Monday, January 15, 2007

What's Wrong With God?

We’ve all encountered it. We’re engrossed in a well written secular novel and suddenly the protagonist is thrown into a situation so catastrophic any normal person would cry out to God—but it doesn’t happen. Why is that? Is there something wrong with mentioning God? Foxhole conversions may not stand the test of time, but they’re common nonetheless. If there’s one thing secular authors are good at it’s painting realistic characters, yet even when the bullets are whizzing by it seems their characters refuse to ask God to save them, which tends to make such characters patently unrealistic.

I used to read more secular fiction than Christian because worldly authors had less trouble illustrating the depraved nature of man. Christian authors tend to step lightly around evil. This sugarcoating of sin may make characters less offensive, but it also makes them less believable. Thank God—and I do―this is changing. I know several authors on this blog alone who are cutting against the grain, and from different angles. N.J. Lindquist writes her mystery fiction primarily for a secular market, but doesn’t shy away from putting God into the mind of her characters when it’s called for. Deborah Gyapong boldly writes characters with an expressed dark side, but publishes for the Christian market. Linda Hall presents a crossover, writing for both markets while skillfully showing the foibles of man and the need for redemption.

Now if we can only get Christian authors to stop shying away from delivering a message. Last year at Write Canada, a Canadian Christian writer’s conference sponsored by the Word Guild, I had the privilege of joining Deborah Gyapong on a panel that discussed the topic of message driven fiction. It was one of the better panels I’ve been on. The opinions expressed were as strong as they were divergent. Some said putting a message into fiction got in the way of the story and diminished the quality of the work. Others argued that a story without a message was mere entertainment, and had limited value.

Whatever a person’s point of view, one thing can be said: message driven fiction is here to stay. It has been around since the beginning of literature and will be around until the end. Consider how “Aesop's Fables,” from early Greek literature, were always tied to a moral message. In “A Christmas Carol” Dickens told us money can’t buy happiness; Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” reinforced the idea that our sin will find us out; in “Billy Bud,” Melville shared with us how envy in the heart of man leads to the shedding of innocent blood; Conrad showed us in “Heart of Darkness” that unrestrained living can only lead to evil, and Harriet Beecher Stow used “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” to expose the offence of slavery.” These books are considered literary classics. Literature with a message was so common when I was growing up, I often heard the phrase: “What’s the moral of the story?”

Yet today we’re told Christians shouldn’t be so transparent in their writing, that it’s poor taste to write with an agenda. No one wants to be preached at. If we’re to sell books, the message needs to be watered down to where there’s really no message at all. Meanwhile contemporary secular authors like Jonathan Franzen in “A Strong Motion,” and John Irving in “The Cider House Rules,” sell abortion as a virtue, and Scott Turow in “Personal Injuries,” tells us Euthanasia is the equivalent of compassion.

Make no mistake, message driven fiction will always exist. It’s sad the secular world has, for he most part, determined to focus on the evil while abandoning its obligation to provide a moral solution. Perhaps, as Christians, it’s time to use our craft to overcome evil—with good.


Anna Dynowski said...

I like Keith's statement: "Perhaps as Christians, it's time to use our craft to overcome evil--with good."

As Christians and as Christian authors, I believe we have an obligation to give the world an alternative, a godly alternative.

I, too, have been told to water down the message, don't preach, and especially don't use the name of Jesus in my writing (if I want to sell my books)--all this is offensive to the reader.

I have an obligation, a desire to give the reader an alternative.

Thanks, Keith, for your words of encouragement.

Anna Dynowski

D.S. Martin said...

Good point, Keith! To me it's important that when there's a message given, you aren't telling the reader what to think, but drawing them to come to the conclusions on their own. This means respecting your reader. It's also important, as Keith has said, that your characters' reactions are believable. Neither running to God when it doesn't seem likely, nor dodging bullets without a cry of prayer.

I found it insightful in the most recent season of "The Amazing Race", that contestants (who seemed otherwise ungodly) quickly called out for God's protection when they were in frightening situations.


N. J. Lindquist said...

Thanks for posting this Keith, and the kind words.

Contrary to what a lot of Christians might think, I believe fiction is actually much more powerful than nonfiction in terms of hitting people where they are, making them think, and changing lives. I know firsthand the influence fiction has had on my life.

I wrote a couple of articles on that a few years ago. You can read them at

Funny. Reading a good story just seems too much like play to be good for you! But does everything that's good for you have to feel like work?

N. J.

Marci said...

Interesting thoughts on the way secular writers scoot around the fact that most people call out to God when they're in trouble. I guess creating "unrealistic" work doesn't only happen in the CBA. :)
Appreciate your perspective, Keith.

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