Sugar-Coating Christianity in Fiction

I listened to part of a writing instruction tape recorded years ago at a now-defunct writing conference. The author holding the seminar said first that writing, particularly for children, should be entertaining.

Then he added this piece of advice: the writing should sugar-coat the message.

Apparently this approach is based on the assertion that readers don’t want stories heavy on sermonizing. But this author’s solution was to “sugar-coat” the gospel or the moral or whatever is the point of the story.

Sadly, I think this approach caught on. Rather than asking, “How can I best show the truth through story,” writers adopting this approach seem more caught up with how they can wrap truth in the fad of the day, be it humor or suspense or vampires or angels.

I want to be clear here. I believe wholeheartedly that believers need to meet our culture where it’s at—which is why I write fiction, and in particular why I write fantasy. But I’m not trying to sugar-coat the truth.

This may be a fine line, but I think there are significant differences. For one, there’s the artistic aspect. Themes are part of stories. To say we must sugar-coat a theme is to approach the idea of including theme as if it is something we are trying to slip past unsuspecting readers. Not only “something,” but something distasteful, though good for them.

Sorry, but I don’t see truth as distasteful. And I don’t think writers should try to smuggle truth into a story. Instead, truth should be the vital gold thread around which the story is woven. If done so with skill, the story will be more beautiful because of it.

I also think there’s a difference in substance. A story with sugar-coated truth is either adding unnecessary sugar, thus bloating a story, or forcing truth into a story that doesn’t require such.

Truth, whether presented subtly or overtly, should be a necessary component for the sake of the story and the characters, not for the sake of the reader.

There’s no sugar coating in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Lewis didn’t make Aslan a tame lion so the story would be more kid-friendly. He didn’t back away from the fact that Edmond would die unless Aslan stepped in. He didn’t back away from requiring Aslan to sacrifice himself for the wayward son of Adam.

Truth should not be sugar-coated or tacked on. What ought to set Christian fiction apart from all other is that authors who know The Author have deeper truth to tell.

This article is reposted from November 2009.

2 Comments

  1. I think sugar-coating the truth is the norm in our Sunday school curriculum today too. Entertaining the kids with story is the goal, at the expense of weaning them off the milk duds. Maybe that’s why so many young people leave the church when they go off to college.

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  2. I haven’t looked at any recent Sunday school curriculum, but I’m not surprised to hear it, Bob. Sad, but not surprised. Yes, entertainment is the highest goal we seem to set for kids. And what’s true that too many adults don’t realize is that kids thrive when they have purpose.

    I can look back and see this in my own life. The school subjects or areas of study we balked at were ones we thought had no purpose. We wanted what we put our time to to have meaning, to be useful.

    Your theory about why kids don’t stay in the church has merit. If we make kids feel as if the gospel is window dressing and they themselves are window dressing to the church, why would they stay?

    Becky

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