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.
In my last post, I talked about the idea that real-life dialogue frequently doesn’t work in stories. This problem particularly stands out in Christian Fiction novels because it’s usually the only way that authors communicate the ideas. The plot moves along, there are odd little moments where everything stops so the characters can trade religious comment for a while, and then the plots move on a finale where thy do it again. The characters talking is the only way that
If you’ve ever taken an English literature class, you’ve probably heard words like “symbolism” and “metaphor” tossed around a lot when discussing fiction. Depending on who was teaching the class, these ideas probably either made sense or just seemed pretentious. I’ve found the simplest way to think about is that analyzing a good story is like going on a treasure hunt. You start out with one goal, and then discover these little clues here and there which add new meanings to whatever you’re doing. There turn out to be layers of ideas beneath what you initially saw, which help you to understand the main message.
Sometimes these clues are numbers or color references. Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf” describes a bull who breaks out of his pen after three days (the period Christ was in his tomb) and after escaping, kills a woman by piercing her heart with his horns. The point seems to be that the bull represents Jesus and the way God must pursue and break into people’s hearts before they can submit to and serve him.
Other times these clues are certain phrases or images used over and over again. Hope Bolinger’s novel Den, a Young Adult fiction novel based on the story of Daniel and his three friends, starting with a scene based on the story of the Fiery Furnace. Throughout the novel, the main character describes things which remind him of fire, flames and smoke.
These clues aren’t always easy to find, and the process can be rather complicated. During my last year of college, I was listening to a friend describe her problems with a creative writing class where it seemed like all her classmates were getting six or seven layers of symbolism into their story, while she found she was most comfortable with one or two layers. There’s also the obvious question of when are readers reading layers into the story that the writer never intended. However, in general adding layers works and can help novels communicate religious ideas in more ways than one.
This is particularly useful because using multiple layers avoids one of the bigger problems with religious dialogue: it tends to use stock phrases which either make sense or annoy people. There’s not much in-between ground when it comes to religious jargon. People who don’t know the jargon find it odd, and people who do will get annoyed if they don’t use the exact same jargon. As Simon Chan notes in his book How to Talk About Jesus, some people will get annoyed if you talk about a religious concept without using the exact phrases (or shibboleths) that they’re used to. Any novel that uses religious phrases a lot (“son of the king,” “washed in the blood” and so forth) can run into this problem. Having many different layers to communicate religious ideas helps to avoid this problem. Readers who aren’t used to one layer may pick up on other ones.