Cover Story


"TRUTH AND FICTION" Continued...

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

The limitation of this fiction is that it is mostly "genre fiction," that is, fiction written according to a predictable formula based on prefabricated models. It is geared mainly to entertainment, rather than reflection. It follows conventions, rather than being original. It is written to sell, rather than to be a serious, complex work of Christian art.

Writing in a particular genre need not prevent the work from being valuable. Great literature too has its conventions. The "novel of manners" perfected by Jane Austen and followed by many more is about social interactions leading to marriage. Mysteries, with their detectives solving a crime, follow strict conventions, and yet the form has produced some outstanding writing, including that of Christians (Dorothy L. Sayers, P.D. James). But too often, in the hands of indifferent writers, genre fiction is little more than a collection of clichés.

The bigger problem is that for all of the different genres it follows, evangelical fiction has become a genre unto itself, with conventions of its own. One-dimensional virtuous characters contend against one-dimensional villains. The style is preachy. The theme is moralistic. The plot is characterized by implausible divine interventions. While the convention demands a conversion, the characters are never allowed to do anything very sinful, or, if they do, the author is not allowed to show it. At the end, all problems are solved and everyone lives happily ever after. It is all sweetness, light, uplift, and cliché.

The biblical complexities of sin and grace, the inner conflict between the old nature and the new, the necessity to bear one's cross, are missing. So is biblical realism. So is the ability to draw in nonbelievers and confront them with the hard truths of God's Word.

What happened is that while evangelicals at one time pulled away from engagement with the culture, they rejected the high culture of ideas, creativity, and the arts. But they embraced uncritically the pop culture, the realm of entertainment, pleasure-seeking, and shallow commercialism. While the modern and postmodern high culture may be hostile to the biblical worldview, Christianity can compete with the high culture on its own terms by claiming and building upon the absolutes of truth, goodness, and beauty that current worldviews have abandoned. But in embracing the pop culture, evangelicals have opened themselves up to what is shallow, fake, and empty in contemporary life. Instead of filling those voids, pop-Christianity falls into them.

But Christian fiction is changing, heralding perhaps a more fruitful engagement with the culture on the part of American evangelicals.

Mainstream breakthrough

The Left Behind books by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins were, in many ways, conventional Christian fiction, following the genre of End Times novels. And yet, the 12 books in the series, swept along by millennium fever, dominated the bestseller lists for a decade. They sold so many copies that they broke out of the Christian bookstore market, into the Barnes & Nobles and Borders, into airport newsstands, onto The New York Times bestseller lists, which once excluded books from Christian publishers no matter how many they sold.

"Left Behind did break down the barriers," said Mr. Dennis. "It became so huge that it was given an opportunity that most Christian fiction doesn't get, to sell in the general market." The secular bookstores started carrying other evangelical titles. In the meantime, Christian publishers started cashing in with other crossover titles (The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life). They now had access to the general marketplace, a vast new audience, which also gave them a new mission, to reach secular readers with the Christian message.

But this meant they had to compete with the established secular publishers. There was a time when books from Christian publishers just did not look as good as those from mainline presses. They looked cheaper, had poorer paper, bad cover art, and just did not seem as professionally designed. This has changed, though, as Christian publishers give more attention to the quality of their production. The writing also had to get better, and it has.

In the meantime, talented Christian writers were finding success with publishing companies that were secular but that allowed them to express their faith in terms of their art: Walt Wangerin (The Book of the Dun Cow); Frederic Buechner (Brendan); Larry Woiwode (Beyond the Bedroom Wall); Jan Karon (The Mitford series); Leif Enger (Peace Like a River); Bret Lott (Jewel). Not to mention Christian authors who became sure-fire bestsellers who wrote more popular fare that was not explicitly religious, but nevertheless allowed their worldview to shine through (John Grisham, The Firm; Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October). Christian publishers wanted to attract writers like that. Lately, some talented new authors have emerged from Christian circles, and now Christian publishers are more inclined to turn them loose.


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