IS IT TIME FOR CHRISTIAN FICTION TO DIE?

*Note. This is a guest blog reposted with permission from best selling novelist, and my dear friend, Eric Wilson.

A Challenge to Readers, Writers, and Publishers

By Eric Wilson

As a child, I was taught not to complain about a problem unless I was willing to be part of the solution. I was also introduced to the literature of J. R. R. Tolkien, John Bunyan, C. S. Lewis, Daniel Defoe, Flannery O’Connor, and Nathaniel Hawthorne. Not one of these world-class Christian writers worked within the parameters of a “religious fiction” market.

By the time I was 19, my own faith had faced more obstacles than I found in most “inspirational” novels. I hunted for stories that dealt with real issues from a Biblical perspective, but found offerings that were mostly trite and poorly written–with Bodie Thoene’s books being an exception. Did it have to be this way? Even those who love Jesus struggle with doubts, depression, sexual and financial issues, addiction, and disease.

If the Bible truly offered the Answer, I wondered, then why did these stories seem so afraid to ask the questions?

Hoping to be part of the solution, I read, read, read, and wrote, wrote, wrote. I studied the craft of fiction. I earned a Bachelor’s degree with honors from an accredited Bible college, got married (faithful for 20 years now), and published my first novel in my mid-thirties. I have since written nine more novels, with over a million words in print. One of those books spent four months on theNew York Times bestseller list.

Trying to be part of the solution, I have also reviewed and endorsed hundreds of novels—the majority of them by Christian brothers and sisters. I’ve done my best to open doors for up-and-coming authors. I’ve invested the past decade in broadening the reach and readership of this market, and in reclaiming genres that had been hijacked by immoral and/or humanistic worldviews. Despite my efforts, and many incredible yet relatively unknown writers who have bettered them (W. Dale Cramer, Lisa Samson, Randy Singer, Tosca Lee, Robin Parrish, Claudia Mair Burney, Mike Dellosso, Steven James, and Sibella Giorella, to name a few), this market’s recent influence and parameters seem to have narrowed.

The late 1960s and early ’70s saw the rise of young Christian musicians who helped spearhead the Jesus Movement. As the number of listeners grew, a few entrepreneurial sorts saw an opportunity to spread the Word even further; yet with success came the need—initially uncorrupted—to keep “churning out the hits” to keep this baby rollin’. The moneychangers stepped in, the Spirit moved out, and for a long time Christian music became a cloistered, “safe” alternative instead of a vibrant, world-changing entity. I believe the same has happened in today’s Christian fiction.

Why, as Christian novelists, have we removed ourselves from a place of influence in the “marketplace” of the everyday reader? Do atheistic authors put their books in the “Atheist Fiction” section? Does Stephanie Meyer label her books “Mormon Fiction”? Aren’t we actually “selling out” if we write what will sell to a certain church demographic instead of writing what God puts in our hearts?

In years past, the works of Tolkien, Lewis, and O’Connor glistened in the unrestricted air of “real life.” That is not to say Middle-earth is real or Puddleglum still survives in some swamp—though I would be the first to pay him a visit if he did. I am saying the weight of Frodo’s ring (a powerful symbol of sin) and the cynicism of a pessimistic swamp-dweller were presented poignantly, without polish or affectation. They felt real. They captured emotions and experiences with which we can all relate.

In the same way, an ultra-gritty (and beautifully poetic) book such as James Lee Burke’s Jolie Blon’s Bounce still lingers in my thoughts, due to its spiritual and redemptive arc. John Dalton’s Heaven Lake and David Maine’s The Preservationist won awards in the mainstream market, while tackling Biblical themes with remarkable skill.

If our own writings fail to also wrestle honestly with life’s difficulties, it seems to me that we gloss over the bloody, earth-shaking war that Jesus fought on the cross—and we undermine the triumph of His resurrection.

True, the publishing number-crunchers feel the need to meet profit margins. Yes, we writers of the faith are called to honor God in our storytelling. Does this mean, though, that we should censor all the raw elements? Isn’t the Bible itself filled with depictions of violence, sexual misconduct, deceit, and bigotry? Some of its stories have happy endings. Some are dark cautionary tales. Few, if presented as modern fiction, would make it past the industry’s “gatekeepers.”

It seems to me that most “religious” storytelling has taken the place of relational, incarnational works of literature. I know there are authors who desire to write more than scrubbed-clean, rose-scented fiction. Must all Christian novels be “inspirational,” or can’t some be challenging, daring, even ironic and unresolved?

In my own novels, I don’t want to regurgitate platitudes. I want to allow Christ to enter the muddy, messy settings of my own life and those depicted in my stories. He is a redeemer. He has a way of calling the dead from their graves, the sinners from their prisons, and the pharisaical busybodies into glorious freedom.

Yes, God is the Creator. We are created in His image. When we write fiction, when we create, we have the opportunity to reflect a sinful world in such a way that the glory of the risen Lord is that much more astounding. No, not all writers are called to this, and maybe this market will never make way for those who are. Nevertheless, Jesus gave us an example to follow, stepping into the muck of humanity instead of calling to the street dwellers from lofty mountaintops.

I believe fiction has the ability to change minds, shock us from complacency, and soften hearts. (Paradoxically, those Christians who question the validity of Christian fiction are often those who rant about the evil power of fictitious Harry Potter.) I believe at least some faith-based novels should serve as more than “moral” alternatives. But are there publishers still willing to offer that chance?

Consider these words from one of Russia’s greatest novelists. Over four decades later, they still rattle the bars on artistic cages.

    Outstanding manuscripts by young authors, as yet entirely unknown, are nowadays rejected by editors solely on the ground that they “will not pass.”

    Literature cannot develop between the categories “permitted”—“not permitted”—“this you can and this you can’t.” Literature that is not the air of its contemporary society, that dares not pass on to society its pains and fears, that does not warn in time against threatening moral and social dangers, such literature does not deserve the name literature; it is only a façade . . .

    Our literature has lost the leading role it played . . . [and] now appears as something infinitely poorer, flatter and lower than it actually is . . . If the world had access to all the uninhibited fruits of our literature, if it were enriched by our own spiritual experience, the whole artistic evolution of the world would move along in a different way, acquiring a new stability and attaining a new artistic threshold . . .

    –Alexander Solzhenitsyn,

    Letter to the 4th National Congress of Soviet Writers, May 16, 1967

The Christian-fiction market, if it remains myopic, could very well die. I hope it does not. It has done many good things and produced some quality novelists, both commercial and literary in nature. Before we settle into mediocrity, I pray we’ll see godly writers of all genres, all ages, all races, ready to raise the bar even higher and impact the world around them. Some are already published but struggling. Others are waiting for their opportunity. The question isn’t whether the market will die, so much as whether it will push aside fear and allow its authors to live.

If not, Christians who are writers should be publishing well-crafted, honest, and thought-provoking novels in the general fiction market. When Jerusalem’s Christians lingered too long in first-century AD, the Diaspora and hardship pushed them from their comfort zones. They spread far and wide, sharing the Good News.

Maybe today is the beginning of an artists’ Diaspora. Maybe literary life will yet rise from these ashes.

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