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Wednesday, August 03, 2005

What must be Christian about a Christian Novel?

There are, I am sure, many others who have written on this topic. I am aware of a few of them. Over a year ago, Jared wrote "Drawing Lines in the Matter of Christian Content," which is as good as anything I have read on the subject. He wrote:
So Dostoyevsky, not really a "Christian author," would be too Christian for the mainstream. [C. S.] Lewis, most certainly a Christian author, would be too edgy for the Christian publishers.

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.
Jared mentions, as examples of edginess in the writing of C. S. Lewis, some of Uncle Andrew's language in The Magician's Nephew, Mr. Beaver's beer-drinking and pipe-smoking in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and some sexual references in That Hideous Strength. (He could have mentioned that Lewis, himself, smoked a pipe, drank alcoholic beverages, and married a divorced woman.) The entire post, which isn't very long, is required reading on this topic.

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:
But the Glorious One bent down his golden head and touched my forehead with his tongue and said, Son, thou art welcome. But I said, Alas, Lord, I am no son of Thine but the servant of Tash. He answered, Child, all the service thou has done to Tash, I account as service done to me. Then . . . I overcame my fear and questioned the Glorious One and said, Lord, is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one? The Lion growled so that the earth shook . . . and said, it is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done for him, for he and I are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him.
. . .The Last Battle, New York: Macmillan, 1956, pp. 156-157.
4) Expressing a relationship with the God of Christianity as Lord would certainly be a Christian element. I can't think of any examples in fantastic fiction. There are plenty in faith fiction.

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.

* * * * *

**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.

* * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *
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.

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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. 

* * * * *
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.


Anonymous said...


Excellent thoughts on the dilemma of Christian authors. I'm beginning to put together the plans for a fantasy series that I hope to get published years down the road, and the debate you described (being "too Christian for secular publishers or "too edgy" for Christian publishers).

Anonymous said...

Sorry, I got distracted and didn't finish my thought there. Anyway, the debate you descibed is something I'm dealing with right now.

Martin LaBar said...

I added a paragraph, and an attached block quote, about 12 hours after the original post. The addition is marked with an asterisk above.

Anonymous said...

Intriguing points. I'm still digesting several ongoing discussions on this matter. I could sit and overanalzye this to death. For me, at least, it leads me back to the question: For whom do I write?
I'm glad Mir pointed me toward you blog in her post on Speculative Faith today. I'll be reading more of what you have to say.

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks. You raise a good question, namely "For whom do I write?"

For what it's worth, in re-reading this post of about a year ago, I discovered that I put in an "it" when I meant an "in." I'll try to correct that.

Anonymous said...

I ran across this blog when I was doing a search for "Rescuing Rahab" (something you commented on in another blog. By the way I totally agree that one of the main reasons [perhaps the only reason] spies were sent to Jerico was to in fact "rescue Rahab.") Those two words have been ringing in my ears for the last couple of days - which is what prompted the search.

However, in respect to this article, and what constitutes a "Christian Fiction" work - I agree with most everything you say except I think it is incomplete if we don't differentiate between what we consider "Christian Fiction" and a "Parable."

Probably none of Jesus' parables would have met the criteria you mention for "Christian Fiction" - yet it had moral significance, meaning and relevance to His culture. Although Jesus' parables were short - it is conceivable that a parable work could be long enough that we might call it "Christian Fiction." Perhaps Tokiens work falls into this category.

I would therefore tend to have a looser interpretation of what constitutes "Christian Fiction" and would call it "anything God inspired for a moral purpose." It will be harder to distinguish the "real" from the "fake" by checkbox method - but in the end, I believe it is a truer test of what Christian Fiction encompasses.

After all "Christian" simply means "Christ like" - and the only "Christ like" examples we have of fiction are the parables that Jesus Himself told - none of which neatly fit into a reproducable mold of what constitutes "Christian Fiction."

Jesus only spoke what His Father prompted Him to speak. Therefore every story He told was, in fact, inspired. This is why I believe every "God inspired" fiction qualifies as "Christian Fiction."

Thanks for your Blog! (Especially the entry on Rahab)


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, Deb. I think you are right about parables, or, at least, I hadn't thought that through thoroughly.

If anyone is interested, the post on Rahab is

Nighfala said...

I just found this. I know I'm about a year late. You are talking about a conflict very near and dear to my heart as I struggle to write my first novel, which I am pretty sure is unpublishable for the reasons you describe above. However, it is what is on my mind to write.

I am looking forward to the day when the Christian publishers "grow up" and catch up with the interests of Christian readers. However, if I want to get published, I assume I'll have to do some serious editing of my manuscript when it's finally done. I'll probably have two versions... the "real" one and the "publishable" one.

Martin LaBar said...

God help you. Authors with Christian world-views, which show through clearly, are frequently published by mainstream publishers in the only field which I claim some familiarity with, namely fantastic literature, provided, of course, that they are good enough.

I don't know of an overtly evangelical novel -- that is, one that explicitly tries to draw readers into a conversion experience -- published that way, however.

My guess is that not many readers have been converted by overt fiction, whoever published it.

Thanks for reading.

Anonymous said...

I don't think there can be a clear answer. In writing Searching for Mom, I did not try to force it into the Christian genre, but I did not shy away form my Christian belief either. In terms of content, I don't think most Christians would be imbarrised to be seen reading it, but I really don't think of it as a Christian novel. Sure, it is mentioned that some of the characters go to church and prayer is shown to be part of the main character's life, but the book does not make it clear how much God had a part in the outcome. It is much more real than that. As in real life, you pray and you also work, things turn out they way you would like and you are unable to prove that things would not have happened that way if God had not been involved.

The sequel will be much more Christian in nature, but the whole thing is told from the point of view of an associate pastor and one of the main characters is a teenager who wants to set the world on fire for Christ. Aside from making these two evil, it would be hard to make it anything but a Christian novel.

Martin LaBar said...

Thank you, Timothy Fish. It is especially pertinent to hear from a real author who is dealing with these issues in his writing. God help you.

I believe his comment was made on Aug 1, 2007.

Jill said...

Well, in that case, your argument about "Christian fiction" seems to say that it's all about the person interpreting the book they're reading, doesn't it?

For instance, what about Star Wars? The Jedi are a religious group that follow the intangible will of the force (Holy Spirit?), do their best to help others, eschew anger, have their "Chosen One" messiah (Anakin Skywalker and who was given a virgin birth. Does this make the Star Wars verse Christian?

Or in the Chronicles of Amber by Timothy Zahn, earth could represent a shadow world of heaven, chaos could be hell, and it could be just depicting a great battle between the heavenly hosts and the powers of the Evil One.

On the other hand, I can't imagine Tolkien ever believed his books would end up being 'approved Christian literature' while he was writing them; certainly there's a battle between good and evil, but that's a basic plot in many ancient mythologies and fairy tales. It makes for a good story, and books can be interpreted any way people wish. Gandalf *could* be a Christ character, but . . . well, that doesn't seem likely to me. An angel and messenger, maybe. But I wouldn't have venerated Gandalf to the the level of Christ-figure.

I think trying to separate Christian and non-Christian literature just gets too picky sometimes. A lot of the times it's very necessary to look at what the author personally believed and the other things he presented in his book as well in order to get a good picture of the story. Otherwise one could get so broad-minded it wouldn't be impossible to find Christian attributes in Garth Nix's the Abhorsen series (a young adult novel featuring necromancy among other things), for instance.

When I'm trying to decide if a fantasy book is suitable to read (I read a lot of them), I don't try to limit it by approved Christian fiction, but I do tend to stay away from things like necromancy, demon summoning/possession, tarot/fortune telling, or the main character doing despicable black magic that obviously harms someone else
and there is no consequence to their actions (otherwise, why call it black magic?). There are other things I try to avoid as well, but the above mentioned things are the major turn-offs for me. Anything else is usually fair game.

Oh, by the way, speaking of Christian fiction, if you haven't read any of Doug TenNapel's children's comics like Tommysaurus rex or Creature Tech, I think you would appreciate his good stories and the way he merges bits of Christian philosophy into his books (sometimes subtly and other times not so subtly.)

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for your extensive and intelligent comment. Sorry I haven't responded earlier, but we were without Internet service for almost 24 hours.

Yes, it is true that some of the suggestions I made are matters of interpretation, and always, at least partly, subjective. But so are a lot of other things, such as, often, our choices of what to read (or, for that matter, what to write).

One reason I posted this (besides wanting to clarify my own thinking) was to try to gently argue that there is good fiction, read by many mainstream readers, that is not designated Christian fiction, at least in the fantasy area.

Thanks again for your comment, including the reading suggestions.