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Thursday, August 25, 2011

What is Christian Fiction?

I almost didn't write this one, but some thoughts about it came to me that I felt I should get down, and this is the best place to do that. In part I feared writing about it because I didn't want to beat a dead horse. But then it seemed to wiggle around a little bit, so I'm working to put it out of its misery. Must be a cat, because it keeps coming back to life.

The definition is a little hard to pin down, because it all depends on who is answering it as to what answer you get. Here are the general ideas floating around out there:

  1. Conservative Christians readers: A story that does not mention or promote any kind of sin, including sex, cussing, drinking, or violence of any kind, usually by not mentioning it, or avoiding showing or talking about it.

  2. Less-Conservative Christians readers: A story that doesn't violate their beliefs and principles, whatever that may be.

  3. Christian Author: A story, warts and all, that in the end is redemptive, and is not preachy.

  4. CBA Author: A story with warts removed per publisher's standards in an attempt to market to group #1, but in the end is redemptive, but does have some preachy elements in it, because that is expected.

  5. Non-Christian reader: A story that tries to convert them or doesn't read realistic to their life experiences, and usually the quality is not up to par with the secular market.

  6. Non-Christian author: A preachy, half-baked attempt to convert the masses through poorly written and low quality plots and characters.

So it is no wonder when you get a group of Christians together and ask them what is Christian fiction, you'll get different answers.

For instance, among Christians there are different degrees of Christian fiction:

  1. Overt Christian Fiction: Where the characters are Christian, they regularly quote Bible verses, God plays an active part, you may even get to hear God speaking to people as a character in the story. Often the more speculative stories will allegorize God and Jesus in an attempt to make them more palatable to the non-Christian, but everyone knows who the character represents. Thus keeping it overt.

  2. Subtle Christian Fiction: The more subtle allegories come in here, or even deeply themed works which seek to convey a "message" but in a very integrated way within the story. Usually the names God and Jesus are never directly mentioned, either just not spoken about at all, or a different name for the world is used.

  3. Mixed Christian Fiction: Here usually a Christian character is mixed with non-Christian characters to provide the contrast. Not all non-Christians are necessarily thrown in as a bad light, but the Christian character reacts as a Christian would among non-Christians. Conversion optional, if it fits the story and character.

  4. Worldview Christian Fiction: Here God or religion isn't even mentioned at all, but the worldview of the characters and author form the basis for how the characters act and react, what is shown as good and bad. These are often not at all offensive to non-Christians, but also tend to have themes that few would disagree with, like honor, loyalty, friendship, etc. A good example of this is J. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

So, what is Christian fiction? Here are two more definitions. One practical, and one the core answer.

On one hand, the label, "Christian Fiction" is a marketing term. It defines the type of reader that a particular book is written for, primarily Christians. In the case of CBA books, a particular sub-set of Christians who tend to visit Christian bookstores. Most of them want the clean, sanitized, faith affirming characters and plots found in most CBA books, including someone getting saved at some point. These are as much to support their faith as it is to read a good story. Rarely will these appeal to a non-Christian, as the content seems totally unreal to them.

There is a wider growing market of Christians, however, that want more than that. They want "realistic" fiction. Where the good people sin on occasion. But no matter how gritty, dark, or horror filled, it still leaves one with a sense of redemption and hope along the way. But this market doesn't mind an occasional cuss word if it fits the character and story, doesn't mind reminders that married couples have sex, and sometimes people commit sexual sins as well. Doesn't mind if people are drinking ale, smoking a pipe, or are less than perfect. Some of these books would appeal to non-Christians as well.

But the core definition of what is Christian fiction? It is the fiction that a Christian feels is laid on their heart to write, inspired by God, no matter what category above it fits into. That is why some authors like to say it is fiction written by a Christian, more so than Christian fiction. Then we write it, and God uses it however He sees fit.

All the above categories have their place, and we need authors that write all of them. As part of the Body of Christ, it is pointless for the little finger to say to the little toe, "I don't need you." There are authors writing really good stories in all these categories. Yes, even in the bonnet romances. Some of them are of good quality plots, characters, and writing styles. Why would the writer/reader of "edgy" Christian fiction slap around the bonnet romance folks? Or the bonnet romance folks disparage the worldview Christian writer because he never mentions God in his work? Write what God has laid on your heart, and don't go judging your fellow Christian writer because he or she feels God has laid a different type of work on their heart. God will hold you accountable for what you did with your talent, not what Joe over there did with his.

At the core, Christian fiction is fiction that God can use to further His kingdom as He sees fit. And for that reason, He is the judge of what is Christian fiction. Not you, not me. Him.

Where do you fall in these categories as a reader/writer? What is your baseline definition?

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