Many of us sit down at our desks with a list of criteria we believe we must meet before we can be confident that we’re honoring God with our writing. Our stories need to be thought-provoking, spiritual, and compelling, to name a few expectations I’ve heard or held myself to. The commission to impact others weighs heavily on our hearts because we know that our writing is an outflow of our Christian witness—and we long to capture our Creator’s magnificence in our own small sphere of creativity. But when we ask how our faith should influence and set us apart as writers, the answers vary as widely as all of humanity.
As we strive to glorify and point to God’s reality in our fiction, we face a hidden danger: the notion that we’re heretics (or failures) if we don’t craft stories that rise like cathedrals alongside paragons of Christian literature. That ideal is shaped by insecurity rather than truth, and when the former is our foundation, we risk damaging our effectiveness.
The Lie: Christians Should Only Write Cerebral Stories
Real Christian writers should produce material as if they apprenticed under masters like C. S. Lewis, Leo Tolstoy, Evelyn Waugh, and Flannery O’Conner. Right?
Yes—and no. We don’t all enjoy reading the same kinds of books; therefore we don’t all enjoy writing the same kinds of books. Vast, moving stories that contemplate God and morality and worldview occupy a valued place on the world’s shelves. But if every Christian writer replicated that style, the portrayal of the human experience would be incomplete. We need touching and wholesome romances to remind us that the smallest gestures in a relationship are often the most meaningful. We need mystery and horror to keep us alert to the evil that can take control if we let it. And we need children’s fiction to revive the sense of wonder that tends to dim as we age. Each of these genres appeals to different readers at different stages of life, and each writer is uniquely gifted to reach a specific audience.
I learned this lesson the hard way—I spent most of my writing career trying to pound out a novel reminiscent of the classics praised in Christian circles. When I finally admitted that I wasn’t interested in joining that hall of fame, my perspective shifted. I wanted to use my talents wisely. But assuming that Christian storytelling was confined to a single definition had made my good intentions go awry.
The Truth: Christians Should Write the Stories That Delight Them
Stewarding our imaginations for God doesn’t mean becoming a carbon copy of any other author, no matter how brilliant or respected they are. Nor does it mean entrenching a story with earth-shaking ideologies. God designed each of us for a purpose all our own, whether it’s writing a simple children’s story about kindness or a chilling murder mystery where the sleuth continually risks her own safety to protect lives.
As I shed my misconceptions about being a Christian writer, my hope and joy renewed. I could now explore all of the ideas that excited me but had discarded as not lofty enough! I was also able to be honest with myself about my motivations. I’d been pursuing the recognition and acceptance that comes with conforming to a conventional mold. But I was not C. S. Lewis, Evelyn Waugh, or Flannery O’Conner, and God didn’t call me to be a writer so that I could regurgitate the stories they’ve written far better than I ever could.
Unconsciously, I’d been following the well-worn advice “write the book you want to read.” Except it had guilt-tripped me into writing the caliber of book I thought I should be gravitating toward. God didn’t give me that burden. It’s one I strapped to myself. No one can predict exactly how God speaks to readers through our stories—our responsibility is to embrace inspiration wherever we find it, seeking to capture all aspects of Him, from His justice and power to His humor and beauty.
The Truth Sets Us Free
Fears attack all of us every day, and the lie I’ve been discussing poses yet another threat to our peace of mind (a commodity that’s essential to the act of creating). But it can be conquered, starting with requesting outside input. I didn’t realize that my standards were incompatible with my own tastes until people I trusted mentioned the possibility. My husband looked me in the eye and told me that my heart wasn’t in the story I was writing—and he was right.
Secondly, our reading habits reveal the stories we’re naturally drawn to, especially the last half a dozen titles we’ve devoured just for fun. Comparing those to our works-in-progress may expose a dichotomy that needs rectifying before we can craft engaging fiction.
Lastly, we need to question ourselves (to a healthy degree). Do our manuscripts occupy our thoughts and spark more ideas? If the answer is no, we can switch to another project without shame.
Surprised by Joy
If you suspect that insecurity has a grip on your writing, don’t sink into discouragement. Search for the characters, themes, and overtones that bring you fulfillment. Not every writing session will be rainbows and glitter, but an unrelenting undercurrent will pull you back for the third, fourth, and even fifth draft. Writing is grueling, but also thrilling and rewarding. You are under no obligations to write any story. God is love incarnate, and He created out of love for love’s sake. As sub-creators, shouldn’t we imitate Him?
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Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.
This article is so comforting. Thank you.
Emily, I’m happy to have written it then! Take comfort and keep writing.
Amazing article, Rose! Thanks so much for this reassurance…
It’s so easy for me to compare my books to Lewis and Andrew Peterson and Lloyd Alexander and all the writers I want to be like.
This was a good reminder that I should want to be like them… but not in the sense of writing what they’ve already written. I want to be like them in the sense that I also want my writing to be a reflection of truth and beauty.
Anne, imitation is the highest form of flattery. In the end, we all imitate God in our process of sub-creation through writing. The most simple things often are the truest reflection of Truth and Beauty. Godspeed!
Thank you so much! I write YA historical fiction and historical fantasy, and sometimes it’s easy to look at all the “serious” stories and wonder what purpose mine have and whether I’m wasting my time.
Rachel, thanks for reading and I hope this encourages you to pursue the stories you want and need to write, even if they’re less serious. Good luck!
A very reassuring and encouraging article. I’ve never had any talent for writing Christian fiction (fiction that would meet all the criteria for the Christian market) but I have always been talented in writing fiction that would (hopefully) be classified as a “clean read”. I enjoy writing clean reads for the general market, and want my writing to be acceptable for all ages–not necessarily something every person in the world would like, but no explicit sexual activity, violence, or language.
Abriana, I think some of the most compelling works of Christian fictions wouldn’t be recognized under the Christian Market criteria. (When was the last time you saw Anna Karenina advertised as a Christian novel?) Clean reads are necessary and good, but they don’t have to be “Christian.” Keep writing and pursue that joy in creation!