Cover Story


A Christian publishing company aims to restore a great literary heritage: high-quality, general-market fiction written by Christians and from a biblical worldview

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

Christian fiction has become a genre unto itself, filled with clichés, conventions, and pop-culture imitations. And yet, Christian authors were once the giants of literature, writing about all of life from a Christian worldview and using their art to influence the imagination of the whole civilization. What writers, publishers, and readers need today is not just Christian fiction but fiction informed by a Christian worldview, with the potential to break through once again into the wider culture. Toward that end, WORLD is working with WestBow Press, Thomas Nelson's new fiction division, to sponsor a fiction-writing contest to discover a new wave of Christian writers.

Some 45 percent of all trade books sold today in the United States are fiction. Although Christian writers were the great pioneers of literature, for awhile evangelicals, both authors and readers, lost interest in fiction. But this has been changing. Fiction is the second-biggest-selling category for Christian publishers, just after "Christian living," making up 15 percent to 20 percent of all their sales.

Lately, Christian authors and publishers have been imitating the pop culture, with its formulas and conventions, rather than creating genuine literary art. But Christian writers and Christian readers are growing in their tastes and in what they are capable of writing and reading. Though for awhile Christian novels were only read by Christian readers, the barriers that ghettoized explicitly evangelical books have been coming down. Christians have a powerful literary tradition, extending well into the modern era, ready to be reclaimed and carried on.

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Divine narrative

The Christian literary heritage begins with the Bible. God reveals Himself not primarily through visions or mystical experiences but through a book. Thus, Christians have always prized reading.

God's revelation in the Bible-the very word means "the book"- comprises many literary forms: poetry, laws, letters, and while it does contain passages of theological discourse (for example, the epistles of Paul), much of God's Word consists of narratives. That is to say, stories.

A narrative is a rendition by language of an unfolding action. Whereas expository writing sets forth ideas, narrative re-creates an event. A story gives us characters, dialogue, and description, all of which enables a reader or listener to enter into the experience vicariously by imagining what took place.

The Bible's narratives are true and historical. (Prose narratives in the historical style that are fictional would not be invented until the 18th century.) But God's Word gives us true stories of human beings, in particular places and times, doing things, enduring conflicts, and interacting with each other and with God: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the saga of the patriarchs, Moses and the children of Israel, the historical narratives of the judges and the kings, the exile and the return, the four Gospels recounting the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the story of the church in Acts, the mysterious last days in the book of Revelation. Christians have always known that such stories bear rich meanings and that reading them is a profound blessing.

Narratives, whether true or fictional, depict characters, portrayals of human beings. These characters act, creating the story's plot. Nearly always, the plot entails some kind of conflict, whether an external battle against some enemy, an inner struggle within the heart of a character, the clash of different beliefs, or a combination of all three. There is also a setting, the sense of place and time where the action takes place, and a theme, the truths or insights that the story conveys.

The plot of a story is not just a sequence of random events. Rather, a plot tends to have a definite structure: a beginning, middle, and end.

The Bible, as the Book of books, has a plot of its own, contributing a particular shape to Western narratives. It sets forth a clear beginning: the creation of the universe. There is conflict: human sin vs. the grace of God. The narrative has a middle, a climactic turning point, in which the conflict is resolved: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And the book moves to a definite conclusion, a dénouement tying up all the loose ends into a happy ending: the coming of Christ, the last judgment, and His eternal reign. Not only the biblical narrative but all of human history is taken up into this story, as is the life of the individual believer.

Biblical narrative is very different from the narratives of pagan mythology. Those are organized into cycles. Time repeats itself, with multiple creations and endlessly recurrent patterns. Thus, Greek epics begin in the middle of an already occurring action. Greek plays are organized into cycles of generations caught in the webs of a constantly repeating fate. The Bible's stories, though, show time as a straight line, with not only a beginning and middle and end but a direction. Thus, Western narratives after the Bible tend to follow a chronological order in which characters can change and grow. Also, myths take place in an idealized realm removed from ordinary human experience. Biblical narrative, though, takes place in specific places and times, emphasizing historicity and stylistic realism.


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