“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?