Christian Fiction: The Definition Matters

Yesterday over at Spec Faith, I did a “What Are You Reading” post, in part asking what Christian speculative fiction readers had enjoyed this past year. One of the comments made it clear that not everyone defines “Christian fiction” the same way.

In composing my response, it dawned on me that how a person defines “Christian fiction” dramatically affects their expectations of it.

Some readers and/or writing professionals, as John Otte did in several recent posts at Spec Faith (here’s one), say that Christian fiction is defined by its audience — Christians. Hence, Christian fiction should be about Christians and Christian issues written for Christians.

Others, as the commenter I mentioned, apparently believe Christian fiction is any fiction written by a Christian or a person professing faith in Christ. In other words, it is defined by its author. Some who hold this definition explain that a Christian’s worldview will naturally seep into his work, so whether or not he intentionally writes anything “spiritual,” it will still be marked by his Christian beliefs simply because he holds said Christian beliefs.

A third group defines Christian fiction by its content. If a story includes the gospel message, then it is Christian fiction.

I take a different tack. I believe a work is Christian if it is purposefully infused with the Christian worldview — not subliminally, as the writers who say our stories become Christian naturally because of our condition as Christians. You did notice the title of this blog, didn’t you? 😉

I know from personal experience that it is possible to write without any hint of my worldview coming through. Those pieces, then, are not rightly called Christian. Rather, a writer needs to make some effort to communicate the Christian worldview — which is broader than the gospel — either overtly or symbolically, in depth or in part, for a work to be rightly called Christian.

I think it’s apparent that these divergent definitions affect people’s expectations of the genre. If a reader comes to Christian fiction believing it is a story written by Christians, then they will expect any subject, any content, without limitations.

If, on the other hand, a reader comes to the same story believing that Christian fiction is written to Christians, for Christians, or that Christian fiction must contain the gospel, their expectations will reflect much narrower parameters.

If a reader expects purposeful communication of a Christian worldview, however, he can expect a story for other Christians or for non-Christians. He can expect an overt message and a clear presentation of the gospel, or the unique Christian understanding of truth communicated through types or symbols.

In other words, the latter understanding of Christian fiction is a broad, more inclusive category. Yet it is not stories with “anything goes” content as one can expect if “Christian fiction” is defined as fiction written by Christians.

Years ago I learned that I was writing Christian worldview fiction, and that put me at odds with much of the Christian publishing industry. At the same time, many others who found themselves at odds with the industry were also at odds with me because of the “purposeful” part of my definition. Rightly or wrongly, I felt some of those pushing to see Christian fiction expand really just wanted the freedom to write whatever they wanted, without publishers’ restrictions.

Of course general market publishers have their own set of restrictions, so why anyone would think Christian houses should operate differently isn’t logical.

Basically they, like all businesses, are interested in what they think will sell to their core market. Some of the smaller Christian houses that are not owned by a secular company still have mission statements that delineate a specific ministry goal for their fiction. Those might best be understood as Christian content houses. The others seem to operate primarily using the Christian audience framework. A few have delved into Christian worldview stories, and this seems to be a growing arm of Christian fiction.

From my perspective, the more readers understand the differing definitions and which publishers hold to which, the more they can tailor their expectations. I’d like to see that happen so we can stop the complaints and the put-downs such as I read a book of Christian fiction ten years ago and it was so preachy I’ll never read another one again.

For one thing, the industry is evolving, so fiction written ten years ago won’t look the same as fiction written today. For another, ten years ago most Christian publishers were not owned by secular companies. Hence it’s a fair assumption that their mission statements may have been more tied to ministry. Third, ten years ago, about the only place anyone could buy Christian fiction was in Christian bookstores. Hence the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) came to have great power over what would or would not end up on the shelves of their member stores.

The publishing landscape is far different today. Yet I believe the definition of Christian fiction still dictates expectations of the product.

My hope is that Christian worldview fiction will catch on in a big way, not for the sake of my stories, though there is that. 😉 I happen to believe that writing purposefully about truth, including spiritual truth, is the best kind of writing, creating the best kind of stories. I happen to believe those are lasting and can have a great influence on the culture, something I’d love to see.

* Yes, for those of you who visit Spec Faith, this is the same collage I posted over there. Hey, I went to a lot of work to create it. 🙂

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