Ask BHP: How Do You Decide on the Spiritual Content of Books?

Here’s a fun question from our Ask BHP mailbag for this month: “Why does Bethany House publish some books that have very light spiritual content? I’m not being critical, just curious as to why some books are very faith-oriented and others only mention faith elements a little bit. How do you decide that as a Christian publisher?”

First of all, thanks to the person who asked this question (and ones similar to it), in a gracious way. I’m Amy Green, fiction publicist here at Bethany House, and I love talking about these sorts of issues, and I think it’s a fair question to wonder about.

As far as who decides the amount of Christian content, that’s pretty easy: the author shapes that based on the kind of story they want to tell.

Sometimes others, like beta readers or an agent, might guide them in a particular direction, and editors will as well once the manuscript enters the publishing process. For example, Bethany House editors might help authors make a certain character less “preachy” or point out an additional place a theme could be emphasized.

Because of this, each story is going to be different in faith content just as it’s different in every other way, like how often the authors intersperse humor or how they approach setting descriptions, historical detail, or chapter-ending cliffhangers.

An author who wants to write a book about the aftermath of a preacher’s fall from grace in the lives of his three children will probably have more noticeable references to faith than the author of a lighthearted comedy about a dogwatcher-turned-matchmaker or a fantasy novel set in a realm where people can turn into statues.

And here’s the thing: God can use all of those books* to reach people with powerful truths.

If you’re skeptical about this, we recently hosted a survey where people could share how a Bethany House novel had an impact on their lives. (Which you can still submit to, if you like.) I’ll admit that even I was surprised at how deeply touched people were by books that fit everywhere on the spiritual content spectrum. Reading our Christian fiction has led people to work to strengthen their marriages, feel convicted about gossiping, find hope during a family member’s illness, forgive a long-time enemy, and much more.

Besides that, some books with strong faith threads speak directly to a need in the hearts of Christians, or are given to unbelievers by friends who want to show a different perspective on their beliefs, while others are so accessible that we’ll get atheists leaving reviews like, “This is a great story—and I usually hate books with ‘God talk.’” I love seeing those reviews, and often (though not always!) they show up on books with a more subtle spiritual journey.

But back to the question. Here’s the thing: I think some people may have a specific mission in mind for a novel when they think that only a strong faith thread is acceptable in Christian fiction.

And I can see why they might think that, because mission matters. For example, the purpose of a church is to worship God, spread the gospel, and train believers to be disciples of Jesus. It probably wouldn’t be able to fulfill that purpose with “light spiritual content.”

However, the purpose of a fiction book written by a Christian could be lots of different things:
• Provide hope and laughter during a hard time.
• Reach a reader who might never open a Bible or nonfiction book.
• Illustrate a Biblical truth or parable in a new way.
• Show the destructiveness of sin on the world or in one person’s life.
• Give a picture of self-sacrificing romantic love that mirrors God’s love.

To me, these and many others are all perfectly valid aims for an author. Bethany House, as a Christian publisher, focuses on stories that align with our mission statement, but we know there’s a place for good, clean reads or novels reaching mainstream readers with truth.

You’re probably not going to agree with every theological nuance of all of our fiction books—certainly many people leave reviews of our nonfiction books with disagreements large and small, and it’s just as true that fiction authors will approach faith and Scripture from different perspectives and traditions. And even if you would affirm every spiritual aspect of a book…it might not be your style or in a genre you’re interested in.

Not every Christian fiction book is going to be your book—a novel that has a deep impact on you or fills a need or finds its way to your keeper shelf of favorites. But we pray that all of our books will be someone’s book and impact them in a unique way.

What do you think, readers? Do you tend to prefer more or less spiritual content…or does it depend on the story?

*As far as I know, none of those books are real, but if you want to write them, they are now in Amy’s Yard Sale of Free Ideas. (Along with lots of crazy inventions and ridiculous get-rich-quick schemes.)

20 thoughts on “Ask BHP: How Do You Decide on the Spiritual Content of Books?

  1. The level of spiritual content depends on the story – both types have affected me in postive ways. Sometimes too much preaching doesn’t seem to fit a story, and the reverse is true, as well. A book that can make me think or convict me of a sin is often more subtle in its spirituality – let’s face it, in real everyday life, most people are turned off by too much preachiness, but that’s not to say it should be avoided. Again, it just depends on the story.

  2. Great post, Amy. I really appreciate your thoughts and explanation of this topic. I appreciate variety in my reading and would hope other readers do as well.

  3. I love fiction for all of the reasons you’ve shared. A writing mentor once told me a story is only as powerful as the heart that receives it. What she meant was that a story that is so-so for one reader can be life-changing for another, if their heart is in need of that message. I believe God can use any story, no matter the depth of spiritual content.

  4. This is a terrific,and reasoned, response, Amy. Christian fiction should not be afraid to reflect a variety of faith traditions and faith levels. I want to read about characters at various stages of their faith journeys because that’s real, and that’s relatable, regardless of the story’s setting. A life of faith doesn’t make any us immune to the troubles of this broken world, but it can change our perspective. And I’ll acknowledge this is a topic for another day, but Christian romance also shouldn’t be so afraid of the God-given physical aspect of marriage, either. It can be written in a clean, closed-door way, and who knows? There might be readers out there who would benefit from examples of what a sexually-healthy, faith-based marital relationship can be.

    • Thanks so much, Janice! It’s true that seeing characters at different stages in their journey help them connect to readers in the same place. Love it! And yes, portrayal of romance especially in marriage is a topic for another day…but now I’m thinking of a “panel discussion” of authors who have written about married characters. Hmm. Stay tuned!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  5. I love how you answered this! For me, similar to what you said, it totally depends on the story. If it’s not organic to the story, then it feels like I’m being lectured – I already have my own Bible studies and teachers, & I read for the relaxation & diversion of it. So positive, faith affirming messages are wonderful so long as they stay in the context of the story, but don’t bog the story down with more than it can carry.

    On the other hand, if the story has a religious angle, it would be bizarre not to have more of that content – in fact, I actually docked a story for that in a review (different publisher from a different faith background) because it made the premise so generic as to be meaningless. You can’t have a character motivated by their beliefs and then barely talk about those beliefs or how they influenced them. It was difficult if not impossible to relate to the character without it.

    • Those are great specific examples! It’s true that the right approach will be what fits the story, and as you pointed out, readers can tell. Thanks for commenting with those thoughts!

      Amy Green
      BHP Fiction Publicist

  6. This post was really timely for me, so praise the Lord and thank you. I’m only one scene away from finishing writing my historical fantasy (there is LOTS of edits needed, but hoping to query agents within the next year). It has a strong message for believers who are battling physical trials, with several verses in Psalms and Isaiah being critical to the main character’s arc. I’m anxious, due to it having a lot more scripture than most Christian novels I’ve read in recent years. But, I feel it suits the story. Your post really encouraged me that editors in the Christian market take books on a case by case basis and won’t be turned off too quickly. So, thank you!

  7. Honestly, I prefer less spiritual content because personally I receive spiritual instruction from my place of worship where it’s focused on the scriptures, not a person’s personal belief system. Oftentimes what I read in the Bible runs contrary to what authors print in their books. If there’s only a few brief mentions of spiritual content, I can gloss over what I don’t agree with based on my knowledge of the Bible. But when I feel like the author is trying to use her book to convert me, it doesn’t work for me. I don’t like the didactic approach.
    I’ve read and enjoyed many Bethany House books that have few spiritual references. What I like most, though, is that they’re clean reads. 😊

  8. It depends on the story. I appreciate both. I recently have been trying to track down a good romantic suspense with very light faith themes for a non-believing friend, exactly to plant the seed and show there’s something more out there. She’d never pick up a book with a huge heap of faith, but I love the truths God reminds me of in them.

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