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The Myth of “Secular” Fiction

If some novels are “Christian,” then the rest of them are not. We have chosen to call those “not-Christian” novels “secular.” Secular novels aren’t necessarily bad (in the moral sense), they’re just not “Christian.” Or “Christian” enough.

Early in an author’s career, they are forced to make a choice and decide what kind of novel they will write — “spiritual” or “secular.” For the most part, Christian authors are the only ones faced with such a dilemma. It is a very important decision, one that often defines a writer’s career. Problem is, the line between the “spiritual” and the “secular” is rarely as definitive as we’d like it to be.

Case in point: I recently finished reading a friend of mine’s first novel. It will be released later this year. It is a “secular” novel. However, it was not always a “secular” novel. For a long time, it was a “Christian” novel and passed through the hands of Christian publishers… publishers who eventually deemed it was not “spiritual” enough. So now it’s a “secular” novel, published by a “secular” house, to a bunch of “secular” readers. But this itself is problematic because the novel contains lots of “spiritual” themes. Even though it is “secular.”

And that’s the corner we have forced ourselves into.

Recently, by way of research, I’ve been re-reading C.S. Lewis’ essays on myth. During one such reading I was struck by the overlap of these two topics, how our approach to mythology often mirrors our approach to “secular” art in general.

The C.S. Lewis Institute has distilled the author’s work down to Seven Key Ideas, one of which involves Myth:

Early in C.S. Lewis’s life he noticed the parallels between pagan myths and classic Christianity. In his education it was assumed that the pagan myths were false and Christianity true. Why was this religion–and this one alone–true? This is one factor that led to his unbelief.

He resolved the problem and wrote about myth in a number of places. A key to his resolution was the increased understanding that if God created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure, it is not surprising that patterns reoccur. The only question is, Are any of these myths truer than others or, more precisely, Are any of these myths also fact? He came to believe that Jesus was the “myth become fact.”

Later he defined myth as an “unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” (emphasis mine)

Notice how the exclusivity claim initially turned Lewis off to Christianity. The assumption that “pagan myths were false and Christianity true” did not jive with his experience. A blanket condemnation of all myths — especially myths that are so rich in spiritual allegory — does not do justice to either myth or Christianity. Which is why on Mars Hill (Acts 17), rather than condemn the pagan poets, the apostle Paul quoted them, highlighting elements of their art which corroborated biblical truth. Maintaining a dichotomy between Christianity and myth did not serve the Church’s purpose nor accurately represent God, man or art.

Likewise,  by dividing art into “sacred / secular” camps we do injustice to the nature of man, truth, and art. Because God “created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure,” we should anticipate an “unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination.” Even “secular” imagination can reveal reoccurring God-“patterns.” In other words, if the pagan poets can occasionally “get it,” can’t “secular” authors?

By dividing the “spiritual” and the “secular,” not only do we create potential animosity or suspicion between camps (the same animosity that forced Lewis towards unbelief), we simply miss God’s larger work in the world.

Frederick Buechner wrote, “The world speaks of holy things in the only language it knows, which is worldly language.” Yes, the world “speaks of holy things.” They just use “worldly language.” Instead of posturing ourselves in opposition to the “secular,” Christians would be better off looking for the “unfocused gleam of divine truth” in their eyes. And, occasionally, quoting them.

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Amy @ My Friend Amy August 22, 2010, 7:00 PM

    Excellent post, Mike.

  • Guy Stewart August 22, 2010, 7:10 PM

    Sometimes things seem like a coincidence. I’ve never believed in coincidence…

    Our pastor today preached on a very, very delicate subject but pointed out that as Christians, we have a HUGE amount of trouble presenting a loving face to the world WHILE wielding God’s Word as a sword with the other. Sometimes we wield the sword in wide swaths, cutting down people who need an embrace as well as cutting down the baals around us.

    We are called (I don’t know about being called to be a writer, but that was a different discussion) to serve, we are called to love. We are called to discipline THE CHURCH. Not to discipline the lost (unless…well, that’s another discussion, too). In my writing, secular or sacred, I am called to be a witness. That means to embrace the person and love the sinner; and it means to fight the baals and hate the sin.

    The German pop philosopher, Eckhart Tolle says, ” You are here to enable the divine purpose of the universe to unfold…”

    • Mike Duran August 22, 2010, 7:57 PM

      I appreciate your thoughtful comments, Guy. I’m guilty of “cutting down people who need an embrace.” Yes, I have leveled my share of “baals.” But the collateral damage is probably not worth it.

    • Jessica Thomas August 23, 2010, 7:03 AM

      “We are called to discipline THE CHURCH. Not to discipline the lost…” Very good point. Important to remember. How can we discipline them against a standard they do not yet understand? We need to help the see the truth first.

      p.s. Eckhart Tolle?? Don’t get me started.

  • Dan T. Davis August 22, 2010, 7:14 PM

    Yes, tell me about it. I have written three children’s books, and because they involve the Santa Claus myth, they are BY DEFINITION secular. I have Christians tell me – “how DARE you write about Santa Claus – he destroys the whole concept of what Christmas is about.” I have non-Christians tell me – “how DARE you say things like “Christ’s day” (vs. Christmas – go figure) and include a nativity in your story – this is supposed to be about CHRISTMAS and SANTA CLAUS!”

    So I guess I’ve alienated everyone. Didn’t prevent me from winning a Benjamin Franklin Award, but sure – I often feel like I’m on a battle line, trying to say “hey – why can’t we all get along here?”

    I normally don’t advertise, especially in a blog reply, but you can check out http://www.secondstar.us if you want to see what I’m talking about. (Mike – delete if you hate any advertisement, but for once it applies.)

    Oh, and thanks for Hipster Christianity! Planning to read it soon!

    • Kaci August 25, 2010, 5:25 AM

      Hehe. Well, you can go the literal route and ask them how the Santa Clause thing got started, or you can go down a list of Disney movies, Mother Goose, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

      So much changed when I started treating books the way I do movies.

  • Nicole August 22, 2010, 7:28 PM

    Many, many Christians read secular/general market fiction. Many Christians write novels which could easily be classified as simply “fiction” according to their genres (i.e Tim Downs, Robert Liparulo, Steven James to name a few).

    However, what happens when some militant unbelievers somehow happen to grab a more “Christian” novel? You pointed it out here regarding Jim Rubart’s free Kindle download for his debut novel Rooms.

    It would be nice to “just get along”, but I don’t see it being a primary problem for Christians quite as much as I do for some unbelievers. However, the militants on either side of the aisle, so to speak, (either unbelievers or stubborn Christians) who choose to force their opinions onto the booksellers create the separation of both identity and location of secular v. Christian fiction.

    • Mike Duran August 22, 2010, 8:01 PM

      Nicole, I don’t think it’s “the militants on either side of the aisle” who have created this dichotomy. I believe this is more of a Christian construct.

      • Nicole August 23, 2010, 7:38 AM

        I agree with the you, Mike. Christians created Christian fiction. Maybe they wanted the option to read without swear words and explicit sex which are usually the two main reasons for the original breaking off from “secular” publishing. However, I think it’s more for the freedom to include all kinds of books (fiction and non-fiction) with the evangelical contents, the specifics of redemption, the look at spirituality through the Christian perspective, etc.

        I don’t think the black artists want their fiction placed in the African-American slots in bookstores either, and although some of them write with the intent to capture the voice and substance of the AA viewpoints and cultural takes, separation from mainstream shelving isn’t the desire of many of those authors (within and without the Christian perspective).

        So, as Christian publishing representatives strive to get their books placed within the genre slots along with secular books, and authors like yourself strive to include a large(r) audience of crossover readers, what else can be done?

  • Dan T. Davis August 22, 2010, 8:07 PM

    re “secular fiction” – that’s allowed in public schools. CHRISTIAN fiction is NOT allowed in public schools! So, I guess I am ‘blessed’ in that I can read my stories in public schools to children. My father, before he passed away, arranged for me to read The Blacksmith’s Gift at the school he was subsittute teaching. I showed up, happily ready to read. The teacher confronted me in the hallway. “The principal says “it’s just a story about Santa Claus”, but I see what’s going on. – can you not say “Christ’s day” – say Christmas! and can you leave out the nativity scenes?”

    My reply, “um…. it’s a story about Christmas, but sure – you want me to say Christ’s Mass vs. Christ’s day, and you want to me not mention the nativity, which is what the Christmas holiday represents?”

    “Not Christ’s Mass – krismas! And certainly – any mention of religion isn’t appropriate!”

    Ah. Well.

    • Kaci August 25, 2010, 5:31 AM

      I know a few people who’ve spoken at public schools and somehow gotten around this problem. If you want I can drop them an email.

      So, do these people ever watch Home Alone? Or Home for Christmas? Or Jingle All the Way? Or It’s a Wonderful Life? Maybe…A Charlie Brown Christmas or White Christmas?

      I guess you could refer to it as “the holiday story” (Wait, holiday derives from “holy day,” so maybe it should be “the winter solstice story.” Actually, that’s my favorite part about ‘Happy Holidays’ over ‘Merry Christmas.’ *snicker* )

      Hey, I’m just sayin’. I’m an equal opportunist (although usually a little nicer to non-Christians).

  • Janie August 22, 2010, 8:11 PM

    You are right: the “exclusivity” assumed by the Christian fiction label is astounding in its arrogance! There’s a lot more middle ground than what that label suggests.

  • Dan T. Davis August 22, 2010, 8:12 PM

    Mike, if secular fiction vs. Christian fiction is a Christian construct (and I disagree), then it is a defense mechanism. I have run into many areas where I (even as a so-called secular writer) have been confronted as a “hiding Christian writer” who is trying to subjugate young minds. And you know what? Maybe I am. I’m simply trying to tell a GOOD STORY, and it happens to involve Christian principles and thoughts. And yes – it invites controversy.

    Your thoughts?

    • Mike Duran August 23, 2010, 5:24 AM

      Dan, that’s a big question. There is no doubt, in the marketplace, suspicion and animosity exists toward Christians. We can either complain about it or temper our “message.” Or live in a cocoon. If we stand on “principle” and refuse to compromise our “message” then we should expect to lose the ear of the general market reader. Which we have.

      Yes, culture has become more secularized. But some of that is due to the withdrawal of the Church. I know some argue for the reverse, that it was culture that pushed Christians out. But I don’t think the historical record supports that position. And if the intensity of our defense for Christian art is any indication, we are the ones keeping the dichotomy in play.

      Bottom line: Building bridges should occur on our side of aisle. If we want to reach a secular culture, we simply need to be more nuanced and temper our message; approach our art differently. And this is what defenders of the Christian genre have a problem with. Personally, I think it is more advantageous to have Christian authors whose books are “spiritually” ambiguous in the general market, than Christian authors preaching to the choir. A good Christian in the mainstream market is better than a good “Christian” book on the fringes.

      • Dan T. Davis August 23, 2010, 8:40 PM

        Well, then thumbs up to me.

        I’m a Johnny Appleseed spreading Christian seeds, but carefully not offending anyone. Good for me!

        Of course, I still offend someone here and there – unavoidable.

  • Dan T. Davis August 22, 2010, 8:15 PM

    Janie – I will agree with you that anyone “claiming” the “Christian fiction” label is arrogant in that. There is tons of middle ground.

    Still, you get labeled – even if you claim nothing. The labels come from both the extreme non-Christian labelers as well as the extreme Christian labelers. It’s hard not to get labeled when you are in the middle.

  • Suzan August 23, 2010, 4:21 AM

    I understand the reasons why the CBA was created, but I wish they hadn’t done it.
    I believe that all truth is God’s truth, and we can find truth in the most surprising places.
    Great post, Mike.

  • Kevin Lucia August 23, 2010, 5:34 AM

    Mike –

    Don’t have much more to say that wouldn’t parrot your post, I’ll read it later, get back…

  • Kevin Lucia August 23, 2010, 5:51 AM

    ” A good Christian in the mainstream market is better than a good “Christian” book on the fringes.”

    This weekend I’ll be at Context: http://www.contextsf.org/ and the following weekend Horrorfind: http://www.horrorfindweekend.com/, serving on panels, signing and reading from my work. Both are decidedly secular cons, with all the trappings. The burden will be on me to act in a manner that is honoring to God and my wife/family.

    I won’t be handing out tracts. Or distributing literature. Or waving my Bible. Or witnessing or slinging around my testimony. My fiction at this juncture is decidedly secular. However, how I act, speak, interact with others and conduct myself will be there for everyone to see.

    I don’t know if consider myself a “good Christian” in the secular market, because I don’t want to be presumptuous about how “good” I am. But I’ll be there. And maybe people will see a difference. Maybe they won’t. But whether the see or not isn’t up to me. How I act? That is.

  • Jessica Thomas August 23, 2010, 6:54 AM

    I studied Joseph Campbell my freshman year in college. Ironically (perhaps) it led me to understand how Christianity could be the one truth. To me, the common themes in the myths seemed to be the human psyche searching for truth and in the process, getting it *sort of* right here and there.

    When I compared the myths (including other world religions) and the common questions they were attempting to answer, I found Christianity answered those questions the best, by far. I haven’t studied C.S. Lewis, so I was unaware he’d gone through the same mental acrobatics…and eventually came to the same conclusion. That’s very exciting to me, actually. I thought maybe I was just *weird*. (Like when one of my philosophy professors asked, “how many of you think truth is relative” and I was the only one who didn’t raise my hand…”)

    I understand what you are saying about the Christian/secular divide in regards to art. It’s something I’ve been wrestling with for awhile. In terms of my own writing, I’ve decided not to view either side as the antagonist. If my writing finds a place in CBA, that’s where it’s meant to be. If it finds a home elsewhere, that’s where it’s meant to be.

    I do find it *interesting* that the secular side of things is more courageous in terms of accepting material that is spiritual. For awhile, I automatically dismissed the secular market, thinking…my novel has Christian themes, they’re not going to want it. Now I’m realizing that’s not necessarily true.

    Last thing, I’ve been approaching my marketing very carefully. Perhaps it’s silly, perhaps not, but I’m trying to make my novel accessible to both markets. Now, lets see who (if anyone) bites.

    • Mike Duran August 23, 2010, 7:40 AM

      Jessica, I’ve approached the market similar to you, trying not to view either side as “antagonistic,” just writing my story and seeing where the chips fall. In “The Resurrection,” I purposely avoided Christianese, portrayed the believers as very human, and even allowed the antagonists to rail against organized religion, without much rebuttal. But I did not shy away from “spiritual” themes. (Interestingly enough, at the heart of that story is a ongoing discussion about Christianity and myth.)

      You said: “I do find it *interesting* that the secular side of things is more courageous in terms of accepting material that is spiritual.” This is a very good point. It could be argued that “money” is the primary reason for this. Secular publishers are less motivated by a novel’s underlying worldview than they are whether or not it can sell. I don’t know if that makes Christian publishers more principled, but it does reveal the different “risks” publishers on either side will afford.

      And you must read Lewis’ thoughts on myth. What he considered his best work of fiction, “Till We Have Faces,” is the retelling of a myth.THIS ARTICLE in Christianity Today is a good primer.

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Kaci August 25, 2010, 5:37 AM

        Huh. I didn’t know that about Till We Have Faces.

        Promise I’m not trying to be coy, but I’m slowly developing my own ideas on this subject; we’ll see what comes out.

  • R. L. Copple September 4, 2010, 10:04 AM

    I’ve written on a foundational level about the secular divide, and how that has pushed a lot of Christians out of the arts, as in there are groups who believe that Christians shouldn’t write or read fantasy, for instance. My point is that having this underlying “Christian vs. Secular” divide portrays a God who not only keeps His hands off some areas and people, but also sets up a “reality” that God has little to no control over. Like magic, for instance.

    When I became a Christian in 1976, I stopped reading science fiction and fantasy, only listened to Christian music (but I’m sure I drank milk from a secular cow…for you Steve Taylor fans), primarily because I didn’t want negative influences in my life. As I later revealed, some of the theology in this Christian songs and writings were probably more damaging than any secular message I could have received, and which I could have identified more easily as “wrong.”

    But the point is that there were scads of people like me as the 70s rolled along and it became clear to the music folk, the publishers, that there was a market there that justified targeting. Other religions don’t get that treatment simply because their nitch market never became that big. There’s just not a huge demand for safe Buddhist music, for instance. If one developed, you can bet they would have their own shelves at a B&N.

    But I would lay claim that it is market driven, but market driven by a large number of Christians who want “safe” (whatever their definition of that might be) entertainment. If that market wasn’t there, we’d be fighting it out among the “secular” crowd and publishers.

    What it boils down to is the market is what the market is. Decide which you write for and go for it. Or shoot right in the middle and hope to start a trend (always a risky move, but you never know, some grow their own market).

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  • Jane February 10, 2013, 5:51 AM

    Is a tree secular? Is a book on dog training “not Christian”, even though we are taught to be stewards of the animals. My logic is that if a human wrote it, then the writing was done by something God created. The question is not is it Christian, but rather, is it religious. If the content would be pleasing to God, and it is written by a human ;-), then it is in God’s image. It does NOT have to have religion attached to it to reflect God.

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