It’s said that reading fiction requires willing suspension of disbelief. We writers strive to weave a fictional dream of gossamer threads and avoid anything that might break the spell we cast.
And so we choose our genre and build our story idea around specific conventions—checking vocabulary lists for children’s sci-fi, building psychological tension into thrillers, consulting timelines for historical fiction. We study the markets and adapt our approach to connect with the audience in mind. There’s no end to the preparation and research we undergo as we hone our craft by studying how-to books and attending writers’ workshops and reading great literary works.
Our method is limited only by our diligence.
Popular writers apply a variety of stylistic methods in their novels—think of the unconventional plot of The Time Traveler’s Wife, the language of Harry Potter’s magical spells, the sensuality in The Picture of Dorian Gray. Generally speaking, genre is neutral (excepting, perhaps, erotica or horror, where the purpose of the fictional dream might be sinful).
As Christian writers of fiction, we are even more equipped than secular authors, with metaphysical resources to employ many artistic methods; Francis Schaeffer said,
The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.
But fiction writing is not just about creative method, which varies over time and across cultures. Message is also intrinsic to great story; underlying theme animates the tale and conveys the writer’s main point. Inherent message is pivotal to true literature and must be balanced against the method. Leland Ryken (in The Christian Imagination) put it thus:
Literature is built on a grand paradox: It is a make-believe world [fictional method] that nonetheless reminds us of real life and clarifies it for us [spiritual message].
I once attended a panel on which Christian agents, authors, and editors were asked what was more important to fiction—method or message. Did they favour character- and plot-driven manuscripts of high quality, or was theological meaning peremptory? The ensuing discussion criticized the heavy-handedness that for so long defined “Christian” fiction as something that imparted moral lessons.
The sweep of literary history shows Aesop’s fables teaching ethics, cycle plays in the Middle Ages dramatizing Bible lessons, Sunday school papers of the last generation promoting norms of right living. But, although didactic prose has fallen out of favour, even today’s most superficial novels (such as Fifty Shades of Gray) inevitably shout out the underlying values of the writer. As Steve Turner has noted in Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts:
Writing is inseparable from a point of view . . . You can’t write and not have a point of view.
So how do we, as Christian writers of fiction, ensure our spiritual message comes through our genre’s method?
Before we set fingers to keyboard, we must know our biblical material—at least the basic principles we intend to convey—whether we actually quote Scripture or write in the most veiled and elusive manner. Let me refer again to the wisdom of Ryken:
Christians believe that the Bible and the system of doctrine derived from it are authoritative for thought and practice. Christian involvement with literature, therefore, begins with the belief that the Bible and its doctrines will determine how we should view literature itself and will provide a standard by which to measure the intellectual content and morality of literature that we read and write.
Paul the Apostle, grappling with allegations made by legalists trying to discredit his message of grace, argued for allowing changes in method of communication in order to suit the audience—as long as the message didn’t wander from the truth of the Word (Gal. 1; 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Paul made cultural and stylistic changes in the way he preached but never compromised God’s propositions. In the same way, our unchanging message becomes appealing to fiction readers when we adapt our method to their sensibilities.
Great Christian fiction is able to “steal past a certain inhibition,” as C.S. Lewis put it; that is, transcendent morals properly fictionalized can slip by the sleeping dragons of reader resistance to truth.
This article originally appeared in Fellowscript (vol. 32, no. 4, Nov. 2014), the magazine of Inscribe Christian Writers’ Fellowship.