Dark Christian Fiction: A Contradiction in Terms?

When you pick up a work of fiction at your local Christian bookstore, you can probably expect a couple different things in it.  You can expect it to center around Christian characters that run into some kind of a problem.   You can expect there to be either a really nice atheist or a really mean atheist who ends up converting by the book’s end.  You can expect the main conflict in the book to be challenging—but not overly so, because by the book’s end, everything will need to wrap up in a happy ending.

And it’s because of this that some of you may be doing a double-take upon reading the term: “dark Christian fiction.”  Is Christian fiction really allowed to be dark?  Doesn’t writing for the Kingdom and shining Light in our fiction mean that we want to avoid writing fiction that’s going to be really dark?darkchrisitianfictionpinterest

There can be some fair cautions that should be taking when portraying darkness in fiction that I’m going to address later on in this article.  But what I want to argue in this article is simply this: Darkness must not be excluded from Christian fiction.  We can have a lively discussion how darkness should best be portrayed and how much of it should be shown.  But a refusal to accept dark tones in fiction is problematic.  And because of this, dark Christian fiction is therefore not a contradiction in terms but one that we ought to accept not only as a valid category, but also a necessary category in the world of Christian fiction.

Darkness in Christian Literature

Let’s go back to the hypothetical bookstore that you’re perusing.  You pick up a random book off the shelf, read a couple pages, and soon discover that the book is about a man who was unjustly imprisoned for twenty years and who, upon being freed, proceeds throughout the rest of the book to take revenge on everyone who had wronged him.

Perhaps a bit shocked, you put the book down and pick up another, hoping for something better.  But in this book, the main character is a college-dropout without a real job who within the first several chapters ends up murdering his landlady with an axe for a variety of reasons and as the book progresses, goes on to fall in love with a prostitute.

Both of these books would perhaps be tough sells to make in today’s Christian market.  And if you hadn’t read either of these books before, you might somewhat disturbed at their plots.  But these two books: The Count of Monte Cristo and Crime and Punishment are arguably two of the greatest Christian classics of all time and are not only widely-respected as great works of literature, but also show the power of the Gospel in transforming lives like few others do.

The themes of these books might shock us today if we picked up something of the like in the Christian section of the bookstore.  But this has not been the case in times past.  The famed Italian poet Dante wrote another of the great Christian masterpieces, The Divine Comedy, where for the first third of the epic poem, the main character wanders through Hell.  Dante doesn’t shy away from the brutal punishments that are administered there or from the sins of the reprobate who suffer there.  In more recent decades, the celebrated author Flannery O’Connor, a devout Catholic, wrote a short story focused on a family, who, on a vacation, all get murdered by a serial killer.

All devout Christian authors.  All going into some really dark and depressing settings and characters.

“But hold on there,” someone may object.  “Just because they were Christians doesn’t mean it was right for them to do so.  We can’t just excuse everything that someone does because they are Christians.”

Fine.  It’s perhaps possible that, however beautifully they portray the Gospel, going into such darkness is still an unwise or wrong move to make.  So let’s take our investigation forward one more step and look at Scripture.

Darkness in the Bible

To re-purpose a well-beloved quote in the Chronicles of Narnia, the Bible is not a tame book.  And sometimes familiarity with parts of it makes us forget how startlingly dark portions of the Bible are.  Look at Ecclesiastes, where Solomon declares that “everything is meaningless” and “all [man’s] days are full of sorrow.”¹  Or Psalm 88, where the Psalmist concludes his song of lament to God by saying that, “darkness is my only friend.”²  Now there’s a line that you’re not going to see in modern worship lyrics.

This isn’t just an element of poetry either.  Just read Genesis 34, where Jacob’s daughter Dinah is raped and two of his sons go out and kill all the men of the city.  2 Kings 21 where King Manasseh sacrifices his son as an offering to Molech.  For that matter, just read the last four chapters of Judges if you really want to see the height of human depravity as Scripture depicts it.

“The Bible doesn’t shy away from the dark and uncomfortable aspects of life.  It is all too clear about the darkness of the world we live in.”

Light and Darkness

However, we do find a comfort in Scripture, a comfort which keeps the darkness from spiraling into an overarching narrative of depression.  But to find that comfort, we need to go to what is the darkest moment at all in Scripture.  We’ve heard this story so many times, it’s easy to get used to it.  But what actually happened is dark and raw.  It’s the story of the perfect Man who was hated by his enemies, rejected by all his friends, and forsaken by His Father.  It’s the story of our Lord, scourged, killed in the most excruciating way possible at the time, and buried in the earth to rot.

Things don’t get much darker than that.

But of course, we all know what came after that.  The Bible doesn’t end there because after the worst thing that could have happened ended up happening, it was followed up by the most glorious thing that ever happened when our Lord Jesus Christ rose up again from the dead, having crushed Satan under his heel and won our redemption for us.

The Scripture shows us darkness, but it doesn’t leave us there.  And so when we consider whether or not darkness is appropriate in fiction, we need to distinguish between darkness unending and darkness that is broken with light.  The Scriptures go into the darkness of humanity, but they also show us the light that breaks that darkness and frees us from it to serve in the Kingdom of Light.
To look again at the Christian classics that I previously mentioned, the epic poem that begins in Hell ends in Heaven.  Crime and Punishment’s axe murderer is brought to the Gospel and repents.

Darkness is shown for what it is, but it is not darkness unending: it is darkness that gives way to light.

Darkness and the Christian Writer

So now we make the turn from theory to practice.  All of this may be a well and good defense, but when the rubber meets the road, what does it look like?

For starters, it looks like being more willing in certain areas to display more of the darkness of this world.  Now, depending on your audience, you don’t necessarily want to be writing dark fiction for six year olds.  Granted, the original fairytales of Brothers Grimm were targeting a younger audience and were still incredibly dark, but I digress.

The critical thing to realize is that if you want your readers to appreciate the light, you need to show them the darkness first.  Now, that darkness doesn’t have to completely overrun your story.  While in this article, I’m defending the notion of dark Christian fiction, not all Christian fiction ought to be dark, and so if you’re not trying to write dark fiction that’s fine.  There’s an element of this article that will apply to all stories, and an element that will only apply to specific kinds of stories.

But perhaps it means showing the audience more of why your villain is evil instead of just telling us about it.  Perhaps it means that for a portion of your book, there isn’t much hope and the main character is just stumbling about before the light comes.  I’ve written before about how the lack of darkness is one of the major reasons that conversion stories often fall flat, so I won’t touch on that topic again here.³

“The bottom line is that as Christian writers, we’re not only called to portray the light.  We’re called to portray the light and the darkness.”  

We live in a dark world, and so we need to show the world what it’s like if we expect them to value and long for the light.  We portray darkness because we need to hold up a mirror to the world to show it what it’s like.  We portray darkness because sometimes cliché narratives that conflate joy with happiness just don’t cut it when someone is actually struggling.  We portray darkness because in our fallen and twisted world, darkness is present and we need to depict reality for what it is.

In the greatest stories, this darkness is used to display what Tolkien termed the “eucatastrophe.”  Where everything seems like it’s going to fail, but the heroes still end up triumphing over the darkness, as is the case in Crime and Punishment and The Count of Monte CristoBut the presence of the light doesn’t always mean that stories have to end up with happy endings.  In Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, the grandmother repents and turns to Christ, but the story still ends with the serial killer killing her.  Light does not win every outward battle in this world.  But in the grand scope of history and theology, it will win in the next.

Is dark Christian fiction therefore a contradiction in terms?  I propose that it is not.  We don’t want to write stories as though we were those who have no hope4, where the darkness is utterly devoid of any glimmers of light, but there is substantial room for a story that looks at and even dwells on that darkness.  The key is that we don’t dwell on darkness for its own sake.  We show it for what it is.  But we show how great darkness is in order to show how great the Light is.  That yes, the world is bad.  It is twisted; it is corrupt; it is broken.

But our Savior was broken for us.

And so because of His death, even the darkest of stories can end in hope.
[1] Ecclesiastes 1:2, 2:22.

[2] Psalm 88:18

[3] http://kingdompen.org/writing-realistic-conversions-in-your-stories/

[4] 1 Thessalonians 4:15

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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Comments

  1. I needed this. I’ve been wavering back and forth on this issue for awhile now, and this really helped me focus on what I believed. Thank you.
    I’m bookmarking this article.

    • Thanks, Kate! This is definitely a really tricky topic with a lot of grey areas, especially as one moves from theory to practicality, so I’m glad that this has helped you solidify some of your thoughts on this topic.

  2. Sarah Spradlin says:

    Two thumbs up, Josiah! Great as always! (as well as timely!)

  3. Three cheers for a fantastic article. There is plenty of need for this. The only thing is that I have my doubts that any of the writers you mentioned were actually christians, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t write some seriously powerful stuff by using the technique of shining a bright light in a very dark place.

    • Thanks, Daeus! Yeah; I’m aware that some of these writers (esp. Dostoevsky) led somewhat-questionable lives, and there’s definitely room for discussion on that. Very thankful that, however they may have lived their lives, God was still able to use them to write some very powerful fiction.

  4. Great article! I think this is the reason that secular stories are often better teaching tools (when looked at with a Christian worldview) than a lot of modern Christian ones, because they’re not afraid to show darkness and how it can be made into light.

    • Thanks Quinlyn! Yeah, I definitely agree with that. I’ve been reading quite a few excellent stories written by non-Christians lately that cause me to wish that Christian writers would be doing a better job in this area, since we have so much potential to tell excellent stories here, but unfortunately often don’t do so.

  5. This is a great post and a very valid point today. A lot of Christians either get fed up with the lack of realism in Christian fiction and just run headlong after the stories of the world or are too scared to confront darkness and stick only with “fairytale” type stories.

    Also, this line makes a crucial point. “We portray darkness because sometimes cliché narratives that conflate joy with happiness just don’t cut it when someone is actually struggling.”

    I know I’ve been that person before. Struggling and desperately looking for a story that shows how to live life even in the midst of the struggle to God’s glory. And really, I think some of the best scenes I’ve ever written came from the struggles in my own life–the fight to live right when all seems a mess.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • Thanks Amanda! I think that’s a very perceptive point about how Christian react to the lack of realism in Christian fiction. It really is a rather unfortunate dichotomy of responses that you get when fiction becomes mostly-escapist.

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