10 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode #92: Christian Fiction

  1. Commenting without show notes? Challenge accepted… ūüėČ
    First, great show, as usual!
    Second, begin rant:¬†At one point in the show, Michial asked something to the effect of “is there a fundamental difference between Christian fiction and secular genre fiction?” Leaving aside more “literary” authors like Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor, or Dostoevsky (who I was surprised you guys didn’t get into, though he had his own episode so maybe enough was said), in terms of the difference between the “Christian fiction” and “General Fiction” sections at bookstores, the answer is yes. There is a fundamental difference between the two, and it is one of quality. By and large Christian fiction sucks.¬†
    When I worked at Borders (right before it folded), you could go to the General Fiction section and pull a random book off the shelf with a decent chance of it being a fine read. Not necessarily spectacular or high literature or anything like that, but at least fine. In fact, that probably characterizes the bulk of that section- there were a few that were great, a few that were ranked as “high literature”, and a few that were awful, but the majority were serviceable stories by mostly competent authors.¬†
    The Christian section, on the other hand, contained a few books which were fine, maybe a dozen or so that were actually good- assuming that the multiple copies of “Pilgrim’s Progress” hadn’t migrated down to the General Fiction section, and a massive quantity of flaming horse dung. (And I grew up on a ranch, so I know that when I see it.)¬†
    I’m not entirely sure why this is the case. I suppose one reason is that there are just fewer Christians, and consequently fewer Christian writers putting out books. But I suspect the bigger culprit is a combination of the publishing industry and the Christian desire to read only “Christian” books, even at the cost of quality. There is doorway manned by publishers that guards the General Fiction section which on some level keeps the worst of the worst out (obviously sometimes this safeguard fails- bad books slip through if the publisher thinks they will make money, and good books are blocked- Frank Herbert famously had to go to Chilton to get “Dune” into print).
    In the Christian Fiction section, this doorway is not so much a question of quality as it is a question of simply lacking content offensive to Christians and containing the type of things that Christians can read without worrying about being “soiled” by the world. As far as I can tell, if a book contains no profanity or sex, has a good moral at the end, and has a picture of a woman in an apron on the cover (an apron and a bonnet, if it’s Amish fiction), it goes on the shelf. Questions of whether or not the book is well-written seem almost not to be asked (though that may be a result of, as you guys pointed out, many publishers being owned by corporations, who simply assume that the mixture of morals and aprons is all Christians need to consider a book well-written). Based on what actually makes it to the shelves, I shudder to think what kind of plop actually gets rejected.
    And, well, that may be harsher than is possibly appropriate for someone without tenure to post in a public forum, but as a Christian who genuinely loves to read I do think this is an important issue. We do ourselves and the world a disservice when we encourage such bad writing. In addition to encouraging poor writers to crank out yet more tripe, it both stifles our ability to appreciate the common grace gift given to genuinely talented writers and suggests to the world that the Christian lacks the ability to spot and appreciate true beauty. (The same applies to music and film, but that’s a slightly different rant.)
    Of course, with the rise of electronic self-publishing as a cheap (or free) option, for better or worse -probably worse- this whole rant may be moot in the very near future. 
    End rant. And.. sorry for the length of it.

    1. Coyle But would you say that someone like Dan Brown or Danielle Steele or Stephenie Meyer is appreciably worse than their Christian counterparts?

    2. Coyle But would you say that someone like Dan Brown or Danielle Steele orStephenie Meyer is appreciably better than their Christian counterparts?

      1. MichialFarmer Coyle 
        Well, I have read neither Danielle Steele nor Stephenie Meyer (so I’m relying on my wife for the latter), but I would say yes. Dan Brown has a talent for writing a story that sucks you and makes you want to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next (so, I’m told, does Stephenie Meyer). While the substance may not be all that compelling in a Dan Brown book -or not compelling at all- I suspect we’d be hard pressed to find an author in the “Christian fiction” section who is as good at spinning a story.

        1. Coyle MichialFarmer  
          I haven’t read those authors either.¬† But I am a fan of the Destroyer series (in case anyone hasn’t heard of it, it’s typically classified as “men’s adventure” along the same lines as the Mack Bolan “Executioner” books).¬† Dreadful, dreadful books churned out by an assembly line of ghostwriters.¬† The literary equivalent of¬† eating a twinkee.¬† I enjoy them for what they are (sometimes you’re just in a mood to read a lighthearted story about a human weapon dealing much-deserved death to the criminal world) without expecting them to be more. I could also use my brief flirtation with the Rogue Warrior series, until they became too formulaic even for me.¬† Combine that with my collection of Star Trek novels of widely-varying quality, and I am quite familiar with non-Christian genre books that are horribly written, but still enjoyable (twinkees for my brain).
          On a similar note, sometimes I WANT a book that requires little effort from my tired brain and also unquestioningly supports my worldview.¬† Since I read a lot of science fiction, I want the occasional break from secular liberals using the genre as a soapbox for denouncing my people and everything we stand for.¬† I don’t read much Christian fiction any more, but that’s mostly about time and money (I have little of either).¬† I’ll focus my comments (good and bad) on Stephen Lawhead.¬† Lawhead’s early books are painful; mostly bland uninspiring Christian science fiction and fantasy like The Search for Fierra and The Siege of Dome and the Dragon King trilogy.¬† Then he discovered Celtic Christianity, moved to England, and his writing started getting good.¬† His Pendragon Cycle remains one of my favorite book series.¬†¬†
          However, he seems to be in decline after that.¬† Byzantium was great up until the end.¬† The main character is going through a crisis of faith through almost the entire book.¬† Then he gets to the end of the story and just realizes he was wrong and returns to God in the span of about one or two pages. The end.¬† His Pendragon follow-up set in modern times was lame.¬† And I only read the first in his Robin Hood series before deciding that he was just blatantly recycling Pendragon themes.¬† So I’m off Lawhead now.¬† Anybody read his Bright Empires stuff?¬† Is it any good, or more of the same?

        2. Coyle¬†MichialFarmer¬†From what Mary told me about Angels and Demons, his cliffhanger-in-every-chapter riff isn’t too far off from what the first Left Behind novel does.
          As I said to Russ, right now, with young kids, my “down time” tends not to come from books. ¬†When I get time to read, I have to make it count, usually either something related to my teaching or research, or something that I’m reviewing for this website. ¬†So it’s not that I’m particularly virtuous; it’s just that when other folks are reading Dan Brown and Richard Marcinko (whose books I read like mad back when I was single), I’m usually watching Bakugan cartoons or Yo! Gabba Gabba or something of that ilk.

  2. Hi, Guys – When I heard that you were going to do a podcast episode on Christian literature, I was excited because I assumed you’d have something to say about “The Shack”, by William P. Young. I’m usually not one to read Christian fiction, but someone recommended it very excitedly. While the theology wasn’t really very close to mine, I found that I loved the book and that it has stayed with me for the year or so since I read it. Has any of you read it? Whadaythink?
    Russ Jennings

    1. Russ Jennings Thanks for listening, Russ, and thanks again to Tripp Fuller  and Bo Sanders  for pitching us on TNT!
      Russ, I’ve not read The Shack, not because of any theological objections but because I don’t read a whole lot of “light” books right now. ¬†With a seven-year-old and a three-year-old in the house, most of what I do for “down time” is either with the kids or something that I can do with limited attention while I hold the three-year-old in my lap. ¬†(Sid Meier’s Civilization games have enjoyed a Renaissance for me in the last couple years.) ¬†When I do get a chance to read, I need to make it count. ūüôā
      That said, if the theology isn’t the high point for you, what about Young compels your memory?

      1. ngilmour,¬†I totally get the thing about down time being devoted to kids. I’m way past thos years (my youngest is 35), but I do remember those days fondly. Of course, that includes falling asleep mid-sentence while reading White Fang aloud for them.¬† ¬† ¬†Now, I have to tell you I read “The Shack” two or three years ago, so it’s a little foggy. I was suspicious of “The Shack” because it seemed that the theology in it – at least in the beginning – was very “Jesus is my boyfriend,” as Peter Rollins says. It seemed that the Gospel was supposed to help people feel better. But as the story unfolds (and gets fairly wierd) it begins to challenge that and actually demand a great deal from the protagonist. He is called upon to change in a fundamental way. This is why I really liked it. To me the Gospel should always demand that we go from “here” to “there” and become a new person – not just beter, but different – and it may not feel good at all. I think Young delivers. His writing is pretty good and some of the imagery is pretty astounding.I hope you get to read it sometime soon. I’m dying to hear what you have to say.– Russ

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