Have you ever heard that gospel presentations ruin novels? Or that entertaining stories with good morals but no references to the Bible are humanistic?
I’m familiar with both these convincing arguments. I don’t want to waste my life by not advancing Christ’s kingdom, but neither do I want to spoil art with pragmatism.
However, I believe we can unravel the dilemma through a deeper understanding of Scripture, humanity, and literature. First, we need to examine both positions, then we can determine which one aligns with our convictions and meets the needs of our works-in-progress.
The Case for Abstinence
In our inaugural article for the site, editor-in-chief Josiah DeGraaf offered a moderate view of fiction that omits the gospel:
“Explicitly Christian stories explore what it means to live as a Christian… 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.”
Why is evangelistic fiction ineffective?
Proponents of evangelistic abstinence often point out that storytelling should follow the “show, don’t tell” rule. Messages ought to be conveyed through plot and character arcs, not a sermon.
While this is true, astute observers will notice that most novels do mention a moral, usually through a character’s dialogue. For instance, Dalinar from The Stormlight Archives says he’s learned that “the most important step a man can take is the next one.” Yet no one accuses Dalinar of preachiness. Rather, readers recognize the wisdom of that line.
However, we can draw two major distinctions between Dalinar’s epiphany and the gospel:
- The gospel is not a moral. It’s a set of historical and spiritual facts that flow together to provide a stunning answer to how God can pronounce sinners righteous and accept them as sons and daughters.
- The gospel cannot be completely expressed through a pithy statement.
Someone raised in a churchgoing family might (or might not) understand the full extent of the phrase “Jesus died for your sins,” but to unbelievers, it’s mumbo jumbo. A secular audience needs more detail. For those of us who don’t eat theology cereal for breakfast, let’s refresh our minds: How much explanation is required for the gospel to make sense?
I’ll take a stab at being succinct:
We were born with rebellious hearts, and we disobey God daily. We can’t undo or cancel out our sins—not even with good works—because God is holy and infinite. He’s self-compelled to right all wrongs. Jesus, the second person of the Godhead, became a man to accept our punishment for us. During His crucifixion, He suffered the wrath that should have been directed at us. But He rose again, conquering death, the penalty for sin. Because He’s an infinite being, He was able to pay our debt in full. To all who believe in and serve Him, He gives His own righteousness so they can one day live with God in everlasting bliss.
That’s 114 words—102 more than Dalinar’s epiphany—and I wouldn’t dare cut any or the summary would be insufficient. Also, my paragraph sounds ten times as technical and info-dumpy as Dalinar’s epiphany.
When an author drops a text bomb on readers, they tend to misconstrue it as an attack launched through the speaking character. Though we’re called to share the gospel, we should think twice about provoking readers to have a negative reaction to it. Since they buy books expecting to be entertained, if we pause a story to preach, they’ll see us as turncoats instead of crazy but sincere people.
In Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi, a former Muslim, confesses, “There is a simple reason I never listened to street preachers: they didn’t seem to care about me. It wasn’t that they were annoying… It was that they treated me like an object of their agenda.”
We include the gospel in our fiction because we’re hoping to introduce readers to God’s grace. But no matter how pure our motives are, if we come across as obnoxious or cheesy, readers will suspect we’re just looking for converts to add to our list of wins. When we obsess over readers’ souls but neglect to create an enjoyable experience, we hamper our chances of reaching anyone.
Some writers view the fiction market as a field ripe for harvest, since readers open their minds to new perspectives when they step into characters’ shoes. That’s a genuine advantage. But if a horde of evangelists treat storytelling heavy-handedly, audiences will tune out any remotely Christian component faster than you can blurt WWJD.
Conversely, others might insist that the more Christian approach to storytelling is, by nature, artistic. Since art reflects beauty—which stems from God—a story that forces the gospel into the narrative fails to accurately exude truth.
The Case for Bravado
Perhaps the best defense for sharing the gospel in fiction is the novels that have succeeded at employing sermon excerpts. The Promise of Jesse Woods is a prime example. The protagonist, Matt, is a pastor’s kid, and we get glimpses of his father’s sermons. Those moments feel natural because of five factors:
- Matt is an attentive listener and draws lessons from the text himself. He’s more the expositor than his pastor father.
- The lessons apply to his situation.
- The lessons, though important, aren’t hot-button issues, reducing the likelihood that readers will think they’re being lectured.
- My impression is that the sermons belong in the story rather than being tacked on.
- The excerpts are brief.
Note, however, that these sermons are not gospel presentations, which would have broken the third and fifth criteria. Can a gospel presentation flow organically from a novel? I’m not sure, but I’ve never seen it done to the degree of the gospel summary I drafted above.
Has any book come close? Yes—The Death of Ivan Ilych is about a man who is brought face-to-face with his mortality when he discovers he has a terminal illness. Leo Tolstoy’s delightful and witty style never feels preachy (at least to my tastes), yet his portrayal of the gospel is sound. However, he limits the story’s focus to man’s need for divine grace rather than works, presumably because many readers would already be versed in the events of the cross. Similarly, Crime and Punishment handles the gospel’s message of mercy explicitly and naturally. If certain characters are intended to represent Dostoevsky’s personal ideology, though, I have concerns about his orthodoxy.
Even if no novel has ever artistically and comprehensively unloaded the gospel, I can imagine it. This inspires hope that it might be achievable—with two caveats:
- We still can’t point to a novel that presents the gospel in its entirety without seeming intrusive. (If you know of one, please mention it in the comments below.)
- The books I’ve cited above may appeal only to Christians. However, I’m not convinced that an author’s religious stance is a huge deterrent, since many of those titles are popular classics. Also, Christians are able to appreciate stories containing deep and complex theories from opposing worldviews. Unbelievers can tolerate fiction with a Christian slant too.
Are these considerations strong enough to warrant excluding the gospel from fiction when it supersedes any other message in the history of the world? We’ll explore that question next.
How Shall We Then Write?
Both sides are armed for battle. Can gospel presentations survive artistic scrutiny?
The answer depends on how we define “sharing the gospel.”
Gospel shorthand (e.g., “Jesus died for your sins”) is less likely to faze readers than lengthy exposition. However, shorthand poses two problems:
- If unclear, it may encourage a form of religiosity rather than true faith. For instance, secularists or cultural Christians might interpret “Jesus died for your sins” as “some Jewish guy got martyred for his ideals” or “God overlooks my sins because of Jesus.”
- It simply isn’t thorough. The Death of Ivan Ilych proposes the unequivocally orthodox view that we can only stand before God through His personal forgiveness. But the story does not, that I recall, directly address Christ’s atonement. That would have dragged the story out and probably become too didactic. Even so, the story still clearly promotes the gospel.
For those who hold their artistic integrity dearly, sharing the gospel in fiction appears to be possible but risky. However, we didn’t set out to debate whether or not we can insert the gospel into our stories. We asked whether we should.
As Christian storytellers, we don’t have to resort to witnessing on a page corner. We can use other methods, such as highlighting concepts that are central to the gospel—human depravity, God’s holiness, self-sacrifice, and the power of forgiveness. A story can explore these themes without touching on the gospel, all while showing instead of telling. Yes, technically this isn’t sharing the gospel, but it can “prepare the soil,” softening hearts and digging ruts in readers’ minds for the gospel to grow in later.
When Christianity is depicted authentically in fiction, it will stand out. Why is a soldier at peace even when grenades are landing around him? A Christian character’s responses to situations will prompt spiritual questions from readers, nudging them toward God. Phantastes and Cry, the Beloved Country are two books that never broadcast the gospel but radiate holiness and joy and the triumph of God.
Another option is to craft stories that will comfort and convict fellow Christians. While such fiction won’t make disciples, it can strengthen disciples! For example, we could write about a congregation that splits over personal offenses and eventually seeks reconciliation.
Lastly, Christians have the freedom to write fun stories. Though Jesus commanded all His followers to preach the gospel, He did not mandate that they do so in every conversation. Christians should live with the goal of glorifying God, but even lighthearted stories honor Him if they’re high quality, and (from a more eternal perspective) such pieces can be stepping stones to greater opportunities. After all, Esther threw two banquets before begging the king to save her people. As worldly as those banquets might seem, they weren’t wasted! The way to a man’s heart is through his belly.
Before we start typing “God sent His Son” in the middle of a chapter, we need to ponder why we aren’t writing nonfiction. The gospel can always be expounded in much more depth in that genre than in fiction.
With all the avenues available to us, need we assume that we must take readers down the path with neon gospel signs? I think not. However, neither is that road closed if God leads us to it.
Regardless of which side we fall on, let us not view one as being courageous and the other as being wise and artistic. God is calling all of us to do both in one way or another.
What types of stories are you going to write?
Many moons ago, a series of suspiciously providential events led Daeus to cast his lot among the worldwide community of Christian storytellers. Since then, no reports indicate that he has come back out. Perhaps he is lost among those fine gallivanters forever. Rest in peace, Daeus Lamb.
Daeus dreams impossibly large (which doesn’t bother him a bit) and tends to bite off more than he can chew. Watch this in action as he tries to capture the depths of the fantasy genre on his YouTube channel, or as he seeks to express the meaning of life in just a short novelette. (Psst. It’s a popular little book called God of Manna and you can get it for free here.)