The Character of Christian Characters

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Right now, I’m deeply enmeshed in edits for my novel. My whole being seems wired to the craft of writing at this moment, so I’m reading more fiction in order to stimulate my own chops.

So here comes the off-topic, obligatory writing post.

Having been sick most of last weekend, I finished three novels:

Monster by Frank Peretti

Presumed Guilty by James Scott Bell

Eleanor Rigby by Douglas Coupland

The first two are by Christian authors who typically fall into the Christian market. I can’t say anything about Douglas Coupland’s faith, but he sure can write.

I have some pretenses to being a novelist some day. Hoping to be listed as a novelist who is a Christian as opposed to the standard Christian novelist moniker, my current work is aimed squarely at the secular marketplace. However, having a Christian main character forced my book into the Christian marketplace. Any pretenses I had at being a “bridge” author collapsed the second most secular publishers decided to jump on the Christian bandwagon. With the Christian fiction marketing growing faster than any other (and with sales to match), I suspect I’m typecast. “Your character’s a Christian, well, that’ll be great for our new Christian imprint!”

Ugh.

But I digress…

After reading a book like Monster or Presumed Guilty, I’ve finally concluded why I read so little Christian fiction. It’s not that the writing isn’t good (it’s improving daily), or the stories aren’t interesting (the creative dam has burst in that regard), but I just can’t get past the characters.

Every time I read a work of Christian fiction, I struggle immensely with the characters. A secular novel like Coupland’s Eleanor Rigby lives or dies by the quality of its characterizations and the quasi-magic-realism that enlivens that author’s works. Hey, Bob, shake hands with the Lord of the UniverseBut every time I pick up a Christian novel, the same question comes through: Who ARE these people?

I feel like the characters in most Christian novels dropped to Earth from another planet light years away from my normal existence.  They don’t resemble any Christians I’ve ever met in my life. If identifying with the characters grabs a reader, each time I read a work of modern Christian fiction, I’m tempted to haul out my old college anthropology texts to see if they can shed some light on the humans that inhabit these books.

Not to pick on Bell too much, but he writes a pastor’s wife with a semi-lurid past who’s been neglecting her husband in the intimacy department. When she hears he just sold a big book deal worth millions, she decides to slither into her  tight jeans and frilly blouse, then put out a couple of glasses of sparkling apple cider. What she doesn’t know is that her husband’s in a motel room getting a few intimacy lessons from a pornstar.

Now I don’t know about you, but I read that and just scratch my head. Never mind that pastors all across this country are supposedly struggling with the issue of how to keep from succumbing to the temptations of the pornstars they counsel. What’s the deal with the tame response of a wife trying to save her marriage? I can’t speak for every Christian woman out there, but is that realistic—even in the slightest? Tight jeans and a couple of glasses of fizzy apple cider? Now one could assume that Bell’s not trying to titillate here, so he plays to the censors and keeps it tame. But then the husband’s out having an affair with a pornstar, so what’s the titillation factor on that one?

This illustrates the problem of plastic characterization that’s the bane of most of the Christian fiction I read. The people in these books don’t talk, pray, romance, play, or act in any way that seems real.

In contrast, when Coupland talks about the peace his protagonist’s made with her loneliness, man, I’m right there inside her head:

We cripple our children for life by not telling them what loneliness is, all of its shades and tones and implications. When it clubs us on the head, usually just after we leave home, we’re blindsided. We have no idea what hit us, We think we’re diseased, schizoid, bipolar, monstrous and lacking in dietary chromium. It takes us until we’re thirty to figure out what it was that sucked the joy from our youth, that made our brains shriek and burn on the inside, even when our exteriors made us as confident and bronzed as Qantas pilots. Loneliness.

Now you may not agree with all that, or fail to identify with each point, but I’ve got to believe that some of that got through and resonated on some level with you. More so than a wife hoping to spice up her marriage with a bottle of sparkling apple cider.

The curse on all Christian fiction is not that Christians are a diverse lot and not every characterization is going to work, but that Christians are a diverse lot, yet we seem to be ashamed of our own diversity. We don’t tend to enjoy living all that much, either. There’s dying to self and then there’s asceticism.

If I wrote that pastor’s wife, I’d have her go out and buy a fake fur, a bottle of good port, and then have her greet the husband holding two full glasses, wearing the fur, a smile, and nothing else. Why? Because it’s more real, more alive, more human. And most of all, it’s more joyful.

But here’s where the shame at our diversity comes in. As real as that might be as I choose to pen it, too many Christians would howl. And they’d probably howl as much about the port as they would the naked pastor’s wife in a fur. Others would have no problem with a scene like that. But to make all characters palatable to all persuasions of Christians, we have to whittle them down until they’re unrecognizable.

What that leaves is characters who are curiously two-dimensional, free of zest, and who epitomize a sort of barrenness that should never be part of a grace-filled life. Worst of all, it salutes characters who were more interesting prior to meeting Christ than afterwards. What a sad statement to make!

Perhaps we Christian readers are too easily offended. I know so many Christians who watch a show like Desperate Housewives on TV, then turn around and shout out, “Well, I never!” when reading a Christian work that deals with the same content, albeit with true redemption offered. Maybe we like plastic characters who endorse our particular brand of Christianity, even if we ourselves don’t resemble those characters.

Several Christian novelists read this blog, and if you’re reading this now, I hope that I haven’t offended you in any way. Truthfully, I feel for the situation we’re in, always trying to please all of the people all of the time. I know that I’ve struggled with that immensely in my novel, where the characters enjoy wine with a meal, have never read Joshua Harris’s I Kissed Dating Goodbye, enjoy dancing, and grow in the Lord by ditching sanitized Evangelical stereotypes of what two twenty-something Christians must be.

We can do better if we move beyond appealing only to the widest audience. Christian fiction is growing, but if we’re to truly write redemptive works, we’ve got to take more chances. The call is out to be “grittier,” yet Presumed Guilty is as gritty as it can be, while still giving us characters whose Christianity is so odd that we can’t relate at all. Nor do we need to foul up our Christian characters until they’re just one smidgeon away from being considered unregenerate. Just make them real people, even when they’re facing unreal circumstances.

37 thoughts on “The Character of Christian Characters

  1. I like the sound of your novel, Dan.
    I have to admit I don’t read Christian literature because the stuff I have read was so bad. Too many predictable characters and happy endings you can see coming ten miles off. Too many that are just badly written, sentences that grate, dialogue that doesn’t work. Books that just wouldn’t stand up in the wider literary marketplace, but get published by Christian publishers anyway. Is the latter unfair? Maybe. What do you think?

    • Pigwotflies,

      Now given what I’ve written about the characters in my book, we’ll see if any publishers want to publish it!

      A lot of bad writing still exists in Christian fiction, but it’s better than it was. I found a lot of “is” verb usage and simple “subject/verb/predicate” constructions in the Bell book and I know he can do better. Still, a good story with great characters overcomes a multitude of writing sins.

  2. Dee

    Dan,

    I like the idea of the pastor’s wife in the fur greeting her husband at the door – but without the glass of port. I guess growing up in a “Christian” home with an abusive, alcoholic father turned me off to alcohol of any sort, regardless of the fact the church teaches (as does the BIble) of it’s evils. And, yes, I do recognize (as does the Bible) it’s medicinal value. I just refuse to allow it into my home. My husband tried to bring in near beer one time and I pitched a fit. Enough of that…

    I read a lot of “Christian” fiction. There is a whole section of it in my public library. Yes, there is a lot of poorly written stuff. But a lot of it is getting better. My biggest gripe is with the “historical” fiction that has not been well researched. That and poor grammar. Oh, and mistakes that simple proofreading should have caught. For goodness sake, they taught us to do that in grade school, didn’t they?

    I do wander off into the regular fiction (I just love a good story!) occassionally, but I hate getting into a story before I realize it is fraught with horrible language and is sexually graphic. I have a vivid enough imagination that I can understand the scene without the author insisting on spelling out every detail. Also, I am intelligent enough to not require EVERY concept explained to me. Finding an entertaining story that holds my attention, that does not offend, and neither does it assume the reader is an idiot is a rare thing indeed. But I keep picking up the books because eventually I will find one that I can hardly put down, it is that interesting. I also read to relax, and being a busy mom those little works of Christian fiction which do not require much thought provide the perfect little break in my routine. So they do have a place after all.

    • Dee,

      But would you allow a Christian character in a book to drink (and not be an alcoholic)?

      The grammar issue is tough. I write for a living and so much of English is in flux that it makes writing maddening. I may not always have prefect grammar on this blog, but my other writing does—at least as perfect as it can be. Let me tell you, what we learned of grammar is not enough. English is a very tricky language.

      • Dee

        Dan,

        I do realize that Christians in other denominations and in other parts of the world drink alcoholic beverages with no social or spiritual qualms whatsoever. I also have Christian friends who drink. Therefore, I think that a Christian character who drinks would not upset me as I would assume the Character or the writer does not represent my ideal. However, if the Christian is drinking in a bar or is getting drunk – whether real life or fiction – I would question his claim to be a follower of Christ. That is not to say that we don’t all have a weakness or fail sometimes and that God’s grace can’t work. But when a person claims to be a follower of Christ and lives like a sinner I would naturally question whether or not he has actually been redeemed.

        • Rob

          Are you folks kidding me? Where in the world do you get the idea that you have the right to deem who “lives like a sinner” and therefore whose salvation is “naturally” fair game to be questioned?

          I am absolutely certain that I am a Christian, saved solely by grace through faith in the atoning, shed blood and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

          And yet — ready for this? — my ideal evening with friends involves a nice cigar, a few shots of Grey Goose vodka, and watching South Park or a good horror flick. (Gasp! Impenitent sinner!) I enjoy a nice Guinness at the sports bar, I have a tendency to use words that garner PG-13 ratings. I like Harry Potter, and I thought The Da Vinci Code (while founded on a ridiculous premise) made for an exciting read.

          Am I any less saved than you? Don’t be so arrogant as to think so. You are not any more worthy of your salvation than I. Both of our best attempts at holiness are as filthy rags.

          Certainly there is a breaking point, where we are continuing in sin that grace may abound, but even at that point, I find it ludicrous for you to cite that as evidence that someone is a Christian or not a Christian. The simple truth is that you can be certain of no one’s salvation but your own, and another man’s salvation or lack thereof is established solely between him and the Lord.

          The reason I think so many uber-conservatives feel compelled to turn their haughty noses up at the more easily spottable sins (like drunkenness) is that it makes them uncomfortable to think that they might actually (heaven forbid) share company in the Lord’s family with “those sorts” of people. You see us with piercings or tattoos, drinking a beer, saying the “s-word” or the “a-word,” and like to think that we share nothing in common.

          And yet, I’m pretty certain that if all were revealed, the secret sins of those who would point at me as being “not a real Christian” would rival mine in quantity — the sins that the conservatives tend to be more prone to: greed, lust, the love of money, bigotry, racism, internet porn.

          Dan, this is an excellent article.

          Scott (from the comment below), I have to agree with you as well. There’s no need to be shocking or vulgar, but let’s let our characters be real people.

          I say when we start to get over ourselves and realize that none of us are as holy as we’d like to imagine we are, then we might start to counteract some of the hypocrisy that has become synonymous with Christianity to the rest of the world.

  3. Amen brother Dan. As a Christian who writes, but like you isn’t writing so much for a Christian audience (I like to write horror and I like it bloody and scary) I scratch my head at some of these characters. One thing I wrestle with in my own writing is characters who curse. I curse (though not much and it’s not something I’m proud of) under extreme circumstances and my characters will curse (to varying degrees depending on their…character. But in most “Christian fiction” I’ve read these people hit their big finger with a hammer and we get a “Gosh that hurt.” Now I grant you, there are some people IRL who that’s the strongest they get. But if we have a non-Christian who sees a ten foot tall werewolf baring down on them, well as Cosby said, “First they’re gonna say it, then they’re gonna do it.”

    Also, to the sister above I have a question. I don’t see the need to spell out every lurid detail of a sexual encounter or for that matter use every curse word I know, so I agree with you that authors try to hard to shock and I try and avoid that. But if I had a Christian character drinking (in moderation or otherwise) would that offend you to the point of you not reading it? Jesus and the disciples drank wine after all. Not trying to start anything, just askin’.

    • Scott,

      My bugaboo is cursing. I avoid it like the plague because I’m tired of seeing it all the time in print. A good writer can get around that issue. I can write that my character cursed and not have to say exactly what he said.

      I have my female character, a very innocent young woman, calling the villain a “bastard” at one point, so I hope that doesn’t go too far. That usage is highly appropriate under the circumstances in my narrative.

      But just as we don’t have to spell out every detail of a sexual encounter, I think we can find clever ways to avoid being vulgar in our speech.

      • Problem is I always feel like I’m “cheating” with something like “Bob let out a string of curses that would make a sailor blush.” I use a device like that from time to time, but sometimes I just feel like laying it out there is more, I dunno, honest. Again I’m not saying that I go all Andrew “Dice” Clay in my writing.

    • Dee

      Scott, I used to read your chosen genre in high school. I have since decided I’d rather fill my mind (and my dreams) with more pleasant thoughts. As to your question about a Christian character drinking in moderation… well I guess that would depend on your definition of moderation. If I read an author who accepted drinking as a normal part of everyday Christian life in one work, and if the story was good enough, I might pick up another of his works. However, if he developed a pattern such that every Christian character had that lifestyle, it would not necessarily be true to life and I would move on to the next author on the shelf. After all, there are a whole lot of us Christians out here who do not drink at all. Some of us actually DO celebrate with the fizzy cider or sparkling grape juice.

      • Oh absolutely. I hope that none of my characters/archetypes fall into some cookie cutter idea.

        And regarding horror, I almost always try and show characters overcoming the horror through personal faith or God’s power. Hopeless horror is not usually my bag.

  4. Hi Dan,

    I respectfully submit that you’ve made the mistake so many critics of Christian fiction make—that of thinking everyone is like YOU, thinks the way YOU do. I just finished Presumed Guilty, and granted, the plot wasn’t an “everyman situation, but I could relate far more to the author’s tight jeans/frilly blouse/fizzy apple cider scene than to your fake fur/two glasses of port. For starters, my husband and I don’t drink. Don’t think it’s a sin necessarily, we just choose not to. I know a ton of Christians who drink. I know a ton more who are like us. I can read either kind of character in a novel and find both believable. And I think the tight jeans/frilly blouse was brilliant because it allows the reader to make it whatever they’re comfortable with. My husband can read that: no underwear/diaphanous blouse (which he would find far sexier than the fur coat scenario), while my mother can read it ruffles up to the chin/ chastity belt under the jeans. So Bell hasn’t risked offending my mother (or my 15-year-old daughter) when they read the book, but he’s given my husband and I a realistic scenario to work with, too. That’s the beauty of fiction. The reader brings so much of himself to the table.

    You wrote:

    The curse on all Christian fiction is not that Christians are a diverse lot and not every characterization is going to work, but that Christians are a diverse lot, yet we seem to be ashamed of our own diversity. We don’t tend to enjoy living all that much, either. There’s dying to self and then there’s asceticism.

    I contend that the curse is that some readers of Christian fiction can’t accept that some of the characterizations you and other critics see as “plastic are in fact, real and valid. Your Coupland quote, for example, had me scratching my head. Huh? Do people really THINK like that? I’ve never told my children what loneliness is because I’ve never been lonely! I’ve been homesick, and I’ve missed people I love who’ve gone away, but I’ve never had an empty gut-wrenching hole in my life that made me think I was “schizoid, bipolar, etc. But just because that’s not MY reality, I don’t declare Coupland’s characters “plastic. I can accept that it may be reality for some people.

    I’m all for being honest and real, but that means we have to be honest enough to admit that some of the diversity you mention includes Christians who live relatively simple, happy, carefree, blessed lives and don’t angst endlessly about the things Coupland ponders. You say you don’t know any Christians like these plastic characters, but I do. For some of us, Janette Oke’s saccharine prairie romances are far more a reflection of our reality than Coupland’s angst. And even though the plot of Presumed Guilty was a situation I’ll never be in, I could relate to a woman’s fear of her husband’s infidelity, her helplessness at a son’s bad choices. Dallas’s thoughts and reactions were very much like my own might have been in similar circumstances.

    I’ve gone on too long, but I get riled when Christian fiction as a whole is denigrated. I have seen too many letters from readers—in my own files and those of author friends—telling how Christian fiction has touched hearts, healed wounds, reflected truth and even ushered souls to the altar. Not every Christian novel is my cup of tea, but that’s the blessing on all Christian fiction. There’s something for everyone. Even you, Dan. And if you can’t find it, write it! But don’t disparage those of us who might be writing for someone who is very different than you.

    I say all of this with deep respect for you and your work, Dan. I enjoy Cerulean Sanctum (even if I had to look up Cerulean…okay, and Sanctum. LOL!) It’s a little deep for my brain sometimes, but that’s okay. ; )

    Have a great day…and thanks for getting my blood going this morning. ; )

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    • Deb, Thanks for writing! Whenever I write about writing, I not only fear I’ll prejudice any publishers who might consider my work, I don’t want to anger the friends I’ve made in the Christian writing field—and there are several.

      I would graciously offer that your response to my post totally reinforces my point that the Christian community is so heavily fractured it makes writing for it problematic, resulting in a sort of generic Christianity that ensures no one is upset by how a Christian character acts out his/her beliefs. I’ll say more below.

      You wrote:

      I respectfully submit that you’ve made the mistake so many critics of Christian fiction make—that of thinking everyone is like YOU, thinks the way YOU do. I just finished Presumed Guilty, and granted, the plot wasn’t an “everyman situation, but I could relate far more to the author’s tight jeans/frilly blouse/fizzy apple cider scene than to your fake fur/two glasses of port. For starters, my husband and I don’t drink. Don’t think it’s a sin necessarily, we just choose not to. I know a ton of Christians who drink. I know a ton more who are like us. I can read either kind of character in a novel and find both believable. And I think the tight jeans/frilly blouse was brilliant because it allows the reader to make it whatever they’re comfortable with. My husband can read that: no underwear/diaphanous blouse (which he would find far sexier than the fur coat scenario), while my mother can read it ruffles up to the chin/ chastity belt under the jeans. So Bell hasn’t risked offending my mother (or my 15-year-old daughter) when they read the book, but he’s given my husband and I a realistic scenario to work with, too. That’s the beauty of fiction. The reader brings so much of himself to the table.

      Here’s the problem. I think we disagree on what the reader is allowed to bring to the table. We agree that a wide variety of Christians exist, but part of that community will always be ignored because publishers won’t allow their particular belief system to show up in the pages of the book. If I write a Christian couple who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner, are excellent ballroom dancers, pray in tongues, are not afraid to go into a gay bar to minister to the people inside, and have no problem with nothing but a fur coat, I’m representing a large group of Christians out there. In fact, that sort of Christian describes every one of my friends and the entirely orthodox Christians I typically hang out with. But, I’m going to have every editor out there saying, “Can you tone this down a little?”

      That is what leads to plastic characters. You get only the subset of belief that doesn’t drink, doesn’t dance, doesn’t pray in tongues, doesn’t go into gay bars, and doesn’t greet the husband at the door in a fake fur and nothing else. Yes, that may be representative of some part of Christianity, but it ignores another part of that community.

      C.S. Lewis smoked and so did a number of other Christian greats, but I dare anyone reading this to find a positive Christian character in a Christian novel of the last twenty years who smokes a pipe, cigar, or cigarettes. No matter how we feel about the issue of smoking (and I certainly don’t support it), by pretending that no one can be a Christian and smoke, we’ve plasticized our characters just a little bit more. See my point?

      Dan wrote:

      The curse on all Christian fiction is not that Christians are a diverse lot and not every characterization is going to work, but that Christians are a diverse lot, yet we seem to be ashamed of our own diversity. We don’t tend to enjoy living all that much, either. There’s dying to self and then there’s asceticism.

      I contend that the curse is that some readers of Christian fiction can’t accept that some of the characterizations you and other critics see as “plastic are in fact, real and valid. Your Coupland quote, for example, had me scratching my head. Huh? Do people really THINK like that? I’ve never told my children what loneliness is because I’ve never been lonely! I’ve been homesick, and I’ve missed people I love who’ve gone away, but I’ve never had an empty gut-wrenching hole in my life that made me think I was “schizoid, bipolar, etc. But just because that’s not MY reality, I don’t declare Coupland’s characters “plastic. I can accept that it may be reality for some people.

      I don’t contend that a character is plastic because her experience is not like mine. I’m saying that there’s a tendency in Christian fiction to bypass writing an experience like the one found in Coupland’s character so as not to offend some readers. Yet there are many people out there who know exactly what Coupland’s character is going through. But in almost every Christian book I’ve ever read in the last three years, there’s a lack of solid characters who express these kinds of feelings. It’s as if it’s impossible for someone to be a healthy Christian and be lonely. If a character is lonely, the book MUST resolve that loneliness in order for the publisher to mollify the readership.

      I understand that’s not you, but it is some people out there. If we strip that out so as not to offend people, we’ve just told a number of Christians that they won’t be finding characters like themselves in our work.

      I’ve seen the list of tough issues that Christian authors address in their work. That’s commendable. But the issues themselves seem to exist outside the people, and the way the people handle those issues may not be how some Christians handle them. However, by making the characters always handle those issues by a publisher-approved method that won’t offend a certain demographic within the desired readership, we tend to get characters who are predictable and, dare I say it again, plastic.

      You wrote:

      I’m all for being honest and real, but that means we have to be honest enough to admit that some of the diversity you mention includes Christians who live relatively simple, happy, carefree, blessed lives and don’t angst endlessly about the things Coupland ponders. You say you don’t know any Christians like these plastic characters, but I do. For some of us, Janette Oke’s saccharine prairie romances are far more a reflection of our reality than Coupland’s angst. And even though the plot of Presumed Guilty was a situation I’ll never be in, I could relate to a woman’s fear of her husband’s infidelity, her helplessness at a son’s bad choices. Dallas’s thoughts and reactions were very much like my own might have been in similar circumstances.

      All I’m saying is that there are a million Dallas Hamiltons in Christian fiction today, but a dearth of Liz Dunns (Coupland’s character). I’m not sure we’re doing our readership any favors by always presenting a particular slice of the entire Christian pie as being the sole norm.

      You wrote:

      I’ve gone on too long, but I get riled when Christian fiction as a whole is denigrated. I have seen too many letters from readers—in my own files and those of author friends—telling how Christian fiction has touched hearts, healed wounds, reflected truth and even ushered souls to the altar. Not every Christian novel is my cup of tea, but that’s the blessing on all Christian fiction. There’s something for everyone. Even you, Dan. And if you can’t find it, write it! But don’t disparage those of us who might be writing for someone who is very different than you.

      All I hope is that publishers will take more chances by allowing more characters to reflect a wider Christian experience than what is being allowed. I know that money drives the business, but still. So many people are calling for the work to be grittier, and I don’t think that’s the way to go. I don’t want to see things get tawdry. If I have a glass of wine with a meal that doesn’t make me gritty, though. It simply reflects another human experience that’s being ignored so as not to offend some segments of the readership. I know you wouldn’t have a problem with a Christian character who drinks (and is portrayed as normal, and not an alcoholic), but too many do and publishers are afraid to deal with that. That right there leads us down a path to the uniform characterizations I’ve mentioned.

      You wrote:

      I say all of this with deep respect for you and your work, Dan. I enjoy Cerulean Sanctum (even if I had to look up Cerulean…okay, and Sanctum. LOL!) It’s a little deep for my brain sometimes, but that’s okay. ; )

      I used to have a link in the sidebar of my old Blogger blog explaining the name of the blog. I realize now that I don’t have that in this incarnation. Thanks for alerting me to that.

      Deb, I truly appreciate that you’re a reader! It means a lot to me that Christian authors read this blog. Like I said, I have no desire to tick off the published authors who read my blog. My writers group discussed some of what I laid out in this post and I thought it was a good topic, since the four of us in that group are banging up against these issues constantly.

      Thanks again for writing!

  5. Deb

    Dan,
    I appreciate all your comments and understand where you’re coming from. I really like the way you think and the way you make me think. I think one huge problem is that people who criticize “all Christian fiction too quickly haven’t read enough of it to judge. I don’t know if that’s true of you. I appreciate that you used specific examples (even if I didn’t agree) from Christian books. Usually when someone disses Christian fiction in general, they’ve read one Left Behind and maybe one Peretti and judged the whole kettle.

    Have you read Lisa Samson? Athol Dickson? W. Dale Cramer? Patricia Hickman? Melody Carlson? Mary DeMuth? Angela Hunt? These are authors who have pushed the envelope. They’ve had Christian characters drink, smoke, go into bars (to have a drink NOT to witness), deal with mental illness, hate God, etc. I enjoy their books and I appreciate their efforts to show a different facet of Christianity. Other books resonate with me more than these authors, books that are more a reflection of my real life (which is probably exactly what you’re wanting), but I think you’ll find some pleasant surprises with these authors—and maybe revise your view of “all Christian fiction a bit.

    But again, I applaud you for your desire to write YOUR reality. There’s obviously a place for that. You said: If I write a Christian couple who enjoys a glass of wine with dinner, are excellent ballroom dancers, pray in tongues, are not afraid to go into a gay bar to minister to the people inside, and have no problem with nothing but a fur coat, I’m representing a large group of Christians out there. In fact, that sort of Christian describes every one of my friends and the entirely orthodox Christians I typically hang out with.

    It struck me reading this that we Christians are such “lemmings, always hanging out with other Christians who are just like us…of course, that’s where denominations come from. I’m really glad to know a wine-drinking, ballroom dancing, tongue praying, gay bar ministering, fur coat guy like you. ; ) Maybe we can stretch each other’s worlds a little. (And for the record, my all-time favorite date with my husband was the night he surprised me with a ballroom dance lesson. We had a blast!)

    • Deb,

      I have not read the list of authors that you’ve listed there, but I have read a fair slice of what’s out there, enough to get a representative sample of the zeitgeist.

      As far as stretching the worlds, I hope Christian publishers will allow that to happen. I know there are Christians out there who are not seeing themselves in the books they read, and that makes it seem like their flavor of Christianity is deviant.

      I think you’re right about the lemming issue. At Wheaton College, I saw so much peer pressure on kids to be just one kind of person, and I just could not get people to think outside the proverbial box. People were so afraid to try things outside their comfort zones, even though there was nothing inherently sinful about what they were being asked to try. I know I tried to convince some kids to try a Vietnamese restaurant one time and the chorus of replies was “But we’ve never eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant before!” “Live a little!” I replied. “Don’t live every day the same way!”

      • Deb

        Okay…really not meaning to be argumentative, but for you to say you haven’t read any of those authors, but have read “a fair slice…” (and I had to look up zeitgeist! LOL!) is like me painting the horror genre with a broad disparaging brush when I haven’t read Koontz or King or Straub.

        • Here’s a sampling of popular Christian authors I’ve read recently who span a variety of genres:

          Frank Peretti
          Ted Dekker
          James Scott Bell
          Randy Ingermanson
          Ray Blackston
          Randy Alcorn
          G.P. Taylor
          Sigmund Brouwer
          and a few others that are escaping me. In some cases, I’ve read multiple books by the author.

          If you’ve got me on anything, it’s that I’ve not read fiction primarily aimed at women by women authors. There’s no romance, chick lit, or “women in peril” authors on that list—as can probably be expected considering my sex. Other than that, would you not say that these authors are well-respected within Christian ranks and are fairly representative of contemporary Christian fiction?

          • Deb

            Well, I’ve only read 4 of those on YOUR list. ; ) But I found them all good reads, especially Sigmund Brouwer, and yes, probably representative, especially of the genre you’re writing in. I wish you would read Athol Dickson (one of the most talented writers I’ve ever read CBA or otherwise) and Lisa Samson (ditto). Also Angela Hunt is consistently excellent. Lisa and Angela both write for the general population, not just women. Which brings up a new subject that irks me. (I’m really not usually so easily irked!) But why is it, as a general rule, women will read books by male authors, but men won’t read books by women? Even if they’re not romance?

          • Deb,

            I will look up Samson, Dickson, and Hunt. I’ve heard good things about all three from other bloggers.

            My understanding is that women buy 80% of fiction titles, with romance being the number one genre. In the Christian ranks, it’s even more lopsided, with woman buying 85%. Writer’s Digest recently had an article about men and their sparse fiction reading habits, supporting those numbers.

            The basic problem is one of genre. Men like the following:
            Police and Legal thrillers
            Spy novels
            Hard Science Fiction
            Cyberpunk
            Military action
            Noir
            You can count the well-known women writers in those genres on one hand.

            The problem is reversible. How many great men writers are known for their
            Chick lit
            Romance
            Tearjerkers
            or anything else that women typically read? The only genre that consistently crosses over is mysteries (but not of the cozy variety). Horror does some, too, but only if one of the big three is writing it.

            To the issue of men reading fiction, our society values men for what they know that solves practical problems. That’s why most men are reading nonfiction. Our society at large denigrates men that are well-schooled in fiction or any kind of writing art that doesn’t serve a greater immediate purpose (learning how to fix the sink so the wife doesn’t bother you about it anymore, yes; wondering if the butler truly did it, no). Because men are constantly in a position to be regarded for what they know, any down time they have is spent avoiding having to engage the brain at all. Thus, TV becomes the object of attention, while books stay on the shelf.

            As for men reading women writers, I’ve read some women writers, but not too many in the Christian realm. Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is one of my ten most treasured books, though it’s nonfiction.

            BTW, have you ever read Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey ? Now THAT’S great writing on traditionally Christian themes. (Read the book and avoid the recent movie like the plague.)

          • Deb

            Bummer. I already saw the movie. Haven’t read the book. Will try to erase the movie from my memory banks before I read the book. : )

  6. Matt Self

    Dan,

    This is wonderful insight from someone who’s obviously been faced with the dilemma of fiction writing — which requires, above all things, sensitivity to human frailty, weakness, and suffering — and reconciling that with the demands of a redeemed Christian.

    You know I love Coupland, but I love Coupland because he understands redemption better than the Christian authors I’ve read. Peretti seems content to fashion his lead characters in the mold of Old Testament prophets. That’s fine, I suppose, but I doubt many have the historical insight to understand the debasing plight of those prophets. They ate dirt as God’s condemning words flowed from their mouth, all of God’s pain and suffering reducing His chosen messengers to men of unfathomable burden. In that sense, I never feel like FP goes far enough.

    With Coupland, you know his characters are going to have flaws that disagree with the Christian worldview, but they’re also likely to be painfully aware of them. Coupland seems to enjoy having his characters stumble upon their human inadequacies, and, without putting it in a specific Christian paradigm, his characters somehow seem to know they require redemption that is beyond their own grasp. In fact, that is a typical Coupland journey. That was the beauty I found in Life After God and, in a lesser sense, Generation X. The latter book seemed to state the problem more than present a solution. LAG came right out and presented something that could have come from any one of the four Gospels, complete with a literal water baptism.

    I don’t think the Christian authors’ true dilemma is creating identifiable Christian heroes vs. wholly flawed Christians. The greater challenge, I believe, is presenting the real challenge of living out the calling of a Christian in a world that cannot understand the need for a calling. In that sense, I think getting across the message of sin that requires a perfect sacrifice and the judgment of God is the path rarely capably crossed by authors of any genre. But then, the Book that best excels at that message has many authors and took over 5,000 years to write — and, sadly, for some it is merely a powerful piece of fiction.

    • Big Coupland fan here. Started on him with Life After God. Enjoyed Girlfriend in a Coma but didn’t think it compared with his other work. Eleanor Rigby still sticks in my mind, moreso than Gen X, although I did enjoy Gen X immensely.

      I did kinda find it interesting none of the books you read were by women. But we can change all that! If you send me your addy, I’ll send you a book. You may be disappointed, but I’m only 42. I have miles to go as a writer.

      Deb, I LOVE YOU!!!!

    • Dee

      I have heard from my girlfriends that he writes good stuff. Unfortunately it must be very good because I can never find one in stock at the library. They are always checked out.

  7. Stacy

    I found you through Amy’s Humble Musings.
    I’m skimming the comments looking to see if anyone has mentioned Charles Martin. New-ish author, EXCELLENT. I am very choosy about what I’ll read (comes from working in a Christian bookstore for years), but there are a few authors I love. Charles Martin is a favorite. I urge you to check him out. His latest is When Crickets Cry. All of his are excellent novels, and his characters are very REAL. (And my husband is also a fan.) I’d love to hear what you think; I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

    Stacy

    • Helen

      Hi Stacey
      I’m just into When Cricket’s cry at my daughter’s recommendation. He’s just brilliant – a very thought provoking and intriguing read. I have to really be taken with a book to finish it these days and i know i’ll be seeking more of his books. Yes, very real characters I think and some i’d love to emulate – some very thought provoking scenarios.

  8. I find that mainstream ‘secular’ fiction also lacks good characters. They can still be a good read, but not necessarily an enlightening one. The one thing I would hope is that we do not shackle christian writers into thinking they HAVE to write a story about a Christian character.

    • Matt Self

      Yes, but the question becomes are they a Christian fiction author?

      I have a friend who has written for several different television shows, including two sit coms. He is a Christian who writes for a secular audience, and he is constantly doing a dace about what he reveres and what his bosses want him to write (i.e. baudy, salty, appeals too teenagers, etc.). It’s really not that different in the secular book industry, because we now have three generations of Americans who’ve grown up on TV. The expectations of snappy dialogue w/comedy or actions beats every five to 10 pages is the norm.

      It didn’t used to be that way. If William Faulkner had to work for a book deal that way, I guess he’d still be the University of Mississippi postmaster.

  9. Northwriter

    Cliché, I know, but there are two sides to every argument. Or three. Or fifty.
    When a first century character running around the streets of Jerusalem uses modern American idioms, I cringe. When a sixteenth century character speaks in 21st century American evangelical Christianese, I gag. When a nineteenth century cowboy calls a respectable female neighbor by her first name, I roll my eyes. When male characters in any century spend a lot of time in sensitive, emotional introspection, I laugh.
    Sometimes I wonder how any of this stuff gets published. Then I look around at the people in the church library, and I understand. Many of them don’t seem to notice that they are reading drivel. They’re just glad to have something to read that isn’t trash and doesn’t make them blush.
    I think the majority of the buyers in the Christian market are women who want to read simple stories that don’t offend them in any way. They want books they don’t have to hide from their children. They want stories that help them escape the daily grind of runny noses and spilled cereal, even if those stories will never stand the literary test of time. Therefore, authors who want to sell books in the Christian marketplace need to target their stories to these women, and publishers need to be vigilant about standards. It’s economics.
    I don’t want to read profanity, vulgarity, or pornography. Mainstream fiction is filled with all three. Therefore, the majority of my reading choices consist of classics and Christian fiction. I’ve found a few good authors of Christian fiction. I’ve found a lot more bad ones. I aspire to be one of the good ones.
    I think more Christian writers ought to consider crafting absorbing stories with significant truth so carefully embedded that the books would get published by secular publishers.
    Let’s face it. Christians buy books published by Christian publishers. Although there is a great need to minister to the body of Christ through truthful fiction, the stories written for a Christian audience are not going to do much toward bringing in new believers.
    To reach a wider audience, more Christian writers need to find ways to put truth into less overtly religious packages. There must be ways to write truth without compromise that speaks to people outside of the evangelical Christian culture.

    • I think the majority of the buyers in the Christian market are women who want to read simple stories that don’t offend them in any way. They want books they don’t have to hide from their children. They want stories that help them escape the daily grind of runny noses and spilled cereal, even if those stories will never stand the literary test of time. Therefore, authors who want to sell books in the Christian marketplace need to target their stories to these women, and publishers need to be vigilant about standards. It’s economics.

      Northwriter,

      You’re probably right. I know that 85% of Christian fiction is purchased by women. And I suspect they want exactly what you say they do.

      • Dee

        Yep. Sometimes that is exactly what I want. I don’t want my kids to pick up a book I am reading and be shocked by its content (as I was when I picked up many books my dad read). However, this does not mean that I am too simple minded to recognize lousy writing when I see it, nor does it mean I don’t appreciate excellent writing. I want to have the non-offensive writing that is done well. It is difficult to find but the search is fun, too.

  10. Molly

    I found this post from your post about your best work in 2006. I really enjoyed it, and it made me think. I have the same problem with a lot of Christian fiction, and I think you’re right that some of it is because it has to be “censored” to fit what “every” Christian can agree on. Problem there is, every Christian can’t even agree on the basics. Most Christians, from my experience, have at least one parable that they cannot really understand. Get right down to it, and it sounds wrong or insane. Yet Jesus himself said it. So, maybe Christian authors need to be challenging us more instead of bowing to pressure to censor.

    The best “Christian” book that I’ve read in a long time was Jane Eyre, which I read for the first time recently. The title character does not start out a Christian, has a life-changing encounter with a Christian, has her own life changed by the Christianity. She is still not perfect, she goes through a lot of hard times, but there’s the underlying feeling that somehow, things are going to work out okay. Maybe not exactly how we might have hoped, but okay. And in the end, they work out quite well indeed, even though she makes a hard choice that seems to destroy any chances of that ending. THAT, to me, was a great Christian story. It’s a classic, but I can’t understand how people who are not Christians can read it and have it make any sense. If I didn’t understand that underlying hope/faith that says that God will work things out even if you seem to be going in exactly the wrong direction and you’ve hit rock bottom, the book would drive me insane. Instead, it inspired me.

    Of course, I have aspirations of being a novelist someday, and I still haven’t figured out how to incorporate this into my own writing. Good luck with yours, and I hope to see it someday soon!

    • Molly,

      For me, Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey is my example of what a distinctly Christian book should be, and I’m not even sure that Wilder was a born-again believer. But what a powerful book! Won the Pulitzer Prize, too.

  11. Excellent post! Evangelical fiction writers are generally burdened with a consuming need to explain every plot, character, dialogue, action, setting, and nuance down to an insulting pablum of sentimentality or dogma. Unable or unwilling to “show rather than tell,” they use the pliers of Evangelicalese to disect a butterfly until it lies shuddering in a heap.

    Granted, there is plenty of secular writing that could be described similarly. However, I find the dearth of quality (i.e., challenging, soul-stirring, creative) Christian writing remarkable.

    Or maybe not.

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