If you’ve ever been to a Christian bookstore or even the far corner of Barnes and Noble, you’ve probably wandered into the Christian fiction section that’s littered with novels owning sentimental titles like Abby’s Journey, complete with a downtrodden-looking Amish girl on the cover. Or you might have escaped gazing at such saccharine work and come across fictional books about the End Times, or maybe about a detective who tracks down serial killers using Scripture and his “quiet time.”
Christian fiction might be, more than any other genre, the most cringe-worthy of all Christian arts. Sure, as attempting-to-be-culturally-progressive-and-relevant Christ followers, we can wince at films like Fireproof and the music on our local family-and-faith-friendly radio station. But at least there are so-called crossover films, such as Blue Like Jazz, and albums like Sigh No More by Mumford and Sons, which place importance on reality and spirituality rather than religious sensationalism.
But Christian fiction?
Contemporary Christian fiction was marred by two phenomena: the Left Behind series and Amish fiction. As a kid who loved to read and grew up in a conservative Christian home in the ’90s, there weren’t many options. There were silly YA books like the Wally McDoogle series, but once I reached an age where I yearned for good literature, the Christian realm had little to offer. I downed the Left Behind books and read some Randy Alcorn and Frank Peretti but found little else outside of those offerings.
As a student of literature pursuing a graduate degree in English, books are important to me. As a follower of Jesus, knowing more about the heart of God, how to love others well and navigate the world God made for us is important to me too. Unfortunately, there is a huge disconnect between authors of Christian fiction and relevant, craftful, wonderful literature. Furthermore, Christian authors are almost completely absent in modern literary fiction. In my sphere, contemporary fiction is dominated by secular authors, many with apparent cynical, sexual and materialist agendas.
Writers of Christian fiction need reprisal. The fiction that Christian authors are putting on shelves and marketing as Christian fiction isn’t great art; it’s popular, genre fiction. The Lord calls us to create and to make well. We, as creators, are called to make our art so that it glorifies God to the best of our abilities and brings Him praise. Formulaic plots, boring stereotypes, sensationalist themes and predictable endings are not great art. It seems to me that Christian writers choose one of two paths. They write nonfiction (whether it be a memoir or something deemed “inspirational”) or they write popular, genre fiction.
Books have the power to change the world and people’s lives. Shouldn’t Christian authors, in attempting to love God and glorify Him in their creativity, craft the best fiction they can surmise?
Christian fiction was once very, very good. C.S. Lewis wrote his Space Trilogy and the Narnia series; Madeleine L’Engle had A Wrinkle in Time. Christian fiction can exist—and be good!
In her new collection of essays, When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson writes about how easy it is for an author to slip into what will sell (and believe me, if you look at my mother’s bookshelf, the typical Christian fiction of today does sell). She writes about her students at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop and says, “The Writers’ Workshop is as interesting and civilized a community as I have ever encountered, and it owes the successes of its long history to the fact that it works well as a community. A pretty large percentage of these fine young spirits come to me convinced that if their writing is not sensationalistic enough, it will never be published, or if it is published, it will never be read. They come to me persuaded that American readers will not tolerate ideas in their fiction. Since they feel that anything recognizable as an idea is off-limits to them, they sometimes try to signal intellectual seriousness by taking a jaundiced or splenetic view of the worlds they create and people. They are good, generous souls working within limits they feel are imposed on them by a public that could not possibly have an interest in writing that ignored these limits—a public they cannot respect.”
If you look at the general best-selling fiction of today, it is often riddled with violence, inaccurate depictions of love, sex and cynicism. It’s not necessarily realist fiction but sensationalist, meager, sentimental and anxious. That is not to say Christian authors should put forth happy-go-lucky, positive and encouraging fiction, but good fiction. Fiction that is true. Fiction that reveals to its readers things they never knew about the world, themselves and their Creator.
Marilynne Robinson comments on this further. She asks us to “only consider how many things have gone wrong here, when a young writer is dissuaded by the pessimism that floats around the culture from letting her or his talent develop in the direction natural to it. If the writer is talented, the work might well be published, and the American reading public will look once more into the mirror of art and find sensationalism, violence, condescension, cynicism—another testament to collective mediocrity if not something worse. Maybe even spiritual free-fall. But the writer is better than this, and the reading public is better than this.”
Let us be a reading public and a writing, creative public that is better than this. Let us encourage our community of Christian writers to produce fiction that is good, honest and serious. Let us be a community of readers and thinkers that still searches for the true, not merely what feels good, what strikes our senses or what is easy.
Micah Levi Conkling is from Kansas City, Mo. He is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in English at West Virginia University.