I’m Not A Christian Writer

As I continue the process of trying to find a literary agent I’ve been finding it a little strange that I immediately write off any agent who handles christian fiction. There are a couple of reasons for this, some based on content, and some based on the specific genres they handle. The bottom line is that christian fiction is a genre like any other, and just how I must eliminate agents who don’t handle mystery or sci-fi, I equally find myself eliminating christian agents and publishers.

It seems a little odd to me to treat Christianity as a genre, especially since some of my favorite works of sci-fi and fantasy were written by Christians who wouldn’t make the “christian fiction” grade. C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia is an obvious example (his sci-fi trilogy) as well, and J.R.R. Tolkien is in this club as well.

This is not to say that “christian fiction” does not have a rich variety of sub-genres. Frank Peretti writes a lot of stories about very literal spiritual warfare and books that would be considered in the horror category. Still more authors write the christian equivalent of a Harlequin historical romance (all the drama but none of the sex out of marriage). And of course you have the popular Left Behind series about the end times.

What all of these books share in common is an overt christian theme, dealing directly with spiritual matters whether it is the faith of the individual or the trials of a great many. Often these books feature conversions or tests of faith, in other words, christian faith is central to the plot of the book.

But what about books that are written from a Christian viewpoint, but are not as overt in their message?

The Chronicles of Narnia is a story that I think is on the borderline. The stories contained within are fairly direct metaphors for stories in the Bible, including most prominently Christ’s death and resurrection as well as revelation. While all of these elements are present, the story reads equally well to those who do not have that faith background and in fact can serve as a kind of entryway. Tolkien goes a step further in creating a world with a deep history of it’s own with no obvious parallels to the Bible, but still containing many Christian viewpoints. The corrupting power of evil plays a prominent role, as well as faith and friendship through the constant companionship of Samwise Gamgee. The book in fact deals a lot with the notion of trying to save someone, namely Gollum, from being completely consumed by evil.

These are the kinds of stories I want to write. That’s why I say I’m a writer who is a Christian not a Christian Writer.

Take one example, sex. A lot of the agents I was looking at rejected books of any kind that dealt with sex. Some of the ones that did accept it tended to way pretty heavily on the negative aspects. For me it is okay to write about sex in my books if that is something my characters would naturally do at that point, but at the same time I must be careful not to “glorfy” sex. What I mean is that two characters can have sex out of marriage, but if they do I should be honest with the impact that might have on their lives if they do not end up together (or even if they do). The same goes for violence or really just about anything else. I shouldn’t be sexy or violent for their sake alone, but because it fits the narrative (which is something any good writer should do anyway), and if it fits the narrative then the emotional impact should be portrayed as well.

One of the non-literary examples I admire is the Cincinnati based music group Over The Rhine. Most Christian bands perform in a church or in an ampitheatre (and OTR does that too). But they also play in bars, the lead singer sings about whiskey and “sexy cocktail hour stubble” in the same performance as when she sings about “radio-ing heaven” or praying. OTR is not overtly a christian band, but a lot of their music comes from a christian viewpoint. Several of their albums “Till We Have Faces” and “The Trumpet Child” are drawn from christian ideas or literature (“Till We Have Faces” is C.S. Lewis again). You can meet God not only in church, but listening to the jazzy sultry voice of Karin Bergquist while sipping whiskey at the bar.

That’s the kind of writer I want to be. Christ met people where they are, he had dinner with tax collectors and sinners, he dealt with the tough subjects of his and our day, and he did it by telling stories. I can make someone think about God without saying Jesus or Lord a certain amount in every page. That’s my genre.

Note: I fell in love with OTR by listening to their live concert recordings on the internet archive. They make dozens of their performances available for free and you can get a good sense of the 20 year sweep of their music. Check it out here.

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16 Comments

Filed under Faith + Life, Introduction, Writing Goals

16 responses to “I’m Not A Christian Writer

  1. This is an ongoing discussion at our Christian Writers group. Most of the more mature ladies who write devotional, family-oriented fare are rather surprised that most of our younger (especially male) members want to be “edgier” and engage more with a secular audience. Best of luck with your writing!

    • First of all, I think it’s awesome that you have a Christian writer’s group. I’ve had a little trouble finding a good fit in a writer’s group and to find a group of Christian’s with that goal is lucky (I’m a little jealous 🙂 ). I guess what’s most interesting to me is that the stuff I grew up thinking of as Christian literature might not make the grade these days. I don’t know if I’m edgy, but I like dealing with subject matter such as where technology will take us in ways that are honest about the nature of man. I have a character who prays in my current work, so I don’t shy away from having some Christian content portrayed, but it is not the central focus or point of the book. Best of luck to you and your group!

  2. Chuck Conover

    Orson Scott Card often writes from a faith basis – though his faith is Mormonism. Not to say that is not a faith or wrong, just another example of a writer who works tenants of his particular faith into his writing.

    Heinlein would be the antithesis’s of this. His point of view based more on empowering the individual, and not based on faith in an external Deity. Each point of view allowed the author to tell exciting and enticing stories, without being overtly preachy.

    • Didn’t know Card was a Mormon, though I guess I can kind of see it. Not too surprised about Heinlein, but you’re right, both explored very interesting ideas and expressed their viewpoints in subtler ways (though Stranger in a Strange Land does have it’s Christ-like figure too). Grok the fullness baby!

  3. I relate to your struggle. And I am not a big fan of the bigger Christian vs Secular idea, which I think is a bit of a false dichotomy. But that is not to say that there is a distinction in literary genre when it comes to finding an agent and/or publisher, as well as your eventual audience. Hope you find the right path for you!

    • To me, good literature is good literature, and bad literature is bad literature. There have been great books written by secularists, and terrible books written by Christians and vice versa. Probably what turns me off most to “christian fiction” is that I think that it is not a natural portrayal of how people really come to Christ, and how they live their faith in their every day lives. There is a strong tone of secularism in sci-fi (the jaded away from faith character is not uncommon), so I want to be the kind of writer who portrays a character who can think about faith in a positive way, but not in a blind way. God meets us during our troubles, and good stories have their share of troubles. I’m hoping that a Christian can read my books and understand the viewpoint and the ways my faith shines through, while someone of a different faith can still be lead on an interesting path and possibly an interesting train of thought. Thanks for stopping by Jonathan!

  4. Andy

    Over the Rhine. A great model. Artistry, substance, reality, hope. They’ve got it all. Go and do likewise.

  5. I’ve also seen agents who, while not mandating the Christian genre per se, will only represent fiction that “doesn’t contradict a Christian worldview.” That sounds like it’s a little closer to what you’re talking about.

    I completely agree, though, that Christian writing should be honest, and not avoid difficult subjects just because they’re icky. A faith that can’t confront evil isn’t worth much. And if you want to avoid reading about sex and violence, you’d better not open the Bible!

    • I’m not sure I could write something that contradicted a christian worldview, though I certainly could, and have, written characters without much of a faith. Characters with faith act with that faith as a basis, and those that don’t have to act according to their nature. I think the Christian faith is definitely one that can and does confront evil in the world and a writer should be willing to deal with any subject from a faith basis (hence a lot of my passion about CFML).

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  7. S

    The straight jacket of Christian publishing is tight. It’s a challenge to be “a writer who is a Christian” if that Christianity has a clear influence on your works but you don’t check all the boxes the CBA publisher will want you to check. Then you’re left hearing on one side that the book is “too religious” and on the other that it doesn’t fully conform to the “Christian Fiction Genre.” I find it’s hard to conform to that genere and be realistic, and all of the great Christian classics – Chesterton, Lewis, the Bible itself – would never meet the confines of that genre.

  8. I love this! I have a lot of questions about the kind of writer I want to be. I think I would love to be a C.S. Lewis type where some of my stories will be connected to biblical principals without openly acknowledging that theology, but I would also like to write clearly Christian works as well.

    • I haven’t tried the “clearly Christian” works thing, but I’m always open to experimentation. That’s my best advice on how to figure out what sort of writer to be, try anything. Write different genres, experiment with structure, that sort of thing. I think in general it’s good to write from a world view, but most people don’t respond well to being “beat over the head” with your view point. And it can be even better for your ultimate goals or “point” of a story if you include characters who disagree with you, with the way you or other characters look at the world. Thanks!

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