Monday, March 08, 2010

Should the Message Be Hidden?

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.


Timothy Fish said...

I agree with Randy in saying that we shouldn't attempt to write a book that looks like one thing and then switch near the end to get our message in there. However, I think his romance/action-adventure analogy is off base. A "message book" is not a genre that we choose to write for or not. The fact is that every book has a message of some kind. A good book has one underlying message that influences the story. It is so engrained in the story that the reader gets the message without feeling preached to. When we try to write a "non-christian book" and then throw in a christian message at the end, what we are doing is writing a book with multiple messages, one christian and the other non-christian. We are sending mixed signals and that just leaves the reader confused and maybe even offended.

Annette W. said...

I think that Christians need not only to be entertained, but encouraged, convicted, and inspired through Christian fiction.

You could even take this argument and apply it to Christian music. Whether it is rock, rap, or country, it is the MESSAGE (lyrics or manuscript) that make it Christian. And most people have a preference to style. We don't all sing hymns as we clean...nor do we all rap a beat either.

I think the message throughout is needed. Like you said, noone likes a surprise.

Jason said...

I don't know where I would fall on the spectrum for everything but here's my place on it. I think the question itself is flawed in a way. If you want to write a novel with a Christian message and do it in a way that's not sticking it in the reader's face then go for it. The key is consistency in how you deliver the message.

My WIP that I'm refining now is a serial killer thriller with a pastor as one of the main characters. There's no outright sermons in the book but the pastor does mention Scripture and his faith in Jesus as he deals with the detective investigating the crimes. It fits with the character of a pastor firm in his faith and allows me to put Christian messages into the book while the main thrust of the book itself is the suspenseful story. There's no salvation scene for an unsaved character...but the pastor keeps his faith through tough trials.

A non-Christian could see a message of a man who lives out his convictions. They might see someone delusional who should just tell God to shove it but it still would elicit a reaction other than "he's preaching at me." The Christian would see the obvious lessons in the pastor living his faith...and interacting with the world in a way that he doesn't compromise it.

I see my book as having a solid Christian message but not necessarily a "Christian" book. I wrote the story and designed the characters to fit it. Be true to the characters, be true to the story and you can find a way to get some truth out to someone who's not a believer.

Diane Markins said...

As a writer of nonfiction but a reader of fiction, I can only say that I'm simply delighted that there are finally some good Christian fiction books being produced. Whether there is a conversion experience depicted, or a crime solved, if there are characters who tend to be flawed but faith-filled, I'm sold. I'm truly just interesting in good writing with an engaging plot and strong dialogue. I'll read a devotional or Bible study if I need more inspiration or direction than that. I also believe nonChristians are more likely to dig a big deeper if they find a good fiction author who isn't trying to sneak up and catch them.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I also think the question is flawed, but (sorry, Randy) I find the answer wanting, too.

The question shows, in my opinion, a lack of understanding about how an author should craft a theme. Too often, those who believe a message in fiction is OK, seem to think that means it should appear out front and in the open.

But authors who craft their themes with skill are not deceiving anyone or spattering the reader with the theme fragments in the end.

Theme is integral to the story and should be woven into the character arc, the setting, the plot points. For a good discussion of this, I recommend John Truby's The Anatomy of Story, particularly the chapter called "Moral Argument."


Daniel Smith said...

"We must attack the enemy's line of communication. What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects--with their Christianity latent." - C. S. Lewis, Christian Apologetics

Definition of "Latent": Existing or present but concealed or inactive (Wiktionary)

Silverbill said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Silverbill said...

I am on a different road. Finished reading a YA fantasy a short time ago that paid minimal lip service to the Lord. Then wham, bam, slam the last few pages dumped a very serious message and concept of servant hood and predestination!!! I am not in favor switching as has been mentioned. However, I am also not in favor the total "snookering" of the gospel message at the end of a book. Yes after several days Lord, I still have my grump on, but I am praying more for the readers than the writer is.

Mike Duran said...

I tend to agree with several others here who think the question is flawed. Defining Christian fiction in terms of "message" needlessly constricts the stories Christians write and potentially elevates one aspect (i.e. "message") as preeminent. Is there such a thing as Christian fiction without a "message"? If not, then it's safe to say that Christian fiction is primarily "message" (not story) driven. The story is just a vehicle for the "message." If so, then a particular "message" may become negotiable. Interesting post, Brandilyn.

Daniel Smith said...

I've already posted a quote from C. S. Lewis that I think speaks to the heart of this issue, but something more just occurred to me.

A related but unstated question to the one posed here is: What makes something Christian to begin with? And the answer is that only humans can be Christian. Therefore, a book can neither be Christian nor not (and you must have Christianity to have a message). A book can certainly be written by a Christian in the pursuit of their Christianity, but can it be Christian in and of itself (as-it-were, divorced from it's author)? "No, it can't" I say. Thus this depends on the author.

Yet this begs another question: Can a Christian "mute" their Christianity in their writing? I say the answer is also "no". If it were possible, then that person's salvation decision would be in question. So therefore, there must always be a message - whether it is emphasized as a major part of the story or de-emphasized and play a minor role depends on the story and the author writing it.

In conclusion, perhaps there is no right answer to the posted question. Maybe God is OK with both hidden messages and overt ones. Hmmm...

Jessie at Blog Schmog said...

Do the thing honestly. I think that's they key.

Christ modeled story telling and some people simply didn't get it. Many people were angry at him for not saying the things that were religiously expected. He was everything but deceptive but many did not receive his message.

He never hid the truth but He didn't always "preach it brother".

Funny enough a Bible story just came to mind where a man whose life message was overtly anti God suddenly did the "switch" and in a night started preaching everywhere about God's love.

I wonder how Saul's followers felt about his new "genre" as Paul the devout Christian.

I guess I just answered and then un-answered! :)

Silverbill said...

I think Jessie is getting close to what our consensus might be. I life message and having the mind of Christ is what we are called for. A plot comes from the character of the author and the author's inspiration comes from a heart washed by the blood. Therefore, we trust the messenger to deliver the message.

Linda Rader said...

Instead of a message a story should have a theme and the theme is intergral to the plot. The most religious fiction I ever read was Uncle Tom's Cabin where one routed for the religious and for God's intervention. It was an inescapable part of the characters and the action of the plot.

But a romance novel already has one message: love conquerors all. Two might be hard to manage in the same book.