Subliminal Messaging

Let’s talk about mind control.

No, seriously.

I mean, let’s talk for a minute about writing stories that make a point, that are supposed to relay a certain message to the reader.

It can be a basic Christian message – C.S. Lewis’ book The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – it can be a more subtle, complicated idea (think George MacDonald’s various works), but it is intended to make readers think, maybe even agree with you.

There are several reasons for us to do this. For one thing, as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer notes, some ideas can’t be translated to apologetics and debates, they can only be made in a narrative (McDowell, 124). Also, readers don’t expect you to communicate truth to them in a story, so you can trap them with it – Randy Alcorn compares this to soldiers hiding in a Trojan horse: “People open the trapdoors of their minds to a story, the Trojan horse comes in, and then, all of a sudden, the soldiers come out, and they take the city” (Watkins 125-126).

It might be reasonable to say that as Christian writers we are even supposed to do this sort of thing, it’s a way of getting the Gospel out there.

But it seems like many Christian writers stink at doing this. I’m not trying to say every Christian writer, or even most Christian writers fail at doing this. But there is good evidence that a lot of us are doing a poor job. For one thing, there is the rabid stereotype among critics, readers and disgruntled writers that all Christian fiction is packed with good morals and cheesy storytelling. Stereotypes are never totally true but they always have a tiny grain of truth somewhere in them. That’s why they survive.

If you want more credible data than that, consider the Christian film industry. I did a little research for this article, and looked up 10 different Christian films – as in films made by Christian writers and/or directors with obvious Christian messages – on  They were all fiction, and I purposefully picked widely ranging genres – romantic comedies (I’m In Love with A Church Girl), horror films (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), holiday films (The Christmas Candle), thriller films (Left Behind), and sports films (Facing the Giants).

There were several common criticisms which appeared in reviews for each film (such as “only convincing to the already initiated”) but the main one seemed to be that all of these movies were “preachy.” The word “preaching” or some synonym (“a weak proselytizing device,” “bottomless sermonizing” ) coming up in different ways, always in the negative.

I think there’s important to learn from those reviews. Why is it not okay to be preachy in fiction, what is so wrong about it that it seems to universally turn people off regardless of whether it’s in a movie, a book, an audio drama?

The reason is that preaching has an important place (in church, in public settings where people are expected a speech) it is very different from story-telling.

When Jesus preached on the Sermon on the Mount, when effective speakers as Ravi Zacharias or Francis Chan (pick your own favorite Christian speaker) preach, they have to make their points very clear and obvious. In public speaking classes, students are required to develop Thesis statements where they say exactly what their speeches will cover and use transition words to let the audience they are going from point A to point B. The audience has come specifically (heck, sometimes they pay good money) to hear the speaker tell them something they will understand and they won’t be happy until the speaker gets to the point.

When you’re creating a fictional story, the kind we’re talking about where the audience isn’t supposed to know until the last minute that you’re trying to make a point, you have a whole different approach. You need the reader to like the story based on its own merits, regardless of what the message is. The Trojan horse better look really interesting and cool if people are going to believe it’s a gift and take it into their own homes.

Next week I’ll show you a great example of how one famous writer wrote a book where he did this well and then wrote a second book that was very preachy and the different effects those books had.

For now, thanks for reading, please comment and like this article, and drive safe.

Works Cited:

Pg. 124 of Apologetics for a New Generation, edited by Sean MacDowell.

Pg. 125-126 of Writers on Writing: Top Christian Authors Share their Secrets for Getting Publishing edited by James Watkins.

Cover Image source:


2 thoughts on “Subliminal Messaging

  1. Janell

    Too True…I like how you think son! I think that this very reason is why Jesus used parables…story telling is memorable and gets you to the point rather than the point getting “at” you like a mosquito.


  2. Pingback: Subliminal Messaging Pt 2 – G. Connor Salter

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