Why I Kissed Christian Fiction Goodbye (Part One)
I grew up, like most Christians, immersed by Christian culture. Left Behind books, Kirk Cameron movies, Tee-shirts with Christian knock-off slogans. Half of me lived in this realm, the other half lived in secular culture. Stephen King, Jim Carey movies, and non-knock off tee-shirts.
All people, Christian or not, care about culture. We want our lives to have meaning and purpose within our culture. We’d like to make a difference for the good. People do this in many ways, small and large, but for the purpose of this article, I want to look at art, specifically, the art of storytelling, because I am a writer.
If you would have asked me back in 2005 what kind of fiction I write, I would have said, Christian fiction. For the non-insider, this simply means fiction by Christians, (and mostly for Christians). The phrase and its accompanying ideology were engrained in my head as I remained largely fixed inside the bubble of Christian culture. We have our own family friendly radio stations, wholesome book stores, and Christian movies that try their gosh darnedest to compete with the stuff that secular culture puts out.
Secular culture (aka: the world). We wanted to reach out to the world without being worldly.
But a problem has arisen and is growing more acute every year. All of this explicitly Christian-labeled artistry is largely impotent to reach anyone outside the Christian cultural bubble, or to create much art that is honestly representative of the human condition, and all of the shades of grey between good and evil. Much of Christian art is a way of keeping ourselves hidden away in a fantasy Christian world, where the very real, gritty world can be cleaned up and made palatable.
I’m convinced it is for the following reasons. The prevalent Christian culture has exchanged honesty for wholesomeness; hard, open questions for easy answers; reality for neat and tidy endings; all that is grey for black and white.
Thankfully, there is a growing Christian sub-culture that is escaping this bubble.
I have begun traveling a road that many other artists traversed before me. I have left the toxic culture of Christian art and come closer to the heart of what I believe Christian culture is striving to accomplish.
To speak with depth, authenticity, and hope to all (Christians included). But to do this–to speak to those outside the Church through our art, it has to be real and honest, raw and unsafe, and it can’t shout like a preacher, it must whisper to your heart, like a lover. Outside, in secular culture, and the secular publishing industry, there are no boundaries as to what you can say, or write about, but within church and our Christian publishing companies, the walls are depressingly tall and numerous. And much of that isn’t the fault of Christian publishing companies, but our own fault. We, the lay Christians, have created a market for this insular art.
But there is change in the air. I, like many others, no longer call my fiction, Christian fiction. It’s just fiction. It’s for everyone, whether they’re Christian or not. My faith in Christ is a part of me and should be the driving force behind everything I do in my life. But there are too many Christians preaching to the choir. And when art is simply a medium for preaching an alter call, or getting across this or that message, then it loses its power.
Can fiction lie?
Yes it can. Fiction is story. Fiction helps us see inside ourselves; the deep, soulful humanness of the heart; the humor that makes us burst out in laughter or giggle quietly to ourselves; the hunger-pangs and longings of our God-made sensuality–the treasure of intimacy. Fiction also shows us the brokenness of the world–the wailing, tragic, heart-rending suffering of humans, and the scars, tears, and cuts of inner struggles. Stories, whether literary fiction or genre fiction, are about our world. They can be fun and light, or serious and brooding. Our lives are a story. God is the grand storyteller. But if we are holding back from painting the truth, if we are only pretending to tell human stories as they really are, then we’re creating a false story and it won’t ring true.
Tony Woodlief wrote a wonderful article at Image Journal titled “Bad Christian Art“. In it he says,
“I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity
Woodlief goes on to label four categories in which bad Christian art lends itself. I want to highlight some portions of these categories in Woodlief’s article and expound.
1) Neat resolution: You can find it on the shelves of your local Christian bookstore: the wayward son comes to Christ, the villain is shamed, love (which deftly avoids pre-marital sex) blossoms, and the right people praise God in the end. Perhaps best of all, we learn Why This All Happened. […]
Christian readers have come to expect these neat tidy endings. It makes us uncomfortable if every bad is not overcome, and every struggle does not end in a good resolution for our hero or heroine. Perhaps this is because we want our endings to reflect Jesus’ restoration when he returns. All things are set right in the end. But this isn’t a healthy formula for fiction. Stories need to be free to go into dark places and the artist not feel compelled to escape the darkness by the end of the novel. Different stories will demand different resolutions, and writers need to be free to follow wherever it takes them. The very best stories force the reader to struggle with the themes and questions raised in the book long after the last page has been turned. The best stories haunt you.
With Christian movies, the problem is worse. Take God’s Not Dead for an example. By the end of the film, people are saved left and right, and the movie ends in a Newsboys concert of epically cheese-fest proportions. This is a movie preaching to the choir. It is insular. If you are a Christian, imagine going to see a movie like this as a non-believer. If you are a Muslim, your faith is shown in a horrible light, if you are an atheist, all your arguments are set up to be knocked down and HEY!–you come to faith just before you die! And for everyone else…you’re just being not-so-subtly preached at the entire film. And at the end of the film, too many Christians cheer and sing its praise–“HEY, the message was great! My beliefs were confirmed! And my worldview kicked all those other worldviews’ butts, so awesome!!”
We as Christians need to stop giving movies (and books) like this an artistic free-pass. We must expect more. We must tell Christian writers and filmmakers, our expectations have changed.
2) One-dimensional characters: In many Christian novels there are only three kinds of characters: the good, the evil, and the not-so-evil ones who are about to get themselves saved. And perhaps this saved/not saved dichotomy—more a product of American evangelicalism than Christian orthodoxy—accounts for the problem. […]
The broad problem with writing Christian fiction, or making Christian movies, is your entire purpose is to give your audience a message. Message driven stories lend themselves to one-dimensional characters because the character is there to serve your larger polemic. The characters are there to preach a message, and therefore, do not often reflect the depth and complexity of real people.
3) Sentimentality: Like pornography, sentimentality corrupts the sight and the soul, because it is passion unearned. Whether it is Xerxes weeping at the morality of his unknown minions assembled at the Hellespont, or me being tempted to well up as the protagonist in Facing the Giants grips his Bible and whimpers in a glen, the rightful rejoinder is the same: you didn’t earn this emotion.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s warning against cheap grace comes to mind, a recognition that our redemption was bought with a price, as redemption always is. The writer who gives us sentimentality is akin to the painter Thomas Kinkade, who explicitly aims to paint the world without the Fall, which is not really the world at all, but a cheap, maudlin, knock-off of the world, a world without suffering and desperate faith and Christ Himself, which is not really a world worth painting, or writing about, or redeeming.
4) Cleanliness: I confess that the best way to deter me from watching a movie is to tell me it’s “wholesome.” This is because that word applied to art is a lie on its face, because insofar as art is stripped of the world’s sin and suffering it is not really whole at all.
This seems to be a failing—on the part of artist and consumer alike—in what my Orthodox friends call theosis, or walk, as my evangelical friends say. In short, if Christian novels and movies and blogs and speeches must be stripped of profanity and sensuality and critical questions, all for the sake of sparing us scandal, then we have to wonder what has happened that such a wide swath of Christendom has failed to graduate from milk to meat.
And if we remember that theology is the knowing of God, we have to ask in turn why so many Christians know God so weakly that they need such wholesomeness in order for their faith to be preserved.
This, finally, is what especially worries me, that bad Christian art is a problem of demand rather than supply. What if a reinvigorated Church were to embed genuine faith in the artist’s psyche and soul, such that he need no longer wear it on his sleeve, such that he bear to see and tell the world in its brokenness and beauty? Would Christian audiences embrace or despise the result?
Bad Christian art is a matter of demand, not supply? Yes. Most of the above problems, (neat resolutions, one-dimensional characters, sentimentality) are problems that are endemic to all artists, no matter one’s worldview. There are tons of non-Christian writers creating heavy-handed, one-dimensional, message driven fiction that smashes you over the head with what their heart wants to say.
…the only difference is, very very few of these ever get published or made into feature films. We’ve accepted a lower standard from Christian artists because that’s what we want. Safe books. Movies with feel-good messages just for us.
Not all the fiction found in Christian bookstores, or on the Christian fiction section of your local bookstore, is bad fiction. Some of it is really great stuff. But all of these gems are limited in where they can go, and what they can say. They are also limited to being found only in Christian bookstores, or in the “Christian fiction” section at the local bookstore, or quarantined within the Christian genres on Amazon. These stories will have little impact on the larger culture. If only a good Christian mystery could have the “Christian” label axed and be placed with all the good Buddhist, atheist, agnostic, new age, authors who write mysteries and are actually speaking and influencing the wider culture. The same for every genre.
In part two (coming soon), I will get into specifics. Sex. Violence. Vulgarity. How are we to navigate sensitive material as followers of Jesus? How are we to explore freely every area of the human struggle without losing our own way? How, in the art of storytelling, can we speak without being message driven? Stay tuned, but be prepared–like good fiction, the answers aren’t wrapped in neat and tidy packages.