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.
Make It Complicated
As you’ve probably noted from the intro paragraph above, I read a lot of Christian books. Something funny happens when you read a lot of books in the same genre: you begin to notice certain things that everyone talks about. Common arguments all the writers seem to make, common writing styles or approaches to a problem, and even common references.
When it comes to films, I’ve found there are many movies about Christianity that one or two authors will mention, usually whatever cheesy inspirational film came out recently. Once I got past these here-and-there references, I found there were two movies that seemed to be referenced routinely in Christian books: Chariots of Fire and The Mission.
Chariots of Fire, with its story of Christian athlete Eric Liddell who realizes his athletic skills and his passion to be a missionary are both from God, comes up all the time when writers want to talk about calling or conflicting loyalties. There’s a good chance if you get any book on calling, following God’s voice or discovering one’s passions, someone will mention Liddell’s “When I run I feel God’s pleasure” speech.
The Mission, with its dramatic story of warrior Rodrigo Mendoza man who comes to the end of himself and finds forgiveness, comes up all the time when writers want to talk about redemption. The scene where Mendoza gets forgiven by the natives he was oppressing is a highly compelling look at that wondrous moment when someone lays down their burdens and finds freedom.
It’s interesting to me that these two movies come up so frequently in Christian books, because neither one gives a one-sided view of Christianity. Both movies are about groups of people who claim to be Christians but have very conflicting ideas about what that means.
In Chariots of Fire, you have Liddell’s view of how God can use him, versus his sister’s more ascetic view of what pleases God. Later, when he decides not to take part in a Sunday race, we have his view of whether to prioritize serving God or his country, versus other people who claim to be Christian and find his behavior absurd. On a larger level, we have the anti-Semitic faith of the Cambridge teachers who disapprove of Harold Abrahams, versus Liddell’s more accepting faith that sees Abrahams as a fellow athlete who has value.
The Mission is of course about conflicting values in a more explicit way. We have Father Gabriel, the peaceful missionary who wants to serve natives, versus the corrupt priests who sell the natives out to colonists. Then of course we have how Gabriel’s pacifist views about how to handle resistance contrast to Mendoza’s belief that it’s okay to take up the sword and fight back.
Both films are seen as great movies about faith, and they’re both essentially about when happens when it’s not clear what faith requires people to do. The characters have to find out what the right thing is to do, and neither has an easy time. That sense of conflict is precisely what makes them compelling.
Too many Christian Fiction authors seem to miss this point. It’s rare to find a Christian thriller or historical romance novel that talks about faith in such a complex way. Usually readers get a story about someone who has one big objection that keep them from believing in God, they spend most of the book going back and forth, then after getting advice from a Christian they finally come to faith (Lethal Target by Janice Cantore is a fairly typical example).
The difficulty here is that from a story structure perspective, conflict is interesting.
As Syd Field sums it up in his book Screenplay, good movies have three acts. Act 1 sets up the characters and the unfulfilled desire that the hero will follow, Act 2 focuses on the struggle to achieve that desire, and Act 3 brings that struggle to a head and we discover whether the hero got what the desired thing or not.
Joseph Campbell presents a slightly different structure in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, describing a good story as being a like a journey the hero travels with various obstacles and characters met along the way. Still, Campbell agrees that there must be a goal the hero is moving toward and that the hero must have a hard time getting there.
The hero’s struggle to get something or find the right path is the meat of the story, which means there must be obstacles. Frequently, these obstacles are other characters who have conflicting ideas about what’s important. This principle is particularly true in longer-form stories, such as novels or movies. A long story generally needs something complex to sustain it.
If the story focuses on matters of faith, then the most engaging form of complexity to keep the story going is likely going to be the complex problem of what to do when religious values seem to conflict with each other. The values may not actually conflict on further reflection, but that initial sense of conflict is what gets the story moving and keeps people interested.