writing the rainbow

I believe CS Lewis said that we don’t need more Christian fiction. We just need more Christians writing fiction. And I hold with that: I would love to see a bookstore filled with a rainbow of novels written by authors with varying worldviews, the main characters all being true expressions of what it means to be agnostic, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, Hindu, whatever. Most of us read to step out of the world we know, and personally speaking, I don’t have a problem reading about a character whose beliefs are markedly different from my own.

At the moment, sadly, Christian characters keep getting stereotyped. In Christian inspirational fiction, they’re stereotyped one way (the True Believer who holds with the literal interpretation of the Bible and solves all his problems that way) and in mainstream fiction, from what I’ve seen, there’s a tendency to stereotype the other way (two dimensional hypocrites with no compassion for anyone.)

That’s why the BookWenches’ review of The Boys Upstairs just had me beaming from ear to ear.

In their 4.5 star review, the reviewer writes,

Although I normally don’t seek out inspirational titles and consider myself to be anything but religious in my beliefs, I found this story of brotherly love and second chances to be well-written and touching.

And there’s my litmus test. This is what I’d wanted to accomplish all along. I want to write multifaceted characters who do happen to have a spiritual edge to their lives and who are not preachy. One of my reviewers criticized the book for not having a call to conversion, but that was never the point. I hate books with an agenda, whether that agenda is converting me to the author’s belief system or enlightening my conscience about the crimes in East Timor or making me recycle. Even at the times I agree with the author, it sets my teeth on edge because I don’t want a sermon.

As a writer, I have one agenda: it’s to tell a damn good story, to draw the reader out of his world and into mine. It’s to entertain. It’s to create. And as a reader, I’m usually reading to be entertained. For most of us, when we want to be enlightened, we head for the nonfiction section.

The review continues:

There is no preaching or spouting of holier-than-thou religious dogma in The Boys Upstairs. There are no miraculous religious conversions or miracles. The characters are simply acting in accordance with their faith (or lack thereof) to the situations around them, not trying to convert the reader. As a result, I found myself respecting the characters beliefs, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with them.

At this point, I wanted to cry. Because isn’t that all any of us want? Writers want to create characters who are acting out of who they are. We want situations that draw out the best of them. Readers want characters who live. Who are real. Who can be respected even when we disagree with everything they believe.

We don’t need more Christian fiction. We just need good fiction. We need people of all faiths writing good fiction and publishers willing to publish books that highlight those different belief systems. We need a meeting of the minds and hearts. We need genuine people and not cliches. It can be done.


  1. Nina

    The Bookwenches are spot on! They said – far more eloquently – what I wanted to.

    1. philangelus

      Thank you — although I have to say any review using the words “freaking awesome” is just fine by me. 🙂

  2. Wyldkat

    Bravo! I’d say the review hit the proverbial nail on the head.

    I know I enjoyed the story. Sometimes it is nice to see a good story with a nice ending; a story that proves you don’t have to have someone dead, dying, or buildings blowing up to have conflict and resolution.

    A good story draws you in. This one did. So far that, once I started reading, I forgot I was supposed to be working on my own stuff. *wink*

    Keep up the good work.

    1. philangelus

      Thanks! I’m not much for blowing up buildings. I’ll do it occasionally (er, fictionally, that is) but it’s more emotionally engaging to blow up the internal structures of a character and then have the character rebuild them better.

  3. Diinzumo

    I hope I’ve said that to you about your fiction because that’s what I meant to say.

    1. philangelus

      You did. :#)

  4. Sara Ann Denson

    I could not agree with you more! As a Christian whose also a writer, I’ve struggled with this. I don’t believe in writing a story with a “faith message” but not writing “inspirational” novels often means excluding Christians from the cast list or making them judgmental caricatures. I’m so glad to find a writer cutting a new path through the literary jungle.

    1. philangelus

      Well, don’t say it’s a new path until it goes somewhere. It’s one thing to pull it off in a Christmas novella where some Christianity is kind of expected or at least tolerated. Doing it in a mainstream novel where it’s not expected would be a lot harder, and I’m not sure I’m quite up to THAT task yet.

  5. Ken Rolph

    When I was publishing and seeing lots of manuscripts, the most common scenario in realistic fiction was the character who almost has an affair but doesn’t. I can think of more than a dozen examples. Strangely, the writers often mentioned this in their covering letters. I got the sense that they were offering a conscious alternative to other contemporary literature.

    I think there are agnostic writers from the past who have given a more adequate vision of the Christian life than many current writers. Hanging around email lists has meant I occasional get kindly sent copies of fiction. From an Australian perspective much of this literature is unbelievablel Is there really so much scripture quoting and theological discussion in daily American life? Do all characters work for some enforcement agency? Does every story end in a gun battle? I remember on that didn’t end in a gun battle. It had an oil refinery blow up instead. Are all these books written with the movie rights in mind, or is it just unconscious?

    I think it’s a much better situation to not have a CBA marketplace and to have to make your way in the general literary market. I’ve just finished reading Marrying Ameera by Rosanne Hawke, a South Australian author. It’s the story of a teenage Pakistani-Australian girl whose father sends her back to Pakistan to get married off to save her from temptation. Ameera thinks she is just going on a holiday to meet the relatives. Consider the situations which might arise. I wondered if Rosanne would pull her punches, but she doesn’t. It’s a very vivid and realistic book.

    Just another Christian writing fiction.

  6. philangelus

    Ken, I think you’re picking up on a lot of subconscious American themes. Yes, it does seem as if the stereotypical CBA novel takes place in a small midwestern town or a mid-sized city, and there does seem to be this underlying theme in American Evangelical Christianity that the more scripture verses you can work into your speech, the better you are as a believer. I don’t hold to that (as you can tell by reading here — on the occasions I do it at all, I paraphrase and couldn’t possibly give you the chapter and verse) but I know it’s expected in fiction.

    One of the underpinnings of CBA fiction seems to be that everyone is held to a higher standard. The villains are even expected to behave like Christians, except that they don’t believe in Jesus and aren’t “saved,” and there’s a weird dichotomy between sex and violence, one being okay and the other not. This results in a strange situation where a villain can buy a gun and shoot three victims in the chest or cut people with a knife, but he can’t go back to the apartment he shares with his live-in girlfriend.

    That’s not a realistic portrayal of everyday life. In real life, good people occasionally do bad things. Bad people occasionally do good things. People muddle around. People don’t memorize the Bible even if they love it. People are people, flawed and broken inside. Fiction should reflect that even as it holds out a model for how good things could be.

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