Friday, November 14, 2008

What Makes a Christian Book Christian?

Here's a question that my friend Karen Ball posted on her blog: What makes a Christian book Christian? I look forward to reading what the editors discussed when she posts it later, but here are my thoughts. If you can't tell, I'm kind of passionate about this:

Some of my bias probably came through at ACFW. I don't want a book that preaches at me. If there's a salvation, it needs to be realistic and flow organically from the story. I want spiritual threads that are realistic -- a book that keeps me thinking after I've hit "the end". Tamara Leigh's books are good about that. I laugh even while getting pinged. The thread can be very subtle. I think about some of Brandilyn's books.

But what I must have is a thread of hope. The story world can mirror the gritty world we live in, nut justice should prevail. I should get a sense that ev en though life isn't lived in pretty little packages there is light and beauty in the world.

Allen Arnold, fiction publisher at Thomas Nelson, talks about Christian fiction being fiction written by a Christian. I like that definition. It gives me freedom as a writer to write the story God gives me.

Wow, didn't know this would get long. But as a writer, this what I try to do. Nothing is worse as a reader than flying through pages to end a book on a down note.

So what do you think? Inquiring minds would like to know! And I may just pull a winner of one of my books from the commenters. :-) How's that for a tease!


Timothy Fish said...

I think to require that a Christian book come to a hopeful conclusion would reduce the tools we have as writers to incite change in our world. That is part of what we should seek to do through writing. I don't think every book should end on a down note, but those that do are often the ones that have the ability to incite readers to take action.

Christian fiction should be consistent with the Bible. Even when justice doesn't prevail, Christian fiction should make it clear that this is not the way it should be.

Slice of Heaven Farm said...

I feel that a Christian fiction book should mirror the world that is the story should follow life. And include all of its ups and downs. It should not end on a negative note, but give a sense of hope.

Sometimes when I read Christian fiction the story can not happen the way the writer had written it, i.e. "too many miracles". And that ruins the story.

So I guess the bottom line is, keep it as realistic as possible, but with a Christian worldview focus.

Avily Jerome said...

I think Christian fiction can come in many different forms.

I don't like reading books that have a preachy message, but that may be because I grew up in a Christian home. My mother attributes her salvation to a preachy book, so clearly there is a need for it.

My books tend to have Christian characters who are a lot like me- no flashy conversion stories, but just a solid, grounded faith that carries them through.

Slice of Heaven- I agree, unless the (a?) point of the story is to show God's miraculous nature.

Timothy- I respectfully disagree with your assessment that a hopeful ending would reduce the tools we have to incite change.

Isn't the entire point of Christianity that we have a hope and a future?

As for me, I hate books that don't have a happy ending. Consequently, I write them. :) But I always have a plan to bring it around in the sequel, and end up with a happily-ever-after in the long run.

I don't think you have to have a sad ending to incite change. That's what the body of the novel is for. You can show the world the way it is, what's wrong with it, how it should change, and give insight into how the reader can implement it in their own lives.

I think there is a time and a place for things not ending well- for example, in the book 1984. Great book, horrible ending, and therefore I hated it, but I understand the point of it.

But for the most part, the point of Christian fiction should be to point to the hope that we do have, and one of the ways to do that is to have justice prevail.

Timothy Fish said...

When I think of books that have incited change I can't help but think of Uncle Tom's Cabin because it helped to highlight the problems of a very dark time in our nation's history. While the novel isn't devoid hope, Uncle Tom dies at the hands of a cruel master. I very much doubt the book would have had the same impact if Uncle Tom had lived. By leaving an injustice unresolved, the author is able to tell us that there is action that is the reader's responsibility. The story ends, Think of your freedom, every time you see Uncle Tom's Cabin; and let it be a memorial to put you all in mind to follow in his steps, and be as honest and faithful and Christian as he was.

squiresj said...

Mae Nunn, Virginia Smith, and others who's books I read while laid up from an ankle fusion, made me laugh, cry,and encouraged and uplifted me in my faith. They never preached but they just told a story that made you realize that you aren't alone in your walk in life.
I have read your books and they are great too.
I just read one of DiAnn Mills books and it left me so uplifted and encouraged at the end. Had one not been a Christian they would have had hope - Lanterns and Lace was the book.
jrs362 (at) hotmail (dot) com

Anonymous said...

What a good, challenging question.

When a Christian fiction novel is watered-down in Christianity I can't get comfortably into it.

I think the best way to determine what makes a Christian novel christ-like is when they walk "the walk."

I can't say I mind a Christain book that "preaches" if the character practices what they preach. I mean, my preacher preaches and I enjoy that! It depends how it's being done, and with what attitude.

Cara Putman said...

Great comments, guys. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. Keep em coming.

Anonymous said...

This is an excellent question. I had something happen that really caught my attention and want to throw it into the discussion.

I was reading "Always a Mother" by Linda Warren in the SuperRomance, HQ Everlasting Love line.

A 43-year-old woman is pregnant and on page 10 she drives by an abortion clinic. All she had to do was "go inside, take another pregnancy test and make a decision. Easy."

The word Wrong is in italics and begins the next paragraph. She says she was raised in a Christian home and was raising her other children that way.

In italics it says "She had rights." Then "Was that supposed to alleviate the guilt?" In reality her rights had been compromised the moment she'd agreed to have sex with her husband."

This writing stopped me cold. Now, when does an ABA book become a Christian book? I believe I have the answer. I read a Christmas novella by Marie Bostwick last year and it was clearly Christian, in my mind, also.

Are these incredible exceptions? Is ABA seeing that this is okay now?

What do you think? And do I win a book for all this typing :)

Cathy S.

Lora Lease said...

I've been working on my first book, and have put a lot of thought into this, as I try to decide where exactly to take this. To be Christian, or "wholesome" and geared to the world, without a pervading Christian theme? I've read many Christian books that just preached and preached and preached, or, they make the heroine so "perfect" because of her faith, that you just want to gag and can barely finish the books (unfortunately, I am not the type that can ever "not" finish a book, so I have suffered through many tedious books. lol).

I believe Christian books should portray realistic people, facing realistic difficulties. The Christian characters should have a quiet faith, have good qualities, and yet also have areas they struggle in to make them "real". Maybe even fall occasionally, or have made bad choices in the past that they are now facing the consequences of. No matter what they experience, there should be an underlying feeling of hope. Wholesomeness and good morals should make an appearance, without going overboard (or at least show the benefits of living such a life), and of course there shouldn't be any "bleck" in it (those scenes that tell you way more than you want to know, such as love scenes). It should end in such a way that you want what they had (Christianity), you strive to make some changes and do things better, and your heart sings a little with the hope and joy the story has given you.

Carolyn Sharkas said...

I think that a Christian book should protray real life, hopes and dreams, happiness, sadness, every possibel scenario, but I think it should all be handled in enlightening ways. We all know that with God All Things Are Possible. We also know that all the books won't have a happy ending, but that IS real life. As long as we have our faith, we can get through it.

thanks for sharing

ceashark at aol dot com

Patty said...

I love this discussion. I have asked myself this very question when I read a book that I questioned on that very aspect. One thing nobody has mentioned is cursing. I would not expect expletives in a Christian fiction novel. Maybe that is just a duh, but I think it is something to consider also. There are references to the such, but not actually using the word. I have picked up books before to read that were not Christian fiction that I couldn't even get through one chapter before those were tossed in there. I get enough of that in the world. That's one reason why I read Christian fiction.

I like to read about someone coming to Christ in a book, but I don't think that is necessary to make it a Christian book. I enjoy a book that inspires me to be the best Christian that I can be by giving examples of a faith that is completely sincere and models that which Christ showed us in the bible.

I guess I am one who also does not mind a preachy book because I get the book knowing it is Christian fiction and expect that. Who knows, I might just even learn something, which of course I'm sure the author enjoys as well. There's my two cents for what it's worth.

pleblanc_1[at]charter[dot]net (Just in case)

Lalycairn said...

Since the first Christian books I read were Grace Livingston Hill books, I really avoided Christian fiction for a long LONG time. In the late 80's someone turned me on to Frank Perretti's books. From there I just kept going.

I like the idea that Christin fiction is fiction written by a Christian, however, I have read books that carry a deep message of hope and have Christian themes and the author's aren't.

I disagree that coming to a hopefull conlusion limits an authors tools. Jesus is all about hope in a hopeless world. I do think, tying up every loose end, and making some huge unbelievable stretch to make a hopeful ending limits. Those kind of books tend not to stretch one.

Interesting topic. :)

Anonymous said...

I suppose there's no "wrong" answer to this question, only preferences. I recognize I'm in the minority when I say most books "preach" something whether it's godlessness or godliness or anything in between. Giving a worldview is making a case for something, be it overt or covert.

Christian fiction definitions seem to presently range from a novel written by a Christian to a novel which proclaims the gospel. Christian publishing houses produce both kinds of novels.

My preference is as Cara mentioned about a salvation per se rising organically/naturally from the characters/story/plot. I want real situations, people, struggles, fears, and hopes. I don't want fluff, safe, easy, flaky, convenient, empty, or lack of spiritual depth. But we find both in CBA.

Anonymous said...

(And that's a good thing, BTW, that we find both kinds of fiction in CBA because everybody needs a book to read . . .)

Mom R said...

In a nutshell, this is my definition of Christian fiction, and one I keep posted on my computer monitor to keep me on track when I write:

"Christian fiction is a realistic portrayal of characters in conflict, which at some point exposes them to the truth of God's Word, shows His pursuit of them through the Lord Jesus Christ, and offers them an opportunity to enter into and develop a vibrant relationship with Him." -Eileen Rife

Deleted due to hackers... said...

Whether Fiction or Non-Fiction, a Christian book reveals biblical truth.

Some Christian Fiction publishers won't publish a book that doesn't have a "happy ending." As Christians, we know life doesn't always have a "happy ending." But, like some of the other posters have mentioned, their must be a ray of hope. That, itself, is a biblical truth.

Melanie Dickerson said...

I'm not a very analytical person, but I know God is good and I like for the books I read to show this fact. And I think that has been the theme of the books I've authored so far: God is good. You can trust Him.

Dal Jeanis said...

I think there are two separate questions:
(1) What makes a good book?, and
(2) What makes a Christian book?

Regardless of the exact definition of either, you can see that the intersection of the two categories is not complete.

Aside from personal preferences, there are certain things that generally disqualify a book from being a good book, such as :
* unrealistic characters or situations
* unbelievable resolutions
* author getting on their hobby horse and riding riding riding

Christian authors are not immune to these failings. For instance, it is very tempting for some Christian authors to use deux ex machina endings, where the deux is (of course) God. After all, God can do anything, so why not the author?

Not the author BECAUSE books are not just flights of fancy. Every good book, in my opinion, is a discussion in scenes of the most important question in human existence:

"How, then, shall we live?"

Different books explore different aspects of the question, and a Christian book will explore the question from within a Christian framework. The very best Christian books will explore the question from both inside and outside the Christian framework, explore it honestly and show by the contrast how the Christian framework works, what you give up and what you gain by accepting that as a pattern for your life.

Honesty is a requirement for living a Christian life. It's also a requirement for writing a good book. Christian authors would do well (and do good) to remember both facts when they write.

Dal Jeanis said...

My 11:38 comment was focused primarily on fiction,of course, and not that of a farcical or fantastical nature. Obviously, Gulliver's Travels is a great book filled with unrealistic characters and situations, unbelievable resolutions, and the author mounting his hobby horse and leaping it across twelve continents just for fun.


Author Sue Dent said...

Well I've always said what Allen Arnold said--almost. A Christian book is one written by an author of Faith.

What is Christian to one may not be Christian to another. Christian Fiction, for the most part, is fiction geared toward a particularly large group of Christians with a very specific world view who want to see Biblical solutions in a very Protestant manner.

Catholics put out their own brand of fiction through CBA, the Catholic Biblical Association whose purpose is to promote, within a context of their faith and so follows the trend.

My answer remains as it is above. If you're referring to fiction that appeals to a particular group of Christian's, then I'm not sure how to answer that. :)

Martha A. said...

Well, i think when I pick up a Christian book, it will be patterned after the way a Christian lives. It does not mean the charactes will not make mistakes, but those mistakes will not be honored in the book. Swearing, filthy speaking, sinful living is not something i would think to find glorified in a Christian book.
i like a book that is true to life, and if it is too peachy keen, then I feel it is fake and although that has nothing to do with christianity, I avoid those books.

i like a Christian story where the characters deal with real life issues though like abortion, infidelity, porn, and others. as those are a part of our life. but when confronted with those, I would not like to see it handed off as no big deal.

I picked up a book by a christian author one time that was published i guess by a Christian company and a non christian company (the same book) I accidently bought one by the non christian one and was shocked! It has some explicit scenes in it that i was totally not expecting. it made me want to avoid all her books, even her christian ones because I was not certain if I picked the right publisher.

Anonymous said...

This is a great question, Cara. I'm so glad you and Karen are talking about this. I agree that it is written by a christian.

When I read a book, I want to be inspired and filled with hope. It doesn't have to have a salvation message to make me think of Christ.

Lynn Squire said...

I just finished a book, labeled Christian, published by a Christian publisher, but I could not call it that. Why? Because the "conversion" scene in it did not reflect the Truth found in the Bible.

This got me to thinking about what makes a Christian book, truly Christian? What makes a Christian Christian? Christ. In Acts, the disciples in Antioch were the first to be called Christians - why? Because they followed the teachings of Christ.

If we are going to call a book a Christian book, then it better give a Biblical representation of Christ and of the salvation He provides. It's not enough to just mention God. So do Jews, so do Mormons, so do Jehovah Witnesses, even the Muslims claim God. But what makes a Christian different is that they believe that the only way to God is through faith in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, through grace - without works.

If a book doesn't reflect this (no, that doesn't mean there has to be a conversion), if it doesn't reflect Jesus Christ as the true Son of God, as the only means by which we can be saved from our sins and where our eternal destination will lead us, it isn't Christian.

Am I saying that it has to be preachy? No - though I've never read a novel that was - I keep wondering where these "preachy" novels are? But I guess that's a matter of perception. I am saying that proper representation of Jesus Christ and what He did for us must be present in order to call it Christian.

Jessica Nelson said...

Wow, this is an interesting topic. At some point it's true that what is Christian to one person may not be Christian to another. And that's just because we're all different with different opinions. I know Christians who say it's sinful for a woman to wear jeans. I know Christians who say it is sinful to gamble. I know Christians who say it's not a big deal to cuss. Boy do I have strong opinions on these things. And my opinions will come through my writing, inspiring some, offending others.
Very difficult.
To me, a preachy book is just a book where I'm reading and then all of a sudden it's like the author barges in and starts telling me her doctrine. I guess any scriptural or "preachy" message that takes me out of the store in order to make a point. It's tricky, for sure. :-)
So, so interesting.
As for conversion scenes, yes believing totally in Jesus and his sacrifice for our sins is biblical. But personally, in fiction, most conversion scenes feel stilted to me. I guess because it's such an intimate, holy experience. Trying to put words to it, for me, is fairly difficult.
Anyways, LOL, I'm not sure I added anything here but it was fun to spout my opinions. :-)
Thanks Cara!

Anonymous said...

I cannot believe that I am this late in the loop to see and leave a comment.

A Christian book, to me, is one where I think and feel about my Lord. Books that stick a peripheral tag of Christianity to a story is blah.

I want my character either strong in the faith or not but a 'lukewarm' story line leaves me cold. Francine Rivers' Trilogy on the fall of Jerusalem and the rise of Christianity is a strong story line. There was a story and it is fortunate that I cannot recall the authors name, that my thoughts as I was reading it was ~ 'why is this listed as a Christian story'?

I read a lot of fiction that is not Christian that has the values of Jesus better spelled out then some 'Christian' stories.

So lead me to Christ through the character's lifestyle or just tell me story.

I fully understand Jesus' words in Revelation 'Be you either hot or cold'...the spewing out of the mouth comes to mind with the tagging of Christianity rather than the shining example of the beacon of light we all yearn for.

Anonymous said...

I posted the last anonymous because I couldn't figure out how to put my name to it...after reading the comment I would like to leave a couple of replies...there are times in our lives when we live very close to God and what man thinks is not important and that can come across as being 'too good to be true' as we stand and struggle with our lifestyle knowing [actually thinking] we could never attain to that level - therefore it is unbelievable. Or have miracles occur that we don't believe in.

I have seen and been on both sides of that first fence and have had many miracles occur in my life alone - never mind the healings I have seen in others.

Another word of the Lord to Peter - leave them alone [on their different outlook] - if they be for me [Christ] then they are not against me.

And yes, Virginia, there truly are miracles in 'everyday life' and there are times we all experience the 'too good to be true' spot in our lives...God Bless, Paula Shene


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