What Makes a Christian Author “Christian”?

I have come across a few readers, at various times, who avoid certain fantasy books just because the authors are Christian. No other reason is given; they even admit that, until they read a remark in another reader’s review, they didn’t know the author’s religious beliefs.

And it made me wonder why this matters. Can we only read works written by people who ascribe to our own systems of belief? Do these readers equally eschew the works of followers of Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, or no religion at all if it doesn’t mesh with their personal beliefs? Or is it only Christian authors who receive such treatment?

I can guess why. Many Christian authors are known for writing preachy material that seems written “by Christians, for Christians,” employing a mix of scripture, devotional sentiment, and “redeemed or redeemable characters” to reassure the reader that what their reading is appropriate, well worth the time spent. (In some ways, it reminds me of early novelists, who work to assure their readers that their novels contain morals and are appropriate reading material for young ladies and not just “sinful” diversions.)

But is this what Christian authors should look like? Judy R. Carlson, who recently wrote what could be considered the “Eighth Chronicle of Narnia” in her The White Knight, The Lost Kingdom, and the Sea Princess (which I haven’t read yet, but intend to try to get my hands on), discusses this challenge  in an article on her writing journey from A Pilgrim in Narnia:

“Unfortunately, there are a plethora of ‘Christian’ books out there but way, way too few books ‘written’ by Christians.  As the Medieval writers wrote and believed that we should hide or code our messages, ‘lest a profane man should tred upon the sacred,’ so should we.  My book is not a ‘Christian’ book but it is a book written by a Christian. “

IMG_0257 by wattersflores

C. S. Lewis himself noted the importance of considering a work by its own merits, and not primarily on the basis of the writer’s worldview,  in An Experiment in Criticism, using the art of sculpture for comparison:

“[A]n ‘appreciation’ of sculpture which ignored the statue’s shape in favour of the sculptor’s ‘view of life’ would be self-deception. It is by the shape that it is a statue. Only because it is a statue do we come to be mentioning the sculptor’s view of life at all.”

If a novel doesn’t succeed in being a good novel—in being true to its characters and dedicated to the integrity of its plot without any philosophical detours—it won’t be good as anything else. It will, perhaps, be one more of the Christian fiction devotionals that give Christian writers such a reputation, but Lewis didn’t support the idea that we could only read what reiterated our own view of life. He writes, “In good reading there ought to be no ‘problem of belief’…A true lover of literature should be in one way like an honest examiner, who is prepared to give the highest marks to the telling, felicitous and well-documented exposition of views he dissents from or even abominates.”

In a similar way, a true author who loves his own work will strive to show those characters, that world, that story as it is, even when dealing with characters who make choices contrary to what he or she would do in a similar situation. I don’t think focusing on a Christian message or ensuring that one character, at least, converts, is helping our cause or is creating great art, and I think this lack of pursuit for great art is why some readers avoid us like the plague.

“The great artist—or at all events the great literary artists—cannot be a man shallow either in his thoughts or his feelings. However improbably and abnormal a story he has chosen, it will, as we say, ‘come to life’ in his hands. The life to which it comes will be impregnated with all the wisdom, knowledge and experience the author has; and even more by something which I can only vaguely describe as the flavour or ‘feel’ that actual life has for him.”

C. S. Lewis

I think that’s what Christian writing should look like: good, creative, artistic writing that just happens to be infused with the flavor of Christianity from being handled by someone who strongly believes that Christianity is true. Nothing more, and yet nothing less. Not a denial, an apology, or a great deal of preaching, but a heartfelt exploration of the human condition with a Christian mindset behind the work, as a whole.

Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren

Photo by wattersflores, Creative Commons

27 thoughts on “What Makes a Christian Author “Christian”?

  1. If writing “just happens to be infused with the flavour of Christianity” it need not have any value and … “Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil” [C S Lewis]
    Because facts are ostensibly discovered and values are made, values can be dismissed or added by those arbitrarily imposing the values. So, if there are no standards or values inherent in our writing, then the reader will remain entertained, but uninformed, under the limits of his personal prejudices..

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    1. Thank you for being interested enough to offer a differing opinion!

      First, I would question whether the primary goal of writing is to educate. It certainly can do so, as we vicarious learn what it is like to live another person’s life, to see through their eyes, but I think this is the side effect and not the goal of novels. A novel should be, first and foremost, an excellent story and not strive for “educational merit” as the primary focus but as a side effect of being what it is. A good loaf of bread may make a good sandwich, but if it tries to be a sandwich while it’s baking, it will never be good as either.

      To your second point, I would argue that a novel infused with Christian-ness through being handled by a thoughtful, deeply convicted Christian will have moral values. Not all the characters, of course, but the main heroes will certainly manifest beliefs in right and wrong precisely because they are part of the novelist and those beliefs are so ingrained in the novelist as to be unavoidably passed on to his or her creation. If we have wishy-washy fiction by Christians, it may be due to the author’s own ambivalence about such moral values and not a reflection of whether the system of “just writing as a Christian” is a failure in producing fiction of quality. (And, if wishy-washy Christians felt compelled to add values that they only half-heartedly support, how would it improve their fiction? Wouldn’t it render their works as less effective, seeing how their morality would be a forced and feeble kind, and likely detectable by the reader as such?)

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      1. By the term “wishy-washy” I assume you mean without value or ambivalent? Bread cannot decide what it wants to be, the creator with the bread in his/her hands makes that decision and you don’t put pizza dough in the oven if you want a sandwich.

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      2. I’d say that wish wishy-washy are those who are blown about by doctrines, as referenced in Ephesians 4:14, or who are double-minded and unstable as discussed in James 1. They lack strong personal convictions or their convictions is “everything is acceptable,” and thus their writing, if it is to be a genuine reflection of their heart, is likewise broad and morally flexible.

        I think I’m going to have to write a post exploring this further; you’ve inspired a very interesting line of thought. And I agree that you wouldn’t make bread if you wanted pizza. If your goal is to educate, you will pick “ingredients” with that goal in mind, and even as a Christian author who is striving to make good art, the goal should be filtered through one’s convictions of what is good and acceptable and ideal, and thus, certain things will be unacceptable even if they could be artistic.

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      3. Eph 4:14 and James 1 relates to the fact that Jesus did not condemn sinners, He condemned hypocrites and that all of us must work on “single-mindedness” or “integrity” between “the Treasure in the earthern vessel” and the exterior soul . “The single minded, are those who are free from the tyranny of a divided self” (old and new) – integrity=integrated – their soul is in harmony and expressing exactly what their interior spiritual relationship with Jesus is. So if your writing, is to be a genuine reflection of your heart must be expressing the values that Christ puts forward.

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      4. I agree with you, in concept, but I disagree that those verses are about hypocrisy. I think 1 John 2:4, where it talks about those who know Jesus will keep his commandments, and 1 John 1:16, where it says that we cannot have fellowship with him and walk in darkness are more applicable.

        Ephesians 4:14 discusses the state of “baby Christians:” “that we may no longer be children, tossed back and forth and carried about with every wind of doctrine…” If a Christian is not deeply in fellowship with Jesus, then they may be led astray to expressions of Christianity that do not involve a deep moral conviction, at which point they may say “Lord, Lord,” and yet have their hearts far from his teachings and precepts (and their fiction will likely reflect this). At which point, the problem isn’t so much in what they write as it what is in their heart in the first place.

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    1. I think we are saying the same thing in different language. If your heart (spirit, inner being soul) is not right, and expressing itself outwards through the physical (mind, body, flesh) it won’t matter what they write.

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  2. This could apply to any number of belief systems held by a writer. It tends to be pretty obvious if a writer is using his or her characters or storylines as mouthpieces for his or her own religious, political, etc., beliefs, instead of including those kinds of characters and storylines because it naturally fits with the overall book. When a writer incorporates his or her own views, it shouldn’t be the book’s entire focus. Otherwise it just seems like a long, preachy lesson with ciphers instead of characters.

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    1. It takes a very wise or very experienced individual who has walked in other people’s shoes for a while to have the intelligence and lack of prejudice to be able to really see, understand and empathize with different perspectives, simply because …”What you see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing; it also depends on what kind of person you are” [C S Lewis]

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  3. Indeed, what is most important is crafting a good story with well rounded characters. Christian writers should do all it takes to hone their writing skills as excellence not mediocrity should be our goal.
    The audience is important here. If you are writing a fiction for Christians only, the language and style would certainly not be the same as it would be if your audience is a more general population. We should avoid a “preachy”stance which easily turns people off.

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  4. Andrea, this is a prickly point for many authors and readers. There is a lot of truth however in making characters true to themselves. They must cohere, a thing that Stephen King, of all people, brought out to me in his book On Writing. Great post, and keep writing!

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  5. On Sept. 12, 1940, C S Lewis wrote to Eliza Marian Butler, a University of Manchester professor at the time, stating that the kernel of his book “The Personal Heresy” was “Don’t attribute superhuman qualities to poetry unless you really believe in a superhuman subject to support them.” There is, i believe, a Christian sub-text to Lewis’s position: poetry, and I am suggesting literature as well, can do great things only if there is a great God in and behind the text.

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    1. I would think that is a general, Christian principle. After all, every good and perfect gift comes from above according to James 1:17. So our talent and any good we create comes from God in the first place.

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    1. In “The Allegory of Love” C S Lewis implies that it is important to know the author’s motives or “inner conflict”(the “bellum intestinum”, the internal psychological struggle which lies at the root of allegory) in the first place before seeking any value or truth in the work because – “The allegorist leaves the given – his own passions – to talk of that which is confessedly less real, which is a fiction. The symbolist leaves the given – his own passions – to find that which is more real. [C S Lewis ].

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