Christian Fiction: The Definition Matters

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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. 🙂

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for reading my mind and expressing my heart.

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  2. Really good survey of this. Thanks for putting a lot of thought into the definition. Another thought to add in is how Christian fiction is defined on the bookstore shelves. (I work at a bookstore.) Where a book is placed in the store plays a big role in how readers view that book: If it’s in the fiction section it’s more literary and mainstream; if it’s in the Christian fiction section, it’s narrow in story and message. Interesting that you have Scott Appleton’s book in your collage. Barnes & Noble categorized him in “Teen Religious Fiction” and he told us at his signing that he’s trying to get that recategorized to just “Teen Fiction.” For broader audience appeal? Because the series doesn’t contain overt gospel references? Not sure. I guess that adds two more thoughts: How the author feels they should be categorized, and how the bookstore buyers categorize it.

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  3. I believe that you (Becky), John Otte, and myself are all right in this topic. I think you misunderstand John. His view isn’t that “Christian fiction is defined by its audience”, but rather the label “Christian” defines the audience who will read it. By putting that label on a work it does not matter who the author is, who the intended audience is, or how intentional or unconsciously a Christian message may or may not be contained there-in; you are automatically are limiting your audience to Christians (or people who would take reading recommendations from Christians) and therefore if Christians were not your intended audience you book will likely fail under that label. Any Christian who wants their works to be accessible to the general population would be wise to not have the Christian label on their work- because once that label is there your book is placed on both the physical and digital shelves where only Christians are looking for books.

    You say the categories should be Christian and Non-Christian (not “secular”). By your definition it is the Christian category which you restrict letting Non-Christian be the bigger more common category (secular?). I believe that is accurate to how things are established in the book world, which has caused the further narrowing to audience that John describes and is also accurate to how things are. Everything that fits your definition is Christian, so in that way you are right- but I believe there is more “Christian” that fits your definition than you acknowledge because it doesn’t fit the current usage of the label. For example, it seems to me The Lord of The Rings does not properly fit under the Christian label, even though it was clearly crafted with Christian themes (and so fits your definition, even if Christians are the only ones who acknowledge this). It was intended for the world to read and the world has accepted it, and maybe they are edified by the truths it contains or not.

    I would go a step further outside of the category label than the works of Tolkien, and switch which domain the boundaries are placed on. It seems to me that we let too much truth fall outside our kosher boundaries, and too many seem to shy away from the Non-Christian as if it were “unclean!” or Anti-Christian even though some of it is written by Christians and even much of it that isn’t written by Christians also contains truth from a worldview that acknowledges God’s existence whether they know him personally or not. That is probably the Wesleyan in me speaking, but I believe the Holy Spirit is at work, even in non-Christians. Writing that is creative and not destructive flows from truth. And anything that is not against God has potential goodness.

    Books written by Christians for the general market can very well have Christian themes intentionally crafted into their work, but even if they do not… Worldview is something a person can not get outside of. A Christian who writes will write from a Christian Worldview whether it is intentional or not. Truth will be present because of who and whose the author is. You say a story about a world were God does not exist would be non-Christian, but I believe if such a story were ever written by a Christian there would be a stark contrast between that fictional word and the world that exists so that the story would proclaim the existence of the real God in the real world. I don’t believe a Christian can withhold the truth that they believe and honestly be Christian.

    Let’s take my blog for example. There are several of my poems, some stories from my life, and a few little fictional pieces… Some of these regard faith directly, and in some of them faith issues may seem completely absent… but they all came out of the heart and mind of a Christian, and so none contain anything anti-Christian. It is all good and appropriate for Christian reading, and because of who the author is the presence of God in these stories can be assumed even though He is not always explicitly mentioned. The sacred and the ordinary are all part of the Christian life experience and should not be divorced as-if the ordinary were profane.

    I think the only things that need be called non-Christian are writings that are anti-Christian: writings that tell us lies about God, humans, and the natural order of the created world- in attempt to convince us of the lies and not the truth. I don’t believe many secular works do this, and I don’t see that a Christian could do that and still be allowing God’s Spirit to work in them- and still be “Christian”. So, John is right that only writings intended exclusively for Christian reading should bare the Christian label, and you are right that works are rightly called Christian if they intentionally are crafted from a Christian worldview, and yet (in-my-opinion) Christians should be able to consider all writing by Christians as being Christian also- as having a right worldview and speaking truth- whether Christian themes are intentionally crafted into it or not. I don’t see that as saying anything is permissible for a Christian to write. I hope that all my brothers and sisters are guided and convicted by the very same Spirit of Truth.

    So, in conclusion: instead of clearing the mess by all adopting the same definition, we should consider that all 3 definitions are valid- just as words in a dictionary have multiple definitions. But there needs to be understanding of the labels to help books and their intended readers find each other and be satisfied. The current “Christian” label is for works intended for Christian reading- it just happens that way by default; your proposed Christian World View Fiction, sounds like a good helpful category for Christians but if we were to put that actual label on the books they would end up back in John’s category… so we might have to come up with something more creative there, and then… who wants to start the fights that will come with labeling books “anti-Christian”… guess my thoughts don’t help labeling either… and the mess remains.

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