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?"

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.

Is "Savannah from Savannah" Christian? Well, sure. Savannah goes to church, prays a lot, jogs to Christian rock 'n roll, and is well on her way to becoming a new creature. But Hildreth doesn't give us any road-to-Damascus conversion scenes, just real life. The characters are far from perfect. They are needy. They are flawed, with their flaws on full display. And they happen to be Christians.

Christian publishers still have their limits. Penelope Stokes's delightful new book, "Circle of Grace" depicts the lifelong friendship of four women who work through the everyday dramas and difficulties of home, family, and marriage-standard fare these days for Christian publishers. But Stokes includes a discussion of lesbianism, which is not. Stokes chose to publish with Doubleday.

If it seems that most of the development in Christian fiction has come in women's fiction, that's because women's fiction is booming in the mainstream as well, creating a parallel hunger in the Christian market and improving the odds of a crossover hit. A similar "echo" boom has appeared in Christian chick lit, which has exploded. The second in Kristin Billerbeck's Ashley Stockingdale series, "She's Out of Control," chronicles the sagas of Silicon Valley singletons. Christian publishing giant Zondervan also recently published two Bridget Jones-y novels by Penny Culliford, "Theodora's Diary" and "Theodora's Wedding."

To dismiss these novels as derivative is to imply that general fiction doesn't capitalize exhaustively on every new trend (including Christian novels). The more damning criticism is that Christian industry has yet to produce a novel that is uniquely Christian, presenting the full truth of evangelical experience the way, say, Jeffrey Eugenides, who won last year's Pulitzer for fiction with his book "Middlesex," captured in his story of a young hermaphrodite the acerbic, postmodernist culture.

But that Christian writer is out there somewhere, and when he or she rises it's more likely than ever the breakthrough won't be languishing on a shelf in a Christian bookstore, but will be stacked in the window of your local Barnes & Noble.

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