christian worldview, or have Christian meaning … but not necessarily. Let’s begin with …

steeple cross 2Christian symbols such as crosses or churches; warding off vampires with holy water or crucifixes; fighting demons with Catholic rites, Latin phrases, holy water, crucifixes, etc. Symbols can be divorced from their original meaning, and Christianity has, if I may put it this way, entered into the lore of vampires and demons. Modern writers who draw upon the lore of these mythical creatures may employ the Christian bits in it, but these bits do not always carry either Christian truth or a Christian spirit. Elements of Christianity may be cut off from the whole of Christianity, and then they are fractured and dead, like branches cut off from a vine. A crucifix or those impressive Latin phrases can even be used in a magical or superstitious way, spiritual power that comes from things rather than God.

To bring the issue into greater clarity, consider how superstition and pagan beliefs are entwined in the lore of many fantasy creatures, from elves to centaurs. Warding off an elf with iron doesn’t make a book superstitious, and warding off a vampire with a crucifix doesn’t make a book Christian.

The resurrection of a character, however heroic or powerful. I’ve heard of a lot of Christ-figures in famous fantasy, whether Gandalf or Harry Potter or Aslan. They usually aren’t; Aslan is the exception that proves the rule. A heroic death, followed by resurrection, holds scant parallel to Christ’s death and resurrection. In the first place, the evil Christ died to save us from was our own; this is rarely echoed even in fantasy’s heroic deaths. In the second, there is nothing extraordinary about resurrection in science fiction and especially in fantasy. Characters in fantasy novels are like witches in Narnia: You can always get them back.

“Clean” content. I am almost reluctant to offer this one, because I would hate to sound like one of those people who bash the very idea of clean content. I still offer it, because it’s true. Clean content is defined by what isn’t there. An absence is often a very good thing – I personally have had houseguests who made me feel this with conviction – but it is by definition negative. For a book or movie to be Christian, an actual presence is required, a positive thing.

Good values; or, basic human decency. This appears to be closely related to the last, but curiously enough, these two are often deployed by different crowds. It is applied to children’s movies and to adult-oriented Hollywood flicks alike. In the second scenario, the “good values” argument goes like this: The movie may be nakedly secular in its philosophy, with crowd-pleasing violence and routine abuse of God’s name, but it shows approval of courage or friendship, or disapproval of disloyalty or cruelty. And these are all, of course, good and true things. They are also such fundamental, and such common, decency that possession of them is moral sanity. They do not make a work Christian.

The common thread in all of this is that none of these things are, in themselves, bad; they’re just not enough. A Christian book or movie is not one that avoids enough bad content, or espouses the sort of virtues that even hypocrites and sociopaths pay lip service to. It’s not even one that possesses Christian forms or symbols. A Christian book or movie goes beyond all this to something hard to define because it is hard to quantify – a certain spirit, a certain meaning.

Shannon McDermott is an author of science fiction and has been occupied for years with constructing scenarios of the colonization of Mars. Her first Mars-centric novel will be released by Enclave Publishing in late 2024. Her earlier works include “Jack and I” (Once Upon a Future Time: Volume 2) and “The Fulcrum” (Hidden Histories: Third Flatiron Anthologies Spring/Summer 2019).
  1. C.E. Martin says:

    These disqualifiers are a little black-and-white for me. For example, If I read a story about Lazarus being resurrected by Christ, then going off and fighting zombies, I’d classify that as Christian fiction, because it accepts a Christian account of history/the world, accepting the Gospel instead of disproving it.

    I think it’s easier to pick if it is Christian fiction, than not. And that we should use the same method of determination that we use for our faith: self-proclamation. If an author wants to declare their work Christian, even if it contains questionable interpretations of what Christianity is, then let it be.

  2. Lisa says:

    Tricky! One could be really controversial and say that just because a book is written by a Christian author doesn’t make it Christian, or just because it’s published by a Christian publisher doesn’t make it Christian, or just because lots of people say it is Christian doesn’t make it Christian either. I will admit to being interested in a follow-up post which fleshes out your last sentence though.

  3. Walter Cantrell says:

    Would this be too simplistic? If you’re struggling to decide whether or not a book is Christian Fiction, then it’s probably not Christian Fiction.

  4. I think you’ve made excellent points, Shannon. While I agree, I still see value (and I’m guessing you do too) in the books that embrace the elements you identify as not Christian fiction. I call those books soil preparation because they depart from the literature in our society that promotes the anti-Christian worldview. In fact they prim the pump; they can give a hunger for that which would create a just society or one in which people care for strangers or forgive offense or value life—things which don’t make fiction Christian but which do advance Christian values.


    • I definitely see value in “soil preparation” books. I believe there are many worthwhile books that are overtly Christian, or implicitly Christian, or altogether secular. I’m more exacting than some in my definition of “Christian fiction”, but I don’t dismiss fiction that isn’t.

  5. I’ve been trying to define Christian fiction for years and have yet to find the definition that seems to fit. I’m glad you took a stab at it from the opposite viewpoint–what it isn’t.

    Yes, I’ve seen the “Christ-figure” phrase thrown around too liberally as well and it feels borderline blasphemous to me. On the other hand, in my young adult Bible study some years ago, as we studied the Old Testament, we discussed a lot of “shadows of Christ,” from Noah to Samson. I think we put the Christ label on heroic figures far too quickly, but I do think there is something to be said for self-sacrificial themes that mimic some aspect of Christ’s sacrifice. Hopefully that makes sense.

    Clean content and good values — I’m so glad you brought this up! I literally read an article once about an author of erotica, defending why her books were moral and wholesome: “But the bedroom scenes are only between married people!” Christian erotica? Erm… I don’t think so.

    • Maybe I’m defining the term too strictly, but I think of a Christ-figure as being Christ in that story – in some cases, that world. A Christ archetype, on the other hand, I would think of as your “shadows of Christ”. Characters who are like David, an archetype of Christ, are much more common than Christ-figures. I would accept Aragorn as an archetype of Christ, but not as a Christ-figure.

      But maybe this is all too wrapped up in personal definitions.

      • Shannon, I really appreciate your comments. You’ve helped me make a distinction between Christ-figure and Christ-shadows. That said, this gets into a whole “nother” discussion (I love that phrase: “whole nother”) because I personally prefer Christ-shadows (or, as you call them “archetypes of Christ”). I’ll explain.

        Whenever I’ve seen a Christian’s attempt to portray a Christ-figure, the character inevitably becomes one-dimensional. (I make an exception for Aslan–Lewis did a great job wrapping both the familiar and the numinous in one character.) Usually, the character shows up only briefly, so the death and resurrection aren’t all that devastating or exciting because we do not have a real sense of him as a person, no connection with him emotionally. He’s just a jumping-off point for the rest of the characters to ponder deep questions of fantasy theology. I think this distance from the Christ-figure because the author is trying so hard to avoid blasphemy–a worthy pursuit but one that doesn’t tend to do well in a story.

        In contrast, whenever I’ve seen a Christ-shadow portrayed, there are enough Christ-like characteristics to appreciate the analogy, plus the depth of character that helps me connect. He usually takes a more central and active part in the story. The reason I think a lot of Christians shy away from the Christ-shadow is because he diverges from the real Christ. He might make mistakes, or have some great flaw, etc, and if he dies, it’s not necessarily a substitutionary suffering. Again, I totally respect those who wish to be careful with their treatment of Christ in fiction, but I generally end up preferring an imperfect but knowable Christ-shadow who is more like King David or Aragorn than an (attempt at) a perfect, Biblically-accurate Christ-figure who seems mostly incidental to the story. (All this is my personal bias–make of it what you will!)

        Truthfully, the only person who portrays Christ right is Christ Himself. Attempting to recreate Him in fiction always falls woefully short. That’s why I feel like most authors are better off using a Christ-shadow to show just a single ASPECT of Christ and what he did (rather than recreating Him as a whole).

        I hope I’ve made sense so far. The whole topic is worth a post! 🙂 Maybe I’ll write one.

  6. HG Ferguson says:

    I may be wrong on this, but you never get around to saying what “Christian” fiction is. Is that because the very notion is, to use the catchphrase made popular in this community, “ambiguous?” Or is it because too many opinions abound on the answer? This is the precise reason why I much prefer the idea of biblical as opposed to Christian. If a work supports what the Bible teaches, I’m in. If it does not, I’m out. This does not mean I cannot appreciate works done outside the biblical worldview like Star Wars, Potter, The Dresden Files, even the X-Files. It does mean that what I craft needs to conform to what God says. It troubles me that you don’t give any answers here, just lots of questions. The Word of God answers our questions if we will search it and above all submit to it. You are 100% correct about the things you mention are not bad in and of themselves, and the presence of a cross does not make something “Christian” any more than its absence does not. We need to ask, always, what do the scriptures say and find our answers there, not in today’s “Here’s what I think and my opinion is as valid as yours” when both of those may not follow the Word (myself heartily included!). I appreciate your questions and your candor, but the answers God gives us, in His Word, and He’s not fuzzy about it if we seek His mind with a willing heart and a compliant spirit.

What do you think?