Something that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the idea of Christian fiction. That specific phrase, “Christian fiction,” puts an unfortunately sour taste in my mouth. “Christian fiction,” to me, means a lackluster story that really only serves to push the gospel and be squeaky-clean and happy-go-lucky and show that Christians are good and nothing bad ever happens to them and non-believers are either malicious or stupid. But “Christian fiction” isn’t what I’m going to be talking about today (and over the next few blog posts). For the purposes of this post, and those that follow, I’m using the term to refer, quite simply, to fiction that is written by Christians. No Christian themes attached, no specific “cleanliness” level… just fiction that is written by Christians. And I specifically want to talk about two varieties of fiction-by-Christians (though I’ll mention three).
Candy Land Christian Fiction
This is the horror that I described above. It’s squeaky-clean, paints the Christian life as all sunshine and rainbows, and everyone ends up a Christian at the end because the whole thing is one big sermon and obviously that’s going to convert people. The reason I dislike this category so much is because it appeals to no one. (Unless maybe you’re a Christian who really believes life is all sunshine and rainbows in which case… how?) It doesn’t appeal to non-believers because it’s too-good-to-be-true, paints Christians as faultless angels who look down on those around them, and is constantly trying to shove the gospel down their throat. And it doesn’t (or maybe shouldn’t) appeal to believers because we know life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, we know we’re fallible (ohhhhh… maybe the target audience is Christians who want to feel better about their faults), and we know (I hope) that wrapping the gospel in a half-baked story idea isn’t going to convert anyone.
Am I being too harsh on this particular category? Maybe. If anyone wants to defend Candy Land Fiction and point out its appeal, go ahead. I just… genuinely don’t see the point of the category, personally.
“Clean” Christian Fiction
This is the category that I feel like is most widely accepted in Christian circles. It’s what I write (for the most part) and it composes a lot of what I read, personally. Generally speaking, authors in this category strive for quality of writing as well as “quality” of content and will often specifically aim to subtly display Christian themes in their books. There is absolutely nothing wrong with this category. (As a category. Obviously there can be bad books in any category.) It’s clean, so people of all ages can enjoy it and more conservative readers don’t have to worry about stumbling across objectionable content. There might be a cuss word here or there, or some subtle hint of something less-than-“clean,” but it’s generally very “appropriate.” An argument could also be made that it simply provides quality storytelling that can be enjoyed by both believers and non-believers and provides a testimony to our way of life through its cleanliness. (I’m not aiming to make that argument at the moment.)
While it’s “clean,” it also doesn’t aim to skim over characters’ faults or the difficulties of life, it simply… softens them a little sometimes. This contributes both to its cleanliness and its appeal as relatively feel-good entertainment, though the best “clean fiction” is still as honest as possible within the confines of “cleanliness.” Those that don’t tend to veer toward “Candy Land Fiction,” in my opinion.
Obviously, this category has value. It appeals to a broad audience, doesn’t offend anyone, and is still quality storytelling. It’s a witness to Christian values and Christian craftsmanship, which ideally bridges the gap between Candy Land Fiction, which is often of poor quality, and what I’m going to call “Raw Christian Fiction.”
“Raw” Christian Fiction
“Raw” Christian Fiction is a category that I think a lot of the Christian writing community doesn’t understand and doesn’t appreciate enough. “Raw” Christian Fiction doesn’t cling to a “clean” label, but instead isn’t afraid to venture into topics that are harder to swallow. It doesn’t revel in these topics, but it seeks to expose them and be honest about them from a Christian standpoint. This standpoint isn’t always overt, but a Christian’s worldview will leak into whatever they do, and this is no less true in “raw” fiction, in which the aim is to provide a wholesome conclusion to a given topic even if the Christian worldview isn’t obvious.
I think “raw” fiction makes the Christian writing community uncomfortable, because (when done effectively) it forces the reader to confront and wrestle with dark truths. We’d rather stay in our comfortable church bubbles. But these issues are things we need to face, even though they’re uncomfortable, and “raw” Christian authors are the ones to do it. Storytelling is a powerful medium, and I think it’s a fantastic way to present issues in a way that causes us to think about them without necessarily feeling like we’re directly threatened. Though the best of them will bring to our awareness things we should be doing and move us to action, fiction is a relatively non-threatening medium.
Who does “raw” fiction appeal to? First, it appeals much more to non-believers than Candy Land or even “Clean” Fiction, because it’s not afraid to step into the dark when necessary. And how are Christian artists going to reach out to unbelievers if we’re not willing to meet them where they are? Or even if we’re simply afraid to be real about the darkness of the world? Second, it should appeal to Christians, if not for our own sake (though it should, because it can open our eyes to things we need to see) then for the sake of the unbelievers who could be ministered to by it. Even if a well-established Christian doesn’t need to be evangelized to, they should still be able to appreciate the work of an evangelist, and I think the same principle applies here.
We need to stop writing off “Raw” Fiction and instead recognize that “there is diversity of gifts, but one Spirit” and work to encourage and build up “raw” authors as much as we do “clean” writers. We may have a personal preference for one category or the other, but both are important. Both can bring glory to the Lord and minister to readers. And both should be accepted and built up in Christian writing communities.
I also view this as something of a spectrum; some authors are closer to the “clean” end but still aren’t afraid to be “raw” when necessary, and some “raw” authors have certain things they keep “cleaner” than others. I don’t think there is, or should be, an inherent dichotomy between the two. This is just to lay out the basic ends of the spectrum, as I understand them.
In my next post I want to share some encouragement for Christian writers, and maybe a little bit of a challenge, and I want to follow that with a post on how best to encourage Christian writers and minister to those who are seeking after the same goal as you are: writing well-crafted stories to the glory of God and the benefit of others.
But for now, I want to hear your thoughts. What do you think of the categories I talked about? Which category do you tend to gravitate toward, and why? Do you see both categories encouraged in Christian communities, or just one? This is a topic I’m really passionate about, and I’d love to discuss it with y’all in the comments. :)