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.

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Hill's literary heir is

Janette 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.

Despite their ample sales, Oke and Peretti were roundly-and, in Christian circles, famously-ignored by mainstream critics and readers. Once the numbers became too big to ignore, and the books themselves started popping up in WalMart and Borders, Christian fiction was dismissed for being too pat, too saccharine, too derivative. Above all, Christian fiction seems too, well, Christian. Its preachiness hits you over the head. You don't feel like you're reading a novel. You feel like you're reading a tract.

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Good sales don't trump the plain sense of these criticisms. Neta Jackson's first novel, "

The Yada Yada Prayer Group

," which, at 100,000 copies, has sold astoundingly well for a first novel in the Christian realm, is a heavily sanitized recasting of Rebecca Wells's "The Ya-Ya Sisterhood." The Left Behind books depend on a theology called dispensationalism that most evangelicals would call extreme, but its broader message that you'd better be Christian or else is more widely accepted-and about as subtle as a Mack truck.

But all that is beginning to change. In January, Thomas Nelson, a venerable Christian publishing house based in Nashville, debuted a clutch of savvy, sophisticated novels from their new

WestBow

imprint that reflect a Christian worldview, but which don't sacrifice story to evangelism. "We don't have very strict guidelines about putting evangelicalism front and center," says acquisitions editor Ami McConnell, "and there's no list of words we have to eliminate from our manuscripts." That is, unlike most Christian houses, WestBow might be willing to allow a heroine who has run her car into a tree or sliced her finger with a paring knife to utter something a little saltier than "Oh, sugar!"

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