The dilemma of being a Christian who writes fiction - N. J. Lindquist

The dilemma of being a Christian who writes fiction

Writing fiction would be easier if I wasn’t a Christian. I’d just sit down and write whatever I wanted. No problem. But I am a Christian. And it’s frequently been a problem.

When I began writing more than 35 years ago, I had a BA in English and the English medal for my graduating class. I also had a very sDilemnatrong faith in God. It seemed natural to me to combine my knowledge of good literature with my faith.

I soon found, however, that not all fiction written by Christians was for me. Some books, like the Narnia series, delighted me. A few, like In His Steps, challenged me. But many of the others seemed trite and unrealistic. How could I write in a genre that I couldn’t whole-heartedly endorse? (Of course I didn’t like a lot of mainstream books either!)

As a Christian, did I need to write for the Christian market? Or should I just try to write great fiction, regardless of content or theme?

Over the years, I tried various things. Some worked and some didn’t. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t simply a Christian/secular issue, but a far more complex one. I had to understand the various kinds of fiction, determine whether I was going to write for the market or for myself, and strive to achieve excellence in all my work.

To begin with, I sorted the possible fiction markets into four categories and I decided I wouldn’t limit what I write but simply determine which ideas fit best in each category and write accordingly.

Category A

That which is commonly known as Christian fiction—stories that are comfortable and safe for evangelical Christians to read—no overt sex or violence or swearing, solid hope-filled themes, Christian characters another Christian can relate to, plot-lines which teach something good for a person who is already a Christian. Likely to be found primarily in Christian bookstores.

Many Christian writers, including myself, still sometimes find writing for category A frustrating. The restrictions can be stifling. Sometimes a character really needs to swear. Sometimes there can be no happy ending.

A surprising number of the Christian writers I’ve talked to (especially in Canada) say they don’t read a lot of Christian fiction because in the past so many of these stories have placed the message above the character and plot. These writers say they care more about well-written stories than stories with a Christian message. But the same authors who may not read much Christian fiction may still want to include a Christian perspective in the stories they write. Perhaps the hope is that the level of quality will be raised, and perhaps that is indeed happening.

Category B

Stories where the main theme or themes fit with Christianity—redemption, salvation, etc.—but the story may have elements that some evangelical Christians would be uncomfortable reading. Some will be close to category A (e.g. the Narnia books, the Mitford series), but others will have swearing or other unacceptable things in them. While some will be found in Christian bookstores, most will be found in secular bookstores or public libraries. (e.g. Susan Howatch.) These may be published by Christian companies, secular companies, or companies that have divisions in both areas.

Category C

Stories written by Christians but not specifically dealing with any Christian issues or themes. May be light or heavy. Likely to be found in only secular bookstores. (e.g. Dorothy Sayers, P. D. James). They are normally published by secular companies.

Category D

Stories with at least one character who comes to have a faith (or a stronger faith) in God. The evangelistic overtones can be overt or subtle. The goal is normally to have the reader make a similar decision. These stories are normally quite difficult to get published, especially if they are overtly evangelical. They are not really targeted for Christians and therefore may not interest Christian publishers, yet may be too Christian for a secular publisher/bookstore.

While many Christian writers veer toward this type of book, few publishers are actually looking for this kind of story.

Choosing

As I struggled over the years to decide which of these categories is the best one, I finally realized that none of them is any better or more sacred than the others. In other words, God calls Christians to write in every one of these categories. Some of us will stick to a single category; others will write in two or even three categories; a few of us will write in all four. But every Christian doesn’t have to write Christian fiction; and every book written by a Christian doesn’t have to have the gospel message in it. If we seek God’s direction, strive for excellence, and ask him to use not only our writing but every part of our lives, we will be fulfilling his call to be fiction writers.

 

Re-posted from January 2006. Copyright N. J. Lindquist, 2013. This article was first published in Exchange magazine in 2002. Not to be reprinted without permission.

You might also want to read a similar article I also wrote for Exchange magazine: Walking the Fiction Tightrope: Writing with Faith and Honesty.

  • James Howard says:

    Wow. I really needed this article. Currently I write under 2 different names so I can write in different genres. Sadly both are really me. Thanks so much for this article!
    – James Howard, author of “What So Proudly We Hailed”

  • L .R Tree says:

    Thank you for this article. I am writing a book that involves a murder-plot but no cursing or detailed sexual scenes. As a christian , I was hesitant about writing a book that does not have biblical principals . Your theory and categories clear up some of my concerns .

  • Naomi Johnson says:

    When I started reading books the church library was my main resource window. I quickly learned that Christian fiction was usually overly simplistic or poorly written. Patricia M St. John’s books were a welcome exception.

    Then, reading aloud the Narnia collection to my children, introduced me to the wonder and class of quality imaginative fiction. I no longer leaned on my church library after discovering Lewis.

    From there, I moved mostly to Christian non-fiction, enjoying the likes of Elisabeth Elliot , Corrie ten Boon, and in time, meatier theology (Lloyd-Jones and Packer for example) all of whom I privately ordered or picked up (occasionally) from my local Christian bookstore.

    Now, three-plus decades later, I’m neck deep in my own writing season (a spiritual memoir) and am deeply surprised at how under-connected, under-serviced, or under represented this genre is in the Canadian Christian market. Perhaps in the North American market. Another take on the fiction Christian writer conundrum.

    I imagine, thanks to the Word Guild and a few others (quality blogs are certainly helping) things are a thousand times better than they used to be.

    Still, it’s rather shocking to me how little market, visibility, interest, and community there is, in readily visible ways, that mentor, promote, and feature skilled Christian writing.

    Perhaps what Canada needs is the incorporation of MFA degrees or Creative Writing diplomas in our Christian colleges and universities? If this arm of education isn’t being recognized and promoted there, as it surely should be, how can we expect to develop enough thought and craft leaders, and a generation of appreciators of great Christian Canadian content?

  • Lissa Lima says:

    This is the most helpful advice I’ve ever read concerning the Christian writer dilemma because I have the same problem.

    I am a Christian but the stories I find myself writing aren’t all that “Christian”. I’ve tried writing for category A but always reach a roadblock.

    The best I can do is pray and let God, Himself, guide my work.

    Thank you very much.

    • njlindquist says:

      Thanks so much for your comment, Lisa!

      Agree, you have to figure out (with God’s help) where your heart is and write for that audience. I tend to write for Categories C and D myself. :)

  • Great article! I think the key to any of this is to infer. I’m writing a romance/thriller and it is clean, but there is still (obviously) a killer, FBI agents and police, and a heroine who has made a mistake in her past. I think the issue regarding profanity and death and sin in general is to infer it, not put it on display. I just read one Christian author whose character ‘muttered a curse’. And he was a Christian character. But now, I don’t have to have that word in my head. Of course, I don’t write sex scenes: my characters do have hedges up, and while there is desire there, it is handled the way a couple who is courting should handle it. I want it to be an example, as a single woman, on how we are to act. And I have many newlywed friends who handled it this exact way, so it’s not unrealistic. As far as the killer, I have ways of showing his coldness and inciting fear and showing him as a formidable adversary to my law enforcement, without being gratuitous. It’s like driving past roadkill, glancing at it, maybe catching a whiff, and driving on, knowing you have to be cautious on that road, as opposed to getting out of the car and going and playing with it. I’m no veteran writer, but from what I’m learning, the key is compelling, intelligent storytelling. Using the world’s words and ways isn’t necessary for that. By the way, I used to work with law enforcement and rode with one female deputy who didn’t cuss. We still had an exciting ride, some arrests, and she said that when one subject accused her of calling him a (cussword), no one believed him because they knew she didn’t cuss. There are Christian cops out there and no, they don’t cuss. And if they do, it doesn’t need to go in a book.

    • P A Robinson says:

      Thought-provoking article and your response is on point. I just want to follow up, as I’ve been pondering very similar thoughts in my attempt at writing a thriller (yes, a big leap from writing a kids’ book). The challenge is obtaining a “competitive” level of sensation and establishment of character, without including profanity or adulterous sex scenes. Can we take guidance from the narrative in the Bible of David’s adulterous affair with Bathsheba? If the goal is to make the situation as clear as possible, appeal to the reader’s emotions and keep them engrossed in the story, can we achieve that without providing a platform for immorality? Quite often profanity and explicit sex scenes are not used to drive the story, they are used to hook the reader by feeding lusts and appetite for the outrageous.

  • Gary Townsend says:

    Just stumbled upon (not via that social network) this article. Excellent article, by the way. The categories are interesting. Intriguing, even, but I’ve tended to approach it from a slightly different perspective, one that accommodates more “secular” fiction and more “Christian” fiction. When I’ve talked to fellow Christians about my ideas, I’ve found that some definitely wouldn’t like some of the stories I write (because of characters who swear, for example), and others who have no problem with it.

    My approach is this: We accept the Bible as the Word of God. It is the Truth, with a capital T. And what do we find there? We find that God gives us His commands and instructions on how to live. Yet we also find a lot of people who break those commands, who don’t follow those instructions. Some people commit murder. Others commit adultery. Some blaspheme. Some lie. Some cheat. People do all kinds of things, objectionable and commendable.

    So why is it that some Christians find those actions offensive when put into a *fiction* context, but have no problems with it in the Bible? I find that to be a most intriguing question.

    Many, including non-Christians, say that fiction is supposed to tell us the truth about the human condition. That sounds to me like it puts fiction right in the ballpark for any Christian. Or it should do. In the Old Testament and in the New, when people were adjured to “glorify God,” it often meant, “Tell the truth!” So, telling the truth, even in a fiction context, is God-glorifying, is it not? Christ told parables, and while they typically had a specific moral purpose, these were still stories, fiction. (I don’t think that means that all our fiction should have that purpose, although if people *are* doing wrong, readers *know* it, and readers — even when they’re not Christian — expect some kind of justice to follow as a result. They want the world to make sense.)

    With that as my foundation, the questions I have (which are pretty much rhetorical) are these: Why then should it be sinful for a character in fiction to sin? Is that not telling the truth about the human condition? People do swear, after all. People do murder. They lie, cheat, steal, etc. So, why shouldn’t fiction be truthful about this aspect of humanity?

    And then I started to notice that there are a lot of pithy statements in Proverbs that provide great themes for fiction. Some provide a great principle for characterizing fictional characters. To give one example…

    “All the ways of a man are clean in his own sight, but the Lord weighs the motives” (Prov. 16:2, NASB).

    There’s a principle that could go both ways for a fictional character, and it would all depend on his motives and his choices.

    Another example…

    “He who returns evil for good, evil will not depart from his house” (Prov. 17:13, NASB).

    In a mystery, someone typically commits a murder, yet there is also someone who seeks to bring the murderer to justice. That’s so thoroughly Christian we’d have to be blind not to see it.

    If you have a character who makes good, Christian choices most of the time, and she’s the hero of the story, you don’t need to search Proverbs for a godly theme for your story. Your character will provide it as a natural consequence of her actions as the story plays itself out. And that one principle, for me, is enough to know that the genre is irrelevant (unless it is explicitly sinful — porn being one example).

    • N. Craig Johnson says:

      I appreciate your line of reasoning Gary. Your 2nd paragraph is particularly one that illuminates a sound rationale (to me anyway) for allowing our ungodly characters to be who they are — ungodly!

      I remember reading Elisabeth Elliot’s one work of fiction years ago, and being surprised that she had one of her character’s swear. I wasn’t offended, just surprised. Elliot, after all, was one of the leading godly ladies and influencers of the 20th century, as far as North American authors/missionaries/speakers went.

      Thanks for sharing your good, and biblical, line of reasoning with us.
      :-)

  • David Dalrymple says:

    Thank you for this post/thread. I’ve struggled with this issue in the writing of a thriller that involves Mafia activities. My protagonist’s father is the boss of the the Philly mob. Nick chose a nobler path in becoming a surgeon yet is thrust into his father’s dark world when his mother (who was a faithful Christian) is killed in a car accident. Nick struggles with the idea of a God who allows or is unable to prevent suffering yet sees God working throughout the plot. I’ve tried to write scenes that involve mob activities (including murder) without any profanity and they just don’t come off as authentic. I fear my manuscript will be too edgy for Christian publishers and too Christian for secular publishers, yet I felt God leading me down this road. Time will tell.

    • N. Craig Johnson says:

      “Too edgy” for one group, “too Christian” for the other.

      My, how many, many times (not in my writing, but in my theology – grin) I’ve been in a parallel place.

      In your favor, at this time, is the far more open-minded world of publishing, on both sides — perhaps particularly so on the secular side but I can’t speak authoritatively on that. I imagine they’d perhaps be ahead of the Christian publishers on being willing to make room for the Christian / faith imprint in well written fiction. Mitford books for example, case in point. I’m sure there are many others.

      It will be interesting to discover what Christian based publishers pull ahead of the pack by not being afraid to let crude boldness have its necessary place, even as they uphold, overall, good faith-driven writing or plots.

  • O Majors says:

    I’m category B, C, and D. It is not that I’m not a Christian or don’t enjoy occasional Christian fiction. I just can’t write it. I like books with great themes, plots, character development, and struggle. I don’t consider swearing necessarily wrong, either. I will never take God’s name in vain. Any other words I use (examples being the other word for illegitimate, whore, or a-s-s) are used in context. I think violence can be used the same way. And romance (not heavy erotica, mind you, but kissing and the like). I’ve made some friendships of mine uncomfortable with concepts like this, but it’s just who I am. And I believe God is calling me to write for the secular YA group. I know their voice and I know what they will listen to. God’s using that.

  • I’ve needed to read this so much!!! I’m a relatively new Christian (I grew up going to church and yet my faith in God has grown to be deeper and closer than any other time in my childhood or over my teen years (when I really didn’t think too much about it). It’s part of my daily practice now and I feel SO much closer to God. Yet, as a fiction writer I’ve struggled greatly with what I would normally write about – I’ve written about supernatural topics and ghost stories and I’ve thought lately…that really really doesn’t feel right anymore. I’ve been contemplating and praying about it a bit (I should more) but finally decided to google this topic. Reading your post made me feel better about more guided about what I should write. I will pray about it more but now I feel like it’s less of a taboo for me. I’ve loved writing all my life and can’t imagine giving it up or only writing Christian fiction (which is nice but not something I’ve connected to a lot; although I definitely don’t want to write it off). Thank you!

  • Cynthia Dawn says:

    So true, NJ. While we often critique books from a literary/artistic standpoint, this brings up the question of how we should critique fiction authors for their “spiritual” decisions. That one is too moralizing. That one is too secular. That one is too dark. It’s hard to draw the line.

    Ultimately, our writing should come as an extension of our spiritual life and relationship with God. “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks”, or in this situation, “the pen writes”. We have to walk and write in his Spirit, and encourage the writers around us as they also endeavor to write out of the overflow of their hearts.

    • TZ says:

      WELL SAID. Allowing God to write and create together with us… Nothing can beat that!

      Be filled and moved by the Holy Spirit as we write and he will make our work supernatural and leak out glory to all the readers. We’re not just engaging minds but human spirits. I believe in God’s creative power to flow through my pen.

  • Great post! You made things clearer for me. :)

  • […] *Inspiration for this post:  The Dilemma of Being a Christian Who Writes Fiction […]

  • Lucien says:

    Awesome. Was struggling to figure this out :)

  • May I post a link to this article on my Twitter feed and LinkedIn update? (I’m a Category B and C-type editor, proofreader and reviewer.)

  • Rosemary Aubert says:

    This is a wonderful article and a great help to one who wants to write as a Christian writer no matter how that may work out.
    Rosemary Aubert

  • njlindquist says:

    Maria, I don’t think there is a firm “right or wrong” as to what genre of fiction we write. That said, I can’t see writing any benefit to writing porn or erotica. However, within normal genres, I think there is room for lots of fiction that isn’t blatantly Christian but still has an element that will come in because of one’s faith. Just as someone who is into saving the environment will likely have something about that somewhere, large or small, in what they write.

    A big thing is to understand who your target audience is and why. I’ll be talking about that one of these days.

  • I can definitely relate to this, thanks for posting. I am an incurable romanticist but as a Christian I too struggle with my stories as I do not want to write anything that would compromise my Christian values. I do write non fiction stories that are faith based and which I hope will inspire the reader, but I also write fiction in the romance genre. This is where I have to ask God for direction. I recently placed a story on hold because of this….. still struggling with it.

  • Janis Cox says:

    Excellent article.
    Blessings,
    Janis

  • Diana D says:

    It seems to me that you have a unique ability to articulate the questions I have rolling around in my head, and then answer them quite well indeed. I’m confident that God has called me to write, but what shall I write and to whom??? I know that I need more education in writing and much, much more practise, but I still felt torn as to what direction God was calling me to. You’ve answered many of my questions and have shone a light through a soupy fog. Thank you for your insight, experience and your inspiration.

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