My non-fiction essay, “Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre,” is now available on audiobook. Narrated by veteran voice artist Randy Streu, “Christian Horror” is my attempt to explore the Judeo-Christian roots of contemporary horror, the religious themes that frame much of the horror art, and how evangelical culture has come to distance itself from such a potentially rich and powerful medium. The book is designed to be an apologetic for Christians grappling with the horror genre as well as those who want to understand its cultural and religious implications. You can purchase the audiobook version of “Christian Horror” HERE.
It should come as no surprise that the ACFW (American Christian Fiction Writers), the world’s largest Christian Fiction organization, is primarily comprised of females. I say that ‘shouldn’t come as a surprise’ for several reasons, but mostly it has to do with the demographics of reading/publishing and the demographics of the evangelical church.
Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but the disparity between females to males in publishing, as well as evangelical publishing, is indisputable (For example, 78% of publishers are comprised of females. According to this editor, “…most editorial meetings tend to be dominated by women. Saying the ratio is 75/25 is not overstating things. So needless to say when a male editor pitches a book aimed at men, there are perilously few men to read it and give their opinions.”) According to the Spring 2012 ACFW Journal (since discontinued), only 13% of its members were, at that time, men. (You can find a PDF of that edition HERE.) Being a former member, and having attended several ACFW conferences, I can attest to the general accuracy of that figure.
The Christy Awards (the premiere Christian fiction award) is a good example of this demographic disparity. The 2019 awards consisted of 30 Finalists. Of those, 5 were male. (That disparity basically holds up throughout the life of the Christys.) If that figure is indicative of the representation of men writing and/or reading Christian fiction, it means that 1/6th or roughly 16 percent of the Christian fiction market is comprised of men. In an older article entitled In Search of the Male Reader, the author quotes Dave Long, then senior acquisitions editor for Bethany House Publishers, commenting on the problem this gender imbalance creates for male readers. “For guys who might want to read a suspense novel or legal thriller, it’s tough convincing them there are those kinds of books available. The shelves look like they are filled with Amish and historical romances and I think men have either stopped looking or are content with offerings from the general market.” Statistics quoted by Christian Retailing bear that out:
The top Christian fiction genres reported by surveyed readers were historical fiction (66 percent), romance (52 percent), contemporary (51 percent), romantic suspense (50 percent), suspense/thriller/legal thriller (47 percent) and mystery/espionage (45 percent)
With the majority of Christian fiction books comprised of historical, romance, and romantic suspense, it’s not a surprise that Christian men have taken to shopping for their fiction elsewhere.
While a member of the ACFW, I often noted this disparity. In a religious movement that esteemed male leadership, the proliferation of female content seemed incongruous. However, the demographic tilt appeared so organic I eventually concluded it was futile to expect any significant change to the culture. So while I maintain great interest in the trajectory of Christian publishing (and Christian artists in general), I’ve since moved my publishing endeavors to the general market.
Recently, I learned about the ACFW’s attempt to engage more men. A Facebook page dedicated to connecting with male readers was introduced. According to the group’s Statement of Purpose: “The ACFW Men’s Fiction group is for current ACFW members both male and female who write stories designed to reach men and boys for the Kingdom of God.”
While I applaud efforts like this, I’m mostly skeptical. This isn’t because I question the motives or sincerity of those involved, but because I’ve concluded the problem is much bigger and more complex than we tend to concede.
So what are some of factors that have resulted in Christian fiction being predominantly aimed at women? And what has prevented the industry from connecting with more male readers? In this article I want to outline five reasons why I believe Christian fiction publishers have lost/are losing male readers. Below are the first two.
The ‘Gender Gap”
In feminist circles, much is made of apparent discrepancies between men and women in various walks of life. Most of this critique is intended to portray a type of “male privilege” that pervades our society and tips the balance of power to men.
So, for example, during Women’s History month 2017, one used bookstore owner decided to protest the perceived “gender gap” between male and female fiction authors by turning in the spine on all books written by men. A sign posted at the store read, “We’ve silenced male authors, leaving works of women in view.” Such protestations are now fairly common across all industries as narratives of gender and racial diversity are emphasized.
One glaring inconsistency to the claims of a gender gap in publishing is the very real data concerning a biological gender gap between readers. For example, this NPR article notes that “When it comes to fiction, the gender gap is at its widest. Men account for only 20 percent of the fiction market.” In an article entitled What Is It with Boys and Reading? Psychology Today peruses to standard data:
On the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), boys have scored significantly lower than girls in reading at all grade levels every year since 1992 (the first year for which NAEP scores are available). And the gap grows larger, not smaller, as children get older, such that, by twelfth grade, more than twice as many girls as boys (5% versus 2%) scored as “advanced” in reading on the 2015 NAEP. Not surprisingly, given these data, boys are also for more likely than girls to be identified as learning disabled in reading.
…these disparities continue into adulthood as well; in 2016, the Pew Research Center survey of adult reading habits concluded that “women are more likely to read books than men,” and noted that 32% of men (versus only 23% of women) surveyed said that they hadn’t read a single book in the past year.
The data are pretty consistent across time, countries and age groups: there is little doubt that, on average, boys read less, and less well, than girls. (emphasis mine)
Compounding this problematic disparity is the belief among some that “Our society is neutering boys of their maleness at a young age.” That according to “dissident feminist” Camille Paglia in her interview with the Wall Street Journal.
…attempts to deny the biological distinctions between men and women is to blame for much that is wrong with modern society. ‘What you’re seeing is how a civilization commits suicide’ [Paglia] told the Wall Street Journal.
Such “biological distinctions between men and women” are clearly in play when it comes to reading and readers. While this is obviously a larger sociological and biological issue, it remains a very real factor in why Christian fiction publishers are losing male readers — Men simply don’t read as much as women.
Evangelicals don’t read much fiction
According to this study by Barna, evangelicals read differently than the general populace. Whereas, in general, mainstream readers prefer fiction over non-fiction, Christians favor non-fiction over fiction (see graph below). This is somewhat understandable in that Christianity is defined by theology and regularly confronts cultural, philosophical, historical, and political issues. Which could explain why there is significant skeptism among evangelicals regarding fiction and entertainment in general. After all, the Bible is a book of Truth. Why then should Christians bother with make-believe?
Suspicion of fiction may start at the top. Having been on staff with two different churches over an 11 year stretch, I can attest to the fact that many evangelical ministers do not read fiction. Rather, the typical pastor’s library is top-heavy with books on Theology, Administration, Counselling, and Church History. At best, fiction is seen as simple entertainment or diversion. At worst, it is a vehicle to pollute the imagination and shape values of the gullible. Either way, few Christian churches invest much energy into making a case for the arts and storytelling, much less developing a theological apologetic for its value.
In this way, the scarcity of Christian men reading fiction is partly representative of the evangelical church’s suspicion of the medium. (Of course, the gender gap comes into play here as the male mind is more left-brained, analytical, and less emotive. Which is why men who do read tend to gravitate to more non-fiction — practical, professional, theoretical, investigative, biographical, or clinical stuff. Similarly, when men read fiction, it tends to lean to the visceral, speculative, and adventurous — war, espionage, crime, survival, courage, camaraderie, and coming-of-age. )
So one reason Christian publishers are losing male readers is because evangelical churches have not made a compelling case for reading fiction. Even if a Christian man is predisposed to be a reader, it is statistically more likely that he would pick up a book on exercise, self-defense, or true-life survival than epic fantasy or steampunk.
Continued in Pt. 2
Jesus told stories that did not always have a positive or uplifting outcome. Oftentimes, there was ambiguity in their resolve. Sometimes there were images of horror and dread. For example, The Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk. 16:19-31) ends with the rich man in a “place of torment,” prevented from returning to warn his brethren. The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares (Matt. 13:24-30) is explained by Jesus (13:36-43) to refer to “children of the wicked one” who will be cast into an eternal “furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (vs. 42). The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats ends similarly bleakly (Matt. 25:31-46), with the unrighteous being banished into “eternal punishment” (vs. 46 NIV).
Jesus was not afraid to scare the hell out of people and use shocking imagery in the process.
Despite all this, much evangelical art and artists eschews images of terror or unease in favor of hope, positivity, and nauseatingly upbeat fare. But in doing so, Christian communicators often neglect the redemptive power that can be found in images and tales of woe.
In a recent podcast interview with the guys at Pop Culture Coram Deo, I shared a bit about my conversion to Christianity. A major step in that process was a shocking realization that evil — more specifically, the Devil — was real. And being that I was steeped in occultism at the time, the evidences of evil were all around me, from Ouija boards to Hindu icons to Satanic symbology. The representations of evil that I’d gathered around me pricked my conscience and became a springboard to repentance. God might have had a wonderful plan for my life, but it was Satan’s plan and his diabolism that set me on the straight and narrow.
Apparently, I’m not the first person to be scared into the Kingdom.
One of the more prominent cases is that of Peter Hitchens, brother of one of the world’s most famous atheists, Christopher. Interestingly enough, Hitchens’ spiritual wake-up call came in the form of a 15th century painting.
In How I found God and peace with my atheist brother, Peter Hitchens chronicled his slide into atheism and back again.
No doubt I should be ashamed to confess that fear played a part in my return to religion, specifically a painting: Rogier van der Weyden’s 15th Century Last Judgement, which I saw in Burgundy while on holiday.
I had scoffed at its mention in the guidebook, but now I gaped, my mouth actually hanging open, at the naked figures fleeing towards the pit of Hell.
These people did not appear remote or from the ancient past; they were my own generation. Because they were naked, they were not imprisoned in their own age by time-bound fashions.
On the contrary, their hair and the set of their faces were entirely in the style of my own time. They were me, and people I knew.
I had a sudden strong sense of religion being a thing of the present day, not imprisoned under thick layers of time. My large catalogue of misdeeds replayed themselves rapidly in my head.
I had absolutely no doubt that I was among the damned, if there were any damned. Van der Weyden was still earning his fee, nearly 500 years after his death.
Of course, there was more to Hitchens’ re-conversion than just an art viewing. Nevertheless, the sense of dread and the conviction that picture evoked is a testament to the power of art. Even after centuries, Van der Weyden “was still earning his fee.” 500 years after his death, his composition still possessed the ability to puncture the mundane, arouse the conscience, and extricate the viewer from their moral malaise.
Perhaps Christian art would be better if we spent a little less time being “painters of light” and more being prophets of woe. After all, Jesus’ stories were not always feel-good paeans of positivity. Sometimes His hearers left feeling, like Hitchens, that they were “among the damned.” In this sense, redemptive art isn’t always about angelic choirs and sparkly Easter morns. Sometimes, only the image of the Rich Man in eternal torment can awaken the soul.