Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sunday Musings: Why The Gospel Must Be Secondary In Genre Fiction

*I was just going to use this image for my own post... then I discovered that it was attached to this very good blog post that also addresses the same issue from a professional standpoint; credit goes to him!
Controversial title, I know... But I never realized the issue of it till just recently I read a novel where the "preaching" was so overt it took me right out of the story, and I resented it very much!

"But Leslie, the Gospel is good in whatever form it takes!"
Yes, but there is also this tiny matter of good writing that will play into whether or not your "Gospel message" is actually having the desired effect.

"There is never a wrong time or place to share the Gospel."
In real life, yes, that is true; one doesn't need to loiter around for the cliched "moment of truth" to happen upon them...
But this is fiction, dear writer. It's a completely different universe, and it follows different rules... The First Rule being: nothing is actually real. You can use "realistic" props from the era, names, dates, events... But when all is said and done, you still went and made it all up. Even the fact that your "unsaved" character actually accepted the words being thrown at him. In that sense, yes I can think of a dozen situations that would be completely hypothetical in real life, but fit perfectly into the "real time" of the novel—and each of them would be the absolute worst time for one character to turn to another and say, "Hey Fred, I know the natives are about to sacrifice us to this live volcano, but can I make these five seconds stretch into an hour and talk to you about your soul?"

Please don't. And here are a few reasons why.

1. In genre fiction, the main focus should support the genre, not the Gospel. 

Now, hold on—before somebody brands me as a heretic and starts questioning the validity of my faith, let me say this:
I believe one does not have to directly reference God in their work in order to "correctly" reverence and glorify Him in it. Using my God-given skill to craft a good, solid story with an uplifting message for a secular audience will still bring Him glory, more so than a poorly-written novel with porcelain characters and a sermon in every chapter!

That is not to say that a full-faced Gospel has nothing to do with literature. The "crisis/journey of faith" novel is the Christian version of the "coming of age" novel. This type of novel focuses on the life and choices of one particular character in a real-world setting, intended to expound, expose, demonstrate and delineate the choices a real person might face, and the consequences of whichever choice, for good or ill. In this instance, the "altar call" is definitely warranted, because it supports the goal of the plot and it fits into the principal conflict (man vs. self or man vs. God).
This is why I specified "genre fiction": mystery, fantasy, sci-fi, steampunk, adventure, thriller—anything that can be categorized beyond just "fiction" is "genre fiction", and does not have the same goal and focus as a "journey/crisis of faith" novel. Therefore it does not need the same kind of emphasis on sermonizing... pretty much at all... (With the exception of the supernatural genre, for obvious reasons, but I am talking in the most generic cases) *Note: at this point I realize that maybe by "genre fiction" I actually mean "speculative fiction"... but I am just unfamiliar with that distinction so, sorry!

2. In genre fiction, the characters are entirely fabricated, so the "converts" don't actually exist—so what's the point?

This is what I would ask a writer who feels perfectly justified in even fashioning a "tribute" to old classics, while systematically deconstructing the original character to make room for the "altar call" in an otherwise "genre" novel:


Did you set out to write a Gospel-focused book? Then why involve the adventure? Did you want to "redeem" the characters originally conceived by a nearly-godless writer from another century? If you're not going to use them as originally written, why use them at all? And—here is where the irony bites—will we actually see these characters in Heaven?

Then why do you feel the need to insert an "altar call" for characters who are little more than words on a page?

Call me heartless, jaded, and cruel; tell me I'm a heathen and I should not be so opposed to the Gospel—

But when all the copies of your book go up in smoke, and the files on your electronic devices get erased, your carefully-devised and painstakingly-enacted machinations "for the sake of the Gospel" will cease to exist... And in all that, nobody actually got converted, did they? All that effort, and outside that fictitious little world you so cunningly devised, nothing actually happened. The authors themselves are already dead, so they will not benefit from your attempt; so why "ruin" a perfectly good story with a worthless "altar call"?

These characters are just words on a page. Please stop trying to "save souls" where there aren't any, and just worry about trying to hone your craft within the genre you are using.

3. It's perfectly reasonable to include a "Gospel/redemption message" while maintaining the genre; a "shoe-horned revival" is both unnecessary and it disrupts the flow of the story

Take a series I recently read, for example: in the first book, the characters themselves were all predominantly Christian, except the primary narrator, Florizel, who was on the run, and later the assassin sent to kill them. Now, those conversions I had no problem with, because first of all, they made sense within the story (such as the fact that the assassin, unsaved, would have likely betrayed them all), and it was tastefully and naturally done, without a lot of leading questions on the part of the "evangelist" while the "convert-to-be" really ought to be doing something more important to the result of the plot than listen to a sermon! 
The second time around, it felt like (at least where the primary narrator, Oliver, was concerned) he would no sooner make an acquaintance than immediately impress upon them the duty to their soul (which fictional characters.... Do not have....) even to the point of engaging another character in a long and drawn-out conversation that was basically, "Oliver tells a sermon, then the lady responds with an equally long tale that is almost her entire backstory, laced with info-dumps that could have just as easily been parceled out if the author had so chosen."
You see, without letting the Gospel play into the genre you have chosen (rather than plopping a generic sermon right in the middle of your story with no regards to plot, merely for the sake of "getting them saved") the Gospel message is reduced into "just another info dump"–and the true power that the author would have the reader understand and be convicted by is hopelessly missed.

The Trouble With "Christian Fiction" As A Genre
Is this perhaps why "Christian" suddenly became its own genre, with its own market, wholly separate from the rest of literature in general? Because we Christians get so caught up in "preaching" in a way that pleases other Christians—meanwhile the poor unbelieving reader picks up the book, can't make head nor tails of it, and promptly moves on in search of a book that more closely resonates with them.

Maybe that could make a fourth point:

4. Our duty as Christian authors is to bring the Gospel to the "Gentiles", not pat the egos of the disciples.

I don't quite know exactly when "Christian" emerged as its own genre and market—but, for all my whinging over "come to Jesus" moments in genre fiction, I think it's sad that there are Christians with skill in writing who opt to pander and cater to the very ones who do not "need" the Gospel message because they already believe it, all because the actual plot, the style, and the focus of the novel is not strong enough to catch the eye of the people who would most benefit from it. Publishers have created a little "niche" for Christian writers, and the morality of mainstream literature has systematically declined, meanwhile the quality of the literature produced by Christian writers has more or less remained the same—maybe even improved somewhat—but in such isolation that there is little benefit from it. The Christian writers see the decline of modern society, and so the "preaching" increases...
But the market remains relegated to its own little nook, and all of that effort goes, in essence, to "the choir." And because those who are already Christians buy the books that tell them things they already know, the quality of the writing remains more or less "good enough" for those readers who think that "anything with THE BIBLE in it cannot ever be terrible!"

Not true, unfortunately.

Am I the only one who has noticed this trend? The "Christian genre" has become cliched, because cliche plots can be matched with cliche verses. Meanwhile, the mainstream trend is to reinvent and renew—so the cliches in Christian fiction are more deterring than ever before... And yet the market is so secluded that the potential opportunity for quality literature is lost as the vulgar, and the immoral and the distasteful occupy the other 90% of bookstores around the world...

"Christian" bookstores that do not sell mainstream fiction are going out of business much faster than mainstream ones. Is this not an indication that writing in the "niche" is really not having the impact we would like to see? 
What if Christians started working on producing the better books? Taking what is popular and making it better—not with more "churchy" scenes or sermons or "altar calls"—but just higher-quality writing, because of the hope of the calling that we have? 

Bonus Section

Stories I have read that involve a "Gospel message" that fits the genre:

Pauline has consistently done a fabulous job working the Gospel message into all of her novels! She creates a story with plenty of healthy adveture, and yet conflict that cannot be resolved without a working knowledge of Gospel truth--but at the same time she does not lose sight of the unique story she is telling, and the message fits the medium so much that the reader can receive it with much grace and thoughtful introspection!

I picked up this book on a whim, and I am forever glad that I did! Marissa gives a fantasy adventure with a premise that is near and dear to a childhood dream I once had, and the more I read, the more I recognized those small hints and subtle overtones of the Gospel allegory worked into a highly-entertaining adventure: the King and His Muses comprising the "spiritual" element of the world of Story... the fact that the King's descendant was "written in" to the story for the purpose of stopping the villain--a former Muse--who wants to "Rewrite Story" for his own purposes... It's absolutely lovely!

I knew the author was a Christian going into it, and I mostly wanted to read it because I loved the premise hinted in the "jacket blurb"--but Curran takes what has been used in mainstream speculative fiction as a treatise on evolutionary development and the fruitless pursuit of an end to the existential crisis... and he completely turns it around using the Gospel for what it is: a message of hope in the face of this very crisis of "why are we here?" and "What is man?" that plagues the philosophers to this day. The Gospel is not just a vehicle for the end goal of saving souls or ensuring entrance into Heaven; it is truly an answer and a message of hope above all else.
Crime novel: Bound by Guilt by C. J. Darlington
I included this one as an example for the "journey of faith" novel I mentioned earlier. It also involves kind of a mystery and a crime--but unlike the "traditional Christian mystery novels" by ones like Terri Blackstock and Dee Henderson (which are fine in their own right... but still formulaic)--Darlington's mystery is resolved by the character accepting the truth of the Gospel--making the inclusion of the Gospel an absolute necessity. 

Children's novel: The Wormling series by Jerry B. Jenkins and Chris Fabry
These are just straight-up allegories--but it is also a wonderful story told around it! Using paraphrased sections of the Bible as quotes from "the Wormling Book" in the context of a world where the Gospel (as we know it) and the Bible don't actually exist, Jenkins and Fabry treat their readers to an adventure that could be an inherently Christian novel--or it could be just a fun story with a redemptive message to it, and lots of analogies to Christianity!

If you have any more suggestions, feel free to share them!
*Disclaimer: The views expressed in this post are neither exhaustive nor authoritative... nor particularly-well researched; feel free to share your own thoughts with me in the comments! Do you agree or disagree? I would love to hear some other opinions on this!