Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Need for Honesty in Christian Fiction

As we continue to work on choosing our winners, here's a guest post from last year's contest coordinator, Crista Richey.

As creators of art, fiction, and film, we Christians like to preach. In fact, we often take it as our calling to preach. After all, God's people are charged to act as salt and light in a dark and twisted world, and to proclaim the gospel to all nations. If our vocation is to write, shouldn't we pen masterpieces that exemplify God's moral standards for living and present the good news of salvation?

Well, yes—and no. It is true that stories exert a powerful influence over their readers and listeners, for good or for evil, and it is tempting to take advantage of that by employing didacticism. But may I suggest that didacticism—at least in terms of current literature—is itself remarkably un-Christian? It is un-Christian because, in most types of fiction currently published, it is dishonest. 

There are exceptions to this, of course. For the purposes of this article, however, I am addressing didacticism used in “realistic” fiction. By realistic, I do not mean realistic content, but rather realistic presentation. (The Chronicles of Narnia, for example, are realistic in presentation but not in content. The story is believable within its established context, but not within ours.) Most fiction published today is realistic in presentation, and it is within that broad category that didacticism becomes notably dishonest.

Maybe you know what I'm talking about. Christian writers seem particularly susceptible to the disease because they often feel obligated to “convert” or “inspire” their readers. The result? Long-winded lectures on vice or virtue, yes; but also, a picture-perfect portrait of life that is utterly foreign to the experiences of real people. A sound-bite presentation of the gospel, followed by a dramatic conversion; family prayer, immediately restoring a broken relationship between family members; virtuous acts, quickly and generously rewarded; characters painted in stark terms of black or white...

Here's the crux: if you want to write realistic fiction, you need to write realistically. Otherwise, it's dishonest. We have to acknowledge—or rather, explore—the complexity of human beings and the crazy, broken, beautiful world we live in. Life is hard. It's confusing. People are confusing. And no wonder: depraved, marred by sin, but created in the image of God? What strange creatures we are! Simplistic characters and easily-resolved plots won't do. They're not real. They're not honest. And if humans are a mystery to themselves, what about Christ? Can we really use a Kodak moment to explain the gospel? To explain God?

We need to be careful here. A good story is not the equivalent of a good sermon—nor is it a “slice of life.” A story has structure. It has conflict, climax, and resolution, condensing the characters' experiences and hard-won wisdom into a streamlined version of the “actual” event. Our lives are not formatted like a story! (Or if they are, we are not usually in a position to realize it.) And yet, somehow, a good story must exhibit the author's understanding of real life. If the author is exploring deeper spiritual realities in his work, he must do so without resorting to didacticism.

This is not easy to do, but it is a worthy objective to strive for. It allows the author to share a deeper and much more meaningful story with his readers—one that readers will instinctively recognize as demonstrating a thoughtful understanding of the world and the people who inhabit it. They may not agree with the author's conclusions, but they are more likely to listen if they know the author is being honest. And that is truly worth the effort. How else can we act as salt and light to an audience that doesn't necessarily trust our judgment? Or serve a God who defines truth itself?

Something to think about. 


  1. Interesting. Can you recommend some fiction authors who do this particularly well--communicate biblical truth without being preachy?

    1. Madeleine L'Engle and C.S. Lewis are the BEST. And Francine Rivers is excellent, as well.