Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Thinking Out Loud About What is and isn't Christian Fiction

I have two hours until 16 dinner guests arrive for a pre-Thanksgiving potluck. I spent too much time playing Martha Stewart. Truthfully, the last week's posts have truly challenged me to rethink the whole Christian fiction thing, and some of my thoughts aren't very comfortable or clear. So here I am in a swirl of thought. If you're willing, here's one little idea that keeps rising to the surface. I would love to hear what you think.

As a part-time librarian, I regularly come home with an armful of new fiction (my assigned section to weed and read). I read, almost exclusively, mainstream fiction. Within the last few months, I've happened upon several books that don't offer the sense of transformation that Bonnie talked about. And the reading wasn't very satisfying. Oh, the prose is poetic, the images strong and visceral, and the characters wildly conflicted, but they never lift their heads to find meaning in what happens to them. Ugh.

A question: Could they be Christian novels?

"What?" you say. "I thought these were mainstream novels and unsatisfying."

Yes, but can a story that shows what life is like without God, and does so accurately, be Christian in its portrayal of a fallen world?

Consider the Bible. Which of the Old or New Testament writers pooh-poohed rebellion and sin? Which of them shrank away from showing what life was like for the rebellious? How many times did Israel get carried away into captivity after forgetting their God? Did God mock the "righteous" by finding a faithful harlot at Jericho and then placing her in the lineage of our Redeemer? Yes! And why are there prophets? Because God's people kept forgetting about him and getting caught up in horrendous idolatry--asherah poles and child sacrifices, for instance. What about Lot's daughters? They slept with their father when their own marital futures were dashed. Eew! But the story shows what depravity comes from a viewpoint that is void of God. The Bible tells all! Man away from God is a bleak picture, one that has the power to make us run home to the Father. Counter examples of what a God-honoring life looks like abound in Scripture. If God's inspired writers aren't afraid of showing life without God in real terms, should I be afraid to do so?

Just so you know, I have no plans to write a novel that brings the reader to a point of hopelessness. I pray that I can write something with Bonnie's element of transformation. I do NOT want to write a novel that is cobbled together and considered readable by Christians because a few Scripture verses are thrown into the plotline. I AM saying that our definition of what is Christian may be too narrow. God is really, really big and able to redeem anything. Anything.

Thanks for letting me think aloud. So, am I completely off my rocker? Have you read anything lately that qualifies as truly hopeless? What have you read lately, while not being overtly Christian, left you with a sense of redemption?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

"I AM saying that our definition of what is Christian may be too narrow. God is really, really big and able to redeem anything. Anything."

Amen, and something I have learned time and time again in my faith!

~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Good morning, Wendy. Thanks for stopping by. I expect one of my biggest surprises when I see Jesus face-to-face is how he managed to use my pitiful attempts to accomplish his good and perfect will. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

Anonymous said...

Patti, there's no question you've hit the mark. I believe there are a lot of authors who write for CBA who would agree with you, the definition of Christian fiction is woefully narrow. I've gotten to where I don't even like to use the term Christian fiction. For one thing it's not an accurate term. Fiction isn't Christian. It can be written by Christians from a Christian perspective. But in itself, it can't be Christian. The other reason I don't like the term is because of the connotation connected with it, as a direct result of what CBA has been willing and unwilling to publish. How was the pre-Thanksgiving dinner party? You are a brave woman to take on an additional feast like that.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Patti, I think that all too often Christians are cut off from people who are really hopeless. I know a few people who really don't see much redemption in their futures (although I have a HUGE desire and prayer that they will be redeemed). Part of being that Good Samaritan is looking into that hopelessness and understanding that we need to help. We need to be a piece of hope for them.

I've been in Christian circles that are completely unaware of the terrible lives other people live. That makes me sad. While an unredeemed ending would be difficult to swallow and so painful for the reader (and, probably, annoying), it might be what people need to wake up to the need of others.

Yes, our definition of Christian is too narrow. I think that our bubble wrap needs to be removed so that we can be bumped up a little. It might just bring us to a point wherein we love the lost so much that we reach out to them. Not to gain numbers of the "saved". But out of true love for them and Jesus.

Jessica Snell said...

I probably read more "secular" fiction than Christian, although I think there's good stuff in both worlds. But, yes, I think the structure of the story - the way it's told, the inherent hope or despair - goes a lot further towards making a book Christian than the subject matter does. I recently reread "The Curse of Chalion", a secular fantasy, that has taught me more about what being a saint is about than most Christian fiction I've read.

So, I think we make a mistake if we dismiss books on either side of the publishing aisle. As the old saying goes, all truth is God's truth, and it's ours to pick up and take, wherever we happen to find it.

Bonnie Grove said...

It's important to understand that there isn't really such a thing as un-spiritual novels. All art comes from the depth of the artist and that makes it inherently spiritual.

The CBA focuses its attention on a narrow band of defined Christianity. It's directed to a particular brand of evangelicalism. Nothing wrong with that, but I think writers who want to produce spiritual novels that fall even slightly outside that narrow focus will be disappointed by the small (but enthusiastic) reception in the marketplace.

Writers are told to find their audience, but I say the writer must be true to their art, to the voice that cries to them in the night. It's the only hope we have of even beginning to know what to write.

The other choice is to chase the market and change what you write to suit. This can help a writer launch themselves and then be able to bring their more cherished work to the fore.

Either approach takes time, patience, and a strong sense of what you are trying to accomplish.

The take away: Artist know thyself.

Patti Hill said...

Sharon: I'm not that brave, but I'm married to an incredibly supportive husband. He roasted TWO turkeys and made the stuffing while I decorated the tables and the front entry. Everyone else brought a fabulous piece to complete the feast. We sure had a lot of fun. Fellowship is so sweet.

Susie: Yes! Many believers have either isolated themselves from the world and lost their vision of suffering the lost world endures, or they have taken the path of least resistance. It's so much easier to hang around people who think just like you. I must say that I am guilty, too.

Jessica, thanks for the title! There are so many good examples of redemptive novels. A roundtable, perhaps? It's also interesting to look at mainstream novels that manage to have an explicit Christian message and maintain their wide appeal, like Home and Gilead. That's another topic for another day.

Bonnie: Trying really, really hard to do that. It's tougher than it looks. Thanks for the exhortation.

Megan Sayer said...

After reading Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey, and his summaries of Joseph Campbell's comprehensive research on ancient myths and stories from all corners of the globe I'm absolutely convinced that ALL stories are a reflection of God's love for and redemption of mankind.
That might sound a bit strange, but when you consider that many modern people's idea of redemption is very different to ours (acts of "personal redemption" including murder or suicide) you can recognise the inherent sameness of story, and how that archetypal story is the one of God and us.
Which is all a bit deep. And it's not to justify all stories as "Christian", but sometimes that recognition is important.

Patti Hill said...

Megan: I have long believed that God puts a template for the redemption story on our hearts. That's why we crave it so and find it satisfying.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify.
1 Cor. 10:23
For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God. 2 Cor 4:15
Paul was talking about death and suffering in the second verse but I don't think it is too much of a stretch to include writing and reading literature.
An intelligent reader of any persuasion will be aware of their attraction or disgust in a story. Just because we know it is the nudge of God this way or that doesn't make it more or less powerful or more or less subject to the reader's free will.
If I know from the beginning that the author has a connection with my God I trust myself more willingly to the story. It is a prejudice. Not knowing the connection I hunt for it in the story. I can't always tell (and it doesn't matter too much) whether it is simply God and me instead of author, God and me.
I do try very earnestly to be an intelligent reader....

Patti Hill said...

Henrietta: I have not doubt that you are a very intelligent reader. I appreciate your observation that as readers we are always looking for God is what we read. And how lovely to find him.

Embrace said...

I have been truly challenged in this post today. It is not because I disagree with anything that anyone has said. It is more that you've broadened my viewpoint. I will read with a different perspective after today.
I am new to reading and to writing fiction. I started out loving fiction from a mainstream, somewhat controversial book. After that I figured if I am going to read I should read things that edify me and glorify God. So I have tried to stay exclusively in the Christian field.
But I am so glad I came by here today. I never want to be close-minded. All things bright and beautiful - the Lord God made them all.

Latayne C Scott said...

Did you guys see this very interesting article about whether or not Amazon and other sites should "label" Christian fiction?

Dina Sleiman said...

When I taught college literature I found there was great power in contrasting the hopelessness of stories by authors like Hemingway with the redemption of writers like Flannery O'Connor.

Patti Hill said...

Jodi: Welcome! Glad you stopped by. I'm discerning about what I read. I set plenty of books down because I don't want to have certain ideas snappy my synapses, but there are wonderful books in the mainstream market that are strongly redemptive. Lately, I've been touting The Dry Grass of August. So wish I'd written that.

Latayne: Very interesting conversation and long. I've read plenty of books with protags and POVs from other beliefs and found redemption in them. They weren't labeled. Geez, how many existential books did I read throughout my schooling and are required reading in most high schools? They weren't labeled, but they were well written.

Dina: What a great discussion! I would love to sit in one of your classes.

Heather Marsten said...

I am working on a memoir, and it definitely ends up as hopeful and redemptive, for there is salvation. The problem is that most Christians might reject it because of the detailed abuse descriptions and occult practices (not that any are put in full form, as it is not a how to do occult book). Because the book is written in first person and is on an online critique circle, many new age people write and identify with parts of my story. I am praying they stay with my story through redemption. But some Christians were troubled by the details I shared.

I think that books need to be targeted to groups and mine, while it is Christian, is targeted to unbelievers - to those who are struggling with their faith. Many Christian novels that I picked up when I was struggling with faith and not sure about God did not minister to me. But, to a believer, the redemption in the novel was satisfying. As an unbeliever, reeling with the after effects of abuse, what I perceived as platitudes
did not help me.

My pastor wrote a book called Christianeze, terms Christians use that unbelievers don't understand. So, I think that some very Christian books might be rejected by Christian publishers because they do not fit the category of accepted Christianeze.

I pray, when I'm ready to submit my book, that somehow mine can straddle two worlds and minister to others. My pastor's wife is intrigued by the occult part because she says many Christians have no idea what they are battling when they minister to those in the world.

I suspect we need gritty and non-gritty Christian books.

Have a blessed day.

Patti Hill said...

Heather: I'm praising God for your deliverance from the occult. I read a book some years ago titled The Beautiful Side of Evil. I needed to read that book. I wasn't involved with the occult, but I wasn't involved in the spiritual battle raging around me either. Write boldly and truthfully. Your audience is out there.

Heather Marsten said...

Patti, that book, the Beautiful Side of Evil was one of the first books my pastor loaned me. I still laugh when I remember my first meeting with him when I said, "But Pastor Don, I'm a good witch." On my blog is a short version of my testimony - at the time I wrote it I was still struggling with things with God.

Have a blessed Thanksgiving