Although Christian readers enjoy consuming material from authors who share their faith, a handful of it can be difficult to digest. Maybe a turning point in the protagonist’s arc fails to evoke any emotion, or the attraction between two characters involves awkward prolonged glances and tingles. How can people who understand God’s design for life and the sin that tainted it botch those portrayals so badly?
As Christians, the desire to spread “good” news drives us to explore the meaning of grace, paint images of breathtaking beauty, and celebrate the restoration of wholeness that only Christ can usher in. But our zeal, if left unchecked, can lead to an imbalance. We have a responsibility to depict the world as it is, not how we long for it to be.
The common denominator underneath limp Christian fiction is the eschewal of realism. Several subconscious fears can contribute to the departure from truth, but most of the habits fit into one of five categories.
1. Rainbows and Sunshine – A Problem of Idealism
We can’t scroll through news headlines without reports of murder, rape, and war blazing across our screens. In our daily interactions, we either experience or witness dysfunction, mistrust, racism, and poverty. And the earth itself groans under the weight of sin, caving in to natural disasters that destroy belongings and lives. No story can reflect the trials and temptations all of us face without at least nodding to the presence of evil. Yet we worry that we’re yielding ground to the enemy if we acknowledge the influence of the fall on humanity.
We hesitate to describe the horrors we know exist and, to an extent, that’s wise. The goal of realism does not license us to glut our pages with gore and immorality. However, whitewashing is not the solution either because it lulls readers into a state of confusion. As Gabrielle explains in her revelatory article, the consequences we attach to our characters’ choices define the difference between exposing and endorsing depravity. How much detail we do or don’t include is secondary to that.
Suffering connects all of us. When characters endure pain, we can relate to them much more deeply than if they were gliding through one success after another. Whether the issue is loneliness, grief, doubt, or shame, we can identify with the struggle. Taking an inventory of our favorite stories demonstrates the memorability of characters who push through adversity to reach redemption.
2. Rosy Romances – A Problem of Love
One of my biggest pet peeves about Christian fiction is when a couple continually gets along. Disagreements, if they have any, are brief and playful in nature. But no matter how strong and healthy a relationship is, conflict is inevitable. The guy and the girl will miscommunicate, act annoying, and disappoint each other. The forgiveness they display after a fight is the indicator that their relationship is godly, not the absence of strife.
In Wayne Thomas Batson’s Door Within trilogy, Aidan and Gwenne’s hardships are external to their fondness for each other, which sets unfair expectations for single, dating, and married readers alike. Teens will believe that their crushes won’t ever hurt them, and adults will feel guilty for being unable to prevent arguments. That’s one of the reasons J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series impresses me. Readers eagerly watch Ron’s bumbling attempts to catch Hermione’s attention while his parents provide an example of a long-term relationship that’s mature but imperfect.
Our observations from the relationships around us can help us craft dialogue and situations that come across as authentic. We just have to be willing to be honest about our flaws, like the popular Christian film Fireproof dares to do. Pornography, infidelity, and self-centeredness threatens to sever the husband and wife until sacrifice gradually heals the damage.
3. Allegorical Overkill – A Problem of Originality
Too many aspiring Christian writers default to copying The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis’s approach to children’s literature has captivated millions over the decades. But overuse can ruin any technique, especially if it’s mishandled. The events in a watered-down replica of the Bible will be nauseatingly predictable, even with mythical creatures and settings mixed in. Readers might as well learn the lessons straight from the source.
Allegories do have worth, and occasionally a publisher releases one that escapes the pitfalls, such as Nadine Brandes’ Fawkes. Where we tend to error is in assuming that all allegories must follow the same formula. We could, for instance, emulate Tolkien instead of Lewis (although writers often idolize him too).
As Ecclesiastes warns, “There’s nothing new under the sun.” If we’re determined to write allegories, we significantly increase the risk of regurgitating content. Whether we combine multiple biblical figures into one hero, or decide to incorporate a controversy from the current century, being innovative is crucial. We should be intentional about our themes, but we don’t need to stress over the exactness of each parallel we draw because our faith will flow into our ideas regardless.
4. Limited Worldviews – A Problem of Diversity
In our relativistic culture, morality has become subjective. A pair of church elders might be unified on one matter but not another. A brother and sister might pursue opposing lifestyles. And among a group of close friends, a handful might approve of an activity while the rest abstain from it. If all the characters in our novels are either good or bad and hold identical values, we deny the complexity of human beings. We also manipulate the dispute to promote the answers we want readers to arrive at.
The fix is simple: we need to spend more time developing our characters to reveal their individuality. What memories, convictions, hopes, insecurities, and demographics inform their perspectives? If the protagonist believes in God, and so do her two besties, that doesn’t mean all three of them will listen to the same speakers, study the Bible according to the same schedule, or pray in the same manner. How would they overcome spiritual challenges differently?
5. Salvation vs. Sanctification – A Problem of Theology
Conversion scenes are the bane of Christian fiction, although the trend of giving every protagonist a “come to Jesus” moment has fortunately faded over the years. Since most readers of the genre are past that stage in their walk with the Lord, a character’s progression toward repentance can seem like a tract they’ve already memorized, making the transformation lose its poignancy. How can we convey the miracle of salvation under those conditions, and should we even try?
In The Chronicles of Narnia, notice that Lewis doesn’t relay Aslan’s conversation with Edmund in the camp, nor does he allow Eustace to speak once he realizes he’s been a jerk. Instead, Edmund’s demeanor changes after the encounter, and Aslan symbolically tears away the scales covering Eustace’s body. The principle of “show, don’t tell” offers numerous opportunities to create a contrast between a character’s old and new self, without ever resorting to sermons and altar calls.
However, post-salvation is another area where many of us trip up. Growth is an ongoing process that won’t cease until we enter heaven’s gates. Yet we like to imagine that our fictional characters have everything figured out the instant they meet Jesus. They no longer wrestle with their flesh or cope with pain. Misrepresenting sanctification is harmful because it implies that readers’ futures will be easy. We need to focus on the cycle of messing up, confessing, and reforming in lieu of that.
Christians should be at the forefront of the publishing industry, pioneering stories that engage the mind, delight the heart, and feed the soul. After all, the greatest story of all time is our inspiration. The Bible’s accounts of separation and chaos and betrayal resonate with people from all backgrounds and eras. But God’s magnanimity in sending His only Son cuts through the sorrow. Our stories should seek to capture evil and suffering, then counter it with hope and love that triumphs in the end. Because that’s the narrative we’re living.
Joshua Barrera was born in a little town in upstate New York. From an early age, he thoroughly enjoyed imaginative play with his brother, utilizing whatever was around him to create new worlds in which they were the heroes. At around ten years old, he developed an interest in writing those fantasies down and crafting them into stories. Thus began his endeavor to become a writer.
Joshua loves to read (oftentimes narrating out loud for his family!), and some of his favorite authors are J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Timothy Zahn. He enjoys writing either fantasy or science fiction, occasionally dabbling in other genres to gain more experience and skill as a writer. Other than reading and writing, his hobbies include entertaining card games, playing musical instruments, and spending time with his wife and three crazy kids.