Why Christian Fiction Needs to Die

“The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.”— C.S. Lewis

As the world of literature has developed, genres have been defined and redefined. What was once simply classified as “fairy stories” can now be subdivided into several different types of fantasy. What was once just “horror” might now be considered a crime thriller, or perhaps a murder mystery. With the evolution of genre, a unique creature has been born: a genre that has become famous for its sub-par writing, overuse of tropes, and preachy dialogue. I’m speaking, of course, about the genre of Christian fiction.

      And that genre needs to die.


Defining Christian fiction

Not all fiction written by Christians is bad, of course.  J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis are classic examples of Christians who have written excellent fiction; their works are widely considered to be some of the best writing of the past two centuries. I would argue, however, that these authors’ works do not actually belong under the label of Christian fiction.

Christian fiction as a genre is made up of stories that may involve romance, fantasy, mystery, or any other elemental genre, but rely so heavily on a narrow set of tropes and thematic elements that they comprise a genre all their own. Stories in this genre are written by Christians, for Christians, and their plots are carried by themes of faith, persecution, and/or conversion.

Tolkien and Lewis certainly emphasized themes of faith and persecution, but they did so in a way that could be read and enjoyed by both Christian and non-Christian alike. Even Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is the prime example of Christian allegory, utilized tropes and themes as tools to enliven the tale, rather than cheap replacements for fine prose and vivid narration.


The trope is strong with this one

While tropes can be useful tools for building a story, providing tried-and-true formulas for engaging readers, Christian fiction goes far beyond merely utilizing popular elements of theme and plot. Christian fiction lives or dies on its tropes. Check out the fiction section of any Christian bookstore, and you will be hard-pressed to find a book that does not contain a conversion scene, someone being persecuted or killed for their faith, or at least an unrealistic conversation about what one must do to be saved. This makes for heavy-handed dialogue, predictability, and trite story arcs.

Tropes are meant to enhance a story and to provide useful boundaries within which a story can excel. However, if a story loses all meaning when the tropes are removed, the author has relied too heavily on them. Christian fiction has become nothing more than a string of tropes put together in some semblance of order. There is no real story being told; the work is just a sermon couched in a made-up world.

So why do Christians keep spending money to read the same story in a different setting? And why do Christain writers and publishers keep producing these stories?  These questions need to be addressed if we are to properly dispose of Christian fiction.


Marketing: It’s all about the money

One of the reasons that tropes work is because they sell. If you’ve ever read a romance novel, you know that there are certain non-negotiable elements: the couple must first meet, then have some sort of conflict, and then end up together. If you’ve read one romance novel, you’ve read them all.

So why do people keep buying them? In the world of literature, there is an unspoken contract between writer and reader. A reader opens a book with certain expectations. No one opens a romance novel to read about violent battles or unknown worlds; people read romance novels for the romance. When expectations are met, the reader is happy.  While this often works to the benefit of both the author and the reader, it can also result in some very poorly written material.

You see, from a marketing perspective, tropes can ensure a certain level of success for a novel just by virtue of giving the audience what they expect. However, if the audience will buy anything simply because it has certain elements, then publishing companies are going to be a lot less particular about the quality of work that they publish as long as those elements are included.

Sadly, we see this problem of low standards across all areas of Christian art. In order to get Christians to buy something, all you have to do is write a substanceless song and make “Jesus” one of the ten words therein, or make a cheesy Christian version of any popular movie. Slap an ichthys on something, and you, too, can be raking in the dough.

Similarly, if the Christian’s standard for fiction is as low as “someone should become a Christian in this story,” then as long as there’s a sinner’s prayer scene, it doesn’t matter if the entire thing looks like a chicken danced a jig on the manuscript with ink on its talons. It gets published, it sells, and to hell with the quality. I’d like to point out that this is primarily a problem for the Christian reader to deal with. If you want better fiction, stop buying terrible stories.


Theology: No subtlety allowed 

The second reason that Christian fiction continues to sell is the pervasive idea that, in order for art to glorify God, it must contain overt references to the biblical narrative. This means that writers who want to honor God with their craft become convinced that their stories must be filled with biblical references and come-to-Jesus moments.

As a result, every protagonist is named something like Solomon Jehoshaphat, and they inevitably convert to Christianity, almost lose their faith through a difficult trial (but regain it just in time!), or stare down the barrel of a gun while refusing to renounce Christ — sometimes all three. The idea that Christian authors must fit into this very specific, embarrassingly overused mold ensures that even otherwise good writers end up sounding like a bad John Bunyan knock-off.

 This is a trap that ensnares writer and reader alike. The writer writes the book because they don’t think there’s another way to glorify God with their work. The reader buys and reads the books because it’s what they’ve learned to expect.

Not only does this mindset perpetuate the production and circulation of bad fiction, it’s also theologically baseless. Writing fiction as a Christian and honoring God through your art does not require your protagonist to be a prisoner of ISIS. While Christians may feel they are gaining something by reading “Christian” books that have all the literary piquancy of a cereal box, there is nothing Christian about poorly written stories. Fiction is an art form, and art should be done well, or not at all. God is more glorified by the creation of a compelling, well-crafted story that doesn’t mention Christ than unimaginative drivel about, say, a widower’s “unexpected journey back to faith.”
Christians producing bad art does not honor Christ.


What should we do about Christian fiction?

All of this is to say that the genre of Christian fiction has grown into a content mill of low- quality, predictable work based on a faulty theology of art and perpetuated by publishers and Christians with low standards. Therefore, the genre of Christian fiction must die.

But how do we kill it?

First, Christian authors need to write better stories and pitch to publishing companies with high standards of literature. If you love writing and want to honor God with it, then you need to try harder. Fiction writing is a craft; one that requires you to grind away at a piece until it becomes art. Christian fiction has become a comfort zone, and little work is required to excel at it.

Second, Christian readers need to stop buying and reading bad fiction. It does not help anyone to feed into an industry that produces bad writing. Raise your standards and support good writers instead of patronizing bad ones. You will not have as many options if you reject Christian fiction in favor of good fiction written by Christians, but what you do have will be worth your time.

Finally, and most importantly, Christians must gain a robust theology of art and literature. Christian fiction has become the hideous beast that it is because we do not have a framework in which to tame it. Christians as a whole need to learn what it really means to glorify God in fiction, and why that doesn’t necessitate preachy dialogue or superficial characters. God is a Creator, infinitely original and creative in his work. We have been made in his image, and it is our responsibility to reflect God’s creativity with skill and dedication.


Exercise 

Read through the synopses of three popular works of Christian fiction and highlight all of the overused tropes that appear. Consider what would be left behind if you were to take them out. Is there still a story, or is the whole book kept afloat by its tropes?


Further Reading

If you would like to read about the theology of writing good fiction, I suggest Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” and Dorothy Sayers’ book “The Mind of the Maker.”


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