Christian Fiction And The Christian Worldview


Earlier this week I wrote the following:

Sower_oilGiving the good news [of Jesus Christ], however, doesn’t look the same for every single person. Some are preachers, some serve. Some prepare the soil, some plant, some water. All parts of the process are necessary for a harvest. But one thing is true—wheat doesn’t come up by accident. (“A Look At What’s Most Important.”)

I think that paragraph summarizes my views about Christian fiction about as well as anything I could write on the subject. But sometimes particulars are lost in metaphors, so I want to elaborate a little on this topic.

First, I’m aware that some readers and some publishers equate “safe fiction” with Christian fiction. That view is in error. Christianity is not the same as morality. For example, Mormon fiction can have a “true love waits” theme as much as can Christian fiction; fiction written from a secular humanist worldview can have a tolerance theme that looks similar to a “love your neighbor” theme you might find in Christian fiction.

The externals that so many look to as the definition of “safe”—no bad language, no sex scenes, a minimum of violence—can be true in movies like Wall-e or in DVDs like Veggie Tales.

Consequently, no matter what marketing or promotional blurbs say, safe does not equal Christian. Anyone saying otherwise is closing their eyes to an attempt to usurp the term Christian and make it over to mean something it is not.

Secondly, Christian is not the same as theistic. Consequently, a story that includes or even centers on a belief in God is not the same as Christian fiction. That fact should be clear from Scripture:

You believe that God is One; you do well. The demons also believe and shudder. (James 2:16)

A story like Gilead, then, with a pastor who does not pass on the gospel to his son in the last moments of his life, may speak of God, but can’t be understood as a Christian story based solely on those pronouncements.

So what makes a story Christian or what does fiction written from a Christian worldview look like? I think we have to take a step back and ask, what defines a Christian or Christianity?

I think there are several key components:

    * Humans have a bent toward sin to which we’re chained.
    * This human failing creates a rift between us and God, who made humans in His likeness.
    * God Himself solved the rift problem when Jesus switched us out and Himself in as the One to bear our sins in His body on the cross.
    * The net result is that God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His Son.
    * As members of God’s kingdom, we are His heirs, in His family, part of His body.

Christian fiction or stories written from a Christian worldview do not have to have all those components, either explicitly or implicitly. In addition they might have moral components shared by any number of other worldviews.

Nevertheless, something unique to the Christian faith must be part of the story, if it is to be Christian in any capacity. Again, this “something unique to the Christian faith” does not have to be overt. It can be, certainly. But it doesn’t have to be.

There are wonderful stories by authors like Kathryn Cushman that show people of faith struggling to follow God and live as members of His family. Key components of that which is unique to Christianity are clear in and through each story.

Other stories, like Karen Hancock‘s Guardian-King fantasy series also show these same unique components, but from a somewhat allegorical approach.

Still others like Anne Elisabeth Stengl‘s Tales of Goldstone Wood rely on symbology. Nothing is overt, but the unique components of Christianity are in operation throughout each story, shown through symbols.

Another type of story such as general market author R. J. Anderson‘s Faery Rebel, communicates components of the Christian faith through metaphor, much the way the Old Testament does. Isasc portrayed the promised Messiah and Abraham, the Father willing to sacrifice him; the Passover lamb pictures the sacrifice Jesus would make to remove sins; Moses portrayed Jesus as the Mediator between God and man; David depicted the Messiah as King, and so on.

These stories are best referred to as Christian worldview stories. The unique Christian components are easily missed, but they serve an important purpose one way or the other: they show readers of all stripe what redemption or sacrifice or rescue or sinning against a loving authority looks like, without actually naming God or drawing any overt parallels.

Recently at Ruby Slippers Media for Fiction Friday I posted a short story entitled “Haj” that I think falls into this latter category. Last week, however, I posted another story, “At His Table,” that is best described as overt, including faith components unique to Christianity. The first I’d call Christian worldview fiction and the second Christian fiction.

One last point: while I think writing is a wonderful opportunity for the Christian to pass along his faith, I also believe there are other legitimate reasons a Christian might write fiction that is not Christian and does not communicate his Christian worldview. However, those who choose to use their writing as an avenue to reflect what is unique to the Christian faith have a variety of ways to accomplish this, one not superior in any way to the others.

The fact is, God can use gold and silver drinking vessels, and he can use ordinary clay pots that might contain water turned to wine. It’s not up to us to determine what kind of story God will use.

Let’s All Write the Same


I hope you realize I’m being facetious by suggesting all writers should write in the same way. However, I sometimes get the feeling that advocates of certain writing approaches think this outcome would be desirable.

I recently read a review that criticized a work for what it did NOT do, as if all works had, in fact, to do exactly the same thing. Now if the criticism was that the story did not have a likable protagonist or it did not have sufficient conflict or a central theme, then I would understand. These are things necessary to every story. But this was not the case.

Instead this criticism centered on a style. I’ll use an example. James Scott Bell, in his excellent book Plot & Structure advocates using the “three-act structure.” Does that mean this is the only structure a novel can follow?

Apparently some people believe so, religiously, to the point of criticizing any novel that dares to use a different structure as if it is inferior or deficient. The fact is, the three-act structure is one way of telling a story, but not the only way. James Bell himself says so:

Can You Play With Structure?
Of course. Once you understand why it works, you are free to use that understanding to fit your artistic purposes … So grasp the worth of structure, then write what you will.
– p. 24

Jim does go on to say that even in non-linear plots eventually the same elements and information found in a plot organized into three acts will also surface.

But what if a reviewer uses the three-act structure as his bible for The Way Stories Should Be, and he comes across a story like Lost Mission by Athol Dickson? Anyone reading the various posts during the CSFF Blog Tour for this book probably knows Athol did not follow the three-act structure.

And I suggest, the literary world is better for it. We’re better for books like George Bryan Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon, too, that creates “story movement” as John Truby calls it, through a means other than linear story telling.

My point is simply this: when an author is allowed to actually create, his work may be very different from some of the patterns advocated in writing instruction books. Truth is, it may be inaccessible, as I find A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to be, no matter how acclaimed a writer James Joyce is. But it also might be brilliant and award winning (think, Gilead by Marianne Robinson) and wonderfully fresh and even wildly successful (think Harry Potter).

The alternative is for authors to put creativity aside and work exclusively within the cookie-cutter structure of screenplays. All books would soon become predictable (have you started noticing that the least likely suspect is almost always the culprit?) and characters, interchangeable.

The same is true of any other dearly held belief about writing. Some of the oft repeated writer advice—avoid an omniscient point of view, strip away all adverbs, don’t use “was,” kill off -ing words, and so on—ends up sterilizing writing. No longer does an author have a unique voice, a creative story, a fresh approach. Instead, it all needs to sound the same, only better.

I think the “only better” part is accurate. I’m taking issue with the hard and fast approaches that render fiction too much the same.

Best Novel?


Don’t forget to vote for the January CSFF Top Blogger Award winner.

– – –

When Marilynne Robinson wrote Gilead, I heard about that novel at every turn—first from other writers at FIF, then from editors and agents in writers’ conferences. And why wouldn’t I hear about it? After all, the book won the Pulitzer. Still, the readers who left reviews at Amazon, all 311 of them, only gave an average of four stars for the book.

Here’s one portion of a negative review:

So bad it’s offensive. Why is this “fiction”? It’s pages and pages of the main character (and I guess by extrension, the author) spouting his opinion on God and religion

Contrast that to this one:

What an amazing book! Quiet, thoughtful, slow-moving….but so thought provoking. Events unfold delicately, memories surface gently — there’s a wistfulness to this book

But here’s why I bring this up. While Gilead won the most prestigious literary award and readers wrangled over its subject matter and its merit as fiction, people were talking about it.

Lo and behold, I learned today that Christianity Today named Robinson’s HOME: A Novel (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) as the fiction book of 2009.

I did a little checking and discovered that HOME: A Novel came out last September, so it isn’t like it’s been around for a year already, but still, why am I not hearing about this book?

Is it really well written? Then why aren’t writing communities discussing it? What does it do well? What can it teach us?

One thing I found particularly interesting. In Publisher’s Weekly‘s starred review, they said

Robinson’s beautiful new novel, a companion piece to her Pulitzer Prize–winning Gilead, is an elegant variation on the parable of the prodigal son’s return.

Could it be that this book offers a stronger statement of the Christian message that some found wanting in Gilead, given that so many Christians lauded the book as an example of Christian fiction outside the parameters of ECPA fiction?

Once again, I feel the prod to read Robinson. But I have to admit, when some readers comment on its slow-moving pace, or give the book one star and say in capital letters that it was boring … well, I ask myself why.

Why do well-written books have to be slow and boring? Meandering, some said, without a plot at all.

Of course, not all those 311 reviewers found those points objectionable. It’s just that, I would. I don’t like slow to the point of boring. I want a plot because I want a story. So Gilead stays on the bottom of my to-be-read pile, and I probably won’t be putting Home into the mix any time soon.

Published in: on February 3, 2009 at 2:57 pm  Comments (12)  
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