The Gospel and Christian Fiction

I have commented many times in book reviews on authors’ treatment of the gospel, and after one author recently took me to task for my comments in several e-mails, I thought perhaps I should explain myself further.

A novel is a work of fiction. It’s primary purpose is to tell a story. The very best witness a Christian fiction author can have is to tell his or her story well, just as a painter’s best witness is to do his absolute best job painting rather than inscribing John 3:16 on a wall unasked. A story that is a thinly-veiled sermon, doctrinal treatise, or tract will likely turn away readers, especially lost readers who most need the message. Some stories will hopefully be a springboard to awaken a thirst or a need in the reader which will then lead him or her to seek out someone to talk further, but a full exposition of the gospel is a rarity just because of the nature of story-telling.

In addition, the style of writing most prevalent in this era is the “show, don’t tell” variety. Subtlety, suggestion, nuance, illustrating what is going on in the characters’ hearts through their actions are all considered a better form of story-telling than spelling everything out for the reader. The Bible even does this in some places; for example, the book of Esther does not mention God’s name at all, but He is clearly evident in the events. Thus the gospel might be only suggested or referred to, or the author might show the character’s change of belief in the change in his or her actions rather than sharing the details of that character’s conversion.

I do understand and agree with those points. What I have sometimes criticized in book reviews is not so much the amount the the gospel that is presented in a book, but rather the clarity of the gospel. Whatever there is of the gospel in a work of fiction needs to be accurate and not misleading. For example, in one work of Amish fiction, a girl who had gone to live among the Amish to  find answers for her own heart is told, when she finally opens up to talk to someone about her need, to keep living as they are living and following their rules, and eventually it will come to her. I can understand encouraging someone who does not yet understand to keep coming to church and hearing the gospel in the hopes that it will eventually become clear, but the advice given in this book seemed more like, “Keep living like a Christian and eventually it will become real to you.” That is unbiblical advice and confusing to one who is searching.

In another book I read recently, a seeking soul is told that “Jesus invites you to join him on the journey.” There is a sense in which that might be said, but as a stand-alone sentence, I feel that is confusing and misleading.

In other books, a Christian’s faith is attributed to having been in church “all her life.” If that’s the only evidence of a person’s faith, it can be misleading because a lost person would obviously conclude that church attendance is what makes a person a Christian rather than a relationship with Christ, and an unbeliever who attends church might think they’re all right spiritually.

Christian fiction has been criticized in some instances for being formulaic and predictable in that the main character has some crisis of faith and “sees the light.” I don’t really have a problem with that in one sense, because each genre has a certain amount of predictability: you expect the guy and girl to declare their love for each other in a romance, or the good guys to win in a western, or the detective to solve the mystery and find the criminal he is searching for. It’s how each of those things happens which makes them interesting and keeps us reading even when we have a good idea of what will happen in the end. But I do understand how some readers would be turned off by a blatant formula. However, now it seems some authors have swung the pendulum so far the other way that often the gospel is so buried in subtext that it is almost completely hidden. “But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost,” Paul says in II Corinthians 4:3. Even if the context of the story precludes a full explanation of the gospel, what is included needs to be correct, accurate, and clear rather than so shrouded it is unclear at best, or at worst, misleading.

I was accused of being insular by the author I first mentioned, of wanting Christian fiction to be such that it would only appeal to Christians. That is totally untrue. Christians are those who would pick up on the nuances of the gospel even when it is not spelled out. It is the lost who wouldn’t understand.

I was also told that to include a gospel presentation would mean writing on a fifth grade level. Again, I disagree. I have seen some wonderful salvation stories in fiction told in an effective way within the context of the story that was beautiful and fit very well in the flow of the story. Not every piece of Christian fiction will have a salvation story: some will deal with those who are already believers, with their problems and issues and growth. But for those involving a conversion experience, it can be done and done well.

I think perhaps I am sensitive to this issue because for many years I sent my mother copies of Christian fiction books I enjoyed, and she loved them, even though she was not a believer at that point. She did want to learn more, and she did benefit from seeing how Christians interacted in books. I did not send her only “conversion story” books: she probably would have gotten turned off if every book was like that.  Yet there are some books that I would not have sent to her, not because it was not a “salvation story,” but because it was misleading, and I felt she would have gotten the wrong idea from it.

Rather than being insular and wanting Christians books written just for those who already believe, on the contrary, it is precisely for those who don’t yet understand or believe that I want the gospel to be clear and accurate, as well as for the glory of the Lord who gave us the gospel. Understanding, conceding, and supporting everything I mentioned in the first paragraphs about the nature of fiction, I still do believe and expect that whatever allusion there is to the gospel should not be misleading. I know it can be done: I have read wonderful examples of it.

St. Francis is supposed to have said “Preach the gospel; if necessary, use words.” I agree that a life should back up and reinforce the words we speak, but someone likened this to saying, “Feed starving children, when necessary use food.” Jesus said, “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life” (John 6:63). He also said, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). Paul said, “So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Words do matter; words are necessary to convey the gospel. Within the medium of Christian fiction those words may not take the same form as a tract or a sermon, but they ought to at least not obscure the truth.

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9 thoughts on “The Gospel and Christian Fiction

  1. I think you are spot on. I’m surprised that you would get such a response from an author, christian or otherwise, because feedback is so useful to them. They have no need to “care” whether your criticism is negative or positive. Hmm. Perhaps you touched a sensitive spot. It must be a challenge to write christian work…and I’m sure there is a bit of fear as to how “out there” they want to be with the gospel message. They want the book to appeal to a large amount of readers ($$$)….and a lot of christians are er, “feel-good”. Maybe, they aren’t really considering their reader demographic to include non-christians at all…therefore, thinking that clarity is not important because their christian audience already knows what they’re talking about (ie. journey, etc.). Your reviews of christian lit (which, I have to admit is not my favorite) have been spot on so far. If you highly recommend it, I read it!

  2. I agree with the post. Just one observation. The Gospels are not written at a 5th grade level. They are historically based chronicles, yes, but they have a wealth of theological meaning that is not apparent on a surface reading devoid of background study.

    For me, a Christian novel is one which deals in part with a believing character struggles with how to live out his or her faith in the real world.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

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