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.
Tall Like You’re in A Book
One of the more common critiques of Christian Fiction novels is they tend to sermonize. That is, they tend to feature scenes where the characters have spiritual conversations, but the words they use are usually clichés or stock responses. This often makes the religious elements feel cheesy (and not in a good way) or predictable.
Part of the problem is that “real-life dialogue” doesn’t always translate to novels or films. We talk in broken sentences. We don’t deliberately look for the words which have the best ring to them. If we pay attention, we’ll notice we usually borrow phrases from sermons or books to explain spiritual ideas. However, when talking to someone in person, none of these things necessarily create problems. The in-person interaction adds context, so we’re impressed by the ideas because we connect with the person we’re talking to.
(On a side note, this helps to explain why so many public speakers write books with good concepts which don’t read very well. The in-person element is gone, so all readers have is the words on paper, which may not be crafted for the best effect).
So, I can have a conversation with someone has father issues and she can say, “You know I’ve finally reached the point why my identity a daughter of the King is more important than my earthly father’s approvals.” Assuming we’re both Christians and both familiar with biblical imagery about being a child of God, that line will makes sense and I won’t find it sounds odd. In a novel, that same line sounds a bit flat. The words don’t have a ring to them and the audience may not have the religious background to understanding the imagery. So it, it works in real life but not in fiction.
The one situation where that sort of line might work is it the author builds up layers of meaning earlier in the book. There could be earlier scenes of the daughter seeing a painting of God as a loving king, her finding an old children’s book from her childhood that talks about God as being like a good king, and so forth. I’ll come to back this approach in a later post. For now, the point is that religious conversations that work well in real-life don’t always translate to fictional mediums. We can write lines that are direct transcripts of real conversations we had, then show them to other writers and they’ll say something like, “this doesn’t read well” or even “this doesn’t sound like real dialogue.”
And in a sense those writers are correct: people seem to seek stories that make life feel more ordered or polished than real life is. We like stories that show a structured journey (what Joseph Campbell would call The Hero’s Journey) the main character takes, even though our own lives rarely feel like structured journeys except in hindsight. We like characters that say things which sound plausible yet more ordered, more dramatic and more original than anything most of us would say in real life.
Thus, a good fictional narrative is always a little bit of a pretense. This may be one of the reason why many Puritans weren’t fond of fiction, feeling that imaginative stories were essentially lies. I’ve done a two-part blog post responding to that idea, so I won’t dwell on it here. Suffice to say, fiction and lies are not the same thing, and the fact fiction presents reality as more ordered than it really is does not necessarily create a problem.
In the end analysis, the point of good fiction may not be to present life as it really is, but to give us insights that we can carry into our lives.