Notre Dame on fire ...
Christian fiction has become a genre unto itself, filled with clichés, conventions, and pop-culture imitations. And yet, Christian authors were once the giants of literature, writing about all of life from a Christian worldview and using their art to influence the imagination of the whole civilization. What writers, publishers, and readers need today is not just Christian fiction but fiction informed by a Christian worldview, with the potential to break through once again into the wider culture. Toward that end, WORLD is working with WestBow Press, Thomas Nelson's new fiction division, to sponsor a fiction-writing contest to discover a new wave of Christian writers.
Some 45 percent of all trade books sold today in the United States are fiction. Although Christian writers were the great pioneers of literature, for awhile evangelicals, both authors and readers, lost interest in fiction. But this has been changing. Fiction is the second-biggest-selling category for Christian publishers, just after "Christian living," making up 15 percent to 20 percent of all their sales.
Lately, Christian authors and publishers have been imitating the pop culture, with its formulas and conventions, rather than creating genuine literary art. But Christian writers and Christian readers are growing in their tastes and in what they are capable of writing and reading. Though for awhile Christian novels were only read by Christian readers, the barriers that ghettoized explicitly evangelical books have been coming down. Christians have a powerful literary tradition, extending well into the modern era, ready to be reclaimed and carried on.
The Christian literary heritage begins with the Bible. God reveals Himself not primarily through visions or mystical experiences but through a book. Thus, Christians have always prized reading.
God's revelation in the Bible-the very word means "the book"- comprises many literary forms: poetry, laws, letters, and while it does contain passages of theological discourse (for example, the epistles of Paul), much of God's Word consists of narratives. That is to say, stories.
A narrative is a rendition by language of an unfolding action. Whereas expository writing sets forth ideas, narrative re-creates an event. A story gives us characters, dialogue, and description, all of which enables a reader or listener to enter into the experience vicariously by imagining what took place.
The Bible's narratives are true and historical. (Prose narratives in the historical style that are fictional would not be invented until the 18th century.) But God's Word gives us true stories of human beings, in particular places and times, doing things, enduring conflicts, and interacting with each other and with God: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the saga of the patriarchs, Moses and the children of Israel, the historical narratives of the judges and the kings, the exile and the return, the four Gospels recounting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the story of the church in Acts, the mysterious last days in the book of Revelation. Christians have always known that such stories bear rich meanings and that reading them is a profound blessing.
Narratives, whether true or fictional, depict characters, portrayals of human beings. These characters act, creating the story's plot. Nearly always, the plot entails some kind of conflict, whether an external battle against some enemy, an inner struggle within the heart of a character, the clash of different beliefs, or a combination of all three. There is also a setting, the sense of place and time where the action takes place, and a theme, the truths or insights that the story conveys.
The plot of a story is not just a sequence of random events. Rather, a plot tends to have a definite structure: a beginning, middle, and end.
The Bible, as the Book of books, has a plot of its own, contributing a particular shape to Western narratives. It sets forth a clear beginning: the creation of the universe. There is conflict: human sin vs. the grace of God. The narrative has a middle, a climactic turning point, in which the conflict is resolved: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the book moves to a definite conclusion, a dénouement tying up all the loose ends into a happy ending: the coming of Christ, the last judgment, and His eternal reign. Not only the biblical narrative but all of human history is taken up into this story, as is the life of the individual believer.
Biblical narrative is very different from the narratives of pagan mythology. Those are organized into cycles. Time repeats itself, with multiple creations and endlessly recurrent patterns. Thus, Greek epics begin in the middle of an already occurring action. Greek plays are organized into cycles of generations caught in the webs of a constantly repeating fate. The Bible's stories, though, show time as a straight line, with not only a beginning and middle and end but a direction. Thus, Western narratives after the Bible tend to follow a chronological order in which characters can change and grow. Also, myths take place in an idealized realm removed from ordinary human experience. Biblical narrative, though, takes place in specific places and times, emphasizing historicity and stylistic realism.
While biblical narratives are true stories, there is also a sense in which the Bible enabled the invention of fiction. The early church proclaimed that the pagan myths were untrue. They were just stories. They could be appreciated as stories, said the early church, as long as they were not believed to be true. Christians were encouraged to look at myths as stories that may be pleasing and even instructive and worth studying, as long as they understood that the events they recorded never happened. Thus, the early Christians, as far as Western literature is concerned, invented fiction.
Life as it should be
The highest biblical authority for fiction, of course, is the example of Jesus Christ, who taught the kingdom of God by means of parables. Indeed, says Matthew, "He said nothing to them without a parable" (Matthew 13:34). The term comes from the Greek word for "comparison" and was a common ancient genre that explained a truth by comparing it to a hypothetical tale. Jesus used parables to communicate vast spiritual truths to the fallen human mind. His parables, though, did not make the truths He was revealing simpler or easier to understand. Rather, He used parables not only to make things clearer but apparently sometimes to make them more difficult (Matthew 13:10-17), since one symptom of the fallen human mind is to seize upon some superficial knowledge while remaining blind to the full truth and failing to "understand with the heart" (Matthew 13:15).
Some Christians, historically, have objected to fiction on the grounds that it consists of "lies." But Sir Philip Sidney, with his Puritan sympathies, decisively answered that objection in 1595 in "A Defense of Poesy." A lie, he said, is something affirmed to be true when it is not true. A piece of fiction, though, "affirmeth not." It is not presented as something true, but, by its very name, something made-up, an imaginative construction. History, philosophy, even theology, said Sidney, are full of lies: statements put forward as true when they are really false. Fiction, on the other hand, because it never affirms, never lies.
And yet, Sidney says that fiction is connected to a larger truth. Fiction, he said, presents life not as it is, but as it could be and should be. Sidney believed that literature had an important function in the teaching of morality. Fiction can instruct us in the human condition and provide models for us to emulate or avoid, training us to take delight in what is good and to be repulsed by what is evil.
William Kirk Kilpatrick, in Psychological Seduction and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, has shown how the moral formation of children is shaped by stories. Children learn to root for the "good guys"-and to identify with them-and to fear and be repulsed by the "bad guys." It is not enough to tell children abstractly what is right and what is wrong. For them to internalize morality, it must be brought to life.
Fiction does not need to be moralistic to be a good influence. The very act of entering into a character's point of view is training in empathy, the ability to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Fiction also gives us vicarious experience, the ability to imaginatively experience something without having to experience it in real life. It becomes possible to undergo life-shaping experiences-the danger of war, the trials of love, the stimulation of travel, the overcoming of suffering-from the comfort and safety of one's easy chair. Though vicarious experience is secondhand and nowhere nearly as powerful as actually experiencing such things in real life, the benefits of reading fiction in broadening a person's horizons should not be underestimated. Reading fiction can also be a way of reflecting upon the human condition-its tragedies and comedies, its complexity and glories-and it can serve as a mirror to help readers know themselves.
Of course, that fiction can have such a powerful positive influence means that it can also have a negative influence. Vicarious experience can be sinful, with some fiction encouraging evil fantasies and emulation of models that are destructive. Readers need discernment and taste, and they need high-quality books to read.
The earliest fiction in Christian Europe was the genre known as the romance. This refers not primarily to love stories but to medieval tales of knights, chivalry, and adventure. Love was usually an issue in the medieval romances, which led to the later meaning of the term, but their main characteristic was an emphasis on plot, external action, and fantasy (as opposed to hard-edged realism).
The romance tradition includes Christianized versions of pagan legends (such as Beowulf). It also includes imaginative sagas of Christian kings and heroes (King Arthur). The impulse toward fantasy also manifested itself in symbolic stories (the quest for the Holy Grail) and theological allegories (The Divine Comedy).
Realistic fiction, though-as in novels that emphasize characters and their inner lives in an actual-seeming setting-developed much later. At first, these took the form of mock-romances, which made fun of medieval ideals by contrasting them with actual life (Cervantes's Don Quixote ). Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1678) took the medieval genre of the Christian allegory and rendered it with an innovative realism. Then there were the pseudo-histories, renditions of romantic plot devices (such as being stranded on a desert island) in a historical style (Defoe's Robinson Crusoe ).
The first modern novel is probably Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, published in 1740. This work consisted of a series of letters from a young serving girl trying to make her way in the big city. Before long, her employer tries to seduce her, leading to elaborate abductions and escapes as Pamela defends her chastity against a dastardly villain, who eventually becomes converted. The letter device allows Richardson to develop what would become hallmarks of modern narrative: Instead of the author narrating the tale, the main character, Pamela, tells what happened to her in her own voice. And the rather slender and far-fetched plot becomes secondary to the character delving into her own inner life.
After Pamela, the novel as an artistic form exploded in popularity and variety. The early novelists, by and large, worked from a Christian worldview. Pamela knew that extramarital sex was wrong, and she resisted a predatory man to keep her virtue. Even stories that had little explicit religious content assumed a moral and spiritual order. Right and wrong were objective categories. Human beings were seen as sinful yet spiritual beings in a challenging yet ordered world. The early novels' constant themes of love, marriage, family, responsibility, duty, and purpose were all informed by a biblical view of life.
Jane Austen, the pastor's daughter, wrote unparalleled fiction about the comedies and dramas inherent in her small country parish. Charles Dickens invented unforgettable characters and sparked social reforms. Other novelists took up explicit Christian themes and explored them in their depths. Nathaniel Hawthorne explored the dark recesses of our fallen human nature. Fyodor Dostoevsky plunged into the mysteries of sin and redemption. George MacDonald explored his faith both in realistic novels and in highly symbolic and evocative fantasies.
Even in the supposedly secularist 20th century, Christians continued to make their mark as fiction writers. A number of Catholic writers wrote powerful works that addressed the spiritual emptiness of modernity with a vision of Christianity that was seldom merely the theology of Rome: Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory); Walker Percy (The Thanatos Syndrome); Flannery O'Connor (The Violent Bear It Away). Then there were the enormously popular and influential Christian fantastists J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings) and C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).
These authors were all published by secular, general-market publishing houses. They gained wide audiences and critical acclaim. They also influenced their cultures and touched the lives of their readers, in some cases bringing them to faith.
Yet, ironically, evangelicals-readers, writers, and publishers-were largely ignoring fiction, until they invented a genre of their own.
In the United States, many conservative Protestants separated themselves from the increasingly secularist modern culture. Part of this was due to Christians who wanted to be uncontaminated by the godless culture, and part of it was due to the godless culture's hostility to Christian faith.
The Christian publishing industry grew up and its products were sold in Christian bookstores. Most of the books put out were devotional helps, Bible studies, and guides for Christian living. Except for a few historical novels and Bible retellings, there was very little fiction.
Then, in 1978, Frank Peretti's spiritual thriller This Present Darkness was published, a dark tale about a titanic conflict between demons and angels that loomed behind a small town's controversies. Jan Dennis, who was
Mr. Peretti's editor with Crossway, told WORLD that his manuscript had been turned down by 15 publishers before Crossway took a chance and put it into print, in a tiny print run of only 4,000 copies. But the Christian horror novel sold over 2.5 million copies.
Mr. Peretti's novel and its sequels showed evangelical readers the power of fiction (though, arguably, many of them were so inexperienced with fiction that they took the "spiritual warfare" motif as fact, instead). Evangelical publishers now had a market for fiction, which they proceeded to serve with a great variety of products. Today, as much as one-fifth of the sales for Christian publishers comes from fiction: Christian romance novels, Christian horror, Christian science fiction, Christian fantasies, Christian conspiracy novels, Christian political novels, Christian techno-thrillers.
The limitation of this fiction is that it is mostly "genre fiction," that is, fiction written according to a predictable formula based on prefabricated models. It is geared mainly to entertainment, rather than reflection. It follows conventions, rather than being original. It is written to sell, rather than to be a serious, complex work of Christian art.
Writing in a particular genre need not prevent the work from being valuable. Great literature too has its conventions. The "novel of manners" perfected by Jane Austen and followed by many more is about social interactions leading to marriage. Mysteries, with their detectives solving a crime, follow strict conventions, and yet the form has produced some outstanding writing, including that of Christians (Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James). But too often, in the hands of indifferent writers, genre fiction is little more than a collection of clichés.
The bigger problem is that for all of the different genres it follows, evangelical fiction has become a genre unto itself, with conventions of its own. One-dimensional virtuous characters contend against one-dimensional villains. The style is preachy. The theme is moralistic. The plot is characterized by implausible divine interventions. While the convention demands a conversion, the characters are never allowed to do anything very sinful, or, if they do, the author is not allowed to show it. At the end, all problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after. It is all sweetness, light, uplift, and cliché.
The biblical complexities of sin and grace, the inner conflict between the old nature and the new, the necessity to bear one's cross, are missing. So is biblical realism. So is the ability to draw in nonbelievers and confront them with the hard truths of God's Word.
What happened is that while evangelicals at one time pulled away from engagement with the culture, they rejected the high culture of ideas, creativity, and the arts. But they embraced uncritically the pop culture, the realm of entertainment, pleasure-seeking, and shallow commercialism. While the modern and postmodern high culture may be hostile to the biblical worldview, Christianity can compete with the high culture on its own terms by claiming and building upon the absolutes of truth, goodness, and beauty that current worldviews have abandoned. But in embracing the pop culture, evangelicals have opened themselves up to what is shallow, fake, and empty in contemporary life. Instead of filling those voids, pop-Christianity falls into them.
But Christian fiction is changing, heralding perhaps a more fruitful engagement with the culture on the part of American evangelicals.
The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins were, in many ways, conventional Christian fiction, following the genre of End Times novels. And yet, the 12 books in the series, swept along by millennium fever, dominated the bestseller lists for a decade. They sold so many copies that they broke out of the Christian bookstore market, into the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, into airport newsstands, onto The New York Times bestseller lists, which once excluded books from Christian publishers no matter how many they sold.
"Left Behind did break down the barriers," said Mr. Dennis. "It became so huge that it was given an opportunity that most Christian fiction doesn't get, to sell in the general market." The secular bookstores started carrying other evangelical titles. In the meantime, Christian publishers started cashing in with other crossover titles (The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life). They now had access to the general marketplace, a vast new audience, which also gave them a new mission, to reach secular readers with the Christian message.
But this meant they had to compete with the established secular publishers. There was a time when books from Christian publishers just did not look as good as those from mainline presses. They looked cheaper, had poorer paper, bad cover art, and just did not seem as professionally designed. This has changed, though, as Christian publishers give more attention to the quality of their production. The writing also had to get better, and it has.
In the meantime, talented Christian writers were finding success with publishing companies that were secular but that allowed them to express their faith in terms of their art: Walt Wangerin (The Book of the Dun Cow); Frederic Buechner (Brendan); Larry Woiwode (Beyond the Bedroom Wall); Jan Karon (The Mitford series); Leif Enger (Peace Like a River); Bret Lott (Jewel). Not to mention Christian authors who became sure-fire bestsellers who wrote more popular fare that was not explicitly religious, but nevertheless allowed their worldview to shine through (John Grisham, The Firm; Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October). Christian publishers wanted to attract writers like that. Lately, some talented new authors have emerged from Christian circles, and now Christian publishers are more inclined to turn them loose.
Thomas Nelson is the biggest Christian publisher. Moreover, it is the ninth-biggest publisher of every kind in the world. Currently, over half of its sales are in the general marketplace. The company has just launched a new fiction division, WestBow Press.
Allen Arnold, the head of WestBow, told WORLD that "the days of traditional Christian fiction are over." His plans are to publish authors who write from a distinctly Christian worldview but whose works go beyond the typical formulas and have the potential to reach beyond the typical Christian marketplace to have an impact on the culture as a whole. "We don't publish Christian fiction," he said. "We publish fiction from a Christian worldview."
He wants to free Christian authors, who often feel constrained by secular publishers to tone down their faith and who feel constrained by Christian publishers who will not let them tell their stories.
"We'll only partner with authors who write from a Christian worldview, but the stories will be true to what the stories are about," Mr. Arnold said. "Sometimes faith will be explicit; sometimes more implicit." Just as the biblical worldview encompasses all of life, the fiction he is looking for need not even be conventionally "religious," as long as it embodies the reality that God has made.
This does not mean that WestBow will blindly emulate secular publishers. "Readers should know they need not fear being corrupted by a WestBow book," he said. "We will never publish something that we feel we could not stand with before God." But there will be no predetermined model or list of rules. There will be no attempt to imitate commercially successful patterns. We should not try to copy what the world is doing or what other publishers are doing, he told WORLD. "We should be tapping into the ultimate creator of all-God-the source of true creativity."
WestBow inherited Thomas Nelson's other fiction titles, so some conventionally Christian fiction remains on their list. Mr. Allen stressed that the company will still publish books specifically for the Christian market. But the new division has higher goals. He wants WestBow to become one of the top 20 publishers of general-market fiction.
The vision of publishing high-quality works of art by Christians for general audiences may seem ambitious. But Mr. Allen points out that this is the way it used to be. Christian formula fiction is relatively new, dating just to the 1970s. "Before that, Christian writers wrote for everyone."
WestBow takes its name from the printing press and bookshop operated by the original Thomas Nelson back in Edinburgh in 1798, which was located on a street named West Bow. That shop sold Bibles, and it also sold Pilgrim's Progress, Robinson Crusoe, and, later, books by Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, and other of the best authors of his day. Why shouldn't we have Christian writers like that today? Why shouldn't Christian literature have the cultural influence that it once did?
But God needs to call and equip writers equal to that task. And those writers need to be discovered, mentored, and brought to the public.
To that end, WestBow, in its search for new talent, is working with WORLD in the WORLDview fiction contest. (See the sidebar for details.) If you are a storyteller, enter the contest. If you are a reader, check out the entries that will be posted on WORLD's blog site, giving your feedback and voting for your favorite. Either way, do your part in carrying on the Christian literary tradition.