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
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.
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 newWestBow
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!"
To urbane readers, that may seem a small innovation. To some Christian readers, it may seem a shocking one. For the future of the genre, it is completely necessary, not only because it allows writers to portray life as it is lived, or to drive sales by being "edgy"-it allows them to deal with sin. For if you can't portray sin, how can you portray the saving power of the Gospel? Vinita Hampton Wright's "Velma Still Cooks in Leeway
," one of the most successful Christian novels from a literary point of view, illustrates this point: there may not be any cursing, but there's rape and abuse and startling brokenness. And that plainspoken, hard context makes Wright's presentation of the Christian life all the more compelling.
The real change in recent Christian fiction is not merely the appearance of the occasional profanity, but a revolution in plot. Pick up a Christian novel published as recently as five years ago, and you are likely to find a story whose plot line turns on someone's conversion. This is the old, old story American evangelicals have liked to tell best: the tale of a sinner whose heart is "strangely warmed" (in Methodist founder John Wesley's phrase), who repents and commits his life to Jesus Christ and is born-again.
Conversion remains the backbone of evangelical stories, but frequently Christian novels being published today tell what happens after the conversion. Their stories concern the messiness of everyday life. "It is good to see Christian fiction become less dogmatic and overt, and offer much more ambiguity and the friction between life and faith," says Dudley Delft, fiction acquisitions editor for Waterbrook Press, the Christian arm of Random House. "That friction is where most of us live. Why shouldn't fiction reflect that?"