Monday, June 06, 2011

Please Don't Trip Over The Elephant In The Room.

I had the opportunity to attend a book club meeting a couple of weeks ago. It was a lovely evening, very entertaining and the ladies all asked wonderful questions about Yesterday's Tomorrow. Then came the unexpected question.
"Where was the sex scene?"
Uh, what?
No, this was not a church book club. They picked my book on the recommendation of a friend, who did tell them that the book was written from a Christian worldview. They read it anyway. But, as I soon came to realize, they had absolutely no clue what "Christian" fiction was, so they didn't know what to expect.
And I suppose, given the fact that we are a tiny island in the Atlantic, given the fact that we are for the most part, years behind in what Christians are reading and listening to, understandable. But these women were not, to the best of my knowledge, church going Christians. So here's me left to explain to them something I have yet to comprehend.
Something I have yet to define in a way that makes sense for me.
Something I am still, after years of being submerged in the industry, struggling with.

What exactly IS Christian Fiction and WHO is it written for?

Well, Christians obviously. But can a Christian novel be read, enjoyed and understood by somebody who does not have a personal relationship with God?
My opinion? No.

Apparently it's the elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about.

People may argue with me, may disagree wholeheartedly in fact, and that's fine, but I am of the belief that you cannot understand the ways of God if you do not know Him. You're not supposed to. So why should we Christian novelists expect our books to be tools used to convert the masses? Should we?
Asking that question is a surefire way to clear out a room fast.

I addressed the matter on a writing loop just this morning. I have yet to receive an answer. Perhaps nobody has an answer to give. Or perhaps they all think I'm so irreverent and misinformed that I don't deserve one. The original question had to do with whether we (authors writing under the umbrella of the CBA-Christian Bookseller's Association) could write books that could 'crossover' into the secular market or appeal to those disillusioned Christians, giving them new hope in the faith. I chose to address the first part of the question. I share my answer here in the hopes that we can engage in a discussion on this topic, because I would truly like to hear your opinions.

I'll admit to being in a place right now where I'm struggling with the whole concept of "Christian fiction". What exactly is it? Who is it for? Why am I writing it, if that's what I choose to continue to write. These are tough questions for me. I don't have any answers, except for the obvious, 'writing to glorify God' one.
Being newly published, I've been curious to see what kind of response I would get from readers. Although there is a faith element running through the pages, I wanted it to be a story that people of faith, any faith or none at all, could read and enjoy. I didn't set out with the idea that my book must change hearts or lives or bring people to Christ. Rather, I wrote the story as I felt it needed to be told, and I trust God for the rest.
I suppose I did hope, still do, that my book would end up being one of those 'crossovers'.

I know a lot of people who don't claim to hold any religious beliefs whatsoever have read my book. Most of them I know personally, so perhaps that is the reason. Admittedly, nowhere on the book jacket does it specifically say "Christian fiction." Will I end up with some disgruntled readers saying they were deceived into reading a "Christian" book? Probably.
I met with a book club the other night, (secular) - so that was pretty interesting. They chose to read my book on the recommendation of a friend, who did tell them it was published in the Christian market. They were actually surprised to learn about Christian fiction as a genre, which came up after one of the readers expressed her disappointment that my book did not go into explicit detail in certain I said, it was interesting conversation. If she now knows she's not going to get that kind of writing from me, will she pick up another of my books? I don't know. I certainly didn't feel that any of them had been convicted to seek God or go to church after reading my book. Does this mean I failed as a "Christian" author? Let's take a review I received on Goodreads the other day -

"I know this story must have been written for a Christian audience because of the references to faith; yet, the behavior exhibited didn't seem to coincide with Christian values. I'm not saying that every character in a Christian book needs to be perfect, but it rings hollow when their words aren't accompanied by actions."

How can we reach the person who already has their mind made up about what Christianity is and what it is not?

My characters are far from perfect but the concept of the story is that they are saved by grace. They find forgiveness and healing through faith (in God). There are no miraculous 'all is well' scenes, but I think you get that by the end of the story, the characters are on a better path in large part due to their spiritual growth. She obviously didn't get that. My fault? I don't know. Is this kind of message only obvious to people who know and have experienced the grace of God and healing through Christ?

On the flip side you may have Christians who will not like my book because of certain scenes, words, subject matter. You can't please everybody. I suppose the question must be then, who do you want to please?

I'm more inclined to believe that right now, Christian fiction is for the most part, written for other Christians and read by Christians. Nothing wrong with that. Maybe that's the way it should be. I'm not sure we can set out with the rather lofty goal of saving the masses through books that they probably don't want to read anyway.

As I try to process all this, I am reminded that whether I am writing for CBA or for the general market, ultimately, my books and what they contain, whether an overt Christian message or not, are accountable to an audience of One. And I need to find some peace in that or it's going to be a long and bumpy road.

So what do you think?


Tracy Krauss said...

This topic keeps cropping up everywhere, doesn't it? I suppose it is something that many of us (Christian authors) are trying to figure out. I posted on this very topic last week, and plan to do a follow up on Wednesday. I think we need to just write what we write and let God take care of the rest. Some Christians will not like our work because it doesn't fit their model, while others will feel it is too 'weak' or too 'strong' a message. Then there are the non Christians who read and feel 'duped' because they weren't expecting a spiritual message, while others may actually find hope in the message. (Never underestimate a seed that is planted!) And then there are those Christians who might never find our work because its not listed in the 'Christian' section or vice versa. What a dichotomy!

Jessica R. Patch said...

Ah, a very good question. I think inspirational fiction can be used as seeds and water to someone who does not know God. He uses many things to draw unsaved people to Him, and I believe that our books can be used as one of those ways.

Will they understand everything? No. I'm a mature Christian and I still learn every day about the things of God, but I do know that if He can use a donkey to convey a message, he can surely use a book that shows the lives of desperate fictional people who need Him, to reach out to living desperate people who need Him.

I do think that CBA is mostly written for Christians, but you never know when it's going to get into that one hand. It may just be one line in the book that the Holy Spirit uses to tug at their heart, but it's enough, if it draws them closer or is even the last thing in a series of steps God has taken to woo them to Him!

Loved your thought provoking post today, Cathy! Good stuff!

Mike Duran said...

Hi Cath!

These are such HUGE questions, but really worth wrestling over. Humans exist all across the "spiritual spectrum." Some are moving away from God, some toward God. Some are open to the Gospel, but not quite there. Others are full-blown disciples. But even established Christians have different preferences and opinions. So getting everyone to agree about what Christian fiction is or should be is pretty hard.

I tend to think that Christian fiction should exist all along the spectrum, just like people do: some aimed at building bridges to seekers, some aimed at edifying disciples.

Great questions! When you find the answer, please let me know. ;)

Walt Mussell said...

This is a good question. However, I think in the end it may depend on the book. Some books are written with a light faith touch and some with a strong faith touch.

Katie Ganshert said...

Definitely not an easy question and one I struggle with too.

Right now, I'm expecting my audience to be Christian women. Sometimes I struggle with that. Does God want me to use the gift He's given me to encourage fellow believers, or does He want me to use it to expand His Kingdom? I have no idea. Something I'm continually praying over.

It's a great discussion topic!

Catherine West said...

I think as authors, we are all called to different arenas in our writing. We may not see the big picture clearly at first, hence the struggle. Others know exactly where they are supposed to be and will stay there for a long time. Me, I'm still trying to figure it out. I think this can only happen over time and through experience. I know for sure that even if I end up writing ABA I would still want God at the front and center of my books, just not sure what that would look like. For now, I'm just feeling very blessed to be published at all, and to see that my words are having an impact on readers. It's an awesome feeling!!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Great post! I love God with all of my heart and don't want to do anything that might offend Him--even in my writing. That's why I pray before I set out to write or edit. I am an instrument in His hands. I am a light as well, and I will let it shine through my actions and works.

Thank you for a chance to share my faith!

Btw, I'm holding an MC Blogfest in Jeannie's honor! Drop by and join us, please! <3

Can Alex save Winter from the darkness that hunts her?
YA Paranormal Romance, Darkspell coming fall of 2011!

EileenRife said...

Great to wrestle with this question!

This is my personal definition of Christian fiction:

"Christian fiction is a realistic portrayal of characters in conflict, which at some point exposes them to the truth of God's Word, shows His pursuit of them through the Lord Jesus Christ, and offers them an opportunity to enter into and develop a vibrant relationship with Him."

Granted, this can be accomplished in a vast variety of ways!

I believe when we stay close to God's heart, He will reveal the particular passion He wants us to develop in our story and the person He wants us to reach.

I write what I sense God prompting me to write at any given time. I write for the population I sense God calling me to confront, comfort, and encourage.

Right now, those people are ones who profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Sadly, we live in a era when the Church is weak and worldly, with very little demonstration of godly power and witness. With limited mix of both conviction and compassion. Truth and grace.

Most of the topics in my novels are high profile in our culture today. Through a variety of characters and their reactions, I hope to stimulate awareness and action within the Church.

My heart resonated with those in this discussion who mentioned that the Holy Spirit can use one line to move a reader's heart toward change. I believe that even a nonbeliever who picked up one of my books can be moved to change if the Holy Spirit is igniting a spark.

For some, a seed will be planted. For others, a significant attitude change will result. Others will be moved to compassion and action.

While entertaining my readers is a crucial element, creating a forum for change is even more vital.

Otherwise, why bother?

Thanks for introducing this topic, Cathy! Keep up the good and godly work!

Catherine West said...

Thanks, Eileen. Love your thoughts here. It is a constant learning curve and I think as you say, we really have to trust God to give us the words and put our work into the places He wants it to go.