Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Christian Influence Writing Part III: Sermons or Stories

I remember taking a creative writing in college. I wrote a story with lots of "meaning." It had a "message" and my characters spouted that message at every opportunity. My teacher, a very blunt spoken man, asked, "What were you trying to do with this story?" (Okay, he had a few words of description before the word story, but I don't use that language.) I told him all about the message I had in mind.

He looked me straight in the eye and said, "If you want to send a message call Western Union," then he threw down the paper and said, "Next time write me a story and not a sermon."

Only when I became a teacher and later an editor, did I fully understand his point. Way too many people try to wrap sermons into stories. Even when writing for Christians, the reader doesn't want to read a short story or novel with some heavy-handed message hitting them in the face. They want to be entertained, inspired, even challenged, but they don't want to be preached at.

When writing Christian-Influence fiction for a more general audience, it is even more essential that one resist the temptation for sermonizing. Nothing is going to cause a website visitor to surf away quicker than to think they are going to read an entertaining bit of fiction and then be hit with some sort of polemic about how they should think or believe. And an editor for a general interest or genre publication is going to be reaching for the SASE after just a couple of pages of didactic fiction.

Does this mean that a piece of fiction can't have a message? Absolutely not. Good pieces of fiction often have a message.
Huckleberry Finn, Grapes of Wrath, The Time Machine, The Great Gatsby, and hundreds of other classics contain lessons, but those lessons, those messages grow out of the story. They are not imposed on the story. The story comes first and the message lays beneath the surface glimpsed occasionally as one skims across the the water chasing the plot.

And in the best stories the general essence of the message is clear, but it's details are not so clear. Is Huck Finn a racist product of his time with compassion for one slave or is he making a statment about slavery as a whole? Is H.G. Wells making a statement about class warfare in
The Time Machine or is he warning against an unquestioning acceptance of an easy life without engaging in the work that makes that life possible?

Personally, I would like to see more entertaining secular short stories which simply have Christian characters in them Too many stories are about Christianity or the Christian walk. But where are the mystery stories in secular publications in which the main character happens to be a Christian, just as Sherlock Holmes happened to play the violin and organized his files by the amount of dust on them. Where are the science fiction stories in which one of the crew members on a planetary survey expedition prays before he puts on his suit for an EVA, but in which the story doesn't revolve around his religious beliefs?

There are some. The Father Brown mysteries, in a different form Zenna Henderson's stories of devout people in extraordinary situations, and a few other places.

It is easy to blame the "godless" secular media for barring access, yet, one of the most popular TV shows on CBS for several years was Touched by an Angel with a Christian producer and some Christian actors.

But a Christian created, produced and advocated with the network for the show. And she created good compelling secular stories with a spiritual twist. Perhaps one of the most extreme examples of Christian Influence writing.

Maybe part of the problem is a reticence among secular publishers to include stories which include Christian main characters. But maybe it's also because Christian writers aren't writing stories which include Christian characters which don't become sermons.

If we want more Christian characters in secular fiction, then we will have to write mainstream and genre stories with Christian characters, and we need to advocate for them with editors and publishers. After all, if we don't do it. They won't.

Next Time: Writing Christian Influence fiction without going over the "The Dark Side."

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Blogger chrisd said...

Well, a big Amen to that!


I mean--I agree wholeheartedly!

March 15, 2007 at 10:12 PM  
Blogger Frank Creed said...

Wether fiction is purposed for evangelism or discipleship, preaching is always bad form. The more Christianese--terms only understood by believers immersed in our subculture--one uses, the more narrow an author's market. I write for a saved audience, but use street slang vocabulary and metaphor that anyone can get, rather than Christianese.


March 16, 2007 at 3:45 AM  
Blogger Terri said...


I try to stay clear of Christianese whenever I'm writing even for a predominately Christian audience.

For one thing, the "Christian" reader is not someone you can easily put in a box. Everything from church liturgy (or lack thereof) to music to attitudes toward issues such as types of entertainment, divorce and remarriage, and drinking alcohol can be seen differently by different parts of Christendom.

And the language we use varies as well. Additionally, new Christians not steeped in the culture yet, can be lost in our "insider" language.

Even if something is written for a Christian audience, doesn't mean only Christians are reading it. This is especially true online. People surf in without always knowing something is a 'Christian' site. But they may find something interesting and continue reading as long as they understand it.


March 16, 2007 at 5:41 PM  
Blogger Steltek said...

Well said. I believe that is the trap that most Christian fiction falls into -- that of beating the reader over the head with a message. More controversial, perhaps, is how sanitized a work ought to be.

March 19, 2007 at 8:20 PM  
Blogger Dee S. said...

Great post.

I believe and have read stories that are compelling and Christian, and many that slide a sermon in the chapter. I don't know if their word count was off and they thought they could pad it with their brothers. sister's uncle sermon.:)

Dee Stewart
owner, Christian Fiction Blog
Inspirational Reviewer, Romantic Times Magazine

July 24, 2008 at 2:43 PM  

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