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Do “Christian” Awards Limit or Extend the Reach of Christian Novels?

A new Christian Award has been announced —  The INSPY Awards — and I must say, I love the logo, the idea behind it, and the blogger who’s launched the campaign. The INSPYs are the brainchild of Amy Riley, of My Friend Amy, creator of the popular Book Blogger Appreciation Week. (In fact, I’ll be interviewing Amy this Wednesday regarding some of the issues raised in this post, so make sure to check back in.)

While the INSPYs are different in that they accept nominations of “books aimed at the Christian bookstore market as well as those from the general market” (a welcome feature that distinguishes the INSPYs from other Christian awards), they are part of a growing move to recognize and honor quality stories of faith.

However, as much as I support faith-driven fiction, I often wonder if Christian awards limit rather than further the reach of Christian novels.

Several years ago, in my Thoughts on the Christy Awards 2008, I wrestled with this same topic. Like The Dove Awards (for Christian music), the Christy Awards exist, in their own words, “to recognize novelists and novels of excellence in several genres of Christian fiction.” The Christy’s are kind of the Christian equivalent of a National Book Critics Award or a Pulitzer. But in this case, it is believers honoring their own. As I said in that post:

I often wonder that awards like the Dove and the Christy do little to actually further our Christian witness or win us “airtime” in the secular marketplace. Some will say that’s not the objective anyway, that these books are aimed at church-goers. But this means we’re, potentially, just talking to ourselves and we’ve lost the ear of the culture at large. Face it, excellence in Christian Fiction only matters to Christians.

Readers of this blog know how much I struggle with the strictures and configuration of the Christian fiction market. On the one hand, I deeply want to see Christian authors and faith-driven lit advance. Heck, I’m writing it! On the other hand, I fear that the “Christian” label quarantines our community, pigeon-holes our authors, and prohibits our “message” from getting to those who really need to hear it. By aiming almost entirely at church-goers, we inadvertently narrow the boundaries of what Christan art is or is expected to be. Subsequently, an author’s stories, as good or well-crafted as they may be, because they are not openly evangelistic or do not adhere to conservative religious guidelines, may not be considered christian. Which is why many thoughtful artists intentionally distance themselves from the Christian subculture.

So while “Christian awards” affirm the faith community, they potentially bolster a sacred / secular divide. And in my opinion, Christians are the ones who should seek to bridge rather than bolster this divide.

Which is one reason I believe the INSPY Awards are a step in the right direction. By broadening the focus from exclusively CBA / ECPA fare, the INSPYs are able to highlight a larger spectrum of authors and stories, some of which may be under the “Christian” radar. I liken the Award’s intent to the  Arts and Faith Top 100 Spiritually Significant Films list. Author and film critic Jeffrey Overstreet defined the Arts and Faith catalog in this way, “The Arts and Faith Top 100 Films is a list of films characterized both by artistic excellence and a serious wrestling with questions that at root might be called religious or spiritual.” Similarly, from the INSPY purpose:

The INSPYs were created to select and showcase books with the highest literary standards that grapple with the Christian faith. (emphasis mine)

“Wrestling with questions.” “Grappling with faith.” This is one of the reasons we read. And write. Yet so many of these books get passed over by Christian readers simply because they are not packaged as “Christian.” Equally are readers who like faith-driven fiction, but who find the “typical” Christian fiction fare unpalatable. Both these groups need engaged. Which is why I’m cautiously optimistic about the INSPY Awards and the divide they are seeking to bridge.

(And don’t forget, this Wednesday I’ll be interviewing Amy Riley, who will tackle some of these tough issues.)

* * *

So what do you think? Do Christian awards limit or further the reach of Christian novels? Are we losing the ear of our culture and isolating ourselves from the mainstream of readers by emphasizing the “faith” elements of our stories? Or do you think Christians should be cultivating a sacred / secular divide?

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • A. J. Walker July 12, 2010, 12:18 AM

    I would like my testimony as an author to be that I write for the Lord, therefore, anyone who eventually picks up one of my novels will know that coming in the door. I’d consider it an honor as part of my witness to be known as a Christian author.

    I think it’s analogous to having your co-workers and your neighbors and your family knowing you are a Christian. You’re always there, not creepy and they may even like talking with your from time to time. And, maybe, just maybe, one day, the Lord would see fit for you to be the one to plant a seed, water the seed or reap the harvest.

    Only God knows what’s to come, but what we do know is they can’t do that if you stuff your candle beneath a bushel.

    My two cents anyway.

    • Mike Duran July 12, 2010, 6:01 AM

      Thanks for your thoughts, A.J. I’m not suggesting we hide our candle underneath a bushel, but just admit that a good Christian witness isn’t always one that has to announce itself. There is subtlety, nuance, and tact to getting our message into the world. I think the same is true for our stories. Of course there must be times when a Christian author articulates their beliefs. A writer who claims to be a believer but refuses to speak about it deserves suspicion. But just because a Christian author does not announce themselves as such or spike their stories with explicit Gospel references does not mean they have denied Christ or something.

      I’ve always liked how the Apostle Peter put it: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (I Pet. 3:15). I think it’s significant that we’re told to be ready to give an “answer” when people “ask.” In other words, our lives (like our stories) should provoke thought, interest, and questions. People are far more willing to listen when they “intuit” our message, rather than it being forced upon them. Yes, Jesus called us “the light of the world.” But we must remember that light is seen and not heard.

      Once again, I appreciate your comments here, A.J.

  • Anon. July 12, 2010, 4:29 AM

    To answer your question: Yes, Christian awards are more for the benefit of Christians than the general reading public. Do they help Christian authors get recognition outside of their narrow subculture? Possibly. Not through the awards themselves but by being recognized by more readers (even if they are just Christians).

  • Kat Heckenbach July 12, 2010, 6:26 AM

    I suppose we need to consider whether the secular public even recognizes an award like the Christy. And does it matter if they do or not, when the book in question is only found in a Christian book store or the Christian section of a larger book store?

    Maybe it will make a difference to someone shopping online, who sees “award winner” even if they don’t recognize the award. Or maybe it will function as another tag that lets the reader know it’s a Christian book, and they think to themselves, “Wow, it won an award in the Christian community–it must be *really* preachy.”

    I, personally, have never paid attention to the Christy awards. I honestly couldn’t tell you if any of the books on my shelf have won or not–with the exception of one title–a book I bought based on rave reviews before it won the award, and I didn’t like the book at all. I’d wager that some of the other books I own have won, but that designation means nothing to me.

  • Jessica Thomas July 12, 2010, 7:08 AM

    I think there is naturally a divide because of stark differences in philosophy but we shouldn’t create a cultural divide to the point where we appear to the secular world as a nothing more than an exclusive “club”. I’ve seen evidence of that in Christian media, and it’s probably why I’ve been a little turned off to it as of late.

    I know people who will flatly reject a book or band simply because it’s labeled Christian. They have misconceptions of the faith and the church. Right or wrong, we won’t reach those people under the label “Christian”. We have to offer them the good news first, prove to them that it really is good news. Only then *might* they consider stepping under the banner of Christianity.

  • Nicole July 12, 2010, 7:24 AM

    “Do Christian awards limit or further the reach of Christian novels? Are we losing the ear of our culture and isolating ourselves from the mainstream of readers by emphasizing the “faith” elements of our stories? Or do you think Christians should be cultivating a sacred / secular divide? ”

    I don’t think Christian awards do either. As Kat demonstrated, even some Christians don’t acknowledge or care about the awards. I know I’ve scratched my head a few times over some of the winners of the Christy, and rarely do they influence my reading choices.

    We have to write the stories given us to tell. To eliminate or strongly diminish the faith elements to appeal to the culture means what exactly? Keep the faith elements mysterious, underlying, suggestive, in the background, absent? It can be done but will it matter? The Holy Spirit is the one who draws people to investigate the Lord. If we could do it through our writing, wow. While our writing could be used or chosen by the Spirit, it’s His call. If He chooses to use art of any kind, or the universe, or a kind act, it’s all Him. To write what He gives us is our part.

    No. The divide is there, like it or not. For me or against me, Jesus said. Cultivating that divide is not an option. However, once again, we act in obedience in our writing as in all other things. If we write primarily for the Christian market, fine. If not, fine. Whatever the Lord wants from us, we must do.

    • Mike Duran July 12, 2010, 8:08 AM

      Nicole, I’m not sure I understand. Are you saying Christians should nurture a divide, or that biblical themes can’t be nuanced?

      I recently re-watched Cuarón’s “Children of Men.” It’s really a great film. The first time I saw it, I was so intrigued with its message about the fragility and preciousness of human life, especially amidst horrific violence and inhumanity. I went home and researched the author, P.D. James, and was not surprised to learn she was a Christian. (Interestingly enough, even Wikipedia classifies the book as Christian fiction / allegory. In fact, the author refers to her story as a “Christian fable”. ) How many of her readers (or those who saw the film) know the author’s religious persuasion? I don’t know. Do they need to? But a very “Christian” element is embedded therein. All that to say, when it comes to art, I don’t believe that “divide” needs to be as stark as you suggest. It’s as “Christian” a message as I can imagine. Sadly, because of some language and nudity, it will never win any “Christian” awards.

      Thanks for commenting, Nicole! I appreciate your readership.

  • Nicole July 12, 2010, 8:54 AM

    I’m certainly not saying that Christians should nurture a divide–and normally we’re not the ones who do in life situations. Example: when my husband and I got saved from the drugs, sex, rock-n-roll culture, all of our friends suddenly kept their distance. Gradually, they “returned” to friendship when they realized we weren’t going to shove Jesus down their throats but neither were we going to get blasted with them anymore.

    And I definitely think biblical themes can be nuanced, but if we’re counting on our “nuancing” to reach the lost, we shouldn’t. Who but God knows what will reach the lost? If it’s our nuances to faith, hurray! God is in charge of that. I simply think both kinds of authors who are Christians need to write what God tells them to write.

    • Morgan Busse June 27, 2011, 1:43 PM

      I agree with Amy, we need both kinds of Christian writers (I actually have 3 categories: writing for CBA, ABA, and those bridge the two).

      Not only do we need to write for the lost, I believe we need to write for Christians as well. Not clean fiction, but convicting fiction.

      Here is a quote by Mark Driscoll. It was aimed at pastors, but I think it can apply to Christian writers as well:

      “So, you have to preach against BOTH sin and religion. Sinners need to repent of sin and religious people need to repent of their man made rules, traditions, holier than thou-isms, and calling things sinful that only their conscience and not the Word of God forbids.”

      I write for the religious people, not to assuage their conscious but to remind them, encourage them, or perhaps convict them. The Christian life isn’t about living clean, its about living bold, scary, sacrificial lives. Its about loving the lost, giving up what we cannot keep to gain what we cannot lose, and letting God’s light (not our “clean living”) shine through.

      That’s why I would not say I write Christian fiction, I write for a Christian audience. To peel back religiosity and remind them what it really means to follow God. And if a non-Christian reads my book, then I hope they will see a genuine follower of God.

      • Morgan Busse June 27, 2011, 1:50 PM

        Er, I’m about a year late posting this 🙂 But that’s okay 🙂

  • Jen July 12, 2010, 9:17 AM

    I do think it is a dillema. Any time you narrow recognition down to a specific group for whatever reason (ethnicity, religion, genre, gender) you kind of separate that group from the mainstream. It probably is good for christians to honor achievements in their field. But it does narrow their audience.

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