The Problems with Christian Fiction


But is she a good reviewer?I had H1N1 a couple weeks ago, and it seemed to me the best thing to do while hacking up a lung was to read something escapist. You’re less likely to notice the sickness when you’re lost in another world.

I’ve been trying to read a wide variety of contemporary novels to see what resonates with people. Honestly, I’m mystified at the bestselling novels because I find them exceptionally formulaic and not all that intriguing.

But what I find to be the most disheartening news comes from the A-list Christian authors of today. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a novel by a Christian author that I found worthwhile.

Now I have to qualify this comment by saying that the Christian book market is a woman’s market. One of the most damning statistics  is that the vast majority of Christian men never pick up a book after they graduate from school—save for the Bible (and I can attest that a lot of them don’t pick up that book, either, if our rampant biblical ignorance is any indication). Christian women drive nearly all the sales of Christian books, including Christian fiction.

So there’s a lot of Christian chick lit out there. Newsflash: I don’t read novels that cater exclusively to women. Christian novels aimed at women could be Pulitzer Prize-worthy and I would not know it. (So if you’re an author of Christian novels that cater primarily to women, you can take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.)

I’m speaking of mainstream Christian fiction that appeals to both sexes or leans toward male readers.

Below are the top problems I continue to find in Christian fiction. Some of these problems are inherent to all fiction, while some are exclusively issues in Christian fiction.

1. Authors still struggling with the Gospel and what it means to be  Christians who write novels

What makes a novel Christian? Increasingly, it’s hard to tell. It used to be that a novel would inevitably have a clear “THIS IS HOW TO BECOME A CHRISTIAN” chapter in it, usually depicting a character’s conversion. A few Christian authors still attempt to shoehorn such an obvious presentation into their books— and I have yet to read one of those that doesn’t feel forced. However, the trend in the most recent books has been away from proselytizing, possibly because it has felt forced and seems to bring a story to its knees—and not in a good way. What we see now are “Christian” books that contain the following:

  • A Christian character or two (though the characters are almost always nominal or backslidden Christians beholden to some mistaken beliefs about Christianity)
  • A story that contrasts “genuine” Christianity with some flaky, cartoonish, fundamentalist version
  • A story that incorporates the symbolic elements of Christianity but stripped of their inherent meanings (such as depicting angelic beings who don’t match the Bible’s descriptions of angels)
  • A pendulum swing away from goody-two-shoes heroes to ones that are almost ridiculously “overflawed”
  • No real evidence of anything inherently Christian in the novel except that it was written by a Christian

While I don’t read as many hamhanded Gospel presentations as I once did, the trend seems to be moving toward attacking other Christians. I know that two books that I selected randomly to read during my flu both set up aberrant straw man Christians sects for pummeling. This is a wrongheaded trend, as it seems to muddy the waters. If that many bogus or flawed Christian sects exist, why consider Christianity at all?

2. Increasingly high suspension of disbelief

Many of the mysteries and thrillers in Christian novel circles call upon readers to invoke an almost inhuman ability to suspend disbelief. All fiction requires an author to stretch credulity, but what I’m reading in Christian novels today is simply over the top. One story I read asked the reader to believe that an entire town quickly and elaborately conspired to deceive one visitor. What made it worse was that the visitor could have easily been sent on her way with what she wanted, with no need for the massive ruse. The “sorry we all lied to you about everything, ma’am” ending should have been written as “the author apologizes for jerking your chain for no rational reason for the last 250 pages.” In short, for those novels that are clearly not in the fairy tale or magic realism categories, the villains are too much, the escapes too implausible, the mysteries too out there, the finales too good to be true, and on and on and on.

3. Mimicking the trends in secular writing and publishing

I’m seeing more A-list writers co-authoring books with newcomers. While this has been common in the secular publishing world, the Christian publishers are now joining in. I also believe it is clear that these are less full co-authoring efforts and more riding the coattails of the A-lister. Christian publishing already tarnished its reputation with the practice of uncredited ghostwriters writing the books of nationally known pastors and Christian celebrities. Let’s not make this worse by tacking on an A-list name to a book written almost entirely by an unknown.

Also, Christian fiction’s identity crisis continues unabated, as few authors have figured out how to create a genuinely Christian genre. Too many Christian authors still watch what sells in the secular world and ape the trends. This gives us little more than derivative, lower-quality, less creative works that do nothing to enhance the stature of Christian fiction. We need works that set the standards, not mimic them.

4. Pulp writing out of A-list authors

I keep hearing the names of the next set of “literary” authors that will save Christian fiction. Then I read their books and encounter the same bush league writing issues.

One issue that seems to dominate the Christian novels I’ve read lately is what I like to call “John Vowed Never to Return to His Hometown” Syndrome. Christian authors LOVE to employ this trick of constantly reminding readers chapter after chapter that the hero John vowed never to return to his hometown—when we all know that John’s inner struggle mandates returning to his hometown. All authors do this to some extent, but again, it seems to be hammered in Christian fiction.

I’m also bothered by the emphasis that plot takes over worldbuilding, as if Christian authors are racing to tell their stories, neglecting to employ all the standard storytelling devices that root readers in the novel. Character and setting descriptions and mood are often passed over, leading to a tenuous hold on readers. I know I put down more Christian novels than secular ones simply because the author hasn’t spent enough time drawing me into the world of the novel.

Christian novels also seem to have a higher likelihood that the author will spend a lot of time recapping events. Often, the protagonist’s inner dialog is constantly rehashing what happened in the previous chapters.

Boring! I read the previous chapters. I don’t want to read them again!

In the same way, Christian fiction suffers highly from a hero running an inner dialog that asks questions beneath the reader, as the reader clearly knows that the hero’s speculations are wrong. There’s a difference between keeping the reader and the hero in the dark and flat-out lying to readers with obviously bogus speculations. Good writers do the former not the latter.

Given some of these issues, it makes me wonder if the authors are just not that good or instead genuinely believe their readers can’t follow what they are writing. Then again, if readers can’t follow the writing, perhaps the author IS bad.

Lastly, I’m bothered by the excessive padding I read in novels. All modern novels suffer from this, but the Christian novels I’ve read of late are plagued by it. What makes this even more remarkable is that I’ve already noted that many Christian novels lack sufficient worldbuilding. If those elements are missing, what’s being padded?

Too many authors repeat elements of the story or revisit a pattern of character behavior with  slight modifications. I read one novel by a Christian A-lister where the middle chapters consisted of the same two groups of people wandering around in the woods, going through the same motions, asking most of the same questions, ad infinitum. Tedious is the word that springs to mind.

And it’s tedious because there wasn’t enough story to make a full-sized book. Yet authors can’t get shorter books published because publishers blanch at the thought of printing something for adults less than 250 pages.

5. Unreliable reader reviews

It bothers me that readers rate so many books so highly on Let’s be honest here: The average book is fair to good. That’s two to three stars. And while most books are overrated on Amazon, the reviews for books written by Christian authors are stellar to the point of being ridiculous. Either readers of Christian fiction are afraid to voice a genuine opinion for fear of hurting an author’s feelings or they simply can’t distinguish a great book from an average one. Either way, the result leads to unreliable reviews. This helps Christian fiction improve not one iota.

I have more opinions on this issue, but these five points highlight the major problems.

If you read (or even write) Christian fiction, I’d like to hear your comments!

Book Thoughts


Enjoying a bookI have about a half dozen post ideas I’d love to toss out, but all approach epic length and I’m simply not in a “write an epic” mood today. I bet you never thought this blog was based on moods, did you?


I haven’t written on books in a long while, so I thought I’d toss out a few thoughts on that subject, seeing that I pretend to be a novelist and all.

Lies, Damned Lies, and Publishing

I hope Benjamin Disraeli can find it in his heart to forgive the mangling I just gave his famous quote, but it fits what follows.

One of the most hackneyed pieces of advice thrown out to aspiring book writers is to forget the audience/demographic and just write your book. Nearly every seasoned writer/editor out there, when pressed for some tidbit to dispense to the yearning writing masses, will pull out this one.

Having worked in marketing at Apple—and being married to a marketing expert—I’ve always found this advice to be nonsensical. Clearly, certain subjects and characters appeal to certain market segments, so how can a novelist write without at least one finger on the pulse of the market?

But no, I’m told I’m a nut for questioning that old piece of advice.

Or am I?

Lauren Winner, writing for Publisher’s Weekly, notes an uptick in Christian Fiction featuring female pastors:

Is the Christian market ready for fictional clerical heroines?

Good question, said Andrea Christian, who acquired The Clear Light of Day by Penelope Wilcock (David C. Cook, 2007). Wilcock’s protagonist is a female minister. “I’m sure we’ll get some backlash,” said Christian. “But the writing is so strong that we took the risk.”

WaterBrook Press has published two novels featuring a female minister, RITA award-winning Heavens to Betsy (2005) and Earth to Betsy (2006), both by Beth Patillo. Patillo’s charming novels have the elements of sassy chick lit, but they’ve had to overcome a few sales hurdles. Some Christian chains, like Lifeway, balked. Ultimately, Lifeway’s top fiction-selling stores stocked the novels, but returns were heavy. That was one reason WaterBrook passed on Wilcock’s novel.

The article goes on to paint a decidedly mixed message on the success of this trend, only to end with the following:

Will the evangelical market see more fictional women clergy? Wilcock is working on two more Esme Browne novels, but Christian has not yet seen the proposals.

As for WaterBrook, they’re completely behind Beth Patillo. But her new novel—The Sweetgum Knit Lit Society, coming out in 2008—doesn’t feature any women clergy. Its characters have somewhat less controversial jobs: one’s a librarian.


Waterbrook says they’re completely behind Patillo, but after heavy returns (and, as would follow, disappointing sales) of her last two novels, her latest one doesn’t have any content that would rile the demographic.

So yes, you can write the novel you want to write, but if the publisher’s oracle says, “The reading masses are miffed,” you may watch your contract go up in a sulfurous ball of fire.

Translation? Better write for the demographic.

So much for that old advice, huh?

And Now for the Bad News…

I noted a few days ago that I was reading Dan Allender’s Leading with a Limp. Given that books on leadership flood the secular market (and I wouldn’t give two hoots for the whole lot of them), I was glad to read a book on leadership that said that the best way to lead was to serve, be vulnerable, communicate from the heart, admit your mistakes, and cultivate an environment for others to express those ideals.

Throughout the book (which reads like a 70’s-era John Powell tome if John Powell had written a book on leadership), Allender tells stories of people who followed his leadership ideals and triumphed. Seeing that all these tales end happily bothers me. It’s not real life.

While Allender acknowledges the risk of leading in the manner depicted, where’s the chapter on what to do when that method of leading doesn’t work? In fact, where’s that chapter in most advice books? I know authors think their ideas never fail, but you and I know they do.

One of the things that bothered me about my education was when a prof tossed out a way to do X in a church, but at no point did he explain what to do when X didn’t work. Let’s face it, plenty of good ideas on how to run a church don’t wind up working for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of the ideas. In class, I would imagine a scenario involving the wealthy church matron who funded a good percentage of the church budget. What do you do when you’ve got a transformational idea that will free your church, yet the old matron will have none of it, threatening to yank her cash if the idea gets enacted?

Folks, that’s real world and it happens all the time. Why are we so afraid to address those kinds of ideas? I’d love for authors of advice/teaching books to show us the dark side, what happens when the book’s central idea fails (or, for varying reasons, can’t be put into play at all), and what to do about it. That’s a book worth buying! Honestly, if every pastor in the country followed Allender’s ideals to the T in the next week, the week after would see half the churches in the country with a “Pastor wanted” sign out front. How does one make his book real if he provides no wisdom on what to do when the basic tenets of his book backfire?

Speaking of Books That Might Backfire…

A couple readers from my target demographic have in their hands a copy of my novel. Maybe I should include a chapter in there on what to do when it all goes wrong. Come to think of it, just about everything goes wrong in my novel—that is, until everything goes right.

So yes, I suspect I’m a hypocrite. But hey, it’s fiction, right? Slightly different rules in fiction.

At least that’s what I’ll plead in court.


One topic in Christian novelist circles that perpetually rises like some literary zombie is the use (or non-use) of vulgar words. As straightlaced as I am, I go against the flow and say that sometimes the material calls for profanity and all efforts to expunge it only creates surreal attempts to bypass what’s obviously being said and sometimes must be said.


I read a secular book several years ago called Tell No One by Harlan Coben. I enjoyed considerably the mystery at its heart , but I didn’t read any of Coben’s other books. While in the library a few months ago, I saw another Coben book, a reprint of one of his earlier series, and picked it up on a whim. Coben received a number of writing awards for the mystery series featuring his sports agent, Myron Bolitar; the book I checked out was the first Bolitar novel.

And it was loaded with obscene language (just like pro sports is). I also picked up the last book in the Bolitar series and was surprised to see that Coben had excised all the vulgarities. Curious, I read a couple more of Coben’s other non-Bolitar books and saw a progressive dwindling of profanities, ending with none at all. The basic core of Coben’s books hadn’t changed—the same brood of amoral villains prowls the pages of the more recent books—but now Coben writes his scenes and characters free of vulgarities. How he pulled that off was so seamless that you never realized the four-letter carnival failed to roll into town.

On the other hand, most of the Christian fiction I’ve read stumbles awkwardly when it comes to dancing around bad words. Ted Dekker’s bad guy’s sanitized remarks in Thr3e bordered on cringe inducing. Worse, they undermined the entire premise of that story of Good and Evil because Evil swore like Eddie Haskell of Leave It to Beaver fame.

Maybe we should all read Coben for pointers. Sometimes even secular fiction does purity better than Christian fiction does.

And that’s it for books. Have a great weekend!

The Desperate Need for Heroes


Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings trilogyThe annual Christian Booksellers Association convention (now with the utterly ghastly new name “International Christian Retail Show”—boy, that’s a blog entry in itself!) is running this week and it’s started off with a bang due to a speech given by Andy Crouch (who?) that called Christian fiction writers to abandon writing escapist novels and start addressing “reality.” His assertion comes from watching airline travelers; he observes that they have traded their books for playing solitaire on a notebook computer or cell phone. From this he posits that too many of us have traded gritty life for virtual reality:

It’s worth pausing and asking ourselves whether what we are looking for when we read, what our readers are looking for, is not escape and seclusion. This is a constant Christian temptation. We are prone to create our Christian virtual reality. I’m sure that right here at the International Christian Retail Show you’ll be able to meet good-hearted folks creating Christian video games. Isn’t that appealing? A world, suitably tweaked and put at your disposal for your entertainment, where Christianity actually works! Just obey the Christian rules and you win the game. A world where prayers are always answered! A world where sin doesn’t weave itself so tightly around even our best efforts! It is so tempting to strategically simplify, to create a fictional reality in which things just seem to work better than they do in this world.

But to do that is to deny the Incarnation, to deny that God became real in this world, in this very world where God does not seem real to many people much of the time. To create Christian virtual reality is to choose escape and seclusion and thus become entirely irrelevant to the heart of the gospel, which is God entering into this very world in order to liberate it from its captivity to itself.

So I plead with you, as a reader, as a fellow follower of the Incarnate One, as someone who daily wonders how this gospel to which I am giving my life can possibly be true, I plead with you not to tell me stories which improve on the world. Instead, tell me stories about the world as it is, strange and real and full of grace.

Like so many Christian commentators today, Crouch understands a problem exists. However, I believe his analysis and solution are profoundly wrong. It is not that people have abandoned books and movies (box office numbers continue their free-fall, too) because they are escapist, but because they aren’t escapist enough!

I’ve given up on most mainstream fiction because I can no longer stomach anti-heroes. Every character in every novel I have read lately is an amalgam of relativistic “ideals” that amounts to nothing more than a shell inhabited by moralistic flotsam and jetsam. You can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys because the bad guy has his subversively “noble” cause, while the “good guy” has more moral failings than the denizens of Sodom.

Now we might live in a postmodern age that attempts to call black “white” or even “chartreuse,” but I can tell you straight up that people are bored stiff with fictional characters that have few admirable traits, no transcendence over the rest of skulking humanity, no divine fire in their bellies that compels them to rise up and let the world know that they are different.

I’m shifting to film here because it provides a more concentrated and widely-known pool of examples to choose from, but why do people love the Star Wars movies and flock to them even when Episodes 1-3 were acknowledged by everyone as having awful dialog, wooden acting, and ham-handed direction? After watching a great musical like Singing in the Rain or The Sound of Music, why do so many people let their first comment be, “Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?” Why did the first Matrix movie inspire devotion, the second ambivalence, and the last one contempt?

It’s all about heroes. People are dying for heroes. People long for happy endings in which the clearly drawn hero with a heart of gold vanquishes the bad guy—a bad guy so bad he’d even eat his own mother for breakfast. The average guy in the average house in the average suburban tract has had his fill of anti-heroes. He doesn’t want someone who looks like him, struggles like him, and in the end is no better for any of his trials. He wants to see someone grow and learn and kick the bad guy’s ass in the last scene. If Yoda had a penchant for picking up little green call girls and knocking back the Tatooine hooch whenever he had the chance, no one would be cheering, and no one would be standing in line to see another Star Wars film. The Wachowski brothers forgot that the reason people liked The Matrix was more than just the cunning special effects, it was the fact that the good guys were good and believed in something greater than themselves. When in The Matrix Reloaded Morpheus’ altruism was demeaned as being little more than religious fanaticism, you could feel the collective audience sigh of “Well, there goes the series!”

What some label as mere escapism, the majority of people consider to be their one chance to see the good triumph over evil. When our TV news programs depict one hopeless scene of brutality, disease, and loathsomeness after another, why would we want to subject ourselves to reading the same in our fiction or watching it on our screens? People don’t want to see any conflict in a character like Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings other than Do I kill that orc with my broadsword or with my dagger? We don’t want all his moral failings paraded before us; we want him to grow into his kingship. Because if he can, maybe we can, too.

Has anyone asked the solitaire player on Crouch’s flight why he plays solitaire instead of reading the latest novel? Could it be that the solitaire player prefers an electronic card game because it contains the promise that the game could be won? Virtual reality at least allows the one immersed in it to possibly come out on top, to vanquish some imagined foe, to live out the heroism that is so lacking in our daily lives.

This is no endorsement for John Eldredge’s fatally flawed Wild at Heart, but the reason that book resonated with so many disaffected men is that it put out a call to heroism, a call lacking in much of our culture because we have for too long ceded our imaginations to anti-heroes and protagonists of questionable morality. Our culture screams, “There are no heroes!” We are told by the media elite that happy endings are for simpletons. Yet, who reading this today would want to come to the end of his/her life and NOT want it to end happily?

I find Crouch’s appeal to Christian writers to write more fiction that is rooted in the funk of this world and to avoid obvious happy endings to be a capitulation to the spirit of the age. It is to take our injunction to think on what is noble, pure, and right and turn it into just another dark day in the gutter. You can claim that it’s all about mystery and grace, but if that amazing grace doesn’t lead us to a heavenly home where we’ll be for a lot longer than ten thousand years, then Christian writers will be offering their readers the same bankrupt worldview that the world is offering. Our identity as Christians will be lost amid the many secular and religious voices that take a look at the vagaries of our existence and can only shrug and say, “Man, life is tough, isn’t it?”

The incarnation that Crouch uses as his proof text does not end with the dead Christ hanging on His cross. Paul himself said that if that is the whole of it, we are people to be most pitied. No! That dead Christ—our very archetypal hero—overcame Death itself! The stone is rolled away from the tomb! Jesus was the victor then and will be the victor to come when He and His righteous legions destroy all the powers of Darkness!

If our creative writing doesn’t regularly reflect this final triumph of good over evil, then all we have handed our readers is another maudlin dose of despair. I for one am not willing to write books that fail to offer this triumph; I know that you are not wanting to read them, either.

{Image: Aragorn of The Lord of the Rings trilogy from New Line Cinema}