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Should You Share the Gospel in Your Novel?

June 8, 2020

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:

 

  1. 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.
  2. 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:

 

  1. Matt is an attentive listener and draws lessons from the text himself. He’s more the expositor than his pastor father.
  2. The lessons apply to his situation.
  3. The lessons, though important, aren’t hot-button issues, reducing the likelihood that readers will think they’re being lectured.
  4. My impression is that the sermons belong in the story rather than being tacked on.
  5. 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:

 

  1. 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.)
  2. 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:

 

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.

 

Go Forth

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?

14 Comments

  1. Richard Spillman

    Loved this blog. I found it well written and thought provoking. You asked if we knew of a fiction piece that included the Gospel. Well, it just so happens that I do. It’s my Lazarus trilogy: The Awakened, The Ascension, and The Atonement. A BRIEF SUMMARY: It’s written in Romans that man only dies once. So, what’s Lazarus and others raised up to today? I have them involved in protecting mankind from an evil threat. It turns out that Lazarus kept a journal and buried in his words is a secret that will change everything if it gets out. Someone is appointed to read the journal to find the secret. Throughout the search my readers get an unique look at the Gospels. Its won some awards and received great reviews. The reviewers frequently note that it is not preachy. Many express how its improved their relationship with God. At the same time they praised the action. A review by an atheist was very positive-not at all bothered by the Gospel. I thought about his review and it hit me that was most likely the first time he heard the gospel.

    Once again thanks for the blog post…
    Richard Spillman

    Reply
  2. Darlene Bocek

    Thank you for this very thought provoking evaluation on a very important topic. I agree that “heavy handed” stories often lose the impact they could have if they focused on one aspect of the gospel rather than the complete gospel. Mind, God himself took 66 books and thousands of years to express it perfectly.

    This reminds me of the question of whether or not a church service should cater to nonbelievers. Christian books come in in the middle of a conversation. So taking one angle instead of all angles is more organic. And less confusing. if a person is a newbie. A theme, anyways, can be summarized in a sentence.

    Books to consider: Redeeming Love expresses the gospel in an allegory, the object-lesson/ dramatization God likewise used. Mark of the Lion series also has characters slowly meet Christ, over the trilogy, without being heavy handed.

    Christians like seeing people come to faith! It’s in our blood. But we want it to feel natural. Not simplistic. A nonchristisn doesn’t value the same thing. They don’t see the relief we do when, for example in Gods Not Dead, the Professor comes to faith. To people not already “in the conversation,” that may seem trite. But we like it. Because it’s the biggest “HEA” for our tribe.

    There are many verses in the Bible about our “words,” and if we look carefully at those we can see what “should” our should not be in Christian Fiction. If we will be judged for every idle word spoken, and if our words are always to be “seasoned with salt,” and not be coarse or empty words (Eph 5:6), then we had best be careful with what we do and what we “teach” through our stories.

    Finally, the hero’s journey find its source in the post-fall promise of a savior.

    Thanks again for this post. Food for thought.

    Reply
  3. Daeus Lamb

    For those who read the comments and are interested in studying novels that reportedly do well at organically and artistically presenting the gospel, I was going to mention Ben-Hur and Deborah Alcock’s novels, except that I’d read them so long ago my memory was fuzzy so I couldn’t speak about them as concretely or confidently as I could The Death of Ivan Ilych.

    Reply
  4. Michaela T.

    This article is very well-thought out and brings up some interesting questions. Thank you for writing it! This may have been mentioned already, but I think the Chronicles of Narnia is a fantastic example of an artistic story that illustrates the gospel through allegory.

    Reply
  5. Zachary Holbrook

    A small providence: I literally just finished ‘The Death of Ivan Illych’ the afternoon before reading this article. 😉

    Reply
  6. Matthew Roland

    Really like how you articulated this issue, Daeus.

    Reply
  7. Kenzie Joy

    Hi! Thank you so much for writing this article; it was really some great food for thought. I have a question, though: where does allegory fall into this? To what degree is it considered preachy to use allegory to smuggle the Gospel to readers under their noses- and how effective is it to do so?
    If an appropriate answer is too long be summed up in a comment I totally understand. 😉
    Again, though; I really appreciated the article!

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      In retrospect, I should have covered allegory in my article.

      Allegory has several definitions, depending on who you ask. I define allegory as a form of speculative fiction which imitates /specific/ events like Jesus’ Passion (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), Joseph’s life story from slave to head of Egypt (Seasons of Gray), or the rise of Communism (Animal Farm). Alternately, allegory can also be a story where the characters all represent ideas such as in Pilgrim’s Progress.

      Some people (I’m not necessarily one of them) maintain that Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings represents Jesus. Whether or not that was Tolkien’s intention (I don’t know), it doesn’t fit my definition of allegory, because Aragorn would be representing a person, not an idea, and his story does not clearly map on to the life of Jesus except in small bits and pieces here and there. Therefore, if Aragorn represents Jesus, it is /symbolically/, not allegorically.

      This type of symbolism (used in Christian fiction) normally falls under the category I mentioned in my article of teaching themes essential to the gospel without covering the entire gospel.

      With allegory, the closer it resembles the gospel, the better grip you’d better have on your theology. I.e. if your Jesus figure is literally dying for others’ sins, then the rest of your allegory will be taken very seriously as well and you’d better not mess up. 😛 The less strict your allegory and the more it drifts toward symbolism, the less you have to worry about the fine details, but then, at the same time, the less concrete your message.

      Maybe I’m getting off topic.

      Basically, there are some great allegories out there. However, when you’re literally copying another story, it takes a ton of skill to sound original and creative and make your readers feel like they’re having a novel experience (all why maintaining orthodoxy). If you’re going to tell such a powerful story, you want to do it artistically! If you can do it though, go for it.

      The Story Embers podcast has an episode on allegory. You’ll probably glean more from that than this rambling comment. 😛

  8. Kendra

    Very good post; I’ve wondered about this and how to effectively SHOW the gospel, not preach it in books. I, as a Christian, can’t stand preachy books, because to be painfully honest, they are dull and hard to enjoy reading.

    I read the comment in which you talked about allegory and symbolism, and I think I prefer symbolism because it still feels like its own story, but with a tasteful amount of The Great Story thrown in. Such as Aragorn and Gandalf; I think at different times it feels like they represent Jesus, which I love, but the whole story is its own and not a retelling of The Great one. But that’s just my take. I do love The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, though; it is a lovely allegory that gives me chills.

    Great post, thank you!

    Reply
  9. Maya Joelle

    I love this article! It’s something I struggle with in my own writing, and I think I tend to fall on the side of not sharing the gospel explicitly. Though I appreciate books that try to do so.

    Nonfiction is definitely a better format for that than fiction (I love Chesterton’s Orthodoxy), but some fiction works succeed: I like the House of Living Stones series by Katie Schuermann and the Grace Alone series by Ruth Meyer because both tell stories of real people who are changed by the gospel. (They’re contemporary/romance novels.)

    Not sure that I’ve read a fantasy book that clearly and fully explains the gospel (those that try often fail), but since fantasy is my favorite genre, I’d love to hear some suggestions (:

    Reply
  10. Brink

    This was a very good article! Thanks for writing!

    Reply
  11. Rachel Scheller

    This article raises a lot of good points and this is actually the second time that I’ve read through it. There’s a lot of good stuff in here!

    I would say that there are ways to make the gospel seem less “preachy” without taking anything away from it. Namely, by being careful which words we use (avoiding “Christianese” words and concepts) and by showing rather than telling.

    “Christianese” can be a terrible plight upon the church. Because though I understand what sanctification, justification, grace, and atonement mean, someone outside the faith wouldn’t. We have those words for a reason—they explain in a word what might otherwise take a paragraph to explain. And the words are fine to use when talking with other people who also know the words. But they’re dangerous when we’re trying to use them to explain the gospel message.

    First and foremost, whenever we discuss spiritual truths in our writing (or in person), we must be careful to only use the terms that our readers/listeners are familiar with. But it’s not just the words.

    It’s also the concepts. Like as mentioned, “Christ died for our sins” isn’t something that an unbeliever is going to understand right off the bat without a lot of explanation first.

    But I don’t think that explanation has to be preachy. There’s no reason that it all has to be laid out in one character speaking, or in a single conversation.

    What I’m doing for one of my books is exploring the theme of “how can you break a curse?” And then throughout the book, it’s shown one scene at a time, one conversation at a time, and (most importantly) one action at a time, that this “curse” isn’t something from the spirits at all—it’s humanity’s fallen nature, and that there’s nothing we can do to fix it—that it takes God’s mercy to break that curse. This is shown through try/fail cycles, through anger and frustration and hope and longing. Only then does it get into the gospel message—and even then it’s not presented in a single conversation. (Not to say that it’s all talk and gushy emotions—it’s all in the setting of civil unrest, drug trafficking, and oppression. ‘Cause what fun would a book be if there weren’t a few fight scenes?)

    So I do believe that it’s possible to show the gospel in our fiction—but there’s the key word, “show.” If we try to tell the gospel in a sermon or all in one single conversation, that’ll come out as preachy. Because that’s exactly what it is. *flashes back to some Grace Livingston Hill novels where the character’s turning point is laid out in a literal sermon*

    But if you take a “show, don’t tell” approach and are willing to think about it in different words and terms, I believe that it’s possible to include the gospel message in its entirety in a story.

    Reply
  12. Laura Cook

    Good article! I would guess we have all seen examples of “How To Be Saved” squeezed between beats of the “real” story just because.

    I heard a line from a speaker at a conference a few years back that I now use to evaluate my own work. It went something like, …If you can take God completely out of your story, and your story doesn’t change, then He wasn’t really a part of your story to begin with, but just an add-on.

    For an book where the gospel and an ensuing transformation are both plot-pivotal and don’t feel forced, I personally recommend “Why Save Alexander?” by Phillip Telfer.

    Reply
  13. Abriana

    I personally just write fun, lighthearted stories. Stories of friendship, adventure (and occasionally friendly dragons) 😊

    Reply

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