Writing Christian fiction is kind of like dating. There’s no book of rules, but you know when you’ve broken one!
One of those unwritten maxims goes something like this: Christian characters cannot have “bad” traits or habits unless they a) repent of these actions at some point or b) are clearly “bad” characters, be they non-Christian or faux Christian.
For example, say a character has a nasty temper. He must either be a bad guy or stop having a temper by the end of the book. If you don’t accomplish this, then your character is deemed “inappropriate.”
Black or white. Clearly saved or clearly not. No ambiguities, no moral grays.
When Christians wrote this rule in invisible ink and hid it in the mountains somewhere, they forgot a key Christian tenant: grace.
Where is the grace in such books?
Grace is the idea that you are not and cannot be perfect, that God must intervene and give you what you need. More importantly, it’s all you need–not works, certainly not perfection.
So why are we subtly told to write like this is not true? Why are Christian fiction characters told to get their act together by the Acknowledgements section or be written off as villains and phonies?
Who are we trying to fool? What message are we sending? Perfection or go home?
I know we call it “fiction,” but the irony of fiction is that it’s so good at telling the truth. Why else would Jesus use parables? No matter how fake a story is, it must resonate some form of reality or the reader won’t buy it. This is called “suspension of disbelief,” when we can put aside our “Yeah right” reaction because the truth pulls us into the lies.
All good fiction tells some kind of truth, and the truth is that Christians aren’t perfect. We don’t get our acts together in 300 pages. And there are Christians with varying levels of freedom. One does something that would make the other gasp, but both have Jesus as their savior. That is the truth.
But Christians aren’t told to write this way. We’re told these are “bad examples” and that they should be snuffed. We’re told to only raise up models of piety and perfection, as though Jesus weren’t enough. We’re told that Christianity is some magic pill that makes everything better.
What about addictions that grapple us all our life? What about the homosexual who finds love in Jesus, but can’t find his gay on/gay off switch? What about the father who prays for his son every night, but can’t seem to to reconcile with him?
What about the people who close the back cover on their life and still don’t have it all together? What about all the cliffhangers and unresolved endings out there?
What about David, who was a man after God’s own heart, but also a lusty paramour? What about Samson, a judge of God and world-class moron? What of Adam and Eve who never saw Eden again?
If these half-baked screw-ups are good enough for the Bible, then why aren’t they good enough for freaking fiction?!
In 2 Corinthians 12, when Paul cried out for God to take away his “thorn in the flesh,” God said no. “My grace is sufficient for you.” As far as we can tell, God never took away this “thorn,” whatever it was. A paragon of faith, yet he never achieved perfection.
Because he didn’t need to. His sins were covered by the grace of God. So are yours, if you’ve put your faith in Him. So are mine. That’s what ultimately matters. Yes, that person may have sinned, no they shouldn’t do x, y, or z, but our job as Christians isn’t to fix all the problems in everyone we see; it’s to love them and show them that God’s grace is good enough for all of it.
Don’t put a timer on God’s work in progress.
We need grace in our fiction. We need grace for our fiction. For one thing, our art will never grow and never speak truly unless we allow it to be as imperfect and realistic as we are.
But more importantly, our faith needs a constant message. If our pulpits say “grace,” but our books say, “good Christians get it all together,” then we are hypocrites. If we can’t love fictional characters who never really sinned, how can we love real people whose mortal flesh drags them through the mud every day?
Grace. Write it down.
5 thoughts on “Christian Fiction: Where’s the Grace?”
A very good point. I have very much felt this in life in general. As Christians, we are not perfect, only Jesus was. And the one thing that everyone in the bible had in common was: Even though they sinned, and fell short of the glory of God; they always drew back to Him. And that, for me is what I feel is most important- Drawing near to our Heavenly Father and His Son. Thank You for sharing!
Awesome! One of my favorite of your blogs.
Interesting post. I predominantly read Christian fiction and I would say that for me the making of a great book is when I see evidence of character development, i.e repentance and spiritual growth. This is not to say I expect perfect characters, to the contrary I find books like that unrealistic. I guess I expect some sort of resolution for major character flaws or at the very least awareness and an attempt to deal with those flaws. I guess such books remind me that I’m also a work in progress. Most of the people I’ve discussed christian fiction with usually share the same sentiments. I do however get what you mean. By my reasoning David would not make a great hero. Thanks for sharing. Definitely food for thought.
Character development is certainly important in most characters, and Christian characters should certainly be improving and/or resolving the major issues of the book–it is, after all, a book. As you observed, my problem is when they go beyond development into sainthood. As if they would never sin or struggle again. That, to me, seems unrealistic and even dangerous in excess. Thanks for your comment!
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I think instead of trying to hard to make sure they “end up” in the “right” place in the end, look at the direction that they’re headed in. That should be a strong indicator in itself.