Flavors of Christian Fiction

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. :)

28 thoughts on “Flavors of Christian Fiction

  1. Great post R.M. about the different “flavors” of Christian Fiction. Like you, I often classify this term as fiction that is written by Christians. While I have seen a range of books from “squeaky clean” to raw, I tend to read more raw stories mostly because I see the darkness of the world and how Christians live in and are encompassed by it.

    1. Thank you!
      I personally tend to gravitate toward the middle of the spectrum–books that are pretty clean but balance it with honest themes–but I definitely understand the value and appeal of rawer stories.

  2. i think I tend to write Clean Christian Fiction with a dose of “Raw” at times. I, too, have been increasingly frustrated by the world of Christian fiction and I’ve actually been thinking about writing another blog post about it as well haha I’m with you, girl; I think we can do better :) Buuut I guess I do struggle with reading “raw” Christian fiction at times because I do think there’s still a place for being tasteful and discretionary without sugar-coating. Sometimes, I do think certain books run on “shock-value” and that seems like another extreme.
    Stellar post, girl!! And I’m excited for your follow-up ones!! Thanks muchly for sharing!! :)

    1. That’s awesome! While I’m pretty firmly on the “clean” side so far, I would like for my overall repertoire to have a dose of “rawness” when it needs to as well.
      If you do write a post about it, I’d love to see it! It’s a conversation I think more people are starting to have (groups like Story Embers, for instance, I think understand the balance pretty well, and this series was partially inspired by a conversation on a friend’s Facebook wall), but one I definitely think we need to be having even more, not only to encourage the writing community but also to help the Church community as a whole *understand* what Christian fiction is and can be and *why*. So I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on it. :)
      I definitely think there’s a balance to be struck where a book isn’t sugar-coating but also isn’t gratuitous. And, honestly, I think that line can shift depending on the reader (and the writer), in what we see as having value to the plot and themes and what seems to us to be more gratuitous, and I don’t think there’s necessarily anything wrong with that. But yeah, I definitely think there needs to be balance and we should never be running our books on shock-value; our job as Christians is to minister, and to speak truth but to do it for a specific purpose, not to just push the envelope because we can.
      Thank you! I’m really excited to continue sharing my thoughts and fostering conversation. ^-^

  3. Good survey of the field! I’d like to think that the lives of the people recorded in Scripture are exactly the type of real world “raw” you’ve described, IF they were fictional. Look at the life of David or Paul or Jephthah… God could’ve chosen to record only their virtues. But no! He pictures them “warts” and all! How encouraging to us when we grieve all our own warts, that God works with (and in spite of) warty people!

    1. That’s a great addition! God certainly didn’t shy away from the less “clean” parts of life; He included (and continues to include) them in His story, so why shouldn’t we include them in ours when appropriate?

  4. I have a question: is it possible to have a Christian tale that ends with all major characters being converted, and not feel too ‘Candy Land’-ish? If they’re going through struggles and yet believe. If supporting/’good’ non-believers largely do not feature. If, therefore, it’s largely divided into good believers and bad non-believers (though the line isn’t nearly that sharp). If the author does not feel capable of writing good, kind, etc., non-believers – people without a reason.
    Do you think it’s possible?
    (Great post, by the way!)

    1. I think it’s possible, but highly unlikely. I think it would have to be handled with extreme care to feel organic and to be an honest representation of both believers and unbelievers, and I think honest Christian beta-readers who have friends with differing beliefs would be paramount to its success, because they’re the ones who are going to be able to tell you best whether your story is truly achieving its intended purpose.
      And I think the intended purpose itself would be incredibly important, too. Why is this the story you’re choosing to tell? What is its importance and who is its intended audience? (I’ll get into more of the motivation behind Christian fiction in next week’s post, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on that as well.)
      So, I don’t think it’s wholly impossible, but I think it should be approached with extreme caution and care. :)

  5. Love this. You explained these three different kinds of Christian fiction so well. Great job. *thumbs up*
    I am definitely a raw fiction writer, though I want to have clean fiction elements as well. I know I am more a raw writer since I want to reach non-believers (touching Christians as well would be a bonus). The idea is to have settings and situations that non-Christian writers would use, but with subtle Christian themes, morals, standards, etc. And I really want to show what a relationship with God is like without readers knowing that. ;) Still figuring out that one.

  6. I think that the “candy land” Christian fiction comes from a desire of wanting to stay as far from poorly representing Christ as possible, and stems from verses about entertaining good and holy things, speaking life, not speaking unwholesome things, etc, but it overshoots and ends up poorly representing Christianity in the opposite direction.

    It’s a really disappointing thing that a lot of Christian content creators can’t find that balance. But with the times changing and more good Christian fiction being produced, maybe those creators will see that it’s not quite so black and white and be more comfortable portraying realistic content that still honors God.

  7. This is such a thought-provoking post! Even though I’ve never thought about the specific ‘flavors’ of Christian fiction before, other than just ‘I liked this’ and ‘I really didn’t like this’, haha, I definitely agree with the categories you listed. Candy Land Christian Fiction grieves me so much, because I believe that’s what most people instinctively think of when they hear about Christian fiction, and it just gives a bad name to all the rest of it; even the good stuff.
    Personally, I actually recognized my writing primarily in the ‘raw’ Christian fiction category, and I’m very thrilled with that! I do write some Clean Christian fiction as well, though. And hopefully never any Candy Land, because I fight very hard not to write like that, haha.
    Thank you for this post, and for the encouragement you’ve offered for those who write Christian fiction. It’s such an important thing to spread the truth through our writing, and I admire all those who strive to do it well.

    1. I agree. Candy Land fiction has colored so much of the outside perception of Christian fiction. :/

      That’s awesome! We need more “raw” Christian fiction. :)

      You’re welcome! I agree. It’s a calling we (both the writing community and the Church) need to take seriously, and it’s encouraging to me to see the number of people who *do* take it seriously growing. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *