Christian Fiction: Let's Address It

[I'm going to say the word "Christian" a whole heckin' lot in this post.  I'm aware that my synonym game is not on-point today.]

Many of us have been poking fun at Christian historical romance for quite some time.  Everyone knows about the stereotypical problems that (often) run wild in those books.  But lately, I've become more concerned by a newer wave of Christian literature: the Christian YA, the Christian contemporary, and the Christian fantasy.

Christian romance, at the very least, is more or less self-aware, and it has a very specific goal and a reasonably specific demographic.  I get the feeling that neither the genre itself nor its devotees tend to take it all that seriously.  Not so, I find, these newer offerings.

So let's talk about that.

Our reaction to Elder Bednar's talk about sharing the gospel online

[Note: I could also address some of the issues with the Hot Mess that is the world of Christian film, but I don't want to make this post tediously long, so that will have to wait for another day.  But, for the record, when I say "Christian fiction," Christian movies are most certainly included.]

The "I'm Not Like Other Girls" Phenomenon of Christian Fiction (Romantic & Otherwise)

I recently started a YA Christian fantasy (double whammy) which I did not finish for a number of reasons.  What bothered me most were the warning signs I saw within the first few pages, symptoms of a disease that Christian novels seem to contract in disturbing numbers: the "I'm Not Like Other Girls" Syndrome.

[You thought this was restricted to secular YA, did you not?  You fools.  You fell victim to one of the classic blunders.  (The most famous is 'Never get involved in a land war in Asia' . . . )]

In all seriousness, have you noticed Christian writers' preoccupation with creating protagonists that are Startlingly Different™?  Have you noticed how, when these characters encounter an unbeliever, the unbeliever almost instantly observes "something unique" about them?  Typically, it has to do with the Christian character "not being afraid of death" (gasp), or "being committed to chastity" (gasp the 2nd), or, above all, "Not Being Interested in That Beer Because It Leads to Drunkenness & Disorderliness, Thank You Very Much" (world without end, amen).

^^ all Christian authors ^^

Dana Scully: Skepticism Intensifies
^^ all readers ^^

And, look, I get that we are called in the Bible to be "set apart" from the world, and to live our lives in such a way that unbelievers do see us and start to wonder what force dwells within us, changing us so completely.  We are supposed to be unique, to draw others toward the irresistible, undeniable grace and love that they observe in us.

I appreciate that.  What I don't appreciate is Christian authors' failure to recognize the fact that, as a general rule, we don't do that.  I'm bothered by the inauthenticity of the way Christian characters model the Christian lifestyle in Christian fiction.

Christians are not ⎼ systemically speaking ⎼ nicer, braver, or humbler than non-Christians.  Know why?  It's because Christians are not yet ⎼ systemically speaking ⎼ spiritually mature.  We have an amazing Lord; the only true one, and he is deserving of all praise and glory.  But we ourselves are still, in general, petty and hypocritical little hellions.

That's okay.  Hellions can be lovable.  We don't need to be threatened by acknowledging the truth about ourselves.  We certainly don't need to fear that doing so will jeopardize the legitimacy of our gospel, as if the God of the universe could be shaken by the failure of his followers.  What we do need to do is own up to it.

Again I will say, Christians are not ⎼ systemically speaking ⎼ nicer, braver, or humbler than non-Christians.  So kindly stop pretending that they are in the novels you write about them. 

Rather than having your Beneficent Mentor Guy shock & astound the Secular Youth with whom he has connected with the news that he is not, in fact, afraid of dying, create an older Christian who is absolutely bat-crazy terrified of death.

Rather than having your Angelic Wunderkins Heroine confine all her anger to infinitesimal flickerings of resentment deep in her deepest Heart of Hearts, give her tantrums and insecurities that would make Jo March die of shame.

Rather than having your Stolid (But Sincere) Farm-Boy Hero be the one who will never stand by when the disadvantaged are being bullied, let him be positively schooled in compassion & courage by a Muslim or LGBT character.

These things happen.  These things are happening now.  Please recognize that.

gay rich mac!: Photo

"But Olivia," you say, "older Christians shouldn't be afraid of death, etc. and so forth.  Aren't we supposed to challenge and inspire each other?  'Spurring one another on,' and all that?  Shouldn't we be creating role models?"

Of course we shouldn't be afraid of death if we have the hope of eternal life in us.  But a lot of us are.  And maybe, instead of seeing that as a sign of our spiritual failure, we should start looking at it as it actually is: a normal reaction to an unknown process, which we need our Savior's help in overcoming.

Of course we should be challenging and inspiring each other.  But comparing ourselves to fictitious human angels is not the way to go.  For the reader who is struggling in some area, a perfect character will do nothing constructive.  And, moreover, a character whose only weakness (or "imperfection") lies in some fabricated goody-two-shoes nonsense will only serve to discourage someone who has an actual spiritual problem. 

Fix it.  Please.  We're begging you, here.

actual footage of me giving up on the entire
Christian genre forever

(Oh, and one more thing:  If you could also try to work on improving the caliber of your writing itself, in general, from a technical standpoint, that'd be fantastic.  Thanks.  Snarky McSnarkster out.)



    *cue the Tom Hanks gif of me typing*

    Okay so like--I hadn't consciously noticed this or thought about it in a while, but the "I'm Not Like Other Girls" syndrome IS REAL, FAM. And it can be a real problem in these Christian YA books. Because it's setting up a model of Christian girls as, like, crazy-pure and crazy-devoted and crazy-good-tempered-all-the-time, and comparing them to the non-Christian girls in the story in this really, really pharisaical way [hope I spelled that correctly], one which comes perilously close to slut-shaming and internalized misogyny.

    And I DO know exactly which Christian fantasy series you mean--and I think that attitude did sort of bother me when I first started reading??--but I read the series at a time when I'd been experiencing a lot of 'coldness' and doubt in my faith for a long long time, and I was trying to Rekindle it, as it were. So I think I put down my own discomfort with the unrealistically-good heroine to "oh, you unbeliever, you just don't want to be told to be good & devout." *bashes self on the head*

    Which is noooooooooooot a healthy attitude. ;-)

    I'm with you. We need Christian YA / Christian fantasy that portrays Christian characters realistically [ie, Not Even Close To Perfect], and which "meets them where they are," so to speak. Cuz that's how God interacts with us: He meets us where we are.

    ALSO I'm so sick of the lie that Christians are somehow the //only// good, brave, kind, or compassionate people in this world. Like, shut UP.

    *deep breaths*

    #that was a mini rant

    1. It is real. But, honestly, what bothers me most is not even how females are portrayed in these books: it's how all believers are portrayed in these books. I was more upset by the Beneficent Mentor Guy in That One Christian Fantasy Series than by the heroine (partially because I hadn't seen all that much of her yet). The fakery is honestly kind of exhausting to read, for me. And a lot of that is because, as you point out, a part of me still thinks that my objections are only coming from a place of "rebellion" that doesn't WANT to have good examples put before it. But I think, praise God, that I'm slowly coming out of that. ;)

      AMEN HALLELUJAH. It's about ready to get on my last nerve, as they say--both the inauthentic portrayal of Christians and the inaccurate estimation of non-Christians.

  2. I haven't really noticed it, because truthfully, I haven't read a Christian novel in 20 years. My problem with them was more that none of them really held my interest that much (and that's not specifically a Christian fiction issue, most modern novels don't).

    But I agree that books in general need to step away from stereotypical tropes, and that the Good Boy/Girl is overdone.

    I wouldn't argue that most believers are no different from non-belivers, though I'd say that Christians struggle a lot more with not being MORE so, in an idealistic sense. I beat myself up over my flaws 120% more often than my secular friends seem to, because they don't have this insanely high spiritual standard hounding them. They don't wake up every day with the pressure to "be more like Jesus" dominating their low points ("I should have done that better." "I should have been kinder, even if that person did scream at me in the parking lot and flip me off." "I should not have been rude...").

    Just... I guess, for Christian fiction my wish would be -- don't preach. Be real. But also be MORE.

    1. There are lots of reasons to pass on Christian novels. XD

      I wouldn't argue that believers are NO different from non-believers, either. I just don't think they're universally different in the specific WAYS that Christian fiction implies that they are.

      Inability to let go of mistakes is definitely something I struggle with, too, and it certainly complicates it to have the "additional" pressure of impersonating Jesus.

      "Don't preach. Be real. But also be MORE." << A big ole "Amen to that".

    2. Perhaps not. I can't really speak to it, not having read one in... ah. Well, wait. I did read that novel about Martin Luther a year or two ago that made smoke come out of my ears! ;) I had this really, rage-filled rant I wanted to post on Goodreads, but in the end felt sorry for the poor author and just said it wasn't to my taste. But that book was "typical" Protestant fiction -- any and all Catholics were Evol. Martin Luthor fell in love. The heroine kept having a "burning sensation" in her "stomach" whenever she looked at him. (Because Christian books can't go any lower than that, and as we all know, sexual desire manifests as indigestion. Ahem.)

      You know, the best Christian novel I ever read wasn't even "Christian." But I suspect it started the trend that you dislike, of the good / culturally different boy / girl. "A Walk to Remember" by Nicholas Sparks. That heroine, to me, was a believable Christian girl, because I was / am that girl. Optimistic. Too much faith in other people's inherent goodness. Things I won't do, because it's against my beliefs. Etc.

      Any time anyone tells me Christianity is a crutch for the weak, I want to beat them with it. It's not easy to think back over your day and about how you could have done better, or to hold yourself up to a ridiculously high standard. If I were lazy or weak, I'd much rather not do it. And yet... I do. A lot of people do. And IMO that makes them strong.

  3. I grew up in a Christian household but am not a Christian and feel weirdly between worlds judging from the internet world although I'm sure there are others out there. I have to say that I disagree that Christians don't act different, I think it depends on the person, the denomination, etc. I tend to think that most people who profess Christianity are false professors for one thing, its just too much of a cultural thing in America or in one's household, just doing as one is told, going through the motions. For another thing, I really think the people brought up homeschooled, strict, etc. really can have NO idea of the kind of sexual behaviors and substance abuse. I'm almost 30 and tend to OCD, so finding out about a whole lot more now seriously grosses me out; I thought I knew stuff but oh boy I didn't. I just think sometimes we don't realize how sheltered we were.

    The mean girl backstabbing, gossipy, easily offended culture on the other hand, seems to be everywhere.

    Anyway, I read or rather skimmed Christian fiction ages back. It's the intellectual dearth and feelsy nonsense that bothers me. Throwing God in what is secular nonsense. Except for some exceptionally bad YA, its the dumbest stuff I've ever read. And unfortunately, I think some people do take it seriously.

    I don't include children's fiction, some of my favorite middle-grade books were Christian fiction and they were of a infinitesimally much better caliber.

    I've started the Tales of Goldstone wood, those are fantasy Christian fiction and also much better quality, but I don't think I noticed any of the things you mentioned.

    I think the problem with the Startlingly Different™ or whatever trend for me, is if it's being thrown at me and also ends up not really being so. I don't want average characters, I don't find that inspiring, but I do want real characters, people who are believable, who are shown to us rather that TOLD.

    1. Absolutely. A lot of us are very sheltered from certain cultural norms, even if that may not protect us from other things we'll encounter even in the most sheltered homeschool life.

      "Intellectual dearth"--exactly.

      I read the first book of Goldstone Wood, and I was completely torn about it because it had a whole host of OTHER "Christian" things that bothered me (I did a whole post about it). But it was also quite well-written and I loved certain other aspects of it. So I have the second book on my shelf waiting to be read. I'm interested to see what I think of it.

      YES, EXACTLY--if they're going to be extraordinary characters, that's great. But don't PRETEND that they're shockingly unique if they either a) aren't or b) are in a way that's ridiculously unbelievable.

    2. I don't know if I missed your Goldstone wood post or if I was avoiding spoilers/affecting my view (sometimes I want to read things after so they don't affect my viewpoint or if I forgot, but I'll have to look it up . . . once I finish them . . . or decide I'm done. They're a bit of a slow slog, but after the most of the junk that is Christian fiction, I thought I should try a bit to like them.

  4. Okay. Wow! I get where you are coming from, but it's not something I've found to be extremely prevalent in the books I read. If, I feel like the story is too sanitized or false in it's depiction of Christianity I don't read it.

    I don't read strictly Christian fiction, though I read a lot of it. And I have to say it has drastically improved in the last several years when it comes to being more realistic and also in the writing itself. I want to encourage you not to give up on it altogether and keep looking for Christian authors who authors with a Christian world view who write the type of stories you are looking for. Because they are out there. Authors like Catherine West, Clarissa Harwood, Amy Matayo, Jenny B Jones, Janet W Ferguson among others are helping lead the way.

    1. Hee, I'm not actually giving up on the ENTIRE genre. There are a few Christian books that I actually do love! Like Christy, Love Comes Softly, Hinds Feet on High Places, etc. And I've heard encouraging things about Roseanna M. White. Thanks for the recs!

  5. Yes! I don't usually read Christian fiction, but I absolutely agree with this. I mean, it's good to have role models in books that can lead you forward, but it is 10x more powerful when the character has flaws in the beginning and overcomes them showing is how to. Great post!

  6. You're definitely on to something. My dear friend wrote her first Christian YA novel and while it did have some simple faith moments, I don't think it had all the marks of "I'm not like other girls." The main girl really had a hard time being nice to an old cranky lady, she got annoyed with her brothers, and her parents struggled.

    Your post is really interesting and now I will definitely have a heightened awareness of this shortcoming, I think. Thanks for sharing!!

    1. Thank YOU for sharing, Sarah! I think, also, some of these flaws will translate differently to different people. So what I think is a "not like other girls" shtick might not be a "not like other girls" shtick to you.

  7. Totally agree with this post. I like things like Hinds' Feet on High Places, and Till We Have Faces, that have heroines with actual spiritual problems who actually overcome them with God's help.

  8. Haha!! That first gif. XD

    Okay! So! I have many thoughts...

    First of all, I don't actually read much Christian fiction of any sort, to be honest. (I read heaps of Christian non-fiction. ;)) Other than actual biographies or historical fiction books on Christian real-life people (like the trailblazer series). Or Narnia. Or Elsie Dinsmore but DON'T GET ME STARTED.

    To be honest, I think the reason why I love reading classics so much is because a lot of them tend to have more "morally sound" ideals in them, as opposed to this day and age. I'm thinking along the lines of Anne of Green Gables (they acknowledged God), Little Women (they were real, flawed characters who were trying to better themselves, there was a strong theme of family, which I also love), Dickens books (where again, there are often Christian values/morals loosely scattered throughout), or Tolkien (themes of light fighting darkness and winning; themes of hope and courage and love and valour); and that's enough for me. I don't tend to read fiction to get much spiritual growth from it, if that makes sense.

    I HAVE found the "I'm not like other girls//sssooo unique" stereotype as overused, and am ashamed to admit I'd often target that in my own writing through my youth. ;) I think it's so much more powerful to SHOW that than to say it. If you think your character is unique, don't say so - let your READERS say so.

    If I'm going to be 100% honest, I'm a little torn about what you said. You said that Christians really aren't any nicer/kinder/braver than non-Christians. That makes me sad, because I think you have a point. I have met some non-believers who are perfectly LOVELY people, and I love spending time with them and their joyous, kind temperament. And on the flip-side, some of the cruelest people I've come across in life have been professing Christians, and it disgusted me to think that they who are called to love others are really hating and judging them instead.
    I think it greatly depends on the people themselves. I WANT to say that Christians are kinder/braver, but I don't know if I can. I think they might be more consciously striving to be, but we are all a flawed mess. But their hearts, I believe, are not the same as they were before they knew Christ, and there is power in that. I know Christians who are very religious and legalistic and judgemental are not the people that come to mind when you say brave/kind/loving, but there are also those who truly SHINE Jesus' light, and they are the greatest display of such virtues that I have ever met, and I don't believe you would ever find that in someone who doesn't know Christ. There are many different "kinds" of Christians, but I believe people who have a deep, dependent, grace-based relationship with God will always be more loving/kind/braver than those who do not.
    But that's just my experience/thoughts. :)

    I DO love your ideas, though! I DEFINITELY applaud anyone who will write a character that is real and struggles and is relatable, because no one needs a goody-two-shoes. I believe the best characters are those that are obviously, relatably flawed, but they strive to grow and change, which they do (at least in part), and the story gives you strong hope that you can grow and change, too. That it's OK to be flawed, but it's important to move forward.
    Now you've inspired me to go and write characters like that in my novel that I should be working on. ;)


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