Why We Should NOT Label Christian Fiction

Anyone who thinks the debate about Christian Fiction — what it is and what it should be — is getting old, should check out literary agent Rachelle Gardner’s recent post, Should We Label Christian Fiction? (At this posting, the comments are at 193.) What makes that discussion so informative (and potentially helpful) is the broad swath of readers and writers Rachelle’s site attracts.

By the fourth comment, one reader, Colin, asked the obvious question

“…what is ‘Christian’ literature in the first place?”

That’s the real issue and what makes Rachelle’s question so squishy. The problem with labeling / not labeling Christian fiction is that we can’t exactly agree about what Christian fiction is, or should be.

So while some define (and defend) G-rated, religiously explicit, redemptive, hope-filled stories marketed to conservative Christians, others gravitate to (and defend) more subtle, ambiguous, edgy, non-preachy stories aimed at a less conservative, broader readership. Which is why we Christians have had a notoriously difficult time in labeling some of our own books. Just ask any group of Christian readers if the works of Flannery O’Connor are “Christian fiction.” J.R.R. Tolkien called The Lord of the Rings “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work” (see Dr. Ralph Wood’s wonderful essay Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited). But nowadays, LotR is rarely considered Christian fiction. Even the Chronicles of Narnia are up for debate. Point is, these books, while being written by believers and containing biblical worldviews and biblical imagery, do not fall neatly into the ‘Christian fiction’ label.

I think this is a good thing.

It’s also one reason we should be very cautious about throwing around the label “Christian fiction.”

In the comment thread at Rachelle’s, Jessica Kent wrote:

“Why aren’t Christian writers writing novels that laymen readers can get in to? Isn’t that the whole point? To write a book with themes of faith, love, and sacrifice that anyone can access and be changed by? You wouldn’t dismiss Tale of Two Cities or Les Miserables as ‘just another Christian fiction book.'”

Jessica is stating our dilemma: When we define Christian fiction in narrow terms, we narrow our audience. This may be good marketing, but it’s somewhat antithetical to our mission. The last I checked, Christianity is about broadening its message, going into “all the world,” reaching “laymen,” spinning tales “that anyone can access.” Sure, there’s a place for preaching to the choir. Problem is when the choir is our ONLY audience. By targeting only Christian readers, we unnecessarily limit the boundaries of our own house, shrink our base, and fail to “impregnate” a second generation of “believing readers.”

And our stories become decidedly… predictable. Which is why comments like the one below are wholly to be expected. From Adam:

“I generally avoid labeled Christian lit because I have little interest in reading a book that waters down its characters to appeal to folks who are horrified by contextually-realistic sex, violence or profanity (I also avoid authors who trade in those arenas). To me that creates a plastic surreality, a dystopian Disney landscape that all too often makes the plot wooden and untenable. But the ultimate reason I avoid Christian book stores and most novels that are specifically labeled ‘Christian’ is that I have no interest in reading a 300+ page Chick tract …Most people understand exactly what they mean when they say Christ-lit: essentially, clean dialogue and chaste relationships wrapped in a 300 page gospel tract. “

Before you dismiss Adam’s opinion, pause to consider that he is representative of a vast number of readers who have come to scorn Christian fiction. Our knee-jerk reaction is to chalk this up anti-Christian bigotry. And it may well be. But isn’t it possible that Adam is one of those “laymen” we should be reaching? Isn’t it also possible that his opinion about Christian fiction is spot-on? “[A] plastic surreality, a dystopian Disney landscape [containing] clean dialogue and chaste relationships wrapped in a 300 page gospel tract.”

Which brings me to my point: The problem I have in labeling Christian fiction is that the moment we slap a label on our books we are conceding a stereotype.

  • If Christian fiction IS easily definable, then let’s label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS “a 300 page gospel tract,” then let’s label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS G-rated, family-friendly fare, then let’s label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS NOT something “that anyone can access,” then let’s label it.
  • If Christian fiction IS ONLY FOR CHRISTIANS, then let’s label it.

But if we concede that good Christian lit can reach outside religious circles, carry a biblical worldview without being preachy, and be enjoyed by “laymen,” then we should fight to keep our stories and authors from being burdened by a label that has, frankly, become dead weight.
Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket. He is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike’s debut novel, “The Resurrection,” is in stores now and his novella, “Winterland,” is available in e-book formats. Mike’s sophomore novel The Telling releases May 2012. You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.