What is Christian Fiction?


Every public library I know of has a designation of ‘Christian Fiction’ among their genre sets. Yet ‘Christian Fiction’ seems to be a collection of characteristics that are vague and varying. And a term that can mean several different things isn’t a helpful term at all. For the purpose of effective communication, a word has to have a collectively acknowledged definition. That’s how language and communication work.

Words are like cars. Most people are content to regard them simply as a tool of convenience; they don’t care how they work, only that they do. Then there are the word-mechanics. Like me. We like to look under the bonnet of the word to see how and why it works the way it does. (This is ‘etymology’, for those interested. Not to be confused with ‘entomology’, which I’m not interested in even a little bit.)

So what’s the nomenclature behind ‘Christian Fiction’? It’s not a genre I enjoy, for reasons not particularly relevant to this post, but I’ve read a decent amount in my attempt to get a feel for what the label is actually supposed to mean. I’ve found they can be grouped into one of three sub-genres, which I guess I have the privilege of naming, because I haven’t already heard of any such subgroups being acknowledged.

Under the ambiguous ‘Christian Fiction’ umbrella, a novel may be:

1. Cartographic 

The prominent plot line is the illustration of a character’s journey to understanding Christianity, and then converting to it. The protagonist is either the person who’s converted, or the sagely friend who’s been the witness/guide/teacher throughout the process. The author is thus a practicing missionary — preaching to the reader by proxy.

(e.g. Fireproof by Eric Wilson)

2. Consular

The plot can be anything, but at least one main character must be a Christian — often overtly so, to make it obvious to the reader what sets this character apart. Their prayers and thoughts of God are frequently narrated. The Christianity of this character is what enables the resolution to the story, and/or it enables them to accept and digest difficult facets of reality along the way. There’s usually an epiphany involved.

(e.g. novels by Brandilyn Collins)

3. Covert

The  characters aren’t Christians, at least not as we’d recognise it, but the story has Christian analogies, with an avoidance of religious jargon. The Christian influence may be crafted so unobtrusively into these stories that they are usually considered mainstream fiction rather than the more incriminatory ‘Christian Fiction’.

(e.g. novels by Ted Dekker, The Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis, or the Lord of the Rings by Lewis’ best friend J.R.R. Tolkien— none of which are in the ‘Christian Fiction’ section at my local library.)

Fantasy stories would be feasible only in sub-category ‘Covert’, I think, as it’s flexible enough to accommodate speculative environments. To reframe the reality of our known world, as the other sub-categories require, will inevitably create theological complications that can’t be reconciled without a heretical ‘solution’.

For example, in a ‘Christian Fiction’ story with aliens of cognition equaling or exceeding that of humans, the very nature and character of God would be questioned — did Jesus die for all the aliens too? If yes, mankind does not have the place of honour among creation that biblical narrative indicates. If no, then why not? These aliens are part of our universe, too. Does God just not care about them? (And the theology crises get worse, the longer that train of thought goes on.)

I’ve met people who believe the Narnia Chronicles are emblematic of Christian Fiction. I’ve also met people who believe the same series is satanic, because it has magic being used by the ‘good’ side too—and these readers believe all magic is innately evil.

I’m interested to hear from my readers as to how they understand the term ‘Christian Fiction’.

What does ‘Christian Fiction’ indicate, to you? Do you think the genre can be easily (or even feasibly) combined with speculative alternatives, such as fantasy or science fiction?


(5) Comments

  • Rebekah
    28 Feb 2017

    When I see something labelled as Christian Fiction, it’s genre will decide what I expect it to be like. Drama/period drama/slice of life I assume to be like your second category; fantasy/sci-fi I expect to be like the third. At the very least I would take it that it is ‘safe’ in that it doesn’t go into any explicit sexual detail even if it needs to convey that such an event took place.

    • Eve
      28 Feb 2017

      That problem is that, in most general libraries at least, there’s no additional genre specified beyond ‘Christian Fiction’. You have to deduce what you can from the blurb and cover art. And not all sci-fis have a convenient picture of a spaceship on the front.

      Because they all get lumped together, I surmise it’s a fortunate thing that those from the Covert subcategory tend to be catalogued with other mainstream items of their topic-genres. It gives them a fighting chance to be read, as I find their writing standard is typically head and shoulders above the other two subcategories.

  • Deborah Makarios
    03 Mar 2017

    As someone (can’t remember who) once said, the problem with Christian fiction is that very often it isn’t good fiction and it isn’t good Christianity either. Like the Mills-and-Boonish novels which have a Christian topdressing but are still driven by the need to titillate romantic sensibilities – it’s just a veneer of Christianity rather than actually driven by a Christian worldview.
    Presumably they only survive because there is a small but significant market who are afraid of reading anything that isn’t labelled as “Christian” in case they are led astray by it.
    By the by, I did come across a decent Christian book once which included aliens – turned out it was a guise of demons to deceive those who don’t believe in the supernatural.

    • Eve
      03 Mar 2017

      Ah, yes, I can see how aliens would be compatible with the genre, in that capacity.

      I had someone on Facebook respond with, “[Christian Fiction is] being true to reality – just as the Bible itself records the truth, warts and all. So, in ‘Christian’ fiction, for example, the baddies should be what baddies really are like.”

      Inauthenticity is one of my bigger distastes of the tripe that tends to characterise the genre. I can’t imagine an assassin would really say, ‘Oh, sugar,’ when his sniper rifle jams. I think if an author isn’t willing to preserve their characters faithfully in their novel, they need to concede that they shouldn’t be writing it.

      • Deborah Makarios
        04 Mar 2017

        Quite! There’s also the issue of the goodies never doing anything unChristian. Because we are all, of course, entirely perfect (cough cough).

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