Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Nagging Questions

Something’s been bothering me lately.

Recently I read a book published by a Christian publisher. I enjoyed it very much. Well written book on many levels, and it have me hours of reading pleasure. For that, I am always grateful.

This novel is not heavy in Christian content. I don’t think Jesus is ever mentioned. God is mentioned a few times, but not much. There is a Christian character in the book, and we are in this character’s POV numerous times.

(Okay, stop trying to guess what book this is. There’s a 99% chance you’ll be wrong.)

I think books with the “lighter” version of Christianese are just fine. Some books published in the Christian market are written with nonChristian readers in mind, and I know the authors are trying to balance that fine line of pleasing both audiences. Not an easy thing to do. Other Christian novels may have nothing “Christian” on the surface at all. Christian themes may be there subliminally, through symbolism and metaphor. This, too, I understand. Each of us writes different books for different audiences.

Historically speaking, one of the pervasive arguments about the weaknesses of Christian fiction has to do with the “forcing” of Christianese into the story—whether it be “God talk” or a requisite conversion at the end, etc. I agree that forcing Christian content can lead to weakness in writing. That content has to rise naturally from the story, and from who the characters are. Because I feel so strongly about this, the level of Christian content in my stories may vary widely. Lots of such content in Dead of Night, for example. Very little in Violet Dawn. Always, the story and characterization must drive it.

Now I see a new trend with some Christian novels—exactly the opposite trend of the alleged FCs (forced Christianese). This is the purposeful holding back of it.

Here’s what I’ve seen numerous times now. The PHBs (purposeful holding backs) will have a Christian character--purportedly to satisfy the Christian publisher and reader. That character will tend to make moral and perhaps even sacrificial choices. You can see godly characteristics in the person. But there is little to no God-talk from these characters, and no prayer at all. Let’s say the character is in a desperate situation, perhaps even life-threatening. Let’s say further that we’re in his or her POV. When a Christian is fighting evil and imminent death, I’d expect him/her to pray. Or if another character comes to that Christian character, bewailing life, wanting to die because he/she sees no purpose in living, I would expect the Christian character to say, wait—there really is purpose in Christ. I would not expect the Christian to keep silent when the door has been thrown wide open for natural dialogue about God.

In a PHB, none of these things happen. I finish the book understanding what the author was trying to do—the often nonChristian audience he/she was trying to reach—but also feeling that the presentation of that Christian character in the story wasn’t complete. It wasn’t believable to me. The character simply did not do the normal things a Christian would do in terrible situations, e.g., pray or talk about God.

I find myself wishing that the Christian character hadn’t been pegged a Christian at all. That he/she simply had been portrayed as a good, moral person. I find myself wishing that the book simply said nothing about Christianity rather than presenting a Christian character who seems to make right, good decisions without any prayer or dialogue with other fellow Christians as natural underpinnings to his/her faith.

I find myself wondering what we are doing in the name of Christian fiction when we purposely hold characters back from what would come naturally. If the author is targeting nonChristian readers, is this, then, the right tactic? I have no doubt that the nonChristian reader won’t feel the PHB factor as I do—he doesn’t know what the daily Christian walk looks like. But then—should the author have taken the opportunity to show such a reader what that natural walk looks like? Then again, if the Christian character started talking about God and praying regularly—would the nonChristian reader be turned off no matter how naturally it was presented?

I know many authors would kick at the boundaries of Christian fiction, and I think some of that kicking is fine. But anyone who has come down hard on the FCs should do the same with the PHBs. Unnatural writing is unnatural writing. Or does the end somehow justify the means—on either side?

Questions. Wish I had all the answers.


Camy Tang said...

I agree with you. The character doesn't seem like a real Christian without that intimate, daily walk with God.

Of course I'm also upset when I read a book (usually secular) about a character who's supposed to be a Christian who portrays Christians as hypocritical or "loose" in their moral interpretations.


Rel said...

Hey Brandilyn - as a reader as opposed to a writer, I agree wholeheartedly with what you say. No doubt as a Christian writer it is sometimes a fine line to walk when trying to be sensitive to the secular audience without compromising realities of a faithful walk with the Lord. Blessings to those authors, yourself included, who manage to maintain their balance!!

relevantgirl said...

The one thing I loved about Peace Like a River is Enger's unashamedness (my word) in portraying Christianity. He shows miracles without explaining them away. Good writing is real writing. There is a middle ground, one that I think many of us try to walk, where we portray life and characters as three-dimensional, and yet needy of God's intervention. How do we show redemption without a hint of God?

Sheryl said...

Brandilyn, I completely agree with you, and I immediately thought of a book I recently read where I felt the same way.

Thc main character was a Christian, went to church (although it seemed mainly to find someone to date) but never once went to the Bible for wisdom for one of her many dilemna's, or even say "Hey God, I could use some help" as a quick prayer.

I have no problem with trying to reach a wider audience through less "overtly" Christian content, but we need to stay authentic to our characters and our story.


Cara Putman said...

This is a real challenge. I remember reading many Christian books as a teenager when I'd reach a chapter and think, "Here's the obligatory, shoe-horned conversion scene." Invariably, I'd skip the scene and move on to the story.

Now as a writer, I really wrestle with what the spiritual theme should be for each book. The one that comes out next year is overtly Christian, but it flowed very naturally. It didn't feel forced, but the real struggles of the characters. We'll see what readers think :-)

My suspense is on the other spectrum. Non-Christian main character surrounded by Christians. But there are real life conversations. Does the MC become saved? No. The book takes place in one week and to me it would have been forced and unnatural. But by the end of the book she's open to the idea that God is actively involved in her life. But the main spiritual ARC occurs with another character.

But with each WIP I really wrestle and pray about what the spirtual theme is supposed to be and how it should play out. I don't want cookie-cutter, but I also don't want unrealistic portrayls.

Tina said...

I certainly don't have answers, only questions and thoughts. I agree with Camy about how the character doesn't seem like a real Christian without that intimate, daily walk with God. But only on a certain level. I am Not challenging Camy or any of you, but want to give another view that might be worthy too. I am a Christian who has not had an intimate, daily walk with God every single day of my life and I know I am not the only one. Can a character represent that three dimensional life, similar to what Relevant Girl suggested? I have longed at times in my life to read fiction that reflected my faith, but got tired of reading about the perfect way to be a Christian. I picked up a secular book and said, wow, now that's how I feel. Just my thoughts... and I LOVE Christian Fiction. I even write it. :)

remade gold said...

Good question. Intriguing answers.

I guess the answer is, as always: do what the character would do. A devout Muslim prays five times a day. A devout Christian is immersed in Scripture, "does justly, loves mercy, and walks humbly with God".

Good point. Unnatural is unnatural. And we're not even natural. We're supernatural.

Anyway, end rant. I thought of a few books myself while reading this. I'll be honest, I tried PHB once, just to see if I could. And yeah, it was forced.

End ramblings. 0=)

J. Mark Bertrand said...

You've hit the nail on the head. These are two forms of the same error. On the one hand, there's the propagandist putting an idealized, textbook Christianity on the page (though it seems to me to usually be a kind of lowest common denominator, minimalist evangelicalism, much vaguer than the faith of any actual Christian I've met), and on the other you have the writer who confuses that for genuine, honest writing about the Christian life, and omits it altogether in the name of . . . I don't know what.

What's absent, as a result, is interesting writing about the Christian life most of us actually live, our experiences, struggles and communities -- especially our differences and how we approach them. I don't think these are subjects that only interest believers. I'm not Jewish, but I've read Chaim Potok with great joy. I suspect many people would be intrigued by the world of Christian faith, if they could find an absorbing, real-life portrayal of it, warts and all.

Propaganda and bland restraint aren't the only options, or even the natural ones. Why can't we write about Christian things so that non-Christians do understand them, instead of not writing about them because they don't?

Anonymous said...

I've met more unnatural Christians in my life than I have natural ones.

Maybe the problem isn't our writing.

Tina said...

Michelle, that is so simple it's profound. LOL. You might have a point there...

I think we're all different and we each might feel prone to sort of defend our own way of writing, but Brandilyn has a good point that we should consider both extremes. As writers, do we have a responsibility to make sure we are authentic in our infusion of Christianity in our novels? I know I will certainly be thinking about it as I write my current draft.

Thanks for the topic.

Nicole said...

The Truth is worth telling, portraying accurately (as Mark said "warts and all"), standing up for in the written word. If a person can write at all, he can write secular fiction. What takes the infusion of the Spirit is to tell a story with real characters who either know, need to know, struggle with, argue with, uphold, or discredit our Lord, and to do it well. A huge but worthwhile challenge.
BC has managed to do it a number of times as have others. It's hard to imagine "the world" could be impressed with anything a Christian (PHBs) has to say unless the Spirit draws that person to listen, hear, read, or consider what we have to say. So we have to write what God directs us to write and perhaps He'll use it to do just that.

Robin Lee Hatcher said...

Excellent blog post, Brandilyn.

Here's one thing I've run into. A non-Christian is likely to think a book that accurately portrays a Bible-believing, faith-motivated Christian is "preachy" just because they don't believe anyone actually acts or talks that way. I write Christian characters who are like me and my closest friends and those I know in my church. I don't write to push an agenda or preach the gospel. I create characters who are real to me because I'm around people just like them all the time. But to those who aren't around them all the time, I suspect they roll their eyes and think I have an agenda.

I don't believe we can worry about such things as we write. I believe we have to stay true to the story and true to the characters and let God sort out the rest.

I am called to write stories of truth that will encourage the body of Christ. So that's what I try to do.

Mary said...

I've been thinking of this so much lately...in how some of my favorite authors seem to wield their pens like swords when they focus the real life of their heroines/heroes on the hot issues of today. Take Atonement Child by F. Rivers...wow. She gets it all in there...hypocritical Christians, the struggle to stay true to God, rape/pregnancy/the abortion question and pressures of society...

The awesome thing about Christian writing, is that we not only can showcase Christianity through MC's relationships, we can weave word pictures that have much greater impact than actual preach-speak. We can show our characters making bad decisions (like living with a boyfriend--so prevalant in today's culture) and the consequences can naturally unfold.

I've read PHBs and thought the same thing, Brandilyn. Somehow they just seem like a lost opportunity. But I see Cara's point also, sometimes the preaching or Bible study portions of a fiction book have me scanning ahead. It seems to be a fine art to balance it within fiction. Maybe the difference is, as Michelle said, all about the author's own spiritual walk and how involved they let God be in their work of art.

Gina Holmes said...

I agree with Mary. Peace Like A River did it right. I'm still trying to analyze how he did it exactly but that's what I long to do in my own work.

I don't think every book needs to preach. I liked what Ted Dekker said in his interview. Paraphrase off memory here: Does a painter have to put scripture on his painting? No he paints a rose and that's his worship. Just showing how beatuiful he thinks God's creation is and paying homage to that.

I think just portraying truth can be enough. I've been thinking on this subject a lot lately. My earlier books were very Christianese, truth as I saw it but looking back, maybe too much. Now I may be leaning the other way. I've decided it all gives me a headache. I'm just going to write my story, telling the truth the best I can and what comes, comes.

Great discussion.

Patricia W. said...

I think Robin Lee Hatcher hit the nail on the head. Everyone's perspective is different because we're at different points in our walk. What seems natural to one person comes across as very unnatural to someone else. This is why breadth of characterization is so necessary. That we might show the world that Christians run the spectrum, imperfect people striving to be more like Him. Some strive harder/ more consciously / more frequently than others. We're not perfect. Our writing won't be either.

I would hope that someone who reads a PHB story, assuming the author really did hold back, learns that Christian fiction is not bad. Actually good. Entertaining. Worth reading. And as a result, goes on to read more, some more direct in pointing the way to the cross.

Wren said...

Brandilyn, could we have just read the same book? Yeah, I know, I'm not supposed to guess. Anyway, I just finished a book this last week for CFBA, and came across that very thing. My mother, who is reading the book now and tends to like the same genre I do, asked me, "Does this author even mention God?" I told her about the trend that's happening with PHB's, but I think she's (and I, as well) more of the same opinion as you.

Don't get me wrong, I loved the book. I thought the writing was incredible, and the author did an excellent job of keeping me on my toes. I just thought that maybe the Christian character could have been more forthcoming.

Janet Rubin said...

I hear ya loud and clear! Can't we just be real, darnit?

Bonnie Calhoun said...

LOL..Wren...we read the same book! Nuff said!

I would like to put forward a point that I haven't seen expressed here today. I have seen fiction writers in the CBA, who do not necessarily consider themselves "christian" by our standards.

I saw an interview recently where the gentleman said he published his novel in the CBA because it was an easier market to get into vs the secular publishing field. And during a rather long interview he never mentioned God at all!

And then, on the other hand there are a vastly wide range of opinions on what being a Christian actually entails. Personally I'm evangelical Pentecostal which makes me loud with praise and fast to pray.

That is not always the case with every denomination. So I don't find it so strange that what we consider normal behavior is absent from supposedly christian characters. The writers may just be patterning their characters from their own framework of reference.

Thanks Brandilyn, this is a very thought provoking topic!

John Robinson said...

Interesting post, Brandilyn. You raise some pithy issues, and, like you, I'll admit I'm sketchy on answers. In my Joe Box novels I try (the operative word being "try") to portray him as a conflicted but earnest character. In his new walk the "Christianese" doesn't come naturally; to try to force it in would be well...unnatural.

But let's look at it from a different viewpoint, that of Dean Koontz. Read any of his works from say, the past eight years or so (The Face, One Door Away From Heaven, The Taking, By the Light of the Moon, etc). I'll argue that even though the name of Jesus won't be found in any of them, one would be hard-pressed to find a more solid Christian worldview.

Ah well. As the King said to Anna, "It's a puzzlement." And danged if I have any insights.

johnny dangerous said...

I think we can learn a lot from Catholic fiction writers whose portrayals of believers tend to be rather complex. I'm thinking of Michael O'Brian, William F. Barrett, Morris West, GK Chesterton, Flannery O'Connor - maybe even Graham Greene.