Plastic. Pious. Preachy. What are “the words most commonly used to describe the novels being put out by Christian writers over the last fifty to sixty years, Alex?”
Less an answer to a popular game show question, and more – often well-deserved – criticism, the real question remains: can mainstream Christian fiction come back from Stepford Wives territory far enough to get the majority of Christians, let alone the general population, reading it again? And is it possible for these stories to actually fulfil the purpose God intended for them – to have a positive impact on the lives of hurting, broken, searching people, and on a broken, hurting, searching society in general?
Christian writing, not surprisingly, tends to reflect the current climate in mainstream, evangelical churches. Starting around the fifties and continuing for thirty or forty years, the prevailing attitude seems to have been that, as Christians, we should not reveal to “the world” that we had any problems at all, that we struggled with the same temptations and vices that “they” did. We weren’t susceptible to addictions, we didn’t suffer from depression or even get sad, we didn’t drink, smoke, chew or go with girls who do, you get the idea.
In my opinion, this has a lot to do with the prevalence of big-name American preachers and televangelists, and the promotion of the “health and wealth” gospel. The driving force behind this movement was the belief (or claimed belief) that if a Christian had enough faith, he or she would never suffer the effects of living as a broken person in a fallen world like an unsaved, or weak-in-their-faith believer, did. I am convinced that every single person who called themselves a Christian during this time, whether they stood behind a pulpit or sat in the family pew week after week, knew deep down that he or she was as prone to wander as the most blatant sinner. However, it was easy to succumb to this “Emperor’s New Clothes” way of thinking – the idea that admitting any kind of weakness or lack in their lives or character was a profession of weak faith.
Presenting a front of perfect health, a substantial bank account, and a perpetually cheerful disposition proclaimed to fellow believers and to the world that your faith was strong and active, so naturally your life was worry-free and everything you turned your hand to prospered. This attitude, that true Christians couldn’t let anyone know that their lives were not always perfect and that they did – gasp – doubt and struggle with their faith on occasion (or more likely often), lest others be turned away from Christ and the church forever, naturally came out in the books Christians were writing.
A new movement began in the ‘80’s and ‘90s, the “seeker-sensitive” approach to doing church. Although this movement has issues of its own, one of the best things to come out of it is a willingness to be transparent, to admit that, as believers, we actually do struggle with the same doubts, addictions, illnesses, and temptations that the rest of humanity grapples with. The now prevailing “no perfect people allowed” philosophy is slowly making its way into the pages of Christian novels.
Plastic, smiling, one-dimensional, sinless characters are becoming more and more rare, as publishers realize that readers have little or no capacity (or desire) to connect with people that have no weaknesses and that can find a magical solution to all of life’s problems by grabbing a Bible and allowing it to fall open to a random passage. Not every problem is solved, not every person is saved, and not every story ends happily in life, so they should not always do so in fiction either, although hope and the possibility of redemption remain vital components in Christian literature. The stories are, slowly, becoming more honest, real, raw, messy and complex, much like life itself. And the solutions offered, if there are any, are often two-edged, complicated, and certainly much less “tied up in a nice neat bow” than in the past. Again, sort of like they tend to be in real life.
As far as I am concerned, this is a good thing. In fact, it might even be a great thing. Although not all critics and readers will agree, I believe that the new Christian fiction has a greater capacity to impact and change lives, since readers can now see themselves and their own struggles in the way the characters in the book experience and deal with real-life issues and problems.
After all, if we refuse to reveal brokenness, helplessness, doubt, failure, and self-destructive behaviour in our characters – and in our own lives – how can we hope to bear witness to the powerful, life-giving, transforming, pulling-out-of-the pit grace of God?
If that one little girl in the crowd hadn’t had the courage and perception to shout out that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, the poor guy would have ridden around all day, secretly (or not so secretly) laughed at and mocked (not to mention severely chafed), and cloaked in nothing but the faulty belief that he was the only one without the wisdom and strength of character to see the magical garments.
I would wager a great deal that not many in the crowd were drawn to emulating his actions that day. It was not until he admitted that he had been deceived that he and his people could begin to counter-act the effects of the lie in the only way possible – with the truth.
And it is these two powerful weapons – truth and transparency – that the writers of Christian fiction have (finally) begun to wield again. In so doing, they have renewed the hope that their God-given stories just might become relevant once more, restoring their ability to impact and change not only individual lives, but the world.
Press on, my friends. Press on,