Should “Christian fiction” exist?

In this post I’m replying to a blog post by my friend and fellow author Melinda Johnson. Melinda, in turn, was replying to a quotation from T. S. Eliot and a related discussion on Goodreads. I did not participate in the Goodreads discussion, but I would like to give my perspective on the Eliot quotation, which ends thus: “the last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world.”

As Melinda points out, that is exactly what we now have in America: the CBA and the ABA. Two opposing camps of fiction. And it is a situation I personally deplore. (For more about my views on Christianity and culture in general, see my page at right or my podcast on “Becoming Culturally Savvy Christians.”)

I can understand how and why “Christian” (meaning CBA) fiction came to be. When our society became so vehemently post-Christian, not only in its philosophy but in its morality, that one could not open a work of contemporary fiction without being assaulted by profanity, glorified immorality, horrific violence, and all other evidences of the degradation to which man can sink without God, Christians naturally recoiled. They did not wish to read fiction so far divorced from their own worldview, so they began to create their own.

Now, I certainly have no problem with Christians writing fiction. And if a Christian writes fiction, certainly that fiction should be informed on some level by the author’s Christian worldview. Where I think the difficulty comes in is when a whole trade organization (in this case the CBA) sets itself up as a watchdog and essentially censors everything published under its aegis. As the literature of Soviet Russia illustrates, such an atmosphere is not conducive to the flourishing of art.

As a reader, I want to discern for myself what is appropriate for me to read. I don’t like profanity, but one or two well-placed strong words may be appropriate to make a certain character or situation authentic. I don’t like seeing immorality portrayed as normal and acceptable, but sometimes a writer must depict sin in order to talk about redemption. I don’t like protagonists who are truly evil, but neither do I want to read about those who are unrealistically good.

As a writer, I want the freedom to write about all kinds of people, in all kinds of situations, and to show how grace can illumine their lives—but in subtle ways, not by shoving the Bible down readers’ throats. I don’t want to write thinking about whether my book will have the kind of “takeaway” a CBA publisher is looking for. I don’t want a censor looking over my shoulder saying, “Ah ah ah, you can’t use that word, it’s naughty.” And most especially, I don’t want to write novels that no non-Christian would ever conceivably read.

It’s my belief that the cause of literature and the cause of faith both are better served by having a single multifaceted literature, as was the case in Eliot’s day. While standards of decency were more prevalent in the thirties, there were certainly writers available then whom most Christians would not care to read—D. H. Lawrence and Henry Miller come to mind. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, there were writers like Dorothy Sayers, G. K. Chesterton, and Eliot himself who were producing literature of the highest caliber from a Christian worldview.

I see no reason why a similar situation could not or should not obtain in America today. Alongside all the pagan fiction Christians deplore, there are brilliant Christian writers like Leif Enger, Marilynne Robinson, Katherine Paterson, Ron Hansen, Bret Lott, and so many more, all of whom publish in the “pagan market”—the ABA. It takes a little digging to find them, but they are there. And if Christian readers had not essentially boycotted the ABA, then by the laws of supply and demand, there would of necessity be many more such books published.

(Of course, there’s another issue at the bottom of all this, and that is the issue of why we read. But this post is already too long, so I’ll address that issue another day.)

The signs indicate that the days of “Christian is Christian and pagan is pagan, and never the twain shall meet” in American fiction may be drawing to a close. A number of newer writers on the CBA front are writing authentic literature in which faith is an undercurrent rather than a drowning flood, and a number of ABA publishers are willing to publish fiction that is informed by a Christian worldview. I pray this trend continues, so that one day the best Christian writers will be publicly recognized not only for their talent, but for the light they are able to shine on a darkened world.


5 comments on “Should “Christian fiction” exist?

  1. Wendy B. says:

    Thank you, Katherine! This happens in the music world as well. We need “authentic” music and literature from both Christians and non-Christians – not art with an agenda. I couldn’t agree more with your points. (And I LOVE Dorothy Sayers.)

  2. Amen! One thing that bothers me about the predominance of the CBA is that only one “flavor” of Christianity is passing for the whole. This seems to be most true of fiction. Christian publishers have more diverse offerings in the non-fiction market, but fiction at the moment belongs almost totally to the conservative Evangelical reader. Many people who won’t read “Christian fiction” are turned off by this agenda. So I wonder why the Christian-but-not-conservative-Evangelical readership haven’t become a fiction market.

  3. Well, the Catholics have their own market. And I think everyone else just reads selectively from the general market. But the numbers aren’t high enough to have a big influence on what gets published.

  4. I’ve read extensively in the CBA, and I truly don’t see it as an agent of censorship. In fact, I think it’s vice versa. I don’t think the reason there are so few Christian writers in the ABA is that there are no talented Christian authors. I think the ABA will not publish them. Sometimes the problem with Christian fiction is that it’s difficult for authors to portray inner faith musings realistically. But sometimes the problem is where we are in our lives as readers. Is literature only authentic when faith is an undercurrent?

    • Renee, I’ve read authentic literature in which faith was a very strong theme. The Brothers Karamazov comes to mind, or more recently, Peace Like a River. Nothing I’ve said here is intended as an absolute. There are many talented Christian authors, and it’s true that sometimes they have difficulty getting published in the ABA. But I think if evangelical Christians had not split off to do their own thing with CBA fiction, we would see more balance in the offerings of the ABA because there would be more demand for it.

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