Saturday, February 5, 2011

On Defining and Refining Christian Fiction

Amy from My Friend Amy has been writing about Christian Fiction. I believe there are three so far, the latest being The State of Christian Fiction. Primarily, she discusses two camps of christian fiction. And Annette from A Well-Watered Garden is asking questions as well. Primarily, what is the definition and purpose of Christian Fiction? and What is the mission or goal of Christian fiction?

It isn't as simple to define Christian fiction as you might think. Yes, you could say that it is simply fiction written by Christian authors, published by Christian publishers, and marketed to Christians to entertain and enlighten. That it is fiction that places value and priority on matters of the Christian faith. That there are values and standards held by the author, the publisher, and presumably the reader. There are certainly assumptions held in place when it comes to matters of faith. The belief in God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit. The belief in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Camp one, as Amy and Annette both pointed out, is about Christian readers finding escape and enjoyment. Fiction for this camp might include chick lit, contemporary romance and/or suspense, historical fiction and/or historical romance. The characters may face challenges. But sometimes these challenges seem a bit unrealistic in that they seem to come mainly from external sources. They may deal with the loss of a husband or child. They may deal with hurricanes, floods, and fires. They may deal with a difficult-to-get-along-with boss. They may have a silly love triangle or two. "Obstacles" in the course of true love. They may even deal with a crisis of faith because of any of the above. But one thing they all seem to have in common is the inevitable happy ending. The reader doesn't doubt for even a minute that everything will work out perfectly in the end. No hard choices will have to be made. No consequences will prove long-lasting. No situation will prove too challenging in the end.

Is there anything wrong with readers seeking escape in fiction?! NO! NEVER! Escape is a completely valid reason to read fiction--yes, even Christian fiction. There is something satisfying about losing yourself in a book. The book may be predictable. The book may be fun--lacking in depth and substance. But it can bring joy and pleasure and relief. There is something relaxing and necessary about this type of reading. It is very soothing and comfortable. And you just can't assume that these are meaningless, superficial, forgettable reads. These can have characters that you love and adore. These can be stories that you want to read and reread.

Camp two, is about Christian readers wanting to find themselves in between the pages of a book. Amy refers to these as edgy reads. I'm not completely comfortable with 'edgy.' Because edgy can slide into gritty. And gritty can at times be translated into "look at me, look at me, I'm in pain, watch me suffer." But this is how I think of camp two. Readers wanting to see reflections of themselves. Readers wanting to be able to relate completely with a book--its characters, its story. Readers wanting a challenge. Perhaps because they realize that the Christian life is all about challenge, struggle, tension, growth, development. That the Christian life is more than being comfortable, being secure, being happy. They want something edgier. Fact: like it or not, sin exists. Sin is part of our nature. We're born sinful. Christ saves us, redeems us, justifies us. But we will NEVER be perfect, never be fully sanctified this side of heaven. We're all "under construction" until then. Yes, he calls us to repent. Yes, he begins to transform our lives. Yes, we're called to abide in Him, grow in Him, walk with Him. But we can't reach holy perfection. Yes, God is living in us, using us to accomplish His will. We're called to be like Him--to love like Him. We're told not to be of the world. We're told to be the called-out ones. Yet, we're called to see the world through His eyes, to reach out in love and compassion. We're called to be his witnesses. We're called to serve the least of these. We are called to be His hands and feet. We're called to give ourselves completely to God. Yet, humanity programs us to be selfish and proud. We're not perfect. We're human. We make mistakes. We sin. He forgives us. He loves us. As we grow in the faith, we should be growing more reliant in Christ, less reliant on ourselves.

Camp two books can be found in the same genres as camp one. The only difference may be that camp two books are sometimes published by secular publishing companies. (Though not always!)

So how does an author accurately capture the Christian life? What is the Christian life supposed to look like anyway? Isn't that subjective in some ways? Aren't there many ways that could accurately be portrayed? I'm not talking about beliefs or creeds. Not really. I'm talking about the daily stuff, the mundane stuff. The how-you-actually-live-your-life seven days a week stuff. The what-are-you-like-driving-stuff. Do you live what you preach? How do you live up to what a Christian is? How do you fall short?

I think one difference is perception. How would readers like the story to go. Do they believe a Christian should look, act, dress, walk, talk a certain way? With no wiggle room? Do they want to read a book from the perspective of this is what the christian life should look like? If people had more faith, prayed more, love and forgave more, didn't give into anger and bitterness, didn't hold grudges against their parents, children, spouses, brothers and sisters, and bosses and coworkers. Always put God first no matter what. Were always nice and gracious. Always practically perfect in every way. Do characters ever seem too perfect?

Another perhaps is that this is part of a bigger argument. Think about the tension between "literary" fiction and "genre" fiction. All the baggage, all the labels, all the assumptions. Could the differences between the two camps come from this other argument?

If you're looking for wholesome, inoffensive reading material, you may find plenty within Christian fiction OR in general fiction. I don't know that Christian fiction should be defined as the absence of filth or smut, an absence of certain four-letter words. It would be nicer, perhaps, to define it with something that is present. How does this book portray God? Jesus? Sin? Salvation? Grace? Love? Faith? Hope? Does it deal with the gospel in anyway? Are the characters already Christians? Or are they seekers? Does the author use the book as an opportunity to share the gospel? Does anyone come to faith through the novel? Is this done in a believable way? Does the book deal with loss? pain? sorrow? disappointment? failure? Does anyone struggle within the novel? Not necessarily THE big struggle--whether or not God exists, whether or not God loves them, whether or not Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. But faith struggles don't have to be big to be real, to be relevant. I'm reminded of Andrew Peterson's "Faith to Be Strong" and "The Chasing Song" and "No More Faith" and "Loose Change."

When Amy wrote her posts, I was in the middle of a great nonfiction book, A Million Ways To Die. Which oddly enough was PERFECT for this discussion. He specifically talks about the necessary tension in our lives as believers. (Think Romans 7. Specifically Romans 7:15-25.) The good news about Romans 7 is that it is followed by Romans 8. (Or think of 1 John. All of 1 John, for the most part!)

What should a Christian be reading (or watching or listening to)? Should Philippians 4:8 be our guideline? Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Can anything pass that test? Do fictional Christians within books have an easier time of it?

I do believe that it's right to follow your conscience, your heart. I do believe that your faith should guard your eyes and ears and heart--when possible. I do think it's not always possible. Because of our own choices. Sometimes our own bad choices. But I think it's all subjective. What one person feels comfortable with, another wouldn't.

© 2011 Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

1 comment:

Annette said...

All great points and great questions to ponder. They are statements that make me re-evaluate where I am in my reading, meaning what kind of books I digest.
The sentence that stands out to me the most is, "As we grow in the faith we should be growing more reliant in Christ, less reliant on ourselves."
That is what John's Gospel stated in that John became less and Jesus becomes greater. John 3:30
This is for us as well, we become less and Jesus is greater.
We've got to grow up in Christ--1 Peter 2:2