Storytelling is hard. Being a Christian storyteller can seem even harder. If we’re striving to live for God’s glory, that needs to include our storytelling. But how do we apply this? How explicitly Christian must our writing be to honor God?
Here at Story Embers we seek to guide and inspire storytellers to glorify God with excellent craftmanship. Proclaiming that we want to impact the world for Christ is easy, but knowing how to do so is not.
In this inaugural article, I’ll evaluate the strengths of two approaches to Christian fiction.
The Strength of Implicitly Christian Fiction
Can you be true to your faith if you write books from a biblical worldview that avoid mentioning Christ? Many authors wrestle over this question. Christ says that if we deny Him before men, He won’t confess us before the angels. Does this stipulate that we must profess Him in our stories?
Although excluding God’s name in a story could indicate that the author is ashamed of his faith, this isn’t always the case. Tolkien was a skilled and acclaimed writer who chose an implicit approach. You can find Christian parallels in The Lord of the Rings, but his faith isn’t blatant. Yet, he uses his faith to shape how he portrays virtues and vices, and he tells his story excellently.
To take this a step further, if omitting God from storytelling is a sin, the author of Esther must also have sinned! God’s name never appears in Esther. Yet, Esther is a powerful story that reveals many valuable truths about the Christian life.
Tolkien and Esther both prove that you can convey a compelling message that’s 100 percent true without referring to God. Whether you should explicitly portray your faith in a story is therefore less of a moral question and more of a wisdom question. Would you better reach your target audience and communicate your story with an implicit or explicit faith component?
Stories that are implicitly Christian—or general fiction that secular readers would readily pick up—should explore what it means to live as a human being. How do you cope with unfulfilled desires? How do you act with integrity in a fallen world? How much should you prize friendship? The Scriptures provide copious wisdom and knowledge on these topics, but you don’t need to spotlight Christianity to answer these questions well. General revelation exists as well as special revelation, and Christian authors can tap into general revelation and natural law to delve into these thematic questions.
Implicitly Christian stories may not convert unbelieving readers. But that’s okay. Faith normally comes by hearing the preached Word of God, not by reading a story. And, as I’m about to explain, explicitly Christian stories shouldn’t necessarily try to convert unbelievers either.
As long as your Christian worldview influences your stories, writing implicitly Christian fiction isn’t wrong.
The Strength of Explicitly Christian Fiction
Implicitly Christian fiction can be mislabeled as selling out, but explicitly Christian fiction can be mislabeled as insular. “After all,” some scoff, “how can we reach the world if we’re screaming our faith from every page? Doesn’t this isolate Christians from the real world?”
Explicitly Christian fiction dominates the Christian publishing industry today, and it causes some to wonder if such stories are cowardly retreats from the world where we sequester ourselves in closed communities with subpar fiction.
I wrote at length about this subject a few weeks ago. Explicitly Christian fiction does have worth: while implicit stories explore what it means to live as a human being in general, explicitly Christian stories explore what it means to live as a Christian in particular. Christians must wrestle with many important moral questions:
- How can you hold onto your faith in a hostile world?
- How should you encourage other Christians to grow in their walk with the Lord?
- How should Christians interact with society at large?
We need stories about these topics, which requires explicitly Christian works that secular audiences likely won’t care about. However, even if such books appeal only to Christians, writing stories for a Christian audience isn’t any more insular than writing nonfiction for a Christian audience.
This illustrates advice I alluded to earlier: you shouldn’t write explicitly Christian fiction if your primary goal is to convert unbelievers. Write nonfiction if that is the case. Rather, explicitly Christian fiction should be aimed at helping believers through their journeys. Although you don’t want to discourage unbelievers from reading Christian novels, I don’t believe it’s efficacious for Christians to turn storytelling into evangelism. While our works may (and hopefully will) drive others to Christ, evangelism is usually accomplished through personal relationships and the preached Word of God.
C.S. Lewis, Chris Fabry, Bryan Davis (sans some speculative theological claims), and Karen Hancock are four examples of authors who write well-done explicitly Christian fiction.
Choosing Your Approach
At the end of the day, how explicit your faith is doesn’t matter as long as it’s present and influences your storytelling. The question is which method you prefer as a writer. Would you rather write for a general audience and explore what it means to live as a virtuous human being? Or would you rather write specifically for a Christian audience and explore what it means to live as a virtuous Christian? With different books you might use different approaches. But both are valid.
Although choosing your approach is important, the real challenge is making sure you’re skilled enough to write well. For far too long, contemporary Christian authors have produced stories that are poor quality. This is the true danger. You can’t be a great Christian writer if you’re not a great writer in the first place.
Here at Story Embers we’re passionate about training you to be not only a Christian writer but a masterful one. We need more of the latter than the former.
How explicit should your faith be in the stories you write? As explicit as you wish—as long as you’re doing it for the right reasons. Learn to tell great stories, and you’ll be able to impact the world for Christ regardless of how explicit your faith is.
Josiah DeGraaf is the editor-in-chief of Story Embers and the fiction content manager of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching writers at Ink Slinger Academy or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.