How much ‘Christian’ should be in your Christian Fiction?

Anyone reading my books or my blog posts would probably label me a Christian. And while I don’t particularly love labels, they wouldn’t really be wrong. In life, I do my best to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ and the bible. Note, I said ‘do my best’ because those that follow my posts also know that I often fail. Sometimes, effing spectacularly.

Okay, then. I am a person of faith. I am also a writer. This month, I want to talk about how the one aspect of myself influences the other, and how much it should. The topic came to me as I was reading what I thought were some excessively snarky reviews of a book written by a Christian author. The chief complaint among the reviewers: The story wasn’t ‘Christian’ enough.

If you’re not a Christian Fiction reader, you’re probably like, ‘What the crap does that mean?’ And to be fair, that statement could mean a whole lot of things. A lot of people in the world would say they are a Christian. Few of them would represent or think of that word in the same way. For our conversation, there were some common themes in the reviews. Some I thought were valid concerns that needed walked out and some that made me roll my eyes.

Some of the characters were drinking or smoking. A male and female character stayed in the same house alone together.

These complaints caught my eye first. Let’s start with the drinking and smoking. The whole biblical debate on whether a follower of Jesus should drink is tired, never ending, and has been done. I’m not going to rehash it. I know where my conscience and heart stand on the issue after prayerful consideration and I trust you do to. But in regards to drinking and smoking in my fiction, I will say this. If there are no characters in your books that drink or smoke(even if it doesn’t come up on the actual page), you are not accurately reflecting the world we live in. Aren’t we supposed to point people to the truth by telling the truth? Jesus did in the bible and doesn’t being a Christian mean to be like Christ? Personally, I am more concerned with what is in someone’s heart then what they choose to drink with dinner.

I also think that I need to mention that putting alcohol and smoking in your fiction doesn’t mean simply relegating it to the lost or the villains. I go to church every week with faith-filled people who probably have a bottle of wine in their fridge and a few cigars stashed somewhere. If I made every drinking or smoking character dump out their bottles and throw the pack of cigarettes in the fire out of guilt or fear they are sinning, that would not only be judgmental it would not reflect what I actually believe. So why would I write it that way? And what right would someone have to declare my work no longer Christian?

Now as far as the complaint on impropriety, these comments brought me back to growing up in the purity culture of the 90s and early 2000s. There isn’t enough room on my website for me to rant about the problems of telling kids that sex is awful but if they wait until they get married it will suddenly be amazing. I will, however, share a personal anecdote that has stayed with me through the years.

In high school, I went to a dance at my boyfriend’s Christian school. This was the boyfriend that would eventually become my husband. That night was the first time Daniel ever held my hand and I don’t think I could ever fully describe the sparks that flew between his skin and mine. His fingers interlaced with mine and we slow danced and it was all thrill and fire and pleasure. But alas, the fun we had that night did not come easy as a particularly zealous teacher repeatedly yelled at us to not dance so close or to put more distance between us.

Now some of you may be saying that was her job, but what she actually did was attach feelings of shame to moments of desire and budding love that were perfectly pure in God’s eyes. And this may be TMI, but my husband and I did wait to have sex until after we were married and I promise you it wasn’t because of people lecturing or guilting us. It was because we made the decision. That teacher may have thought it was wrong for us to dance and hold hands and as a reader you may think it was wrong for two unmarried people of opposite sexes to stay in the same house for a portion of the story, but I really don’t see any scriptural lines that were crossed and so should you really be making that such a point in your review?

Also, I think it is fair to point out that the two characters that stayed in the same house alone in the book I’m referencing, didn’t say or do anything indicating that they were in fact Christians. And so, I think it would be a little unfair of me to expect characters in a book to make decisions based on a faith they didn’t profess to have.

And that leads me to the other common complaint among the reviews. A lot of the reviewers were disappointed that there wasn’t a ‘redemption’ moment in the story. In this aspect, I couldn’t really argue with them. There wasn’t a typical come-to-Jesus moment for these characters. However, the author did include a note in the back of the book about how her faith helped her heal from similar wounds that are thematic in the story. But despite the author’s note, the disappointment of the reviewers led me to some challenging questions. Questions that don’t have clear answers.

The biggest question I was left asking is: Should the Author who is also a Christian only write Christian fiction?

The bible does say that we should do everything we do like we are doing it for the Lord. But that can mean a lot of different things, right? Let’s say that you work in a factory that makes metal screws. I would think that doing your work unto the Lord would mean being kind and generous to the people you work with, being able to give an answer about your faith when someone asks it, making sure the screws you make are of good quality and won’t break, or making sure you are being honest about clocking in and out. I wouldn’t think it would mean changing the machinery so that it stamps ‘Jesus Saves’ on every screw head so that everyone who picks one up will know you are a Christian.

But for the Christian who works as a writer, there seems to be a different implied standard. What I wonder is should there be?

I know for me—and this would be true whether I am writing books or making screws—I don’t want anything I do to lead someone away from God. Beyond that, I am hesitant to tell any author what they should or shouldn’t write. But I also don’t want to forget to acknowledge how this book made these reviewers feel. They were expecting a specific kind of Christian Fiction and didn’t get it. And so maybe it’s the expectations that are the problem. Why was this book called Christian Fiction at all? I’m sure the author’s note about her faith is part of the reason and I’ve never read any of her other books to know if they were more of the traditional fiction style. Whatever the reason, this book was branded Christian Fiction and I think it’s a good reminder to readers that authors don’t always know how a publisher/store/website will market their work. It would be a good idea to remember that when you start a new read so you won’t be thrown for a loop. And regardless of the branding, I don’t think we should really tell any author that their life’s work has to be tied to one genre and one genre only.

My current series is clearly faith-based and I love it. For me, faith will always make an appearance because it’s through my faith that I see the world. But will it be more overt? Will it be a different genre with no romance or suspense in it all? I really don’t know what my next series will look like and I really hope everyone will be okay with that. What do you think? Comment below to join the discussion. And while you’re here, be sure to stop on my CONTACT page and sign up to receive July’s newsletter for a chance to win the monthly prize.

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