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.