What’s happening to Christian Fiction?

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Is this “new Christian Fiction” offering a deeper perspective on the reality of God than is currently offered in CBA?

Do you know the story of Typhoid Mary? I just saw it on Nova so it’s fresh in my mind. At one point, she was called “the most dangerous woman in America.” During the early 20th century, the prevalence of horses, open sewers, and deplorable hygiene standards caused sanitation in the big eastern cities to become an almost religious moral crusade. This was when cleanliness first sidled up to godliness. Men in white uniforms literally paraded through the streets like war heroes, and scientists took up the crusade to study bacteria and germ theory. When it was discovered that a house servant named Mary was connected to many of the typhoid cases showing up in wealthy families, a scientist paid her a visit to ask for samples of her body fluids for his research. Her resistance of his benign request was unequivocal. She misunderstood. She believed they came calling her a menace, a health threat, based on the assumption that upper class doctors held a negative stereotype of all servants and were singling her out for persecution. Mary, an Irish immigrant, was from a different culture and didn’t believe in germs. In her mind, she was the virtuous, hard-working innocent against the system. For a scientist to show up at her door in his fine clothes and tight manner, Mary would naturally resist the presumption. Unfortunately Mary didn’t know she was the first known healthy carrier of typhoid, responsible for 47 documented cases and 3 deaths. She was incapable of understanding that she was a carrier. She’d never been sick a day in her life and simply couldn’t understand how dangerous and painful typhoid was. She lived out her life never accepting that she was one of the causes of the spread of the typhoid virus.

I think our discussion about Christian fiction can take a lesson from Mary’s story. We’re waged in a battle of perception and we’re all a little like her, vehemently opposed to the idea that we might be part of the problem, too unwilling to examine ourselves to confront the potential destruction in our wakes. I have been guilty of being a Typhoid Mary, just as bad as the people I accuse of spreading disease. When I forget that both sides of this argument about the purpose of Christian fiction derive from unique perspectives, I fall victim to that same closed-mindedness I’m so opposed to. The entire contentious issue of Christian fiction’s purpose comes down to a matter of perception. If you don’t believe it, ask someone who doesn’t share your perspective if it’s true. It does matter that we understand this because people dies because of misconceptions every day. The existence or nonexistence of absolute truth had no effect on their lives. Not one of us is objective and we spread disease when we pretend to be.

Our different perspectives on the relative health of the CBA industry might derive from sales bookstores, number of books, or the spiritual, artistic, or emotional depth of those books. I like to think I’ve got a pretty realistic overview. But the fact is, I’m as subjective as the next guy. Because I put a premium on the artist’s search for beauty, truth, love, and quality, my vantage point tells me that Christian fiction is growing and some of its new growth needs to be challenged, encouraged toward health. This is what I’m asking us to dialog about. The Christian Writing Revolution is just my phrase for classifying the portion of that growth that emphasizes freedom in Christ over cultural standards of morality, artistic license over conservativism. Much CBA fiction is genre or commercial and it’s of high quality and getting better all the time. Christian creative writing is expanding into new markets and submarkets and it’s encouraging to see. But we’ve still got a lot of “fat babies” reading Christian books, as the Amy Grant song of the ‘80s described, but overall, I’m encouraged by the strong signs of health. There’s been a lot of silent acceptance of substandard prose in the past, but also quality and depth. There’s been pandering but also unquestionably there’s been creativity.

So as we continue to advance in our contributions to this industry, let’s dedicate to positive change. Let’s be honest about our disappointments, but always looking to the nuggets of hope scattered around.
Let’s be wise and remember that the prevailing wisdom among the world says, “Jesus goes in the heart, brain falls out the head.” But let’s be innocent of finger-pointing and division in our quest to spread truth. Christianity belongs back in the public square and our lives, like our books, need to be tools that knock stones out of the wall. Let’s use our examples and not our words to convince our co-laborers that though the world is evil, tainted, and unsafe, it is not so “lost” that it can’t be found. Christian fiction is not a spreader of disease, but a beacon of hope and a flag on a hill.

I am seeing hopeful progress out there that writers, editors, and publishers are building on the expanded territory. And there will be more. I’m excited to find them and I want us all to know about these people so we can support them and respond with our dollars, as Steve Laube pointed out. I want to showcase these courageous individuals here because they’re full of inspiration. They’re showing us our roots and teaching us how did stay committed to quality in the midst of the search for goodness beauty, and truth, and how to still write significant, inspiring stories that get read and change lives. I want to explore and celebrate that here.

And speaking of celebrating, be sure to check out the 4th Celebration of New Christian Fiction at Chris Mikesell’s place.

Grace and peace to you as you strive to engage and draw us into that deeper purpose.

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5 thoughts on “What’s happening to Christian Fiction?”

  1. Excellent post, Mick. “I want a glimmer of hope that there’s a reality greater than the murder, rape, homosexuality, addiction, and greed around me.” Me too. I’ll stuff my brain back in and get to work.

  2. Amen, brother.
    One of the things I fear is that as a culture we’ve lost the ability, and maybe even the desire, for real dialog, where we actually listen to another point of view. If anything is ever to change, we need to keep listening to each other, as well as talking (and then put it into practice).
    Linda

  3. Mick, did anyone ever tell you you’re quite articulate? If they didn’t, they should’ve.
    I feel like I should preface my comments with, “I’ve been young, and now I am old . . .” Truth is, many years ago (probably when I was about your age) I lived a somewhat fearful Christian life. I trusted God, but I closed my eyes and ears to much of the world’s painful reality, because I didn’t trust myself. I wasn’t sure I could hold my own in dialogue with skeptical intellectuals, and I didn’t want to discredit Christianity by trying. Plus, if we’re being honest here, I didn’t want to be mocked. Like you said, many assume faith in Jesus requires dangerously low IQ levels. Who wants that reputation?
    But the writings of Lewis, Eliot, Tolkien, Schaeffer, and others prove that faith and intellect are brothers. We should not be ashamed to admit belief in the God who not only designed intelligence, but created the mysteries great minds seek to unravel. Honest intellect doesn’t preclude faith. On the contrary, it should lead to it. But sometimes, to get to that place, we have to be willing to delve into difficult topics. And Sunday school answers don’t always suffice. These days, I’m realizing I’m okay with that.
    I do believe there is a place for comfortable books, and some Christians are called to write them. (Heck, I don’t read only to have my heart broken. Do you?) But others–like the giants listed above–are directed to sit at a different table. My goal as a writer is to take the chair my Master offers and to engage the company He seats there with me. Problem is, I’m still roaming around the room, not exactly sure where my placecard is. Like you, I want to explore until I find out.
    Keep thinking, Mick, and pouring your thoughts into eloquent words, so we can all come here and satisfy our thirst. I appreciate you.

  4. Great post as always.
    For some odd reason I believe that Christians should have more intellect and creativity than anyone else. We believe in someone that we cannot see, feel or touch. Yet, we know that God is…Yet, I find in some faith fiction that we fear something(I don’t know what it is.) Or we are holding back and I don’t know what that is either.
    Great comments as well.

  5. It’s refreshing to find friends asking the same questions. As a leader of a Christian writers’ group, I can attest to the many hours I and my colleagues have wondered about the absence of great Christian fiction. Why are the tawdry; the trite and contrived; the maudlin and the saccharine, so celebrated? Why so much fuss over the mediocre?
    There is no easy answer, sadly. Perhaps it all has to do with money.
    But my guess, in part, is that it has to do with much of evangelicalism’s preoccupation with the immediacy of salvation, and the need to hurry one’s every conversation toward ‘witness’ and ‘conversion’. I think, furthermore, that many people who convert to Christianity do so with hearts wary of ‘worldliness’, and that ‘whatsoever is lovely, pure, beautiful, etc.’, in short, whatsoever is edifying, must be found in a devotional, or a lesson, or a polemic; or, if fiction, in a swift and easy pay-off.
    Much of Christianity, as each of you knows, is sold to its consumers as something that not only will save one’s soul, it will bring abundant blessings in this life. In short, Christianity is oft packaged as a sort of spiritual lottery ticket, where, for a small price (faith) one can have all of heaven’s wealth; a wealth earned without much effort.
    Christians (particularly new ones), it seems, find that too much effort is needed to read the Gospels for oneself, so they quickly turn to commentaries and commentators to tell them how to believe, think, feel (guidance is a good thing, but too often we prefer the guides). Similarly, it is believed that there is too much effort required of a reader to wade through “The Brothers Karamazov” or “The Count of Monte Cristo”; “Till We Have Faces” or “Brideshead Revisited.” The spiritual payoff is indeed great for those who struggle through the great works of literature, particularly those works which wrestle with the Faith. But there will never be another “The Man Who Was Thursday” (G.K. Chesterton) as long as prayer, for example, is reduced to the hocus-pocus of “The Prayer of Jabez”; where prayer is reduced to an incantation, a magic spell, to make God comply to His alleged promises of bounty; where Christianity is grossly reduced to the childish, and the payoff comes by scratching the lottery ticket in just the “right” way. For Christianity is deeper, more complex, and more difficult than many (American?) Christians let on, and that denial has had a deleterious effect on Christian creativity, and Christian intellectual ambition.
    I believe there is something common to all the great Christian fiction writers, at least to most of them: They adhered to a tradition. What C.S. Lewis said of Tolkein’s “Lord of the Rings”, that it is a work “only a Catholic” could have written, is remarkably true. Grahame Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Tolkien, Chesterton – these were all writers who embraced Roman Catholicism. Lewis was a relatively high-Anglican (as was T.S. Eliot). My point is that few of the great writers stood outside the great traditions (Dostoyevski was Orthodox; while Tolstoy eventually rejected that tradition). One might even make a case that the best Christian writers, save George MacDonald, have come out of the high-liturgical, sacramental traditions of the faith (personally I think that sacramentalism is key). A quick comparison between the stories of the protestant Madelyn L’Engle’s to Tolkien’s reveals not merely a stylistic but a profoundly substantive difference between the two. (And even if we reject Lewis’ Christianity, we know he stood in a long tradition of Platonism and Socratic dialectic).
    But there is something else, I believe, that is common to great Christian writers: They are honest, honest about their sufferings and their doubts. Adn they resist, as one of my poetry mentors described (and warned about) the “False Flight Upward,” you know, that easy and sudden revelation, or flash of light, or simplistic resolution to a problem of immense complexity (which is often too simplistically drafted by most writers); the “deus ex machina” of theater.
    There is a woman in my writers’ group, a middle-aged woman, soft, simple, plain, who lost both of her sons in the same year: one to suicide, the other to a heroin overdose. They were her only children. It is my belief that her sufferings have made her the tremendous story-teller that she is; and that her sufferings have given her an almost “who cares?” attitude to her craft. In other words, her sufferings have stripped her of her pretensions. She is naked and raw, awaiting Christ’s healing, and damn it, while she waits, she’s just going to write her way either to heaven or to hell (in fact, the writing is healing her).
    Thus, this month she begins a book tour for her first novel “The Last Codfish”, a brilliant little work, published NOT by a Christian publisher, but by Henry Holt, a distinctly secular one. And she has several more novels coming.
    You see, it’s about being honest, frank, candid. In short, it’s about being broken people waiting, waiting, waiting, for wholeness to finally come. It’s not about the answers, but the questions, and Who it is that can answer the questions too few people ask.
    That’s just what I think. And I thank you, Mick, for this lovely webpage, and for getting me to think about the Masters, about Christians and their suspicion of creative genius, and the reason I write everyday.
    Peace and mirth,
    Bill Gnade

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