Should Christian Fiction Specialize in Hope?

by Mike Duran

Thanks to Jessica Dotta, for the heads up on this. From the article in The Tennessean, Christian fiction thrives during economic crisis:

Local Christian publishers who launched or expanded their fiction lines in recent years are enjoying the fruits of their labors thanks to an unlikely source — the flagging economy.

While sales of Christian nonfiction have stalled during the recent economic crisis, sales of Christian fiction remain strong.

Karen Ball, executive editor at Southern Baptist-owned B&H Publishing Group, said that people are looking for a way to escape from the bad news of layoffs and plummeting stocks. “When reality gets ugly, fiction takes off,” she said.

Along with escape, Christian novels specialize in Christian hope.

“There’s some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it’s not offering any hope,” Ball said. “If anything it’s discouraging. In Christian fiction, there’s hope in the midst of trouble.” (Emphasis mine)

Framing Christian fiction as an agent of hope — perhaps the only fiction “offering any [real] hope” — is interesting, and I think captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, redemptive, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic. But specializing in hope has its pros and cons.

Some Christians authors will, no doubt, hedge at that suggestion. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with offering hope to a dying world? Isn’t that what the Gospel message is intended to do? After all, people shouldn’t approach Christian fiction expecting to be bummed out or dejected. Nevertheless, being consistently hopeful — especially as it relates to storytelling — has its downside.

One problem with defining Christian fiction in terms of hope is predictability. In other words, if readers buy Christian fiction to feel good and extract hope, then no matter how bleak a storyline, they should always expect a somewhat uplifting resolution. Not only does this expectation handicap the genre (i.e., most conclusions are foreseeable), it hamstrings Christian fiction writers into more conventional plotlines. Furthermore, an overly optimistic angle whitewashes the failings and pitfalls of our lives and faith. We are forced to frame the Christian experience as inevitably rosy, and ignore the ambiguity, regrets and ruin that sometimes befall followers of Christ. While Christian fiction should provide hope, it should also be artistically free to explore the realisms of life with and without God. In fact, it is this grim reality that often spurs one on to a less superficial search for answers.

There are many stories in the Bible that are not manifestly hopeful. Take the Book of Judges. The recurrent phrase in this Old Testament book is “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The result? Bad men ruled them, and the nation suffered. The consequences of sin are as much a part of the Christian worldview as is the hope of redemption. But the Christian novelist who seeks to leave their reader with just that conclusion (i.e., that narcissism, self-indulgence, egoism and gluttony lead to ruin) will have a hard sell in today’s religious market. In other words, by specializing in hope are we unintentionally downplaying or ignoring other equally relevant themes in the Gospel?

So specializing in hope has its downside, one that authors and readers should genuinely consider.

On the other hand, there are good reasons why readers migrate towards Christian fiction during difficult times. For when it comes to hope, Christianity trumps all other worldviews. Of course, this statment will not sit well with the PC police. But the fact is, without God, there can be no real hope. With every terrorist bombing and nuclear sub, the utopia of humanistic conspirations gets more and more laughable. Atheism offers nothing beyond a vapid existential buzz before eternal evaporation. Hinduism proffers an impersonal karmic cycle when, after millions of migrations, we merge with the Soul of the Cosmos. Like it or not, the biblical worlview is philosophically congruent, jibes with the state of things, and unlike humanism, atheism, and Hinduism, is practically applicable to the human plight. No wonder people seek out Christian fiction during troubled times!

In the article above, editor Karen Ball notes, “There’s some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it’s not offering any hope.” This observation is not unique to readers and publishers of religious fiction. Some have suggested that this years’ Academy Award juggernaut, Slumdog Millionaire, was riding the reactionary tide against last years’ incredibly dark Best Film nominees. In other words, filmgoers wanted hope. Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and the ultimate Academy selection, No Country for Old Men, were all pretty grim fare. I liked all of those movies, yet it’s hard to not feel crappy after seeing them. (This is also why many feel that a better film, The Dark Knight, was virtually snubbed at this years’ Oscars — it was just too dark.) While Slumdog has its dark elements, it is ultimately buoyant. (But as I suggested in another post, even though the film took place in the dregs of the Hindu caste slums, it had to appeal to a more transcendent element, i.e., Destiny, to invoke hope.) Obviously, people are sick of bad news. We need to see a movie with a bang-up dance sequence once in a while.

But back to my point: People choose Christian fiction because it is more naturally grounded in hope than secular fiction. Humanism offers me no real hope. Atheism offers me no real hope. Hinduism offers me no real hope. But if the tomb of the crucified Nazarene is really empty, I’ve got a pretty good reason to end my book with a bang-up dance sequence.

Specializing in hope is a tightrope that authors of Christian fiction must walk with the utmost care. While making our characters live happily-ever-after may satisfy both audience and editor, more often than not it can become contrived and predictable. Not to mention, unbiblical. After all, the hope supplied by Christian fiction must be far more than just a happy ending.