This is precisely the predicament many aspiring Christian writers find themsevles [sic] in these days. They often find their works caught in some literary limbo. Mainstream publishers don't want them because they are too obviously Christian, and Christian publishers don't want them because they deal honestly and authentically with the stuff of the world.
In an earlier post, I have listed three aspects of a novel that aren't necessary, in my opinion, to make it Christian. I also list four criteria that Angela Hunt suggests are necessary for faith fiction, which is a sub-category of Christian fiction, but, unfortunately, one that is often assumed to be all of Christian fiction. It isn't. Dee, herself an author of Christian fiction, was kind enough to comment on my post. She has a blog, which will, like Hunt's and Jared's, give you more opinions on the subject of my title.
I am not an expert in the writing, or even the reviewing, of Christian fiction. Let me get back to my own musing. Hunt, who is an expert, in that she is a much-published author of Christian fiction, in a different post, says: "As a book without plot and characters can hardly be called a novel, a novel without plot, characters, and some element of Christianity can hardly be called a Christian novel, right?" As I said in my previous post on this subject, I agree. Let me muse about some elements of Christianity that might be found in novels, especially novels in fantastic fiction. To me, to be a Christian element, it should be reasonably clear that the element was put it deliberately--the reader isn't finding something that the author didn't intend that way.
1) A Christ-figure. Aslan, from C. S. Lewis's Narnia books, is an obvious example. The Lion is a character who willingly offers his life for the guilt of another, in an effective sacrifice, and returns to life. It seems to me that a character can be a Christ-figure without doing all that. Gandalf, in Tolkien's trilogy, died to protect the rest of the Fellowship, and was resurrected. I would list him as a Christ-figure, even though he didn't die for the guilt of another. Willingly offering her life to protect others, by a good character, would often be enough to make one a Christ-figure for me, at least in fiction.
Unselfish giving, of resources, or of the self, for example in giving care to others, could make a character a Christ-figure.
2) Belief in important orthodox Christian doctrine, on the part of a narrator or character, would be a Christian element. Although they have a distorted view of it, the Underpeople in Cordwainer Smith's books believe in a Trinity, so that (and other things) would lead me to consider his works as Christian novels.
3) Practicing monotheistic prayer to a divine being. The attempts to seek guidance, usually accompanied by animal sacrifices, in Gene Wolfe's Long Sun books are Christian elements, in my opinion. Zenna Henderson's books on the People have this element, without the sacrifices.
Tolkien's work is missing some interesting things. There is little or no worship of a creator, or prayer or religious ceremony of any kind, in the trilogy or The Hobbit. Many writers of fantastic literature have included worship, of some being or beings, in their books, which is not surprising, since worship is an important part of human life.
Jack Vance frequently has some type of religious practice in his novels. All such practice in them is farcical, or obviously evil, or both. I appreciate his fiction, but find no Christian elements in it.
Just having worship or prayer doesn't make something Christian. The sacrifice of a rational creature as part of such a prayer would make such a prayer a non-Christian element. Juliet Marillier has stated that she has tried to create a Pictish, and non-Christian religion in at least some of her work. Ursula K. Le Guin has similarly stated that some of her works are Taoist. I find Le Guin, especially, well worth reading, and I'm certainly not alone in that, but her work, to my mind, nor, I think, to hers, can be called Christian.
*(This paragraph was added, on the same day, several hours after the original post. The rest of the post remains as it was) Le Guin hasn't restricted herself to Taoism. Much of her The Tombs of Atuan depends on what, for want of a better name, I shall call a pagan religion--worship of powerful, but localized spirits. These spirits are represented as real, even to persons, like Ged, who don't worship them. The religion is one of ritual and fear. There is no love or goodness, just power and jealousy. The same book has another religion, worship of the god-brothers, which isn't as well described. C. S. Lewis, often considered one of the most important Christian writers of the previous century, constructed a pagan religion with a description, like that of Le Guin's, that seems authentic in Till We Have Faces. I suppose that he was, in part, illustrating his belief that other religions (the setting is pre-Christian, in or near what is now Greece) may point their sincere adherents toward Christianity. As he said, "If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through." Mere Christianity: What One Must Believe to Be a Christian. New York: Macmillan, 1952. p. 30. Or, in fiction, it is illustrated by the experience of a Calormene on meeting Aslan:
. . .The Last Battle, New York: Macmillan, 1956, pp. 156-157.
5) A consciousness of supernatural guidance, or divine providence, benevolent in character, strikes me as a Christian element. This occurs in Tolkien, in, for example, the Council of Elrond, where Elrond remarks that those attending are not there by chance.
6) An explicit rejection of evil personified, or a decision to turn away from evil acts by a character, is a Christian element. Patricia McKillip's characters often decide not to take personal vengeance, for example. Bilbo's decision not to kill Gollum is a Christian element. Perhaps even the realization of one's own evil nature, and a desire to change, should be considered a Christian element. Attempting to live righteously would also be a Christian element.
It seems to me that a novel which meets Hunt's other three criteria, and includes one of the first four elements above in a non-trivial way, would necessarily be legitimate faith fiction, because it would "illustrate some aspect of Christian faith." A novel could have the fifth, or sixth, or both, and not really do so.
I don't know how comfortable most readers or publishers of faith fiction would be with fantastic faith fiction, or fantastic Christian fiction. As Jared said, they might find it "too edgy." Maybe not. The only recent example of an attempt to write fantastic faith fiction that I can think of is Stephen R. Lawhead**.
There are, no doubt, other Christian elements, that could legitimately cause a novel to be labeled Christian. If you think of any, please comment.
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**Addition, August 28, 2006: I have discovered that there is a lot more of what I called "fantastic faith fiction" than I thought there was. There is at least one blog, Speculative Faith, devoted exclusively to the subject. (That blog mentions three other blogs on the subject in a sidebar. I'm familiar with one of them, Claw of the Conciliator, which frequently, but not always, writes about "Christian Speculative Fiction.") One post from Speculative Faith defines such literature. The blog has a sidebar list of 25 authors, including Lawhead.
Addition, April 5, 2007: A newer, related post is "Christian aspects of fantastic literature." I have also mused about "Christian themes in Patricia A. McKillip's Riddle-Master Trilogy."
Edited slightly, March 13, 2007.
Thanks for reading.
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June 14, 2007:
Here's my post on the question of whether Elizabeth Moon's trilogy, The Deed of Paksenarrion, consists of Christian novels.
August 19, 2007:
Here's my post on Moon's Surrender None, which includes a Christ-figure who dies to keep others from doing wrong.
September 14, 2007:
Here's my post on whether the Harry Potter books are Christian novels.
November 22, 2007: In a shameless attempt to pick up more Google search hits, I am adding these terms: novel, book, aspects, characteristics, attributes, properties, Christian, literature, religion, fantasy, science fiction, story, atonement.
October 2, 2008:
Here's my post on the question of whether Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion is a Christian novel.
October 31, 2008:
Here's my post on Sherri S. Tepper's Grass. The book, and the post, include religious aspects as a major feature.
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On April 2, 2009, E Stephen Burnett wrote an essay, asking questions about how far a Christian author could go in writing fiction which has a God who is significantly different from the Christian God, and whether a Christian could legitimately create a fictional character who is in defiance of God. I posted tentative answers to these questions, which are related to the subject of the post above, on April 13, 2009.
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On August 7th, 2009, I considered the question of whether the Sharing Knife novels, by Lois McMaster Bujold, are Christian, using the items above in my analysis. I concluded that they are not. However, as I indicated in that post, Bujold does have a character who is a Christian in one of her other books, in the Miles Vorkosigan series. In this post, I note that I personally found illustrations of matters central to Christianity in the Sharing Knife books, whether or not Bujold meant for them to be found there.
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On August 18th, 2009, I considered the question of whether The Spirit Ring, also by Bujold, is a Christian novel, and concluded that it was. Bujold is an important writer, the only one who has won Hugo, Nebula, and Mythopoeic Awards for her fiction.
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Added February 8, 2011. I have condensed my thoughts on this topic, and changed my views a little, since this was originally posted. See here for the update.
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Added February 7th, 2012: Rachelle Gardner, a literary agent, apparently one who serves authors of Faith Fiction, argues that "Christian Fiction" should be so labeled, as part of honesty in marketing. Mike Duran, who uses Gardner as his agent, begs to differ. There are many comments on both posts.