Should Christian Fiction Provide Answers or Provoke Questions?

by Mike Duran

Paradox is not something Christians like to concede. We believe Jesus is the Answer, and as such, questions exist to be dispelled rather than nurtured. However, the universe rarely cooperates. There is mystery and wonder. Even the grayest of saints must, on occasion, plead perplexity.

Yet for the Christian author, paradox is not something we need fear. In fact, provoking questions can be a powerful apologetic tool. Jesus did this often. It is estimated that Christ asked over 80 questions. Obviously, He did this not to alleviate ignorance (His own) but provoke thought in His listeners. As followers of the Answer, Christian authors are uniquely positioned to frame life’s most vital questions.

Problem is, Christians often view their fiction as a tool to provide answers, rather than provoke questions.

Barbara Nicolosi, founder of Act One, an organization that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television, was once asked about “the most prevalent shortcomings in scripts by Christians.” (You can read her entire answer HERE.) In response, Nicolosi broached the subject of paradox:

The biggest shortfall I find in beginning writers – Christians and pagans – is the failure to understand and harness the real power in the screen art form. Anyone who wants to write great movies has to plumb the depths of the multilevel nature of cinema and then begin to exploit the levels to create paradox.

The real power to help and heal the audience in a work of art is in paradox. We really want to haunt the audience in the way, for example, that Flannery O’Conner’s stories are haunting. She’s the one who created that phrase, saying that in order to make a story a work, she had to find a “haunting moment.” This refers to a moment in a story that is at once completely true and completely shocking. I have really brooded over this a lot, and it is clear to me that a work of art stays with an audience, and leads them into rumination, in so far as it incorporates paradox.

So, what happens in a movie is that the audience walks into the theater distracted, munching their popcorn, burping and scratching. Then, they encounter the movie, and suddenly they find themselves at the end with a new and irritating/pressing question: “Rats! I have a question now that keeps coming back to me!”

Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. (emphasis mine)

Nicolosi’s contention that Christians should use the arts to provoke questions rather than provide answers goes against the grain of much thinking regarding Christian Fiction. Leaving unanswered questions in the minds of the reader — in particular, questions about God, Christ, the Church, the Gospel, sin and evil — appears anathema for many religious publishers. Christian Fiction, so they say, should provide the seeker with clarity rather than just, as Flannery O’Connor put it, a “haunting moment.” Nowadays, the Christian author must do more than just lead her audience “into rumination.” She must articulate orthodoxy.

But simply exploring paradox seems antithetical to Christianity. The believer has, after all, arrived at a set of conclusions (via the Holy Spirit) — conclusions that, most likely, inform / inspire her storytelling. Nevertheless, fiction that is bent on providing answers can potentially become preachy and propagandist. The story is submerged by agenda. On the other hand, fiction that only provokes questions can potentially become needlessly provocative and lacking a moral / theological center.

So what is it? Should Christian Fiction provide answers or provoke questions? Your thoughts…