The Danger of Inspirational Fiction

The term “Inspirational Fiction” has become synonymous with much of what is labeled Christian fiction.

  • Hopeful
  • Uplifting
  • Positive
  • Wholesome

These are words commonly associated with the genre. But does “Inspiration” rightly portray the essence of the Christian Gospel? At the outset of our current recession, one columnist noted that 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 [Ball is no longer with B&H] , 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)

This portrayal of Christian fiction as an agent of hope is common, and I think it captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic. So is this why the genre exists, to evoke or inspire hope in those who despair? Is this why readers seek out Christian fiction, to recharge their Inspirational battery? If so, I think that’s a problem. Let me offer three reasons why the term Inspirational Fiction can be dangerous for both writers and readers. LITERARY PREDICTABILITY: If readers buy Christian fiction primarily to feel good and extract hope, then no matter how bleak a storyline, they should always expect a somewhat uplifting resolution. This is a common charge against Christian fiction. Not only does this expectation hurt the genre (i.e., people know what to expect), it also hamstrings Christian fiction writers into more predictable plot-lines. Things have to work out, or else it’s not… inspirational. SUPERFICIALITY: Another problem with defining Christian fiction in terms of Inspiration is that it potentially glosses over the “darker” elements of life and faith (i.e., that humans are depraved, do depraved things, reject God, and can ultimately spend eternity in hell) and opts for convenience (happy ending) rather than complexity. Stories that move predictably toward uplifting resolutions often sacrifice deeper issues (and biblical clarity) for superficial resolutions. AN INCOMPLETE GOSPEL: It’s been said, The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Before the Gospel “frees,” it makes us “miserable.” While the Holy Spirit infuses God’s children with love, joy, and peace, He also convicts world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn. 16:8). The Gospel damns before it releases. Much Inspirational Fiction misses this “miserable” part of the Gospel. It conditions us to see God as The Fixer and our stories as Pep Pills for troubled times. The ultimate message is, “Come to Jesus and everything will work out.” But is that the essence of the Gospel? This last point is the most important, and potentially the most charged. Does Inspirational Fiction (or, at least, our expectations of it) trivialize the Gospel, turn it into a bandaid for all our ills? Does the genre substitute theological depth for feel-good fluff? I think it can. Sadly, many Christians have replaced theological “steak and eggs” with a Chicken Soup for the Soul mentality. And Inspirational Fiction potentially caters to that mentality. Yes. The Gospel offers inspiration and hope. It is good news! But real biblical hope is based on a sense of hopelessness, not humanistic, formulaic, emotional quick-fixes. We can’t save ourselves, we need a Savior. And following Him means carrying our cross along a very narrow road. That road is often rocky, strewn with unpredictability and hardship. Multitudes have died seeing their hopes and promises left unfulfilled. But does Inspirational Fiction accurately capture that reality?

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Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Mike’s debut novel, “The Resurrection,” is in stores now and his novella, “Winterland,” will be available in e-book October 2011. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.