Monday, January 24, 2011

Beyond the Shadow of the Cross

So I was planning on writing a light little piece, giving you some giggles about my writing obsession during the daily grind. But conviction came fast, and I couldn't resist going a little deeper and stirring up some conversation about the industry that is CBA.

It is refreshing to pick up a good wholesome book, identify with a Christian character who is just trying to make Godly decisions in a messed up world. You know as you turn each page, you won't be slammed with a sex scene that makes you blush while your toddlers play on the floor next to you, and you won't find words that give you a sudden appetite for a big ol' bar of soap.

But what if you opened a Christian fiction book, and characters you grow to love don't follow Christ, and never do in the story?

My first question to you is: can we write Christian fiction with ungodly main characters—Christians who just don't get God's grace and are bound to a legalistic, pharisaical worldview, remaining that way through the story; Or the atheist who, because of this type of Christian, has sworn off God, but still has a heart of gold, and impacts a Christian main character in a positive way?

Well, of course we can, but what if we don't end the book with everyone stepping over that faith line...what if we have these types of characters and with great frustration on the readers part, they have no spiritual growth whatsoever? Maybe they are present in the story to highlight a specific theme. Or they push the protagonist along a journey towards God involuntarily.

Another question—Can we write a main character who embraces Grace for the above ungodly folks, and expect our readers to do the same?

I write this because I have written a novel where a main character is an atheist, and I have no intention to convert her. She serves a purpose and highlights my overall theme. I also know of another writer who wonders about using these types of characters in her own writing.

Is this a risk in the CBA market?

Do fiction readers want to be convicted when they sit down with a good book?

What do you think?


Sandra Stiles said...

It may be a risk in the CBA market but it is real life. I had a discussion with another blogger yesterday and one thing I mentioned is how almost every Christian fiction book has a happy ending where everyone is converted. Wouldn't it be wonderful if that really happened in life. We would not have to worry about anyone going to hell. You have no idea what kind of positive impact you may have on that non-Christian person who picks up your book and says, "Hey I know someone like that". We plant the seeds and God sends someone to water them. I would read a book like that. Let me know when it is published.

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

This is so interesting and I am looking forward to hearing everyone's take on it. While I know real life doesn't hold happy ending for everyone, the publishing industry is a business and happy endings sells...especially if you are writing romance. I think there is a market for "real" books, but they might not be in the traditional CBA market.

Sidney W. Frost said...

Interesting. As I read the latest Christian novels, I'm seeing a trend toward including characters who make mistakes and are more like me and my friends. We try hard to live a good life, but sometimes we are put into situations that are difficult. We go to church every Sunday, but we may still have questions. As a reader, I'm okay with these books. I love to read about characters who are struggling with their Christianity because I understand that. What I don't want to read about is someone who is cruel or who uses words that make me uncomfortable. Unfortunately, we're getting some of that, too.

Gia Cooper said...

I think that writing should be honest. Not everyone, despite how good they are, end up following after Christ. Perhaps not all of our characters should be outside of the will of God, but certainly many of them should be. Isn't that the way most of us live our lives...surrounded by people who believe and people who do not?

If you have committed yourself to writing for Christ, then somewhere, the story should point to Him. It by no means needs to be preachy, but the message of grace (in some way) should be evident.

I almost always end my books with a tinge of sadness somewhere...not everyone makes it, but some do. That's how life is, isn't it?

Angie Dicken said...

I think when characters struggle with their Christianity, or those who have shaped their views of Christianity, it becomes a a great opportunity for the author to show God in an authentic way.

I wonder if a novel that can intertwine reality and a Godly message will not only resonate with the hearts of fiction readers, but maybe entice non-fiction readers also?

I think you can have a happy ending but also leave some sadness sprinkled around (like Gia said) characters that just won't may give the reader a fresh reminder of the world around them, which I think everyone needs every once in a while.

You all have made excellent points. Thanks for the honesty and input!

Mary Vee Writer said...

I struggle with this same concept. Why is it that our CBA books must have reality by including intimate scenes because it is a retelling of sort of a Bible story (obviously not done for a children's audience) or is deemed "necessary" to keep reality, but yet we can't have athiest? Are there not athiest in the Bible? And what of those who never come to know Christ? There are many in the Bible.
I actually wrote the rest of my soap box first to ease my bursting mind...then deleted it.:)
I think having an athiest in the story brings "reality" and validity to our work.

Mary Vee Writer said...

Oh, sorry, Angie, forgot to say, this is a super post.

Keli Gwyn said...

I heard an editor with a major CBA publishing house discuss this topic at the last ACFW conference. From what I heard, she thinks it's OK for characters to struggle with real life issues in inspirational fiction. She believes that while a character can experience change throughout the course of a story, a conversion tale in a novel-length book strikes her as a bit unbelievable.

What I took away from this is that realistic characters are becoming more acceptable in stories today, meaning it's OK for those who are Christian not to have their acts together. In fact, their struggles with a particular aspect of their faith can add spiritual depth to a story and make it resonate with readers who might be struggling with similar issues.

Thanks for the insightful post, Mary.

Sarah Forgrave said...

Wow, great discussion, Angie! Being a fan of happily-ever-afters, I love to see some sort of redemption by the end, but I don't think this always includes a big conversion scene, like Keli mentioned. I think there's definitely a place for the story idea you mentioned, but it might mean a longer journey to sell it in the CBA.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Honestly, I'm like Sarah, I love happily-ever-afters. And there are many other readers out there that do as well. Depending on the genre and the publishing house, it seems like a lot of publishers like that type of formula (characters finding or re-finding their faith) because something else is probably considered more edgy.

However, most of the readers I know personally (not through the blogosphere) enjoy real stories that mirror real life and I think there's a place for what you're talking about. Not only that, I think it would resonate with a more diverse group of people and perhaps with those who aren't Christians or aren't sure what they believe yet but are still looking for good fiction.

Great post!

Angie Dicken said...

I actually agree with you all happy endings. But I guess the happy ending wouldn't necessarily be for every character...and every character wouldn't have an "aha" spiritual moment...and some characters would remain hard-hearted.
I guess another question would be: Do words "atheist", "legalistic", "judgmental" turn off a reader, agent, publisher?

Casey said...

I think it might be a hard sell in the CBA market, especially if she is the main character, but I think what it would really come down to is circumstances and how you write it. I say write it. If this is a story you have passion about, then write it! Nothing says you can't. :) And who knows other circumstances in the story might someday prompt the nonbeliever to be open to Christ. :)

AimeeLSalter said...

You said: "Can we write a main character who embraces Grace for the above ungodly folks, and expect our readers to do the same?"

We can. We should. It should be in our fiction and it should be in our hearts.

Our God is grace. He loves all those children, whether they love Him or not. And so should we.

LOVE this post. Write what He leads you to and forget the naysayers. If it glorifies Him, He'll create the audience for it.

Cindy R. Wilson said...

Angie, how many main characters are in this book? Just curious because when you mentioned those words, "atheist", "legalistic", and "judgmental" it makes me wonder if this is the character the readers will follow the most or they share page time with others who are following a different journey? Maybe one that does have more redemptive characteristics.

I think those themes or challenges will be harder for some publishers, because like I said before, they are looking for a certain type of formula and it's one that sells. However, there are those publishers that push further outside the box and want something edgy. And their readers will, too.

And wow, this is making me really interested in your story :)

Angie Dicken said...

I'll just give it to you in a condensed form...the main character has been burned by the "legalistic" approach to Christianity...the one person who shows her love and gives her self worth, is her best friend who is an atheist...BUT the main char.s love interest shows her grace, and she sheds her legalistic view of God and embraces that Grace...and she continues to grow in Grace as her atheist best friend has hardships...
In our crit group, the "atheist" part of my synopses tripped up a couple of people, and then started discussion with someone who had similar themes in her story. I kind of leave the atheist's story open at the end...
I guess the biggest thing was that the main character was pushing away the doctrine of her church (a very disturbed doctrine) and clinging to the atheist's encouragement of love and acceptance...even though the main character eventually finds God, she does this partly through her atheist best friend...Oh I am way not a condensed form!! Sorry! But God uses EVERYONE, right??

Angie Dicken said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Cindy R. Wilson said...

Oooh, Angie. This sounds good! And it sounds like your main character, the one the story most closely follows, is the one readers and publishers are going to want to see the growth in. That she finds God again and is able to shed her hurts from the past (even ones that were brought on by the church) is exactly what the CBA marketplace is all about.

It makes me wonder if you have bits of the story from the atheist friends pov, but you're so right that God uses everyone. That's real life. Not everyone is going to find God the same way--and many times it's through hardships and things don't appear to, on the surface, have God in them. But he's there in everything!

Pepper said...

I haven't had a chance to go through and read the comments yet, but I just wanted to leave a comment while I can.
GREAT post, btw - and such wonderful questions.
I think the answer is YES!
But I do think there are several different types of readers:

Ones who seek out realistic and spiritually challenging fiction
Those who can take such fiction in smaller doses, but still enjoy them
And those who read fiction to escape the 'realness' of life and therefore wouldn't choose to read a novel like this

Should we be open to writing realistic fiction that asks poignant and thoughtful questions? Sure we should, and that's the joy of being an author. God provides all kinds of authors, with all sorts of stories, to touch all different types of people. Christians should be this way too. The whole 'grow where you're planted' idea.

I don't have a major character who is an athiest, but I have a minor one, and the only reason she likes to hang out with my Christian character is because they haven't tries to 'hit her over the head with their legalistic Bible talk' - as my athiest character says.

God's Grace comes in so many forms. That's what makes it universal - and still be labeled the same thing: Grace.

I'm a 'happily ever after' fan too. BIG time, but I have a speculative fiction novel which will end with uncertainty. It HAS to end this way. There is no other choice.
I think when God calls you to write it, you must. Whether CBA is ready for it or not :-)

My two cents. Thanks for hte great questions, Ang.