I have a love-hate relationship with Christian fiction.
On the one hand, the genre has immense potential, because it transcends what it means to live as a human being to explore what it means to live as a Christian. When these stories are done well, like Dave Swavely’s Silhouette, Richard Ramsey’s The Song (yes, I’m aware this is a movie), or Sigmeund Brouwer’s The Last Disciple, they often become my favorites.
On the other hand, the titles I’ve listed are the cream of the crop. For every exceptional Christian novel I read, I typically wade through five or six mediocre ones first.
Why does modern Christian fiction fumble to tell a compelling story, especially compared to the lauded Christian authors of the past: C.S. Lewis, Fyodor Doestoevsky, and Alexandre Dumas? I believe one reason for this is modern Christian fiction’s reliance on clichés. Instead of telling original stories about faith, modern Christian fiction reiterates overused and incorrect views of the Christian life, which causes the stories to inevitably fail.
If we want to write Christian fiction that is actually compelling, we need to know how to identify, avoid, and replace the five clichés below.
Cliché #1: The Token Atheist Conversion
If you’ve read any Christian fiction at all, you probably are familiar with the character who is initially a staunch and arrogant atheist, but by the end of the book realizes the error of his ways and converts to Christianity.
You should avoid this cliché for two reasons. First, this character is usually the only developed representative of an atheist in the story. This is unfair because you’re setting up a strawman. Although many atheists convert to Christianity, many also do not. If the prominent atheists in your book all end up converting, you’re portraying reality inaccurately.
Second, authors try to hang the story’s theme on this conversion. But this does nothing to reach Christian readers where they are! As Sierra Ret asserts in her article, “How to Write Christian Stories Without Annoying Your Readers”: “Yes, it is our God-given duty to share our faith and call others to repentance. But the Christians in your audience have already made that step, and a simplified summary of a gospel tract may distance them from being in the moment of your novel or movie.”
In The Gospel Coalition, Andrew Barber writes:
“There are ways to make honest, profound Christian films. What if Persecuted was about a pastor, formerly powerful in the Republican Party, coming to terms with his lessening influence? What if God Is Not Dead was about a Christian wrestling with the fact that he knew atheists smarter and more ethical than himself?
“Suddenly we would have a chance to say something vulnerable, honest, and profound. But as long as Christian films are motivated by a desire to trap people into hearing a gospel presentation, or as a consolation for losing the culture war, they should not make the final cut.”
You can create a story with a Christian theme without forcing a conversion sequence into it. These stories can be more moving since readers must grapple with the challenges of living as a Christian instead of being reminded why they are a Christian in the first place. Both types of stories are necessary. But the latter has been overdone, which is why we need to return to focusing on the former.
Cliché #2: All Your Problems Are Solved If You Become a Christian
Piggybacking on the first cliché is the second cliché: a character begins the book as an unbeliever (or perhaps a previous unbeliever) and has a lot of problems, but as soon as he becomes a Christian, all his problems are immediately resolved. This may seem to be a good strategy at first. Shouldn’t we emphasize the attractiveness of the Christian worldview?
But this isn’t the life Christ promised his disciples.
Jesus didn’t tell his disciples to follow him because he would solve all their troubles. He said, “take up your cross daily and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Jesus will help us endure, but becoming a Christian won’t eliminate hardships from our lives.
In Rosaria Butterfield’s excellent autobiography, The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, she describes her conversion as a “trainwreck experience” because it completely destroyed the life she had once lived by throwing her into a series of difficult experiences and growth.
“At the age of 36, I was one of the few tenured women at a large research university, a rising administrator, and a community activist. I had become one of the ‘tenured’ radicals. By all standards, I had made it. That same year, Christ claimed me for himself and the life that I had known and loved came to a humiliating end.”
After a person becomes a Christian, his struggles may increase because he is finally recognizing the sins that exist in his life. The Christian life is tough, and we should be portraying this in fiction instead of portraying Christianity as a clichéd fix.
Cliché #3: Prayer Is Immediately Effective
The prayer cliché occurs when the point of the story is to convince the protagonist to stop relying on herself and start relying on God. The climax comes when the protagonist asks God to intervene for the first time, and voila! The problem is instantly obliterated. Thankfully, the more the Christian fiction genre has progressed, the less I’ve seen this cliché, but it is still present.
This cliché runs the danger of becoming a deus ex machina: a contrived plot that unexpectedly saves the protagonist from dire circumstances. The concept stems from classic Greek plays, where the gods often resolved all loose plot ends.
But, as Christians, shouldn’t we believe God can rescue us from hopeless situations?
Yes, but recall your own prayer requests. Has God always answered affirmatively? Probably not—even for the good things. We experience disappointment when our prayers aren’t answered the way we’d hoped, and this should be depicted in fiction as well.
Instead of using prayer as a plot device to bring God into the equation, use it to test the protagonist. Let her struggle with doubt over her unanswered prayers. Then, when she continues praying and her pleas are answered, the resolution feels satisfying and natural.
This is one of the reasons I enjoyed the movie Prince of Egypt. A large portion of the story deals with the Israelites’ lack of faith after decades and decades of unanswered prayer. Many Israelites are like Aaron and have given up on God. But Miriam perseveres in her faith despite God’s silence. Time passes before her prayers are answered, but eventually she is rewarded, and because we’ve witnessed her devotion for so long, we’re more willing to accept the outcome.
Cliché #4: Christians Always Get Along with Each Other Easily
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read a book where all the Christian characters got along without much conflict, or the potential for major conflict was quelled via a quickly given and accepted apology.
This may be good Christian living, but it doesn’t make good Christian fiction, because it doesn’t mimic real life.
Christian relationships can be just as messy as non-Christian relationships—sometimes even messier because of the moral nature of the disagreements Christians can have. We should display this in storytelling as well.
The best way to manifest the power of Christian unity isn’t to show the reader a bunch of Christians who rarely fight or disagree with each other. It’s to show the reader Christians who don’t easily get along but who learn how to get along as the book progresses.
If you’re interested in reading more about this subject, I’ve written a full-length article about how to implement this concept here.
Cliché #5: Religious Conflicts Never Arise
This cliché isn’t as problematic as the others, and it is more relevant to Christian fantasy and sci-fi novels than other genres. But it has always struck me as odd how the Christianity analogue in speculative fiction societies tends to be rather monolithic.
In the real world, however, if you mention “Calvinism or Arminianism” in a room full of Christians, a debate is guaranteed to break loose.
Christian fiction should contain more instances of characters who find themselves on opposite sides of theological and ethical issues. And, since debates can’t always be resolved, some characters should continue to disagree for the rest of the story.
Generate religious conflicts in your story to show how believers can unite despite different theological opinions. When you accomplish this, your story world will not only be more complex, but it can also be more impactful as you demonstrate how to handle theological discussions appropriately.
A Fresh Look at the World
We have the opportunity to resist the clichés of modern fiction and return to the great precedents set by the classics of Christian literature. But that will take work. Examine these clichés and search for them in your own writing. Have you ever committed any of these flaws? If so, how can you best repair them?
Hopefully this article has helped you recognize the problem—which is half the solution. Now implement the other half of the solution by fixing these clichés where they may be popping up in your own story.
What’s another cliché you see in Christian fiction that wasn’t covered in this article? Let me know in the comments!