Christian Fiction Grows Up
The boom in religious lit has produced Christian novels with less saccharine, more sin--and more room to articulate the Gospel.
BY: Lauren F. Winner
"Christian fiction" is a phrase that has about outlived its usefulness.
Overworked for more than a decade, "Christian fiction" has been asked to describe a dizzying range of books, from Jan Karon'sMitford
novels, set in a fictional North Carolina hamlet full of charming eccentrics, to Tim LaHaye's and Jerry B. Jenkins'Left Behind thrillers
about the violent run-up to the end of the world. Their success has drawn attention from the tony trade publishers in New York and the big-box retailers. The traditional Christian genres of romance and thrillers have split like hot stocks: there are now "Christian Bridget Joneses," "Christian Michael Crichtons," novels of the abusive and the abused, well-churched and Oprah-ready.
As evangelical writers crash mainstream best-seller lists and mainstream writers hit big with biblical novels like Anita Diamant's "The Red Tent," the line between religious fiction and the other kind grows ever fuzzier. Christian readers, sometimes to their alarm, are having trouble discerning what precisely makes a novel Christian.
For publishers, on the other hand, the category is more meaningful than ever. Today Christian fiction is one of the few growth areas in the industry. Last month's National Endowment for the Arts study "Reading at Risk" showed that the only category of books whose sales have increased over the past year are religious books-of which some 20 percent are fiction-four times fiction's share in the early 1990s.
There has been Christian fiction since long before Karon and LaHaye supercharged sales.Grace Livingston Hill
pioneered the genre of Christian romance with "The Chatauqua Idyle" in 1887, and followed it with more than 100 others with titles like "Aunt Crete's Emancipation" and "The Prodigal Girl." Most of them feature darkly handsome men who rescue a sweetly Christian girl from her family's impoverished circumstances. Though her main characters were sterling models of Christian behavior, Hill was strenuously thorough in her descriptions of wicked behavior, and her neat endings usually owed more to Cinderella than Ecclesiastes. As one modern critic reminds us, "Romance novels with some good descriptions of Christians added are still romance novels."
Hill's literary heir isJanette Oke
, who published the first of her more than 75 Christian historical romances in 1979. Fantastically popular-there are now 20 million copies of Oke's novels in print-Oke's oeuvre defined Christian fiction until the late 1980s, when Frank Peretti published his imaginative and conceptually interesting novel, "This Present Darkness
." Peretti depicted the cosmic battle Christians believe to be constantly raging between good and evil in scenes of muscular Christians literally fending off hellspawn at the back of midwestern churches. Peretti tapped American Protestants' interest in spiritual warfare and foreshadowed the Left Behind craze.