How To Discern Honest Christian Fiction

Johne

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Sep 27, 2005
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...without embracing darkness. By Josiah DeGraaf at Lorehaven.

Christian cringe is real.

As our Fantastical Truth podcast explored in episode 126, Christian fiction shares plenty of campy conversion scenes, bad parodies, and simplistic Christ-figures to poke fun of.

There’s a reason many of these tropes come off as cringy: they don’t feel true-to-life. We know cringey events can only work in a fictional world. And so many readers rightly want more in the fiction they read.

But some Christians may be concerned with calls for honest or realistic fiction. In some circles, this “honesty” means bringing more darkness and sin into stories. And that raises ethical questions. Should we really desire more depictions of sin in fiction? And does honest fiction mainly mean “depicting more sin”? Or does honesty call us to something more?

Why honesty matters in fantastical fiction​

This idea that honesty is a virtue of fiction may cause some readers to scratch their heads. After all, isn’t fiction’s goal to entertain us? And as some Twitter pundits have claimed about fantasy, does honesty matter in fantastical genres that already call us to believe in mythical creatures and races?

The truth is, however, that Christians believe honesty must matter about human nature. Solomon endeavored to write words of “delight and truth” (Ecclesiastes 12:10), and good fiction has always done this. Without honesty, fiction becomes vapid entertainment. With honesty, fiction can reveal new facets of God’s reality along with entertaining readers so we can better embody our Christian callings.

While fantastical settings often call us to “suspend disbelief” at points, good fiction draws the line at human nature. Tolkien asks us to believe in Elves and talking trees. But the personality and values of each character always feels realistic. And when authors try to change human nature (as Patrick Rothfuss attempts to do with his “casual sex without consequences” society in Wise Man’s Fear), the intelligent reader understands that something is up. It’s why we’re excited to see grown men fight with lightsabers, but groan at the same man saying, “Love can’t save you. Only my new powers can.” (See, secular films have plenty of cringe as well!)

Settings and abilities can change, but human nature ought to represent reality. As the famed literary critic Samuel Johnson put it in his introduction to Shakespeare, “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.”1

Great fiction always exemplifies honesty in how it depicts human nature. But what can we make of the desire to show more sin and darkness in Christian fiction?

Looking for honesty about the darkness​

Certain critics of Christian fiction point out that these stories should show us the darker sides of human nature. And they have a point!

When Christian fiction avoids showing sin’s true ramifications, the result sometimes feels like a false view of the world, teaching that human depravity isn’t that bad and we aren’t truly in need of serious grace and forgiveness. Such stories can do harm to us as readers by obscuring the true sin in our hearts and the devastating places sin can lead us. As a result, discerning readers ought to beware stories that whitewash our fallen world and obscure the piercing need we have for a Savior.

While honesty about sin is important, however, it’s also possible to take this desire too far. One long-running trope in fiction suggests that “realism” means depicting a grim, gritty world devoid of altruistic motives or true heroes. But such an approach isn’t biblically honest. The vision Scripture presents isn’t a grimdark world but a fallen Eden. The remnants of Eden are just as important as its fallen components. Both cynicism as well as idealism are fundamentally wrong about the nature of the world. Being honest shouldn’t turn us into pessimists.

As discerning readers, we shouldn’t simply ask if a story honestly depicts the fallen state of human nature. We also need to ask if the story honestly depicts the remnants of common grace and redemption that elevate human behavior.

Discerning the honesty of the books we read​

What then does all this mean for the discerning reader?

As I wrote about a couple months ago, we ought to pay attention to our stories’ depictions of truth, if we want to celebrate good fiction without becoming blind supporters of anything with the Christian label. Every story claims something about human nature. Reading with discernment means paying attention to that instead of blindly consuming these hidden truths.2

As we read, we should be asking ourselves:

  • Is this story being honest about the prevalence of sin?
  • Is this story being honest about the common and special graces that can help unbelievers and believers alike make good decisions?
  • Is this story being honest about what it’s like to be human?
When stories live up to those standards, we should praise them! And when they don’t, we should note and reject them. No story is perfect in its depiction of human nature. And we want to display honesty ourselves in how we review a book, as opposed to idolizing or villainizing books of mixed quality.

Engaging thoughtfully helps us celebrate stories that present an alternative to the “cringe” we want to avoid. But we need discernment to make sure we’re not replacing one form of “cringe” for another.

When we embrace this kind of discernment, we become honest readers who better understand the true nature of our world.
 
May 24, 2017
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Balance. All things in moderation and with a gracious motive. This is what I think of when I read your words.
I recently read Of Wind and Lightning (book 1) and Of Plains and Fire (book 2) by Ella Walker Henderson She did a terrific job at balancing the light and dark of human nature. There is good and bad in each of her characters.
Thank you for pointing out human nature as the touch point of fiction. "People are funny." They are complicated, unpredictable in predictable ways, and fascinating to watch. I agree that if we can get the humans in our stories to depict real life, we'll have no trouble with light and darkness.
 
Jan 5, 2021
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Interesting topic. I was reading a "Christian" novel where in the first scene the author had written the intricate details of the unmarried couple's rendezvous. After, the main character felt guilty, but at that point I had to double-check if it was a Christian book. How far is too far? *beads of sweat dripping off the sides of my temples as I read the lines*. Too much, maybe?

I started a thread on what Christian books people have enjoyed with overt Christian themes, etc., just to see if there really are any. No reply yet, so atm I take it people aren't a fan (for whatever reason). Might have to edit to ask why. Exploring the dark side in a way that still glorifies God is clearly a challenge.
 
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Johne

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I started a thread on what Christian books people have enjoyed with overt Christian themes, etc., just to see if there really are any. No reply yet, so atm I take it people aren't a fan (for whatever reason).
An author has to know their audience, and my audience are 'normal people' who read Fantasy / Steampunk. Therefore, I read in those genres from established authors who can teach me something I can use when writing my own Fantasy / Noir and Steampunk novels. I just finished TRAVEL BY BULLET by John Scalzi. It was brilliant and really fun.

I've read my share of Christian fiction, but that's not where my focus is at the moment. I'm a Christian who writes fiction, not a writer (nor reader) of Christian fiction. If you were to ask this same question over on Facebook, you'd get many great answers from the Realm Makers Consortium.
 
Jan 5, 2021
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Cool. Thanks. I get that there are many people who don't write or read Christian fiction, and prefer to write for 'normal people' ... I smile as I write this because Christian people are normal, too. 🙂 Really, we are, or maybe I'm peculiar 🤔.

Over the last few months I've thought about what draws readers to the fiction they read, and the writers who write them (all under the Christian banner, that is). I hope I write for everyone, but wonder if maybe I should try Christian fiction, though not quite sure what that really means. The line seems blurred to me.

Thanks for the FB group. 👍 I might have to head over there to find out the answer to that question.
 

Johne

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Cool. Thanks. I get that there are many people who don't write or read Christian fiction, and prefer to write for 'normal people' ... I smile as I write this because Christian people are normal, too. 🙂 Really, we are, or maybe I'm peculiar 🤔.
Heh. Scripture does call us 'a peculiar people' (1st Peter 2:9), but set that aside for a moment. When I wrote 'normal people,' I put that in quotes because of something I heard at a Christian Men's conference when the preacher said there are two kinds of people in the world: believers, and 'normal people,' which is to say, sinners. He was trying to show that the normal state of Mankind is we are sinners in need of grace, and I liked his turn of phrase.
I hope I write for everyone, but wonder if maybe I should try Christian fiction, though not quite sure what that really means. The line seems blurred to me.
I think it's important to have a clear view of your audience. When I've written for Christians, it was to show that Christians could write rigorous Science Fiction because I think we need more good Christian Sci-Fi. My favorite story from that era is called The Reconstructed Man, and it's free on my website. It was published in a Christian fiction magazine so long ago that the publication is no longer in print, but it's a good story and I think it accomplishes what I wanted it to do.

I'm now writing for the mainstream because I think stories are important and can change lives, and 'the fields are white but the workers are few.' There are already plenty of good Christian fiction authors. I don't see enough of us telling stories for the aforementioned 'normal people,' stories about our need for spiritual redemption.

I say I'm writing a Fantasy / Noir (Marketing genre). The Content genre at the story's foundation is Thriller, where the Global Value shift is from Life > Death > threat of Damnation. That's a great way to talk about our wickedness and our need for help in a way that 'normal people' can grok.

Before you write, I'd figure out who your audience is so you'll know whether you're achieving what you set out to do. I have my audience clearly in mind, and I'm going after them. I've been a member of Realm Makers all the way back to when they were just formed. They're now a very large group that has very well attended annual conferences. You'll find what you're looking for there, no question.
 
Jan 5, 2021
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Okay. So I see what you're saying ... and in that case I'll think of it as non-Christians.

Okay. I'll go and have a read of that story on your website, too. Thanks. So, you've mentioned you've written for Christians, what type of things? Do you have a lot of Christian fiction books published?

I find the global value quite interesting for your fantasy/noir fiction ... and agree that i need to decide on my audience. Admittedly, this is my biggest struggle at the moment. I have an idea for a fantasy novel... I haven't written one before, but I reckon most fantasy books have a spiritual element to them.

Thanks for your responses. 👍
 

Johne

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So, you've mentioned you've written for Christians, what type of things? Do you have a lot of Christian fiction books published?
I've published thirteen short stories and for seven years published an online Space Opera magazine (now defunct). I've been working on my debut novel, THE BLUE GOLEM, since 2014. I'm wrapping up final edits before sending it out to Beta readers in the beginning of October and hope to publish in Q1 2023. I've got the first two novels of a YA Steampunk trilogy called THE ADVENTURES OF THE SKY PIRATE that will follow shortly thereafter.
 
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Sounds impressive. 👏

I take it youre self-publishing in Q1 2023, since you never mentioned querying?

I don't think I'll start writing mine until 2023. All that worldbuilding seems a lot.
 

Johne

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I take it youre self-publishing in Q1 2023, since you never mentioned querying?
Nod. If you do your homework, there's never been a better time to self-publish, and I've done a fair amount of research. Furthermore, we have authors like @Jeff Potts who have recently self-published and have been sharing what they've learned. I've got a good book and am building my email list. I like my chances to publish THE BLUE GOLEM and have it land with my target audience if I decide to go that route.

(I do have a line with two different publishing houses who have shown interest as I've been developing TBG, but we'll see. After spending over eight years learning how to level up my craft, I don't want to waste any time with my manuscript languishing in a slush pile somewhere. When it's done, I want to either place it quickly or release it myself.)

And finally, I went to a Plotting Madness Boot Camp in Lake Tahoe for three days in 2019 (with our own C.S. (Susanne) Lakin) where I developed 30 plot points for the sequel, THE BLACK SERPENT, and I'm going to Nashville in November through the Story Grid for their Narrative Path workshop for advanced hands-on attention developing that book's non-negotiable ideas* .

Once I begin to publish, I hope to release one new book every six months. I have nearly-completed books in the pipeline, and two more waiting in the wings.


* The non-negotiable how to go from an initial idea to a full set of specifications that will help develop your story.
The non-negotiable is the starting point, the origin of your idea, which can be in three different domains (Context, Protagonist, Inciting Incident).


The domain where your ideas originate has an impact on the kind of problems you’ll likely have (for example, a tendency to overexplain the environment if your idea originates in the context; or a tendency to include a lot of internal processing if your idea originates in the protagonist).

The Narrative Path is a process to help you:

  • Identify what kind of elements you tend to focus on and what kind of elements you tend to overlook,
  • How to develop a complete actionable idea for your story
The non-negotiable is basically your initial idea and the domain it belongs to.
 
Apr 5, 2019
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I don't think I'll start writing mine until 2023. All that worldbuilding seems a lot.

It is and it isn't.

There are some who spend years building their world. By the time most of them finish, they are so burnt out from world building that they never write their book.

My recommendation is: have a rough sketch of your world, and fill in the details as you go along.
 
Jan 5, 2021
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Nod. If you do your homework, there's never been a better time to self-publish, and I've done a fair amount of research. Furthermore, we have authors like @Jeff Potts who have recently self-published and have been sharing what they've learned. I've got a good book and am building my email list. I like my chances to publish THE BLUE GOLEM and have it land with my target audience if I decide to go that route.
I've heard so much about self-publishing and I'd like to some day ... All that work just seems so daunting.

That's some cool stuff. I've listened to a number of Storygrid podcasts. They definitely give some food for thought. I have a hard time going through all their global values, etc. but I'll get there.

So do I take it that TBG is adult fantasy? If so, which age group do you prefer/find easier to write for, Adult or YA?
 
Oct 2, 2022
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Heh. Scripture does call us 'a peculiar people' (1st Peter 2:9), but set that aside for a moment. When I wrote 'normal people,' I put that in quotes because of something I heard at a Christian Men's conference when the preacher said there are two kinds of people in the world: believers, and 'normal people,' which is to say, sinners. He was trying to show that the normal state of Mankind is we are sinners in need of grace, and I liked his turn of phrase.

I think it's important to have a clear view of your audience. When I've written for Christians, it was to show that Christians could write rigorous Science Fiction because I think we need more good Christian Sci-Fi. My favorite story from that era is called The Reconstructed Man, and it's free on my website. It was published in a Christian fiction magazine so long ago that the publication is no longer in print, but it's a good story and I think it accomplishes what I wanted it to do.

I'm now writing for the mainstream because I think stories are important and can change lives, and 'the fields are white but the workers are few.' There are already plenty of good Christian fiction authors. I don't see enough of us telling stories for the aforementioned 'normal people,' stories about our need for spiritual redemption.

I say I'm writing a Fantasy / Noir (Marketing genre). The Content genre at the story's foundation is Thriller, where the Global Value shift is from Life > Death > threat of Damnation. That's a great way to talk about our wickedness and our need for help in a way that 'normal people' can grok.

Before you write, I'd figure out who your audience is so you'll know whether you're achieving what you set out to do. I have my audience clearly in mind, and I'm going after them. I've been a member of Realm Makers all the way back to when they were just formed. They're now a very large group that has very well attended annual conferences. You'll find what you're looking for there, no question.
I agree. More Christian Sci-Fi!!!
 

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