I review Christian books, mostly nonfiction ones but I do get a Christian Fiction novel or two each month. Occasionally I’ll get one that I enjoy, and frequently I’ll give 3 or 4 stars just because I know the author means well and it’s not too terrible. However, most of the time I’m just not impressed. There are certain flaws that routinely come up with Christian Fiction books, things which seem to be trends that make the books predictable or one-dimensional.
However, most people aren’t interested in long lists of everything being done wrong. It’s usually more effective to talk about what could be done better than to focus the entire discussion complaining about what’s being done poorly. Therefore, I’m doing a series about traits I would like to see more of in Christian Fiction, thus addressing flaws in a more constructive way.
The Soft Critique of Fickle People
During my last post, I talked about the idea that goodness is usually a subversive choice, which means the best stories are often ones that lean into the idea that doing the right thing is hard.
It’s worth noting though that even in a best-case scenario, the most popular kinds of Christian Fiction novels won’t explore this idea because it doesn’t fit their particular subgenres.
While there’s some debate about whether Christian Fiction is shifting towards younger readers and speculative fiction (such as Steve Rzasa’s science fiction novel For Us Humans and similar books published by Enclave), the market is still solidly dominated by historical romance, cozy mystery and other genres marketed to older female readers. Those particular genres, particularly cozy mystery, tend to avoid heroes with big internal conflicts or deep moral crises. The stories also tend to take place in small worlds where everything seems to go well, primarily because the characters live cushy lifestyles.
However, that doesn’t mean that cozy stories let the characters off easy. Frequently, the best cozy stories find small, subtle ways to critique the characters’ flaws or the cushy society they live in. They don’t focus the entire plot on exposing these communities’ flaws, but they find little ways to underline what people are not getting right.
For example, in any given Agatha Christie story the author describes the small-town life in a pleasant style, but then when she starts talking about individuals she will point out something which highlights their vanity or foolishness. She’ll describe what an individual is doing and then add something like “Mr. X swore he was 90 years old last year but his relatives all confirmed he was only 72.”
Or Christie might describe a character making a shallow comment about local life and then add, “Mrs. Y felt that ten miles outside one’s hometown was the farthest any person need ever go. Her neighbors often speculated why Mrs. Y’s daughter had taken a job in the colonies the day after she finished school.”
Christie’s heroes, whether they are outsiders like Hercule Poirot or respected insiders like Ms. Marple not only have good brains, but they are also shrewd. They know how to get past what people say about themselves to see their true condition, and that sets them apart from the rest of the characters.
P.G. Wodehouse accomplished something similar with his comedic Jeeves and Wooster novels. He doesn’t make big critiques of Pre-WWII upper-class English society, in fact the world Bertie Wooster lives in almost has a rosy tint to it. The key word is “almost” though. Pay enough attention, and you’ll notice Wodehouse is always showing how foolish his upper-class English characters are. Bertie Wooster is a fool, and most of his friends are equally foolish in their own ways. Jeeves, the working-class butler, is the one who always pulls the gentry out of their scrapes. So there’s an undercurrent which suggests that actually all is not right in this pastoral little world Wodehouse is describing.
There is room to write stories about cozy worlds without totally buying into those worlds’ soft values. Done correctly, these stories can capture the humor, simplicity and other elements which make such stories enjoyable, while also highlighting the flaws in the worlds the characters inhabit.