Christianity, Fiction, and Christian Fiction

Announcement: for those of you looking for the August CSFF Poll, please note that I inadvertently left Chawna Schroeder off, though I did post the links to her three articles. In contrast, I put Julie on the poll but left the links to her articles off that list. These mistakes are now corrected.

– – –

The comments to yesterday’s post spurred me to think a little more about Christianity and literature. Happily I had bookmarked another article on the subject, this one by Jeffrey Overstreet entitled “Why my faith is not ‘FoxFaith,’ and great art is not necessarily ‘Christian art.'”

Being a film critic, Jeffrey relates much of his opinion to movies, but certainly his remarks apply to the gamut of fiction. He identifies a list of things he then believed (he wrote the article in 2006) identified Christian art:

whatever is clean;
whatever is free of anything that could possibly offend;
whatever is cute;
whatever portrays America as blameless;
whatever assures us that the good guys always win;
whatever is safe for six-year-olds and simplistic enough for them to understand;
and whatever openly proclaims the name of Jesus.

But here’s crucial point:

For me, these qualifications confined me to a sort of wish-fulfillment art. It limited me to a particular corner of Christian culture in which we dreamed about what we wanted the world to look like… a sort of Thomas Kincaid vision of the world… not art that challenged me to grapple with the dark, complicated world I live in, where answers don’t come easy. It was art designed to make me comfortable, not art designed to challenge my mind and test me.

Reading this prompted two contradictory questions: 1) is wish-fulfillment art always wrong? 2) are stories that do not challenge my mind and test me really art?

First, is “wish-fulfillment art” always wrong? If I worked in a garbage dump, would I come home and turn on a program for entertainment about land-fills? I suspect not. I’d want something that took my mind off my work-related problems.

But that leads to question two. I think there are two ways of “taking my mind off work-related problems.” I can put my mind in neutral and do something that requires no thought, or I can put my mind on something challenging but unrelated to work.

Stories that put a reader’s mind in neutral aren’t “art,” in my opinion. They aren’t even trying to be art. They’re trying to be momentarily entertaining.

As I see it, Christian fiction has often become equated with this kind of unchallenging story telling. That’s a problem. If I’m right and those stories are not art, then Christianity has been separated from art in fiction.

But why? Clearly there are writers who want to make Christian art—who want to challenge readers to think, to grapple with the hard questions of life, who want to hold out hope “while never flinching from the cold, hard truth of life in a sin-afflicted world.”

I can think of a number of writers who fit this category, some published, some yet to be published. So the question is really this, I guess. Will readers and writers and agents and editors be content with this “safe fiction” version of Christian fiction, or is there hope that Christianity will again ignite great literary art?

Note: in my opinion, including cuss words in a story or an inference to sex does not qualify a story as art since it is no longer “sanitized.”

Published in: on August 28, 2009 at 11:15 am  Comments (15)  
Tags: , ,


  1. “Note: in my opinion, including cuss words in a story or an inference to sex does not qualify a story as art since it is no longer ‘sanitized.'”

    Becky, I would have to disagree with equating art with being “sanitized”. Am I misunderstanding you? Art represents life and the creation of interpretation translates it to the page in the case of writing. One of the most “artful” stories of our time is Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. An absolutely profound story it is anything but sanitized as you know.
    I would agree that the inclusion of cuss words rather than the reference to them or the graphic descriptions of sexual episodes do not infer artful writing, but including their allusions does not negate artful writing.


  2. Nicole, I probably should have left that line out of the post and taken time to write a separate article to explain what I’m thinking. Actually I wanted to do a preventative—a line that would keep readers from misunderstanding. But it obviously wasn’t clear enough.

    Here’s what I was thinking. One thing Jeffrey Overstreet had on his list describing his understanding of Christian fiction was “whatever is clean.” There are writers who chafe against the standards of Christian publishers, saying they want to write “edgy” or realistic fiction, and to do that they must use cuss words or they must include bedroom scenes.

    My point is this: including cuss words, in and of itself, does not make a work realistic and consequentially more artful. Including bedroom scenes does not of itself make a work artful.

    What I did not add is that including them may not make a work less Christian nor less artful. However, publishers get to decide what they do or do not want in the fiction they produce.

    In the end, though, I think we need to separate the idea of “clean” with “Christian.” None of us is clean, which is why we need a savior. The equation of the two distorts the image of Christians, I think. Are we too pure to rub shoulders with characters that curse and swear? Are we better than they? I believe that’s the impression we’re making.

    The truth, for me at least, is that I am too weak. When I read curse words, I think curse words. I wish it didn’t affect me that way, but it does. To read fiction with a lot of cursing, then, would be to put a known temptation in front of me. Time and time again.

    So having a line of “clean fiction” would be a help to a weak Christian like me. And still, I’d like the fiction I read to be artistic.

    I also prefer fiction with themes that are true, that have some universal meaning. As a Christian, I believe I should find those most often in Christian fiction. But some of the clean fiction I’ve read has little to do with truth and nothing universal about it.

    In the end, labeling such works “Christian” distorts the connotation of what a Christian is.

    So am I saying we should do away with the term “Christian fiction”? No, I’m saying we need to elevate it.



  3. Just a thought about:

    “whatever is free of anything that could possibly offend;”

    This brings to my mind the words of Jesus when He told His disciples that He came to earth to cause division, to separate brother from brother and parents from children. The disciples had overlooked the Kingly side of his personality, authority, and reason for coming to Earth and had instead emphasized his pacifism and harmony-inducing qualities. He said what He did to remind them that He was still the same wrathful, jealous God they knew but his anger was on hold for the time being.

    The quote above seems to make the same mistake, that is, to forget both halves of God’s personality. Real Christianity offends people. It doesn’t have to and it doesn’t always do so, but the potential is there.


  4. Yes Daniel, but Paul also refrained from meat, not because it was unclean for him to eat but because it might prove a stumbling block to others.
    I have struggled with this in my own writing. Not the bedroom stuff which I have never found (in any work) to be anything but a detraction from the story. No, I mean I have struggled with the cursing, because in any work, unbelievers– the unsaved will appear and may be center for a time, and the world is so very full of cursing.


  5. Re: mgkizzia

    True enough. There are scripture verses to backup both views. I still think that a purely non-offensive criteria is an over-simplification. I mean, how do you show conflict without offending anyone? The old adage that ‘you can please all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’ is true. Somewhere, someone, somehow will be offended by something in our writings.

    Jesus did say that the stone the builders rejected (He) became the chief cornerstone to those that believed but a rock of stumbling, a stone of offense to those that did not.

    I wonder if the difference between the two sides has to do with who it’s directed at. Surely unbelievers are more likely to be offended especially when believers separate themselves from unbelievers. Perhaps what Paul was saying is in effect that Christians should not show their conflicts with one another to the world, that it should be dealt with internally.

    mgkizzia, Becky, your thoughts?


  6. I also have an issue with:

    * whatever is cute;
    * whatever portrays America as blameless;

    Because, well, what does cuteness have to do with Jesus’ death and torture? One has only to watch the Passion to see that there is nothing cute there and yet it is arguably the heart of the Christian message. I find the inclusion of this item to be ridiculous.

    Regarding the portrayal of America as blameless, who says? America is a country run by humans who are fallible. America can and has made many mistakes in its past – removal of the indians from their land, the incarceration of American citizens of Japanese decent during WWII (yes, it happened), slavery, etc. America is not guilty of the horrors of Nazi Germany like the death camps but she is not untarnished either. I think back to the description of the nations in Ezekiel and how they are all portrayed as wild beasts. America too is an animal by comparison.


  7. Michael, I understand where you’re coming from. Because I write fantasy, I’ve made up curse words in the made up language. It feels real to me, and I don’t think it will cause anyone to stumble.

    But when an author writes using a contemporary setting, and includes a non-Christian environment, I think it would be hard—not impossible, but hard—to keep the language clean and at the same time make it realistic.

    I’d say, prayer is the author’s best decision-making device. 😉



  8. Daniel, I’m running out of time and will probably only get to answer your first comment.

    That list of things Jeffrey used was his idea of what Christian fiction was at the time, not what he or anyone that I know thinks it should be.

    I don’t know about “cute” in fiction. I’ve seen cute things in Christian stores, and maybe that’s where he got his ideas about what was in the fiction.

    All things American fits in the sense that a good portion of Christianity is staunchly patriotic. I find that interesting. While I love my country, and in traveling to various parts of the world, I haven’t found a place I’d rather live, in the long run, patriotism seems … short-sighted. (Can something be short-sighted in the long run? 😀 ) I mean, simply, that the family of God knows no nationalistic, racial, gender, age barriers. So to be a rabid advocate of one nation seems to me to be putting a lot of time and energy in something temporary.

    And yet, I think we are supposed to be good citizens—in whatever country God has placed us. We’re supposed to pray for our leaders, and because we vote them into place, I think our responsibility might be a little greater than in a dictatorship.

    All that to say, I think anyone blindly elevating the US to a status of can’t-do-wrong might need to take a good history class. Or read the daily newspaper.

    But again, I don’t know any fiction that is full of such jingoism.



  9. Quick answer to your other comment, Daniel.

    Yes, we will see conflict, but Scripture indicates it should not be brought on by us doing wrong. If the offense is Christ, so be it. If the offense is my writing something that leads a new Christian away from Christ, then I am in error.

    Understand, people can find excuses to turn from Christ. That’s not the same thing as me writing something that causes another to stumble.

    I’ve critiqued work before written for the ABA romance market. I know there are things in some of those manuscripts that would cause others to stumble. I read a CBA book that had a similar scene (less graphic), and I wondered at the time what value it had in the book.

    I’m convinced this is an issue that each writer must resolve for him- or herself, as must each publishing house. I think I’d rather err on the side of caution than to boldly exercise my freedom in Christ only to discover later I’ve caused any number of others to stumble.



  10. Re: Becky

    Regarding the idea that we can be held responsible for others’ stumbling.

    I was in a service once by a young preacher whom I admire. He made several claims based on the book of Hebrews with one being that we are not held accountable if something we do causes another to stumble or even reject Christianity. I don’t recall the exact verse or the logic behind the statement. I had always assumed that I was liable in that scenario, but he argued otherwise.

    Ever heard of this or have any idea where this concept came from? I’m asking because I want to have the proper interpretation. I know this person to be well grounded in scripture, but his argument baffles me. Is he incorrect or am I and are you?


  11. Daniel: ( with your permission, Becky). I don’t know the verse either, but common sense can tell us enough. If we inadvertently offend, our accountability is zero. God understands innocence, though we may be inspired to make it right. If we deliberately choose what we feel, believe, our heart says is wrong (God speaking to our heart) our accountability is — zero thanks to the cross if we truly confess and repent. In either case, though, we have not lived up to the best God has for our lives.
    God will mature us through his Word and Spirit (the testimony of two) and through our fellow beievers who may well show us a better way.
    Honestly, I believe Becky had it right: “Prayer is the author’s best decision making device.”


  12. Re: Michael

    Thanks for your reply, but common sense can’t be trusted. Common sense says that the sun crosses the sky every day rather than the earth rotating which is correct. I want to see what the scriptures have to say about.

    Please don’t misunderstand, I too think that it must be, it has to be, that we can be held accountable for the spritual stumbling of others. Yet, I must know for sure and there’s a part of me that isn’t settled on this issue.

    Taken to its logical conclusion, if it’s true that I am responsible for others that I make stumble – even inadvertently – that makes me responsible for the decisions and actions of ANOTHER PERSON. As a teacher, I find myself in that very position since my job is dependent on the performance of my students rather than on me. Yet this feels wrong somehow.


  13. Apologetic Science Fiction should not be written without real prayer. LEDNORF’S DILEMMA took years to write.


  14. Christian science fiction should be more than entertaining. It should be inspirational, encouraging and, in some cases, provocative. Implicit in LEDNORF’S DILEMMA is the question: “Why have philosophers, new-age theologians, agnostics, and atheists, ignored the several powerful and inarguable theological concepts that are the backbone of the story? In regard to a couple of the
    concepts, the fact is that intellectuals and scientists have no
    answer. And so they refuse to deal with such powerful points. In fact, “Lord Russell’s Truism” and “Lednorf’s Dilemma” scare them precisely because they cannot find a worthwhile argument.


  15. David, I left your first comment up and I’ll leave this one too, but you have to know, they smack of spam. It doesn’t come across to me that you’re truly entering into the discussion—especially since this post has not generated any discussion in over four months.

    I suggest you rethink your strategy for getting the word out about your book.



Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: