“Do I need to make my story Christian?” is often one of the first questions biblically-minded young writers ask themselves. After growing up on a steady diet of Veggie Tales and Adventures in Odyssey, it may seem natural to follow this fine tradition by writing stories rife with applicable Bible verses and modernized parables. Or perhaps you have the exact opposite in mind and are instead struggling with nagging guilt that your tale lacks prominent Christian themes.
Actually, the question of whether a book needs to be Christian is, in a sense, irrelevant. Every action, spoken word, or inward thought in a story works in harmony to paint a picture of the author’s beliefs. A writer with a solid biblical foundation, whose aim is to write strongly and reflect God’s truth, will inherently write a “Christian” story, even if Jesus is never mentioned in it.
But then why do bookstores put The Screwtape Letters in the Christian/religious section and The Chronicles of Narnia into fantasy? Both are written by a man well known for his Christian worldview, and both are rich with biblical truths. The difference is that the former is primarily concerned with “religion,” while the other focuses on fictional adventures in a magical world. The word “Christian” in this sense functions only as a label. A story about passionate love is a romance, an unsolved crime is a mystery, and a novel that heavily features Christians’ faith or climaxes in a conversion is a Christian novel.
There is a great need for a thriving market of Christian fiction. We need stories with relatable characters addressing both modern and age-old problems. We need to see the war raging in other Christians’ minds as they internally struggle with real-life issues, rather than just seeing the struggles of atheists and agnostics as they become Christians. Jesus told parables for a reason: mankind loves stories. Biblical truth relayed in the pages of a novel can sometimes be even more memorable and inspiring than a sermon.
On the converse side, a Sunday school lesson poorly disguised as a novel or screenplay will mainly irritate and bore its audience. Disappointment at encountering an unwanted lecture applies to anyone, even the most seasoned student of John Calvin or R. C. Sproul. Below are five tips to avoid antagonizing readers by skillfully handling the Christian theme of your story.
1. Keep Your Characters’ Faith Real
Believers in Christ are not perfect, and neither is their faith. If your character remains in an idyllic state of peace and trust in God, never questioning her beliefs and never sinning (or instead obsessing over each and every sin—Elsie Dinsmore, anyone?), this will understandably ring false to readers.
Unexamined faith is weak. All of us are locked in a day-by-day mortal struggle with what the apostle Paul calls our “flesh,” and the only way to combat it is by constantly building ourselves up with prayer and the word of God. Your characters’ faith cannot remain stagnant, any more than a romance can be inert or a mystery not move forward.
2. Keep Scripture Quotes to a Minimum
This may be a personal preference, but if I wanted to do a Bible study, I wouldn’t be seeking to do it in fiction. Today’s audience has an extremely short attention span (Time to fess up. How many of you skimmed through Tolkien’s elvish poetry recitations?), and we digest brief points best. There’s a reason why the KP staff makes a policy of bolding key sentences of articles.
But it’s not enough to be succinct; Scripture quotes also must serve a purpose to your characters. Think of how Scripture impacts you in your own life. It can strengthen your motivation, convict you for past or current misdeeds, or provide hope in a dark place. You can use Scripture in these ways and more in the lives of your characters, but include it as naturally as possible.
Firstly, it must fit the character’s personality and knowledge. Not many people are comfortable with openly sharing their thoughts on spiritual matters. Secondly, the Scripture’s significance has to be more relevant to the character’s arc and growth than to the audience. Whatever lessons or morals being taught must be entirely aimed at the character. Readers can always tell when writers swerve their attention from the story to the audience.
3. You Don’t Always Need a Gospel Call
Christian scriptwriters, please take note. I enjoyed Fireproof and Courageous. But not every movie has to imitate that formula. 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. They may even speed-read or temporarily zone out.
Also, a blatant presentation of the gospel could potentially chase away some unbelievers. For them, you’re reinforcing the stereotype that only Hollywood can produce good movies, and that Christian films and books should be avoided like the plague unless you want a Bible thrown in your face.
I believe we can do better than the lackluster plot of God’s Not Dead. The overt already exists. Christian wordsmiths need to challenge themselves to weave their themes with precision and care.
4. Don’t Over-egg the Pudding
If you were writing a romance, would every page be filled with descriptions of rose bouquets and moonlit dinners, and all dialogue be heartfelt confessions of love? Obviously not. A story dominated by a single theme would be unspeakably dull.
Consider Pride and Prejudice. It’s a romance novel, but not every element revolves around courtship and love. Austen tackles issues such as class, the purpose of marriage, family relations, and human pride and preconceptions. Likewise, your story can depict more issues than Christianity. Flesh out the fictional world you’re creating with all the diversity beheld in this one. Explore different cultures and time periods rather than limiting yourself to the modern American viewpoint, and write as vividly as you can about the life and struggles the people of that era faced.
5. Write Well
Sadly, an abundance of terrible writing exists that is only bought because it bears the Christian label. Many of you will probably be familiar with the quote allegedly attributed to Martin Luther that putting little crosses on badly-made shoes does not Christianize them. Dorothy Sayers also observes that intentions to write well, however noble, are not enough:
“No piety in the worker will compensate for work that is not true to itself; for any work that is untrue to its own technique is a living lie.
Yet in Her own buildings, in Her own ecclesiastical art and music, in Her hymns and prayers, in Her sermons and in Her little books of devotion, the Church will tolerate, or permit a pious intention to excuse work so ugly, so pretentious, so tawdry and twaddling, so insincere and insipid, so bad as to shock and horrify any decent draftsman.”
Sayers concludes her declamation with the pronouncement that a painting must be painted well before it can be a sacred picture, and work must be excellent before it can qualify as God’s work. Therefore, the more we improve our writing, the better we will be able to glorify God. Fortunately, this website is designed to help you do just that.
Writing Stories without the Christian Label
Google classic literature, and you’ll be surprised by how many works that fall into this category contain strong Christian references that you would never see in modern secular fiction: Les Misérables, Ben Hur, Little Women, The Swiss Family Robinson, Anne of Green Gables and its sequels, etc. In the original stories, even Sherlock Holmes, the literary embodiment of the scientifically-minded critical thinker, gives glory to God as he observes the beauty of a moss rose. You would never find these books in the religious section of a bookstore because that isn’t their primary theme, and yet they too glorify God as they display the beauty of language and human creativity.
Furthermore, if many of the classics were published today, they would be categorized as Christian—Pilgrim’s Progress, Dante’s Inferno, or Paradise Lost, for instance. These books explored their protagonists’ Christian faith, and today they continue to stand the test of time and impact countless generations of readers.
Strive to follow His guidance as you decide the theme of your story. Keep in mind that this may not be initially apparent to you, and that a story you had no intention of making overtly Christian may turn out that way after all. Try not to become overly fixated on what niche your work belongs in, or how it will be received by its potential audience.
Instead, write well, write truthfully, and you will indeed write for Christ.