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What Makes Your Writing “Christian”?

At the conference last weekend, one aspiring author asked, “What makes my writing ‘Christian’?” It was a sincere question, one that was echoed in various ways throughout the weekend. Frankly, I was encouraged to know other believers wrestle with that issue. The answer, however, is not so easy.

Those answers usually swing between these two extremes:

  • Anything a Christian writes could be considered “Christian writing”
  • Only what is written specifically for a Christian audience, intended to edify believers, be morally clean, theologically accurate, and embody the Gospel could be considered “Christian writing”

So if you’d permit me a crude illustration, those differing perspectives would exist on a scale and look something like this:

CHRISTIAN WRITING IS

Anything a Christian writes  —————————- Only specific things a Christian writes

Confused yet?

Either way, I’m mostly of the former camp, believing that anything a Christian writes should be considered “Christian.” After all, Christians are to glorify God in everything we do.

So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. (I Cor. 10:31).

Which creates a problem for those of the “other camp” — the “Christian writing” is only specific kinds of writing camp. I mean, if you’re supposed to do EVERYTHING to the glory of God, why must you single out your writing? Is your writing more “Christian” than, say, your driving, your shopping habits, your sales presentations, or your night out on the town?

To take it a step further, it is borderline superstitious to believe that specific words, or constructions of specific words, make something “Christian.” As if we can wave a magic wand over a story and suddenly transform its very nature.

It’s been said that “Christian music” is the only musical form defined by its lyrics. There’s nothing specifically “Christian” about a tempo, instrument, or chord. I mean, is there a “Christian” guitar riff or a “Christian” drum beat? So the “Christian” part of Christian music has to be its lyrics. (Of course, don’t tell that to Bach or Beethoven.) But do lyrics really have that much power? Do biblical references or themes inserted into a song suddenly transform it from “secular” to “spiritual”? Can a Scripture quote invest a mediocre melody with newfound potential?

Unlike music, writing is comprised entirely of lyrics, or words. Applying the above reasoning then, writing becomes “Christian” when specific words appear. The “music” of the story becomes rather inconsequential. For instance, stringing together the words “Jesus is Lord” could make a document “Christian.” The words, “You must accept Jesus as Lord” makes it VERY Christian. Conversely, the absence of certain words (insert your favorite expletive here) could do the same. Some would say profanity de-christianizes your writing. So the less cussing in a story, the more “Christian” it is.

However, there are no “secular” molecules in the universe. And I’d like to think the same applies to words.

But if this is true, how could any collection of words be more “secular” or “Christian” than any others? It’s the melody that counts. If you’re not glorifying Him with your whole life now, why should it matter that you stick references to Him in your stories? That’s hypocrisy, isn’t it?

Then again, maybe the “Christian” part of our writing doesn’t have a wit to do with our words. There’s no magic wand I can pass over my story, no words I can add or subtract to make it more or less “Christian.” Maybe what makes a story “Christian” at all is its “tune” rather than its “lyrics.”

What makes your writing “Christian”? Well, let’s start with you being one.

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{ 29 comments… add one }
  • Richard Mabry May 23, 2012, 5:59 AM

    Mike, you and I sometimes “go to different churches” (as we say in Texas) on subjects, but I’m with you on this one. In my writing, I don’t do altar calls or recount the Roman Road, but I do try to portray how God fits into the lives of my characters–either His presence or absence. That, to me, is Christian writing. (And, yes, I am one–good point).

  • Morgan L. Busse May 23, 2012, 6:25 AM

    Here is a thought I’m mulling over myself: what about Christians who write erotica? You stated, “I’m mostly of the former camp, believing that anything a Christian writes should be considered “Christian.” So Christian erotica?

    Personally, I’m open to a lot of genres, but erotica crosses a line for me. My experience with erotica is that it doesn’t seem that much different than visual forms of pornography (internet, pictures, magazines). So I have a hard time reconciling that if a Christian writes erotica, then it makes it Christian.

    What are your thoughts?

    • Tony May 23, 2012, 7:55 AM

      I was wondering something similar. I mean, everything a Christian -does- certainly isn’t “Christian.” As a Christian I do a lot of unChristian things. Why should writing be exempt from the rule?

      But to be fair, Mike never claimed to be entirely in either camp of extremes. Which is good, since extremes tend to be well. . .too extreme. 😉

    • Mike Duran May 23, 2012, 9:31 AM

      Erotica, as a genre, is obviously antithetical to Christian ethics and ideals. But sex isn’t. So where’s the line? Can a Christian write erotica? Absolutely! Can they do so and still glorify God? Highly unlikely. But step back. What about sex? Can a Christian include sex in a story? Absolutely! Yet at some point, sex scenes can become salacious. Are those scenes between a married couple? What it the author’s intention in having the scene? But even if the author’s intention is pure, the scenes are measured and tasteful, they can still be accused of scandal. I think that illustrates the problem in “Christian-izing” THINGS. I’m not sure there can be “Christian erotica” in the same way I’m unsure there can be “Christian widgets.” Thanks for writing, Morgan!

      • Morgan L. Busse May 23, 2012, 9:52 AM

        Yeah, that’s why I’m mulling it over in my mind. I’m definitely not anti-sex (I’m a happily married woman with 4 kids ;). And I think it can have a place in writing. Where is the line? Not sure. I think you bring up some great things to think about…

        • xdpaul May 23, 2012, 10:13 AM

          In the Name of the Rose, Adso’s sin with the peasant is described glowingly utilizing only direct scriptural references. His shame and guilt come after, but the description of the relationship evokes passion and life, while sweetness of the memory persists beyond the guilt.

          Now, the author makes no claims on “Christian” fiction, but the passages are both overtly Christian (a Christian sins and seeks absolution, mixed with “good” feelings of genuine love) and there is an underlying attack on the threat of the spirit and actions of a Pharisaical anti-Christ.

          So – my answer is…it’s complicated. Does Perelandra constitute “Christian erotica” because of its lush and detailed sensual depth? Is secular erotica any more of a corruption of Christian eros than secular fantasy is a corruption of Christian medieval tales?

          Secular mysteries, for example, naturally retain their Christian roots – the plot must hew to the Christian model of truth to work – otherwise no clues pointing to a cause, no red herrings point away, no solution.

          The real question is can a non-Christian write a Christian book?

          My guess is yes, but only if he is honest. An honest writer is akin to the chief photographer of the original shroud of Turin investigations. He does not personally believe that Christ was raised from the dead, and assumed the shroud to be a hoax or a late bit of artwork. He took the photos as an investigator, and stood by the results, which lend tons of evidence against his bias that the shroud is authentic.

          He’s a skeptic in the true sense, the convertible sort. He gives testimony in favor of Christ’s impact (just as Josephus did nearly 2000 years ago), and in that regard, can be considered to have done work that supported (willingly or not) the Christian cause. I’m not talking about their individual salvation here, but in the work of their hands.

          Do certain works lend themselves, based on design, to express the Kingdom? Sure. If pushed, even the rocks will cry out.

          • xdpaul May 23, 2012, 10:15 AM

            should be “tons of evidence against his bias that the shroud is inauthentic.”

  • Nissa Annakindt May 23, 2012, 6:27 AM

    I blogged on this recently. If you study women’s literature in college, you will study works written by women, not necessarily works with a heavy feminist agenda. In the same way Christian fiction is anything written by a Christian. Which makes the issue problematical for Catholics like me, since there is some claim Catholics are not ‘real’ Christians.

    There is a place for Christian fiction that has significant theological content, not always just salvation messages I hope, considering the Christian fiction audience is already Christian. But often I just want to read fiction by a fellow Christian because I know it will not contain insults or hate directed at Christians as some of my favorite secular books have.

  • Kat Heckenbach May 23, 2012, 6:45 AM

    Hm…..I could kinda go to town on this topic right now. My novel recently made finalist in a Christian contest and I was told that while the judges “spent the most time discussing” my novel, the first of three reasons it wasn’t chosen as winner was “lack of faith elements.”

    I am a Christian. I am not in-your-face about it anywhere, but it would take very little Google-fu to find that out about me online. But because I didn’t make that an *overt element* in my novel, I didn’t qualify as winner in that contest. (Yes, there were two other “issues” mentioned, but the lack of faith was the first one, and I take that to mean the most important.)

    There are actually a lot of faith elements in my novel though–they are just subtle and symbolic. I think books *in the Christian market* require those elements to be more obvious. If you use allegory, it has to be a direct relationship, such as “Wulder” for God and “Paladin” for Jesus in Donita K. Paul’s DragonKeepers books. My novel doesn’t have that. It’s all woven deeply beneath the surface.

    Another example: I was told by one agent that’s simply not enough in the Christian market–that if I wanted her to take my novel I needed to show my MC’s growth as a Christian. Which is kinda hard, since I don’t mention Christianity anywhere, including regarding my MC :P.

    So I agree with you–both things you state make Christian books. BUT, the overt nature is what makes the book acceptable by the CBA.

    • Jenni Noordhoek May 23, 2012, 6:51 AM

      I ran across this in a contest as well – my notes from the judges said that a short story I’d written was, while well-written, too dark and edgy just because it dealt with a child being rescued from a pagan religion (that was about to kill him) by an angelic character… **shrug**

      So I think that in addition to being overtly Christian, the CBA market expects you to stay away from certain subjects that are considered not appropriate for Christians even if it’s a perfectly realistic/historical subject.

    • Jill May 23, 2012, 10:38 AM

      Honestly, that really sucks. I had no idea that was part of the criteria for Christian fiction contests. But then, Mike’s question pops up again. I guess there has to be some criteria, or the author would be entering their work in mainstream fiction contests. I don’t know. This is an odd dilemma, or even a paradox, which is why the topic keeps resurfacing. I might go download your book and have a look-see for myself.

      • Kat Heckenbach May 23, 2012, 10:49 AM

        Jill, I had thought–obviously mistakenly–that this particular contest had come into being to give a chance for recognition to authors of Christian fiction that doesn’t fit neatly into the CBA box. The book that won *does* fit that box. However, I rest assured in the fact that I also made finalist in two other contests–both secular, and both a larger scale :).

        Jenni, there are some markets that take dark Christian short stories. And if you are more subtle and symbolic like I am you can submit to secular magazines. My published stories that I consider the most “Christian” of my works were actually taken by secular markets.

        • Kat Heckenbach May 23, 2012, 10:51 AM

          Oh, and Jill, I appreciate the comment about downloading my book.

          • Morgan L. Busse May 23, 2012, 11:11 AM

            In the same camp. I was told both by a beta reader and by a contest judge that I did not have a lot of Christian elements in my story. On the other hand, I’ve also had people tell me my book is definitely overt. Go figure 😉

            • Kat Heckenbach May 23, 2012, 12:45 PM

              Morgan, I think it has to do with what one considers overt. I’ve read book that people said were subtle, but I found preachy. And oddly, vice versa.

          • Jill May 23, 2012, 12:32 PM

            Kat, YA fantasy isn’t my usual pick, but you’ve made me curious with the award-winning Christian book that doesn’t have enough faith elements in it. At the very least, I’ll see if my teenage daughters would like to read it (they are much faster readers than I am!).

            • Kat Heckenbach May 23, 2012, 12:42 PM

              Awesome, Jill–thank you! Hope you like it, or your teen daughters at least :).

        • Jenni Noordhoek May 23, 2012, 8:55 PM

          Yeah, I’ve mostly given up with the Christian magazines for my short stories. I do write some overtly Christian stuff but most of it is subtle. And dark. Heh. I’m okay with that… I was just pretty surprised with this one because it was in a market which I considered to be okay with quite a bit of darkness.

          • Kat Heckenbach May 24, 2012, 6:06 AM

            Hm. There are some full-on “Christian horror” zines out there, too. Or is your stuff not quite dark enough for horror? Fun being in that void between Christian and secular ain’t it? 😉

            • Jenni Noordhoek May 24, 2012, 7:49 AM

              No, actually, I don’t usually attempt horror. Always thought it’d be fun to try something along the lines of Doctor Who (horror meant for a younger audience that still scares the living daylights out of adults), but I don’t read any horror fiction so I am not aware of the genre conventions outside of Doctor Who.

              I just like to write about the darker subjects (yet not dystopian). Like a short story that won a secular contest (at my college) that dealt with chronic depression and suicide. The one that didn’t win the Christian contest was about a rescue from a child sacrifice. That sort of thing makes people uncomfortable, I guess.

              (If you’re really curious I don’t mind sharing – I can send you an email through your site)

  • Jenni Noordhoek May 23, 2012, 6:47 AM

    “Conversely, the absence of certain words (insert your favorite expletive here) could do the same. Some would say profanity de-christianizes your writing. So the less cussing in a story, the more “Christian” it is.”

    As a slightly snarky note: seems like if I only use Chinese expletives and don’t use any of the words that annoy people, I’m in a safe zone! XD

    As a non-snarky note: I actually just don’t use bad language in my novels because I don’t use anything stronger than ‘blast’ myself… it’s hard to imagine using anything stronger. But I wouldn’t have a problem with using stronger language if I was writing for a pre-existing tv show where it’s expected to have a certain level of language. Don’t really care about the people who think it ‘de-christianized’ my writing.

  • Jenni Noordhoek May 23, 2012, 6:55 AM

    “There’s nothing specifically “Christian” about a tempo, instrument, or chord. I mean, is there a “Christian” guitar riff or a “Christian” drum beat? So the “Christian” part of Christian music has to be its lyrics.”

    Actually… I’ve met people who believe that instrumental music can be either Christian or secular. They go down to the math of music and claim that there are some sounds that are more pleasing to God because they’re more logical/mathematically sound or something-like-that. (My math skills stop at high school algebra so I didn’t completely understand it all.) They throw out certain genres of music and certain styles of classical music that are too discordant, as well as try to argue that if it’s not ‘music’ (i.e. just a drum beat with lyrics overtop, or rap music) it’s not godly.

    That was the point where I decided that Christian wasn’t the finished product – it was the person doing it. =P

    • Tim George May 23, 2012, 7:34 AM

      Much of that teaching about music goes back to Bill Gothard’s seminars in which he stressed in some detail the “ungodliness” of discordant music. And, in all honesty, while I like Jazz, Blues, and even an occasional trip to my past with Blue Oyster Cult, I do find the discordant is not conducive to critical thinking or worship for me. But, that doesn’t make it ungodly, just not for me.

      • Jenni Noordhoek May 23, 2012, 7:42 AM

        There’s a strong Gothard influence in ultra-conservative circles from what I’ve experienced, yeah. (Though I’m pretty sure that the people who were talking were not Gothardites or whatever the group is called. Just influenced by.) Didn’t realise it extended to music as well.

  • Barb Riley May 23, 2012, 8:08 AM

    I love the parallel you draw to music, especially the part about hearing the tune rather than the lyrics. I had many unsettling issues with mainstream Christianity that caused me to leave the teaching of church pastors and delve deep into personal Bible study in search of answers, and one of the biggies was hearing “secular” music constantly discounted as “less than,” or, in some circles… “dangerous.” I’ve heard everything from certain drum beats as being satanic to “proof” that the Beatles are satan worshippers.

    “There are no secular molecules in the universe.” I agree! As I see it, there is only the illusion of Christian molecules that can form a fragile bubble for one to live in. Great post, Mike!

  • Lois Hudson May 23, 2012, 11:31 AM

    Great discussion. Mike, I love your “starting point” bottom line!
    As to sex,it’s God-given, it’s wonderful, it’s natural. But there are lots of “natural” activities we’d just as soon not gaze at in a story. I don’t believe overt sexual activities belong in a story any more than I want to stand at my neighbor’s window and watch their sexual activity. I think think it sex can be alluded to without going through the motions.

  • R. L. Copple May 23, 2012, 12:37 PM

    For me, this needs a little more breakdown on what we’re talking about.

    1. Marketing, which is where the CBA comes in. If the audience you’re writing to is the Christian CBA market, then certain expectations follow from that in what can and can’t be in the writing, or what elements need to be there to reach that market. Then there is the more indie, disenfranchised Christian market, those Christians who don’t like the CBA market. Usually means a little freer to push the boundaries, be more realistic, and can be more subtle about the Christian elements. It is an audience that wants a good story, not to be preached at, but do want the story to support rather than tear down, their faith. Both are what could be considered Christian markets. The more “secular” market means a different audience. Christian stories aren’t excluded, but need to be subtle and not in your face to succeed. But a story in that market can be nothing more than based on a Christian worldview and moral basis to be Christian, even in the secular market, just as a secularist might write a story supporting their viewpoint. But once either one starts to sound like they’re pushing an agenda, they are in trouble.

    2. What makes the story itself Christian or non-Christian? My answer wouldn’t be at the end of the day a certain set of words, but whether the underlying principles that are upheld through the end of the story are supportive of a Christian worldview and life. So, in theory, a book could contain cussing and lots of sex, but if the conclusion of that is it was destructive to the people involved, and their relationship with God and man suffered, that could be considered Christian. I had one such flash fiction that anyone upon reading it wouldn’t think, “This is a Christian story.” Yet it illustrates so well the trap pride has for us. But many Christians would cringe at certain points upon reading it. It isn’t targeted to the Christian market, though. It ran in Everyday Fiction, which is more of a secular market. But I would consider it a Christian story because it upheld a very Christian principle, that pride brings us down. So it is more of a warning story.

    3. Because I’m a Christian, everything I write is a Christian story. Well, not sure I follow that one all the way around. When it comes to the marketing angle, non-Christians have written stories for that market and had them published. On one hand, I acknowledge that even in the stories I write which don’t reference God or Christ or anything religious at all, my underlying worldview and moral basis would tend to mean that the story will support the Christian faith rather than tear it down. On the other hand, I’m also human. I could in essence convey heresy to someone, lead them down the wrong path, further away from God, not closer, by the end of the story. Based on the qualifications of what makes a story “Christian” that I have in #2, a story could tear down someone’s faith rather than build it if I’m not careful. So I do think I could in the end, despite talking about God, even presenting the gospel in some form or fashion, end up writing a non-Christian book. That said, I’m much more likely to write a Christian one than a non-Christian one, being a Christian. Not that everyone will agree with all my character’s actions and conclusions, or even the main themes my stories support. But it would be like saying that Pullman could write a Christian story, but don’t hold your breath. If he remains true to his beliefs, he’d hate that he did. And the same would be true in my case.

    The real issue is what constitutes “supporting” one’s faith will vary from group to group, even person to person. So while someone may find my Reality Chronicles very supportive of their faith, another might decide they are the spawn of the Devil. Which means you write what God puts on your heart to write, keep it true to yourself, and let the chips fall where they may on whether others classify it as Christian or not.

  • Corrin Howe June 1, 2012, 2:45 PM

    Reading through the comments made me think about the Song of Songs or Song of Solomon…this is a sensual read.

    Just reading the blog post and comments helped me in my quest for principle I should model when writing my romance novel. I asked a couple of my Christian women friends to provide feedback on my story knowing they might be a difficult sell. I was surprised how difficult. One objected to my description of the man which simply said he had brawny arms with tatoos. Since he is a rebellious SEAL, I intended it to be more of a “showing” vs. “telling” of his character. She felt it was unnecessarily sensual.

    She said a comment that her husband said, “Tom Clancy doesn’t need to write that kind of stuff to sell his books.” Although I thanked her for her honesty — which I did wholeheartedly accept — I could not agree with her. I bit my tongue and kept from saying, “But Tom Clancy is trying to sell to a romance market.”

    Anyways, thanks again for the post and the comments. They were very helpful.

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