What? Me Christian?: The Christian as Author Part II

begging dog

Oh please like me!

Last week, I began a series dealing with what I believe is a false semantical dilemma for believers in our modern age: the idea that as writers we must either be “Christian” authors in the stereotypical Christian-bookstore-Thomas-Kincade sense of the term or separate our faith from our fiction to become authors who also just happen to be Christians. I rather snarkily commented upon the former extreme. This week I will try to tackle the latter. In my next post, I hope to offer an approach that represents a better, older understanding of how we should approach our craft.

(Incidentally, if I can snark on one side, I should probably snark on the other in order to be fair. 😉 I also want to point out that this is not “in response” to anyone. Rather, it is the cumulative result of a number of conversations/encounters with multiple people over the course of years.)

There are number of very sincere, intelligent believers who look at what the genre of “Christian” fiction has become and they are righteously disgusted by it. They recognize that those books aren’t being read, not because they’re Christian books, but often because they’re simply slop. Reacting against it, they distance themselves from it by billing themselves as “an author who also just happens to be a Christian.” They try to focus on writing good fiction, and in the process they purposely avoid the themes and ideas they see in “Christian” works for fear that they might be associated with them. The people I’ve talked to who come from this perspective, just like the ones on the “Christian” fiction side, have the best, most noble of intentions, just a different audience: ”Christian” fiction aims at believers, while fiction that happens to be written by a Christian is aimed at non-believers.

While this approach seems like wisdom to many people, I find that it fails on multiple levels, and is therefore not tenable as a consistent position. I’m getting ahead of myself, though. Here are my issues:

  • It fails on an emotional level (for me):  From my experience, this position tends to be held by people who want to have their cake and eat it too–or perhaps I should say their faith and not be persecuted for it.  Too often, this leads to a sort of whipped puppy approach where the individual slinks along behind their secular colleagues, constantly begging for approval.  While I react just as viscerally to arrogant Christians who see themselves as innately superior to everyone else, I cannot fully respect a position that claims a form of godliness behind closed doors only to essentially deny it in public because they want to be liked.  The resulting books often fall between the cracks, being neither good “Christian” nor good secular fiction.
  • It allows the “Christian” fiction people to control the debate:  This position isn’t a thing in and of itself.  It is really just a reaction to the other extreme I discussed last week.  Therefore, it has no consistent life of its own, and is in fact controlled and defined by the very position it despises–whatever x does, y chooses the opposite.  Very few positions, thus arrived at, can stand for long, nor are they due much philosophical attention.
  • It fails on a philosophical level (in general):  If you truly are a Christian, then that is foundational to your larger life.  Everything you do is influenced by it, even if the way in which it is affected may not be obvious.  If you truly have compartmentalized your faith completely away from your writing, you need to have an honest talk with yourself about what your Christianity actually means to you.  If your writing is indeed influenced by your faith, then you are more than just an “author who happens to be a Christian,” even if you don’t fit the stereotype of “Christian” author.  More on that next week.  It also leads into my next point.
  • It is nearly always ethically dishonest to someone:  If you are influenced by your faith, then implying otherwise to your non-Christian readers is frankly hypocritical, and I wouldn’t blame them if they reacted angrily when they found out.  If you have compartmentalized your writing to the point that your faith truly has no effect on it, then you are being dishonest with yourself, at the very least, not to mention the people around you, and, perhaps, God Himself.

And therefore, I reject both of the stereotypical views of how a Christian should write fiction. Neither holds enough water to fill a tea cup, let alone the ocean of creative imagination that we hope to unleash onto an unsuspecting world when we sit down to write. I also reject the idea that we must simply react to what the rest of the world thinks. I propose that we do something proactive about it. That involves returning to an understanding of Christian literature that was well known to men like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Next Week: A different approach…

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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 August 4, 2011, in Authors, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Christianity, Inspiration, J.R.R. Tolkien, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Words, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 18 Comments.

  1. I think that the entire problem raised by the advent of ‘Christian’ entertainment is based on a false assumption in general. The problem that Brian raises in looking at these two approaches is based on a second false assumption. The first false assumption is that Christians are supposed to separate ourselves out of mainstream culture. However, as I pointed out last week, this effectively makes us ‘of the world but not in the world’ instead of ‘in the world but not of the world.’

    However, the second false assumption is, I think, more important for this discussion. That false assumption is that if a work contains clear references to Judeo-Christian religious doctrine, then the mainstream market will not appreciate it. However, if we look at the mainstream market, we can see that this is blatantly untrue. Orson Scott Card, a very popular author, is a member of the LDS Church (Mormons if you don’t know what that means) and his work contains clear themes of the trinity (I’ve seem references that appear to reflect the more orthodox Christian concept of the trinity and references that reflect a very LDS concept of the trinity) in the Ender series (Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide both come to mind here). In his novel The Treasure Box there are also clear themes of temptation, sin, truth, and righteousness. However, these themes have not significantly hurt his sales. Brandon Sanderson, another member of the LDS Church (unless I have been sorely mislead), has several novels that have clearly religious overtones.

    However, perhaps the clearest reference I can make is the move The Passion of the Christ, which ranks at number 15 for all-time highs on domestic gross income from the box office, brought in almost $371 million, even though its inspiration, theme, and material was entirely taken from Christianity. So we can say with confidence that the idea that something must be sanitized of religious influences to be popular is bunk.

    However, that black and white, sanitized material that appeals so strongly to the modern ‘Christian’ culture does not appeal to the mainstream audience. This can be shown by comparing the numbers from the first Left Behind movie to those of the Passion. Where Passion made almost $371 million, Left Behind weighs in at $4.2 million in the box office, right in between Evil Dead ($2.4 million) and Evil Dead 2 ($5.9 million), two of the biggest box office flops in horror movie history.

  2. Not sure that Brian is making either false assumption, though the people he is rejecting may be; but I do look forward to his next entry.

    If only Left Behind the book series had done as badly as the movie!

    • That is what I was intending to say. I think that the people he is speaking of in this post in particular fall into the trap of the second false assumption, while those referred to in the first post fall into the first assumption. And agreed, if only the books had flopped.

  3. Thanks for sharing this! I found this blog post to be both interesting and helpful. I have a hard time reading most modern christian fiction because the writing often lacks merit and weight. Unfortunately, Christian society tells us we are are less spiritual if we enjoy something that doesn’t fall under the category of “Christian fiction.” I, often, even find myself in the danger of looking for spiritual applications in books that are not written by Christians, because they seem to have more depth than what is written by most “Christian” fiction authors. Christian authors who are writing these messy “Christian” fiction books full of “overspiritualizations” and fancy “Christianese” certainly are not using their called vocation to reach out to both the world as well as other Christians. Even as a child, I could recognize many of the spiritual references in the C.S. Lewis Narnia series and yet these books have been enjoyed universally worldwide. I, of course, can’t deny that sometimes these other books do some good, for someone. My sister isn’t a practicing Christian, but she loved the Left Behind Series (mentioned by a couple fellow readers above)! I have heard it said though that Revelations is one of the most read books of the Bible by non-Christians. Perhaps then, the popularity of the Left Behind series had little to do with its spiritual value, but is just seen as another interesting sci-fi story. I can’t really make a clear judgment since I never made it past the first book.

    • It’s interesting that you said you’re wary of “looking for spiritual applications” in non-Christian writings. I myself love hearing and reading spiritual messages and echoes in secular music and writing. In a way, it affirms for me that God is the answer to life. You hear a singer wishing for a boy-/girlfriend who is absolutely faithful, never hurts their significant other, or is selflessly supportive — only God can do all of that; humans will always hurt each other. Or you find quests for meaning, a yearning for a reason to hope, or a fight against sin. Admittedly, there are also messages of decadence and embracing vices and sin. It’s finding the gems that thrills me.

      I forget who said it, but a recent comment or post on this blog said that some Christians are afraid of a world with gray in it. They want fiction with clear right and wrong because it’s comforting. But secular artists seem to be more honest, at times, and reveal humanity at its core.

      • This is very true. I would argue that black and white exist, but that we as humans have difficulty seeing anything but gray. Even when it comes to scriptural commands, many people disagree. This leads us to even more gray. I think that most of the time we create gray in the process of trying to find black and white. Take drinking for example, many Christians feel (and I use this term intentionally) that this is a black and white issue (i.e. that it is wrong), when scripture does not say this. On the other hand, scripture is very clear about the issue of divorce, and yet many Christians turn this into a gray issue. We have a very strong tendency to allow our understanding of sin to be determined by the culture in which we live, rather than the scripture that we read. Then we force our own views of sin into scripture. It’s a problem.

  4. I just wanted to say that I’ve very much enjoyed the posts on this topic, as it’s one I’ve struggled with myself in my own writings. I do have a small confession; I’ve read and own the entire Left Behind series, plus the audio dramas, plus the kids series, the spinoffs…:etc. I enjoyed the books on a story-telling level, although I did disagree with their theology on several points. on the other hand, I will readily admit that the series won’t rank with the classics of literature, but I don’t think it’s a horrible offense against the English language either. At any rate, I do take your point about the problems with Christian fiction, and I’m looking forward to next week’s post about what you think it should be like.

    • To each their own. I actually agree with most of the theology in the series…well…in the first two and a half books anyway. My issues with the series were on the most basic writing level. The overall plot was generally the book of Revelation (which I find interesting enough), but the sentence and paragraph level writing bored me to tears. I have yet to understand how Lahay and his partner managed to make the book of Revelation boring, but I think they did.

  5. Sorry not to comment sooner–we’re traveling and I only have a moment. I’m glad everyone is enjoying the posts.

    On the idea of finding spiritual applications in non-Christian works, actually I think that’s fine, handled on a larger level. What I mean by that is that at the broadest level, all Truth is God’s Truth–there isn’t one truth for secular authors and another for us. If a non-Christian author speaks truth, then, we need to heed it. I do think that we need to be careful about making assumptions about authorial intent. Sometimes people–myself included–speak the truth without knowing it!

  6. Wayne the Shrink

    Thank you, Brian. To expand the context even more, I think that we all have very real and serious issues with an infinite God. We draw lines where God does not simply because our minds and conceptions fail at that point. We are constantly re-drawing those lines as we mature and often don’t realize it until someone stumbles where we have now found freedom. The anger, judgment, and condemnation that results from our drawing lines that God doesn’t provides me much of my income! If and when we learn to love the person while judging the sin I will probably be out of a lot of my business.

    I don’t expect that I will be starving anytime soon.

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