Welcome to this month’s Ask BHP, and it’s a doozy. First of all, thanks to whoever in Internet-land thought to themselves, “I’m going to ask Bethany House a seemingly innocent but extremely complicated question.” I see you there, chuckling sinisterly, waiting for this post to come up.
Fortunately…I love complicated questions. But you might have to content yourself with a less-than-simple answer.
Another way of asking this is: if you see this sign at Barnes and Noble, what does it mean?
We’ll start with this: I don’t like the term “Christian content.” Maybe it’s the only helpful way to discuss this topic, but I think the terminology is flawed. Here are a few reasons why.
One: Content can’t be really Christian. Are the rows of chairs in your church “Christian chairs” just because of their location or use? Nope. Same thing with a novel and its content. People are Christians—“little Christs,” followers committed to living out the gospel and becoming more like Jesus. Content can be written for a Christian audience, written by Christians, or contain characters who are Christians, or all three…but the content itself hasn’t had a conversion experience.
If you’re thinking, “Amy, that’s 100% semantics, you know what that term means,” here’s reason…
Two: Thinking of books in terms of Christian content tends to make people reach for a checklist. If you’re a writer and feel like you have to have particular moments or themes and force them into your story, that typically doesn’t work well. If you’re a reader and are disappointed by a beautifully written tale that lacked a conversion scene (or, on the other end of the scale, if you’re offended by mentions of a character’s faith), you’ve missed the point.
But this post is in a series called “Ask Bethany House,” not “Amy Green Defines Terms,” which means I should probably give a useful answer.
Christian fiction is a genre, and that means a lot of things to different authors, readers, and publishing companies. Those definitions include, in no particular order:
- Beautiful writing by Christians. The thinking goes that since we are made in the image of God, and God is a creator, we worship through excellence in all we do, including our storytelling.
- Books that contain at least some overt references to God and his truth in a way that would inspire and encourage readers in their faith.
- “Clean” fiction without the problematic content (and everyone has a different definition of what that is) that you find in general market fiction, possibly with a few spiritual references, but maybe not.
- Stories where the central theme involves truth about God and how to live out your faith (forgiveness, unconditional love, the danger of greed, etc.). It’s more than a passing reference to prayer, but should leave the reader with something to take away and apply to their lives.
Bethany House books are going to be all over the spectrum, though I can’t think of an example of a recent BHP book that is either a fictionalized sermon or only a clean read without any spiritual themes at all.
Our books may fit into one or all of these categories (which I just made up, so I may have missed some).
Christian faith as a major plot element.
Sometimes, the plot of a novel is driven by a crisis of belief. For example, in some of Beverly Lewis’s tales, a character wrestles with Amish beliefs about salvation or community, comparing them to the Bible. Or, in Angela Hunt’s Risen, a centurion investigates the supposed resurrection of Jesus. There is a lot of outright discussion about Christianity because it fits the story. It would be impossible to tell the same story without the faith element being front and center.
Christian faith as a character motivation.
Almost all Bethany House books fit into this category. They feature one or more characters who are Christians, and that comes out in their speech, words, and actions (although imperfectly) because it’s part of who they are. If you make a character a workaholic, that will influence that person’s choices. If you make a character a first-generation immigrant, that character will come from a certain perspective and react in particular ways. If you make a character a Texan…I don’t even know how many aspects of their life that will affect, but I’m guessing a lot. Same thing with Christian characters—including them makes faith a necessary and organic element of the story. (Note that the Christian in the book may not be the main character—for example, Ronie Kendig’s Conspiracy of Silence features a male lead who wouldn’t claim the label Christian, though several supporting characters are people of faith, and his spiritual seeking is one of the themes of the series.)
Christian faith as an underlying truth.
By this I mean that we live in a moral universe. God created the world to reflect truth about him. It’s why even unbelievers consider betrayal in fiction wrong and recognize sacrifice as something deeply beautiful. Our stories—the places we cheer and boo, the emotions we have as we turn pages, whether we feel that the “good guys” have won at the end and what makes us consider them good—work because they’re set in this framework.
Here, I’m especially thinking of our fantasy titles. They might not take place in worlds where the historical Jesus Christ died on a cross for our sins. They might not even be direct allegories of the gospel. Does that mean they’re not Christian fiction, even if they teach us, using a different world, the truths of our faith?
I get a little frustrated with reviewers of our first-in-a-series fantasy novels who critique the imperfect view of religion the novels portray. “Many of the people in Jill Williamson’s King’s Folly worship multiple gods. How can this be Christian fiction?” they ask. Well, I want to explain, because those gods are leading people to pursue empty, hopeless, selfish lives. Because Jill has several more books to bring you to the correct conclusions, but you can already and obviously tell that the series isn’t endorsing sacrificing your son to idols. Because maybe, just maybe, you can see the sin in your own heart more clearly as you read about the wrong pursuit and priorities of a pagan people group.
Christian faith as a reason for hope.
Some novels give you the “moral to the story,” others leave you only with profound, soul-searching questions. Some are testimonies of God’s power to change lives, others remind you what a broken world we live in. But all contain some element of hope. That, to me, would be the biggest difference between Christian fiction and anything else. Our faith has hope, and the best Christian storytellers showcase it well.
What are your thoughts on this question? If you had to describe Christian fiction as a genre, how would you do so? If you’re a writer, what role has faith played in your stories?