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How Explicit Should My Faith Be in My Stories?

April 3, 2018

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.

31 Comments

  1. Adora

    Thank you so much for this! I’ve struggled with this issue for quite a while. On the one hand, I want to proclaim that there is a God and a reason for living, but on the other hand, I don’t want non-Christians to avoid my writing because of my faith. But the contrast here between explicit and implicit really helped. I think I’ll end up trying both, depending on my themes and message. Thank you for shedding more light on this issue!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear it helped, Adora! Trying both approaches is a great route to take, and one I take myself in my writings. 🙂

    • Annika

      I definitely agree! Thank you for this article!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Annika!

  2. Brandon Miller

    “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.”
    I like these words, and appreciate turning the focus of storytelling back onto the everyday struggles of the target audience and not agenda pushing (even if that agenda is very important.)
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts… and may the Story Ember party begin!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Oh yes. May the party begin indeed. 😀 (Though I guess this comment is a bit late to still be saying that… Maybe let the party continue?) Anyways, glad to hear that part resonated with you. 🙂

  3. Mariposa Aristeo

    This is potentially one of your best articles, Josiah, and it’s the perfect piece to start off Story Embers. I especially liked the part where you said our stories are not meant to turn people into Christians. I used to struggle with that. When I was fourteen I wrote a whole book that sounded like a sermon in story form (that book has long since been abandoned 😉).

    I think this concept could apply to art too. Painting pictures of Jesus or illustrating the Bible won’t save people and we can glorify God even when our artwork isn’t covered in crosses.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Mariposa. 🙂 I definitely did the same thing when I was younger until learning a better path. xD

      I do have to say, though, that I find your last comment kind of humorous given the cross on the post image. 😉

  4. Hannah

    This is very helpful I struggle with how much or how to integrate my faith in the stories I write.
    Thank you!
    So excited that story embers has launched!!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Glad to hear you found it helpful, Hannah! I’m excited too. 😀

  5. Ben P

    Nice article! I actually listened to the podcast version of it (the podcast is a great idea by the way!)
    My writing would fall in the “implicitly Christian” category, and it’s nice to hear that I can still honor God with it.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      The podcast is great, isn’t it? When Gracie reached out to us about running a podcast, we knew we had to take her up on it!

      Glad to hear it was helpful for you with your writing. 🙂

  6. Daeus Lamb

    Once again, great article.

    This reminds me of an idea I’ve been tossing around in my brain recently and I wanted to see what you think of it. I believe I write on the explicit end of implicit where I’m trying to reach a broad audience while dipping a bit into Christianity proper via allegory and some deeper themes.

    I used to think the goal of my fiction was to entertain, inspire, and to convert that small percent that might be moved in that direction by a story. Now, while I don’t think people /can’t/ be converted through fiction, I’m thinking that’s not the best /goal/. What I’m thinking my goal is now is that I want my books to provide a subculture for readers that is very conductive to gospel discussions. In other words, I don’t think fiction is the medium for sharing the gospel, but it can and /should/ be a smoothly paved highway down which the gospel can travel.

    Thoughts?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I agree. I think that’s in large part why it’s valuable to explore what it means to be a virtuous human being. If you take Luther’s threefold use of the law, the second use of the law is to show men their sins and their need of a Savior, and that should be the natural result of exploring what true virtue looks like. And that in turn creates that smoothly paved highway for the Gospel.

    • Josiah Alberghene

      I’ve been asking this question, and I think this leads me to the answer. My implicit writing ought to lead people to Truth, meaning my writing must plant a seed that, when it falls into fertile soil, will grow into a clear image of Christ. My aim, then, would be to dig my reader into a hole, leave them there, and let them discover for themselves that Christ is the only way out.

  7. Erica

    I have been wrestling with this question as I write High Fantasy. Originally I thought I would write Christian Fantasy, but as I explored the genre, I realized that I had the same spirit as Tolkien when he said that allegories were distasteful to him. I don’t like overly obvious, dry and meaningless faith. My goal is to do what C. S. Lewis said, “slip past the dragons” and present faith and the gospel in a new and fresh way. However we write, I believe we should write in a way that glorifies God to the best that it can be, and never fear what the secular and even Christian crowd thinks of our writings. I have chosen to go the route of Tolkien and use different names for God/Jesus/Holy Spirit, but I still make it very clear that reality without them is no reality. Therefore, my books have no meaning unless they are present in my story.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Allegory is really hard to do well, which is why I tend to avoid it in my writing. The great strength of fantasy is its ability to present things (like the Gospel!) in a new, fresh way. The challenge is figuring out how to do it in a way that actually does help readers see the Gospel in a new light. Hope your writing goes well as you seek to do that. 🙂

  8. Savannah Grace

    This was a great post, Josiah. I usually write implicitly Christian fiction, both out of necessity (I would get very preachy otherwise) and because I prefer it. One of my friends put it this way – if you’re a Christian writing something true, God will be there, whether you use His name or not. I’ve always felt that, whether I use His name or not, my word-view will color my stories just a tad differently, whether it be in character arcs or theme, and my belief will be woven into my story even if I don’t mention God even once. I’ve learned through multiple mistakes never to try and force my faith into a story. It will end up there by itself if I just let the story work itself out. ANYWAYS, I’m really rambling now ;D. This was a very interesting and well-written post – I’m excited to see where Story Embers goes from here!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Savannah! Yes–to some extent I think Christians will naturally write fiction that honors God because of how much our worldview affects us (though there are things we can do to develop that more than we naturally would). Glad to hear this resonated with you. 🙂

  9. Jaclynn

    This has given me a lot to think about. I’ve been wondering what I should do in this area for a while now, so this is super helpful! Thank you for this, Josiah! 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Jaclynn! Glad to hear this has sparked some thoughts as you work through this question in your writing. 🙂

  10. Moriah Simonowich

    Your article was extremely helpful, Josiah! Thank you!

    Now I have peace about where to head with my novel. Before, I wrestled with feeling like it was wrong be implicit about Christianity. I *didn’t* want another hand in glove, perfect explicitly Christian story where if the characters just trust God everything works out.

    My own life hasn’t been that way and I want to show raw, real characters who wrestle with God, who find life hard, and who still strive to be virtuous after scraping their knees on failure.

    Bittersweet is what I try to go for because those fairytale endings are—to put it bluntly—overrated. They cheat the readers, unbelievers or believers alike, in my opinion.

    So thanks again for your wisdom on this topic! Out of all the authors out there, you’ve been the main one who has taught me taught me through this article, tweets, and FB posts to reach for something better than the “cheesy norm” in Christian fiction. 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      That sounds like a great goal to have with your stories. 🙂 I’m glad my thoughts have been able to help you think through this topic!

  11. Ariel Ashira

    Josiah, thank you! And I liked the part about Esther. Thats my real name. 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Haha, nice connection there then! Glad it helped. 🙂

  12. Coralie

    I really love this. I truly find the topic fascinating. Knowing your audience is half the battle, first of all. Different books target different audiences. Max Lucado’s In the Grip of Grace isn’t targeted at the unbeliever; it’s targeted at the believer. It’s a book designed to encourage, to reaffirm, and to deepen the faith of someone who already knows the truth. That doesn’t mean it can’t be read by unbelievers or that it can’t make a difference in the secular world, but that isn’t necessarily the book’s primary purpose. Similarly, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia aren’t specifically targeted at believers. That series is wildly popular–for good reason–in both secular and sacred markets. Lewis crafted a story that offers wisdom, entertains dual audiences (which blows my mind), and plants seeds for growth. That’s what I want to do.

    I want to plant seeds, ask questions, and still encourage fellow believers. First of all, I don’t feel qualified to write explicitly Christian works, but maybe one day that will change. I do, however, feel called to write implicitly Christian stories–stories that will appeal to a very specific audience, but that are laced with truth and tainted by my own view of the world through the lens of my faith.

    I want to be down in the trenches, knee-deep in muck and mire. But just because I intend to write in one area, doesn’t mean I refuse to accept, read, and recommend books written in the other. I believe both implicit and explicit have their places. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      That sounds like a great vision for yourself as a storyteller! Glad to hear your thoughts on how to apply this to your own life. 🙂

  13. Hedges

    This is wonderful. I’ve always viewed my writing as a way to lead unbelievers to Christ, and while I think that is a noble goal, I see now that it wouldn’t be the best primary goal. Very helpful. This has changed my perspective on writing.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      This comment kind-of makes my day, H. Jones. Glad to hear this has helped you think through your goals as a storyteller. 🙂

  14. Parker Hankins

    Wow!! This was a great help!! I’ve been really struggling with this lately, and this article settles it all!!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Parker! I’m glad you found this helpful. 🙂

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