Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Why Christian Fiction Rocks

I gave a speech today to a small group of librarians from our area about how Christian fiction has changed and why it is relevant. I thought my readers might enjoy reading it, so here goes.

Today’s Christian fiction is not what your grandma used to read. When I was a pre-teen, I remember pulling Janette Oke off of the bookshelf of my church. There weren’t many options for fiction books, and the covers reminded me of Little House on the Prairie, which was my favorite show. In Oke’s books, just about everyone is a Christian, the women are submissive and the men are masculine, and everything ends happily. The books didn’t hold my interests long, and I quickly moved on to other types of fiction. I didn’t pick up another Christian fiction book until I was over thirty and a friend recommended Francine Rivers’ The Scarlet Thread without telling me it was Christian book. I loved it and after reading everything else Rivers had written, started reading everything I could get my hands on in the genre.

For just about any genre you can name in mainstream fiction, you can find a match in Christian fiction, and in most circumstances, the writing quality is its equal, and in some cases even better. Just like regular fiction, you have good writers and bad ones. There are Christian authors who rewrite the same books over and over again and are well loved for it by their readers.

But the books I love are the ones that catch me off guard, and the quality of writing has little to do with the level of faith within. In many cases, readers wouldn’t even know that they are reading Christian fiction if not for the name of the publisher or the section of the library where it’s located.

Speculative fiction is a new hot genre in Christian fiction. One in which many topics not thought possible in that type of writing are all possible. While you won’t find the spicy scenes of Laurell K. Hamilton’s urban fantasy series, you will still find vampires and werewolves, like in Sue Dent’s Never Ceese series. Nancy Moser has a series involving time travel.

Some of the newest and quickest growing genres like chick lit, young adult, and DaVinci Code knock-offs are all being tackled by Christian publishers. I can’t begin to name all of the chick lit series and stand alones by Christian authors. Some of the best are Susan May Warren, Virginia Smith, and Lisa Wingate. Young adult seems to have two sub-genres: chick lit, capitalizing on the popularity of Gossip Girl and The Clique and fantasy, springboarding off of Harry Potter’s spectacular success. DaVinci Code knock-offs are in many cases written better than the original, but always include the standard mysterious document and secret society.

Writers like Julie Lessman and Stacy Hawkins Adams are doing their best to refute the idea that Christian romance novels are sexless. Lessman’s series The Daughters of Boston has characters struggling to remain true to their faith and fighting their hormones, and the parents in the series regularly have spicy and romantic bedroom scenes showing that the desire for sex doesn’t die after marriage and that Christian marriages can be proof of that. Adams, Marilyn Griffith, and Michelle Stimpson are jumping on the urban romance bandwagon and doing it with a Christian twist.

There are several writers for more masculine fiction as well. Political thrillers, sports thrillers, crime dramas; if you can find it on the regular fiction shelf, you can find it in Christian fiction. There are some differences that set Christian fiction apart from general fiction, but the hard and fast rules are fading. Chraracters do occasionally do drugs, have sex outside of marriage, or commit crimes, and sometimes the bad guy wins. Christian fiction is trying to more closely reflect real life and make itself more accessible to a wider range of readers without compromising its values. Usually the character will find some sort of redemption by the end of the book or series, but now it’s far less likely to be a fall-to-your-knees-light-shining-down-from-Heaven-come-to-Jesus moment. While some writers still proselytize or have their characters attend church in order to offer up a sermon mid-book, more often characters live their faith or learn about God by watching others live out theirs. Again, like real life. In one forensic crime series by Tim Downs called Bug Man, the main character doesn’t have any faith, and the only reference to it in the book Less Than Dead is a conversation the main character has with a pastor. The pastor brings up his faith, the character says, “You’re getting too religious on me” and the pastor drops it. I’m assuming the character will acquire faith by the end of the series, but the author is taking it slow and making it real. In James Scott Bell’s Ty Buchanan series, the main character is a lawyer in LA living on the grounds of an abbey. His good friend is a basketball playing nun who tries to keep him on the straight and narrow, but one of the antagonists is the Mother Superior. Any conversations about faith arise naturally from the context of the story.

One more wonderful thing about Christian fiction: its authors tend to be a bit more fan-friendly than other authors. They put up great websites and reply to emails personally. Some have blogs they update daily with news about upcoming books or events. They are on Facebook posting about their work and their lives. They do blog tours to encourage publicity and are always reaching out with contests, interviews, podcasts, and other ways to reach readers.

Christian Fiction is a rapidly growing industry with books to please every reader. I love talking about it and sharing it, and just maybe changing minds about it as well.

I also made up a chart listing mainstream fiction authors and their Christian counterparts. I'll post that next week.

Remember to send me an email before 10 pm tonight for the chance to win a copy of Intimate Issues: 21 Questions Christian Women Ask About Sex.