Some time ago I started a list of (mostly) nonfiction books that described the evangelical struggle with the arts or how to do art well from a Christian perspective. Since I recently did a series on problems with Christian Fiction novels, it seemed like a good idea to look at relatively modern novels by Christians that I have enjoyed. This list will focus on contemporary novels (i.e. published since 1979), and specifically ones by writers who are either evangelical Christians or whose work fits broadly into the evangelical genre. I’m also using the term “novels by Christians” rather than “Christian novels.” The reason for this selection are as follows:
- I’ve found that while plenty of people can list great Christian novels from before the 1980s (books by the Inklings, classic works like Paradise Lost) it’s hard to find anything relatively modern by Christian authors that is very good, not just commercially successful.
- When I talk with writers or academics about recent novels that explored Christian themes well, we almost always end up talking about novels written by Catholics. Why Catholicism seems to produce better storytellers is a subject I’ll come back to later, and I might even start a parallel list of modern Catholic writers I’ve enjoyed. This one will focus on trying to fill the “evangelical gap.”
- The term “Christian novel” brings up associations that some writers avoid. Does it mean books by Christians for other Christians? Shouldn’t any book written by a Christian be a Christian novel? Therefore, it seemed best to avoid calling these “Christian novels.” Many of these novels are released by Christian publishers, some have overt religious themes and others don’t.
Because I skipped high school English completely and didn’t major in English lit, my knowledge of the current greats is scattered. I’ve found writers as I’ve gone along, sometimes not getting to the foundational authors until years after everyone else. For example, I’ve only recently started reading Walter Wangerin and Frederic Buechner. Thus, this list is not exhaustive, and I will keep expanding it as I read more.
I’m also borrowing an idea from Jeffrey Overstreet’s Favorite Films list and color-coding some of these entries’ titles to indicate what kind of book it is. Red equals a more literary kind of book, something more introspective and clever. Black indicates it’s more of a popular text, like a very well-written crime thriller. I’m not convinced there’s anything wrong with “popular novels,” but I’m using the distinction for readers who specifically look for certain kinds of novels.
All right. As the Pythons (sort of) said, enough of this banter. Here are the books:
These Nameless Things by Shawn Smucker (more on the literary side)
This book was published by Revell, a division of Baker Books that releases a lot of thrillers and it starts out reading very much like a thriller. However, it becomes clear fairly soon that he story isn’t taking place in our world but in some other place, and the plot is not unlike a fairytale only written for adults. It follows a man who’s escaped a dark prison cavern and is waiting for his brother. A visitor tells him that his brother is the last person left in the cavern, and he realizes he must do what he never wanted to do: return to that dark place.
A few chapters in, it becomes clear that that Smucker wrote this an homage/companion to a particularly famous Christian book, playing with its plotline to suggest interesting questions about guilt, shame and whether redemption is possible. There’s also a bit of the idea C.S. Lewis explored in The Great Divorce, that our refusal to let go of regrets or guilt or other irrelevant vices is what makes it so hard to find redemption.
Let the Ghosts Speak by Bryan Davis (more on the popular fiction side)
A fascinating ghost story which doesn’t correct literally to a classic Christian view of life after death, but uses the format to ask interesting questions about heaven, hell, judgment and redemption. Unlike many Christian Fiction authors, Davis is willing to follow the suspense and let the tragedy blossom. Where other authors take a dark story and then invent convenient ways for the heroes to escape danger and ride off into the sunset, Davis lets the characters deal with the difficult consequence of their actions and others’ choices. The result is a story that captures readers’ attention and maintains that hold on them all the way through.
The Blaze Trilogy by Hope Bolinger (more on the popular fiction side)
This trilogy (Blaze, Den and Vision) retells the book of Daniel as the story of four high school students whose Christian school is sabotaged and have to transfer into a strangely paranoid private school which may have something sinister in the background. The idea of retelling a Bible story for young adult audiences certainly isn’t new, and you can imagine how the concept would become a teen drama without any edge to it.
However, Bolinger ratchets up the suspense and makes the concept work where others have failed. She refuses to make high school seem cute, focusing instead on that struggle to fit in, the feuds and the need to walk on eggshells the whole time. Add to this the fact high school bombings and predatory teachers perpetually show up in our news cycle (a point Bolinger seems to reference several times), and high school really can be a jungle. Like the “innocents on the run” in a Hitchcock thriller, her characters are innocents thrown into a bizarre scenario that may be life or death… and unlike many thrillers, there is the very real possibility of death. And like a Hitchcock thriller, there are surprising moments of quirky or black comedy even in the midst of all this suspense.
Collision of Lies by Tom Threadgill (more on the popular fiction side)
This is the first of two books so far about a police detective who works in San Antonio, New Mexico, and a good example of the “edgy but clean, only subtly religious” crime thriller that is becoming popular in Christian Fiction. The plot follows a police detective in Texas who digs into what looks like an open-and-shut case about kids who died on a bus accident, but the truth turns out to be much stranger. Threadgill does two things very well in this book: first, he creates a story with a good sense of morality and reconciliation without making any religious references that feel stuffed in. This may not sound like much, but if you’ve read many Christian Fiction thrillers, you know that’s rare. Threadgill also takes the kind of plot that can seem improbable, but finds ways to ground it so it seems plausible. In that respect, it reminded me of Robert Ludlum’s novel The Bourne Identity, although hopefully Threadgill maintains a better track record than Ludlum.
The sequel Network of Deceit is also good, although it takes the series into a different subgenre of thriller.
A Dream Within a Dream by Mike Nappa and Melissa Kosci (more on the popular fiction side)
Another excellent thriller, although more of an espionage story than a crime story. Trudi Coffey finds out her ex-husband, a former CIA operative, has gone missing and decides to track him down. As the title suggests, there are a variety of references to Edgar Allan Poe’s work, and in that respect the story is bit like Dan Brown’s novels, a thriller with various literature and art references woven into the plot. The difference is Brown doesn’t always develop his characters, so the gimmick becomes the only selling point. Nappa and Kosci really make their characters distinct, giving their backstories in a way that is efficient but memorable. Even though this the third book in a series, you quickly learn to love and understand these characters without knowing their prior adventures.
The Key to Everything by Valerie Fraser Luesse (more on the popular fiction side)
Christian Romance is really where the genre of Christian Fiction started, back in the 1970s with Love Comes Softly by Janette Oke. There’s a lot that could be said about the genre’s limits, one of the key ones is that it usually focuses on a pre-1960s America (the 1950s suburbs, the antebellum South, etc.) handled in a very idealized way. Add to this the fact that many evangelical readers believe the thesis that America was an essentially Christian society before the 1960s, and these books tend to become a kind of “nostalgia porn.” Luesse manages to avoid these problems by refusing to give us only one side of 1950s culture (there are distinct elements of Southern Gothic in the plot, echoes of repression and greed), and describing her story’s setting in detailed terms. This means that while the plot (a teenage boy takes a bicycle trip to see where his parents met) feels very old-fashioned, it never feels simplistic or self-indulgent. It’s a story about a bygone world, but a world that genuinely existed in some form. The fact that her characters grapple with dark family secrets and questions about legacy make it a complex portrait of Southern culture in the 1950s.