Or: Christians’ stories need to stop the religious jargon; it’s subtlety that matters most! …
Or even something like: the Church already has the Gospel, so we should put our greatest efforts into missional strategies to reach those outside Christianity with better fiction that will meet people where they are and finally show them what real Christianity is …
… Then this series is for you, and me, and any others who are still exploring these issues.
Yet what I’m don’t say — or mean to say, in part 1 or here — is anything like the following:
- Every Christian novelist should give up writing for secular audiences and instead write only for Christians as I hope to do. That would be an overcorrection in reverse.
- Overt messages matter more than craft and Christianity that’s implicit in the very medium of Story. Not at all. I suggest that both showing and telling can make great stories. My hope is not to rebut too much of the “showing is just as good as telling” argument, but to balance out potential overstatements of that. Some authors may choose to explore the Gospel more overtly, while not compromising their craft with smeared-on stale religious sauces that can’t make up for a story’s lack of “meat.”
- My enjoyment of more-“overt” stories matters more than others’ preference for subtler fiction. Not at all. Yet I acknowledge it could sound like that. I do assume you are already familiar with arguments that Christians should mainly write more-subtle stories and that those are usually better than novels that are overtly Christian.
Finally, when I make references to “overt Christian fiction” or “specific grace themes,” I do not mean the superficial stuff that I and most readers here already dislike. While I do believe most modern Christian fiction is beset (along with Gnostic notions about Story itself) more by a lack of truly Christian themes than an overindulgence of them, I also recognize that bad “preachiness” persists. What I have in mind are authors who genuinely, naturally love Christ and His truth, who are unafraid to write with Christian characters, church settings, doctrine exploration, and what-if questions that flesh out or simulate in a story-world (or a mental “holodeck,” as Rebecca Miller said) the specific claims of Scripture and its Gospel narrative.
As stardf29, a friend and cyber-acquaintance of mine, summarized on Aug. 15:
There are definitely books about people becoming Christians, and books that show Christian truths without explicitly mentioning Christianity, but I wish there were more books that were actually about Christians themselves, and how they live their lives. (emphasis added)
I have a feeling he’s not the only one wishing this, from either inside or outside the Church.
That said, here are two more reasons why novelists may write with overt Christian themes.
3. We should avoid “the Gospel is only for non-Christians” lie. Christians need “simulations” of God’s truth at least as much as nonbelievers.
Much poor Christian fiction results from even worse Christian teaching that got its start, or a regrettable boost, in the revivalist “Second Great Awakening” days of the early 19th century.
Whatever the positive results of this movement (we do know God can use anything to echo His Word and save someone, including a secular story!), it also brought many wrong notions to Christianity. Such myths persist in Christians’ minds, and their novels, likely because they infest many churches. Example: the megachurch leader who stated flatly that he didn’t care about the existing Christians in his church because the leader’s goal was mainly to get non-Christians into the church; so those wanting more should quit whining and just work harder. Along with, ah, demonstrating a lack of love for his “partners” in that Christian megachurch business, two false beliefs spawned that leader’s proclamation:
- Once you get “saved,” you are safe. All your growth is now taken care of; you can automatically flesh out the results in your life, and spiritually feed yourself. I don’t need to bother with you. You also don’t need “simulations” of truth in real life.
- Christianity as a pyramid scheme. And you can only get closer to the top if you “save” more people and get them under you. Nothing to do beyond reproducing!
Nonsense. Christians do not believe in Christ simply as a means to get other people saved (who in turn get other people saved, who get other people, who then get others …), but to enjoy forever through worship the One Who saved them. Everything else is a means to that greatest end. Love is a means. Obedience is a means. Any possession of material goods, or lack thereof, is a means. Overt evangelism is only another means. Also a means: our novels.
Moreover, a Christian never goes beyond the Gospel. Plenty of ink has been spilled on that particular truth. Nor are Christians “safe” and thus dispensable once they are touching base. Fleshly temptations, assumptions leading to ignorance, lack of joy — all can tag them.
Moreover, who says such overt simulations would not make superbly authentic and original story material that even non-Christians may enjoy? How many secular readers pick up the latest “Edgy” Christian novel that turns out only to echo yet another version of a Salvation Allegory™ or “subtle” call to conversion, and instead say: “Enough of this already; what do Christians actually do after they get converted and they’re on the other side, living life?”
4. Authors reacting only to legalists’ rejections doesn’t help Christians genuinely confused about stories, who need love and reassurances.
It’s very likely my discussion here has been limited through my own hope to craft stories that themselves, secondarily, will serve as catalysts for helping Christians change their views on Story altogether. I have in mind both “it’s just entertainment” types who ignore bad and good stories, and the “fiction is at best useless and at worst violations of the Ninth Commandment” sorts of believers. They need great stories too.
That’s my hope. It may not be yours. But in case it is — don’t feel guilty. You may have a spiritual gift and/or vocation that the Church desperately needs: loving, creative novelists who soak up God’s deep truths out of delight for Him, and in turn allow His grace to radiate from them and win the trust even of those who formerly saw no use in storytelling.
I think that can only happen when such Christians writers understand and apply two truths:
- The genuinely hateful, stubborn church folks who base their piety on laws (Biblical or made-up) and not the joy in Christ to which obedience is merely a means, need more than rebuttals or story anyway. Whether they are real Christians or not, the solution is the same: love, and persuasions to repent and embrace the true Gospel.
- Without God’s work in our hearts, to save and sanctify us, we are all legalists. This sin is common to all. In this life, we’ll never grow out of it. We’ll always fight to recall we didn’t earn our salvation one bit. Yes, we need to “preach the Gospel to ourselves.”
Tomorrow, guest writer Zach Bartels describes two very well-meaning Christians who totally missed the point of fiction. Ugh. Yet Kaci’s recent article also seems a good reminder for us:
It’s a harsh reality that we’re very hesitant to make war with our own sin, and far too often we’re blinded by our own self-centeredness.
If I’m brutally honest, I’m forced to admit it’s easier for me to love these wayward, stiff-necked characters [in a novel] than real people. It’s easier for me to smile and think “Someday [they’ll change]” in the middle of a novel than to pull my head out of the pages, look around, and realize that Jesus loved the Pharisees, too.
And if you’re a true Christian, God loved you also. Sinners and legalists at heart. Haters of Him. He reached down and saved us from our enslavements to self. That should reduce us to tears. And it should make some of us want to reach out in love with our stories to all of our Christian family — including even those who still raise their eyebrows and genuinely repeat old, pious, or Gnostic myths like I only want “useful” stories, or, isn’t fiction just like lying?
How that may be done, then, remains for a later article, likely next Thursday: Stories for Christians: the new ‘watchful dragons.’
Finally, though: has this article helped add clarity? If you’re a writer, have you also considered some of the assumptions I’ve also had about “better” novels, as repeated above? What do you think your callings or readers could be? To what sorts of people do you already feel drawn to show God’s love and truth in your non-writing life, and what spiritual gifts might God have given you to practice in your church? How do they also affect your stories?