Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Christian Fiction conundrum

I've taken a 12 month break from writing novels. I haven't quit. But the reason I've given myself a year's break so that I can go and write about trains is a lot more complex than simply admitting that... I like trains. It has more to do with the confusion that surrounds the genre I was writing for, Christian Fiction.

After spending the best part of the last decade working towards my goal of becoming a full-time novelist, there comes a point where you have to ask yourself, 'what am I doing here?' Not the usual 'why hasn't a bigger publisher come calling', or 'why hasn't that bookshop got my book on their shelf' kind of questions, but the bigger ones, like why is my message not getting across? Now for those who don't know, my four novels to date are all best described as Christian Fiction. However, none were published by a Christian publisher or sub-label. That's okay, because that was not the market I was wanting to be pigeon-holed in anyway.

A lot has been written about the term Christian Fiction. What is it? Is it a fiction book based on Christian living? Or is it a retelling of classic stories from the Bible? Take a look at the type of books that Christian publishers are flogging to their readers, and you can pretty much sum up the answer for yourself. They are books that publishers feel Christians would be comfortable reading. And the biggest selling Christian Fiction on the market today? Amish romance.

The problem I have with what types of books are promoted as acceptable Christian Fiction, is that they are all portrayed as safe. There is nothing risque, nothing that challenges the reader to look deeper and certainly no room for philosophy that falls outside of the box. Its basically a case of write it safe, and no-one gets hurt. Amish romance, while enjoyed by many, is about as far removed as one can get from the sins of popular culture. Take away television, fashion, dancing, drinking, fast cars and any kind of relationship that doesn't follow a predestined regiment of Christian courting, and there is no way that you can offend anyone. It's safe reading with a capital S.

Here's the kicker however. If you want to hold the principals of Amish Fiction up to the Bible. They fail miserably. Since when did the Bible say to segregate oneself from the rest of the world in some idyllic little village in rural Pennsylvania? Genesis 22:18 "in thy seed shall all of the nations be blessed." Matthew 28:19 "go therefore, and make disciples of all the nations." How do you suppose we get that message across as Christians if we isolate it from the rest of the world, either by living in an Amish community or by solely writing about it? Suddenly we have a conundrum on our hands.

As a Christian, I often find it funny how people can take these notions of safe Christian living to new heights. I can still recall being corrected by someone in my own Church who overheard me inviting someone around to my house for an afternoon of wine and cheese, and politely drew to my attention that real Christians don't drink. Funny that one. After all, what does communion consist of? Bread that represents the body of Christ, and wine representing His blood. One of the miracles that Jesus performed in the Bible was to turn water into wine, and Christ often shared parables in the Bible about new and old wine skins. Why would he do so if we weren't supposed to enjoy a glass of wine from time to time with our friends?

Good grief. When Christianity has entered a period of playing it safe, how can you expect Christian Fiction to be any different? In fact, I will go on record as saying that the hardest genre to write about on the face of the earth is Speculative Christian Fiction. One of my all-time favourite bloggers is a guy by the name of Mike Duran, a former minister of 11 years who is now one of the boldest voices on the internet when it comes to Christian Fiction. His reasoning for why Christian publishers shy away from Speculative Fiction is because there are theological concerns "that speculation is inherently un-Christian". So when I penned a feel-good summer beach novel that was based around a bottle containing a heartfelt poem that supposedly granted someone's birthday wish to whomever found it, the most critical reviews naturally came from Christian Fiction bloggers.

A Christian novel about a couple of surfers who find a message in a bottle supposedly granting them someone's Birthday wish? Why not, especially when it gets them questioning whether God is trying to teach them a lesson.

So what is the purpose of writing Christian Fiction anyway? Is it to encourage your fellow Christians at Church? Is it to educate them with a book that is merely a sermon in disguise? The answer should be a flat out no. There's already a book for that, (duh, its called the Holy Bible), and if they go to Church than chances are they're already hearing some pretty good sermons every Sunday anyway. I think if that's what you set out to achieve when writing Christian Fiction, you are missing the point entirely. Jesus was himself a storyteller, and if his parables were all written as Christian Fiction novels, then we'd have a darn good example to follow. One of my favourite Christian authors is a lady by the name of Rene Gutteridge. I love how she puts her point of writing Christian Fiction across; "I write from a Christian worldview and therefore my stories reflect that. But I don't feel the need to make my stories blatantly Christian just so I can feel good about myself."

Perhaps the best way to write an effective Christian Fiction novel is to not set out to write Christian Fiction at all. I've decided to simply concentrate on my own Christian life and just be sure that whatever I write in the future reflects the same values that I live by. If there is one thing that turns people off about Christianity, it is hypocrisy. So why are we allowing ourselves to present an image of living a safe Christian life when the Gospel we preach and the world we live in is anything but safe? I love big risk-taking novels that challenge the barriers we've set up around what we consider to be safe Christian Fiction. Remember the book The Shack? It certainly got a lot of people talking, both Christians and non-Christians alike. Or how about Rooms by another of my favourite Christian authors James L. Rubart who lists The Matrix and Lord of The Rings as his favourite movies. Both books got read by a lot of non-Christians and were more than Biblical morals disguised as a novel. That to me is the best example of effective Christian Fiction. Books that makes a stand no matter what the Sunday naysayers think of it.

Look, if writing is what you are called to do, then first remember that you were called. Be the Christian before you try and be the Christian Author, and let God take care of the rest. I know that by the time my next novel is completed in a few years time, my writing will be at an entirely different level. Why? Because I plan to take my Christian life to an entirely different level. In the meanwhile, I have to allow myself that time to grow. Until then, at least I have some train trips I can write about Down Under. Why? Because sometimes its nice to just put the Christian Fiction conundrum aside, and simply admit that 'I like trains'.

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