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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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?"

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In a recent novel from Nelson's Westbow, "

Savannah from Savannah

," first-time novelist Denise Hildreth gives us a modern, Southern coming-of-age story. Savannah from Savannah is a 24-year-old journalism school grad who returns home to write for the local paper and is assigned to dig up dirt on the Miss Georgia pageant. But the heart of the novel is Savannah's mother, the wonderful, fearless Victoria (call her Vicky at your own peril). High-heeled and made up by 7 o'clock each morning, Miss Victoria is the bane and blessing of Savannah's life, and Savannah's homecoming is a piercing tale of mother-daughter love, reconciliation, and growing up.

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