Can a Christian Write General Fiction?

Christian FictionThis week I posted this passage on Facebook.

His hands wandered downward to caress her back, and lower still to her buttocks then smoothed over the gentle curves of her hips. As the song ended and another one began, he pulled back to look at her and his eyes were a deep, dark blue, burning with a passion that made her shiver. Bringing his hands up to bury them deep in her hair, he tilted her face up to meet his while his gaze traveled from her eyes to her mouth and back to her eyes again. Her heart raced, anticipating his kiss.

Leaning down, he slowly brought his lips to meet hers, gently delving into her mouth, tasting, capturing, savoring. His breath was hot against her lips and it was beautiful, soft and tender, totally consuming her with an unexpected intensity, setting her whole body on fire like a match to gasoline. And when his kisses began to travel freely from her lips down to her neck and shoulder, she leaned her head back and succumbed to his gentle assault.

Then I asked others if the passage was too much for an LPC novel (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas). I wanted the author to see the sort of reaction that would come if we kept this scene in the book. Below are some of the comments.

“Maybe a tad much, but could probably evoke the same scene effectively while leaving out a few of the details like just leaving out “lower still to her buttocks” and go straight from the lower back to smoothing over the hips.”

“With the detail already given in the first paragraph, the last sentence above leaves the reader pretty convinced the kisses didn’t stop at the neck or shoulder. Even if our characters DIDN’T stop, and for the purpose of the story the reader needs to know that, the level of detail bothers me. Of course a romantic relationship should have physical elements. To piously leave a relationship devoid of that is naive and unrealistic (boring, pretentious, likely pharisaical, and more), but to take it into breathless detail isn’t necessary and can lead to other issues for the book and for impressionable readers. If a couple is married, most readers will accept more physical details in the relationship. But I think it’s important to maintain the line between secular and inspirational fiction in this area, and this one is dancing on the tight-wire.”

“Concerning whether or not it’s appropriate, I think it really depends on the context and the purpose. I can’t really tell just by seeing the excerpt pulled out like this. But if you do include it, you’ll get complaints from conservative people. No question there. Problem is, you can’t please everyone. So do what you believe is right.”

“What is the point you are trying to make and how can you make it in a way that does not mess with the minds of your readers? I know lots of single women, widows, divorcees, never-marrieds, who find this rendering painful and provoking to mental sin battles…and how many times are they your audience.”

I would be disappointed if I found this in an LPC publication.”

“Although the writing is excellent, I think it pushes that boundary. I recommend a less provocative approach.”

“I’m wondering how many people think it’s okay, but are afraid to speak up because of the 100% condemnation? What if something in the next paragraph cause both of them to suddenly realize where this was headed and have second thoughts? And yet without catching the reader up in the crashing wave, how can the writer also let them feel the sudden catching of breath, the sudden realization that the time and place aren’t right?”

“Nope. Too much. Reads like a Harlequin, especially if the two are unmarried.”

“It sounds like about 27 shades of gray, not 50.”

So here’s my question: Can a Christian write general fiction?  And by fiction I mean a novel that appeals to secular readers. A novel that has messy characters who don’t believe in or care about God.  What are the boundaries? How much flesh, passion, desire, violence, profanity can we show? Any, some? None?

Of all the categories in publishing, print book sales of Christian Fiction declined 25% from 2012-2014. As Ron Benrey notes in his book, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Writing Christian Fiction, “Readers of Christian Fiction in America are Caucasian women, of childbearing through “empty nester” age, who identify themselves as evangelical Christians.”

Should Christian authors be held to a higher standard than other professionals? Should a male doctor perform a general exam of a female patient? (Do not lust …) Should an attorney defend someone they know to be guilty? (Do not steal, murder …) Should a business owner sell goods or services on Sunday? (Keep the Sabbath holy) Should anyone run an ad for anything? (Do not covet). Perhaps these professionals can perform their jobs without committing a sin, but can we at least agree that they are close to, if not in, gray areas?

God called Peter to lead the Jews to Christ.

God called Paul to lead the gentiles to Christ.

How can Christian authors reach gentiles through story if we refuse to take off our robes and leave the temple in Jerusalem?

I’d love to hear your thoughts.



Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

17 thoughts on “Can a Christian Write General Fiction?

  1. Coming from a young adult, I like to hear and read about things almost everyone can relate to. It is unrealistic to think that these kinds of things don’t happen, so why exclude them from Christian romance novels? Life is sinful and these things happen. Without the context of the book, it is hard to tell what happens before and after this scene. Does she stop him?

    • Rachel, yes, she pulls back. This is a scene designed to show how hard it is to remain sexully pure. The female character made an abstinence pledge. But it’s hard to show this without offending some Christians.

  2. I come from a life full of messiness, tragedy, drama and trauma. Real life. Real issues. A real God. My writing must reflect all of these aspects in a way that does not lead the reader’s mind to the sins that so easily beset us. Issue-driven fiction is what I want to write because there is a God who can give us answers to our issues. I love real fiction that deals with life as we find it. Messy. Broken. Redeemed.

  3. The Hunger Games was an international sensation, totally secular, and totally relevant to its millions of fans without one cuss word or sex scene. Putting in specifically worldly things to try to reach the world or connect with the world is, in my opinion, exactly opposite the idea of being salt and light.

    I had no idea either that LPC did not consider itself a Christian publisher. I personally am so refreshed when I find a group or a publisher or an author that I know I can rely on to not tempt me or others with ungodly scenes or words I’ll have a hard time getting out of my head. Putting those things in doesn’t make non-believers feel any closer to us per-se, and it turns away Christian readers who long to fill their minds with content that is upright.

    There are plenty of ways to say things without being explicit. I write about prostitutes, human trafficking, and brothels, but there are ways to express what is happening without taking a reader into the rooms and narrating. I have teen readers and would be horrified to know I had led someone into temptation or made it harder for them to remain pure. That may sound old-fashioned, but I still remember books I came across growing up that had scenes in them – I can describe those scenes in detail because they taught me things I should not at that age have known. And just because a character is married doesn’t mean I want to read about their sexual experiences any more than an unmarried book character.

    If I wouldn’t talk about it with Christian or non-Christian friends, I probably shouldn’t be reading it in a book, and I definitely couldn’t recommend such a book to anyone, Christian or secular.

    Our culture is flooded with sex and pornography. We don’t need more of the same. We need the breath of fresh air that comes from books we know are safe for our minds and souls to read, books that nudge us upward and away from the darkness rather than dipping fingers into it.

    You did ask for opinions…

  4. Can a Christian write general fiction? Absolutely. I think readers need more of these kinds of stories. Why? Because I agree with what you said, “How can Christian authors reach gentiles through story if we refuse to take off our robes and leave the temple in Jerusalem?” Jesus left the temple. So should we, if we want our stories to touch peoples’ lives.

    Does that mean Christian writers need to surrender their beliefs? No. We should be able to write in a way that still conveys our world view without turning people off with “too preachy” fiction and pious, perfect characters. Readers will identify with characters who make mistakes–real people who are able to find forgiveness and grace.

    I hope that’s the message my first YA book, “Surviving Haley,” conveys. It was just released last weekend through Pelican Book Group, Watershed Books. I want my stories to appeal to everyone.

    Oh, and the scene above? Yeah, in my opinion, there’s a bit too much detail for a Christian publication. Readers are smart enough to fill in the blanks!

  5. It’s not the content but the way the content is presented. Christians should set a higher standard, especially when it comes to excellent writing.

    The world has become sex crazed. So did Sodom and Gomorrah. That does not mean we have to imitate the world in order to reach the world.

    We need to be real. Absolutely. We need to demonstrate flawed characters who fail sometimes. We need to admit that Christians sin. We not need to become graphic in the description of it. We do not need to appeal to a person’s hunger for graphic descriptions of sex and violence to let them know there is a Savior.

    There is a perception that unless a book is filthy the general market will not publish it. I don’t think that is necessarily true. Look at the success of Disney movies of good wholesome films. They do sell. But we as Christians have fallen to the lie that unless we look like the world, we cannot go into the world.

    I for one disagree.

  6. With her permission, I would like to quote a dear colleague of mine. Christian author, Rita Wollen-Baker. “A good writer—a Christian writer, in this case—can write imaginary scenes of a sexual nature between a married couple, given the right choice of words. When writing Christian romance myself, I focus more on getting my readers’ “juices” going long before I get my characters to the bedroom; I work hard at getting my readers emotionally involved with the storyline. Personally, I’ve “laid down” many Christian Romance novels because I felt as if the writer was writing for the Young Adult market; the storylines were weak and the sex scenes were little more than a peck on the cheek. These types of “loosely” written books are unbelievable to human logic, and an insult to Christian readers. Bottom line, I believe writers should write what they feel led to write. Of course, publishers have a right to reject it. Sometimes it comes down to compromising between a writer and their publisher. I’m not very good at compromising when it comes to my writing, which is why I self-published.”

  7. This is a wonderful piece! I find myself in this predicament often. I am a Christian, and I feel God has given me the job of writing stories that hold to Christian elements without being overtly Christian. This means God is never mentioned. My characters are not Christian.

    I think when writing for young adults, it is even more important to bring them to a point of pondering. Let’s be honest. I don’t know of 1 secular young adult who would pick up a book that was Christian. So in order to influence them, we must bring those values to the forefront in a different way. This is the case with my Brimstone LPC book, The Breeding Tree. It deals with abortion. It has my Christian values in it, but it is meant to bring the secular readers to a point where they can think about such subjects without the stigma of religion.

    Would I love my books to bring someone to Christ? Absolutely. Which is why I want to write books that deal with relevant issues. They are edgy in that some parts may be difficult to read, but in that same way, they are real.

    People, even Christians struggle with sin. We shouldn’t shy away from writing characters who deal with those difficulties. Part of the reason I don’t write what I would consider Christian fiction is because I want to reach a secular audience who may not have contact with Christian values in other ways.

    • I identify with this reply. And agree with it. We will rarely receive accolades from many fundamentalists or evangelicals. But accolades are not what Christian writers who write for the secular are after. We have often gone where “angels fear to tread.”

  8. I don’t see a connection between a doctor’s physical exam or an attorney defending a guilty client and a Christian author writing material that deliberately titillates or exploits the senses. Those are personal, individual events. An author, a songwriter, a filmmaker…a performer of any kind is working to reach the masses. Would Miley Cyrus’s performance style be acceptable in a Christian venue? Is a pornographic movie acceptable if someone talks about Jesus during the film? The arts are unique in that they reach deep into the human soul. The message they choose to portray is intended (whether wishfully or in actuality) to influence everyone who sees or hears it. Content matters, and if you’re going to CALL an item “Christian,” then it should reflect Christlike qualities.

    Yes, a Christian can write secular material. We do it all the time. Hopefully, what a person does in the secular world will reflect the light of Christ just as effectively as something done in Christian world. It’s a different question than what you’re asking, I think.

    I read and enjoy secular fiction; I edit secular and Christian works; I watch top Hollywood movies along with every other American I know, Christian or not. I go to art galleries and enjoy works from the ages–some more graphic than others. But I choose to turn away from material that includes gratuitous sex, unnecessarily graphic violent material, and language that singes the hairs in my ears. So my R-rated movies are few, but not nonexistent. My secular music choices lean toward tamer fare than rap or heavy metal or other explicit material. My book collection is large and varied but relatively devoid of detailed excess. I have an excellent imagination, and I know what goes on in the world. I don’t need it spelled out for me or shown in stark detail.

    The thing is, when I choose to read or watch something labeled “Christian,” I can rest fairly easy in the assumption that I will not have to screen out material I’m not prepared to see. I go into secular material with the understanding that I will likely see or hear something I don’t appreciate or agree with. It’s a choice I make. I sometimes regret that choice, but most of the time I tell myself it didn’t hurt me. And most of the time, it doesn’t. But why should I have to make that choice with material that’s supposed to have a higher standard?

    The way I see it, the examples you gave of other professionals–the doctor, the businessman, the attorney–are of people making personal choices that mainly affect themselves in spiritual places. Every Christian should hold him or herself up to higher standards–they are, after all, claiming Christ as their standard. Business on Sunday? Closing on Sundays doesn’t seem to have hurt Chick-Fil-A or Hobby Lobby terribly much. The choice is unpopular, but it can be made. Defending a guilty client? It’s not a choice I can imagine living with, but it doesn’t affect the world. It affects the attorney (and his client, etc., I know). A doctor who struggles with lust? Eww. Get a different job. Remove yourself from the temptation. But that person isn’t taking that lust and magnifying it and offering it to the general public for consumption, as artists inherently do.

    So yes, I think Christian artists in any field should HOLD THEMSELVES to a higher standard.

    How do we reach the world? We leave Jerusalem and go out into the world, but we don’t become LIKE the world to REACH the world. The light we carry with us attracts mankind. The light we carry with us should influence those around us and draw others to Him, the Light of the world. If we cover that light in the rags and trappings of what’s around us, we distort it. We change the message. And the world changes us. That God-shaped hole in the human heart longs for different. We should be different. Our difference should be warm and inviting. It should draw the world to HIM through us. If we work to look the same as everything around us, we lose.

    Write real stories. Please. I hate mamby-pamby perfect Christian world stories that everyone knows are absolute fiction. But write real stories that rise above the ditch, even if they start there. Leave the details to the reader’s imagination. They’ve already seen all those details everywhere else. They don’t need us to depict them again. They can do that for themselves. It’s not the kind of thing the mind unsees.

    And that’s my literary work for the day. 🙂

    • Rachel, thanks for your comments. I’m sure they speak to a great many Christian readers.

      To your point: “If you’re going to CALL an item “Christian,” then it should reflect Christlike qualities.”

      Perhaps that’s part of the issue. LPC does not call itself a Christian publisher. I’m sure most of our authors and editors would consider themselves Christians, but we do not claim to be a Christian house. We are not members of the CBA for this very reason. We do not want readers coming to our fiction expecting CBA sanctioned material. There are plenty of other great CBA houses out there that serve that market. Out mission is to reach beyond the walls of the church. In order to do that, sometimes (not always) we have to go places in our stories that are ugly and messy. This is why we give our authors the freedom to reach into the field God to which they’ve been called. It is a delicate balance.

      • Eddie, I got the impression that LPC was a Christian publisher with a few of the imprints, (Brimstone for one) being secular. I think probably the publishing of devotionals and other such material brings it to readers as a Christian publisher, even if you don’t consider yourself such. It’s not a bad thing; just an observation.

      • I’m having trouble posting on the other site, but I have to say I agree with Jessie’s observation under my comment. I work for you and I had NO idea you did not consider LPC a Christian house. I guess I assumed, from the body of your work, that it was a Christian endeavor, deliberately reaching out into other genres. But I have to ask, does the fact it’s not Christian mean it has to include every gritty detail? I don’t think so. We can cover real life in enough detail that it’s real without removing the veil completely. I think that’s a noble goal to reach for.

        It’s a point I’m passionate on, and for good reason. Another commenter on your original post mentioned that explicit scenes can cause mental/spiritual problems for some readers. I am one of them. I was molested at age 10. My parents were very strict; I was denied the sex education class at school and what they told me was rudimentary at best. So I was a very curious preteen into teen. I got sucked into prurient novels. As i got older, I was exposed to Playgirl. Eventually, I devoured fullblown and hardcore erotica, finally including pornographic movies. When I say it’s something the mind can’t unsee, I’m speaking regretfully from experience. And there’s a horde of women out there like me who struggle with this every day. Dealing with my ten-year-old self, finally at age 35, helped me overcome the cesspool I was drowning in, but there’s always a tug on me that if I’m not always vigilant, can pull me right back to it. So I strive to maintain a safe place for me–for us–where that tantalizing whisper, that imagined touch cannot reach me. And that’s why clean fiction–Christian or not–is important to me. It’s why I’m thrilled to edit for Bling, because we can touch those real life issues without the depth of detail other lines might use. So…Christian or not, that’s my reason, my stand.

  9. I read your FB thread with interest. No, we won’t reach them until we make our books appealing to authentic life. Not only do I think we should make Christian fiction appealing to non-believers, my reading of scripture is that we are mandated to do so. “Go into all the world” to me suggests invading areas of the arts that the secular world has dominated. How to do it? By having messy characters resembling real ppl who sin but not delving into each detail of it. Maybe a single person has premartial sex but gets saved and stops. A married guy thinks about being unfaithful but never carries through. Show how their biblical beliefs enabled them to avoid the pitfalls of sin.

Comments are closed.