Why I don’t like mainstream Christian fiction


Literature / Friday, July 6th, 2012

“One should tell it like it is. Roses are red and violets are really violet.”

This was the only really good line in a book I just read—Christian fiction that didn’t make it onto my Current Reading list. I prefer to let it rest in anonymity, because

Confession: I really, really dislike today’s mainstream Christian fiction.

I’m not talking about truly cheap Christian romance novels; I’m talking about mainstream good Christian literature—the best of the contemporary evangelical best. Have you read good books in this genre? I keep trying the best ones I can find, hoping that someday I’ll grow into it, but I just can’t.

Where I’m coming from:

  • Books I love usually are classics, or described as “modern-day classics.”
  • Because I am so moonstruck over words, my fault is going to be caring more about the spinning of words than the religious orientation.
  • But I am also very finicky about what I read: I will read sin and violence as part of a story, but I hate dramatized sin, and I hate sexual content (cheapening the sacred).
  • I will read many styles, many genres, many time periods. I care most that the themes are true and the writing is beautiful. Truth and beauty belong to God.

What I object to:

Here are some thoughts. Please know that I’m trying to offer them as humbly as I can… though I’m afraid I’m rather bitter about this topic, disappointed in all of us. Do we have nothing better to offer?

1. I don’t think we know how to write about sin.

When I read MCF, I am tempted to think that Christians really do live in ivory towers, and have no idea what goes on in the real world. (You may ask—how would I know what goes on in the real world? I just live in Meadville. Alright, granted.)

Mainstream Christian authors desire to write along different lines than those of secular sensationalism (illicit affairs, wild flings, drinking addictions, gratuitous romance), so we chose our own sensationalism (rape, illegitimate children, mental insanity, child abuse, tangles with the occult). Ironically, it focuses our fiction on the uglier side of life.

Secular work is censored by Christians for its “comfortable wallowing in sin.” But the secular literature I read tends to downplay evil as part of living in a normal world. Christian literature ramps sin up to the status of horror, drama, and intrigue. It’s the difference between “Hi, did you happen to meet my gay neighbors?” and “OMGDIDYOUSEEWHATTHEYJUSTDID?”

We can’t get over the things that they do! And simultaneously, we don’t know what is realistic. We think worse of them than they deserve. Are we afraid? or fascinated?

I have read Christian fiction

  • in which children are abducted from campgrounds to be molested by total strangers (Possible? Of course. But literally, 1 chance in 347,000—did you know that 82% of child abductions are by family members?)
  • in which women are raped by unknown men passing by (again, probability against is mind-boggling)
  • in which a hated child is kept locked in a closet and regularly sprayed in the eyes with hairspray
  • in which slapdash plots and one-dimensional characters mesh in thrilling death-and-glory chases through dead of night
  • in which the Christian main characters spend the bulk of the book yelling at each other about what to do with an unborn illegitimate child
  • in which a man given up for dead comes back, armed with plans for villainy and destruction
  • and in which a single Christian woman gets frisky with one of her male parishioners, causing guilt! shame! horror!, but later in the same book, a single non-Christian woman gets frisky with her boyfriend, causing nothing but fun and laughter.

I don’t think any of this rings true.

Unbelievers are human. Just like me. Broken. Just like me. Full of conflicting emotions and unhealthy desires. Just like me. At the mercy of their divided hearts. NOT like me, but only because of Jesus. And 90% of them would give the shirt off their back to save me and my child.

Why can’t we just write about the boy down the street who has a mom a fourth of the time, a grandma the rest of the time, and has never met his dad?

(Side note: On the other side of the spectrum–conservative Christian fiction–we can’t write about sin at all because interaction with sinners contaminates, so our characters are flat, our plots go round the mulberry bush once more, and our themes involve turning the other cheek and taking soup to elderly shut-ins. But I digress.)

2. I don’t think we know how to write about redemption.

In true-to-life secular stories, the supernatural is taboo. People must get out of problems by themselves, or with the help of other humans.

Because MCF authors and readers are Christian and believe in the supernatural, we find it easy to stomach astonishing miracles just when the need is greatest. No problemo.

In the book I just read, an angel showed up—not once, but twice. First when the main character got stranded by the roadside and needed someone to carry her bleeding daughter to safety (she tried to cold-shoulder him, needing to protect her daughter from this unknown man), and secondly to post helpful Scripture on a church sign at a crucial moment of repentance.

Of course! Jesus can do that! Real miracles really happen; please don’t hear me scoffing. I’m only mocking the convenience of pulling divine intervention out of our hats. It kills two birds with one stone: puts a holy veneer on the plot to impress the reader, and simultaneously gets the main character (and author) out of the hard work of real-time restoration.

We supernaturally tweak not only deliverance, but repentance. Change. Healing. The main character in my book prayed “Oh Lord, heal me,” and immediately “A calm settled over my spirit. I felt light. Unencumbered.” Years of hurt and bad relationships melted away. That night she called her nemesis to request a step toward healing. By the epilogue (half a chapter and less than one year later), all is restored, and four generations of conflicting women are reunited in peaceful harmony.

Of course! Jesus can do that! He can do anything. But do you hear my impatience with our simple-minded swallowing of anything with the stamp Divine on it? Real-life people take years to heal. An immediate change may come, yes! and then slowly spread to every other area of the life. When you want to reconcile, the nemesis may spit in your face. Christians’ lives are not free of mess and complication. Why do we write them that way?

In short, I think I am asking this—Do we rely on sensationalism to compensate for lack of excellence?

Where is the lyrical beauty of well-crafted words? Where are the compelling plots? The rich, vivid characters? The broken-beautiful of real life? The enduring literary quality? Well, who cares about the vehicle when we’re careening along at 200 mph? People will read our books simply because we keep them on the edge of their seats. And they’re kosher, dark with scandal but bathed in sanctification.

Where am I going with all of this? I don’t know yet. There’s a pseudo-smartness in tearing down what you can’t rebuild; I don’t want to go there. I want something more for us than we’re producing. Can we do better? I don’t know–and doubt my own ability for sure. I just know that if truth and beauty belong to God, then Christians ought to be producing some of the best. Maybe we need more of Jesus in our work–the Wild one who was entirely Good.

What is in our books that will make them last?

That will make them change lives?

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Renita
9 years ago

Hmmm… I think I’m hearing thru all this. You’re comtemplating getting back to writing your book! I like how God works on our minds. 😉 I’m very sure of your ability, Shari! And thank you for your part in lifting my sights to better books. I’m not totally there, but I’m striving for the best. My tastebuds are changing, but they were definitely deadened for a while. Flavors are getting richer and deeper.

Renita
9 years ago

— and I liked your “side note”. I totally agree, and I hope you find lots of people that agree with you! I didn’t get too far on that one in my talk at church. 😉

Sharon Martin
9 years ago

I think that I like you more with each blog post that I read! I appreciate your desire to be humble in your critique but thanks for sharing because this stuff needs to be said by articulate and discerning folks like yourself. I gave up on MCF about 15 years ago and now only dabble occasionally to check if anything has changed. Based on your descriptions of plots you have read, I would say that it has only gotten worse. One of the things keeping some people I know from writing fiction is publication issues. MCF wants sensationalism and Mennonite publishers want safe. Is there someone out there besides self-publishers who will publish the “real deal.” I think there is or will be but the road to publication is hard in 2012. Although I hear a popular blog is the best road. Hint! Hint!

Peg
9 years ago

So much I can agree with here… Sometimes I wonder what my children will have to read that will be healthy without bringing boredom and disillusionment. I’m hoping to buy up some of the books that I loved as a girl, for my own children, but dear me, when they’re out of publication, then what? I got more laughs and imagery out of Anne of Green Gables and more lessons from Louisa May Alcotts’ Little Women series than anything that is written for kids these days. Of course, the Anne books are still being published and I actually have a fairly well-preserved Alcott set of 8 books (garage sale find) that dates back to WW1, but who knows if the brittle pages will last another 15 years??

9 years ago

Hi Shari ~
I like your post…about one of my favorite subjects: books. I read very little MCF anymore, for a lot of the reasons you posted and more. Here is a list of some of my favorite authors who write modern Christian fiction and do it well.

– Michael Phillips (In the style of Harold Bell Wright George MacDonald!)
– Jamie Langston Turner (I have every one of her books and love them all. Her style is totally unique…and totally different than most of what you’ll find on the market. You can find her books at the Meaville library…or you can borrow them from me. :))
– Donna VanLiere (Not classified Christian, but definite Christian themes.)
– Richard Paul Evans (Some of his I like more than others. He is also not classified Christian, but most of his books have good Christian themes.)

Do you have a book you haven’t told me about? 🙂

9 years ago

Def read Jamie Langston Turners books. They stay with me, long after I am done with a book. And I am so with you on the dearth of really good literature from a current Christian perspective. I do like The Sister Chicks books for lighter reading, but there are only a very few of them.

9 years ago

Shari, I love your insight and your way of crafting with words! I couldn’t have said exactly why I’ve read very little MCF in the last 10 years, but you’ve explained it for me. I think I also know now why my husband enjoys good classic fiction. I love reading good children’s historical fiction to my children – that’s how we do history at our house – and I’ve been pleased to find out how many really well-written books there are for children. And I enjoy them as much as the kids do! Also, if I/you want to read about the supernatual, there are many books out there about true stories of the miracles God is doing around the world. That’s way better than fiction! 🙂

(Your MIL showed me your blog and I’m enjoying it very much!)
Your “long-lost cousin”
Jenni

Dad
9 years ago

Shari,

Just letting you know I like your taste… and your distaste. I get hungry for good literature and tired of burping junk food. Recently read a number of Kindle books–some I just didn’t have the heart to finish. It’s hard for me to understand how some of it even gets published. When I first read BLACK by Ted Dekker a couple of years ago, I thought there was some hope.
But it soon withered.

How about you, lady? Why don’t you go for it?

I’ve concluded that the really good stuff calls for more than being swift and daring with the fingers on a keyboard. I don’t think I have the breadth of heart and soul, though it’s fun to play at it. Maybe that’s what most writers think. 🙁

Love you,
Dad

9 years ago

As a writer for the Christian Fiction Examiner, I find vast quantities of MCF that can be graded as low quality- and for me its all about the flavor of the words and story. This is what we as readers look for anyway. In our heart of hearts we want to see “our” story refreshingly retold with all the right terms.

I wrote a brief five paragraph freaky parable at The Write Web about a woman named Yeres. Her prayers are heartfelt but nothing is as instantaneous or “magical” as we tend to think.

Thanks for the post. Love the blog!

9 years ago

You said what I didn’t have words for. My hunger for a worthy book to dig into is not unlike physical hunger before a meal. I’m with you in the question of why Christians aren’t putting the good, beautiful, and true out there in all its wildness and intrigue.

Gina
9 years ago

Facinating and interesting blog!! I went from years of deep in the bowels of Christian fiction to total abstinence from it–first, because I needed the discipline ‘ fast’ away from it, to now finding most of it disgusting ,worthless and a waste of my time and mental energy to sort good from useless.Yet I understand that everyone is at a different place in their journey and some of those books God has used to minister to people where they are at and give them life and hope-tho’ I still feel a constant diet of them doesnt seem to bring maturity even if it helped to bring some truth and life initially.I do think some people can use some of it to relax and chill too and it not be death giving to them.
Here’s a bone that I have to pick along the same line but on a different vein:)) I have questioned what some of our people have swallowed as ‘ok’ literature or classics , I am guessing because of their love and thirst for the beauty of well crafted words.(That also delights me!) BUT some things my children have brought home as literature to read ,when striped of its beauty of well crafted words,is sickening to my spirit!! Listening to one such reading, I internally turned to God and said”God!I am so sorry!! I am sure you want to throw up right now that we christians call this beauty (because of its words) when this evil is what you sent you Son to DIE for to redeem!!” It was as corrupt at the core as alot of other stuff you named but called literature!
Once last year,I ask Heidi to pull up on internet the life story of one of the revered literature writers and i read in depth about his life. I was sickened by the fact that truly ,under his well crafted words and the thrills he sent through them, was a corrupt,immoral life apart from God and all that is good and beautiful of a life with God at its center!! If I lived in his day I would have NOT let my children read his works any more then I would allow them to feast on some of the junk out there today!
I lament with you on the lack of good, honest,interesting and catching Christ- centered books, that do well with redemption as it truly is!!We DO have an awesome God who does do appealing ,thrilling restoration in our hearts that would make wonderful reading material if we had some writers:))hint!!
Back to your bone:) I have this gut feeling that alot of the christian fiction of our day is a perfect mirror of the life style we in America are unknowingly adopting.We WANT restoration of soul to be easy and painfree like our lifestyle is striving to be–instant everything or it isnt worth getting. Real restoration is a painfully long journey that is best done when we are willing to do the hard work of maturing whether we want to or not!!We, in America, so abhor (and feel it is our RIGHT to be free of as much as possible) anything painful (body ,soul or spirit) that we throw all the resources we have, to bring about the most comfort we can–to live as painfree as possible-
Sometime I fear that is going to be our undoing and the undoing of our children in the future!
Blessing on you girl!! Keep writing:))

Roxanne
9 years ago

Shari~
I often begin and don’t finish a book because of the lack of quality!
If a reader takes a total abstinence from any reading other than the Bible while you read it all the way through, the reader’s appetite makes a marked change!!
I love your comment “Maybe we need more of Jesus in our work–the Wild one who was entirely Good.”
I challenge you to read books by Mark Batterson, Carl Medearis and David Platt. These are non-fiction authors that will challenge your walk of faith!!!
Blessings…may we all choose CAREFULLY what we fill our minds with!!