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Should Christians be Obligated to Promote Christian Art?

Author and editor Kat Heckenbach left a comment on this post a while back. We were talking about how gushing reviews can often backfire on fans and how believers seem far too willing to overlook mediocrity in order to support Christian art. Kat wrote:

A mainstream Christian writer friend of mine was telling me about the movie Courageous a few months ago. She made comments about its lacks in certain areas, but said it was a must-see. She said something as we talked that got me thinking…

She said we have an obligation to help promote Christian fiction even when it’s not fully developed, or it will never get fully developed.

Parents praise their children when they take their first steps. But we don’t praise those same children for walking when they’re five–we praise them for running. And when they’re in high school, we praise them for winning races. The first praise for those first steps, though, is just as enthusiastic as praise for the first marathon.

I’m not saying (and I don’t think she was saying) that we need to artificially inflate reviews and such. But if we don’t look at them *in context* of Christian fiction as a young genre, we could end up with it dead in the water. There needs to be some leeway given. (emphasis mine)

Kat’s comments are always thoughtful and thought-provoking. And this one highlights what seems to be a fairly common attitude among many Christians, the idea that “we have an obligation to help promote Christian [art].” In other words, even if films like “Courageous” are not the best quality, we have to show that there’s a market for this stuff. Christian films, books, businesses, people, and products doing well is, sort of, validation for believers.

I confess, I’m fairly conflicted about this. On the one hand, I want to see Christian art and Christian artists penetrate pop culture. I mean, how else can we be the salt of the earth and the light of the world without getting into the marketplace of art and ideas? The Gospel needn’t be preached perfectly in order to be preached, so why must Christian art be done perfectly in order to be done? As one of my good friends used to say, If it’s worth being done, it’s worth being done badly.

The problem is, however, if what we endorse and offer culture is second-rate, why should our culture be obligated to listen? The moment we slap the word “Christian” on ourselves or our stuff, we are held to another standard. And rightly so! If we really serve the King of kings, what are we doing offering crippled lambs? If our message is of eternal import, shouldn’t that translate into “quality control”? Point being, a mediocre product peddled by an avowed Christian undermines their ultimate message. It’s like saying, “God wants your best.. but cheesy and half-ass will suffice.”

This, however, undercuts the second idea that Kat mentions, that Christian fiction is a “young genre,” still in development, and deserves to be given some “leeway.” Mind you, Kat isn’t suggesting that we should give inflated praise and tolerate mediocre art just because our industry is still young. She’s saying that understanding where we are at in the developmental timeline should temper our critique.

While I agree with this, it doesn’t answer a more fundamental question: Are the “flaws” in Christian art, film, and fiction due to its immaturity as an industry or a systemic concession to mediocrity? Are we more committed to growing in our craft and receiving objective critique, or just providing an alternative to “worldly junk”?

All that to say, I think Christians should have a vested interest in seeing Christian art and Christian artists succeed. But if we aren’t equally committed to quality control, any success we manage will be in a vacuum.

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{ 34 comments… add one }
  • Cathy May 28, 2012, 7:42 AM

    Could it just be a matter of numbers?

    In 2006 (last year for which I could find data for both), there were 291,920 books published in the U.S. (according to Bowker.) That same year, according to ECPA, there were 5,900 Christian books published.

    If my math is correct, Christian books make up just 2% of books published. By my personal preference, only about 5% of books in the MAINSTREAM market are worth reading. The Christian books don’t even crack into that 5% (statistically), right?

    Maybe my logic (or math) is faulty, but if such a tiny fraction of writers (overall) care about really quality writing, then it’s no wonder that an even smaller genre within the market doesn’t produce it.

    • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 8:33 AM

      Cathy, I have brought up that very same argument! I agree wholeheartedly! When looking at it with the idea of “scale” in mind, and of how statistics really work, this makes so, so much sense.

      I’m going to round your numbers here in my illustration for ease…

      5% of 300,ooo is 15,000. But 5% of 6,000 is only 300. Yes, far fewer “worthy” books.

      Look at in reverse.

      95% of 6,000 is 5700 unworthy Christian books. 95% of 300,000 is 285,000 unworthy mainstream/general/secular books. So really, there is a lot *more* crappy writing in the secular market ;). Of course, it’s because there’s more writing period out there in the mainstream.

      (Yay for finding another number nerd!)

  • Susan May 28, 2012, 8:19 AM

    Thought-provoking post, Mike. I submit that Christian art is NOT in its infancy. There are numerous Christian artists/authors who down through the years have created outstanding pieces of work. The problem is that fundagelicalism and evangelicalism tend to base their art on certain acceptable (to them) paradigms. One of the foundational building blocks of writing is that you must tell the truth. When groups ignore evident truths in favor of group rules of what is and what is not acceptable, you end up with mediocre – in the vacuum.

    Perhaps those mediocre offerings have a niche. But, I think that if we praise them as if they were great literature we are being dishonest to those writers. We can do better than that.

    • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 8:38 AM

      Susan, I definitely didn’t mean in my original comments that we should “praise them as if they were great literature.” No–definitely not! But we need to encourage those first steps, in an appropriate way.

      And I address some of what you say here in the comment I left below–which I posted before seeing your comment here.

      • Beez May 28, 2012, 11:10 AM

        Beethoven’s 9th Symphony. Michelangelo’s ‘David’.

        Christian art is not in its infancy. The willingness to accept mediocre Christian art is what is new.

        • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 1:37 PM

          I’d love to see a time line, showing the development of Christian writing over time. I keep seeing people use the same examples over and over. When it comes to fiction, there’s Pilgrim’s Progress, CS Lewis, Tolkien….no one….LEFT BEHIND! O.o What happened during that gap? What happened 60 years ago (right around the time the CBA formed–coincidence?) that left the Christian market empty, and let it shift and be taken over by Jerry Jenkins and prairietales?

          I say Christian fiction is in it’s infancy, you say it’s not. Both sides are right–it is, and it isn’t. It’s like it disappeared, and is trying to come back and doesn’t quite know how. Am I missing something? WAS there stuff in that gap? Why does no one ever mention it?

          • Mike Duran May 28, 2012, 2:07 PM

            I think Christian art, ala Beethoven and Michelangelo, is obviously not in its infancy. Contemporary Christian fiction probably is (even if it started in the 1950’s , it follows the Fundamentalist / Evangelical timeline). I’d add, the comparisons between Beethoven and Michelangelo, and contemporary Christian art, seem immense. I’m just not sure if the changing culture is to blame, or the changing Christian culture.

            • Cherry Odelberg May 28, 2012, 5:11 PM

              Yes. I agree, Susan.
              **
              Under the current “Christian” guidelines, and by current, I mean the last 60 years, Michelangelo’s art is not Christian because it is naked. Beethoven might not live up to evangelical or fundamental standards – in his personal life (although conservatives in droves tend to over-look Mozart’s bio…) Christian art, art in honor of a creator God, is not in its infancy. Evangelical, modernist, fundamental art is.

              Tolkien and Lewis are published by mainline houses (and therefore suspect in the eyes of many evangelicals).

              Having expressed a tinge of frustration, may I commend to you Jossey-Bass for publishing Brian McLaren’s, “A New Kind of Christian,” Thomas Nelson for “Blue Like Jazz,” and “Waking the Dead (Eldredge),” Oh wait a minute, those aren’t novels. Can someone point me to like minded novels?

    • Cherry Odelberg May 28, 2012, 4:58 PM

      Yes. I agree, Susan.

  • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 8:26 AM

    Oh, hey, check it out :). You know, I will likely get a Google alert about this post in like, oh, three months, if I ever get one. Sigh. Just had to say that. Google alerts only ever tells me about *my own* posts. (rolls eyes) Good thing I can find myself on my own :P.

    Anywho…

    Thanks so much, Mike, for giving both sides of my statement there. (And for the compliment on my thought-provoking-ness!) This issue really is one of those things for which I can see both sides. And I do believe we have to push for growth! Definitely.

    Definitely.

    It seems you understand that when I say Christian fiction, I mean the CBA-labeled “Christian fiction”. We can all think of amazing Christian authors who published incredible works we’d consider “Christian” before the CBA came along. And there are still gobs of Christian writers out there writing for the secular market, many of whom are writing brilliant novels.

    I looked up the CBA, and found out they have been around since 1950. That can be argued as both new and not so new, depending how you look at it. But their mission/vision statement says a lot. It is: “To serve Jesus Christ by equipping those called to share the Good News and make disciples through Christian retail excellence.”

    This tells me the CBA’s mission statement in reference to fiction means evangelical Christian fiction, and *that* part is what I’m talking about. For so, so long, Christian writing was part of the mainstream. Christian publishers used to only publish Bibles and educational/nonfiction. It’s pretty recent that fiction has shifted into that market.

    I looked up some of the Christian publishers out there. Thomas Nelson got its start selling Bibles. Their timeline shows that there venture into fiction is very recent. That seems to be the pattern with many of the Christian houses. I, personally, didn’t even realize Christian bookstores carried fiction until *after* I started writing in 2007. That may be purely my ignorance, but the fact is, the section for fiction in my local Lifeway was TINY when I first discovered it and has grown immensely in the last five years (not that it’s huge now, but the growth is significant). And searches on sites like Christianbook.com just a few years ago pulled up only a handful of novels, while today you’ll get pages and pages.

    While Christians have been writing for a long, long time, this specific niche of the evangelical, overtly Christian, writing books specifically as “Christian” thing is a new phenomenon. It’s still on wobbly knees. And some feel that means it’s not worthy to stand at all. I disagree with that. BUT, if the legs STAY wobbly, THAT would be a real issue.

    I’d also like to say Christian fiction isn’t the only genre going through this. You’ve shown interest in the YA market, Mike. I read a LOT of YA, but YA is a fairly new category. When I was growing up there were “children’s books”, “adult books”, and Judy Blume ;). She was the pioneer in “teen fiction” as far as I’m concerned. But not all of those trying to follow in her footsteps are doing a good job. So much YA is mindless, ill-plotted, whiny, snarky, copycat nonsense. However, the brilliant books are beginning to really surface. Harry Potter came along and put YA on the map. But what if it hadn’t? And what if we’d abandoned YA altogether in the early years because it wasn’t at that level yet?

  • Tim George May 28, 2012, 8:29 AM

    Cathy is reinforcing something I have been saying for at least six years now. The pool of Christian fiction is much smaller than that of the general market. Using you math, Cathy, the percentage of crap in the general market is even greater than than that in the CBA.

    To the rest of your presentation, Mike, here is my dilemma. I understand the desire to avoid promoting inferior Christian fiction or other art. What I don’t understand is how often when I ask those who complain about the quality if they have read some of the clearly superior writers in Christian fiction all I get back is a blank stare.

    Quality control is not just about culling out inferior work and firing lazy employees. It is also about recognizing quality when found and encouraging and promoting workers that excel. When I see the complainers spending an equal amount of time seeking out and recognizing quality in Christian fiction, I’ll take their arguments a little more seriously.

    • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 8:41 AM

      Woot! Well-said, Tim. This especially: “When I see the complainers spending an equal amount of time seeking out and recognizing quality in Christian fiction, I’ll take their arguments a little more seriously.” THAT is something I so agree with. Let’s hold these examples up, so the others can see them clearly. Work toward promoting what we find *right* in the market. Forge a trail for those books, and the others will take notice. But just saying, “No, no, wrong!” all the time doesn’t help.

    • Mike Duran May 28, 2012, 11:41 AM

      Tim, the problem with this reasoning, as I see it, is that in the Christian bubble there is a disproportionate amount of praise for Christian fiction to legitimate critique of inferior work (as opposed to simply griping about it). For instance, there are Christian authors that you’ve raved on that, when I read them, was disappointed. You would say, “Here’s an example of great Christian fiction,” and I’m shaking my head. Course, here’s where we typically pull out the “art is subjective” card, which is fine. But it illustrates my point: It is very hard to critique “inferior Christian fiction” among Christian readers because, many (if not most) Christian readers are too busy praising it.

      And, for the record, I’m getting kind of tired of the argument that unless someone spends “an equal amount of time seeking out and recognizing quality in Christian fiction” that they’re unqualified to critique the books they have read. Doesn’t that assume they’re going to find something they like? What if their search for quality Christian fiction comes up dry? Are they not supposed to say anything? What if their search leads them to the conclusion that most Christian fiction is inferior? Is this not a valid criticism? See, I think you’re operating under the assumption that Christians ARE obligated to promote Christian art. But not every Christian reader shares that objective.

      • Tim George May 28, 2012, 12:20 PM

        One of the problems we always seem to have in these discussion is making assumptions. I don’t think Christians are obligated to do anything except to be faithful to their Lord and Savior, period.
        I can turn that around and say their are general market writers people I trusted raved about that left me scratching my head what all the buzz was about. Since we are all about getting to the point and honesty here, it would help this conversation along if you avoid be generic. What author did I “rave” about that disappointed you? Did you read all of the novel? Was it the only one by that author you read? Specifics would be helpful in this discussion. In fact, until one is named there is probably no reason to continue the conversation.
        I think we both like Dean Koontz but if the first book I had read by him was 77 Shadow Street (his latest) rather than Velocity I would have probably felt the same way about such a recommendation as you did mine (whatever it was).
        Just so you know I don’t find it hard to critique Christian writers. Many raved about Robin Parish’s Offworld including a lot of my compatriots at FictionAddict.com. As a Sci-fi fan from way back and having read most of the classics, I thought it was atrocious writing on so many levels. With that said, others who are avid readers like it. Why I don’t know.
        And for the record I challenge you to illustrate where I said you were “unqualified to critique the books they have read.” All I said was “I ask those who complain about the quality if they have read some of the clearly superior writers in Christian fiction all I get back is a blank stare”. When people tell me all Christian fiction is inferior I expect them to have some empirical standard by which they have made such a determination.

        • Tim George May 28, 2012, 12:23 PM

          Please forgive the typos. I am so looking forward to getting Dragon Naturally Speaking 11 in the mail tomorrow as my MS is having a mind of its own today.

        • Mike Duran May 28, 2012, 12:46 PM

          “until one is named there is probably no reason to continue the conversation.”

          I don’t think naming one would help. Even if I did produce specific titles, Tim, aren’t we back — as I predicted — to the same old “Writing is subjective” discussion? As you demonstrate with mentioning Robin Parish’s Offworld. Some loved it! Unless there’s a basic agreement about what’s good and bad writing, we can’t move past square one in this conversation. As long as we say, “Someone will like it,” then it will be impossible to ever honestly check ourselves. Which is why I think many Christians are beholden to the “art is subjective” argument.

          • Tim George May 28, 2012, 2:04 PM

            Sorry Mike, but I’m not going to give you a pass on this one. I didn’t bring up subjectivity; you did. Your prediction came true because you made it come true. I merely wanted to let it be known I am not a shill for CBA writing and can at times give concrete examples of what I consider to be bad writing in those ranks. If you aren’t willing to give examples then there is little power in your assertion that I raved about Christian writers that you read and found lacking.

            And just so we can set the record straight on the subject you brought up, i.e. subjectivity … Writing is not subjective but reading is. Someone else has pointed out here that many readers simply don’ t care that the rules are being broken. Another much quoted blogger, for example, recently boldly stated that he/she would not read another Christian novel no matter how good the recommendation because he/she had been burned too many times.

            The very next week the same person said he/she read Twilight and found it to be innocent fun and worth his/her time reading it. Can anyone here honestly tell me that Twilight is good writing? I don’t believe any objective person here that actually read it can argue for its literary merits. The person mentioned is not a slacker when it comes to knowing good literature. So why didn’t he/she take apart Twilight like he/she would have a poorly written Christian novel? Because READING IS subjective. That person consciously chose to ignore his/her own standards of good writing and just read a book for the fun of it. Now someone please tell me that isn’t subjective!

            • Mike Duran May 28, 2012, 2:15 PM

              “If you aren’t willing to give examples then there is little power in your assertion that I raved about Christian writers that you read and found lacking.”

              So when I name a specific title that you recommended, what exactly will happen? You will say why you liked it and I will say why I didn’t and… then what? I appreciate you not letting me off the hook, Tim. I’m just not sure which hook I’m on.

  • Nissa Annakindt May 28, 2012, 9:34 AM

    It’s sometimes difficult to find the quality Christian fiction, especially for me as I don’t care for romance novels. The main place evangelical Christian fiction is available for me is in the local Walmart, where only romance is available. (As for Catholic fiction— I’m Catholic— I only find out when one of my Catholic internet friends recommends a new book or author.)

  • Fred Warren May 28, 2012, 10:06 AM

    Nice article and discussion.

    Susan: “I submit that Christian art is NOT in its infancy. There are numerous Christian artists/authors who down through the years have created outstanding pieces of work…”

    I think Susan’s hit a key point here. We have no shortage of literary exemplars in the Christian world, but we too often choose to ignore them or learn the wrong lessons from them, taking our cues instead from the status-quo we’ve facilitated. To paraphrase Chesterton, “Excellence has not been tried and found wanting, it has been found difficult, and not tried.”

    Kat: “While Christians have been writing for a long, long time, this specific niche of the evangelical, overtly Christian, writing books specifically as “Christian” thing is a new phenomenon.”

    I wonder if it’s more about the labeling, and qualifying for the label that grants entrance to a particular market, than about substance. As Kat notes, the books have always been out there, we just haven’t put a “sticker” on them until recently. I think this niche _is_ fully-mature, well-understood by its patrons, and unlikely to diverge from a formula that has proven reliable and lucrative, while coated it in a spiritual veneer: “…and make disciples through Christian retail excellence.” What does that even _mean_?

    Kat: “But if we don’t look at them *in context* of Christian fiction as a young genre, we could end up with it dead in the water. ”

    I think the fear of “eating our own young,” or being uncharitable to brothers/sisters in the Lord is understandable, but misguided. People tend to perform to the level of our expectations. If we’re getting mediocre products, it’s because we’re reinforcing that performance.

    But who are the arbiters of “quality?” If we’re discontented with the CBA and other like-minded organizations, what substitute gatekeepers should we offer? Who gets to say “_This_ is quality (or worthy or Christian), but _that_ is not”? Us? Kat may champion a book I think is utter tripe, and vice-versa. Tim may think we’re both off our rockers.

    It’s a serious problem, and not an easy one.

    • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 10:35 AM

      Fred, I do think you have good points! I don’t want to reinforce mediocre performance. I think the CBA needs to strive higher and higher. I think we ALL do.

      I also think it’s somewhat comparable to the idea in writing that we need to learn the rules in order to learn how to break them effectively. The CBA has set the “rules” for “Christian-labeled” fiction (it needs to be called that, I’ve determined because of these very discusions–“Christian” can be interpreted in so many ways, but we’re talking about fiction that is boxed and labeled as a very specific niche) and got their start in a very rigid way. Now the rules can start to flex. The problem comes in the fight to retain the rigidity–that is going to lead to lack of growth. Maybe it would be better stated neither that CBA fiction is “young” nor “mature”–but rather that it’s hit a plateau in its development?

      And great last point there. Subjectivity is something we can’t ignore. There are readers out there who love the books we hate for the very reasons we hate them. That can actually refer to craft as well as content. Most writers believe (rightly so) that certain rules/standards of craft exist, but the truth is most readers are ignorant of them. And even some readers and writers who do understand craft seem willing to overlook it in favor of content. That says that content *is* important, but it should not take the place of craft. Unfortunately, there is simply no accounting for taste ;P.

      And my last comment here is kind of a side-step, I have found in my personal experience that the best writing “crafters” I know are Christians. I’ve attended some secular critique groups where the writing is atrocious. And the one sf/f/h con I go to has several writers who are supposedly award-winners and best-sellers (in the secular indie market) and yet their writing makes me absolutely cringe. But my crit partners are striving to be the best, and a lot of *new* books out there are just awesome–but they’re not being published by the big guys. YET. I think things come in waves, and a new wave of writers is hitting shore as we speak–a wave of writers who noticed the plateau a few years ago and are in the midst of writing and publishing in effort to correct it. I wonder what we’ll think of this conversation in five years, when those writers are leading the pack. 😀

  • Kat Heckenbach May 28, 2012, 10:41 AM

    Oh, and Mike, hope it’s okay that I just barged in here and started replying to everyone :). Not trying to take over! But I’m excited by the discussion. I do think we all agree that standing still while others move forward is tantamount to moving backward, and we all want to see Christian fiction continue to move forward. It’s just about finding the right way–or WAYS–to make that happen.

  • Charise May 28, 2012, 11:17 AM

    The comments are almost as good as the post! I know the post suggests no one agrees with falsely inflating reviews to promote Christian art. But that is happening. There has to be other ways to influence the market rather than suggest we (Christians) will “settle” for mediocre. Can you imagine the development meetings?
    He: This isn’t very good.
    She: I know. What should we do?
    He: Let’s add a cross and a few Bibles. It’ll sell like hotcakes.

  • Tony May 28, 2012, 12:04 PM

    We have an obligation to be even more critical of Christian artists imo. And of the Christian community in general. This isn’t a game. Everything we do is a reflection of God as far as the world is concerned, so we have to be better than the norm because God is better. Christians should be creating the best art. Our coddling has only led to the second-rate stuff we get today.

    We’re capable of so much more. Take “The Exorcism of Emily Rose,” for example, or “The Exorcism” by William Blatty (the novel). Or “The Taking” by Dean Koontz. And on, and on. These are examples of what we can be when we really put our mind to it. When we stop worrying about the sermon and start worrying about making God look good.

    Time for this “young genre” to grow up. 😉

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller May 28, 2012, 12:31 PM

    Christian films, books, businesses, people, and products doing well is, sort of, validation for believers.

    Mike, I can only speak as a writer about this. I don’t think it’s about validation for believers. I actually want quality, and I find much general market art lacking. It doesn’t have the whole truth. When I promote a Christian’s work, then, it’s for two reasons: 1) I think it’s a way I can show love to a Christian brother or sister; 2) it’s a way to let the book industry know what books I’m willing to get behind.

    I took to heart what Karen Ball said years ago in a comment on my site to a post about Christian fantasy. I was complaining about the lack of titles and what I perceived to be a skewered bias against speculative fiction by the powers that be in the Christian book industry. Karen, working as an editor at the time, took exception and explained the realities of the industry in clear terms. One point she made is that we who want to see an increase in speculative fiction need to vote with our pocketbooks.

    The bad thing is, “not buying” can mean a number of things: I’m not buying because I don’t like supernatural suspense and that’s the only speculative titles you have; I’m not buying because I don’t care for the one author with the two shelves of books your store carries; I’m not buying because the quality of these books is poor; I’m not buying because I didn’t know you carried any speculative fiction at all. Whatever the reason, what the book business hears is “Christian speculative fiction doesn’t sell.”

    The alternative, then, seems to be to vote with the pocketbook and encourage higher quality. It’s tricky though. If I “encourage” too hard, others may decide they don’t want to vote with their pocketbook, and publishing houses will once again scale back.

    I think Christian films are in the same boat. Christian romance, of course, is established, as is historical (though that went through a bit of a down turn), and suspense, of all things.

    Becky

  • Krysti May 28, 2012, 12:32 PM

    I’m caught in the middle of this whole debate. I’ve read some great pre-CBA Christian fiction, some good CBA Christian fiction, and some great ABA fiction… I’ve also read some lousy CBA and ABA fiction and regretted both. I’ve also watched some mediocre Christian movies, and some great Christian movies and a range of secular movies and television that by turns appalled or lifted up.

    I went through a time when I was convinced there was no such thing as great CBA fiction, though, and I’m not entirely past that stage. I’ll read a book if it’s been put out by Marcher Lord Press, or Splashdown Books or Desert Breeze Publishing, Port Yonder Press, etc., but I’m not entirely sure that any of them can be reasonably classified as CBA if they’re not members of CBA. Waterbrook Press is, and we read Donita K. Paul’s books, and enjoy them immensely, but–she’s not typical of the CBA. Most of the books I really like are NOT typical of the CBA. I’m not sure when or if I’ve read another genuine CBA book in the last five years, although I have read a number of works that I would classify as Christian fiction.

    I’ve caught the rumblings from the other side too. I’m nominally a member at a church here in town–nominally, because I can barely stand to go there thanks to my chemical sensitivities, and with what’s happened, it’s very difficult for me to go anywhere else.

    They’re leery of, or down on any kind of fiction. They won’t even let me host a get-together for Grace Bridges at the church when she comes to town because they’re afraid she’ll try to sell books on site. The pastoral staff doesn’t even want to meet her and hear what she’s got to say about the changing face of publishing in the age of the internet. “All we’re about is preaching and teaching the Bible. Publishing has got nothing to do with us!” It’s gotten to the point where it’s not even worth trying to address their misconceptions with them, because it’s crystal clear that they don’t want to hear anything that challenges their world-view.

    While this isn’t the largest church in town, it is a decent size, and I’ve been given to understand, is not alone in this particular point of view.

    There is this almost snobbery about “we don’t read THAT here” that I’ve encountered over and over again. The one bookstore people from this church profess to like isn’t even in this city. The reason they like it is because the owner has sold them on her mission to promote “only solid theological Christ-honoring books,” not like those terribly wicked people over that the Family Christian Bookstore, who, GASP! sell “all that trashy fiction!”

    I’ve never been in her store and at this point, I probably won’t go there either, since I try to avoid the city it’s in as much as possible. Although–I am somewhat curious as to what she sells that keeps her in business.

    There’s something so totally schizophrenic about this attitude. I know church members’ children go to school; some to public and some to private, and they check books out of the libraries. So–what are their kids reading?

    What are their wives reading? What are they reading? Is it all just theological books? (Why do I strongly doubt this?) Do they REALLY never watch TV or go to the movies? How is watching most of the dreck on TV or at the movies any better than what’s in 95% of the ABA books? How is it ANY better than what’s in CBA or Christian fiction?

    And still there’s this incredible reluctance to engage with the culture, which has contributed to certain problems that are getting out of hand in our city in a big way, which of course they’re upset about NOW, but they either can’t or won’t see that they might have helped head off what is happening before now if they’d been more engaged.

    Trying to get them to engage though, it’s like shoving an elephant uphill…

  • Jim Hamlett May 28, 2012, 1:40 PM

    I’m with Mike on being “fairly conflicted about this.” It is the buying public who guides the publishing houses. As long as “mediocre” sells, publishing houses will print it. And it matters not if the work is for the CBA or ABA market.

    What we need in the CBA market are strong “bands of brothers” (which can become “brands”) who agree on what constitutes a high level of quality and who collaborate to produce that kind of work. In other words, they declare war on mediocrity and aim for the very best (even in this highly subjective craft). Think of an uber-critique group. And while I think it would be best for the bands to produce works in different genres, there’s nothing wrong with a band concentrating on one particular genre (e.g., a Sci-Fi band, a YA band, a Romance band, etc.). And while it might be possible to contract with existing publishers to publish the works of the band, I think having a publishing arm of your own is the best way to control the end product. Call it self-publishing if you like, but I’m thinking of something far above what that stigmatized label suggests.

  • Fred Warren May 28, 2012, 2:19 PM

    Rebecca: “The bad thing is, “not buying” can mean a number of things…”

    And this is a basic fallacy with the whole system: sales trump quality. There are good books that sell and poor books that don’t, and vice versa, but what is published, distributed, stocked and restocked in a sector controlled by sellers is what _ sells_. If literature professors were in charge of what gets shelf space in bookstores, we might see a different mix, likewise theologians, historians, or Christian spec-fic fans. Would we be offered better quality books? Maybe. Would people buy more quality books? I don’t know.

    Mike: “Unless there’s a basic agreement about what’s good and bad writing, we can’t move past square one in this conversation. As long as we say, “Someone will like it,” then it will be impossible to ever honestly check ourselves. Which is why I think many Christians are beholden to the “art is subjective” argument.”

    It’s simultaneously a cop-out and an acknowledgement of reality. I agree that this conversation goes in circles without a consensus on what right looks like. However, no matter what consensus we or any other interest group forms regarding what quality means, it can and will be subject to challenge. We depose the CBA Shah and substitute our own council of Imams, and the result may be no better than before. I don’t think that’s an excuse to give up striving for excellence, but I’m skeptical of attempts to impose it by force or influence.

    E-publishing is subverting this whole gatekeeper issue. Pretty much anybody who wants to write, publish, and market a book to a mass audience can do so with less expense and effort than ever before. Competition on either quality or marketability isn’t even a problem if you don’t care about making money, because your book won’t get pulled from the electronic “shelf” if it doesn’t sell. It’s on the list forever, until you decide to remove it. The incentive toward quality in this sort of environment becomes more a matter of personal motivation.

    And still there’s this incredible reluctance to engage with the culture…

  • Jessica Thomas May 28, 2012, 4:01 PM

    “Point being, a mediocre product peddled by an avowed Christian undermines their ultimate message. It’s like saying, “God wants your best.. but cheesy and half-ass will suffice.”

    The thing is, some peoples’ best is cheesy. And it may come across to others as half-ass when in reality it represents their best effort. So, I think we need to be careful not to get to a place where we have a bunch of Christian artsy-fartsy elitists. That would be far worse than the status quo, in my opinion.

  • Cherry Odelberg May 28, 2012, 4:56 PM

    “I confess, I’m fairly conflicted about this.” – Couldn’t agree more.
    I whole-heartedly agree with cheering and praising a baby’s first steps – you just don’t sell tickets to strangers until the child has won a few races.

  • R. L. Copple May 28, 2012, 6:45 PM

    Hum, interesting topic and comments. On the basic question, are we obligated? No, of course not. But the assumption really is are we obligated if we want “Christian” fiction to succeed? And what I really hear is are we obligated to promote and “like” a book we feel is sub-standard simply because it is a Christian book?

    I’ll put it this way. There are the real losers out there, that most anyone would classify as not only lousy writing, but not even a good story. Then there are those that maybe have a good to great story, but the writing has a lot of problems (these can sell, because if a story is really good, readers tend to overlook non-stellar writing short of making it hard to read). Then there are the groups that have a good story and good writing, but maybe not in the “Wow!” category. Then there are the really “Wow!” ones that have both excellent stories and excellent writing.

    I personally don’t feel at all obligated to promote books that are in the first two categories. And I’m not inclined to promote a book where the writing may be spectacular, but the story is boring. Flowing poetic prose isn’t going to keep me reading.

    But, if a book is in the good category, at least, even a secular one, I would give it around 3.5 stars and say it was worth reading. Likewise, if it blows my socks off and I feel it is worth the five stars, I’ll say that, secular or Christian.

    The reality is, if the goal of Christian fiction is to reach people with the Gospel, it will not be able to do that focused on selling to Christians, and a segment of them at that, mostly Evangelical. And that means competing with the secular market. But that also means not being so preachy, and competing with quality in many cases or at least our quality writers have to compete with their quality writers if we are to gain a mass appeal.

    That said, I sometimes feel we treat this subject as too black and white. We talk about quality sometimes as if that equates to writing a classic. Classics are far and few in between. To reach that level means an author hits many levels of quality. Not just writing, but story telling, characterization, theme, and something that strikes an emotional chord with the readers that is enduring. Between that level and those who are writing crap is a ton of good writers and books worth reading and promoting in each area.

    I think if Christian fiction is to grow, it will need more than propping up by folks. Part of its lack of appeal is so much preconceived ideas in the general market, even among Christians, about what “Christian fiction” means. So many won’t even look at it if it is labeled. But even there, I think it is fine to support worthy efforts, even if we can’t label them the material that classics are made of. But I don’t think the success or failure is going to depend on me and others supporting it. It’s going to depend on enough people liking what is coming out that it takes off on its own momentum.

    So maybe the question should really be, are we willing to promote books, Christian books even, who we consider good, even if not super high quality? I’m not saying promote junk. But is the only thing we are going to promote is what we think could be the next classic in literature? What level of “quality” are we talking about here?

  • Jason H. June 6, 2012, 12:04 PM

    Excellent comments on a complex issue. I think the answer is both No and Yes. I feel no obligation to spend time or money on something, or recommend that others do so, simply because someone else labels it Christian. However, I am compelled (even obligated) to encourage individuals in the growth and use of their gifts and abilities for God. So, I look for these positive opportunities, especially in the arts. Not long ago this meant promoting the book of a long time scholar and first-time author I have been blessed to know the past 4 years. In the past, it was working with a first-time author of great potential to continue honing his craft. The obligation lies in the opportunities God gives us and not the support of an overall genre which may or may not accurately reflect the work.

    Also, it seem that the previously posted comments point to more important questions on the base level.

    Does such a label do more harm than good for the fiction writer and reader? Presently, the “Christian” label speaks toward general subject matter, not specific Christian worldview (of which we know there are many). My experience is that when most Christians seek out “Christian” fiction, they are seeking works that are in line with – or at least don’t severely offend – the core of their doctrinal worldview. Generally, the perception of overall quality often increases the more the work is in agreement. Yet, these same readers may shut off their theological radar when reading secular works they know up front will be based upon an entirely different worldview. An author or work being labeled “Christian” seems to face an uphill battle for acceptance and success because of this double standard and the differences among Christian groups.

    I know that many authors avoid the “Christian” label altogether and market their story to those who would never venture into the Christian book isle. I am interested to know from those of you who are published how much you feel an author might realistically suffer from simply by letting the work remain Sci-Fi, Romance, etc. and allowing the quality speak for itself? In an industry overrun by worldliness, it would be wonderful to see those of the faith prove that they do not have to be marginalized and moved into a niche category.

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