Defining Christian Fiction
What Makes a Story Christian?
It is generally difficult to pin down and define literary genres.This is especially true of "Christian" fiction. What makes a work "Christian" and not merely a good story? Below is my attempt to answer this question.
Is it Christian, or Just a Good Story?
Christian fiction has, at its core, the desire to share the gospel. There are as many different ways of achieving this end as there are Christian fiction authors. Christian fiction is hardly a new genre, especially if allegory is included. Jesus began the tradition with his parables, and through the centuries, many writers have followed his example, including Edmund Spenser, author of The Faerie Queene, John Bunyan with his The Pilgrims’ Progress, and C.S. Lewis, who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia. Christian poetry in English dates to at least to the 10th century, with a copy of The Dream of the Rood preserved in the Vercelli Book.
Today, membership in the Christian church is by no means compulsory, and people are free to write, and read, whatever they like. Christian fiction is now its own genre. Just as Christian music is defined by more than the personal beliefs of the performer(s), Christian fiction is not merely fiction written by an author who holds Christian beliefs. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien stand as examples of this, though some might disagree. The Chronicles of Narnia, The Screwtape Letters, Out of the Silent Planet and its two sequels are examples of Christian fiction because they present the gospel and the challenges of living a Christian life, albeit not always overtly. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, on the other hand, is not necessarily Christian fiction, though the author was a follower of Christ. Many of the characters in The Lord of the Ring exhibit compassion, courage, self-sacrifice and a refusal to give in to the forces of evil, but the stories still probably fall under the heading of secular fiction.
Stephen Lawhead, Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker are all examples of successful Christian fiction authors. The three men mentioned above are excellent writers, and their success can be defined in terms of monetary gain and literary recognition, as well as lives touched by the threads of salvation and redemption woven throughout their stories. Though some might debate Frank Peretti’s inclusion in a list of “great” Christian fiction writers, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness novels pioneered the thriller/suspense sub-genre of Christian literature, paving the way for more Christian authors to break with the biblical fiction and historical romance traditions. Steven Lawhead writes Christian historical fiction and fantasy, often seamlessly blending historical fact and myth to create stories that are riveting while quietly pointing to faith in God. With his Pendragon Cycle and Song of Albion series, Lawhead offered us a different view of ancient Celtic traditions and Arthurian legend, skillfully bringing the truth of the gospel into the mix.
Lest my readers think my definition of Christian fiction relies on overt Christian themes, I present Tim Butcher’s Dresden Files for consideration. One might wonder if the series qualifies as Christian fiction, given that matters of faith often come up in the series, and the author incorporates angelic and demonic forces into his stories. A recurring character is even a Knight of the Cross, sworn to combat a specific group of Fallen Angels. Though Butcher casts his Christian characters in a very good light, his stories are secular detective fantasy, lacking an underlying spiritual agenda, as far as I can tell.
Admittedly, it is possible that my definition of what is Christian fiction has been defined by the novel, where an author has more space to subtly insert his or her philosophy. Perhaps Christian short stories are not required to contain a path to redemption, but only to make us think. If that’s the case, what sets a Christian short story apart from a Transcendentalist one, which might also make us think about similar themes? It certainly would be silly to limit classification as Christian fiction only to those stories that include a conversion story, though that often is a feature of the genre. What makes Christian fiction recognizable, beside the stamp of Tyndale House, Harvest House, Bethany House, or another Christian publisher on the spine – is its foundation upon the author’s desire to share Christ. Nearly everything a Christian writes is likely to be influenced by his or her faith, but not every work will be specifically Christian.
I can find God in most literature, regardless of the author’s personal beliefs. However, just because I could turn Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” into a Christian allegory at the age of six, it does not mean every story containing philosophical themes common to Christianity is a Christian work. Author intent is still a factor. Christian fiction is predicated on the need to present Christ, in some form. The methods for doing this vary widely, but the intent remains more or less the same.
Having Written a good long essay on the subject of defining Christian fiction, I would now like to point out that the question is mostly irrelevant. It is people, not objects, who attempt to follow Christ, thus earning the label "Christian." For me, this is an academic exercise. If you are trying to define the genre of Christian fiction so you can limit your reading to only such books as fit inside it, I recommend you stop that right now. What makes a story, piece of music or film acceptable reading, listening, or viewing is between you and your own conscience. I have found no better guide to this than the words of Paul, in Philippians 4:8 of the King James Bible: "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things [are] honest, whatsoever things [are] just, whatsoever things [are] pure, whatsoever things [are] lovely, whatsoever things [are] of good report; if [there be] any virtue, and if [there be] any praise, think on these things."
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