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.