Discussion post: Christian fiction

(Warning: long article. Bear with me)

(Titian’s Crucifixion. Photo credit)

I was completely unaware of “Christian fiction” before I started blogging. I want to talk a bit about this genre, it being Good Friday/Day 5 of Passover, and some underhanded publisher behaviour in relation to the genre. Before I get going, some full disclosure (because I think it’s important to set out any biases I may have): I’m baptised, confirmed and married in the Roman Catholic Church, and make an effort to get to Mass every Sunday. I don’t like talking about my faith, and other people talking to me about theirs often makes me uncomfortable – so I am not opening the floor for religious debate today!

Wikipedia (what did we do before Wikipedia??) gives me some thoughts on Christian fiction: it states “Christian themes are not always explicit” and lists C. S. Lewis (presumably for the Narnia series – although I haven’t read any other of his works) as a writer of Christian fiction, as does this article to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown novels, which are primarily considered to be detective fiction, even though the main character is a Catholic priest (I must read these!). Wikipedia also touches on whether the works of a Christian author are necessarily Christian fiction – e.g. J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (which I have continued to avoid reading nicely into my twenties so far…) in which “while there are undoubted Christian themes… many might not consider this to be a work of Christian fiction”..

I would add Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to those grand works of fiction with strong Christian themes and morals – Jane doesn’t marry Rochester specifically because it would go against God’s law preventing bigamy; the human disapproval is secondary for her. However, I would say that Jane Eyre is about much more that Jane’s faith – while it is a recurring theme, the book does not revolve around it. I can’t think of any of this sort of Christian novel in which I have found the faith aspect intrusive – on the whole it appeals to me because adherence to a faith usually requires adherence to a strict moral code, and generally I like to see my protagonists behaving themselves well (every once in a while, anyway), although of course faith is not a necessary (or necessarily sufficient) pre-requisite for good behaviour.

Moving on to Wikipedia’s writings on modern American Christian novels:
“In the last few decades the existence of a conservative Christian subculture, particularly in North America, has given rise to a specific genre of Christian novel. Books … combining a specific brand of conservative Christian theology with a popular romance or thriller form, have gained approval in the subculture…. A novel can be Christian in this sense merely because one of its characters either comes to a proper understanding of God and of man’s need for salvation from sin, or faces a crisis of his or her faith.”

Based on my short experience with this genre, I find it is not to my tastes (more on that later), but I can understand that there is quite a market for it:

– there is little or no sexual content, bad language and violence is only committed by bad guys

– references are to a specific way of life which is familiar or interesting to the reader

– reading about fictitious crises of faith can help a reader contemplate their own faith

There are a number of bloggers who review a lot of this modern Christian fiction – Sherry at Semicolon and My Friend Amy are just two that I am aware of – and I would like to make it very clear that I am not disputing the validity of this genre, just stating that I don’t enjoy those books.

However, what prompted me to write this (now rather long) post was what I see as some rather sneaky behaviour by a publisher. I participate in LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program and in November and December I requested the following books – descriptions are as they appeared on the Early Reviewers site:

“… in Your book all my days were recorded, even those which were purposed before they had come into being.” —Psalm 139:16
Young Cameron Vaux’s mind is slipping. Memories of his wife, killed two years earlier in a car accident, are vanishing just as his dad predicted they would. Memories he knows he has to remember.
His father tells Cameron that to save his mind he must find “the book with all days in it” —the past and future record of every soul on earth.
When an obscure clue leads Cameron to a small central Oregon town, he meets enigmatic Taylor Stone, a possible guide to finding the book who seems to carry secrets far deeper than anyone imagines. Local hotshot TV personality Ann Bannister thinks the legend of the book is a farce, but she has her reasons to join Cameron’s search anyway. Finally, there is fanatical New Age guru Jason Judah, who will stop at nothing to find the book of days before Cameron does.
A young widow and her physically challenged daughter survive a plane crash in the Alaskan mountains but must puzzle together how it relates to the recent death of their husband and father. Written by a mother and her teenage daughter whose rare medical condition led to their family’s story being shared with millions on the hit ABC television program Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. Elements of their real-life story are worked into this exciting novel.

These both sounded like my kind of book; the former like a Clive Cussler or similar adventure (of which I read quite a lot), and the latter a similar thriller/adventure style. While Book of Days clearly had some Bible inspiration, there are a number of very successful thrillers with Biblical themes that are not “Christian fiction” – The Da Vinci Code, anyone? And I expected it to be like The Navigator, which features the Ark of the Covenant.

When Book of Days arrived, I noticed that above the barcode was written “FICTION/Christian/Adventure”. Perplexed, I checked the Early Reviewers description. Never mind, I though, one should try everything once, and settled down with it. I forced myself to the 100-page mark where I gave up in a puff of disgust at the atrocious writing (see my review for full outrage quotient) and while I had been a bit put off by the strong faith tinge – the protagonist was constantly thinking about God, or praying – I couldn’t really draw a conclusion on what I thought about Christian fiction because the writing was just too terrible.

When No Safe Haven arrived, I was really disappointed to notice that it was from the same publisher (B&H Publishing Group) and once again there was that “FICTION/Christian/Adventure” above the barcode. I’m about 60 pages in and am faring a lot better – the writing is of a higher quality (although not even close to the high quality language in which I’ve been revelling recently).

Anyway, what has annoyed me is that this publisher has twice snuck a work of fiction with a very strong religious bent into reviewers’ hands with no warning. The program obliges me to review the books and therefore to read them – so in requesting what I thought were adventure novels I have unwittingly committed myself to at least 100 pages per religious tract. Quite frankly, I consider this dishonest behaviour, almost false advertising. The only reason not to advertise the genre in the promotional paragraph is that the publisher wishes it to land in “unconverted” hands and thus a promotional mechanism for a novel becomes a vehicle for proselytising.

I will now be checking the publisher name very carefully before I request any more ARCs!

Has this happened to anyone else out there? What do you think of it when it does happen? What do you think about the two categories of Christian fiction?

(and this post is now at 1,360 words. My apologies and thanks for sticking it out to the end!)

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9 thoughts on “Discussion post: Christian fiction

  1. Sarah 22 April 2011 at 12:53 pm Reply

    Hi Yvann: Fascinating post.

    I don’t think I have ever read anything purporting to be Christian Fiction, and I don’t think I would want to. As you observe, a purely subjective opinion, and in my case without foundation in experience. Although I have read CS Lewis’ Planet trilogy. The Christian message tended to get lost amongst the fantasy and political concerns, and confusing/contradictory? use of mythology didn’t help. I suspect his Christianity is better expressed in his non-fiction, and one day I might get round to reading it…

    My religious views are subject to change, which is perhaps why I am strongly drawn to religious themed novels. Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy and Marilynne Robinson are all favourites. But would you call them Christian? They have Christian themes, but I tend to consider them more broadly: an investigation of faith expressed in terms of Christianity.

    Although religion often gets a bad press, the principles of Christianity are so culturally ingrained in the West that it is hard to see how it does not to some extent permeate all fiction originating in the West.

    • readingwithtea 22 April 2011 at 8:19 pm Reply

      Hi Sarah, thanks for stopping by and leaving such a thoughtful response! And I have to agree with you – so much Christianity is absorbed into mainstream culture/society in the West that it becomes very difficult to pick something out as “having Christian themes” – moral codes are not the exclusive property of religions (nor should they be).
      I haven’t read any of the authors you mention, although I do have some Marilynne Robinson on my TBR pile so when I get to her, I will bear your thoughts in mind!

  2. Rose 23 April 2011 at 8:49 pm Reply

    I think there’s something in here about the difference between a book by someone with a strong faith, a book where the themes/characters largely align with a particular faith (or culture), and a book written primarily in order to appeal to people of a particular faith – or to influence/engage others. Personally, I’ve enjoyed books that fall into the first two categories – but would feel a bit odd about reading/choosing a book that has been written deliberately as a ‘religious’ book.

    Maybe the issue is the labelling – you posted recently about judging a book by its cover, which does provide a shortcut to choosing books that you’re likely to like. I wonder why anyone publishing an explicitly faith-motivated book wouldn’t say so – surely it’d help them attract the ‘right’ kind of readers?

    • readingwithtea 23 April 2011 at 10:57 pm Reply

      Yes – you’ve got the subdivisions spot-on there (although categories 1 and 2 do often exist together).

      Labelling – absolutely! I cannot figure out why this publisher persists in not advertising their books as “modern American Christian fiction” (i.e. category 3) when they will land in the hands of the uninterested – which will only get them a refusal to review or a bad review!

      Re your point on the covers – yes, I did post recently on that topic, but I’m not sure I could identify the significant religious content from either of these cover designs.

      I still haven’t worked out if it’s the religious content or the preachy tone that bothers me the most. I haven’t read Brideshead (I really should!) but the religious content of the film did not bother me at all.

  3. PS 27 April 2011 at 6:27 pm Reply

    It seems to me, that “Christian Fiction” as it is popularly used now, is used to denote a sub-genre of fiction aimed almost exclusively at Christian fundamentalists. You stated that they divide the world up into “bad guys” and “good guys” and that they avoid swearing, violence etc. Without getting too theological, both of even these statements smack of evangelical fundamentalists teachings about the “elect” i.e., you are either saved or not saved. And also of an impoverished understanding of Sin. In a catholic understanding, there are neither “good guys” nor “bad guys” only “people who do good things” and “people who do bad things”, or, more likely, some of each. This is an important distinction, and gives rise to the flawed hero. Moreover, when it comes to things like swearing and obscenity, sure, there are more or less tasteful ways to write about it, but a “fiction” that ignores their reality has passed into fantasy. As GK Chesterton wrote (I’m paraphrasing) “Some of my readers have complained that my novels are not sufficiently Christian, that is, that many of my characters behave in a thoroughly sinful manner…It seems to me that Sin is a fact of our existence. We meet adulterers in the street, and liars among our colleagues, and were I to ignore this reality, I could not, in any way, call my books ‘more Christian’. ” [I forget the exact words but that is roughly the gist]

    I would regard all of the following as Christian themes: Redemption, the place of free will in salvation, the action of Grace. Yet, you can write about any of these themes in an “un-Christian” manner. Moreover, even when you do read about them, they are seldom explicit, any more than they are in the real world. Brideshead Revisited is probably the most classic example. Regarded by many as the finest piece of Catholic fiction ever written, it is often described as a “a compelling evocation of a lost world”, which seems to miss the point entirely. Waugh himself describes it as a story “about the actions of divine grace upon a cast of diverse and disparate characters”. Many non-Catholic readers actually miss that Charles Ryder converts.

    Of course, sometimes it is obvious. The Christian parallels of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe are too obvious to miss. Aslan as the Paschal sacrifice, resurrected. Peter as the High King, first among equals. Also, the uncle and the mother, who in The Magician’s Nephew are the “Son of Adam, and the Daughter of Eve” who “bring evil into this world”, and later go to take an apple from “the tree of life”. Even the lamppost is reminiscent of the old testament prophecies “The Lord had promised to maintain a lamp for David and his descendants forever”. 2 Chronicles 21:7.

    I am sympathetic to the argument that in some sense all Christian writers write Christian fiction, because Christianity reveals a certain anthropology as a “fact”. Fiction writers try to write about the real world, with a “what if” scenario, but certain aspects must remain “real” if the reader is to connect. In particular, the behaviours and motivations of the characters, our internal reality, must remain recognisable. Christian writers inevitably write from a certain perspective, in the same way that Terry Goodkind cannot help but pontificate on materialism in his Sword of Truth epic. Iain M Banks is another writer whose books are rife with (unstated) philosophical assumptions. He envisages a utopia where anyone can have anything they like, and therefore everyone is nice and rational and well behaved. Its an inherently materialist/Marxist position that one is only a good education away from being a good person (and opposed to the Christian understanding that only grace can perfect man). I would not go so far as to call these anti-Christian literature, but I would be very uncomfortable about letting my children read them when they were young, as they espouse a view of man that is entirely opposed to Christianity.

    I suppose then, that that is my defining characteristic for “Christian fiction”, that it includes a view of man as a flawed and fallen creature, one who struggles with sin on daily basis, but doesn’t let that prevent him from doing good. This is a broad definition, as it would include, say, Star Wars. Anakin both falls, and is redeemed, and the concept of sin is ever present. All of the characters make bad decisions but manage to recover from them. This is different from, say, Star Trek, where all of the main characters make only good decisions. I picked these two examples from sci-fi, because I think it’s the view of man that’s important, and although they are far from reality in some senses, I think that if one has an accurate view of people, then it still reflects reality in a crucial way.

    PS: I should probably note that since one’s view of man, why we are here, and what we are “meant” to do, is so inextricably linked up with morality, I regard it as a given that books with a Christian anthropology inevitably correlate well with a Christian morality, even if the protagonists fail to live up to it.

    • readingwithtea 27 April 2011 at 11:26 pm Reply

      Oooh my, long words… I am a Bear of Very Little Brain. I’ll pass on those topics.

      It is indeed pretty hard to miss in the Narnia fables, although I missed it, having read them as a fairly young child. Now that I think back to the books, and having seen the recent movies, it is so obvious to me.

      Brideshead and Chesterton… when I get to them…

  4. […] which doesn’t indicate the hefty dollop of science fiction that this book contains. I think readers deserve an honest description; I’ve written about misleading marketing before. […]

  5. […] badly with review copies from LibraryThing in the past – I had two thrillers turn out to be uber-religious proselytising. However, this one (which I wasn’t all that convinced by on the blurb) was a revelation […]

  6. […] but advertise it; I felt ambushed, as I did by “Christian fiction” a few times in the past where a book with a strong agenda was dressed up as a middle-of-the-road […]

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