Why I write Christian fiction—and specifically, fantasy
For most of my writing life, I wrote secular stories. When I first started writing, I had no inkling that I would ever write anything that would be remotely related to my Christian faith. In my early adulthood, and throughout my creative writing studies at university, I kept a tidy division between “church” and “state”, preferring to keep matters of faith neatly confined to one area of my life, and matters of philosophy or ideology carefully corralled in another.
Then I discovered Christian fiction.
I’ve noticed that even in the Christian world, very few people seem to take note of Christian fiction. It is both a niche market and a curious enigma. For some people, “good Christian fiction” is seen as an oxymoronic statement—and perhaps this reputation is somewhat deserved, given that many books marketed as "Christian" sometimes have no more substance or uniqueness than those written for the general market, aside from being “clean” (i.e., no swearing, gratuitous violence, or graphic sex).
I will admit that when I first began writing, I saw general market publishers as being the ultimate end goal for a writer, and Christian publishers as being slightly sub-par. Wasn’t Christian fiction all sweet Amish romances (sometimes nicknamed “bonnet fiction” or “bonnet rippers”) and fluffy inspirational stories like the ones you see on the Hallmark channel?
After all, it was all well and good for some Christians to write candy cane stories, but I wanted to read (and write) fiction you could sink your teeth into.
When I did find those books, years later, I was astonished to find a wealth of stories that shattered my preconceptions about Christian fiction.
Stories that—unlike much of what the world writes—spoke to the soul.
What is “Christian” fiction, anyway?
Stories are undeniably powerful. Not just in the way they tug at our heartstrings or open our eyes to new ways of viewing the world, but also in the way they shape our attitudes—and even our faith.
I’ve often thought that the Gospel is like a multi-faceted diamond. Shine a beam of light, and you’ll illuminate one facet of the gem—one powerful truth that will pattern and colour your life, should you allow it. Turn the gem a little to the side, and you catch another sparkling surface—another startling, life-altering truth. You can live a hundred years in this world and still be surprised by a beam of light shining on that gem, illuminating something you never noticed before. The words of God are truly living and active (Hebrews 4:12).
Christian fiction, very simply, aims to touch our hearts with stories that illuminate particular truths, which have the power to permeate and pattern every aspect of our life. With such potential, was it any wonder that Jesus himself often spoke in the language of stories—through parables?
Many of us have fine, logical minds, but it is entirely possible to acknowledge something intellectually and remain largely unchanged—like the man in James 1:23-24 who looks at himself in the mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. For the writer of the hymn "Amazing Grace", John Newton, it was years before his convictions about Christianity penetrated his conscience to the extent that he abandoned his slave-trading activities and became a prominent supporter of abolitionism.
Head knowledge too often remains cerebral.
I am hardly the first person to point out that humans are sometimes more teachable through stories—particularly the stories of others. Pastors who begin their sermons with pithy quotes or meaningful illustrations understand this intuitively. And the great writer C.S. Lewis, who passed away fifty-six years ago last week, reflected on this at length in his essays (see this excellent article for a summary of Lewis’ views on the power of stories). For C.S. Lewis, as for me, myth and story have the potential to illuminate immutable truths about reality and human nature.
Most people would have heard of déjà vu—the new or strange appearing familiar. But few have likely heard of its opposite, jamais vu (French for “never seen”)—which refers to the familiar appearing strange or new.
Christian fiction done well functions as literary jamais vu—taking the well-studied, emphatically underlined and dutifully highlighted truths of the Gospel and rendering them momentarily unfamiliar so that they can be contemplated and appreciated anew, especially for those of us who have been Christians for many years. It is this sudden illumination that enables us to take in wondrous Gospel truths as if we were beholding them for the first time—to marvel at the beauty of the gem—to truly contemplate the reality of what Jesus has done for us.
Indeed, this exact sentiment is captured in the chorus of that powerful hymn, “The Wonder of the Cross”: “May I never lose the wonder/The wonder of the cross/May I see it like the first time/Standing as a sinner lost”.
"Christian fiction done well functions as literary jamais vu—taking the well-studied truths of the Gospel and rendering them momentarily unfamiliar so that they can be contemplated and appreciated anew."
Do we need Christian fiction when we have the Bible?
Before I re-committed myself to Christ at age eighteen (midway through my first year of university), I had carefully steered away from traditional sources of Christian authority and teaching. In all honesty, I found it difficult to engage with the Bible itself, because I wasn’t yet sure if I could trust its assertions, or even its accuracy. I dove headlong into apologetics, including the works of investigative journalist and former atheist Lee Strobel, which convinced me of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts—though that is a story for another time.
But, interestingly, it was Christian fiction which first touched my heart as a young person, opening the way for me to engage with the stories—and the Story—contained in the Bible itself.
The first Christian fiction book I read was Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind, the first instalment of her Mark of the Lion trilogy, followed by her best-selling debut novel and literary statement of faith, Redeeming Love. Sometime after that, I read Catherine Marshall’s Christy on the recommendation of a friend, which profoundly influenced my attitude to suffering…more than any other book I’d read on the subject.
I cannot begin to quantify the effect that these books (and many, many others I’ve read since) have had on my Christian journey. Apologetics influenced my mind, but it was Christian fiction that moved my heart—opening the way for me to accept the truth of the Gospel, just as it did for the long-term sceptic, C.S. Lewis. Having been raised in a Christian home, by parents who strived to reflect Jesus, I didn’t need any more head knowledge.
I needed to experience, afresh, the wonder of the cross.
So Christian fiction has some kind of agenda, then?
The short answer is—yes.
I hadn’t studied at university for very long when I realised that all pieces of writing—fiction or non-fiction, literary or non-literary—are informed by a particular world-view. Every story reflects, consciously or unconsciously, at least part of the prevailing zeitgeist of the time, and though many of us would see the TV shows and films we binge watch as simple entertainment, these are also purveyors of particular values and powerful transmitters of cultural meaning.
Historically, one need look no further than the dramatic effect of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Harriet Beecher Stowe) on attitudes to African-Americans in the lead-up to the American Civil War.
Stories colour, and are coloured by, the world.
Some works that strive to entertain even declare these ideological motives outright—for example, Phillip Pullman’s best-selling His Dark Materials trilogy, which has been recently re-made into a new HBO-produced TV series after the disappointing box office performance of The Golden Compass (2007), has an explicitly anti-Christian agenda.
But why fantasy?
I don’t believe that God purposes Christian authors to write mere "candy cane" stories—sweet for a few minutes, and even heart-warming, but lacking substance and nutritional value.
Jesus himself never told stories that made people believe in the power of songs to save Christmas (as much as I adore the film Elf), though one could make a compelling argument for the Gospel being a story of a second-chance at love at Christmas (a favourite romance trope) 😉.
My personal “life verse” comes from Psalm 42:7: “Deep calls to deep”. In my second (as-yet-unpublished) book, The Secret of Fire, one character tells another “the deep in you is only an echo of the depth of Him [God]”. I believe I am called to write stories of depth and rich meaning that reflect, if only in part, the depth and richness of God. My role as an author is to shine light on one facet of the Gospel to help the reader see a particular truth as if they are viewing it for the first time—Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone).
For me, the easiest genre through which I can accomplish that purpose is undoubtedly fantasy. With universal themes of good versus evil, sacrifice, hope, and redemption, fantasy seems to be the ultimate expression of literary jamais vu—the familiar rendered strange. As a blog post by Darrick Dean discussing why young readers are increasingly turning to fantasy recently expressed: “Perhaps a good dose of fantasy is, ironically, needed to show us reality”.
While many of us often retreat into fantasy as escapism (myself included), our love of fantasy more generally seems to be a reflection of our attempts to find, as Dean puts it, our “true purpose…[and] place in the Story”.
For this reason, every one of my books to date has been in the fantasy genre (although I cannot speak for future books). My first two books, The Darcentaria Duology (consisting of The Sword in His Hand, which will be released in 2020, and its sequel, The Secret of Fire) is a fantasy transformation of the story of Ben-Hur and an exploration of suffering and vengeance. My next two books, The Soul Mark Duology, explore the tension between mercy and judgement/sacrifice, purity and guilt. My as-yet-unnamed trilogy—and the most hard-hitting of my books to date—deals with how people respond to pain in a world where it is possible to remove and anaesthetise memories.
Certainly, there is something about fiction that speaks to the heart as well as the head. As Jared C. Wilson wrote in his recent article:
Can even the Christian scholar and philosopher deny that the facts of the gospel are received on a frequency deeper than just the intellect? We discern the facts of the gospel with our minds, of course, but we receive them with our hearts because the Spirit has freed our hearts to receive them as true—to receive Christ as The Truth, the one true myth that is incontrovertibly fact.
What is the place of romance in all this?
As I stated above, anyone who thinks of Christian fiction invariably thinks of romance (although more and more, Christian publishers are broadening their repertoire to include other genres).
I would describe myself as a “romantic”, and all of my books to date feature a romantic subplot (more prominent in some of my books than others). Though I acknowledge that not all women (the predominant audience of Christian fiction) are romantics, there seems to be something about the heart of a woman that is drawn to relationships—and particularly to romance.
While Christian authors like myself have to be careful not to idolise or elevate romantic love above the perfect, unconditional love of God—since human love is prone to flaws and our ultimate purpose is to love God first and people second—I do think that Christian romances, in their fullest realisation, are a powerful reflection of the great and beautiful Romance between God and his children, and his rescue and redemption of his people, who he describes as a beautifully dressed bride (Revelation 21:2). Indeed, this is the premise of Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love, an allegorical retelling of the Biblical story of Hosea.
For all those who’ve wondered at the place of Christian fiction in Christian living, I hope this presents a compelling argument for you to engage with the transformative power of stories…and with your children, too. For some children, reading is as natural as breathing, and is the way that they directly experience the world. For those of you who are parents to avid young readers, why not expose your children to the stories of The Chronicles of Narnia and other great Christian works?
And for those who have contested the idea that truth can reside in fiction, I would encourage you to discover the ways—outlined much more eloquently in the work of C.S. Lewis himself—in which God is a God not just of logic and fact but of story…. and ultimately, the great Story that He has authored since the beginning of creation.
A Story in which He invites you—not just as reader, but son, daughter, and beloved bride—to take part.