Writing low-quality books—fiction with stock characters and clichéd nonfiction—is fine. For some. If you have no higher purpose, why not write what’s going to make money?
But for Christians, is there an excuse?
Think about this.
Left Behind. Famous Christian novel series selling upwards of 63 million copies. People from all walks of life, children and parents, grandkids and great grandmas have read and enjoyed the stories built around recognizable characters and a familiar plot line. The theology behind the story is a challenge—there’s not much art to the telling, but the concept is not a simple, pleasant one to swallow. They do make—and have made—people think about what’s to come in the days ahead. Will the world really end like this? Am I ready for the possibility?
However, the fact that these novels are so obviously “built” as a sensational vehicle and end up peddling subliminal ideas about the state of Christian belief is inexcusable. When it comes to representing the artistic values of Christians, and the God we serve, the Left Behind novels present precious little that’s positive about the state of modern Christianity. And don’t even get me started on the virtual nonexistence of postmodern Christian art.
Do we represent a God who doesn’t care about the quality of our creations? What does God—the God we were created in the likeness of to represent—what does he think when we offer up “spotty lambs,” lambs of lesser quality than others’, others who are not even bound by the same code we are?
Some might take issue with the idea that we have spotty lambs in CBA. Certainly not everyone is going to be willing to accept that Jenkins has compromised his artistic sensibilities to write these books. Even though by his own admission, this writer of over 150 books has written the Left Behind books to “put the cookies on the bottom shelf,” and despite the fact that he runs a very profitable service for beginning writers to learn the craft of good, high-quality work, Jerry Jenkins is a man of deep convictions. I’ve known him since my early days at Focus, and I’ve been to his conference more than once as a publishing representative (though probably for my last time now). It’s a very nice spread down there at the Broadmoor hotel and I’m impressed by the program they offer. I just don’t happen to agree with the philosophy. Putting the cookies on the bottom shelf makes for chubby children and mental midgets. And the fact that these books have proven just how many there are out there who resemble that description doesn’t excuse it.
Everyone gobbles up what sells. But we need to be about more than what sells.
Obviously, it isn’t just a problem of selling. Gilead has sold plenty of copies (nowhere near 63 million) and was considerably harder to write, probably more than all the Left Behind novels put together. But of course, that’s apples to oranges. We don’t compare them. Jerry’s writing for a different audience, and he admits it: essentially he’s saying he’s written Left Behind for dumb, lazy people, or maybe just short people depending how you read his cookies comment, but either way, they’re for people who can’t or won’t be bothered to think a little harder about things. And why can’t we encourage people to stretch a little? Seems we have a pretty good biblical example of some Jewish guy who did this with his stories. But then, he wasn’t much of a “butt-in-chair” kind of guy either, so maybe that’s not the best analogy.
Maybe we should get Jerry on here to debate this. I’d sincerely like to understand this problem of Christians creating low art. He probably wouldn’t answer anything directly—success has a way of making people evasive. And he’d have Jesus’ attitude to excuse him there. But it’s downright vexing to me and fairly troublesome to more than a few people, and it isn’t just books either. There’s also Thomas Kinkade Every artistic industry is suffering from a lack of godly inspiration. But my question, and the question of millions who consider CBA’s well-meaning artistic endeavors in creating Christian books, is WHY?
Why aren’t CBA books better?
Certainly, there are many reasons. Too many to count. There are even too many categories to consider. From personal to cultural, political, economical, historical, even biblical. I’d like to consider a few of them over the next few posts as part of my on-going reality check series, within the all-encompassing theme of seeking out a greater purpose to do what we do, that being to love, and learning to express the transformation that transcendent reality provides.
Sure, we could talk about some publishing realities, and originally that’s what these reality checks were going to be. It’s a hard knocks business and it’s good to keep your head about the realities of working as a writer in this industry. But ultimately, I realized I couldn’t be bothered with those nuts and bolts things. Ultimately, I want to find out if we who supposedly bear the marks of an encounter with that kind of love will not somehow be held to a higher standard in our books. If we’ve been transformed, can we not write transformed?
Obviously, we’re going to have to define this thing called quality too–it isn’t just stringing words together and using correct grammar. It should be a fun discussion if we can keep our open minds. Come on back.