Recently on an author e-mail loop someone raised the question about the spiritual message in Christian fiction. The writer wondered if the message should be "hidden" in order to better reach non-Christians. This writer's manuscript, as described, had little Christian message until the very last. That tactic had been criticized. Still, the writer wanted to create a story that would be entertaining to Christians and non-Christians alike. Was it wrong to take the tactic of saving the message until the end?
The question received many answers. This one from Randy Ingermanson I particularly liked and am running it here with his permission.
WARNING LABEL: My response may make some people angry. My response is my opinion only. My response may even be wrong. Read at your own risk.
This is a little like the question, "Should I write a romance novel or an action-adventure novel?" This presupposes that there is one and only one right answer to the question. There isn't. You can write a fine and excellent romance novel, and it's going to appeal to a certain class of reader. You can write a fine and excellent action-adventure novel, and it's going to appeal to a very different class of reader.
There will be some small amount of overlap between those two classes, but not a lot. So the real question is what kind of book you actually want to write, because either is a valid choice. If you prefer to write romance, then write romance. If you prefer to write action-adventure, then write that.
The hazard is to try to write a book that is secretly an action-adventure novel, but which pretends to be a romance novel for the first 90% of the book. You may "know" in your heart that all those pesky romance readers "ought" to like action-adventure. You may decide that you'll sneak in all your action-adventure at the end, after luring them in with a book that's mostly romance. You can do that, and if you do, your readers are going to justly complain that you switched genres at the end. They're going to think you're a very lame author. They'll be right.
If you do the opposite, and write a book that's mostly action-adventure, but then at the end, you shoehorn in a gushy romance ending, because "it's good for your reader," then once again, your readers will think you're very lame. And once again they'll be right.
If you're going to write a "message" novel, then write a message novel and don't hide it till the end. Jerry Jenkins and Tim LaHaye wrote a whole slew of message novels, and they did very well, and a fair number of non-Christians read those books. Jerry and Tim didn't try to deceive anyone by hiding the message. They made sure it was blatantly obvious. They were right to do so.
Likewise, Dan Brown wrote a message novel (The Da Vinci Code) that appealed to an entirely different core audience. Dan's message was clear and blatant from the beginning: "Everything you ever believed about Jesus is wrong." Dan did pretty well with that novel, and a fair number of Christians have read it. His book even inspired a whole genre of nonfiction books that center around the theme, "Everything Dan Brown believes about Jesus is wrong."
What Jerry and Tim didn't try to do is to write a novel that is overtly and blatantly Christian until the ending, at which point they reveal the hidden message that everything people believe about Jesus is wrong.
And Dan Brown didn't write a novel that was overtly and blatantly revisionist until the ending, at which point he revealed that, hey, it was all a joke and the real hidden message is that you need Jesus or you're going to hell.
Readers dislike being misled about theme, and rightly so. (They don't mind being misled about plot or characters, so long as you mislead them honestly.)
A novel that is neither fish nor fowl is both foul and fishy.
>But if I write Christian fiction for people who are already Christians... isn't that... lacking, somehow? >
Randy sez: Why? Are Christians such complete and perfect people that they don't ever need to be entertained with good, powerful, fiction designed for them? Are non-Christians the only people who need entertainment?
On a related note, is it OK to deceive non-Christians by snookering them into reading a book with a Christian message, but hiding that fact till the end? Will a book like that send the meta-message that Christians are willing to lie to make converts?
One final note: I have nothing against a novel with a deep, subtle meaning which needs to be dug out. But you need to do the thing honestly. If you don't know the deep, subtle meaning of the book before you start writing it, and you discover the true deep, subtle meaning of the book as you write it and rewrite it and rewrite it, well then you've done the thing honestly.
But if you go into the story right from the get-go, and you already know the deep, subtle meaning of the thing, and you hang the plot and the characters on it so they exactly fit that deep, subtle meaning, then at the end of the day, when the book is done, the theme will be neither deep nor subtle and the only person you will have fooled is . , . you.
And while it's merely wrong to deceive your reader, it's lunacy to deceive yourself.
What do you think about Randy's statements?
Last week when I ran the February list of Today's Word I promised to choose a winner from those who used at least six of the words in a sentence. That winner is Donna De, with this sentence:
You didn't have to be LYNCEAN to see that the PHILTER didn't work, as he jumped up from the SUBSELLIUM in angry EBULLITION, his arms and head all QUAQUAVERSAL--but what else should I have expected considering the CADUCITY of the gypsy DOYENNE who concocted the brew.
Donna, congrats. Please contact me with your address for your free copy of Exposure.