The Root Problem With Christian Fiction

Root Christian fiction

I’m very sorry for my lack of posts at the moment, life’s just been hectic and it’s a bit tiring. Or, you know, a lot tiring. I mean, when I usually say “life’s hectic” I usually mean that I’ve been moderately busy and too lazy to write a post, but this time I mean “oh, schedule is completely upside down and I can’t seem to go to bed before twelve-thirty am. So yeah…

Anyway, my plan for today was a blog post on whether Christians should be writing Christian or secular fiction, but the wonderful Audrey Caylin actually did a post on this a few weeks ago. I couldn’t think of anything to add to her points, so if you want a look at this issue, you can check out her blog post here.

Having decided to skip that post, I’m up to the last one in my Christian fiction series (for the foreseeable future anyway. I have plenty of other ideas I might develop into posts sometime next year). In this post, I’m going to be—hopefully—addressing the issue of the single biggest problem I see in Christian fiction.

Let’s get into it 😀

There are bad books in every single genre ever invented. For every The Hunger Games, there’s a poor-quality rip off. For every LOTR there’s generic fantasy involving jewellery, quests and hobbit-like creatures. For every Pride and Prejudice there’s a dozen cringeworthy romances.

Bad literature isn’t a problem confined to the market of Christian fiction. The secular YA shelves are chock-full of cheap stories, bad prose and flat characters. Despite this, Christian fiction still gets a reputation for cheesy narratives stuffed with clichés and sermons. Why?

Because it’s consistently low-quality. YA authors have redeemed themselves with the wealth of bestsellers they’ve produced over the years. Books like The Fault in Our Stars, The Hunger Games, The Book Thief, and The Giver have touched the hearts of millions. Unfortunately, even the Christian bestsellers tend to be pretty poor works of art.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In no way am I blanketing Christian fiction as all being horrible. There’s some fantastic literature out there. Nadine Brandes’ books are proof that Christians can write stories as riveting as their YA counterparts. But these books are the exceptions rather than the rule.

To reiterate my point, Christian fiction is consistently bad.

For a long time, I couldn’t pinpoint why Christian fiction was so bad. Sure, the books feature recycled plots, have dull characters and are all set in the Regency (or Lancaster County, or the Wild West). But as I said, these aren’t problems only Christians struggle with. Thousands of secular books fall into obscurity because of these same reasons. So why? Why? What are Christian authors doing so horribly wrong?

A lot of things. But I’m not here to talk about all these problems, only the one I see as the root problem. A problem only faced by Christian authors.

God is not present in Christian novels.

Oh, there’s no shortage of morals, Bible verses, sermons or feel good inspiration. There’s only a shortage of…God.

I can hardly say I’m well-read when it comes to Christian romance. But reading a romance the other day, it occurred to me that the author was constantly hammering this idea:

The most powerful thing God can do is give you a husband, a good life and a happy ending.

In fact, I felt that this particular novel promoted the idea that God isn’t good unless He gives you what you want.

Maybe that’s a bit unfair. I’m certain this wasn’t the message the author wanted to convey. But it came across that way and it left me wondering if this author had read the Bible lately. I wondered if she had opened the book of Ezekiel or Isaiah and seen exactly what God is like.

God never promises happy endings on earth. Of course, He promises eternal life glorifying Him, but there’s no promised happy ending whilst we live on earth. In fact—unless we’re raptured or Jesus returns some time soon—the only way we’ll be with God is if we die, which is the single most unhappy ending ever. Italicised to make my point 😛

We’re only humans. We our finite brains can never capture God’s infinite, eternal, omniscient (etc) nature. But even in light of this, the Christian fiction interpretation of God seems narrow.

And maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe this problem lies, not with authors, but with Western Christians in general. But it’s the problem that we need to address more than clichés, cheesiness or bad prose.

God is more powerful than we could dare imagine.

I’ve been reading Ezekiel lately and one thing I’ve noticed is the emphasis placed on God’s holy nature. His power, magnificence, justice, and holiness are at the forefront of the narrative.

God asks Ezekiel to do odd, humiliating and depressing things, all to bring His wayward people back to Him. He doesn’t tie up all the loose ends and present Ezekiel, or the people of Israel, with a happy ending. Instead, He promises to replace their hearts of stone. He promises to cleanse them with His salvation (Ezekiel 37). He promises them new life and their Promised Land back. But He makes it clear that this is for His name and not for the House of Israel that He will do this (Ezekiel 37:22). Israel has profaned God’s name but God is going to restore it, so that the world will see Him as a God of justice, forgiveness, and holiness.

The images used in Ezekiel are graphic but powerful. Israel is rebellious, enslaved and tormented, but God promises a new life and a new hope. He promises them redemption and a future in a land free of famine and desolation. It’s a strange, powerful, glorious story. A more powerful story than a girl who “trusts in God” and gets married to a cute fellow.

It’s not easy to be a Christian. That’s something we as western Christians have forgotten. Few western Christians have died for their faith. Few understand exactly how magnificent and how powerful God is.

I’m no exception. I can’t begin to imagine God’s grace, love and majesty, but reading Ezekiel has given me a better understanding of it.

And of course, no novel that we could ever write can show God as He truly is. Nothing can. But artists have the task of recreating and depicting a sliver of God’s personality. God is the original Creator and His glory is reflected in everything He ever made. You can see His power in the oceans, mountains, flowers, sunsets… If you don’t believe me, try reading Psalm 89, 139, 98, 104. There’s a myriad of other passages that describe God’s Creation and His power. And isn’t there a little of God in each of us? After all, we are made “in His image” (Genesis 1:27, 9:6 etc).

In Christian fiction, the God who created the stars becomes a god who is able to find a sweet girl a husband. The God who set the universe in motion becomes a god who’ll work everything out for your happiness. The God who wept for Jerusalem’s sins becomes a god who is mildly annoyed if you do something bad. The God who sent His son to die a horrific death on a Roman cross becomes a god more like Santa Claus. The God of faith, hope and love becomes a god of shallow prayers and sermons, and physical attraction.

Let me say it again. God is more powerful than we dare imagine.

And yet He sent Jesus to save us. He promises us a new heart, cleansing by Jesus’ blood, and the ultimate joyful ending in His presence one day.

In my opinion, the way to fix Christian fiction is simply to lay aside our preconceived ideas of God and seek Him. Even if you’d been a Christian for sixty years, there’s more to learn. You can never learn it all. So no matter what area of your Christian walk you’re currently in, pick up your Bible and read about God. Read about His character, His plans, His creation…

And then ask God to show you how to reflect a sliver of that personality in your writing.

I don’t think you can go wrong there.

This probably came across as harsh, but sometimes I think harsh is good. Or at least, insightful. What do you think? Do you agree with my conclusion? I’d love to hear all your opinions!

21 thoughts on “The Root Problem With Christian Fiction

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head here. I read 20+ Christian fiction books in my early teen years, and only a few of them kept God as the main focus and (as a result) felt powerful and encouraging. Another problem seems to be the fight between “message” and “story”. I see this in film more than fiction, but a lot of the time, Christian stories feel like the creator had to choose between telling a story or making the message blatantly obvious. But since we serve the God who created things “pleasing to the eye AND good for food” (emphasis mine!), it should be a both-and instead of either-or.

    And wow, great point about understanding who God really is, being deeply convicted personally before writing our stories. Our beliefs will inevitably spill over into our stories, but we can’t write effectively if we don’t understand God thoroughly! (Also, nice to meet a fellow believer in the rapture! 😀).

    Amazing post!!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love what you said about the fight between “message and story”. I definitely agree that too many Christian artists sacrifice one for the other when really they should be able to work together harmoniously.
    And thank you. That’s something I’ve really been learning in the past few months. I know I definitely have a view of who I want God to be, and I imagine other people do too, and often that image misses the mark completely and that only by reading the Bible can we really build a picture of who God really is. (hehe. Well, either we’ll be raptured, and Jesus will come back, or Jesus will come back and then we’ll get our joyful ending. Either way, I’m happy :P)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great article today! I truly do agree with you conclusion here.
    This search for “ultimate” happiness, is something that really bothers me in real, life as well as in fiction.
    Fulfilling God’s purpose may not include worldly comfort, and happiness for everyone, and that is often glossed over.
    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I was nodding along the whole time while reading this post; you hit a lot of good, valuable points. I especially agree with you about the God-deficit in a lot of Christian fiction. You’re absolutely right about this being a bigger problem than any cheesiness or poor writing! It’s unfortunate that Christian fiction has such a bad rep but I truly believe that, with posts like yours (and novels like yours too!), by God’s grace, Christian fiction has a good chance of advancing and becoming a genre worthy of respect and admiration)! Absolutely wonderful post!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I really enjoyed your post. You have a lot of good points and write very eloquently. But I’m not really sure what your main point is, or how this fits in with your last post on Christian fiction?
    You started off by talking about other genres, how there’s good and bad in each one etc., then asked why Christian fiction is consistently bad. But then you went on to say that the problem with Christian fiction is that God isn’t in it. So do you think God is in the good books of other genres you mentioned, such as The Hunger Games? I’d argue that he is, implicitly, through a story that accurately portrays humanity and tries to tell the truth. But in that case, what is the need to distinguish Christian fiction from general fiction? If the problem is that God isn’t explicitly present in Christian novels, then there can’t be a valid comparison with other genres.
    This is personal taste here, but I’ve read only one book where God was present in the story and didn’t feel like the author’s mouthpiece. I just don’t think it’s possible to write a good story about God, because our imaginations are so feeble compared with Him, and a story is just a tiny part of those inadequate imaginations.
    But that’s just my opinion. The other thing I’m unclear on is that I had the impression from your last post on the topic that you think all Christian fiction should be clean (but correct me if I’m wrong). How can we accurately portray God and the world in perfectly clean stories? How can we take on a task as impossible as trying to portray God in a fiction story while simultaneously limiting our imaginations to what can’t offend our audiences?
    Personally, I think the root problem with Christian fiction is audience pandering. The authors want to write something irreproachable, that can’t possibly be misunderstood or cause offence, so they stay safe and don’t write anything original or complicated.
    So I think you make a lot of really great points in this post, but I don’t agree with your conclusion, possibly because I don’t quite understand where it comes from.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree with christineeyre: you hit the nail right on the head. There seems to be a shallowness with today’s Christian fiction, lacking the depth that Christians need to grow their faith and learn more about God.
    Awesome post! 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Yes yes yes yes yes. I totally agree with all of this. I stopped reading the more mainstream Christian books a while back just because the quality was bad. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve turned a more critical eye to them. Excluding some exceptions such as Nadine Brandes’ work, Christian books don’t seem to be very Christian. Great post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. AMEN. I’ve felt this so often with so many Christian books today: they just don’t have the core of Christianity in them. They have watered down Christianity or “light” Christianity. I do believe that God takes interest in all parts of our lives (like finding a spouse or even passing a test), but there is a way to powerfully show who He truly is in those moments.
    Excellent post! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  9. How can you say God isn’t present in Christian fiction?? the MC went with her family to church that one time, didn’t she?? and the preacher/whoever gave the exact neat little phrase/quote she needed to hear to overcome her internal conflict (involving her basically secular lifestyle)???

    *side-eyes sarcasm*

    “a god more like Santa Claus” < never thought about it like that but that's EXACTLY IT. I'm by no means an expert (seeing as I haven't written any novels yet), but I have read a bit, and now you mention it, I guess one of the major issues is a shallow depiction of God.
    Jem Jones

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Oh yes I have definitely found Christian fic to be continually bad 😂it’s such a shame? I think it’s really tainted the genre as a whole and it’ll be VERY hard to come back from it (although I know a lot of Christian authors who write really good books and are doing the genre proud) when it’s given itself a name for being cliche and teeth-gritting cheesey. It’s definitely a problem. 😔

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Thank you! And yes, the quality is terrible in some of those books, but the less mainstream ones, in my opinion, tend to be much better at not only being authentic, but also being high quality. Thanks for reading 😀

    Like

  12. “Watered down Christianity” is a great phrase, and yeah, I definitely think it’s applicable when referring to a lot of Christian fiction.
    I agree! I didn’t mean to imply that God *didn’t* care about those things (marrying someone is a huge commitment after all!), but it appears to me that making sure a girl falls in love with a handsome boy is all God’s capable of doing in Christian books (particularly the romances).
    Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Yes, that’s definitely what I see when I look at Christian fiction. But I’m super grateful for the newer generation of Christian authors, who are already managing to make a difference and will keep on making a difference 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think you’re right. It’s really hard to get a reputation back after losing it in such a spectacular way! 😛 But yes, there are some brilliant Christian authors out there.

    Like

  15. Your first paragraph reminded me of one of the other things that annoy me in Christian fiction…the pastor fixes everything with a sermon and everyone lives happily ever after. *sigh*.
    Sometimes I think that God in Christian fiction is sort of like the scene in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, where Father Christmas turns up to give everyone exactly what they needed, and then he disappears and is never heard from again.

    Like

  16. Thank you 😀
    “Fulfilling God’s purpose may not include worldly comfort, and happiness for everyone, and that is often glossed over.” <<< Personally, I feel that that is one of the most important things to remember. In fact, in my personal experience, following God is much more uncomfortable than not and I feel Christian fiction is dishonest for not portraying that effectively.

    Liked by 1 person

  17. I’m glad you enjoyed reading it, and I’m sorry if you were a bit confused.

    My point about other genres is that they all contain bad writing, clichés, etc. When you do a general Google search for “problems in Christian fiction”, you usually come up with lists saying things like I mentioned above. But those aren’t problems with *Christian* fiction, they’re problems all fiction suffers from. Thus they can’t really be used to point out the flaws in specifically Christian fiction.

    My problem is that God is not *implicitly* present in Christian fiction either. I truly believe that a good book doesn’t need God to be explicitly mentioned to be powerful. The Lord of the Rings is one of my favourite books, and though it’s a cliché example, I feel its a true Christian story because–even though it doesn’t show God himself–it shows God’s truth. It shows mercy, justice, love, etc. And I’d argue that any book that glorifies those things is showing God, whether it’s Christian or otherwise.

    I agree that we can never grasp God and so any attempt we make at trying to, in art or otherwise, is always going to fail. But does that mean we shouldn’t try? And if that’s the case, then why bother writing anything at all?

    When it comes to clean fiction, I don’t believe you can write a book that offends nobody. So my aim is not to offend God. Having said that, why isn’t it possible to show true, authentic things without graphic violence, on page sex or swearing? Authors have been doing it for years. Tolkien, again, is a prime example. Lewis, Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontes, Tolstoy all wrote books that I would consider clean and yet they all wrote books about heavy, dark topics. Tolkien wrote about war, a topic which he had personal experience with. Dickens wrote about poverty, a topic which he had personal experience with. Tolstoy wrote about adultery and unfaithfulness (I’ve no idea whether that was from personal experience. Hopefully not :P). It is, in my opinion, completely doable to write clean stories about deep and difficult things.

    I disagree with your final point, but I see where your coming from. Christian authors are pandering to their audience and I think that’s because making money and writing “sanitised” fiction has become more important to them than showing God’s truth through their art.

    Thanks for your comment 😀

    Liked by 1 person

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