Christian Fiction—Art or Tract?—Part 1

If we allowed artists to explore their imaginations and pursue their visions with excellence, without making them self-conscious about the evangelical potential (or lack of it) in their work, we might end up with great art within the church again. Artists might have the courage and freedom to discover new visions rather than merely producing work that is derivative of good ideas that have come before.

This quote from the excerpt of Jeffrey Overstreet’s blog post about The Golden Compass holds so much, I hardly know where to begin in response, but it is one of the issues I would like to discuss with him, should I ever pursue that interview/conversation I mentioned on Monday.

I’ve already addressed the nebulous “we”—I don’t believe it exists. In this quote, Mr. Overstreet seems to refer to some sort of consensus of Christian thought, apart from the artists in our midst.

Second, I’m not sure what “evangelical potential” means. I know I read that at first to say “evangelistic potential,” and certainly many Christians hope and prayer that their writing might introduce even one person to a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Is that wrong? Can a work with that intent NOT be good art, merely because of its underlying purpose?

Ah, the magic word: “underlying.”

Here’s the crux of the discussion, in my opinion. Some writers, who actually aren’t trying to create art, who just want to tell a good story that shows Jesus, create fiction with very little lying under the surface. Much of this fiction has been labeled as “preachy” or “propaganda.”

I’m reminded of an old radio program put on by the Union Rescue Mission, in which, in a half hour or less, they told the story, every week, of a poor, down-and-out soul who found Christ through his contact with the Mission, and then turned his life around.

When these stories first began to air, they were moving, poignant, but eventually anyone listening would know how the story would turn out, and even more, would know that some of these poor souls had not actually turned their lives around.

The program, which was undoubtedly conceived to highlight the Rescue Mission work, ended up trivializing it.

This, in a nutshell, is the problem I want to avoid in my writing, as do others. “The art crowd” has decided that to avoid preaching and propaganda, Christian authors should just do away with the message all together. Let’s just “do” fiction, good, artistic fiction, and somehow a) our worldview will seep into the story; or b) the beauty of our work will reflect God’s beauty.

I’m not going to say that this can’t be so, though I think I may have taken that view at some point in the past (see posts at Faith in Fiction 😉 ) What I am advocating is A Third Way, one I think is much closer to Lewis and MacDonald and Milton and Spencer and Herbert—classic Christian poets and story-tellers.

Tomorrow, I’ll discuss The Third Way.

Published in: on January 24, 2008 at 10:58 am  Comments (10)  
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10 Comments

  1. This is an important discussion. For me, I am inspired to write in order to create something deep, beautiful, exciting, and moving, and in the process, to speak Biblical truth about life as well as God’s love, mercy, glory, and holiness. Without the freedom to do the latter, I feel like I would just be a “resounding gong”.

    But the question remains: How to do that and not be preachy. It is a fine line, and I fully expect that some might love what I write while others will hate it. Fortunately the story I am telling has an expected Christian element to it, so hopefully readers will be more forgiving of that.

    My 2 cents. Looking forward to your post tomorrow.

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  2. There’s certainly a place for “preachy” fictions as there is for “not preachy” – as long as both are written well. To use that wonderful word, “we” tend to accept inferior quality in “preachy” stories because the intent – preach Christ – is what’s important. “We” will accept well written stories even if the underlying message is humanist or some other philosophy not because of their lack of preaching but because of the quality of the work.

    In your example of the Rescue Mission, I think the issue wasn’t the preaching, but the quality and originality of the stories. It was the formula of the story, not the message, that trivialized the Mission.

    I have not been convinced of an either/or – preachy or quality – dilemma as some suggest. There must be a middle ground – perhaps that 3rd way as you suggest.

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  3. James makes a good point.

    I’m sure for some “preachy” refers to any evangelistic references, any explanation of the gospel regardless of its relevance to the story. I know I hold the minority opinion in this assertion, but I see nearly all writing, fiction and non-fiction, as being “preachy”. Authors, poets, journalists all establish a point to be made by their writing. Some merely suggest it, but if there was no intent in the telling/writing of a story, thought, or opinion, why bother? I’m not suggesting that fiction be used or is used as an agenda-driven tool as Christian fiction is often accused of being, but I am suggesting that writing is preachy because it gives a revelation, a point of view, a consideration, or a hope–or whatever. “Preachy” is not just applicable to Christian fiction writers who want to share Jesus in some capacity.

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  4. Interesting conversation. I’ve been blogging a couple of years and have written very little fiction. However, in my essays, vignettes, and recollections, I do want to portray the godly life as highly desirable…without, in most cases, using those words

    On my devotional blog, I probably get “preachy!”

    Blessings to everyone,

    shirley Buxton
    http://www.writenow.wordpress.com

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  5. I have to diasagree with the general premis that you have to try to be one way or another. Christ will shine thru in any work a Christian does regardless if the work is intended to be evangelistic or secular. We as Christians just plant seeds and seeds come in many varities. God gives the growth. Write what’s in your spirit to write and God will use it to His purpose.

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  6. I wonder if, perhaps, the answer to this question is another question: “What does God want you to write?” Where is your passion and your zeal? Is it to write a story where allusions and symbolism hint strongly of the Gospel? Or is it simply a timeless tale that honors God in the quality of your storytelling? Perhaps it’s a hybrid of some sort. I think we need Christians writing all kinds of fiction. The Preachy fiction might be exactly what some people need. Paul said, be all things to all people and by God’s grace win a few. Doesn’t that apply to writers as well?

    My Door Within series has been called preachy by some…interestingly enough, this label has been used most often by very-critical Christians. People often say things like “the Christian allegory is too thinly veiled.” Excuse me, but I wasn’t trying to veil it! God poured that story into me, the themes, the protagonist’s struggles–it’s all real and resonant with my discovery of Jesus, the One True King. That said, I wanted to make sure that the story did not suffer. I wanted The Door Within to be a story that nonChristians could read and enjoy thoroughly, whether they were aware of the allegory or not.

    Isle of Swords and Isle of Fire, on the other hand, are very different. This is a pirate adventure in which I didn’t really see the themes as I crafted the story, but now, they emerge more subtly. I think there’s room for all kinds…so long as it’s well written.

    Speaking of writing, I’ve now written more words in this comment than I have in my newest manuscripts. Got to go!

    -WtB

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  7. Excellent, Wayne.

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  8. I’m going to continue to disagree on the “we” bit. I think there is still a problem with readers and bookstores having certain expectations of what is termed “Christian fiction” – like the person who got offended that a book about a woman with breast cancer had the main character got “pissed”. I think the crowd we run around with on the blogosphere understands this (yes, the artist crowd), and I think there is more acceptance growing in the general masses – but there is still a large crowd of people that expect a conversion in 3 acts, or a sermon told in an entertaining book.

    In general I am in agreement with Jeffrey Overstreet – as I’ve posted on my blog and we’ve discussed before :). But I am quite interested in where you are going with this, so I’ll be quiet and see what comes next for now. 😀

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  9. Jason, I’m going to jump in and answer your comment, in part, then go post. You actually changed the subject, I think, from “Christians” to CBA shoppers. I think that’s an important distinction. I think the argument I’m making about false fantasy buzz works for Christian fiction in general. As long as people keep repeating how preachy and overtly Christian Christian fiction is, those who want a different kind of story will avoid CBA stores, and even the Religion shelves at Borders.

    The truth is, there is more and more Christian fiction that doesn’t preach or have a conversion in act three.

    My contention is, we have to stay current if we are to speak about the state of Christian fiction, and some, apparently, are not. While Mr. Overstreet is obviously well aware of what’s in the ABA, I wonder what was the last Christian fantasy he read.

    Becky

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  10. Actually, if you read Lewis’s account about the writing of the Narnia books, it seems pretty close to approach “A.” Which doesn’t necessarily mean that he was trying to do away with the message, but that perhaps he was thinking about the message in a very different way than Christian fiction writers do today.

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