This is the first in a series of posts exploring my thoughts about what we can do better in Christian fiction. It’s a huge topic, and this is just my little tip of one corner of the iceberg. Because it helps me to think aloud here. And it helps if you think aloud here, too. So don’t hold back if you have a response!

What’s wrong with Christian fiction? Depending on my intonation, I could be saying, “What could you possibly find wrong with Christian fiction?”

If that’s where you stand, that’s okay. Let those with ears to hear and hearts to receive keep reading. I honor and respect the sincere and Godly folks who work in the Christian fiction industry. There are some amazing and profound books out there. So when you hear my critique, don’t jump to the conclusion that I’m at odds with you or the books you love. I may not be.

When I say “What’s wrong with Christian fiction?” I’m really asking:

“Why isn’t Christian fiction better? Why does the world — and many, many Christians — dismiss it as shallow or second-rate? And what can we do about it?”

What’s wrong with Christian fiction is the same thing that’s wrong with Christian films. If you have an hour, I highly recommend Barbara Nicolosi’s insightful talk on this subject. She helped me pinpoint the source of the vague dissatisfaction I’ve had with Christian storytelling.

Christian “art” (books, movies, music, etc) often dilutes, corrupts or cripples beauty and truth by emphasizing other things, [tweetthis url=””], primarily:

  • An evangelistic message (“preaching”)
  • The elimination of elements considered undesirable, offensive or unsafe (“sanitizing”)

Why do we do this? I think it’s because there is a perception that if the art (book, movie, song, painting) does not overtly present some Christian concept, image or message, then it does not technically deserve the name “Christian”.

Perhaps this is correct. Perhaps anything that is filed under the label “Christian” ought to overtly illustrate Christ in some way. That’s what labels are for, yes? To describe what is contained within, so the consumer can make an informed choice and so their expectations will be met.

If I look at it that way, maybe there’s nothing wrong with “Christian fiction”. Maybe it is exactly what the label says it is.

Then why am I (and so many others) so unhappy with it?


Kat Heckenbach · at

I agree that Christian fiction has become defined exactly by those two things you mention. The problem is, it implies that anything outside of those two things is “non-Christian” and that’s not true, which is why there are so many with discontent. By narrowing the definition of Christian that way, we’ve created a huge gap in fiction. There is CBA, and there is secular, and no “non-CBA Christian fiction.”

Well, not none. But not nearly enough!

sparksofember · at

“Then why am I (and so many others) so unhappy with it?”

Because so often it is baby food. Awesome Christian lessons & evangelism packed into a book for new believers and unbelievers. But something long-time Christians have heard many, many, many, many times before.

And because often the story is being manipulated/sacrificed for the sake of the message. And who likes to be manipulated?

    Teddi · at

    Great point. If the story (and the reader) are being manipulated for the purpose of the author’s personal agenda, the story itself loses its authenticity, its enjoyment, its purity.

    I do think there are types of story that are designed for teaching (parables, fairy tales, etc). As long as the reader and the author enter into the relationship with the understanding that “this is a moral tale” or “this is a persuasive tale”, then nobody feels cheated.

    But when I pick up a book in the fiction aisle, I expect entertainment. Yes, it can be uplifting. Yes, it can be moral. Yes, I love to walk away feeling like good will win over evil, like kindness is worth the trouble, maybe even convicted about my own apathy or cowardice. But only because I so admire the hero or heroine, only because I so enjoyed the story and desire to see it happen in my life.

    Maybe a lot of this issue has to do with Christian writers being so “out of it” in terms of the mindset of the average American. The heart desires of Christian writers who aim for the CBA market are not the desires of those who read in the general market. So of course the books they write will be distasteful to the world.

    If I want to have a conversation with someone, I need to learn their language.

Rebecca · at

I am agreement with the other posters.
God has provided us with vast imaginations and creativity. We tent to limit ourselves to “safe” subjects and “baby food”.
My favorite authors delve deep into the imagination of possibilities the mysteries of life, the what ifs.
God himself painted our imaginations with streets of gold, horsemen riding in the sky, dragons and angels.
Fiction is and can be so wonderful if we chose not to box ourselves in.

Rebecca Qualls · at

Great post, Teddi! A valid question and one that as you mentioned, needs to be unpacked. My personal opinion has to do with authenticity. Learning to be fully who God made us to be under the direction of the Word and the Holy Spirit. I realize that sounds a bit vague but I’ll continue to wrestle and when I can express it coherently, I will. Thanks Teddi, for asking the question and encouraging thoughtful discussion!

Arbalest Rose · at

“Pitch Black” with Vin Diesel. *That* should have been Christian fiction. Christ didn’t die for good people, so let’s keep it real. Why can’t we see redemption in stories where a woman lives her life in terror of being found by her ex husband? Get some thrilling crime going. BAD STUFF happens in life, and people need to know God isn’t just for Amish romances.

    Teddi · at

    Great example. “Pitch Black” is a favorite example of that sort of redemption story.

Susan Basham · at

Teddi: The 20 something crowd believes it to be pablum, and won’t touch it with a ten foot pole. Is that because much of it refuses to deal with the “real, hard and raw issues of life”, and prefers what I like to call “Unicornicopia”? There are writers I love: Ginny Yttrup, Cynthia Ruchti, Julie Cantrell, but for the most part I stick with Barbara Kingsolver, Lee Child and Anne LaMott (who is Christian, but the evangelical community refuses to acknowledge her as such). And this is part of the problem….when I look at the bookshelf under Christian fiction at Borders, I just sighhhh……..and go on over to literary fiction. So…let’s change that, shall we?

    Teddi · at

    Yes, let’s change that! 🙂

Susan Basham · at

Barnes, not Borders. Wishful thinking.

Victoria Newman · at

Life is unpredictable. Life is messy. And God is entirely comfortable in unpredictable, messy, and even bloody. His story is epic – riveting, and complex. Some parts of the Bible are disgusting, real, and puzzling. Not everything makes sense in the moment. And yet, it is the bestseller of all time.

I collaborated with a war hero to tell his story in my newest book. I prayed and felt led to write it for him. But in the middle of it, I had to ask myself a hard question: Can God work through a book that has the F word in it? I wasn’t used to the language. The drama. Nor the horror and carnage I listened to, and saw in video footage. But after I saw God work in incredible ways through the writing, I have reluctantly accepted the answer that Yes, God can work through a book that contains the F word.

But there’s no way that CBA would’ve published it. And I understand why. But sometimes I think we have to be open to the edgy and gritty messages that God has for us, and be willing to trust Him with the words and stories, even if it pushes our comfort borders.

    Teddi · at

    I love looking at the Bible for my guidelines about what to include or exclude from my own stories. There is no human evil or Godly good that is not covered in that book. There is no lack of “good people doing stupid things”. There is no lack of “bad people make a turn around and become heroes”.

    Thanks for sharing about your war story book, Victoria. That’s a great example. It’s awesome to have Christians involved in making stories (fiction or non-fiction) about things important to human beings. What happens in war time is always relevant and worthy of reflection, no matter how hard it is to look at, or hear. And since I know your book and its topic, I’m so glad that it is being published and raising awareness about both the heroics and the desperate needs in that section of our armed forces.

Janet Hanson · at

Great post, Teddi! Beneath lie deeper, theological questions, being debated in other arenas as well. What is the “gospel”? What does it mean to evangelize? What is the over arching story of the Bible? Should the word “Christian” be used as an adjective?

    Teddi · at

    Janet, yes! I do think the bubbling unrest in the the ranks of Christians authors is part of the general stirring and questioning happening in pastors and others who are trying to take “the message” to the world.

    Things in the world are changing, and the old approaches, the old ways of explaining the message aren’t producing the same effect. We aren’t in the days of Billy Graham anymore, and I think that is becoming painfully clear.

    So what to do now? A very interesting question.

Ginny Yttrup · at

Teddi, I’ve pondered your post for several days and have come up with more questions than conclusions. The question “What’s wrong with Christian fiction?” feels too broad-like asking, “What’s wrong with the church?” In both “institutions” when we pull the lens back and look at them as a whole, we see so much wrong that it’s difficult, even overwhelming, to identify the individual problems. But when we zoom in, and we look at the institutions up close, when we view the people or the books included there, we see so much that is right. It’s a conundrum for me. When I look at Christian fiction as a whole, there’s a lot that could improve. But when I look at secular fiction or the ABA, I feel the same way.

So maybe the question needs refining… What is my attitude toward Christian fiction and why? Or Why am I more accepting of poorly written stories in the ABA than the CBA?

As a novelist who is published within the CBA and a member of the evangelical church, I struggle with the same question: Do I stay and work to make things better or do I go?

The question I’m currently wrestling with is what does it look like to be in the world but not of the world? And what does that look like as a novelist?

    Teddi · at

    Ginny, thank you! That’s such a great point. Since writing these posts and writing comments on other blogs discussing this topic, I’ve felt like there’s something basic we’re missing. Like the questions themselves are off-base.

    I think your comment begins to shine the light on it: The question is too broad for effective discussion. (“Effective” in this case means to me having a discussion wherein I walk away with a conclusion and/or actionable steps, something I can do to improve the situation.)

    As I’ve outlined the things I consider problems in “Christian fiction”, I’ve discovered all kinds of exceptions and other issues that impact the situation. If I point to the authors and say, “Write something different,” they point to the publishers and say, “They won’t publish it!” Then the publishers shake their heads and say, “We’ve tried, but the readers won’t buy it!”

    Janet pointed out that this discussion sounds similar to things being discussed in the wider arena of Christianity, and thinking about the time I spend in staff meetings each week at our church, I agree.

    We ask ourselves, “How can we improve how our church offers the gospel to our community?” and perhaps we say, “The sermons need to meet ‘felt needs’ of people today.” But then somebody says, “No matter how good the sermons are, if the music isn’t good, the people won’t stay.” And somebody else says, “And if you’re not meeting the needs of families, then your church won’t grow. So focus on the nursery and children’s programs.”

    It’s so easy to get bogged down in the details. Or to make sweeping statements that don’t address the actual problems specific to an individual situation. Two sides of the same pendulum, I guess.

    I don’t like criticizing specific books that I feel are representative of “bad Christian fiction” (seems unkind). So I talk in broad sweeps. But then I end up painting great books with broad brushes of criticism that they don’t deserve.

    Still, I feel like just having these discussions with other authors and readers is helping me find my place, helping me zero in on what I can do to fulfill my part, whatever it might be.

Teddi · at

Came across a great article related to this topic: What’s Wrong with Christian Filmmaking?

So glad there are many creatives wrestling with this issue and seeking their place in the world of the creative arts as followers of the Creator King.

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