Themes in Christian Fiction

So many comments, so much great discussion. Again, I appreciate everyone who took time to enter into the dialogue these last two days. I believe it informs us all, as it sparks further thought and gives rise to examination of our own philosophy and/or theology.

I wish I could respond to each point, but that would be an all-day post (and one so long, it’s doubtful anyone would read it). Here are a few issues I’ve selected.

First, Ben. You are welcome to comment here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction any time. I love dissenting opinions as much as I love well-articulated statements with which I agree. I’m not big on sound bites or regurgitated quips culled from the famous and influential, and I certainly did not see any of that in your comments.

I would like to comment on one part of what you said:

To me that’s closer to what should define whether or not a book has been written by a Christian. There should be no agenda. The truth of the belief inherent in the Christian should just naturally be present in the book, a living mystery. Those who experience it will know it’s there, and no one will feel manipulated or as though anything has been rubbed in their face.

Part of my “mission,” if you will, is to call Christian writers to an understanding of what makes story worthwhile, timeless, universal. Theme is the biggest component in writing of that caliber. But in the effort to wean Christian authors away from writing sermons in story form, some instructors have bunched theme in with message and agenda. Those three are not the same.

Consequently, I completely agree with you when you say, “There should be no agenda.” But the next line, I don’t believe is true. There is no “naturally” about my expression of my faith. I have chosen in real life to refrain from speaking of Christ, from loving my neighbor, from spending time in the Word, and on and on. I also refrain from sharing my faith in my newspaper articles and in other freelance writing, even in some short stories. Yes, without a doubt, non-fiction requires different technique from fiction, but the choice to write about the world from a Christian point of view is one I need to make in either case.

I will agree that God can make Himself known in our stories in spite of us. But I believe it is presumptuous to assume it will be so. That would be tantamount to believing I will always speak kindly of drivers that cut me off on the freeway because I am a Christian. I wish it were so!

And finally, your implication is that an intentional theme, by its existence, is either manipulative or will slap the reader in the face. This is the crux of my argument. Poorly written stories may have themes that do those things. Well-written ones won’t. Probably the most important thing I believe about writing is the need to craft themes as carefully as we do the other elements of fiction, and perhaps more so since theme needs to be nearly invisible. It should be the beams of our dwelling—indispensable and unseen, certainly planned, carefully built, not haphazardly added or left to the whim of the architect, or to his fundamental belief that houses should have beams.

But what are these themes? Does each story that is “Christian fiction” have to have a theme of redemption?

In the early stages of fiction produced by evangelical publishing houses, I believe that was true. I’d like to see the acceptable themes expanded. I think there are lots of themes that are consistent with Scripture, that glorify God, that furrow the soil of a pliant heart. Why can’t Christians write those stories and Christian publishing houses print those books and Christian book stores put those novels on their shelves?

I’d like to see “Christian fiction” be more about theme and less about the externals—what the characters can or can’t do or say or where they can or can’t go. In my pipe dream world, I’d like to see publishers care less about the complaining customer and care more about whether or not the books they produce glorify God. Don’t get me wrong. I understand publishers have a bottom line they are responsible for, but in a perfect scenario, with God owning the cattle on a thousand hills and all, wouldn’t it be conceivable for a publisher to trust Him to bring the sales?

But that’s seriously off topic. And lo and behold, this post is already way too long, and I’ve only addressed one comment. 😮

You all, continue. I’ll be interested in reading your responses and dialogue.

Published in: on March 27, 2008 at 11:33 am  Comments (13)  
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13 Comments

  1. Becky,

    I understand how agenda is different from theme, but can you help me understand what you mean by theme being different from message?

    Also, I don’t see an issue with having an “agenda” … but rather I feel that what that agenda is is the issue. Saying that “someone has an agenda” is kind of like saying “someone loves”. You don’t know anything to make a judgment from that statement. What do they love? It is the object that is important here.

    The same with “agenda”. What is the agenda?

    If your agenda is simply to glorify God through a well-crafted book, then do so. If your agenda is to speak truth in a well-crafted way through your fiction, then do so.

    If your agenda is to hit people over the head with your opinion without caring about craft, then I would have a problem with that. But my guess is that the publishers would, too. 😉

    So here is my (probably futile) attempt at a definition of a Christian book:

    A book written by a Christian with an agenda of glorifying God through well-crafted writing that communicates spiritual truth through theme and/or message.

    Of course, I’m still waiting on your definition of theme vs. message! 😉

    Oh! And please add/change/delete anything I put in the definition. Comment your own in and lets talk about it!

    My 2 cents.

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  2. A few notes:

    (1) I am not attempting to define who is or is not a Christian.
    (2) I am not trying to quantify how much spiritual truth would need to be communicated, nor how subtley/openly. But I know that if a book communicates *zero* spiritual truth, then I, at least, would question whether that would be called “Christian” writing. The sports article example comes to mind.

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  3. Aha. But what is “spiritual truth?”

    Does that not simply expand the list of theological “things” that are to be included in a “Christian” story?

    The best guideline for art, to me are the words of Paul to the Phillipians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

    Any virtue. Any praise. Whatsoever things are true.

    Not “all” virtue. Not “total” praise. “Any.”

    In other words, should we not spend less time seeking the things to “strain” from the colander of Christian fiction, and instead more actively seek that which is praiseworthy for “any” reason, that which has “any” virtue, anything containing truth…”any” truth?

    I believe that when Becky says that “our definition is too narrow” that she’s right, and that we often spend too much time closing the gates to keep the good (and bad) out and not enough time unleashing the doors for our salt to pour out into the world.

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  4. Thank you, Becky, for the welcome. Life is interesting, for sure. Yesterday I visited your blog for the first time and commented. Today there’s practically a whole post written specifically to me.

    You pointed out an implication in my statement, “that an intentional theme, by its existence, is either manipulative or will slap the reader in the face.” I did not intend to make this implication, but you’re correct—it’s there. In hindsight, what I might have said is that an intentional theme if it is poorly crafted can possibly make a reader feel manipulated or slapped in the face. So I agree with you when you say that “theme needs to be nearly invisible.” I have no problem with themes in general, or messages, when they are well crafted.

    Is it possible to have a well-crafted, intentional theme without an agenda? I think so. Just as I see the possibility for both to be present and for the story to still be good. Agendas are tricky. Robert made an excellent clarification: the issue isn’t having an agenda but rather what the agenda is. And the agenda Robert suggested, of “glorifying God,” is an agenda I support.

    What I keep coming back to in my mind, though, is that the agenda should be outside the work, guiding it. The agenda is why the writer wrote. The theme is how the writer communicates the message. Right?

    There should probably be question marks after most of these statements. I’m just thinking this through as I go. Often my best understanding comes through dialogue; it’s not until I’ve made a statement and heard someone’s response to me that I’m able to really think through what I’ve said and what I believe. So thank you for facilitating this discussion. Though we’d probably come to much better understanding if we were talking this out in real time rather than writing it here this way.

    You said, “I’d like to see ‘Christian fiction’ be more about theme and less about the externals—what the characters can or can’t do or say or where they can or can’t go.” And I’d like that too, very much.

    And to Robert: Thank you. You’ve written a definition of a “Christian book” with which I can agree.

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  5. “Spiritual truth” doesn’t prove to be a problem. It doesn’t involve do’s and don’ts. Spiritual truth is Jesus died for sinners. John 14:6. The practice of Christianity involves doctrines and interpetations of His Word.

    I liked Robert’s definition. The Philippians scripture simply clarifies the occupation of where our thoughts should be focused and, as a result, how we will conduct our lives when we are practicing the truth.

    In your earlier comments, Paul, you described a small percentage of “active” or participating Christian worldview people and that your writing involved: “In other words, the ‘worlds’ I build are populated in identifiable proportion to the world around me: most people don’t speak of spiritual things at all, of those who do, a number are athiests or of non-Christian religions. If I do have a Christian, odds aren’t good that even he will hold or confess a Christian worldview. In other words, Christians in my books look a lot like Christians in the world – pretty secular when it comes down to behavior.” So, how do you mesh that with your comments here: “The best guideline for art, to me are the words of Paul to the Phillipians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”?

    Depending on the particular publishing house, there are very few meaningful things “strained” out of Christian fiction today. Child rape, abortion, divorce, sex, drugs, homosexuality, alchohol and alcoholism, murder, mayhem, adultery. You name it. It’s all there in CBA books. The current houses are rarely “straining” anything out of their novels today. If you need specific books, I’ll be happy to list them. So, if an author chooses to include a real practicing Christian amidst all of the sin, why not? If he chooses not to, there are no requirements demanding he do so.

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  6. Ben, you articulated clearly what I’ve been dancing around—the why I enjoy these discussions so much. It is in the dialogue that I come to a better understanding what I truly believe.

    Robert, your use of agenda is one I agree with completely. As I understand it, however, when most critics accuse a writer of including an agenda in fiction, it has more to do with accomplishing something that will affect the reader, I think.

    So too with “message.” It’s a little tricky because writing fiction is a means of communication, and certainly we as authors have something to say and we’d prefer having an audience when we say it.

    What exactly is theme, then, if not a message? Here’s one definition from my Apple Dictionary that I think is perfect: “an idea that recurs in or pervades a work of art or literature.”

    Maybe I’m dividing hairs here, but this is how I see the differences. If I craft theme into my fiction, I present a recurring idea. If I write a message into my fiction, I make sure my reader gets my idea (i. e. I spell it out, just like this parenthetical sentence does).

    Hope that makes sense.

    Becky

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  7. Nicole,

    To address your question:

    It is true that few Christians, in day to day life, hold, either openly or privately, a Christian worldview. That is a truth that will emerge in my characters.

    There is only one truth, but many ways by which a man shall adhere to it.

    Paul places great emphasis on conscience as the Spirit’s means of guiding a person.

    My conscience dictates that my people in my weird little stories reflect people as I see them in the world: mostly silent on “spiritual” issues. My conscience, mind you, is not something separate from God’s order for things. In fact, scripture makes it quite plain that conscience is bound to God amd is a gift from the Spirit.

    Therefore, when I write unintentionally Christian stories with a clear conscience in a way that I believe fairly portrays the order of things as they are, I’m not really sure that there is anyone who has much authority in determining whether or not my novels are “Christian” or not.

    Now, I have no problem labelling, as shorthand, works as “Christian” or “Secular” or what have you, but only as shorthand. Once it becomes prescriptive – i.e. Christian works must contain overt spiritual truth, secular works cannot contain spiritual truth – I seriously balk.

    I’ve read CBA Christian books and I’ve read non-CBA Christian books. I’ve read CBA books, frankly, that didn’t even seem that “Christian” to me. I’ve also read plenty of non-CBA non-Christian books too, and I would argue that there is very little that separates the best non-CBA non-Christian books and the best Christian books (either CBA or non-CBA).

    In fact, the only difference, and it is a critical one, is this:

    Great Christian literature (Lewis’ Silent Planet Trilogy, Flannery O’Connor, John Bunyan, Dante, even Tosca Lee) are identical to great non-Christian literature in terms of theme, pacing, characterization, but with an important bonus:

    For those readers who are already Christians, each great book contains some element (any element) of discipling. For those readers who are not, there is a reflection upon our Maker and Savior that, while it may be completely missed, it comes through.

    I believe that element, that shekinah, can not come through by any (even really really faithful) Christian effort. I believe there are things a writer can do that may prepare him for that glory, but the fact remains that God’s glory will shine through your work as He wills, not as you do.

    You point this out very clearly in your blog today when you say that we are nothing, not even air-breathers, without Him. I truly believe you are correct.

    So, though I may put every effort into my work, may pray ceaselessly, bury myself in the word, submit my work humbly to Him, write as my skills allow, there is no effort, intentional or otherwise, that I can make that will turn my simple story from a good “secular” piece to one through which God may choose to shine His glory. That, to me, is the freedom of slavery to Christ. It isn’t about us, or the work that we are called to do.

    And to that, I say, so be it. If I am faithful in my duty to following Him, what is it to me whether he decides my stories are better off as dross? He grows the plant. I’m fortunate to plant the seed (and twice as fortunate not to be in charge of its growth! What a disaster that would be!)

    I often think we are too concerned whether or not the writer’s life is God’s will for us or not. I say, until you get the answer that it is not, assume that it is, and go boldly. And, should he select your work through which to demonstrate some small evidence of his power, count yourself doubly blessed.

    And I pray that any work that anyone here does inspires as many fellow followers to debate whether or not your work is “Christian” enough. It probably means you are doing something right!

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  8. I will acknowledge there are those who profess Christianity and yet act like “the world”. Sad but true. Hard to fully know if they are truly saved by the Blood. Not for me to say, I know.

    I might just disagree with you in a semantics kind of way, Paul. My stories contain all kinds of characters, lost and found and all that those conditions entail.

    I only know that the majority of Christians that I personally know are devoted to Jesus and full of the Spirit. Imperfect as we are, we do our best to let those who have yet to meet the Savior of the world know/understand why we believe and follow Him.

    What you speak of in writing is what I call the “anointing”, and it certainly isn’t upon every piece of “Christian” literature. Some recognize “the call” to write but choose not to call it that. Others know it is their “call”.

    Probably just semantics, Paul. I hope I haven’t offended you in this discussion. Thank you for visiting my blog. I appreciate it.

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  9. Paul,

    I really agree with you on the distinction between a “man made” definition (which was all I was imperfectly presenting for discussion) and God’s definition.

    I think you are getting at the heart of it in the sense that in the end it is God’s decision that matters … and anything that I might offer up is nothing but trash. He can redeem my work if it is his will—and make something beautiful out of it. But there is nothing good inside me except which God has put there.

    These are mysteries. Who is a Christian? (Only God knows, although he can confirm it for an individual.) Am I seeking God’s glory? (I am utterly sinful, and often deceive myself … utterly dependent on God.) What Spiritual Truth? (Only that which God gives by His word and His grace and brings to life in my soul.)

    And so ultimately regarding our own work this is very personal and between us and God.

    But even though these things are mysteries, that does not mean that we are not called, personally, to discern the things around us. And as such, I still find useful a basic framework for understanding things.

    And my goal was not to restrict—if anything my definition was intentionally broad. Spiritual Truth is about as generic as I can get without watering it down to nothing.

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  10. Interesting. It reminds me that authors too often tell us the moral/theme/agenda/whatever rather than show us an engaging story, conflict, characters, etc.

    Don’t tell me your theme. Tell me a story. Then as a good writer, let theme guide how you construct that setting, the characters, the scene sequences, and the story arc.

    Good writers are like good plumbers. The pipes all work so the water flows. But we don’t need to see the pipes to get a drink of water.

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  11. […] I’ve heard some folks asking what it looks like when Christian writers weave their faith into novels as a theme. […]

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  12. One note of assurance, Nicole: I could take no offense, as none was given! I think this is an important issue where the thoughtful disagreements only serve to open all of us up to the glory of God. I only thank you for participating, and for your blog, which I think everyone should read.

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  13. Thank you so much, Paul.

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