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.
For Obvious Themes, Tell it Silly
I spoke in a previous post about how oddness or absurdity can make a story’s themes more relatable. It makes you see life at a slant, helping you to focus on things differently and perhaps see what’s really important. In other occasions, absurdity can be an efficient way to handle tired ideas.
Frequently, I find Christian Fiction writers will build novels around a particular religious concept which is rather obvious. There’s a kind of collective pool of sermon illustrations, phrases (“what would Jesus do?”), and stock narratives that get used over and over again in church circles. You see them in devotionals, in church camp skits, in sermons and storybooks. If you have a good memory for language and patterns, you can spot them being used again almost as soon as they start. So when a Christian Fiction author uses these ideas in a novel, the book falls flat pretty quickly.
For example, The Kingdom vs John Reid by Dillon Lunn is about a man who lives in a dystopian nation that follows Old Testament law to the letter, and he’s put on trial for breaking the Ten Commandments in act and in his heart with the possibility of serving the death penalty. For Us Humans by Steve Rzasa is about aliens arriving on Earth, and that if the Bible is correct in saying that all life with souls is created by God, then presumably aliens would also be searching for God and there would be a possibility for interstellar missions.
Neither of these books are using bad ideas. However, if you grew up in Sunday School, you can probably spot what these authors are both doing a mile away.
The Kingdom Versus John Reid combines the scenario “what if you were put in a court room and had to answer for every sin you’d committed, including ones in your heart?” with the scenario “what if a defense lawyer was defending a death row inmate and offered to take his place?”
The ideas about missionaries to aliens in For Us Humans are a little less common, but are also fairly predictable. It’s not too much of a stretch to say that if there’s life on other planets then from a Christian viewpoint they are likely other beings created by God with a soul. The impulse for missions and baptism flows naturally from there. Larry Norman’s Christian rock song “UFO” plays on this idea. Ray Bradbury’s book The Martian Chronicles delves into the idea with a story about a pastor trying to minister to Martians. Again, the idea’s a bit of an old chestnut, and you can see where it’s going pretty quickly.
But if you make the book a little bit silly, then these tired ideas become interesting. What was a tired old chestnut becomes more like an in-joke. This presents some interesting new creative possibilities for the book.
Keith A. Robinson’s Master Symphony Trilogy is a good example of this. Throughout the series so far, Robinson makes some very obvious references to apologetics. The first book has characters grappling with how to believe in a good God in a broken universe. In the second book, a converted man returns to his home world and tries to help some people, while facing family members and enemies who hate him; he ruminates on how worldview affects people and how the brutal pagan society he grew up in has affected his family while he’s managed to overcome it.
It’s fairly obvious that Robinson is referencing classic apologetics ideas in both books. The first one gets into classic problem of evil questions, the second into presuppositional arguments about the problems with an atheistic worldview. If you’ve read Francis Schaeffer and Josh McDowell, you can spot what Robinson’s up to within the first chapter.
However, Robinson makes these ideas work because he chooses a form where cheesiness and a certain level of predictability is part of the charm. The series fits into space opera, a sci-fi subgenre which emphasizes adventure and melodrama and often has corny (or at least over-the-top) dialogue. The writing style is reminiscent of some of the zanier Star Wars novelizations, and of course Star Wars is known for characters who monologue about light and dark, good and evil. So, complaining about Robinson’s themes being too obvious would be like complaining that a Jedi’s monologues about the Dark Side make a Star Wars movie’s themes too obvious.
In this way, absurdity can be a handmaiden for charm and unexpected depth. It can help authors take predictable ideas and produce something more interesting, potentially capable of effecting readers in new ways.