This guest post by Kyle de Waal is part one in a two-part series, “The Cross and the Typewriter.” Read part two »
Definitions are Hard
Every word has a definition, but when you get into ethereal concepts they get fuzzier. “Square” is simple enough to define, but other words seem to only cause debate. Take the term “sci-fi” for instance. We all have an idea of what science fiction is, but when we try to pin that down things get messy.
In fact, it gets so messy that one widely-referenced definition, an abbreviated version of Damon Knight’s thoughts on sci-fi, is simply, “Science fiction is what we point to when we say it.”*
And yet we know that some stories are science fiction and some are not. It’s the frustrating middle things that cause all sorts of bickering, like when people argue if Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes back is really a sci-fi since so much of the conflict centers around magic.
“Sci-Fi” Isn’t Alone
This basically happens with any genre, and the longer the genre exists the more we tend to simply accept our idea of the genre and assume we know what the contents of the genre are without finding solid labels.
So when we get to a genre like Christian fiction, a lot of us might find ourselves sneering, because we have an idea of what Christian fiction is, and that image is not positive. We picture flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes that leave us groaning. We can’t seem to escape bonnets and buggies.
However, is that really what Christian fiction is all about? This is where we tend to add our little “well, except” clauses. Christian fiction is bonnets and buggies, well, except…
Throw CS Lewis, GK Chesterton, or a half-dozen other writers into that space.
Then what is Christian fiction?
A [Badly] Working Definition
I’ve seen recently a push for the eradication of the term “Christian novel” altogether, partially stemming from this sort of confusion. We see this box, and we accept this box, and then the odd item doesn’t quite fit in the box, and now what are we going to do with the box?
After all, the box of the Amish romance that has become so synonymous with Christian fiction doesn’t exactly make room for a novel about two demons corresponding about their attempts to corrupt a young man’s soul in the midst of World War II, but there The Screwtape Letters sit anyways, talking about Christian concepts like faith, the afterlife, and responding to suffering.
It makes the box a little infuriating, so the temptation arises to just do away with it. Should we really call The Screwtape Letters “Christian fiction” if it’s interesting, well written, and engaging? After all, what happens then to our idea about those flat characters, predictable plots, and ham-fisted themes?
Try Number Two
So if that’s not what Christian fiction is really about, what is it?
My theory is this: it’s art made from a soul that desires Christ.
When I was just beginning to write, one of the best pieces of advice I got was to write about things I care about. If you’ve got a fire burning inside of you, why not let it light up your pages? At first, for me this meant writing about murder, because murder is interesting.
But as I progressed, I found myself turning my feelings and ideas into themes. After all, if I cared about something it was so much easier to write something that felt real. I wasn’t talking about vague, ethereal ideas anymore, but what I really cared about, and that made writing so much more fun.
This shouldn’t surprise me. After all, in Luke 6:25, Jesus said this as “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”
So maybe Christian fiction has less to do with bonnets and buggies and more to do with the heart behind the endeavour. After all, if your heart is full of the love of Jesus, the Bible says that’s going to flow into your words.
This version of Christian fiction is much easier to accept. However, when the association with Christian fiction is so negative, it’s hard to approach it without feeling silly. After all, Christian fiction has a stigma, so who would want to be associated with it?
There are, I think, two truths that make dealing with the stigma easier.
First off, while there is a lot of bad Christian fiction out there, there is a lot of bad fiction out there in general. Yes, it’s totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about faith and hope, but it’s also totally possible to be preachy and ham-fisted about anything.
Cynicism and pessimism aren’t somehow immune to preachy-ness.
Secondly, Christian themes and ideas don’t have to be added to your art, as if you’re just following some recipe to make it up to Church standard. This is, I think, what Joshua S. Porter is alluding to when he writes:
Christian artists don’t have to offer a Jesus substitute to the secular acts; they can simply create art from the overflow of their love for Jesus, and he will do the rest… Art belongs to Jesus, not the world. There is no need to commandeer it.”**
* This quote is a common abbreviation of the original statement made by Damon Knight, included in his essays in In Search of Wonder: Essays on Modern Science Fiction.
** The Joke that we Play on the World, Joshua S Porter.
Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.
Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.