Preachy Fiction

Two of the Mikes whose blogs I follow, Mike Duran and Mike Dellosso (soon to be known as Michael King — you’ll have to ask him about that) posted this week on the subject themes in fiction. As it happened, they took opposite positions on the subject.

What caught my attention most, however, was Tony’s comment to Mike Dellosso’s article. In part he said

If you can entertain me first, I won’t mind a message in there. It’s why shows like Glee are so successful despite their obvious indoctrination-style message.

Ah, yes, Glee, a show with an “obvious indoctrination-style message.” I would mention Harry’s Law as just such a show as well. Perhaps there are others I’ve never watched. These two, I know about. In both cases I watched the first season and indeed found them entertaining, but at some point all the preachiness, much of it about things with which I disagree, drove me away.

I’ll give you a snippet of a recent Harry’s Law — and I didn’t watch this entire show, so don’t have all the details.

First a little background. Harry is a lawyer, a 50-something woman who got fed up with the way law had turned into a game, but ended up opening a store-front office in the heart of the inner city and started representing those who normally couldn’t afford representation that would give them a fair shake. Well, a season later, she’s been so successful, she’s taken on partners and is now in charge of her own firm.

In the show in question, someone came to her because they wanted to sue the local zoo on behalf of a gorilla. The animal was being unfairly treated, the claimant said, its rights trampled. The show then went into the courtroom where all kinds of evidence was brought up — how intelligent the animal was, how social it was, how its present conditions deprived it of what it needed.

Ultimately the judge had to rule on the question of whether or not the gorilla was considered property. There was even comparison with how the gorilla was being treated and the treatment of African Americans during the era of slavery.

Yes, meat-eating came up and what a ruling in favor of the gorilla would mean for pets. In the end, Harry lost the case, but the show closed with a touching scene where Harry went to the cage to tell the gorilla she would keep fighting for it to get moved or to stay, I forget which was at issue.

Simply put, Harry’s Law is an issues show. Glee is too, or at least it had become one at the point when I stopped watching it.

Is blog commenter Tony right that these kinds of shows stay on the air because they are so well done, the preachiness of them doesn’t spoil them?

But more to the point, why do secular TV shows get to be preachy but Christian fiction doesn’t? Obviously I’m not talking about “get to” in the sense of “permission.” Rather, when these things are reviewed, do the writers of Harry’s Law and Glee get taken to task for their preachiness in the same way that authors of Christian fiction do?

Here’s one segment of a review covering the episode I referred to:

While I recognize the prerogative of the writers of this show to turn everything into a social issue, this show cannot and should not be expected to hold its own on this premises alone.

This series is more than capable of building deep and convincing character development while still achieving its social issues agenda in the courtroom.

Apparently this reviewer agrees with Tony.

Then are Christians laboring under a double standard in fiction — people can write about what they believe as long as it isn’t Christianity?

As a reminder, I’m not in favor of in-your-face themes. That’s very different from fiction that says nothing, however. Themes that are well crafted and need some tugging and teasing to bring them out are absolutely the best. Those are embedded into the story and are part of it’s warp and woof. The characters’ lives, choices, and development direct the reader toward the story’s meaning. The Ah-ha moment is not summed up in dialogue or even in internal monologue.

Little Red Riding Hood does not turn to the Hunter and say, Thank you for saving me from the Big Bad Wolf. I understand that I was wrong to talk to a stranger. From now on I will be sure to obey.

Weeping over the death of her grandmother would be far more effective.

But either way, the message is there. Christian writers seem to be on an island thinking that our stories are not supposed to mean something.

Published in: on March 22, 2012 at 6:43 pm  Comments (27)  
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27 Comments

  1. I’m not too fond of preachy secular fiction/television. I used to love the show Law & Order SVU, but after I became a Christian I began to notice that when a character was introduced as a Christian on the show, they would either turn out to be the criminal, or turn out to be worse than the criminal.

    As Christians living in a secular culture, we become aware of excessive preachiness in our Christian fiction and a lot of the time we reject that. We tend to prefer subtle Christian messages in our fiction because in fiction by secular publishers, even when the author is a believing Christian any Christian content has to be subtle-to-invisible. That’s what we are used to.

    An added benefit of subtle Christian fiction is that it can be read by our non-Christian friends and family members without them being too repelled by the strangeness of it.

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  2. I could only stomach one episode of Harry’s Law. It’s liberal political agenda blared from its premise, and no amount of good acting – which there was – could subdue the message jammed into the dialogue. So they lost one potential viewer precisely because of their message-driven drama. However, there are little injections of leftwing stuff in other series which is less offensive because it isn’t the “reason” for every episode and it fits the particular character (i.e. Bones) plus it’s balanced by opposite positions within an episode.

    Christianity is a target for criticism and accusation. Preach about anything else, spiritual or otherwise, and you get a pass on “preachiness”. Not the Christian faith. Granted it can be done poorly, with a gob-smacking, and with little charisma, but it’s no more offensive in its agenda than the episode I saw of Harry’s Law (which is a brilliant example, Becky).

    I think it’s a quality issue, not a message issue.

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  3. The interesting thing, Becky, is that when I wrote my post I had no idea Mike had written his. Weird timing, huh? And I’m not surprised we came down on opposite sides of the issue.

    I respect that others won’t agree with me on this topic of themes in fiction and “preaching” in fiction. It’s my conviction alone. Others are entitled to their own convictions. What I don’t understand, though, is this whole issue of fiction only asking questions. The world is already asking questions, lots of them, and they can’t find any answers because they’ve been blinded (how will they know unless someone tell them?) Why would I want to ask more questions when I have the Answer? Jesus.

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  4. Becky,

    Secular writers (and readers) are also tiring of preachy, agenda-driven stories, no matter what ideology or cause is being pushed. Science fiction writer Sarah Hoyt posted on this recently, and her ideas run parallel to yours.

    http://accordingtohoyt.com/2012/03/21/what-is-human-wave-science-fiction-3/

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  5. Thanks for the mention, Becky!

    You brilliantly asked: “Then are Christians laboring under a double standard in fiction — people can write about what they believe as long as it is Christianity?” I don’t believe so for this reason: Christians begrudgingly tolerate agenda-driven fiction in the mainstream media because it justifies their own agenda. “Everybody preaches something,” we declare. “Well, we preach Christ!” So we tolerate “Harry’s Law” because, well, we’re doing the same thing.

    Regarding theme, I wouldn’t want readers to misinterpret me as suggesting “our stories are not supposed to mean something.” That’s a common, but over-reaching, rebuttal. Like you, I believe every story has a worldview, theme, and/or agenda.The problem is, Christian fiction demands an explicit worldview, theme, and/or agenda. For instance, a story that contains a theme like “all people are sinners” or “forgiveness is powerful” is, frankly, not explicit enough for many Christian readers. After all, anyone can write that! It isn’t “Christian” until we say, “All people are sinners… and Jesus came to save us,” or “Forgiveness is powerful… and Jesus is the Source of forgiveness.” That is the watershed of this discussion — How much do we have to say for our stories to be “Christian”? The answer, thus far, is that many Christian fiction readers just want a “Christian version” of… “Harry’s Law.”

    Becky, thanks for continuing the conversation!

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  6. Great thoughts there Becky. The themes in most mainstream entertainment are about as subtle as a pit bull in a room full of kittens.

    What I had to say on this matter on Mike Dellosso’s site bares repeating:

    “Every time I hear some of these arguments I ask myself how much CBA fiction these people are actually reading. Your novels certainly don’t avoid hard questions or present everything in some pristine, “Christian fairy tail” light. Have these people read Scream or Darlington Woods? I’m quite sure they haven’t read Ted Dekker’s Immanuel’s Veins or Athol Dickson’s The Cure either. I would hardly call a main character who is an alcoholic ex-missionary a safe subject.

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  7. I hate Harry’s Law; when the pilot made fat jokes at the main character’s expense I decided it wasn’t worth my time. I also hate Glee–it would seem from the articles I read that more and more people are of this opinion. The Law & Order Franchise has died a well-deserved death, with only its tawdriest iteration hanging around.

    Preachy stories die, and they die pretty quickly. It’s a topic that is discussed often in secular blogs as well. Nobody enjoys agenda-driven entertainment, whether it’s Christian or Secular.

    For Christians to point to the World and say “they do it too!” as an excuse for bad writing is just childish.

    As to Tim George’s oft-repeated refrain of “Well have you read Athol Dickson’s [fill in the blank]? That’s not preachy!” and all the people who say “You must not have read X Y Z in the Christian genre” I say only this. Just because you can point out a few exceptions doesn’t mean that the problem as a whole doesn’t exist.

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  8. Nissa, I can’t speak about the specific series you mention, but I just had a discussion yesterday about the portrayal of Christians by secular media. It is too bad.

    I don’t think the answer is to show Christians as having it all together and making all the right choices, though, as I’m sure you’ll agree. I don’t think most Christian fiction today does that.

    I don’t care for fiction that has an in-your-face theme, whether I agree with it or disagree with it. The thing is, as long as we debate whether it’s right for Christians to include themes, we won’t be talking about how to do themes well.

    It’s the “doing themes well” that needs work, I think.

    Thanks for adding to the discussion, Nissa.

    Becky

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  9. Nicole, you said I think it’s a quality issue, not a message issue. That’s my position, too. The reviewer I quoted was taking Harry’s Law to task, not for their commentary on animal rights but for their weak character development. In other words, they didn’t think they’d measured up to Tony’s standard — make the story entertaining enough and we’ll let you say what you want to say.

    As long as fiction has been around, there have been themes. Only Christians seem to be in doubt about whether or not a novelist should have something to say.

    Becky

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  10. Mike Dellosso, thanks for stopping by. I agree that we writers will have different commitments in our work and that’s as it should be. I find it hard, however, when I hear Christian conference teachers and Christian writing instructors saying the exact opposite from those who are their equivalent in the secular market. I wrote a post about this last August after reading some writing instruction from sources in the general market – “Thinking About Theme.”

    Fred, thanks for the link to the article. I found Sarah Hoyt’s comments to be spot on (and funny 😆 ), especially these points:

    4- Your writing shouldn’t be all about the message. You can, of course, have a message. But the message should not be the be-all end-all of the novel. If it is, perhaps you should be writing pamphlets.

    5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.) [from “What Is Human Wave Science Fiction”emphasis mine]

    Becky

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  11. Mike Duran, well said.

    I do have to point out that I made a typographical error, so what you agreed with, you probably don’t now. The double standard I’m referring to is that secular writing instructors are busy teaching how to incorporate themes in an organic way while Christian writing instructors are busy teaching how not to have themes at all.

    Lest you think this is a stretch, one writing professional recently commented about a work that it seemed to have a “hidden agenda.” So first writers are to avoid overt agendas and now anything that could be considered hidden. In other words, if Christians have something to say, it should be undetectable. 🙄

    Obviously this isn’t your position.

    I know there are readers who want fiction to have Christian themes, as explicit as you indicated. And quite frankly, I have no problem with that. I think some stories should boldly pronounce the gospel. That still doesn’t necessarily make them preachy. It makes their theme overt. (See the article I linked to in my comment to Mike Dellosso).

    Other stories may work in a more subtle way, and I believe that makes them available to more people, even to those who may misunderstand. I wrote about this last November on my editing site – “Trusting Readers To Figure It Out.”

    My main point in this post and the discussion is this: as long as we Christians take the stand that “message” doesn’t belong in fiction, we won’t work on how to make the “message” become “the theme.”

    There are actual techniques we could be learning, but what I hear more than anything is, My worldview will naturally come out in my story, so I don’t have to craft a theme; after all, I don’t want to be preachy.

    It’s a wrong-headed approach, in my view.

    Becky

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  12. Tim, thanks for stopping by and adding your extensive knowledge about Christian fiction into the mix. It’s become much more diverse than the oft pictured prairie or Amish romance. I’ve seen comments on the Internet making generalizations based on a reading experience from five or ten years ago. Thankfully the market is expanding and including a much wider range than it once did.

    The thing that disturbs me is that we Christian writers seem to be playing into the hand of those who would like to keep us from speaking in the public arena. Rather than debating whether or not we should put themes into our fiction, I’d like to see us address how to put them in well.

    Becky

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    • And generalization are what drive me crazy Rebecca. Sorry if I have sounded preachy to Katherine but I feel constrained to draw attention to CBA fiction that breaks the mold.

      As always you find the reasonable middle group more of us should pay attention to (and I start with myself).

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  13. Katherine, you always bring an interesting perspective in your comments. You said For Christians to point to the World and say “they do it too!” as an excuse for bad writing is just childish.

    I agree with your point. Bad fiction is bad fiction. Because it shows up in the general market doesn’t mean that it’s fine for Christians to write bad fiction.

    We differ in our views, however, because you apparently equate stories with themes as bad fiction. Secular writers don’t do that, reviewers don’t, writing instructors don’t. It would seem only a segment of the Christian writing community thinks Christians shouldn’t have something to say in fiction.

    Actually I think Mike is on the right track by suggesting that we induce questions in our stories. That’s certainly one approach, but not the only one. I’d like to see us discuss how we can organically develop themes rather than debate whether or not we should have them.

    (And perhaps I’ve “preached” that message enough for one set of comments. 😆 )

    Becky

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  14. Tim, you don’t sound _preachy_ to me. Just predictable. 🙂

    There is good CBA fiction and bad CBA fiction. As much as I like seeing the good emphasised, I also wouldn’t mind if the bad were culled.

    I don’t have a problem with messages in stories. I just think subtlety is the key.

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  15. It’s amazing how often Katherine sound like we are polar opposites yet in reality agree on many things. 6 years of living in the trenches of Christian fiction blog wars that probably mean nothing to outsiders I fear has made me all too predictable.

    Would it surprise you that I’m getting ready to throw away a pile of CBA novels I couldn’t even give away on my web site this Christmas? Maybe I’m doing my small part in the culling process. 🙂

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  16. “We differ in our views, however, because you apparently equate stories with themes as bad fiction. ”

    Not really. It’s not the _theme_ I mind, but the execution. A lot of my favourite books have themes (_A Prayer For Owen Meany_=doubt, faith, fate and choice; _Les Miserables_=injustice and exploitation; _Christy_=coming to terms with prejudices and using God’s redemption to bring not only spiritual but tangible reform to those who need it. I could go on and on.)

    The best I can do is give you a bad example, or rather a good example of a bad execution of theme. I read a Christian book awhile back–I try to read one Christian title out of every three–where one would say the Theme would be turning your problems over to God. I guess.

    In this book the action stopped several times in several unrealistic places and a character gave an unrealistic speech to another character that went on for anywhere from 2 to 7 pages about Turning Your Problems Over To God. In one instance it was a doctor telling a patient he was seeing for the first time that he wouldn’t order refills on the prescription from her regular doctor (he was seeing her because her regular doctor was the partner in his practice and the regular doctor was sick) because she needed to Turn Her Problems Over To God and stop relying on the pills. The doctor goes on and on about what this woman’s problems may be and why she isn’t trusting God and does she pray? Because people who pray don’t need sleeping pills! He doesn’t know the woman–it’s not like she goes to his church or anything. She’s just a random patient! Then at the end of his six page berating of this already-frazzelled person he takes out the prescription THAT WAS ALREADY WRITTEN and says “I had it the whole time but you needed to hear what I had to say.” So this good Christian Doctor is _lying_ to the woman from the very beginning when he says he won’t give her the pills. Don’t even get me started on the fact that a lot of devout Christians _do_ need sleeping pills, pain medication and anti-depressants. The book was pushing the author’s very flawed agenda (if you have the Great Physician you don’t need other doctors) along with the standard Jesus saves your soul. In both cases it went well beyond “theme” into straight-up hitting you over the head.

    Now, I’ve read a LOT of Christian fiction that is just fine, where the themes are understated. (Athol Dickson, most Melody Carlson, some Ted Dekker) But every now and again I get a book like that one and if I ever complain in the Amazon review someone always says “they’re preachy in secular books too!” Sure they are. But the existence of other bad books doesn’t make _this_ bad book okay….

    And I’m sorry for being long-winded; I’m just trying to clarify because I think sometimes people have a wrong idea about what I mean.

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  17. And of course I meant to say “Katherine and I” yet another heartfelt plea for a personal social media editor. Sorry about that Katherine.

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  18. @ Mike Duran: I cannot quote him word-for-word, but in the introduction to “Understanding the Times”, Noebel affirms that every person lives their life according to a certain paradigm of ideas.

    As for Christians who demand an explicit message, here’s something to ponder:

    “Frankenstein” begs the question, what is it that makes me human?
    “The Strange Case of Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” presents how uncontrollable sin can be.
    Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” (most famous as the musical) ends with a police officer sacrificing himself so the prisoner can go free.
    Chapter 17 of “Brave New World” shows the conflict between religion and the advance of technology and government.
    Dostoevsky’s literary exploration of humanity reveals elements of the Gospel.
    C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia” has been adapted two times (once by the BBC, then the recent cinematic adaptation).

    Now, which of these have an explicit Christian message?

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  19. No problem, Tim. I knew what you meant. Years of reading LiveJournal have made me fluent in even the most Pidgen web speak. A minor word omission is a piece of cake. ;p

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  20. @ Mike and Rebecca:

    Much agreed. The authors I presented in my last post certainly induced a lot of philosophical questions into their stories.

    Here’s an interesting example of questions being answered; in Plato’s “Euthyphro”, Euthyphro and Socrates discuss the definition of holiness. Euthyphro tries to come up with a definition, but fails by Socrates’ standards. At the end, the two agree on how Socrates describes holiness, but cannot define it. (Now, how many elements of Christian theology do we define, and how many do we describe?)

    Now, that’s one way of answering the questions we ask. I agree with Becky that we should seek the different ways of answering such questions in our writing.

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  21. @Karl — I’m not sure what you’re asking. You said, “every person lives their life according to a certain paradigm of ideas.” I agree. You listed some books and then asked, “which of these have an explicit Christian message?” Hm. Probably none of them. Are they anti-Christian messages? No. Just not “explicit.” But I’m not sure what you’re getting at.

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  22. The mention of “Harry’s Law” brought back a lost memory. In the premier, I liked the characters, hated the preachiness, never watched a second episode. Knowing that helps me understand how someone, Christian or non, might not stomach a preachy storyline. In my debut novel, I fear, because of the afterlife theme in heaven and hell, that possibility may exist as a person reads the story.

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  23. Victor Hugo would be quite surprised to find his book has no explicit Christian message. Especially when it comes to Bishop Myriel, Valjean’s adoption of the pseudonym “Madeleine” in honour of the whore redeemed unto righteousness and the theme of honour redeeming dishonour and Christ requiring sacrifice. Pretty much the entire book is a treatise about Grace Vs. Works.

    I think he’d be very surprised indeed.

    🙂

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  24. I think this is an important subject to discuss, for all Christian Fiction writers. Below, is a portion from a blog I run, discussing this same subject.

    Christian writers have many things they need to focus on. Biblical correctness, Christian world view, grammar, the art of writing, audience, a good and entertaining story, and so on. However, a lot of the “experts” ask Christian authors to put the wagon in front of the horse, by focusing more on the art of writing and keeping “God” out of the writing, or so watered down you have to search with binoculars to find Him.

    What should Christian writers do? All Christians are to seek to glorify God FIRST! We are to seek to further the Kingdom of God, not our own kingdoms. When a Christian author writes, the following questions should be addressed before the pen touches the paper, or before fingers touch the keyboard.
    • Will God be Glorified in my book?
    • Will the dying lost come to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ?
    • Will the saints of God gain knowledge or insight?
    Joel Bouriaque

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  25. Joel, I think a lot of us believe we aren’t bringing God glory by talking about Him poorly. It’s not really an either/or–at least that’s what I maintain. Some writers do believe writing good art in and of itself brings God glory. I’m not convinced. Especially because good fiction says something. It’s not telling a meaningless story that has no impact on the reader and his inner life. But there’s skill in saying what I believe passionately so that it is part of the artful painting, not an unsightly and unavoidable blob in the center of the picture.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    Becky

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