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What is a Christian Book?

Dear Editor | What is a Christian Book?

What is a Christian Book?

This seems like a simple question to answer—and it can be, especially in non-fiction:

  • Bible studies and devotional books are clearly Christian in nature.
  • Memoirs or biographies of Christians are clearly Christian.
  • There are also a huge number of Christians writing in the self-help genre, ranging from obviously Christian topics such as improving your prayer life, to less obvious subjects such as diet.

The common thread is that Christian nonfiction uses the Bible as a reference or influence.

But there are still Christians writing nonfiction for the general market. For example Bear Grylls is outspoken about his Christian faith and his support of the evangelistic Alpha programme. But only one of his books—Soul Fuel, a devotional—is clearly Christian. He’s also written (or had ghostwritten) an autobiography, a wilderness survival guide, and several adventure novels for boys.

What is a Christian Book? This seems like a simple question to answer—and it can be with nonfiction. But defining Christian fiction isn't easy. #ChristianFiction #ChristianPublishing Click To Tweet

Defining Christian fiction isn’t as easy.

You only have to read the one-star reviews of some Christian novels to work that out. I’ve read novels that I thought were clearly Christian, then read reviews that question the genre classification (and sometimes even the author’s salvation). It’s clear that different people have different definitions.

Before attempting to define what Christian fiction is, I’m first going to define what it isn’t. Christian fiction isn’t:

  • Defined by the author
  • Defined by the publisher
  • Defined by an organisation
  • Defined by the bookseller
  • Defined by the content
  • Defined by the world view

Let’s look at each of these in turn.

Is Christian fiction Defined by the Author?

Some say Christian fiction is novels published by Christian authors, on the basis that as a Christian, your beliefs should come through in everything you write, “Christian fiction” or not:

Every story choice you make arises out of who you are, at the deepest levels of your soul; and every story you tell reveals who you are and the way you conceive the world around you.
– Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card

I understand the sentiment. I agree with it. But being a Christian doesn’t automatically make what you write ‘Christian’.

There are many Christian writers who are writing and publishing novels targeting the general market. Some of these authors started publishing in the Christian market and have moved into the general market (e.g. Deeanne Gist and Catherine West).

Others started in the general market before moving into the Christian market (e.g. Francine Rivers). Some have only ever written for the general market, and their books may or may not have underlying Christian messages (e.g. John Grisham and Debbie Macomber).

As Christians, we’re called to go into all the world and preach the gospel. Most non-Christians (even keen readers) wouldn’t knowingly pick up a Christian novel, so writing general market fiction that shows Christian values can be a way of reaching this new audience. I have no problem with this. If you’re called to write for the general market, then you need to ignore the naysayers and be obedient to your call.

I’ve also heard of some non-Christian writers working as ghostwriters, writing fiction that targets the Christian market. I’m less comfortable with this—I don’t have a problem with the concept of ghostwriting, but it feels dishonest for a Christian writer to knowingly hire a non-Christian writer and selling that product as “Christian fiction”.

No, Christian fiction isn’t defined by the author.

Is Christian Fiction Defined by the Publisher?

Some say Christian fiction is fiction published by Christian publishers, except publishers can’t be Christian. Only authors can.

Christian fiction might be novels published by members of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA), but that excludes self-published authors and non-evangelical publishers targeting a specific denomination, such as Roman Catholic.

There is also the fact that most major ECPA publishers are owned by multinational media conglomerates. For example, Thomas Nelson (who publish the New King James version of the Bible) and Zondervan (who publish the New International Version of the Bible) are both owned by HarperCollins, which is a subsidiary of News Corp (founded by Rupert Murdoch and now a listed company).

No, Christian fiction isn’t defined by the publisher.

Is Christian Fiction Defined by an Organisation?

Last week’s post discussed the demise of the CBA and the new Christian Retail Association (CRA). There is a view that there were “CBA guidelines” on acceptable content in Christian fiction. If such guidelines ever existed, I’ve never found them.

I suspect the idea of “CBA guidelines” developed back when Lifeway and Family Christian Stores were the two major US sales outlets for Christian books, with over 400 stores across the USA. Traditional publishers had to ensure they only published books they were confident they’d be able to sell into Lifeway and FCS. Afer all, Lifeway Christian Stores were known for refusing to stock certain books.

The other prominent organisation in Christian publishing is the US-based Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA). The ECPA require that books entered for the Christian Book Awards must:

include explicit Christian content, an overtly Christian message, and/or a distinctively Christian world view (e.g., allegorical fiction)

Entries must also be consistent with the ECPA Statement of Faith, which is essentially the same as the Statement of Faith of the National Association of Evangelicals. But that focuses on the core beliefs of Christians. The rules make no other mention of content. However, awards don’t include fiction: novels are instead eligible for the Christy Award (which has no content guidelines).

Confusingly, Christian Book Awards can be shortened to CBA. This could give rise to the confusion over “CBA guidelines”.

But not, Christian fiction isn’t defined by an organisation.

Is Christian Fiction Defined by the Bookseller?

Some say Christian fiction is fiction sold in Christian bookstores, members of the CBA (The Association for Christian Retail, formerly the Christian Booksellers Association), the CRA (Christian Retail Association) or an international equivalent.

But Christian stores tend to only stock books from major ECPA publishers which ignores self-published authors, non-evangelical publishers, and many small publishers. And fiction from ECPA publishers isn’t just sold at CBA stores—it’s also sold at mainstream booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and at big box stores such as Target and Walmart.

No, Christian fiction isn’t defined by where it’s sold.

Is Christian Fiction Defined by the Content?

A lot of people seem to define Christian fiction—especially Christian romance—by the content. But it’s often a list of content which shouldn’t be included: no sex. No graphic violence. No swearing. No smoking. No drugs. No gambling. Perhaps no dancing and no alcohol and no mention of Halloween. But Christianity is about what we believe, not what we do (or don’t do).

While there are no overarching “CBA guidelines”, what I have found is that different publishers have different guidelines. Sometimes, different imprints from the same publisher have different guidelines. For example, Love Inspired (an imprint of HarperCollins Christian Publishing) do not permit any alcohol consumption, yet Thomas Nelson (another HCCP imprint) published The Memory of You by Catherine West, in which the main character is part-owner in a vineyard.

No, Christian fiction isn’t defined by the content.

Is Christian Fiction Defined by the World View?

Some say Christian fiction is those novels written from a Christian world view. That sounds reasonable . . . if we could agree on “writing from a Christian world view” means. One view is that a Christian world view means the absence of postmodernism:

What is postmodernism? In simplest terms, it means we no longer believe in absolutes. Everything is relative . . . In postmodern literature, the author isn’t saying anything . . . you, the reader, have to decide what the text is saying to you.
– Writing to a Post-Christian World, Ann Tatlock

That makes sense to me. However, there are lots of books written by Christians that share a Christian world view, but which target the general market. The Testament by John Grisham is one of my favourite examples of this.

But all these things are telling us what Christian fiction isn’t.

Not what it is.

So what is Christian Fiction? You tell me. And I’ll be back to give you my definition next week.

What is a Christian Book?
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