Every so often, a controversy about Christian fiction erupts online, that is, a controversy between Christians.
In one corner is the small but growing band of writers reaching to break through what is still a recognizable monolith of Christian fiction publishing. They seek to transcend it and engage the larger popular culture.
In the other corner, and it is a crowded and rather loud corner, are the traditionalists who are just fine, thank you, very much, with Christian fiction remaining a genre very separate from popular and literary fiction.
The arguments rage particularly over quality of the writing in Christian fiction. I read a lot of fiction, both Christian and “secular” (and by “secular” I mean both popular and literary). I don’t engage in the Christian fiction controversies, but I will say this: those who would transcend the Christian fiction genre have more of a point about quality than those who are adamant about saying within the genre’s boundaries and market. They’re not entirely correct, but they do have more of a point.
In Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, Brett McCracken discusses three phases in the development of Christian attitudes toward art. He’s considering music specifically, but what he says applies across the board of all of the arts.
The separational phase was the original Christian arts ghetto – no involvement in and keeping at least two arms’ lengths from popular culture. Actually, it was likely less a ghetto and more the kingdom of No Involvement Whatsoever. The integrational phase started roughly in the 1970s – the broad adoption of secular arts forms by Christians, so we had our own Christian fiction, our own Christian music (including rock and heavy metal), and our own Christian movies.
The latest phase is what McCracken calls the transformational – and it’s the one gaining increasing acceptance among Christians today. It is the idea that we are to participate in culture, not to be taken over by it but to redeem it. This was articulated by Dutch Reformed theologian Abraham Kuyper more than a century ago, Francis Schaeffer in the 1960s and 1970s, and numerous artists and theologians today.
I have to ask – where does my own work fit in these three phases?
I’ve now authored three published books – two novels and a non-fiction work. With the first novel, I did what most if not all writers who happen to be Christian do: I sent the manuscript to the agents who specialize in Christian fiction for the Christian fiction market. I figured they were the best possibilities I had for the manuscript, which was about an Anglican priest falling in a love with a non-believer.
The agents for Christian fiction didn’t like it. It was uniformly if politely rejected with the impersonal form email rejection notices. Some of the agents’ requirements for submissions were extensive – and I’m not talking about two or three hours of work but more like 20 or 30 hours of work. A two-sentence form rejection notice after that kind of effort is, well, you probably know what my reaction was. One direct interaction with an editor at a Christian publishing house almost ended any interest I had in having anything to do with Christian fiction; the editor wasn’t being critical of my work but was offering one of the nastiest assessments I had ever heard anyone make of the Christian fiction market.
Let’s hope I caught the editor on a bad day.
Then I went to a general (not Christian) writer’s conference. I met with an editor who was unbelievably encouraging. I sat with 12 other writers in a seminar with an agent who had us read each other’s work, and the agent responded to mine with some surprising praise. She was short, gravel-voiced from likely too many years of smoking, tough as nails – the almost stereotyped picture of the New York agent – and she was indeed from New York City. “I don’t handle your kind of manuscript,” she said, “but it’s good; it’s powerful stuff.”
What I came away with was an understanding – I was not actually writing for a Christian reader or a Christian market. When the novel was finally published some three years after that conference, it appealed to non-Christians as much as it did to Christians, and perhaps even more so. “It’s a love story,” one said, “but I could read it to my kids without being embarrassed.” Another said “it appeals to the heroic in all of us; it makes us want to be that hero.” And that’s when I realized I had a problem – my fiction didn’t fit a preconceived genre. I was in a kind of literary No Man’s Land.
If you read my new non-fiction book, Poetry at Work, you will find virtually no references to faith or God (I can’t even recall any). And yet I would argue that faith is the belief system underpinning everything in it.
It sounds like, without planning it or even realizing it, I landed in the transformational camp.
Over at The HighCalling, we’re discussing Gray Matters. Today, Shawn Smucker considers what McCracken has to say about music. To see his post and the discussion, please visit The High Calling.
Photograph via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.