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Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction

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.

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{ 168 comments… add one }
  • Teric Darken June 5, 2011, 7:08 AM

    A very interesting post, Mike! Author Tracy Krauss picked up on your article, and here was my response to the topic at hand:

    The answer to your question from my point of view: Yes, there is definitely room for everyone.

    “Honesty vs. Holiness…” My take is honesty AND holiness, and by holiness, I don’t mean that in a puritanical sense. Remember when Jesus took the whip and drove out the “robbers” in the temple (John 2:15)? Was that not a little bit of violence happening there? Wasn’t that a bit of honesty and holiness happening at the same time? A bit of righteous and holy anger?

    What about when Elijah had the 450 prophets of Ba’al slain (1 Kings 18:40)? Again, there was violence, righteous anger, and holiness happening at the same time. I could use many more examples from the Bible, but I think the point has been made: there is room for honesty and holiness.

    To CBA or not to CBA, that is the question. I’m thinking about the apostles Paul and Peter right now. Peter was more inclined to minister to the Jewish congregation (the church), and Paul began taking it to the streets, by setting out on journeys and focusing on the Gentiles… thus, he left the four walls of the church… a more out-into-the-world approach.

    Both were relevant; both approaches were needed and were a part of the Master’s plan in drawing all men to Him. Such is the same with writers holding to a Christian worldview. There is a need to exhort those within the walls of the church, and a need to reach those outside of those walls, whether by witnessing to the lost, or by calling out to wayward souls who may have wandered away from the Shepherd.

    Jesus, our chief example in all things, did both: He spoke to those in the temple- and they were astonished at His teachings… “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas?” Mat. 13:55 He also went out into the world and spoke with the “less than desirables,” telling it like it is. Example: the Samaritan woman at the well… “The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.” John 4:18

    A resounding YES! There is room for both types of writers: Those ministering to those in the fold, and those who minister to those outside of the fold. Two different types of callings; both serving the will of the True and Living God.

    I conclude with Romans 10:4- “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?”

    Whether a writer is called to minister to the congregation through their works, or called to reach the lost, both are hitting the people where they live. Both are needed, and ALL are on the same team.

    My works are avant garde; I write to reach the lost and the wayward. I write in honesty: telling it like it is which is sometimes unsavory, and I write in holiness. All of the honesty only serves to expose the darkness and our dire need for the Light of the World: the Way, Truth, and Life. I also include scripture references at the end of my books to show the firm foundation that my stories are built upon.

    I am not in competition with any author, be they those who write for the Church, or those who script for the lost and wayward. It should never be brother against brother, sister against sister. That is the only tragedy in all of this.

    What matters is that we are obeying God’s will and calling. May we all keep writing the good write!

    As iron sharpens iron…

    Teric Darken

    • Matt Schuster June 5, 2011, 8:55 AM

      Teric, thanks, you have a balance in your words.
      As an avant-garde artist you push a lot of buttons I presume.
      “The heart is more deceitful than all else And is desperately sick; Who can understand it?” Jer. 17:9
      Is this not a most perplexing statement? “Deceitful than all else?” Me? Hey, hey, hold your horses. Wait! Not what Jesus would say, eye? Surely, I am not as evil as Satan? I am holy!

      Mark 7:21,22 “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly.”
      “Hey, hey”, Jesus’ towns people said, “that’s enough already, lets take this ding dong out’a here, you know there where the cliffs give him an elevated opportunity, he he. Let’s make him fly, let him preach to the birds on his way down. Last, he will insult with his mambo jumbo.”

      While this is not the way the leaders talked, but found fault with him cloaked in “righteousness”, it is in every way Jesus’ avant-garde approach to exposing false motivations of the heart that caused the violent reaction.

      So, Teric, I am glad to here you have been given the gift to squeeze the boils of a diseased world. When they puff open, puss comes out, doesn’t it? The real challenge is to remember that those who think they need no doctor, are often the most diseased of them all.

      Mark 2:17 On hearing this, Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
      How about us?
      9What then? Are we better than they? Not at all; for we have already charged that both Jews and Greeks are all under sin;

      10as it is written,
      “THERE IS NONE RIGHTEOUS, NOT EVEN ONE;

      11THERE IS NONE WHO UNDERSTANDS,
      THERE IS NONE WHO SEEKS FOR GOD;

      12ALL HAVE TURNED ASIDE, TOGETHER THEY HAVE BECOME USELESS;
      THERE IS NONE WHO DOES GOOD,
      THERE IS NOT EVEN ONE.”

      13“THEIR THROAT IS AN OPEN GRAVE,
      WITH THEIR TONGUES THEY KEEP DECEIVING,”
      “THE POISON OF ASPS IS UNDER THEIR LIPS”;

      14“WHOSE MOUTH IS FULL OF CURSING AND BITTERNESS”;

      15“THEIR FEET ARE SWIFT TO SHED BLOOD,

      16DESTRUCTION AND MISERY ARE IN THEIR PATHS,

      17AND THE PATH OF PEACE THEY HAVE NOT KNOWN.”

      18“THERE IS NO FEAR OF GOD BEFORE THEIR EYES.”

      Um… I think we have forgotten where we came from. I sure would love to understand the fear better that is healthy, than the casualness that portrays me as a body of grace. Or understand better the question than the answer.

  • Grace Bridges June 7, 2011, 3:04 PM

    Please excuse me for being late to this party – I followed the thread with interest a week ago, but have now found an article that gives a very good balance to this whole thing. I highly recommend taking a look at http://newauthors.wordpress.com/2011/06/07/put-down-your-sword-and-write – A brief quote: “The pen may be mightier than the sword, but it is not mightier than Jesus.”

    • Tim George June 7, 2011, 3:24 PM

      Thanks for linking to that post over at New Authors! It hits on so many cylinders that most of our debated are missing on quite a bit. Everyone will just have to go over there to see for themselves.

  • Guy Stewart June 11, 2011, 11:12 PM
  • Marion June 20, 2011, 5:04 AM

    Mike,

    I just finished reading Lost Mission by Athol Dickson. I believe this novel shows how good Christian Fiction can be.

    I posted a review of the novel on my blog.

    http://kammbia1.wordpress.com/2011/06/19/book-review-9-lost-mission-by-athol-dickson/

    And because of this post prompting so much discussion…just maybe Christian Fiction is really trying to grow and stretch to a new level.

    Thanks,
    Marion

  • Patricia June 20, 2011, 8:46 AM

    One problemwith Christian fiction is if your main character is a non-Christian, especially a young person, it’s hard to accurately depict that person without using some vulgar language, or at least alluding to it with a series of blanks. Non-Christian characters, especially rough types, don’t talk like Ned Flanders, and you have to reflect this to create the character. Even if your main character is a believer, you’ll probably need to play him off against some lost characters, since a story needs a problem and this isn’t a perfect world.

  • Chris June 21, 2011, 7:34 AM

    To be honest this is one of the reasons why Tyler Perry is so popular. He resonates with Christians that aren’t holy rollers.

  • Chris June 21, 2011, 8:02 AM
  • Chris Curzon June 23, 2011, 12:29 PM

    “Divisive”?

    Only to those who are committed to one camp or the other.

    But the reality is the honesty is required before holiness is granted. And yes, this enters all those nettlesome questions regarding salvation by grace, not works, etc… questions which we have “solved” only in theological treatises but not actually in life itself. For does it not appear possible for “saved” christians to be dishonest? Or for honest christians to question their salvation?

    Despite that we’re to be both honest and holy.

    — Chris Curzon

  • Soni Cido August 15, 2011, 7:21 AM

    Chris, thank you for the Black Perception blog link. Great writing!

    You helped me to clarify something that I was struggling with as well, the “one camp or the other” issue.

    I think I will just go ahead, make a mess, and trust God to use what He can and clean up the rest. After all, that is what he’s been doing in my life all along anyway. Why not in my artwork?

    I’m not sure about the Tyler Perry thing, we just do not know how God is working in his life. He may be leading him deeper into the, “Great Temple of Hollywood” because God has a specific person, or people He needs him to connect with and this is the only way. Or, he may be allowing him to make a huge mess so there will be testimony later… or none of the above… only He knows.

    Jesus was accused of being a drunk for hanging out with a party crowd. In those days, to an extreme legalist, drinking anything but dirty water was not only unholy, but definite sign of familiarity with the devil.

    I am going to take it easy on Tyler. We just might have to wait till we are on the other side to see just what God is doing in his life. For many Christians, this is almost an impossible task.

    🙂
    Soni

    • Chris August 15, 2011, 1:36 PM

      Good points about Tyler Perry.

  • Soni Cido August 15, 2011, 1:43 PM

    Well, think about what Queen Esther had to do.. these days, she would have been called all kinds of things by legalistic onlookers… I’d like to have seen John Calvin send his daughter to do the same!

  • J.Z. Howard November 15, 2014, 10:22 AM

    Your arguments helped me understand my own motives for writing the kind of fiction that engages with the world. For 33 years I lived in a world without Christ and it was bleak, lonely, abusive, destitute. I was ready to end it all when, at last, Christ came into my being and I surrendered my will to his saving Grace and Lordship. Everything changed! I was new! He reigned!
    The power of that transformation and the vast improvements I experienced in my new life got me fired up — how could anybody not want the miraculous changes that were available through the Holy Spirit? That became the purpose of my mission to write. Through my stories I wanted to invite readers to consider this marvelous possibility for their own lives, and to allow God to enter their souls with his anointing Spirit.
    When you said, “… 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,” I shouted AMEN! Literally. For me those words were a battle cry. They captured the essence of why I write and defined my writing goals. They also stirred the energy – the boundless, Spirit-led energy – that motivates my sitting down at the keyboard day after day.
    I, too, seek to contribute to the world and bring the Church to it, and my personal zeal fuels my witness both as an author and as a man on the street. The debate, as you said, “is not about fiction at all – it’s about the nature of Christian witness.” I know which side of the divide I choose to be on, and I’m delighted there are many like us.

  • NKBC October 19, 2015, 10:23 AM

    I greatly appreciate the article.

    After suppressing the desire and call to write fiction for nearly four decades I have nearly completed my first novel. Because of this debate–that is, to avoid professional repercussions–I expect to publish under a pseudonym.

    In terms of marketing, I imagine my novel is too Christian for non-Christian publishers but would be rejected as “inappropriate” by Christian publishers. It is neither sexually explicit nor does it contains gratuitous violence but it does contain “foul” language.

    Without the language this story would lack authenticity. But note, in one scene the characters–Christians–discuss the use of such words. In another scene the protagonist loses his cool and uses foul language. Why? Because he is human. Do I use such language? Generally not but to my utter shock and amazement I, after a twenty something year hiatus and in a fit of uncharacteristic anger, dropped the f-bomb the other day. (You should have seen my wife’s face.) Christ has done a remarkable work in me but apparently this clay is still on the potter’s wheel…as are the characters in my novel.

    As Mike points out, the holy-honest dichotomy is not perfect. In fact, we may do better to think of it as a spectrum or a sliding scale than a t-chart. Context has a lot to do with it. For example, a wannabe gangster from Harlem or South Central is not going to speak the King’s English. Just because I depict him “honestly” does not mean I condone his language or actions. Again, I think what really makes a story “Christian”, and by this I mean redeeming, is not what subjects are being treated but HOW.

    To illustrate what I mean, I turn to an unlikely source: an article on homeschool-friendly colleges. One school, though pro-homeschool, was considered to pietistic and legalistic. The site quoted the student handbook which reads:

    “Students are to avoid any types of entertainment that could be considered immodest or that contain profanity, scatological realism, sexual perversion, erotic realism, lurid violence, occultism, and false philosophical or religious assumptions.”

    It then makes an almost comical observation:

    “Ironically, the Bible includes all of these elements, and so students are either not allowed to read the Bible or are not allowed to be entertained by the Bible.”

    We could sweat the details but you see my point. The bible is both holy and honest.

    That said, I no longer bother to watch “Christian” films as I find them so “holy” as to be verging on dishonest. A former student called them “Jesus Button” movies: things are bad, protagonist pushes the “Jesus button”, everything is now wonderful. And in their evangelistic zeal, story falls by the wayside. Rather odd since these movies only appeal to presumably born again Christians who need no invitation.

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