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4 Common Sins of Christian Storytellers

May 21, 2018

Does writing Christian fiction have pitfalls?

 

Unfortunately, yes. The inherent nature of Christian fiction is certainly not evil, but our approach to it can easily be misguided by four prevalent sins.

 

Presumption

Definition: not begging God to cleanse and guide our works and thinking we can excel on our own.

 

While we’re trying to glorify God, could we be ignoring Him? It’s possible. This can occur when we neglect to spend time praying about our writing because we believe we have the power to write in a God-pleasing manner.

 

How can we be so sure of ourselves? Are we 100 percent confident that our writing ethics are correct? Do we always convey our meaning with absolute clarity? Do we know exactly the kind of stories our culture needs to hear? Do we have a perfect grasp of truth?

 

We must answer no to all these questions. We are feeble vessels, unworthy and unable to carry such a weight on our shoulders.

 

Except…

 

Andrew Murray brilliantly describes how we can bring our gifts under God’s dominion:

 

“I must see how that all my gifts and powers are, even though I am a child of God, still defiled and under the power of the flesh. I must feel that I cannot at once proceed to use them for God’s glory. I must first lay them at Christ’s feet, to be accepted and cleansed by Him. I must feel myself utterly powerless to use them correctly. I must see that they are most dangerous to me, because through them the flesh, the old nature, self, will so easily exert its power. In this conviction I must part with them, giving them entirely up to the Lord. When He has accepted them, and set His stamp upon them, I receive them back, to hold them as His property, to wait on Him for the grace to use them correctly day by day, and to have them act under His influence.”

 

We should bathe our art in prayer with the same fervor and desperation that led Job to make daily sacrifices on behalf of his sons (Job 1:5). In one sense, this is a journey that never ends, but the step can also be taken immediately. Say goodbye to self-glory. Do not boast about tomorrow (or the next chapter). Walk in humility.

 

Pray regularly over your writing if you want to avoid falling into the sin of presumption.

 

Pride

Definition: not acknowledging that we, in our flesh, are as lost as our readers.

 

The practical result of pride is that our story’s message can become brusque, overbearing, and often cheesy. Our writing develops this flavor when we lose our ability to empathize. Check out what Hebrews 2:17–18 says about Jesus: “Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted.”

 

Even Jesus had to endure trials and temptations to be fully equipped for His work of sanctifying His followers. Shouldn’t we (who also aim to teach, guide, and inspire) have the same spirit, recognizing both the deep lure and bondage of sin as we strive mightily to bring people out of it?

 

Depicting Christians in an unrealistic, perfect light doesn’t spring from the understanding that our flesh is depraved. Stereotyping sinners as less than human doesn’t spring from the understanding that we were once the same way and viewed ourselves as good. And providing clichéd, oversimplified answers to tough problems doesn’t spring from the understanding of how flawed and confused humanity is.

 

In some cases, preachiness may not be just an art issue—it may be a heart issue.

 

Passivity

Definition: not caring about the souls of our readers.

 

Sadly, this one is far too adept at snaring those of us who are desperately trying to combat preachiness in literature. Our intentions are noble, and preachiness truly is cringeworthy, but our zeal often blinds us to a worse evil.

 

There is a vast difference between squelching preachiness and shunning God. As any student of Theme Mastery will tell you, creating a strong Christian message without being preachy is possible.

 

Here are some signs that you might have slipped into passivity:

 

  • You tread a fine line between implicit Christian fiction and secular fiction. You avoid anything related to Christianity because you’re uncertain how to handle it without being preachy. You’re content with this state and aren’t actively seeking to learn how to incorporate your worldview into your writing either implicitly or explicitly.
  • You’ve felt an urge to write about a controversial or difficult topic, but you haven’t attempted it because you’re afraid of how people might react.
  • If pressed on the issue, you’re unsure how readers will be edified by your stories.
  • Your stories feature a secular interpretation of right and wrong without God. You don’t need to specifically mention God, but His presence should be sensed in the story. God feels alive in stories where good and evil are distinct and actions generally lead to just consequences. God feels dead in a story where a person’s intentions supersede his actions and good and evil appear to be a matter of perspective (2 Tim. 3:5, 7).

This very day, people are going to hell, societies are decaying, and Christian brothers and sisters are struggling with weaknesses, doubts, and sins. These problems need addressed, but sometimes fear or insecurity makes us shy away from what we could accomplish. We settle for writing enjoyable books instead of ones that stretch us beyond our comfort zone.

 

Fun stories are half the equation. Only half.

 

Look, no excuses. Be honest with yourself. Is this you? Have you lapsed into being a little apathetic? I know I have.

 

Now, let me be clear: I’m not trying to dictate how deep and philosophical your story has to be. I’m convinced that God has a purpose for a wide variety of stories, and even a silly little joke book could brighten someone’s day.

 

But here’s the real question: Are you willing to take up your cross and write what scares you? Are you willing to write anything, no matter how bold and antithetical to our culture? Are you willing, or are you hiding? Writing that doesn’t push you out of your bubble is rarely writing that matters.

 

Once again, I’m concerned that we may not be turning our work over to God. God can change lives through your words, so let Him by writing what’s on your heart instead of burying it.

 

Pandering

Definition: when we allow our culture rather than God to shape our stories.

 

This applies to every area of writing. Don’t worry about genre trends or whether readers will like your book. Fame and acclaim is a secondary issue. Your writing is between you and God. You don’t write a sci-fi novel by Christianizing Star Wars. Although Star Wars is cool, you need to start from scratch because every thought must be taken captive to the obedience of Christ. It’s okay to be radically different. After all, Christianity is radically different. Make your worldbuilding and plot yield to Christ. Begin with the truth and expand from there.

 

This is about the art process itself, not just adhering to a Christian worldview. Your writing should be a means of pursuing and understanding God. Is your main purpose to form a connection with your readership or to glorify God? Do you earnestly desire that His truth permeate your story on the deepest invisible level? Do you ask Him to guide your choices?

 

Even learning from other writers can potentially be a problem. Yes, we can glean much wisdom from the masters of the present and antiquity, but a problem arises when we idolize them. Personally, I’m awed by G.K. Chesterton’s descriptions, Brandon Sanderson’s worldbuilding, and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s theme mechanics, but replicating them doesn’t equal success. I want to learn from them, but I don’t measure myself by how much my writing resembles theirs. Acting like a famous author may feel wonderful, but I have my own stories to write. Even if my stories aren’t as flashy, that’s okay. I have different life experiences, a different voice, and different priorities. Of course, my ultimate goal is to copy the story my Creator is writing, which is fresh with every new telling.

 

God Can Restore Us

The proper response when we become aware of these dangers should be fear. But what type of fear? The terror of being surrounded by burning timbers, or healthy caution toward a fireplace that provides warmth? Rather than discouraging us from writing, the four sins covered in this article should add wonder to our journey as God helps us to overcome them. The parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:17–23 shows us that God can raise us up again when we stumble.

 

When the prodigal repented of his foolishness and returned to his father, he asked to be treated as a lowly servant so that he might be given bread to eat. His father reacted in an unexpected way. “But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him… The father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry.’”

Christian storytellers have much to repent of, and all these errors stem from the fact that we’ve been looking to ourselves and not God. We must learn from our mistakes and rely upon God for our salvation from writing pitfalls. He not only loves us more than we can imagine but He is able to redeem and rescue us.

21 Comments

  1. Olivia Giordano

    Thanks so much for writing this, Daeus. It’s such an important reminder, to really put God first in our stories, by his help, not in our own strength. Our primary aim should be to exalt and glorify him through our words, not put our own interests first. Well-written Christian stories can be done, but only in Christ alone.

    Reply
  2. Ariel Ashira

    This is truly amazing, Daeus! Wow. Every Christian writer should read this! Thank you so much!

    Reply
  3. K.M. Small

    Amazing article, and really well-timed for me. Thank you for writing this 🙂

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Glad to hear it.

  4. Jane Maree

    Absolutely agreed. It’s so, so important to actively seek to put God first when writing. Not even just passively “yes, this is all for Him” but very purposefully praying and thinking about whether the story honours him and shows his truth beautifully through the theme and characters.

    Reply
  5. Coralie

    I love the idea of praying over our work. Prayer has power. But at the same time, I feel compelled to add that I just don’t believe those who do not pray over their work are condemned or committing some great sin. Yes, I am a sinner. I am just as wretched as everyone else–and have no qualm with admitting so, even through my work–but God does not want us to grovel at his feet. He extends His hand to us and offers jubilation and joy! He has lifted us from the trenches and invites us to walk beside Him and bask in His glory.

    God has given us each gifts and tools that we are to learn to use and enjoy. I believe He does hone those in us and that we should look to Him, but I don’t feel like I have to approach Him before I pick up my pen. I feel like He lives in me and guides me, and that gives me the ability to write for Him. My growth comes in my personal walk with God, not in sweating over my stories and worrying over whether they please Him or not. If I strive to live my life by walking with Him, then my work will be a fruit of that walk. Furthermore, I don’t know that every single story must have a deep theme or spiritual purpose. We are children of God, and children play. It is the unparalleled joy, untainted innocence, and unabashed trust that makes children what they are.

    Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into this, but it came across as all serious and no grace to me. While I do not disagree entirely with your points–they are valid and you provide excellent motivations to guard against–I just felt…disheartened when reading it. God has not given us a spirit of fear. Certainly a thought-provoking article. Thank you for sharing!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Thanks Coaralie for these thoughts. I’ll try to dedicate some time this week to thinking over what you said about the tone of this article.

      As far as what you said about prayer, I think you have a good point and that my phrasing was slightly off in this article. While I think it is rebellious to not pray /at all/, I suspect that humans are incapable of praying for everything that would be good for them to possibly pray for. I doubt that not praying over your work is a sin. I do believe though that it is wrong to presume that your heart, mind, and emotions will naturally come up with a story that will glorify God. (Jeremiah 17:9 and Romans 7:18-25.) If we understand this, I believe the only fitting reaction is prayer. (Psalm 19:12-13.)

      I appreciated this line of yours: ” If I strive to live my life by walking with Him, then my work will be a fruit of that walk.” That is very true. I do think though that our writing itself can be part of that walk. Since there is no sacred/secular divide (in the gnostic sense), why not take our writing as an opportunity to abide in him? (John 15:4) Perhaps this is what you were already saying, in which case pardon me for being redundant.

      You’re also right that not every story has to be super deep — I believe I mentioned that somewhere in this article. That part of the article (passivity) was written, not out of a dislike for simple fun stories (which I relish), but because I suspected that others have faced or are facing a problem that I have had some small trouble with myself — that is hiding their lamp under a basket out of a sense of timidity, inadequacy, or fear of what other people will think. Quenching the Spirit. Caging the lion, so to speak. Not everybody deals with this, but I think some people do.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Coralie! With regards to your point on the tone, I’d highlight the last three paragraphs of the article where Daeus shifted gears to talk about what our response should be… It’s certainly true that this is a more weighty article here, but I thought Daeus did also communicate in those pargraphs that the proper response is to throw ourselves on God and his grace as we realize how these sins may be affecting our writing lives. 🙂 While God has not given us the spirit of fear, we are told that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, and I think Daeus differentiates between healthy and unhealthy fear in his last point.

    • Coralie

      In regards to the tone, it may have just been the way I read it, honestly–one of those metaphorical bad pizza nights. 🙂 I do love that you guys are addressing hard issues and deep topics. I love the challenge your articles present and the way they make me think. I did not mean my comment to be disrespectful in any way, so I hope it did not come across as such. I merely meant to share what thoughts your article provoked in me. I truly thank you guys for your dedication to providing materials that help us grow both as writers and as children of God.

      Mr. Lamb: Well, we are told to “pray without ceasing” 😉 I wholeheartedly agree that by our nature, which is the nature of the flesh, we cannot produce writing–or anything, for that matter–that will glorify God and reflect His light. It also says that “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps” (Prov. 16:3). We reap what we sow; therefore, should we sow seeds of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc in our lives, our character will reap the rewards and that will be evidenced by our works. And how do we do that? We pray without ceasing and spend time in God’s word. So, I guess it just comes full circle. Perhaps I am saw that I see the prayer focused on a different target, and never really thought about praying over my stories specifically. I pray that God uses me and that I reflect Him, that I become more like Him and then trust His hand in my life to direct what I do and how I do it. Thank you for the verses! I loved looking deeper into the discussion.

      Ooh! Now isn’t that a thought! That’s a very nice way to put it. Writing is only another tool of getting closer to God. He created this vast and varied universe and He created us in His image, which blows my mind. He is the ultimate creator and I only reflect that side of Him. I never thought about God as a writer or about using my writing to get closer to Him. Oh, I must beg pardon too! I am often redundant and convoluted when trying to think through a concept and grasp it. I appreciate your willingness to engage in a conversation and help me to better understand your words, so thank you for that.

      Yes! I loved the line about the joke book. There is a time and a season for everything under the sun, a time to be serious and a time to be frivolous. I just hope we each realize that one is not more important than the other. I think our society–especially the adults–get so bogged down in busy schedules and optimizing productivity that we often forget the childlike wonder that God put in our hearts. We are to be amazed by Him and take the time to be awed, to play and be lighthearted. Perhaps this is merely my own personal guard against taking life too seriously too often. I see the childlike nature dying and it hurts my soul to lose that part of the amazing creatures God made us to be.

      Mmm, but it is just as grievous to hide one’s lamp under a bed, you are right. That seems a counterproductive thing to do, but very likely a response to fear, as you said. It is difficult to tune out the voices of the world and step boldly without thought or care of judgement. That sheds a new light on the passage for me.

      Mr. DeGraaf: My pleasure 😉 If there’s one thing I’m an expert on, it’s my opinion! Ha haha! I enjoy engaging in discussions, and unfortunately, tend to play devil’s advocate in order to understand both sides of the story. That’s partly how I learn. If I challenge something, it helps me to learn how to defend my own standing and expand in my knowledge of the opposite standing. Though not every discussion is had on two sides of a fence, I still tend to challenge what I do not understand in order to gain a better perspective. In short, I ask too many questions and speak up far too often. 😀

      This may be nit-picking (and I do apologize if it is), but my reaction to the word “fear” is usually very strong. I do not fear a hot stove. I respect it. I am aware of it. I make a point to learn about and from it. But I do not fear it. Then again, I do believe there is a healthy fear. I would certainly fear a lion on my tail! And, yes, the fear of the Lord leads to wisdom. That is very true. Though it has a different connotation in its archaic use. Perhaps that is what gave me pause during the last three paragraphs. Again, though, I do not mean to split hairs, only to explain where I was coming from and to learn where you were coming from.

    • Daeus Lamb

      Hey, thanks for starting the discussion. It helps me think things through better and proves that somebody really read my article and thought about it. 😉

    • Drop in The Ocean M

      I loved reading y’all’s discussion here! I think good, Christian debate over matters like this is so healthy. I find myself easily persuaded in many matters, yet always blindly believing everything and not challenging it is NOT healthy – especially in spiritual matters because, by experience, it is easy to get sucked in to a way of life that is not what God intended (I’m not saying AT ALL, Daeus, that your article promotes an ungodly lifestyle 😀 Just writing in general terms here).

      Coralie, your “arguments” are really good and thought-provoking and I really appreciate you taking the time to think through and share your thoughts. Thank you for bringing attention to the opposing side and not merely accepting everything as inerrant truth – that shows a discerning heart.
      Daeus, I really enjoyed this article and it was very thought-provoking for me in my writing, too. I really like that you added definitions at the beginning of each section – that was helpful. I’ve recently been praying for God to give me a story idea from HIM. I am burdened to share God’s truth to a truth-lacking world, but my stories are empty without Him writing through me. I really want to be sure that HE is writing through me and that I am writing the purposeful story HE wants me to write. All that to say, this article kind of goes along with what I’ve already been thinking about 🙂 Coralie, I know Daeus already said so, but I really like your thought of how our writing should be an outpouring of our walk with Christ – that is a really good and beautiful thought. May that be true for every Christian writer <3 Also I TOTALLY get being "redundant and convoluted when trying to think through a concept and grasp it"! Perfect description of me 😀

      Just to throw out a thought: Maybe there is no 'one right way to do it?' Could it be that the way some writers must focus their heart and attention on God in their work is to continually bring it before Him, yet others simply write out of the overflow of their godly heart?
      Again, thank you for the great discussion! I love it when people discuss matters of God in a healthy and loving way <3 And thank you, Daeus, for pointing out these potentially dangerous pitfalls among Christian writers!
      ~DiTOManuscript

  6. The Golden Light

    Woah!!! I am a bit convicted… and more excited. I have been uncertain about my story and now I know why. 😀
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Awesome! That’s the best feedback I could possibly get. 😀

  7. Rachel

    Thankyou for writing this article! I could write something just as long in response, but I would just be affirming what you’ve already said. Thankyou for the wake-up call and inspiration! God bless!

    Reply
  8. R.M. Archer

    “Shun profane and idle babblings, for they will increase to more ungodliness. And their message will spread like cancer.” – 2 Timothy 2:16-17a
    I just read that tonight and it struck me. Lately I worry that my writing may just be “idle babbling” and I’m not sure how to fix it. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t particularly further the kingdom either. I to to pray, but I feel like every time I do it’s more shallow and I’m more distant from God. Somehow I don’t think that’s what it’s supposed to be like.
    I’d like to be like the psalmist in Psalm 45:1 whose “heart is overflowing with a good theme,” who “recites {his} composition before the King” and whose “tongue is the pen of a ready writer,” but I don’t know how to get from here to there.
    Is there some practical measure to be taken to overcome this and better connect with God? How do I pray when every prayer feels like a shallow recitation even when it’s heartfelt and seems to take me two steps back for every step forward that I try to take?
    (I know this is a bit beside the point of the article. I apologize. I’m just having trouble moving forward in anything that should be faith-based, writing or otherwise.)

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      I haven’t read any of your writing, so I can’t speak to its eternal value or lack thereof, but I know that God is able to use your gifts for his purposes. Surrendering to Him is probably one of the toughest things in all of life.

      I know what you mean with prayer. I’ve faced it too. There are a couple things that have really helped me, but I may not have all the answers for you. Honestly, I think the most important solution to prayer is…prayer. I would pray to God to teach you to pray, and if He doesn’t seem to be answering, cry out desperately and violently. Every good and perfect gift is from above.

      Some things that have helped me:
      . Focusing on the character of God. They say prayer is a conversation with God and conversations tend to be awkward when you don’t know the other person. I think this is what the bible means when it says, “You will seek me and find me, when you search for me with all your heart.”
      . Dedicating serious time to prayer. Sometimes (maybe all the time), learning to pray takes tripping over your own shoes, so praying more than 1-5 minutes a day can give you more opportunity to open up your heart.
      . The Bible makes mention that sometimes sins can get in the way of our prayer life. I think that’s why the psalmist asked God to cleanse him from secret sins.
      . I’ve been reading Andrew Murray On Prayer recently and it has been so helpful. I really recommend it.

    • R.M. Archer

      Thank you. I’ll keep working at it.

  9. Hedges

    Many thanks for writing. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a while.

    Reply
  10. Kat Ingalls

    Thanks for writing this Daeus, I’ve recently picked back up ‘Hope in Despair’ which is my book that I was unsure about writing, because I didn’t want it to be cheesy Christian.
    And there was another idea that I was co-authoring with a friend that I’ve been afraid to write, about a girl who gets pregnant but then ends up getting led to Christ, and seeing how even something so horrible as that can be turned to good, and how Jesus can help her forgive those who did all those awful things to her. Now i’m not so afraid to. Thanks.

    Question: Are you saying that “Christian” stuff should be in every book? I mean, yes, I get that, but what if it’s like in a world that that couldn’t really exist, and it’s a different kind of message, kind of about family?

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      Good to hear. I truly think when it comes to explicitly Christian fiction, it’s not so much about what you say, but how you say it that makes it preachy or not.

      I don’t necessarily think “Christian” stuff needs to be in every novel. I do think though that without God everything is meaningless and moralisms are a sad replacement for him. In other words, if we feel like we need to suppress our Christianity in order to avoid preachiness, we’ve got a major problem. There may be room though for an occasional light-hearted story with no depth and there’s certainly room for subtly Christian stories (i.e. The Lord of the Rings, though we can debate whether Tolkien did a sufficient job setting up the context for his symbols to be interpreted correctly by casual readers.)

    • Kat Ingalls

      *nods* Yes. Thank you.

      Okay, I get what you mean. (though I have personally never read LOTR)
      Thanks so much! 🙂

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