The Christian book niche makes a statement about our culture. While Christian writers were working to find our own voice, the marketplace was reacting culturally. A big enough percentage of readers wanted to connect with a different type of literature. Some wanted stories that made them think about the spiritual part of their lives. The reasons are as different as there are people. The fact remained that, except for the works that have become classics, twentieth century fiction seldom integrated the part of the world that seeks Christian faith. The Christian character was not typically portrayed as a strong person, or a person capable of loving others. While there are many types in the world, the religious “types” in modern fiction were not fully formed. The reaction was that some readers felt alienated from modern literature. For those who consider faith in Christ central to life, eliminating every trace of that God-relationship in modern literature is not realistic.
A segment of readers wanted characters that either eventually sought, stumbled upon, or raised questions about faith. In short, characters relevant to their Christian experience. Over the last couple of decades, the buzz around Christian writing circles is how do I balance the gritty realities of life with the Christian worldview without sanitizing my fiction or yielding to soggy sentimentality?
Shaping fiction relevant to the modern Christian aesthetic has required a lot of retooling. Moralizing sends the story flat-lining, unless your intent is to create a character blind to his own lack of authenticity, like Parson Adams in Joseph Andrews. So the Christian novelist has to walk the delicate line between literature and faith. The Bible is rated R if held under the microscope of those who rate morality in literature from within the Christian culture. The Genesis account alone tells the unvarnished truth about humans and our failure to trust God, to believe Him, to take Him at his word. The Bible also portrays the God-follower as prone to falling back into his old ways. We find characters fully formed, following God one moment and falling into adultery the next. However, it is not R rated in the sense of gratuitous descriptions (although the word pictures are telling enough.) But it is a book of raw truth and doesn’t sanitize how humans—even those who have consecrated their lives to God--act and respond.
We Christian writers have had to learn to balance reality in our own fiction while remembering why our readers came to us in the first place. We don’t want to promote an inauthentic or idealistic mystique about who we are, and then even worse, believe it. Even in our churches’ small groups, we want the new believer to know the faith walk is not a walk in the park and that we all stumble. To exercise this same guarding of the truth in literature gives us a greater chance of preserving our legacy in literature, blemishes and all. That is a big responsibility and one that most Christian writers hold in sober commitment. Many Christian novelists address the realities of life while faith informs their stories. That is a natural aesthetic for the Christian artist. We might issue the same challenge to our literary peers in non-Christian circles. Fully formed characters, after all, cast the longest shadows in time.
Patricia Hickman is the author of Nazareth’s Song and Whisper Town. Earthly Vows will release Summer 2006.