Mike Duran over at deCompose had a lively discussion going last week about the purpose of Christian fiction. He posed a question – is the purpose discipleship or evangelism or both? -- and then answered it by saying that most of the Christian fiction published today is decidedly aimed at its targeted market – readers who are Christians. (For a non-Christian, “discipleship or evangelism” means writing for Christians to help them broaden or deepen their faith as opposed to writing to people who don’t share the Christian faith.)
I think Mike’s right. Stroll through a Christian bookstore, or the Christian fiction section at Barnes & Noble, and it’s pretty obvious who Christian fiction is published for (not to mention that a non-Christian would not likely be wandering around a Christian bookstore or the Christian fiction shelves at B&N). So Mike asks an additional, more provocative question – who should Christian fiction be aimed at?
It’s easy to end the discussion with “well, both, of course.” But for a Christian writer, the answer isn’t so simple, especially in the culture we live in today. If a lot of people don’t have the foggiest as to whom Noah was, or what a “road to Damascus” experience actually refers to, then you have to write very different kinds of stories than you might have even as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, if you're trying to reach a broader readership.
I had this discussion in mind as I read Michael Snyder’s novel Return Policy (I posted my review at Amazon earlier today). He’s published by a Christian publishing house (although one with a secular corporate parent) but his readers are likely to be Christians and non-Christians alike. The gospel message is there, but it’s not overt. Instead, Snyder achieves something more difficult. He doesn’t “tell” the gospel message; rather, he lets the story play out the gospel message so that the reader sees it.
Here’s my character description from the Amazon review: “Willy is a writer and college teacher, who can't deal with his wife's abandonment from years before and spends time trying to destroy what belonged to her, like the espresso maker, while he desperately misses her. Ozeena, a customer representative at the espresso maker manufacturer, was abandoned years earlier by her husband after he allowed their child to almost drown in the bathtub; she struggles to raise her brain-damaged son and competes for a promotion at work. And Shaq, a homeless man with large gaps in his memory (large as in almost total), is searching for his wife Patrice and searching for what is missing from his mind while almost fearing he's going to find it.”
Through the lives of these three characters, and a few of the minor ones, the reader experiences the healing of brokenness, faith, hope and love. Each character is struggling with the realities of life. Each reaches a decision point where it’s either take a leap of faith or accept being permanently broken. Each receives and gives grace. The novel isn’t the stereotyped sermon at a tent revival; it is the telling of the stories of people’s lives where we can see what faith actually means.
There were elements of “Return Policy” that reminded me of the oddball humor of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces and the stories of Flannery O’Connor. But Michael Snyder is an original, with an original voice and a decidedly original perspective. Return Policy does what good fiction, Christian or otherwise, should always do – broaden and deepen our understanding while forcing us to confront an old truth in a new way.