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What is Christian Fiction?

Dear Editor | What is Christian Fiction?

Last week, I discussed the difficulty of defining Christian fiction, and covered six things that don’t define Christian fiction:

  • The author
  • The publisher
  • The organisation
  • The bookseller
  • The content
  • The world view

Today I’m going to look at four different definitions of Christian fiction … all of which are valid, and all of which leave plenty of room for interpretation.

So what is Christian fiction?

Authors Terry Burns and Linda W Yezak address the question in their book, Writing in Obedience: A Primer for Writing Christian Fiction. Reading Writing in Obedience was a lightbulb moment for me. It’s a conversation I’d been having with myself (and others), and the authors provide the best explanation I’ve seen. I’m going to summarise it here, but I do recommend you buy the book to read it for yourself.

First, the authors quote the definition of Christian fiction provided by Francine Rivers:

If you pull out the Christian thread from the plot and the plot unravels, it’s Christian fiction.

Some novels are more overtly Christian than others, and this may well depend on genre. It’s perhaps easier to have a Christian romance novel than a Christian fantasy novel (JRR Tolkien was a Christian, but this doesn’t make Lord of the Rings Christian fiction. Great fiction, sure. Just not great Christian fiction).

Burns and Yezak divide Christian fiction into four categories:

  • Fiction written for believers
  • Fiction written for unbelievers
  • Fiction written for backsliders
  • Fiction written for seekers

Believers want Christian fiction which wrestles with issues of faith, and they want to see the Christian main character emerge victorious. I agree. But it’s preaching to the choir, and we’re called to spread the gospel—which isn’t to say the choir doesn’t need help. It does.

Thankfully, not everyone is called to write for the choir. Some are called to write for unbelievers, backsliders and seekers, and this means adopting a different style of writing. The underlying theme and message may well be the same, but it has to be delivered in a way the reader wants. In this respect, Burns and Yezak say:

We should never share our faith directly with the reader. As soon as the reader realizes the author is talking directly to him, the book becomes preachy, and the chance he’ll put it down goes up significantly.

I believe this shows why many Christian authors are choosing to write fiction of a more “edgy” nature, or choosing to leave specific references to God and Jesus out of their stories: to reach backsliders, seekers and unbelievers. These are markets which desperately need to be reached, and perhaps can’t be reached through the traditional CBA/CRA market.

I commend those who are writing for backsliders, unbelievers and seekers, those who have to strike the balance between writing Christian fiction and being a Christian who writes fiction. It’s not an easy task.

Levels of Christian Fiction

David Bergsland of Radiqx Press wrote A Spiritual System for Rating Books to propose a rating system reviewers can use in rating the Christian content of the fiction they read and review. This is separate from the systems used by online bookstores such as Amazon and Kobo, where the ratings are defined by likeability.

Bergsland points out that the self-publishing revolution provides a means for authors to publish books that wouldn’t be considered by the publishing establishment, which means readers are being exposed to a wider range of thought. His central argument is that:

There is no Christian without a messiah

Bergsland’s ratings are:

One Star: The Clean Read

The clean read has no content that might offend a conservative Christian reader, but also no mention of God, Jesus, or Christianity.

Two Stars: The Legal Level

The focus of the story is on law, not grace. Biblical fiction falls into this category, as there was obviously no salvation through Jesus until after He died on the cross.

Three Stars: The Religious Level

Characters attend church and practice Christian values, but their Christian walk is habit and culture, and there is little difference between the Christian and the non-Christian characters.

Four Stars: Redemptive Fiction

Salvation and deliverance come through grace, not works, and the emphasis is on a personal relationship with Jesus. Christian characters read their Bibles and pray, and are noticeably different to the non-Christian characters.

Five Stars: Spirit-Filled Fiction

Believers accepted Jesus or a messiah and, they experience the power of the Lord and His Holy Spirit in their lives. Characters have (or develop) an intimate relationship with the Lord and show by example how God talks and communicates with His people.

Bergsland argues that only Redemptive Fiction and Spirit-Filled Fiction are truly “Christian” fiction, and that these books are rare. I suspect this is because the market is small, both in terms of people who are able to write such fiction, and people who are interested in reading it.

The Christian Writers Code

Chawna Schroeder defines Christian fiction in terms of the eight qualities in Philippians 4:8:

  • Whatever is true
  • Whatever is noble
  • Whatever is right (righteous)
  • Whatever is pure
  • Whatever is lovely
  • Whatever is admirable (of good repute)
  • If anything is excellent
  • If anything is praiseworthy

I’ve detailed Chawna’s view in The Christian Writers Code.

Five Types of Christian Fiction

As I was preparing this blog post, I came across a post where Christian writer Jake Doberenz shares his thoughts on five levels of Christian fiction. Doberenz sees Christian fiction as a continuum, from little or no faith to explicitly ChristianL

Faith in the Morality

A family-friendly or “clean read” that reinforces Christian standards of behaviour.

Faith in the Theme

A story that shows Christian values in the underlying themes e.g. forgiveness or redemption.

Faith in the Allegory

A retelling of a Biblical story in another setting, where Christians will recognise the allegory but non-Christians might not.

Faith in the Plot

Stories with at least some Christian character, and where faith is key to the plot.

Faith in the Message

An obviously Christian story, with overt Christian characters which always show the importance of faith in Christ. Where someone could argue that novels in the other four types are not Christian, there is no arguing with Faith in the Message stories.

Good Christian Fiction

There are similarities and differences in each of these four definitions. I’m sure we all have our own definitions.

Good Christian fiction, in my opinion, should:

  • Feature characters who are Christians, or who come to Christ in the course of the story.
  • Romance should be about more than the romantic tension between the hero and heroine.
  • Show the spiritual growth of either the hero or heroine, with the level of spiritual growth depending on their individual starting points. Just as in real life, we don’t get saved and suddenly become super-Christians who know everything (if only!). Christian life is about obedience to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Heb 12:2). There would be no point if we were perfect.
  • Reflect a life that full of imperfect Christians trying to be real and live for God in a fallen world, working out our faith in fear and trembling and allowing God to work in us.

Christian fiction is about reflecting God in what we write, about allowing Him to work in and and through us, in our writing and in everything we do.

So that’s Christian fiction. What do you think?