Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction

by Mike Duran · 168 comments

Behind the Christian fiction debate is two different paradigms, two contrasting views of Christianity. In one sense, those views are theological. But in another sense, they are cultural. In other words, the reasons Christians can’t agree about what Christian fiction should be is because they don’t agree about what Christianity is and what its followers should be.

I realize what I’m about to say is pretty simplistic, even potentially divisive. But the more I watch the debate unfold, the more I get the sense we’re talking past each other, employing two different sets of terminology. As a result, we’re seeing the emergence of two camps. I’ll call them The Holiness Camp and The Honesty Camp.

  • The Holiness Camp — These writers / readers emphasize our separation from the world; we are saints and our conduct, values, and entertainment should be categorically different from secular society. Thus, we should critique the world, avoid what is impure and have no fellowship with darkness, either philosophically or culturally. This separation should be reflected in our stories. Law is the driving principle of those in the Holiness Camp.
  • The Honesty Camp — These writers / readers emphasize our association with the world; we are all sinners and sin takes on monstrous forms. Thus, we should engage the world, identify with the fallen, look with unflinching candor and deep empathy upon the wreckage of humanity and its redemptive struggle. This should be reflected in our stories. Truth is the driving principle of those in the Honesty Camp.

It’s a simplistic division, granted, and can easily be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as an unjust stereotype of either side. Of course, it’s not to suggest that writers who emphasize Holiness avoid honesty, or that those who value Honesty are somehow unholy. It’s just my way of trying to think this through. Nevertheless, I believe this classification accurately captures a polarization occurring within the market of Christian readers and writers.

As long as there are two camps, two intrinsically different views about what Christianity is and what its followers should be, there will be a demographic of Christian readers who are outside the camp. For the most part, the Holiness Camp has been the one to define what Christian fiction is. Which forces lots of writers and readers outside.

If you think about it, many of the objections to mainstream Christian fiction have to do with cultural preferences and codes of conduct (i.e. cursing, smoking, drinking, sex, etc.), and expectations about what Christian art should accomplish (i.e. glorify God, offer hope, offer an alternative, condemn sin, illustrate Scripture, etc.). The two camps hold fundamentally different views regarding  what their art should accomplish.

Martin Luther once said: “It is better to think of church in the ale-house than to think of the ale-house in church.” Whereas some believers want to take our light to the ale-house, others aim to shut down all ale-houses. Likewise, some Christian writers and readers approach art as a means to leave the ale-house. Others view their art as a means to engage the ale-house.

Both sides have problems. The Holiness Camp is potentially cloistered in their own Geneva, drifting further from the world we’re called to influence, hedged in by their own theology and “thou-shalt-nots.” We are so busy straining at gnats (like whether or not we can say “damn” in our stories) that we’re swallowing camels. Conversely, people in the Honesty Camp can be viewed as worldly, compromised, sellouts. Our liberalism regarding Christian Fiction is proportional to our moral laxness. We are so busy trying to engage the world that we have become like them. We are prone to theological murkiness and our stories are little different from those of the secular marketplace. And thus, the standoff.

Though many suggest there is a balance between “safe” and “edgy” Christian fiction, what’s ultimately at odds is our theology. The two camps hold fundamentally different conceptions about God, the world, and our relationship with it. One seeks to critique the world and separate the Church, while the other seeks to contribute to the world and bring the Church to it.

But as long as we Christians define our witness primarily in terms of Law — no cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, or sex — and see our fiction as a tool to perpetuate those values, we are destined for tension. Go ahead, call me carnal and worldly. But after all is said and done, the debate about Christian fiction is not about fiction at all — it’s about the nature of Christian witness.

T. Forkner May 26, 2011 at 6:27 AM

It IS a simplistic division, but I get your meaning. The debate isn’t about fiction as much as it is about rules. I want to focus on the STORY.

Carradee May 26, 2011 at 6:51 AM

Well said.

I remember reading a review of one Christian sci-fi novel that was appalled at the addiction element and character chemistry. I found that novel refreshing, because the characters weren’t perfect cardboard cutouts. They were wrong, right, foolish — they had realistic flaws. It was tactful, didn’t go into gross detail, but one main character had a serious addiction problem and succumbed at least once, that I recall.

Look, I like tact. I don’t even mind if an author obviously thinks certain items sin that I and my church believe are matters of Christian liberty when kept in moderation.

I mind when grown characters, particularly ones that are supposed to be paradigms of rationality, act like whiny children, on par with “You shouldn’t do that! I’m telling Daddy!”

If you want to only read crisp-clean things that show Christians as perfect, be my guest. See, lover of crispy-clean, I understand that you find your books uplifting.

I find ’em darn depressing. We aren’t perfect. We have temptation. We have addictions, even if it’s only to salt or sugar or caffeine — which, yes, damage your body in excessive quantities, just like, oh, cocaine.

But then, I’m also the type of person who prefers gothic, symphonic, and punk music when I’m happy. If I’m listening to the cheery teen girly pop, I’m probably upset or depressed. (“Gothic” tends to mean “interested in death and what comes after”. I prefer that over focused-on-this-life-@#$@#!-the-next-one, thanks.)

*points to Genesis, Judges, and Song of Solomon*

Jenni N May 26, 2011 at 6:58 AM

I’ve run into a lot of this in the indie Christian filmmaking circles. (outside hollywood versus inside hollywood) Drives me nuts because of the bitterness that occurs between the two camps.

I tend to naturally gravitate towards the Holiness Camp when I write because it’s the way I was raised: but the Honest Camp is the one that actually produces stories that resonate with me. It’s where I want to write. I just tend to be scared of it.

Heather Sunseri May 26, 2011 at 7:00 AM

“But as long as we Christians define our witness primarily in terms of Law — no cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, or sex — and see our fiction as a tool to perpetuate those values, we are destined for tension.”

Exactly!!!! Well, said, Mike!

Nathan May 26, 2011 at 7:11 AM

Mike, I think you pretty well nailed it. And I think the key to ultimately figuring this whole thing out…is a key that isn’t figured out easily at all. On the one hand, Jesus prayed in John 17 that God would not take us disciples out of the world but would instead protect us from the evil one. On the other hand, Paul tells us that everything we do should be done in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ. So how do we as Christians do this: how do we make art in the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ without taking ourselves out of the world in a way Jesus never intended. There’s a lot of tension here, but I think it’s a good tension to wrestle with; it prevents an easy answer. It forces us to ponder, think, reflect, and pray instead of just “tossing” out an easy answer. For me, I’ve discovered that as I read more mainstream fiction of varying genres, my mind has become more free to see interesting story ideas wherever they may be found. Last night I came up with a speculative fiction idea involving July 4. There’s nothing inherently Christian about it that I can see necessarily, so does this mean I shouldn’t write it? I hope not. Especially since the idea came about as the result of a Christian reflecting on something that troubles him about society. Where does this leave me? Still wrestling.

Susie Finkbeiner May 26, 2011 at 7:14 AM

{Sigh} This is so very true. Sad, really.

I think that my issues with this whole issues is that it obscures why we’re choosing to write Christian fiction. Is it to gain an audience? Get nominated for a Christy? Find a spot on a shelf at Barnes & Nobel? Allow the reader to escape the funk of the world?

OR…are we in this to point to Jesus?

CJ May 26, 2011 at 8:22 AM

Motive is HUGE! We should always consider our motives, and let us not be deceived.

Katharine May 26, 2011 at 7:17 AM

This is so, so encouraging. I thought I was the only writer out there who was tired of the holy stories and sought honesty.

I had a bad experience recently with a Christian contest judge who told me that “stories about pastors who cheat on their wives won’t sell in the Christian market” and that “you can’t have this guy be your Christian hero if he’s going to interrupt his wife like that.” Needless to say, I was very discouraged and a bit angry, especially since the general theme of the book is grace. WE NEED STORIES ABOUT GRACE and I don’t think we can give them to the world unless they’re about messy people.

My question is this: If our real goal (those of us in the honesty camp, that is) is to hang out in the alehouses and get readers of all stripes to read us, laugh with us, cry with us and perhaps get a taste of Jesus’ complete acceptance , why do we waste so much time worrying about what the holiness camp think about us? I’m asking myself as well as others.

You don’t know how encouraging this post was for me today. I almost gave up writing . . .

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 7:57 AM

Katharine, you ask a very important question: Why worry about what people in the other Camp think? Why not just write our stories, aim them at our targets, and stop rocking the boat? My answer: Because I am a Christian and have a stake in how Christiaity is portrayed in our culture. Frankly, I am embarrased sometimes by what we label “Christian.” Hey, thanks much for your comments and encouragement.

Cathy West May 26, 2011 at 7:21 AM

Hmm. I feel there should be a part 2 to this post. So much more to say. But in the end, aren’t we just going around and around without ever coming to a conclusion that all find satisfactory? I’m not sure you will ever put this issue to bed. It may be one where we, as brothers and sisters in Christ, have to agree to disagree. I’m firmly entrenched in The Honesty Camp and that’s where I intend to stay. Having said that, I respect others who are on the other side of the fence, even though I may not agree with their stance on many issues, I understand where they’re coming from. What I don’t appreciate is discussions on this matter that get way out of hand and end up as a free for all, each side throwing flaming arrows at the other. What a great witness that is. Bottom line, reality is harsh, ugly and not so nice at times, no matter which camp you reside in. It is why we were given grace. If only we could learn to use it.

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 8:15 AM

Well, I definitely don’t want to launch “flaming arrows” into “the OTHER camp.” Which is why I made a point to pose potential problems with both “camps.” But on agreeing to disagree, I’m not so sure. I’m for clarity over agreement. But if we can’t agree on what divides us, if there is unclarity as to the theology that frames the genre, then we will constantly be talking past each other and portraying a false caricature of Christianity. Thanks for commenting, Cathy!

Fred Warren May 26, 2011 at 7:25 AM

I think there’s room and need for both approaches in Christian fiction, and they can coexist peacefully and cooperatively if we’ll all just stop doing spirituality checks on each other and write the stories God is leading us to write.

I don’t think many “holiness” folks will argue against the need to engage in dialogue with the world, and likewise, “honesty” folks would agree that Christian community must be qualitatively different from the wider society we’re trying to engage. Stories will be different depending on the audience we’re speaking to. It isn’t productive to slam a story written with unbelievers in mind because it’s not optimized for the believing audience, and vice-versa.

It’s like criticizing a Ferrari for poor off-road performance or a Jeep for sub-par acceleration. Each vehicle shines in the venue for which it was designed, and it benefits the entire car-buying community to have both available.

Jessica Thomas May 26, 2011 at 7:57 AM

“I think there’s room and need for both approaches in Christian fiction, and they can coexist peacefully and cooperatively if we’ll all just stop doing spirituality checks on each other and write the stories God is leading us to write.”

Yep. This sums it up.

Greg Mitchell May 26, 2011 at 8:30 AM

Agreed.

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 26, 2011 at 10:41 AM

Fred, thank you. This is an excellent point. Not all stories are aimed at the same audience and therefore will not communicate the same truths.

There’s no shame in holiness. God is holy and we are to be like Him. Scripture says we are to be in the world but not of it (see John 17:14 and 16 – they are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.), implying some sort of separation surely. Holiness, by the way, is not the same thing as legalism (which is a sin and therefore disqualifies anyone form being part of the holiness camp. 😉 )

Mike, another problem with the two camp theory is that neither one, as you’ve described them, seems concerned about telling the truth about God. Your honesty camp apparently wants to be honest only about the fact that people sin against one another in horrific ways and suffer and struggle (I’m painting with the same simplistic brush you were), but I don’t see concern about portraying God honestly.

Becky

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 11:23 AM

Becky, I think both group’s objectives are to tell the truth about God. However, one approaches that through Holiness, the other through Honesty. (Again, this is very simplistic.) I think both approaches can work TOGETHER. But at the moment, Holiness (or moralism) is the primary approach of Christian fiction.

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 26, 2011 at 4:37 PM

Well, the lines you drew left God out, Mike. The holiness you described was legalism and the honesty you described was all about man. I think a great deal could be changed in Christian fiction if we started thinking more about how God comes off in the story. For what it’s worth, that’s what I was wrangling with at Spec Faith on Monday. Looks like Stephen addressed it today, also. I haven’t had a chance to read it yet.

Becky

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Fred, I hope you don’t interpret this as a “slam” against anyone. I’m not sure I agree that there’s “room for both approaches,” at least not in the current Christian market. Most Christian fiction is aimed at “believers.” The Christian author who wants to aim at seekers or “unbelievers” is often forced to publish with a secular publisher. So if there’s “room for both approaches, I’m not sure that room exist in the current Christian market. Fred,I appreciate your comments.

Fred Warren May 26, 2011 at 1:20 PM

Mike:
“Fred, I hope you don’t interpret this as a “slam” against anyone…”

Oh, not at all. If anything, you were arguing *against* the slammers on either side of the divide who can’t see the value in any position but their own. And in the sense of the market, you may be right–ideally, there is and should be room for both approaches, but, as in the school cafeteria, just because there’s a space at the cool kids’ table doesn’t mean you’ll be welcomed there.

As for the secular publishers, well, at some point it may be necessary to figuratively shake the dust off one’s sandals and go to the Gentiles. I expect that’s where most of the seekers are, anyhow.

Nice column, Mike. You’ve got a knack for hitting the topics that people are itching to discuss and setting the stage for a spirited debate.

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 26, 2011 at 4:30 PM

Mike, you’d be surprised at the number of authors who say they are writing to evangelize. Why else the conversion scenes? It isn’t Christians who need to know how to come to God through Christ. I’ve actually appreciated the growth in this area. I think there are more writers now aiming at Christians, writing to the issues that believers face.

I recently read Sibella Giorella’s The Mountains Bow Down for example, and it dealt with a Christian character interacting with family and family friends and colleagues, in conflict. The internal struggles were not the same as Everyman though the external ones were.

I read another book, this one a YA, about a Christian character facing the problem of cliques and loving an enemy. Again, the issues were what any student might encounter, but because of this character’s faith, she had different desires and faced different pressures (one being her Christian roommate advising her to pray for a manipulative snob instead of trying to befriend her because the snob might influence her negatively).

I could list any number of others. I think it’s a real positive. If Christians are writing for Christians, they need to be honest about where Christians are at and what conflicts we deal with.

Becky

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 6:16 PM

“Mike, you’d be surprised at the number of authors who say they are writing to evangelize. Why else the conversion scenes? It isn’t Christians who need to know how to come to God through Christ.”

Becky, are you suggesting that Christian fiction is aimed at unbelievers? I have no problem believing Christian writers want their stories to inspire others to faith. Heck, I’m one! Problem is, our stories are not aimed at the ale-house, but primarily marketed to Christians, sold in Christian venues and Religious aisles, and scripted to appease Christian censors.

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 27, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Becky, are you suggesting that Christian fiction is aimed at unbelievers? Some is, Mike, yes. Because you haven’t read them doesn’t mean they aren’t being written.

Writers published by ECPA houses are constantly bemoaning a) the lack of presence in general market stores; and b) the shelving there in the “ghetto” section of Christian fiction. Why do you think they care if they were writing strictly to a Christian audience?

It seems we keep covering the same territory. I believe part of the issue is an either-or mentality.

You categorize “holiness,” which is actually legalism” as what defines most Christian fiction, then name “no cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, or sex” as the tell-tale elements. The problem is, these standards you decry are no longer standards in Christian fiction, apart from cussing and no on-the-page graphic sex.

Because you mention it so often, I can’t help but wonder if you would no longer feel Christian fiction so confining if you could just use some cussing in your WIP.

I find this baffling — that anyone would define themselves in this way. (I’m the author that uses cussing in my stories rather than I’m the author that writes such good stories readers don’t want to put the books down.)

Becky

Mike Duran May 27, 2011 at 1:23 PM

Becky, your resistance toward the inclusion of any language in Christian fiction, the fact that you are baffled by my suggestion that this is potentially legalistic, is perfect evidence of the “two camps” concept. We have very different ideas about what Christian art and witness should be.

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 27, 2011 at 1:33 PM

MY resistance, Mike? Not sure why you’re crediting me with that one. If only I had that kind of power in the publishing world! 😆

Potentially legalistic, sure. I’m not baffled by that idea. I’m baffled by the fact that you, an outstanding writer, get so exercised over the issue. You obviously see it as limiting, but I think you’re better than that.

Just like a mutual writer friend who wrote a “no sex” paranormal romance that shocked her ABA writing compatriots because it was so good and so clean, you could do the same without compromising what you believe about showing people honestly, don’t you think?

Becky

Mike Duran May 27, 2011 at 2:36 PM

Becky, once again I think your comments illustrate how Christians really do operate on two different paradigms regarding Christian fiction. I only use restrictions on language to illustrate one of the many conventions that have come to define Christian fiction. I personally believe someone can be a great writer and write a great “Christian” story w/out that story being “clean.”

Rebecca LuElla Miller May 27, 2011 at 5:00 PM

Mike, I don’t know what I’m saying that gives you the idea that I think legalism is a good thing and that I support it in fiction. I don’t support it in life, so why would I believe it’s a good approach to stories?

I’ll end my involvement in this discussion with this: some Christian fiction is as you describe it — aiming to be “safe,” to give readers a story that reinforces certain behavioral standards deemed “clean.” However, there are many authors who do more.

Mike, if someone on another site said the things you’re saying, they would be implying that your book is one of those “holiness” stories because you’re “inside the camp.” I’d be having this same discussion, trying to let them know there’s a writer whose book I’ve read who is doing something different.

No, they’d answer, if he’s inside the camp, he’s “holiness.” Only outside the camp are the “honest” books.

You know that isn’t true about your book. I know it about yours and a growing number of others.

Why, then, must people like you be labeled with a tag that doesn’t fit? Either you’re labeling your own book as a “holiness” volume because it’s published by a Christian house, or you’re saying yours is the only one that is honest and inside the camp.

The other alternative is to consider that maybe, just maybe there is a growing number of writers doing something different from what you’ve perceived.

Becky

Mike Duran May 27, 2011 at 7:03 PM

Becky, I know you don’t believe legalism is a good thing. This post is about why Christians disagree about what Christian fiction is. I think our exchange is a perfect example. Thanks for pitching in!

Katherine Coble May 27, 2011 at 1:38 PM

The problem I have with writers who write to convert is that they seem to want to have their cake and eat it too.

Non-Christians are not going to read a Christian book. It doesnt matter how good other Christians think it is. They will not do it. Full stop.

I think it is sort of dismissive to winnow the discussion down to “cussing in books” because that is NOT the issue.

The issue is that in order to reach non-Christians, we have to eat with the tax collectors and whores. The books most Christian writers author with the intent to convert look more like a Ladies Fellowship Tea. Christian Missional Fiction (CMF) wants to hew to the coziness of the saved world, while reaching a hand out the window. It doesnt work.

Even if there is the occasional “shit” or “damn” in the story, it is still clearly a product of a sanitised culture. And it is that sanitised culture which is a turnoff to the unsaved.

No, we dont glamourise sin when writing for the lost. But we are honest about it. And it is harder to write, because you have to take your mind into rocky territory. You cant stay in the writers’ safe place of an idealised world and still create a meaningful story to anyone other than those who like to escape into that flavour of idealism.

It’s somewhat like a Sunday School teacher for children comparing herself to a missionary to the Amazon.

Both works are essential to the Church. Really. Kindergartners need training in the Word just as much as cannibals in the rainforest. But to pretend both jobs carry the same risks and skillset is a bit insulting to the Amazon missionary. And reducing Fiction with World Appeal to “books with cussing” is like saying the Amazon missionary just likes to get naked and canoe on the river. It’s really dismissive.

Mike Duran May 27, 2011 at 2:50 PM

Well, I’m definitely not arguing that “books with cussing” are the ticket to reaching the lost. Language is just an easy target and illustrates the “sterilized culture” that many Christian writers, like me, struggle against. This post is not about the silly restrictions on language demanded by some Christian readers… although I have a share of such posts.

Katherine Coble May 27, 2011 at 3:10 PM

I think this is as much a discussion about the cultural differences between those who came to Christ after 12/13 years of age as opposedto those who grew up in a church-heavy home–with the usual PK/TCK element switching sides.

I usually find that those who grew up in a churched home (3x a week, 3x a day on Sunday) tend to think of Christianity as a shelter and a haven. They associate the church with nurturing, childhood, safety, assurance that “being different from everyone else is okay”.

Those who make a faith decision apart from their home culture tend to be more flexible with the cultural aspectof Christianity. They also often sorta feel like outsiders; what is safe to a ChurchChild is constricting to a Nonchurch child.

Since PKs and TCKs experience of church as children is ascompetiton for parental love and a political force that disrupts their home life the often fall inwith the other side.

Jessica Thomas May 28, 2011 at 5:36 AM

I agree completely. I’m an “outsider”. Church culture is always going to seem a bit odd to me. I tried to assimilate for awhile, or at least “keep quiet”, but now I realize that’s silly. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the culture, or that it is constricting, because no one is forcing my involvement. It’s just different… And it’s okay if I don’t quite fit in.

Vic DiGital May 26, 2011 at 7:25 AM

The debate in my mind is always, “Is it for entertainment, or evangelism?”

If I’m writing something where the Christianity is clearly just the flavoring for my story, then the holiness vs honesty debate is irrelevant. I’ll write whatever story I want to write, with characters as flawed and a world as fallen as I like.

But if it’s for evangelism, then I think it takes on a different responsibility. You HAVE to ask yourself if what you’re writing accurately presents the plan of salvation, otherwise it’s just fiction for its own sake. And on the other end, if how you’re presenting it, will cause someone to stumble if it showcases the darker sides of humanity in any sort of favorable (even if it’s ‘real’) light. This inevitably means that Christian writing becomes much more bland and safe and following a boring template we see way too often, even more so in Christian movies.

I don’t know that there’s an answer. If a Christian novel or movie doesn’t have a Biblically accurate call to action in it, then it’s ultimately just a story that uses Christian ‘mythology’ much the same way a novel uses Greek myths or arcane Catholic tradition and rituals as a backdrop. The movies “End of Days” and “Constantine” use all sorts of Catholic imagery and lore, but in no way would anyone (except those ignorant of any of actual Catholic/Christian beliefs) think that those movies are Catholic or religious movies.

So in the end, is it for entertainment, or for evangelism? If it’s NOT for evangelism, then don’t call it a Christian novel. It’s a sci-fi/mystery/romance/whatever novel with a Christian backdrop. Nothing wrong with that, but it changes a reader’s expectations (or prejudices) going into it.

Meg Moseley May 26, 2011 at 8:46 AM

Sorry, I don’t have time for more than a quick comment, but I’d like to point out that evangelism and entertainment aren’t the only two options. What about novels that are written for the purpose of making Christians examine their beliefs? That’s not strictly entertainment, but it’s not evangelism either.

Vic DiGital May 26, 2011 at 9:02 AM

But at the end of the day, that still falls under edification. The goal is to leave the reader with a more positive outlook of Christianity, be they non-believer, or lapsed believer, or struggling believer, or confident believer. If the book leaves me in a state of doubt, or questioning my beliefs, then that’s definitely not a Christian novel.

It’s not fair from a purely literary standpoint in that Christian novels can’t just exist for their own sake and be evaluated on purely literary merits. They WILL always be judged by publishers and other readers (whose word-of-mouth is critical for any sort of Christian book success) on if they meet the added criteria of Biblical accuracy or acceptability. I personally won’t recommend a Christian novel (labeled as such) to someone, even if it’s highly entertaining, if I don’t agree with the theology presented inside. Coming from me, a Christian, I don’t want them thinking that this is an accurate example of what I believe or what Christianity means. If it’s someone I know who isn’t shaky in their beliefs, I’ll recommend it, but with the caveat that “This is neat, but silly in its theology. Let’s discuss after you read it.” Is that hypocritical of me? I wonder sometimes.

Eric May 26, 2011 at 7:46 AM

I think you’re on to something. I’ve seen this in debates over “Christian Music” as well– the divide is a symptom of deeper inherent rifts over theological assumptions.

The irony of course (as long as we’re painting in broad strokes) is that “Holiness”-style stories very often wind up teaching moralism, and moralism isn’t the gospel.

Jill May 26, 2011 at 7:53 AM

We need both positions. Even though I’m in the honesty camp, I have my own set of rules. For example, in the 90s, a certain set of literary novelists felt it necessary to have bestiality in their stories–to demonstrate that men just do this sort of thing all the time, naturally (I guess!). I prefer to believe that men don’t do this all the time, and I also prefer to believe that many men wouldn’t think of molesting their daughters or their neighbors’ daughters. If I were to look at a certain set of literary novels, I’d believe that all men are vile perverts out to screw anything that moves, or doesn’t. This sort of literature may, indeed, highlight truths that humanity is frightened of. But I don’t want to read it. I don’t want to make that the reality of the world around me. Some things are hidden because they are REPULSIVE.

And to change the subject a little, I recently had a Christian beta reader tell me she didn’t think my Lutheran protagonist would get drunk off whiskey, but wine rather. I told her I’d get drunk off either (um, before you send me to AA, I was just joking), and my beta laughed and said, “So would I, but your character wouldn’t.” Honesty must be integral to characters. Pushing the lines just to push them is about as obvious as overt preaching.

Greg Mitchell May 26, 2011 at 8:41 AM

I think this post is dead-on–but I think the answer lies in middle ground. Both camps are there and that tension is needed in every Christian’s life. That’s just “part of it”.

Where I see problems are when people in both camps take a self-righteous view of their camp. Obviously the “thou shalt not” folks can be very rigid and considered “hoity toity” or out of touch with reality. But, on the same token, I see just as much pride in the Honesty camp. “Look at us, we’re so ‘real’ and we’re engaging the world. All you others are just sheltered grannies.” I’ve been on the receiving end of that attitude too many times. I think it’s unfair.

I actually consider myself leaning towards the Honesty camp–but I don’t feel a burning need to drop f-bombs in my stories. Every once in awhile I’d like a “damn” thrown in for good measure, sure, but I don’t subscribe to this whole “Well, that’s just how everybody talks. Everybody cusses.” No. Not everybody cusses–and not just prudish church ladies either.

Cussing, drinking, smoking, and pre-marital sex are not prerequisites of “honesty”.

I think there’s a way to be honest about the world, to face it, to confront it, without being a part of it. So, I say we need both idealogies, and we’ve got to rest somewhere in the middle.

Matt May 26, 2011 at 9:23 AM

I love the directive!
Dialectic begs for a synthesis…:)
Doubt is, I believe, the common denominator to both, the holiness and the honesty seekers. Doubt, while considered the enemy, is in both cases the catalyst to a deeper walk. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said that he appreciates the curse of the heathen at times over the praises of the Christian. This is of course to be understood in its context of the hypocrisy that he encountered while ministering as an intern for a year at a Lutheran church in Barcelona Spain.
Doubt is good, it puts in question even our most honorable intentions and moves ultimately toward the place that the woman took at Jesus’ feet, ignoring the threat of her greater audience. Whether we get there by recognizing our own need for the cleansing waters of our tears that flow from His throne or through the realization that the woman could not have ignored the leaders of Israel assembled in the room without understanding the resoluteness of Jesus’ embrace, is immaterial, really. Ha, the Pharisees present, in their cutting ways, deliciously promoted truth, did they not?
Ya, a good old dousing in the kind of doubt that makes us move in the right direction is what we really want. I vote for “doubt” being the synthesis, one that leads us all to the washing of His feet with our tears.

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 9:24 AM

I tried my best to not read the other comments before leaving mine. However, Strange Man, Greg Mitchell’s remark was the last one in line and I agree with him completely. All I would add is that there is much more than a middle ground. Christians writers and readers are not two homogenous groups.

My question still remains a simple one. Why does there have to be this debate between camps at all? If I feel led to write to those outside the camp then that is what I should do. When acquisition editors ask for changes in order to be published through their house I then have to make some choices:

1. Take a stand on principle and leave all the damns and hells and whatever else I feel lends authenticity to the story in. They of course then have the right to send me on my way.
2. Seek a publisher without these requirements even though the road may be longer.
3. Make a judgment call and rewrite the story to meet the requests.
4. Work as you are to try and change the industry’s viewpoint. This one of course doesn’t help me with anything current because we all know even if changes are made it will be years before they show up in books on shelves.

There is more to say about your choice of designations for the two camps
but I think I’ll let it rest here for now.

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 10:22 AM

“Why does there have to be this debate between camps at all?”

Because one camp has defined the genre. Which is why it IS an either / or option. Either remove the “damn” or get published elsewhere. Of course publishers have the right to determine whatever guidelines they want. But when that industry uses the name “Christian,” you must realize, I am a shareholder. Grace to you, Tim!

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 10:49 AM

My question was really meant to be a personal musing rather than a challenge. The truth is the consumer has defined the genre. By the numbers, CBA fiction is one of the few growth sections of the fiction publishing industry over all in the last three years.

Personally, I think this question is going to become moot over the next 3-5 years. The gatekeepers are calling in their troops from the outer regions. I really question how much longer any one traditional publisher or group of such publishers will be able to define a market. Too much is changing about how novels are available.

I know of one exciting project under way right now that involves the biggest names in CBA suspense that bypasses the CBA and general market publishers alike. Wished I could say more but have been sworn to secrecy. Let’s just say, it may well do for faith based suspense what Analog magazine did for Science Fiction 40 years ago.

Matt May 26, 2011 at 11:11 AM

Ah, who does not like a good suspense? It would not be to KINDLE the fastest way a tree does not have to be cut down-load a book?

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 11:17 AM

When will ever get you guys to quit using the generic KINDLE as though it is the only game in town? O|O

As to the suspense, it does involve digital content but not in a way this consortium of authors or anyone else in their genre has ever attempted before.

Matt May 26, 2011 at 11:30 AM

KK, Tim…:)
Ole’– I mean OLED, haha I love suspense!

Vic DiGital May 27, 2011 at 5:35 PM

I agree that pretty soon we’re going to hit the paper/digital tipping point, and our gatekeepers will no longer be libraries and bookstores. I believe books will become a curated form of entertainment in that we’ll read a book recommended by someone whose tastes we trust, and we won’t have to wait for them to lend the book to us or for the library to have it available, or the bookstore to order it, they’ll just share a link and five seconds later we’ll have the book available to read.

Also, (and I can’t remember the name of it), but there’s an app coming soon that will basically be an overlay over ebooks that allow you and your friends (especially through Facebook) to ‘read along’ with you. As you read, you can post little notes of things you noticed, highlight certain passages, pose discussion questions, paste links to relevant media associated with it (such as a song referenced in the text), etc. As you read the book, those notes will pop up if you’ve enabled them, and it becomes a shared reading experience. Additionally, the author can get in on the act and answer questions directly, post “lost scenes” or extended scenes from a chapter, rough drafts of a chapter, etc, making the book itself the gathering point for discussion. You can enable the notes to be just friends, or everyone.

And when this happens, the stuff I’ll move to the top of my reading stack will be those items that my friends are most excitedly discussing and sharing. I’ll be able to join in with a click. And at that point, a bookstore or publisher’s power and influence will diminish rapidly. A little self-published ebook CAN get noticed, especially if the author is involved in the discussion. And more than probably any other genre, Christian fiction is the most ripe for in-depth discussion, especially with the author. “Why DID you use that cuss word?” “Well, let me tell you why….”

Of course, there will be many authors that oppose this sort of thing because they want to let the book stand on its own, but so what? Let them.

I really believe this will revolutionize reading as a shared experience.

Donald S. Crankshaw May 26, 2011 at 9:57 AM

I think you’ve got a point here, Mike.

I publish stories in secular markets as well as Christian markets, and I find that secular markets (specifically SF markets) are more open to spiritual themes than we give them credit sometimes. Maybe engaging the world means engaging this market, rather than trying to convince the Christian market to do so.

Dave Wilson May 26, 2011 at 10:29 AM

Great perspective here Mike. You’re asking great questions, though I suspect that answers will be hard to come by.

In doing lots of book reviews of Christian fiction for my blog over the last year, I’ve seen very little theology expressed explicitly. For some, that’s okay. Others will be dismayed that there’s not strong expression of the Gospel or strongly communicated “moral to the story.”

In some ways, I look at Christian novels like an R-rated movie that broadcast by one of the big networks. All nudity, explicit sex and strong profanity have been edited out. In short, fiction for believers is pretty much a PG version of fiction for unbelievers.

One interesting example of the difference between Christian and secular fiction is best-selling author Andrew Klavan. His secular novels, psychological thrillers like The Animal Hour and Empire of Lies, are extremely graphic and hard-hitting. There is often a powerful moral message communicated, but there’s plenty of carnage and depravity before you get there (kind of like my life). His Christian novels, the Homelander series, is entertaining but very sanitized (perhaps partly because they’re written for young adults). To be honest, his secular work seems much powerful, though there are not a lot of folks in my church that I’d be comfortable recommending them to.

By the by, I’d like to think that there’s a third camp … one where holiness and honesty are both valued.

Dave

Jenna St. Hilaire May 26, 2011 at 11:19 AM

I’m the daughter of an artist, and Mom always taught me that you have to paint dark to show the light. Which is why, I think, a secular novel that shows light is often much more powerful than a CBA novel that perhaps points out the existence of darkness but doesn’t portray it.

Becoming a Catholic and an SFF writer has set me outside of this debate a little, but I do feel both camps tugging at me even in writing for the mainstream market. The struggle between wanting to turn from evil and wanting to write honestly is constant.

Mike, I think you’re right that these two camps exist and debate at the level of theology and witness, not fiction.

Dave, I think you’re right that holiness and honesty must both be valued. After all, Christ himself was wholly pure and surely found evil repellent, yet He ate with tax collectors and defended the prostitute and the adulteress. It’s an insanely difficult concept to live by, but it’s the goal of the Christian life.

Tony May 26, 2011 at 12:52 PM

Andrew Klavan is an author!? I’ve been watching him on PJTV for months now. He’s awesome. . .I. MUST. READ. HIS. BOOKS. O_O

Stuart B May 26, 2011 at 12:16 PM

Why are some Christians against the idea of entertainment?

Tony May 26, 2011 at 12:48 PM

Both camps are important. Both camps are right. Both need to shut up and get to work.

Not all people are called to evangelize so much as teach, or comfort. I think the teachers, the healers, find themselves gravitating to the “Holiness Camp.” Then there are those who want to reach the world. Who want to say, “I understand, and there’s another way.” These are the evangelists. The “Honesty Camp.” Both are branches on the same Christian tree without which the tree would be incomplete.

To put it another way:
If Christianity was a nation rather than a religion:

The Holiness Camp is like The National Guard
The Honesty Camp is like The Marines

We can’t agree on what is Christian Fiction because Christian fiction is not a single thing. It’s many things just like The Church is made up of many people. Like a government is made up of many branches. It’s time we realize this and learn that we can do so much more if we work together.

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 12:50 PM

I bow to your sentiment in total.

Mike Duran May 27, 2011 at 4:21 AM

“We can’t agree on what is Christian Fiction because Christian fiction is not a single thing.”

I agree with this statement in theory, Tony. The problem is, what we now call “Christian art” is defined primarily by those of a Holiness approach. Which is why you can’t say “damn” in contemporary Christian fiction. So this notion of “working together” is great and all, but if we do have fundamental disagreements over what Christian art and witness should look like, there is no practical way for that to happen. Thanks for commenting!

Tony May 27, 2011 at 2:10 PM

Well, not in CBA circles, no. They are defined by the market, and the market doesn’t seem to want that sort of stuff. But authors with strong Christian messages in their works have gotten published in secular circles — precisely the circles the “Honesty Camp” is trying to reach. These authors include Dean Koontz, and William Peter Blatty.

CBA just so happens to favor those already on their side. It’s a Christian market selling Christian things to Christians. Even if they DID start allowing more “Honesty Camp” stuff, what would be the point? I’ve heard time and again from the non-religious that they would never read anything considered “Christian Fiction.” And no matter how well you write, or how honestly, if you write for the CBA market, you’re labeled Christian loud and clear. Seems counterproductive.

I don’t tend to write the sort of stuff that Thomas Nelson would publish any time soon. Or that I’d be quick to read aloud in church. But you know, I don’t intend to read it aloud in church, or submit those particular pieces to Thomas Nelson. I’ll submit the work to its proper market: Be that a small press niche market, or a secular one.

I can’t take issue with the fact that the CBA market won’t accept my secular-aimed material any more than I could with TOR books rejecting a splatterpunk horror novel. It’s just not the right market. Not the proper target audience.

My thoughts, anyway.

Evangeline Denmark May 26, 2011 at 3:41 PM

Thank you for this timely and much-needed post, Mike. I’ve been frustrated with this issue and unable to express my feelings without bitterness, but in presenting this debate in a calm, respectful tone, you’ve given a rational voice to my struggle.

Susan May 26, 2011 at 4:13 PM

Nicely put. I grew up in fundamentalism, and I know about the Law. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

Tracy Krauss May 26, 2011 at 4:34 PM

Wow. you absolutely nailed it this time, Mike. It’s the same reason we have denominations and there is little likelihood that that is going to change any time soon. As one responder said, however, there is room for both camps and we should probably stop trying to convince the other side to join which ever philosophy we espouse. Rather than simplistic, I think we boiled the debate down to the essential elements which just might help those engaged in the debate see the validity (and necessity) of the other point of view.
This is probably my own bent toward the ‘truth’ camp talking however . . . Those on the far right of the holiness camp might not be so quick to be all inclusive . . . Either way, this was an awesome post and sparks lots of great comments, too.

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 6:23 PM

The more I think about this the more I feel uneasy with these distinctions. Legalism is indeed an insidious and often illusive thing. It sometimes hides behind the mask of piety aka holiness but it also can wrap itself in truth aka honesty. It is no more hypocritical to insist someone is only “spiritual” if they look, act, dress, and talk a certain way than to position oneself as following the superior way because you don’t insist on these things.
In my pilgrimage I have managed to be fallen enough to wear both masks at one time or another. Most of us go through life either being judgmental or being judgmental of the judgmental. We either look down our nose at those who don’t cross the same Ts we do or we fancy ourselves in the place of Christ driving the pious Pharisees out of the temple. About both we should be most aware and most careful to look to Christ rather than self or each other.

Mike Duran May 26, 2011 at 6:44 PM

“The more I think about this the more I feel uneasy with these distinctions.”

Well, I’ve been clear about them being simplistic, my own construct. But I think the comments on this post, and some of my other posts, indicate that there are different camps to the christian fiction discussion. Tim, if you haven’t already, please purchase author Tim Downs’ Saturday Keynote Address at last years ACFW conference, because he says a lot of this same stuff.

And as for the inference of legalism, I intend to infer that. Those in the Holiness camp can potentially become legalistic. those in the Honesty camp can potentially become carnal and irreligious.

Tim George May 26, 2011 at 8:07 PM

I did listen the address by Downs and concur with much of it.

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