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How Important is a “Christian Worldview” to Christian Fiction?

Enclave_Logo_RED-570x672Despite having no dog in the fight, I am quite fascinated by the ongoing discussions about the direction of Christian fiction, particularly as it involves speculative fiction. Most recently, that discussion has centered around the sale of Marcher Lord Press, the most identifiable name in Christian speculative fiction.

While there’s been much discussion about the actual sale, the name change, the logo, and what it means for the future of Christian spec-fic, I continue to find the most fascinating elements of these discussions the philosophical ones. What is it that distinguishes Christian speculative fiction from general market speculative fiction?

In his recent interview with Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, Steve Laube, the new owner of Enclave Publishing (formerly Marcher Lord Press) was asked “From a theological perspective, any thoughts about “Christian fiction” and “general fiction”? Steve answered,

In my opinion there are two ways Christian fiction is different from general fiction. First is that the author is writing from a Christian worldview that permeates their stories. Second are the underlying themes that can be found in the best Christian fiction. There are themes of Hope, Redemption, and Truth. This does not mean there is a salvation scene in every book. It doesn’t mean that every character has to have Bible verses on their lips when crisis happen. It does not suggest or require there to be a forced message in every story.

Every novel has a “message” whether written for the general market or the Christian market. That message might be existentialism (see Camus or Kafka) or any number of things. It is fascinating that Christian novels are penalized for carrying redemptive themes while novels in the general market are not penalized for themes of a much darker nature.

This idea that “Every novel has a ‘message’ whether written for the general market or the Christian market” is a common retort among defenders of Christian fiction. And… I pretty much agree! Artists bring their worldview into their worldbuilding. How can they not? Even stories that aren’t intended to be “message heavy” nevertheless import perspectives on things like morals, ethics, race, religion, human nature, the afterlife, sexuality, hope, and redemption. So, yeah, “Every novel has a ‘message.'” This is not something unique to Christian fiction.

So then what about our “message” distinguishes us from general market fiction? This, to me, is where things totally break down. Why? Because

  1. Much general market fiction is written from a Christian worldview.
  2. Much general market fiction contains a “Christian message.”

The list of general market fiction that contains a Christian worldview is probably quite extensive. For instance, I recently finished The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell. The book is not Christian fiction but, from my perspective, there were many Christian themes. For example, look at this lay reviewer’s comments on the novel at Amazon:

As I’m sure you can guess from the title, there is much discussion of religion and God throughout the novel and Temple’s (the protagonist) moral compass is very much tested throughout the book. Temple sees the beauty in much of the world that remains and believes this is all a part of God’s plan and her background of having never known a world without “meatskins” (zombies) gives her an interesting perspective and makes her quite a compelling protagonist; her attitudes towards society and other humans gives the novel further depth. (bold mine)

I concur with this reviewer’s observations about the prominent spiritual themes that pervade the novel. Nevertheless, despite its biblical themes, The Reapers Are the Angels is NOT Christian fiction.

Why?

I’d like to use this novel to offer two suggestions, both of which may help us better understand how religious readers distinguish Christian fiction from general market fiction.

For one thing, The Reapers Are the Angels is R-rated, which automatically removes it from consideration as “Christian fiction.” Though the importance of clean fiction is often underplayed in the defense of Christian fiction, I have come to believe that this is one of  the most prominent components of the genre. The absence of sex, grittiness, and profanity is as important to Christian fiction as “underlying themes…  of Hope, Redemption, and Truth.” In fact, it could be argued that no amount of “Hope, Redemption, and Truth” can make an R-rated story “Christian.”

Secondly, the concept of a “Christian worldview” is still rather open-ended and squishy. As we see with The Reapers Are the Angels, the presence of a “Christian worldview” is no guarantee that a book will be considered Christian fiction. Even though a story contains a “Christian worldview” it still must be explicit enough of a worldview to be considered “Christian.”

So let me toss out an idea.

When we talk about a “Christian worldview” we are talking about a continuum, distinctives that range from implicit to explicit. It could look something like the graph below (10 being “implicit biblical ideas” and 1 being “explicit biblical ideas”). Notice: Everything on this continuum could be considered part of a “Christian worldview.” But only the more explicit ones technically qualify a story as “Christian fiction.”

CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW CONTINUUM

10.) There is a God.

9.) There are Absolute / transcendent morals.

8.) There is an afterlife and a future judgment.

7.) Human beings are intrinsically special, created in God’s image.

6.) The world is Fallen; Utopia is impossible.

5.) Human beings need redeemed from their fallenness, divine assistance; they can’t save themselves.

4.) God is active in the world, seeking to redeem us.

3.) God provides a way of redemption through His Laws, His Spirit, His Son.

2.) A conviction of personal sin and need for forgiveness is essential to redemption.

1.) Repenting of sin and receiving Christ is the only way of redemption.

If such a scale (or paradigm) exists, then what we’re talking about is not so much “redemptive themes” as it is more explicit redemptive themes. Which is one reason why books like The Reapers Are the Angels, while having Christian worldview themes (in the 10-4 range) are NOT considered Christian fiction.

Fact is a biblical message / worldview is just a small part of what constitutes Christian fiction. What separates Christian fiction from general market fiction is NOT just a biblical worldview. It is a G/PG-rated presentation of an explicitly outlined biblical worldview. As much as we’d like to believe that a “Christian worldview” is what distinguishes Christian from secular fare, nowadays, worldview distinctives are really only a small part of what’s required for a story to be considered “Christian fiction.”

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{ 14 comments… add one }
  • jeddom June 9, 2014, 10:59 AM

    “In fact, it could be argued that no amount of “Hope, Redemption, and Truth” can make an R-rated story “Christian.””

    It is interesting to note that The Passion of the Christ” is Rated R. Are we prepared to say that it is not a “Christian” story?

    • Johne Cook June 9, 2014, 11:21 AM

      Being based on scripture, I’m prepared to say it doesn’t fall under the moniker of “Christian Fiction.”

      • jeddom June 9, 2014, 11:28 AM

        Granted. But what does that say about our definition of “Christian Fiction”, when a fairly straightforward telling of many biblical passages would receive a R rating? Where does this standard come from, if not the Bible?

        • Johne Cook June 9, 2014, 11:59 AM

          Oh, it’s dysfunctional and nonsensical, no question – no argument from me.

          • jeddom June 9, 2014, 12:06 PM

            🙂

    • Mir June 10, 2014, 12:03 PM

      Actually, quite a bit of Scripture, if converted from “real life story” to new-era media treatments–novel, television program, film, music video–would be R-rated. There really is no way to portray in modern media the truth of what happened in, say, the Book of Judges, the Books of Kings or Chronicles, the Passion of Christ, the martyrdom of the saints–without it being rated R. Torture, rape, incest, dismemberment, mutilations, and murders are all R-rated things. We simply like to “euphemise” them for comfort.

      But if the Bible were written in 21st Century literary or visual media, it would be drenched in snot, sweat, blood, and semen. Maybe NC-17. 🙂

      What Mel did was show us some of what that horror really was, visually, aurally, not soften it up, pretty it up, and make it palatable, easy to watch. He made it more like what reality was–a torture and death sequence that a man suffered and that was essential for changing the course of human destiny and the cosmos’ fate.

  • Johne Cook June 9, 2014, 11:19 AM

    I like stories told from a Christian worldview but don’t need all those stories to be Christian fiction. The distinction for me revolves around who the target audience is. I re-read the Flannery O’Connor post this morning and was interested in her target audience: “My audience are the people who think God is dead.” Perfect. Agreed. I like writing for people who agree with me and with whom I share both message and agenda. That’s Christian Fiction. But when I write for the audience O’Connor refers to, that stuff will contain a Christian worldview but not be Christian Fiction. And I think it is good to be writing for that audience.

    Given the redemptive element for the character of Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, I think one can argue that at least part of that movie involves a Christian worldview (specifically for the character of Jules) but nobody would ever dub Pulp Fiction a work of Christian Fiction. For me, this is enough as it gives the viewer a way to think about that apparently miraculous scene and the fallout from those decisions (Jules gives up his life as an enforcer and hitman and says he plans to wander the earth as a shepherd seeking out God’s will for his life, while Vincent meets a violent end at the hands of one of the other characters in the intersecting story).

  • Travis Perry June 9, 2014, 1:05 PM

    I think you have over-simplified the actual situation.

    The reasons a Christian writer will self-identify as a writer of “Christian Fiction” are diverse. Some only want to produce clean stuff with maybe some good morals to it, things they would not be ashamed to recommend to a voracious home-schooled reader who is mentally past kids books. They see the “Christian Fiction” brand as a sort of safety net. You can be sure your precocious little niece won’t learn the f-bomb from THIS kind of story. And I don’t think there is anything wrong with that.

    Some people alternatively look for Christian Fiction as a means to deliver a message they can give to a relative or friend who is not a Christian, with the hopes he or she will become a believer. These kinds of stories often have the worst writing because no matter what else happens, everything ends in an altar call where somebody gets saved, very predictable, with stock characters and plot. These stories are in fact probably pretty unlikely to be read by an unbeliever and instead function to reinforce a notion of Evangelical superiority for those who already believe. I don’t care for such tales generally–but these are only a segment of the Christian Fiction market, not at all the whole thing.

    Other writers are trying to express a Christian worldview in a general sort of way. True, there are Christians (and non-Christians) in the “secular” market who do the same, but you can’t be sure their approach will line up with what the Bible says. So in this case the label “Christian Fiction” is supposed to mean that what you read will not subvert what the Bible teaches. (By the way, writers in this category do not necessarily care about writing being G/PG.)

    There’s a subset of writers of a Christian worldview–Christian Speculative Fiction writers who are tackling specific ideas in their stories, ideas common in speculative fiction, but reworking them into something that intellectually harmonizes with a Biblical worldview. E.g. Greg Mitchell in Rift Jump dealing with the multiverse in a way that there is still a single God ruling over what would appear to be chaos; Kat Heckenbach using the Biblical notion of spiritual gifts as the basis for the magic in her world as opposed to magical notions linked to paganism; me creating aliens that are creations of God and as a result are subtly different from hypothetical aliens produced by evolution.

    So I think “Christian Fiction” contains distinct sub-categories and has room for further expansion, which I don’t think you really accounted for, Mike. Probably the common theme is harmonizing to the Bible in one way or other (including the Biblical prohibition on profanity), but that means various things to various people.

  • Iola June 9, 2014, 2:58 PM

    Rel (from Relz Reviews) is discussing this topic as well, from a slightly different angle: “Christian” vs. “inspirational” fiction. I’m seeing an increasing number of novels from the big publishers (e.g. Thomas Nelson) publishing fiction which probably falls in the 4-10 end of your continuum … yet gets published as “Christian” because it has no swearing, graphic violence or on-the-page sex scenes.

    Yet other fiction, like that of Iris Anthony, Heather Day Gilbert, Tamara Leigh or Ninie Hammon, doesn’t get published by the CBA because while it’s written from a Christian world view, it doesn’t fall into the narrow categories that cover most CBA fiction.

  • Mir June 10, 2014, 11:54 AM

    I think it’s both: Christian worldview with no “offensive” content. That coupling = CBA type fiction.

    If I were feeling snarky, I’d add “and very, very white.”

    It’s as if Christians are assessed as eternal 7 year olds who must be protected in their reading from the way the world actually is.

    And as per the usual, nothing wrong with folks writing and reading “clean” and “Christian worldview.” The problem is when this is held up on a pedestal as WHAT MUST BE or else y’all are nasty sinners blinded by the god of this world.

  • D.M. Dutcher June 11, 2014, 9:50 AM

    “Much general market fiction is written from a Christian worldview.
    Much general market fiction contains a “Christian message.”

    There aren’t many mass market books that contain points 4-10. Maybe they’ll have 10, 9, and 6. They might have 8 depending on the genre, but it’s not always in a Christian sense; more like Anubis weighing a person’s deeds. 5 and 4 are about as explicit as the rest, because the idea that we can’t do anything to change our fate and God is active in the world to redeem and save us are peculiarly Christian.

    I think you oversell how much mainstream fiction is spiritually inclined. Christopher Stasheff wrote Her Majesty’s Wizard precisely because he was annoyed at how little medieval fantasy dealt with God, and I don’t think the genre has changed much since then.

  • Tim Akers June 12, 2014, 6:18 PM

    Mike,

    You said:

    “So then what about our “message” distinguishes us from general market fiction? This, to me, is where things totally break down. Why? Because

    Much general market fiction is written from a Christian worldview.
    Much general market fiction contains a “Christian message.”

    That simply isn’t true and I can name a truckloads of stories that stand contrary to your statements. A more accurate statement is that “a lot of speculative fiction is written as a “moral” story. Though moral stories (depending on your morals) may not stand opposed to scriptural Christian worldview, they don’t necessarily affirm Jesus Christ or biblical viewpoints.

    For me, I want my stories to at least be moral, but I would like more stories that are well written and affirm a Christian world view. Such stories don’t have to have scripture or say the name of Jesus, but I want something that affirms my spirituality.

  • 5233 July 7, 2016, 1:18 AM

    One thing I’ve noticed about a lot of secular fiction is that there is definitely a huge contrast between stuff written by sincere, consecrated christian writers and secular writers who just want to entertain. Even in works where it’s more subtle like The Princess and the Goblin, there is a big difference from other secular fairy tales of the time, even those who have a lot of parallels to Christian morals.

    For one, secular fiction often lacks themes of mercy, redemption and forgiveness that Christian stuff has, even in its portrayal of good vs. evil. Very few of our modern speculative writers will ever include passages in their work like in LotR, when Gandalf describes Bilbo’s act of pity towards sparing Gollum to his nephew, Frodo.

    One of the biggest acts of hypocrisy in many post-modern fantasy novels, is how they attempt to expose the ‘evils’ of Christianity or religion, usually in veiled terms. Naturalism usually equates everything we do with having some basis in genes and our outward circumstances that are influencing us, that all will is mechanical processes and the idea that we have any evil in us is a perverted idea by Christianity and other religions that leads us to fight and kill people for the wrong reason. They claim that with reason and science, we can basically argue and program people exactly as we want by employing the precise theoretical method. But ironically enough, the heroes or anti-heroes of secular modern fiction are just as war-mongering as any religious extremists. They are supposedly the rebels who chide the idea of moral absolutes and talk of loving humanity more than any religious person, but still go on killing their enemies with gratuitous scenes of gore and other things, which is ironic since many of the people in the liberal, secular mold claim to be pacifists! They do a very poor job of portraying the supposed promise of reason’s power to convert even the most hard-hearted people, which is something that has been demonstrated in real-life by many of the worst criminals on their conversion to Christianity, more often than not! And again, with the deterministic point of view, you still see just as many atheists as ever holding grudges and hatred towards these people. Rather, they should be taking them into an asylum and trying to study them so as to develop a fool-proof method to effectively convert them without religion!

    Neuromancer is a good example, and most of Gibson’s work. I know Gibson is an atheist. The only good thing Neuromancer can illustrate to a born-again Christian is how technically elaborate our world can be and still be spiritually dead! Everything is reduced to materialism, life is cheapened by being able to repair, clone and resurrect people in a matrix or as a surrogate and the characters have no real direction! I couldn’t finish the first Neuromancer book despite the creative depiction of its world that Gibson painted because the characters had no real heart and the setting was so vulgar and dead.

    I think the bible at times alludes here and there to the idea of novelties that have no spiritual substance. A lot of modern secular fiction has all kinds of novel, original ideas, like time-travelling steampunk vampires, etc. but without any spiritual core, all that imagination an dedication is a huge waste. That’s why I’ve been so engrossed in reading classic christian stories like Lewis, Tolkien, MacDonald, and others, because even if their ideas seemed simpler and less developed than today, there is more meat to find in them for whoever isn’t looking to be impressed by the latest absurd trend. God didn’t come to man in the person of Jesus as a steampunk vampire punk to impress people. No, he came as a mere baby. So much time and devotion is wasted these days by Christians trying to find any substance in most contemporary fiction. It’s gotten to the point where even stuff marketed to the Christian retailers has ounces of heresy and buffoonery in it. I mean come on, a former pagan witch who becomes a Christian goes back to the dark side to save her friends from a vengeful coven? A lot of people I know who have been former occultists or and are now Christians, or who even had a taste of the occult’s influence and power would have quite a bit to say about that. Not good.

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