Ask BHP: How Much Christian Content Should a Christian Fiction Book Have?

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?

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?

31 thoughts on “Ask BHP: How Much Christian Content Should a Christian Fiction Book Have?

  1. The term “Christian Fiction” really does encompass a wide, wide array of authors and books. Some Christian Fiction novels are clean reads written from a Christian worldview. Others have plots or character arcs that absolutely depend on Christian elements.
    In my opinion, if a Christian author repeatedly prays for God to bring her manuscript in line with His vision, for His equipping during the writing process, and for Him to show her what He’d have her say and how, then He’ll honor those prayers. And He’ll lead her to the book that’s right for her. In my opinion, the level of Christian content in a given story should be as unique as an author’s voice.
    In my case, I didn’t set out intending to write a great deal of Christian content into my first Christian novel. I write romances! I began that book more focused on the external plot and the love story. But during the process of praying over and writing it, God completely surprised me. 🙂 He led me in a direction I hadn’t anticipated…. just like He often does in life.

    • I like your reply from an author’s point-of-view, Becky, especially how far it is from a checklist mentality. And, of course, readers will have themes and truths that strike them that even the author didn’t realize! That’s the way God works.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  2. Clean content is the biggy for me. If it is Christian fiction and it is dropping the fbomb (yes, I came across that in a supposed Christian book last year) then there is a problem! By carrying the Christian label I expect the content to be clean enough that I am not going to be embarrassed discussing the book in a church book club for example.

    • Yes, I think that’s one of the big reasons people read Christian fiction…besides the great stories, of course! Thanks for dropping by, Kristin!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  3. I’ve been wrestling with this question recently; how “Christian” should a “Christian” book be? As a writer and blogger myself, I think about this a lot. However, I write Christian Nonfiction – not because I think it’s more “right” or “holy” than writing anything else, but because it allows *me* to express the hope that I have in Christ, best.
    Sometimes it comes down to themes in books as opposed to dialogue or conversion scenes. What is being glorified? Sin and selfishness? Or hope and selflessness? Honestly, in my opinion, even “non-Christian” books can have good themes that share hope or truth with the readers. Many times it has directly to do with the author’s worldview.
    I may never write fiction at all, and if I do I may never write “non-Christian” fiction, sticking with my Christian Living Nonfiction; but either way, well-written words have so much power to give life and hope, in a way that preaching often can’t.
    And if we seek our Lord, He will lead us. 🙂

  4. That bit about fantasy fiction has been a sticking point for me. I am a fan of Star Trek, so I wonder whether situations which seem to conflict with what we know of God’s creation could ever be, such as alien civilizations. I use the same argument I do about THIS world, whenever scientists point to something and say, “Look! Proof of millions of years!”: I say to myself, “That’s what you see when you look at it, doesn’t mean it’s true.” So if a character says something contradictory to God’s truth, I conclude they are mistaken, lying, or ignorant. I believe faith in God would continue among some to that day if it ever came; we’d just have to re-interpret the prophecies, much as early Christians did when Christ didn’t come in 70 AD.

    When I read books like Trek novels and Krista McGee’s “Anomaly” series, I tell myself this; while I don’t know how events foretold in the book of Revelation and end times factors into stories like this, I decide that I’ll leave that for the scholars and enjoy the story.

    • Oooh, Laura, have you read C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the possibility of aliens in other corners of the universe? The gist of it is this: we are only told the parts of the story we need to know in the Bible, related to our own sin/salvation and the character of God. If there were aliens out there, there’s no reason for God to tell us that. So it’s totally possible and not contradictory to Scripture that they exist. (He also discusses whether those hypothetical aliens would be fallen and in need of salvation. It’s a lot of fun.)

      And I agree that SF can have some interesting perspectives on the world–it’s often a great way to look at ethical questions too. Thanks for joining the conversation.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  5. Great post! Especially since I was thinking about writing up something similar. In most of my stories, there aren’t “allegories” or even heavy emphases on religion, it’s more of making characters act in a more “Christian” manner, or doing what is morally right. It does come down to more of what you want the theme to be. You can have a redemptive character arc without handing out Bible verses. It’s like you said, use faith as a reason for hope.
    I don’t know if that made sense at all, but thanks for writing a great post on the subject. 🙂

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Claire! I like your use of the word “redemptive.” That seems to be a key concept in this discussion (and yes, it did make sense).

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. As the purchaser for a large church library, this is a very pertinent question. I used to be able to buy books published by certain Christian publishers without having any worries about content….but not so much anymore. We are in Canada and some of the American language…mostly in southern writing… is not acceptable to our readers which further complicates the issue!!
    My personal feeling is that I should be able to defend the books I put in the library and most of what I purchase does have some Christian spiritual content but there are some that are just “wholesome” without cursing or racy scenes and I will put them in. However, just today someone made an observation that a particular book in a popular suspense series had no spiritual content in it. Sigh.

    • I can see how this issue would be significantly more complicated as you make choices for a church library. (Thanks for serving your church in that, by the way!) Thanks for joining the conversation, Dorothy!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  7. What a great article! I liked that you mentioned those at both ends of the spectrum on this issue. As an author, I’ve been chastised for being too preachy and, regarding the same book, “pretending” to be Christian just to get published. O.o

    Needless to say, it’s impossible to please everyone, but I am committed to telling the stories God gives me in a way that honors Him and entertains readers.

    • That bottom line (“it’s impossible to please everyone”) is so true and important for authors to keep in mind. So glad you keep writing your stories to please the only one who matters.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  8. Great post Amy. I agree with you and Deanna, there is no pleasing everyone. There is not one book that has ever been published (Christian or not) that everyone has liked. That is what makes book publishing so hard and book reading so much fun.

    • Thanks, Chris! I love listen to you talk about the Christian fiction you enjoy. I also appreciate reviewers who say, “This book wasn’t for me because XYZ, but I know other readers love this author and these stories.” You’re right, if there wasn’t such a wide variety out there, reading would be no fun!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

    • Thanks for joining in the conversation, Linda! I know many authors make their goal to present truth, and fiction authors telling stories can avoid denominational controversies more easily than nonfiction authors, that’s for sure!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  9. I was glad to see this subject discussed. I recently got a two star review where the reviewer complained that my christian book didn’t have enough praying in it. I don’t like to read preachy books that allow characters to do anything worldly they want to as long as they cry and pray about it later… I write clean books with characters that live and reflect christian living.:-)
    Thanks for this article!

  10. This is a fascinating topic. Thanks for answering the question so well and starting a great conversation. This could apply to other types of media as well. My writing partner and I have written and produced a film that we believe is faith-based, but does not include a lot of praying,or talking about God or a big conversion scene like a lot of “Christian films”. We just want a good clean, old-fashioned kind of story and now we’re finding out it’s not “Christian” enough for some in that market , but it’s too “clean” for a secular market. It’s a lot to think about when writing, because whether the story is good or not, if your goal is to share it, it somehow has to get in the hands of readers and viewers. Thanks for the great conversation!

    • I love starting conversations! And I could see how screenplays in particular might be tricky (I’m not sure what the market is in that industry). Glad you’re continuing to write compelling stories that you’re passionate about!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  11. Great post, Amy. I write fairytale-like fantasy, but I was initially told the stories couldn’t go in the Christian market because they had magic in them. Of course, I’ve read novels with magic published by Christian publishers, but I still thought my novel couldn’t go “Christian” anyway since it didn’t have a conversion scene, a lot of prayer or scripture references, or an Aslan or Prince of Farthest Shore figure. At the same time, I wondered if it might be too “good” for the general market. I ended up self-pubbing my first novel. A lady–who liked the book–commented that it felt like a Christian novel because it was clean (and she wanted a clean read), but also said that any overt Christian messages would have been a turn-off for her. So there is certainly a need for Christian worldview books that aren’t overtly Christian.

    • Thanks for joining the conversation, Elizabeth! You’re right that different Christian readers have different expectations for fantasy–we’ve seen that a lot! Sounds like you were able to find a balance that stayed true to your story.

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  12. You make a good initial comment about “Christian content”. In the same way, there are no Christian publishers. However, there are a lot of publishers staffed by Christians and publishing books by Christians, with content that honours God.

    I think a lot of people, both readers and writers, struggle with the idea of what “Christian fiction” is or should be, and it’s always good to get a publisher’s perspective. Thanks.

    • Glad it was helpful, Iola! There may not be one “right” answer of what Christian fiction ought to be, which is frustrating to some people and liberating to others. 🙂

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  13. Thanks, Amy, for this post and others for their comments. I write for children and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. So far my manuscripts haven’t contained any “God talk” but I feel they reflect my own Christian values. I’ve wondered if I should add more Christian elements to try and break into the Christian market. Definitely on my prayer list!

  14. Pingback: Ask BHP: What’s Your Favorite Thing About Christian Fiction? | Bethany House Fiction

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