I wrote this for a class a few months ago and I've revised it a bit to put on "the blog" (even so, I apologize for the scholarly tone). This is for all you artsy people who get frustrated with this sort of thing...
What's wrong with Christian Fiction?
The Christian attitude towards art, particularly in the area of novels, is one that tends to be confused and, at times, distorted. It is generally understood that any art that communicates a Christian message, however trite that message may be, is considered Christian art (Franky Schaeffer, 15-20). This is true in the area of fiction writing which causes Christian writers to be confused and think that in order to be a Christian writer they must force their writing to present an overtly religious message, free of any obscenities, objectionable material, and the like, no matter how important such material is in the purpose of complementing the story (Morden). This idea is perpetuated by Christian publishing houses who prefer that their publications “tell, don’t show” when it comes to realistic depictions of controversial material, therefore breaking a common maxim in the writing world “show, don’t tell” (Lukeman, 119-27). As a result, Christian writers have difficulty balancing commonsense rules and Christian publishing house guidelines. It is possible, however, to follow these commonsense rules while remaining true to Christian principles while producing good art (Morden).
What are the Commonsense Rules?
The commonsense rules of writing are the rules that are basic and known generally by all writers of fiction. One rule has already been mentioned and that is the rule of showing, not telling. This is an important rule that is the foundation for any other commonsense rule related to characterization, plot, or setting (Lukeman, 119-27). This is important for it shows respect for the reader, giving the reader ample opportunity to develop their own opinion about the text, rather than telling the reader what he ought to think. This further shows respect for the reader and perpetuates the idea that art is subjective, giving the reader free reign to like or not like the particular artwork of fiction (Lukeman, 15). Showing and not telling is important for any participant in the craft and art of writing.
Characterization is one of the three key elements of a fictional work of art and has its own set of commonsense rules. It is important for a writer to depict characters in a realistic fashion. Truth is synonymous with artistic quality and a novel’s artistic quality lies in its truthful representation of human nature and life in general (Howells, 1915). Even fantasy or science fiction genres should represent humanity and universal themes about life in an honest and relatable manner (Through the Eyes of a Child, 264). Characterization makes a novel. Without characters, plot and setting fall to pieces. Characterization is what makes a novel come to life (James, 1918).
Plot is the creating of conflict involving your characters. You cannot have plot without characters, nor can you have characters without conflict (George, 41). How a person achieves plot through characters is different for every person (Morden), but the commonsense part is always true: there must be some sort of conflict, be it person-against-person, person-against-self, person-against-nature, or person-against-society. Every good novel will have some person-against-self as the characters deal with inner conflict while also dealing with some sort of outer conflict, represented in the other three types of conflict (Through the Eyes of a Child). Any form of conflict encountered by the characters forms the plot.
Setting is the element of the story that comes in to support the life of the plot and the characters. Setting sets the mood and creates the background for the plot and characters (George, 17). For the best depiction of setting, another writers’ maxim comes into play. That maxim is “write what you know” (George, 24). It is best to be familiar with the setting that is created in the story. Knowing the setting personally will enable a writer to better describe it and naturally weave it into the plot while allowing it also to help represent the characters (George, 24).
In What Ways Have Christians Lacked in These Areas?
Christian writers have lacked in many of these areas because oftentimes following these rules inhibited the promotion of Christian agendas. Not long ago, Christians began to compartmentalize their lives, separating the spiritual from the everyday life (Franky Schaeffer, 28). With this compartmentalizing, “the arts were regarded as unspiritual, unfit, and secondary to those high and spiritual goals now set forth for Christians to achieve” (Franky Schaeffer, 28). This was due to an infiltration of the beliefs of the industrial movement, which promoted that everything had to have utilitarian usefulness. The way the church handled this infiltration was to disregard anything that did not promote Christian agendas, such as witnessing or Christian growth (Franky Schaeffer, 31). The result, for the Christian world, was a lack of interest in any art that did not fulfill these requirements. The areas of plot and characterization are dramatically affected by the compulsion to present an evangelical message and the result is forced, trite stories with unrealistic characters (Edelen).
Characterization and plot are also affected by the rules of the publishing houses. Publishing houses aim to present a safe haven from secular fiction and also to encourage Christians and non-Christians alike (Morden). From these principles a few rules have taken form: 1) the protagonist must either be a Christian or come to Christ at the end of the book. 2) The Characters are usually one-dimensional (all good or all bad) with little depth or conviction (Woodlief). 3) There must be spiritual development and it must take priority over the other conflicts in the book. 4) There must be no explicit bad language, sex, consumption of alcohol, or drugs (Morden). 5) “Violence must be treated very carefully—they would rather it happen off-page than on” (Morden). With these rules, a very limited type of story can take place. This also goes to show, because of examples of C.S. Lewis and Tolkien, that these developments in the Christian publishing world are fairly new (Morden). Because of these limits, plots often take on an unrealistically fast pace with little character or setting development (Edelen). Such rules construct a very small realm for plot and characters to operate. “…if Christian novels…must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christiandom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.” (Woodlief)
What Can Christians Do About it?
Christians can begin to change this if they return to some basic principles surrounding the art of fiction. Some of the principles of good fiction have already been mentioned. According to Francis A. Schaeffer’s Art and the Bible there are four standards by which to judge a work of art (in this case a work of fiction). They are: 1) technical excellence, 2) validity, 3) intellectual content, the worldview that comes through and 4) the integration of content and vehicle (p. 62). Technical excellence would refer to the proper use of syntax and consistencies and an avoidance of clichés (O’Conner, 169-74). This would also include proper employment of the previously stated commonsense rules. Validity would refer to honesty in an author’s writing—honesty to himself (not forcing a story to go someplace it does not wish to go) (Morden) and an honest depiction of characters in a realistic fashion (Howells, 1915). The third standard of judgment is the worldview that comes through the work of fiction. Every artist has a worldview and that worldview will inevitably show through the work in some way or another. A Christian writer’s worldview will not be absent from his work, but this does not mean that worldview must dominate in the form of a Christian message (Schaeffer, 68). The final standard is the appropriateness of the content to the vehicle. Another way to say this is, do the message and the method in which the message is presented correlate in an appropriate manner (Schaeffer, 69)? If Christians keep these standards of judgment in mind they will not only be better writers they will also be better informed readers.
One fear that Christian authors have about writing realistic fiction that may or may not have objectionable material is that they will be unable to find a publisher. It is true that such material may cause Christian publishing houses to sensor the authors writing. If a Christian writer finds that this is the case, it is not wrong or unlikely that a secular publishing house will pick up the book. Non-Christian publishing houses are not barring Christians from their content and are just as much on the lookout for a good book as the Christian publishing houses (Morden). This is a legitimate fear for Christian writers, but not impossible to overcome if the writing is good.
If, however, a Christian desires to write a novel with Christian themes or even a Biblical plot, the same standards for structure and character development apply. Literature is literature whether it is written by a Christian or not. “Christian” literature need not exist. Only the categories of good and bad should exist (Lewis).
In conclusion, it is possible for Christians to remain true to their Christian principles while following commonsense rules for good fictional art. The guidelines of Christian publishing houses and the modern day Christian view of art makes it very difficult and confusing for Christian writers. However, if a writer follows the commonsense rules for writing, their worldview will inevitably shine through. Christians will once again be writing great works of art. “…great authors are always ‘breaking fetters’ and ‘bursting bonds.’ They have personality, they ‘are themselves’” (Lewis).
Lewis, C.S. “Christianity and Literature.” C.S. Lewis: Essay Collection and Other Short Pieces, ed. Walmsley, Lesley. London: HarperCollinsPublisher, 2000. 411-420
Woodlief, Tony. “Bad Christian Art.” Imagejournal.org. 2011
May 31, 2011. http://imagejournal.org/page/blog/bad-christian-art
Morden, Simon. “Sex, Death and Christian Fiction: A talk given at Greenblet 2005 by Simon Mordern” simonmorden.com 2011 Little. Brown Book Group UK and Simon Morden.
April 28, 2011 http://www.simonmorden.com/about/essays/sex-death-and-christian-fiction/
Schaeffer, Francis. Art and the Bible. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2006
O’Conner, Patricia T. Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to English in Plain English. New York: Riverhead Books, 2003
Edelen, Dan. “The Problem with Christian Fiction.” ceruleansanctum.com 2009.
April 28, 2011. http://ceruleansanctum.com/2009/11/the-problems-with-christian-fiction.html
Lukeman, Noah. The First Five Pages. New York: Fireside, 2000
George, Elizabeth. Write Away. New York: HaperCollins, 2004
Shaeffer, Franky. Addicted to Mediocrity: 20th Century Christians and the Arts. Illinois: Crossway Books, 1981
Howells, William Dean. “From Novel-Writing and Novel Reading: An Impersonal Explanation.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Baym, Nina, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 915-918
James, Henry. “From The Art of Fiction.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Baym, Nina, et al. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007. 918-920
Norton, Donna and Saundra E. eds. Through the Eyes of a Child MA: Pearson Education Inc., 2011