“Good” Fiction or “Good Christian” Fiction?: The Christian as Author Part IV

Celtic Cross

Image: Celtic Cross; Photo: mikeuk@istockphoto.com

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to publicly respond to an abysmal piece of work I saw on Fox News some years ago, when the first of the new Chronicles of Narnia movies came out.  Thankfully, it is also on-topic with our present discussion, and it gives us another case-in-point to illustrate some of the principles I brought up last week.  The article asked, essentially, whether The Chronicles were inherently Christian or if they were just simply good literature.  If the latter, that might explain their massive popularity. So what of it?*

Before we go further, we need to pause and look at the “Christian fiction” question from the other way round.  So far, I’ve been talking about it from the inside-out:  from the author’s internal efforts to the finished product.  Here, we need to consider the outside-in:  Can an author’s work be objectively described as “Christian” whether or not he wrote intending his work to fall into the boundaries of that specific genre?  This is important since, as was pointed out in the comments to my last article, C. S. Lewis never intentionally wrote for the “Christian fiction” market–he just wrote.

In short–if we have a proper understanding of what “Christian fiction” means in this context–I believe we can come to a conclusion about Lewis.  Insomuch that it is possible, I believe we can reasonably define Lewis (and J. R. R. Tolkien) as good examples of “Christian authors.”  I would argue that “Christian fiction” (as a descriptive term rather than a method) is literature that is written through a Christian/Biblical worldview and therefore contains identifiable Christian/Biblical themes and ideas.  It need not have a particular audience in mind, does not have to be explicitly Christian, nor is it required to be evangelistic in nature.  Also (and we’ll talk about this in another post) it need not be labeled or marketed as anything more than a good story.  Viewed from this perspective, Lewis is clearly defined as a Christian author, and therefore the original question would seem legitimate–at least at first.

My problem with the article from Fox was that it was based entirely on a false dilemma.  The books and the movie either had to be one thing or the other; they must be either “good Christian fiction” or they must be simply “good fiction.”  The implication was that if it were the former, then it could not appeal to a non-Christian audience.  If it were the latter, then, it must somehow be less Christian than otherwise.  I see no reason why it can’t be both at once.

Part of what makes good literature good is that it hits you with something that is fundamentally powerful and meaningful.  Christianity has proven from the very beginning of its existence that it does just that.  Its themes and ideas have moved people from all social classes, economic backgrounds, and ideological origins:  from emperors to slaves and capitalists to communists.  People have been literally willing to die in defense of the Truths they’ve learned from it.

Therefore, I don’t think we should be surprised to see that good, intelligent Christian literature contains some of the most powerful ammunition available to an author.  There need be no distinction between “good literature” and “Christian literature” since, Christians have the ability to write uniquely powerful stories that appeal to very broad audiences.

That said, we also know that when people reject the ideas of Christianity, they tend to do so viscerally.  Christians have been (and continue to be) murdered by the thousands over the centuries for holding to their faith.  Even here in America, we see attempts to systematically bar religious (read: Christian) groups from equal use of public facilities, which implies that they are viewed by some as inherently unequal in comparison to secular groups as much as Plessy v.s. Ferguson meant that African Americans were of lesser value when compared to whites.

My point is that not everyone will be moved in the same way.  If Christian themes provoke incredible pathos, they can also provoke outright, unthinking hatred.  If you are a Christian who writes fiction and does it right, you can’t expect to get universal approval; in fact you should expect to be hated, mocked, and ostracized by at least some portion of the population.**  The trick is learning to write stories that are so good that you give people as little justification as possible for doing so, and then finding a way to deal emotionally with the dissenters who are left.

To a certain extent, I think this last point may explain why so many people have accepted the definition of “Christian” fiction (as defined in my opening post in this series).   For the Christians, it provides them with a protected, isolated haven where they can write without having to face their toughest critics (or, indeed, any serious criticism at all).  For the non-Christians, it allows them to summarily ignore/write off any literature that might serious challenge their worldview (ironic, when they often pride themselves on their tolerance and diversity).

In the end, it all reinforces our original calling:  Write from the “whole cast” of our minds and experience, and do it right.  There’s no reason why we can’t write books and stories that are “good fiction,” without being any less “Christian.”

Next Week:  Responding to an objection–“I can’t be a ‘Christian pizza maker,’ can I?”

*Unfortunately, it’s been several years since I read the article, and now have no idea where to find it.  You’ll just have to take my word for it and, as an historian, I’ll just have to cringe at not having a footnote!

**We have to be very careful how we handle this point in particular.  It is very tempting to simply write off all criticism as unjust attacks on our faith.  Also, even with the ones that actually are, it doesn’t follow that all of what a person has to say is necessarily wrong because some of it is.  On the contrary, the truth might well be that we’re just writing garbage.   We have to build up a thick enough skin to take our critics seriously and learn how to improve from them, without letting them dominate our authorial lives.

Other Posts in the Christian as Author Series

  1. The Cesspool Of Christian Fiction
  2. What?  Me Christian?
  3. A Holistic 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 18, 2011, in Authors, Books, Brian Melton, C. S. Lewis, Children's Literature, Christianity, Fantasy, J.R.R. Tolkien, Literary Criticism, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, The Chronicles of Narnia, Theology, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. I think you are applying a point inappropriately here. Generally, I agree with you, however learning to take criticism, both legitimate and illegitimate is something that every author has to face, not just Christian authors. In my experience, most readers are not going to reject a book simply because it was written by a Christian, or because it has themes that are religious in origin (see my example of Orson Scott Card in a previous comment), but a small minority will.

    However, if you look at the reviews of any wildly popular author (I looked up Steven Erikson, Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, David Eddings, and Frank Herbert), you will see the same thing. The majority of the reviews are positive, while a minority of them are profoundly negative. Any good literature is going to attract dissent, and will have people who hate it on principle. The same is true with anything profoundly popular as well. I honestly can’t imagine any American showing a more visceral reaction to good Christian literature, than the reactions I have seen (and honestly had) to the Twilight series. People hold book burnings of the Twilight series (you can find both a facebook group dedicated to this and articles about the events with a little searching).

    Lastly, I think that a simpler explanation of why so many people accept the definition of ‘Christian Fiction’ that was given in your first post is this: the majority of what is marketed as ‘Christian Fiction’ falls into this definition. If we accept the definition of ‘Christian Fiction’ that you have put forth (and I agree with it whole-heartedly), then it should not be a genre.

    • And I generally agree with you too, though I don’t think that my point was inappropriate, given the context of the article. After all, I’m speaking as a Christian specifically to Christians in this series and therefore pointing out some common thoughts and reactions that I’ve encountered living among them (and being one myself). So, yes, there is a larger problem for any author having to learn to deal with criticism and there are some similar themes that apply to all, but I’m not deal with the “all” here.

      I didn’t mean to overplay my thoughts on the “persecution” most American Christians face, and you’re right to point that out. Thankfully, we live in a country where free speech is still possible and Christians generally aren’t persecuted or discriminated against, but that’s not “normal” over the history of the church. Christ Himself predicted it–“If the world hates you, you know that it has hated Me before it hated you. (John 15:8)” So, I think Christian authors need to be aware of it. I personally think that it helps to understand what’s going on and, perhaps more importantly, it helps keep the whining to a minimum.

      • Agreed. I think you managed to make it sound like a uniquely Christian problem, which it is not. More than that, I have lost count of the number of Christians that I have met who feel persecuted because someone disagreed with them, or because they weren’t allowed to do whatever they want. While there is some, slight persecution leveled against the Church in modern America, it does not compare to persecution found in many other countries. On top of that, when vocal disagreement becomes persecution we have forgotten what it means to be American in the first place.

  2. Thank you for the series. I’ve been enjoying seeing the issue finally addressed in a dedicated fashion. After a life long love affair with great “Christian” literature such as The Robe and A Man Called Peter, I had to suffer the culture shock at college of huge groups of girls who thought Francine Rivers and Lori Wick were the be all, end all of Christian Literature. (No disrespect to these good authors, but they’re no Tolstoy.)

  3. @Tobias: Again, I agree, though with a caveat–I think that we’re seeing a disturbing trend among some very vocal aspects of American society that are trying to systematically exclude religion (and in the American context, Christians in particular) from participation in public discourse or use of public facilities. Though that’s still not on the level of serious persecution, it does go beyond disagreement into serious infringement on free speech. Worse, it seems to be increasing.

    I do think you just fell into the same trap I did (though I would also guess that you didn’t mean to imply it was exclusively a problem in the church). The “disagreement as persecution” sentiment is a much broader societal ill, and, if anything, is more rampant on college and university campuses than it is in churches. The immediate example that comes to mind was the debate in North Carolina (I believe) over whether or not to censor a “free speech tunnel” because some people found some of the things posted/said there “offensive.”

    The very idea of public “free speech zones” is another symptom. Ah well. That’s a whole other barrel of worms.

    • You’re right, I did just fall into that trap. No, I did not mean to imply that this is an exclusively Christian problem. It is a general problem that Christians exhibit in a particular way (sensitivity to disagreement with religious beliefs and values). You are correct that there is some limited persecution of the church. However, the concept of a Right of Free Speech is an American idea, not a Christian one. Peter, James, and Paul all suffered beatings for speaking out about the name of Christ, and we are told that they did so joyfully. Are we incapable joyfully suffer fines, lawsuits, and public ridicule for doing the same? The church as a whole certainly seems to be. The overriding attitude of the New Testament is to joyfully accept persecution as a sharing in the sufferings of Christ. Instead we fight back against persecution because it violates our rights as Americans (which it does). Personally, I think that this is the wrong attitude for the church as a whole to portray.

  4. Well said (the article).

    Part of the problem with “persecution” is that in a society like ours it tends to be subtle. People in academia have been denied tenure and/or promotion (or hiring in the first place) because of their Christian beliefs, and others were denied because their work was substandard. Unfortunately, the two categories overlap, which makes it hard to know for certain that any given Christian is being treated unfairly. When they burn you at the stake, on the other hand, it has a wonderful tendency to concentrate the mind, as well as being not terribly difficult to interpret. I’ve seen enough to think that Brian’s concern is not wholly misplaced.

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