The Cesspool of “Christian” Fiction: The Christian as Author Part I

A metaphoical view of the average “Christian fiction” section of your local bookstore.

Today I would like to start a series dealing with a very intense topic for writers who are also Christians in today’s world:  How do we define ourselves, and, in the end, does it really matter?  Most attempts to answer this question begin by setting up what I believe is a false dilemma.  On the one hand we have the idea of the “Christian author” and on the other that of the “author who just happens to be a Christian.”

Unfortunately, neither of those definitions really satisfies or is philosophically consistent, at least as currently understood.  Therefore, I would submit that we need to look at something new–or, more properly, a rediscovery of something old that has been forgotten.*

First, we shall deal with the modern conception of the “Christian author” who writes “Christian fiction.”  I for one use those terms only when I am forced to do so.** In modern parlance, a “Christian author” is very narrowly defined as “that which springeth forth from the shelves of Christian bookstores, whence only Christians go, and therefore only Christians read.”  Further, their product, “Christian fiction,” is considered to be–often justly–a stereotypical mismash of cliched themes, forced/unnatural discussions of religion, church-type anachronisms, and predictably unrealistic endings. I find this definition somewhat justified, in the sense that there is A LOT of this type of garbage out there and those that peddle it are LOUDLY “Christian.”  It is therefore understandable how people walk away thinking that this is the totality of what Christians write.

My problem with the label is that it is also plainly inaccurate and wrong on a deeper and broader level.  These sorts of novels aren’t garbage because they contain Christian themes or because they are written by Christians.  They’re nonsense because they’re so poorly written in general.  The Christianity involved is frankly incidental.  If that same author were to write another book on another topic, it would be just as bad.  Often, just like “Christian” music, their works are whatever the rest of the world did five years ago with a Bible verse slapped on it or an altar call crammed into it.  As intelligent, thinking Christians (whether authors, musicians, or otherwise) we do and are done a disservice when we applaud “Christian” authors who write trash and think the standard sufficiently raised over the “world.”

Unfortunately, this also says something very sad about a church culture where the standard for real literacy and good taste has fallen so low.  I understand very well that not everyone will be able to understand and appreciate the depths of the “Greats” of Christian literature nor do I think that being able to do so makes one person “more Christian” than another.  Some people are given equally valuable gifts that take them in other directions.  I do have, however, a problem with a “Christian” subculture that is geared to promote and reward the creation of substandard drivel in the place of something deep and real.  I am positively angry (righteously so, I pray) at a subculture that discriminates against good literature by ingraining a shallow, anti-intellectual bias.

It hasn’t always been (and doesn’t have) to be this way.  For hundreds of years, thousands of Christian authors have produced landmark works of art to which, frankly, most modern authors can’t hold a candle.  Tolkien, Lewis, Augustine, Dante, Sayers, MacDonald and many, many others all stand as testament to this fact.

Next week:  The author who just happens to maybe also be a Christian, part-time, on alternate Wednesdays, but don’t hold that against me, please…. https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=600 *Is knowing and understanding such things important?  Without doubt it is.  “For as [a person] thinks within himself, so he is.” (Proverbs 23:7)  As humans we have a tendency to become what we conceive ourselves to be.  C. S. Lewis remarked on this when he said of Uncle Andrew that, “the trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that you very often succeed.”  So, however you define your role as an author will be what you tend toward.  To do otherwise means you’re becoming a hypocrite–saying one thing and doing another.

**The fact is that people think in this terminology and if you want your post to appear in search engines, you have to use certain terms.  Hence, I included “Christian Fiction” in the title of my previous post not because I write “Christian fiction” in the skewed sense which I identify here, but rather because I’m most likely to pick up hits from Christians who read by using it. https://lanternhollow.files.wordpress.com/2011/02/newrule5.gif?w=600

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About Brian

I am a history professor and author living with my family in the Virginia Mountains. It's hard to improve on a life like this!

Posted on July 28, 2011, in Art, Authors, Books, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Dorothy Sayers, Fantasy, George MacDonald, History, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Prince Caspian, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Horse and His Boy, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Theology, Waverly Hall and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Had an interesting conversation about this very topic tonight. We discussed why it is that many Christians and ‘Christian’ culture in general (I still refuse to use such terms with any degree of seriousness, but continually writing out a whole sentence to mean the same thing is tedious) seem to have such a desperate need to codify and sanitize their art into purely sterile blacks and whites. The final decision was two-fold 1) that the American church in general is immature, and 2) that those Christians who can succeed in the secular world most often do and thus are not bound to the restrictions of ‘Christian’ art. I’m not sure where this last puts me yet…we’ll see whether or not I succeed.

    • I definitely agree with the point about immaturity, and I think that’s the heart of the problem. You see the same trend amongst Christians who insist that the Founding Fathers were, to a man, Bible-believing Christians. Admitting that some of them were deists is somehow threatening to their faith and, as their faith is the most important part of their lives, they build up artificial defenses against it.

      It’s the same with fiction. Their faith is immature enough that they’re afraid, on a very deep level, what will happen if it is seriously challenged, and so they shut down all possible threats. For someone like that, “safe” fiction is the only acceptable alternative, and, like the weaker brother, they insist that everyone else must conform to that standard too.

      I also think that we need to be careful how we react. We aren’t any better off than them if we scoff and mock them, as is tempting.

      • I think that we have to treat them as the weaker brother. I do not allow the fact that many Christians in the south have a problem with drinking keep me from buying stuff at an ABC store, and if I were a brewer I would not allow it to keep me from making alcohol. However, I would not take one of them too an ABC store, or ask them to buy the alcohol that I made.

        In the same way I won’t let the weaker brother dictate what I read, or write. However, I am not going to encourage him to read, or intentionally expose him to material that I do not think he could handle.

  2. I remember when Amy Grant first had a hit on secular radio. Conservative Christians were shocked. Some “Christian” radio stations stopped playing her music. She had crossed over, something you just didn’t do. Surely she was being led astray.

    Thankfully, views have evolved since then. There are a handful of bands/musicians that have songs on secular radio as well as stations like K-love (Reliant K, P.O.D. and Disciple come to mind). I don’t think the stigma is completely gone, though; these bands are somewhat marginalized in the Christian music arena.

    I think Christian music is perhaps more honest than its fiction, now. Tenth Avenue North, for example, has thoughtful lyrics about life as a Christian paired with quality musicianship. I have not perused Christian fiction in a long time, so I can’t point to any authors who appear in Christian bookstores and who are exceptionally honest. (Frank Peretti may be one, but it’s been a number of years since I read him.)

    • I remember the Amy Grant fiasco too. And let’s not forget Michael W. Smith!

      I think that any group that is self consciously Christian will be marginalized to some extent, and I don’t think that should surprise us–if they aren’t “conformed to the world” that means that people will look at them as “different”, if nothing else (hopefully fresh and engaging). If they’re pointing the right direction, then inevitably some people will find those themes actively antagonistic to their lifestyle too. That makes groups like those (or Skillet) even less likely to ever be fully mainstreamed, no matter how good their music is.

    • I think that P.O.D. is a great example. They are a group of Christians – as far as I know the only group of Christians – who has been invited to play in Ozzfest a number of times. While there are a couple of authors who are Christians (looser definition than I normally use here) that work in the secular world (Orson Scott Card, Lars Walker, and Brandon Sanderson are the three that I’m thinking of), they are not generally popular in the ‘Christian’ culture. Stephen Lawhead is the only ‘crossover’ that I can think of, and I’m not sure he really counts because he was not a part of the American ‘Christian’ culture. He was first published by Lion Press (English Company owned by Christians) that has since gone out of business. His books were then picked up by a mainstream American publishing house (don’t remember which one off of the top of my head).

  3. Christian music may have evolved in the realm of it’s ‘honest lyrics’, but I’m afraid it’s still woefully behind in terms of it’s actual musical standards. Many ‘Christian’ bands are little more than a few guys (and/or girls) with a guitar, drums, and maybe a piano if they’re being ‘special’. They usually have a sense of rhythm, but little more. Harmonies, if present at all, are basic. The singing and the music sound more like they just happen to be being played at the same time than that they were written to go together. It makes me sad, it really does.

    Thankfully, there are a few real gems out there. Like Third Day and Mercy Me (another one that sparkled on the secular charts until they realized: “Gosh, these guys are CHRISTIANS! We can’t have them here!”), to name two.

    • On the whole, I think you’re right. I would *love* to find a band that sounds like Mumford & Sons but does Christian songs.

  4. Hear, hear! Well said, Brian.

    On this topic, you might also want to read my article “Writers Cramped: Three Things Evangelical Authors Can Learn from Flannery O’Connor,” Touchstone 20:7 (September 2007): 15-18. the original title was “Why Evangelicals Can’t Write, and How Flannery O’Connor Can Help Them Learn Better.”

    If you can’t find Touchstone in your local library, write me at dtw@tfc.edu and ask, and I will send you the unexpurgated file (before they edited it). And ask your library to subscribe!

  5. Wayne the Shrink

    We all suffer from limited viewpoints. Here, on a ‘Christian’ writer’s blog, I don’t think I’ve ever heard C K Chesterton mentioned, much less someone like Alfred Edersheim – that last is probably expecting way too much, true. I guess I have always been different, though. Years ago, when I began practicing, I routinely told people that I would rather they see a competent secular therapist who respected their religion than they see an incompetent “Christian Therapist”.

    As a history buff my wife thought I was strange when I read all 10 volumes of “The War at Sea” when we moved to Hampton Roads. I confirmed it to her when I brought home three volumes on just the naval battles in the Solomon Sea and devoured them. Yes, Brian, I’ve now downloaded “Battles and Leaders” to my kindle and am reading it, despite the terrible conversion to electronic media.

    I agree with all you say about the poor drivel now being pushed as “Christian Fiction” – I haven’t read any since Peretti. But then, as a teenager, I found “Little House on the Prairie” to be overly saccarine and forced my self to learn to appreciate James Fennimore Cooper. No wonder I find that “Christian” stuff empty and void.

    • Actually, the only reason I haven’t brought G. K. Chesterton into it yet is that he’s still on my reading list. I’ve been focused on reading history books for my day job, so I can get to these sorts of books only so often!

      My daughter has been watching seasons of “Little House” recently and I have to say that I’ve had a different reaction. After decades of shows where the father is portrayed as an ignorant, beer-swilling, pot-bellied, jackass or a good intention doofus who presides over a completely dysfunctional family of mini-me copies of himself, the character of Pa is refreshing. Of course, its an idealized situation and can only be taken in small doses, but as I look around, I realize that there ARE no ideals left anymore for people to look up to in the popular culture.

      I’d much rather my daughter be looking for a man like Pa to marry, and have to settle for something a bit less, than just about anything on TV today!

      • I was never a fan of Little House on the Prairie…I think I was forced to watch it as a child (if I remember correctly) but I much preferred He-Man. That being said, I love the Dick Van Dyke Show. The vision of the father as a buffoon really took off with the Simpsons (which I love), however the Simpsons did it for a specific reason and in a specific way that did not portray ALL fathers, or ALL men, in that light. Unfortunately most of the shows that have picked up the model do not make that distinction. I don’t watch them.

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