What is Christian Fiction?

Listening to Tim Downs, the ACFW keynote speaker, was definitely a conference highlight. During one of his talks, he discussed the concept of Christian fiction. Like, what is it exactly?
I bet if you asked a hundred different authors in the CBA this question: What is Christian fiction? You’d get a hundred different answers, ranging from “stories written by Christian authors” to “stories with the message of salvation”. Some insist Christian fiction must be “clean”, while others insist there’s room for “some grit”. The answers run the gamut.
The point of Tim’s message wasn’t to give us a definition, but to make us think.
He brought up a certain analogy that stuck with me. I’d like to share it here.
He talked about Easter egg hunts. How when his children were really young, he and his wife would “hide” eggs in plain sight. Like, right on top of the grass and for extra measure, they’d stand by the eggs and sort of shuffle their feet and make gestures, just to make sure their toddler would find it. But as their children grew older, he and his wife had to get better and better at hiding the eggs. In fact, if they didn’t hide the eggs really well, their kids would lose interest. They got so good at hiding eggs that weeks after Easter, they’d catch their children still looking for them.
Do you see the analogy?
Some Christian writers put the egg on the grass. Others like to hide it. I’ve seen the two sides argue. Take up arms about what which type is better. And each time, I sense this unspoken pride lurking in the shadows. Tim didn’t want us to take sides. He only wanted us to consider this: In the wide world of Christian fiction, isn’t there room for both?
Questions to Ponder: What is Christian fiction to you? Do you read it? Do you write it? Do you think we should hide the egg, or leave it in plain sight?


29 thoughts on “What is Christian Fiction?

  1. Sandra Heska King

    What a great and helpful discussion. Funny thing–I didn't take the time to read any fiction for a long time until the last couple years, and now I'm writing it. I fall in the both camp.

    And now one of my books is based on my logger great-great grandfather–who I doubt was even a Christian. But I'm going to make him one.

    Sigh . . . I wish I'd been there.

  2. Catherine West

    Interesting. I'd say there has to be room for both, because both kinds of books are being published. I am a more hide the egg kind of writer, and I'm not published yet, so I guess I'm still trying to wade through CBA waters and see if I'll be able to swim in them. Sometimes I think we like to take the egg and crack it over people's heads. I'm not really into that. Funny though, when I first started, I thought that's the way my stories had to be if they were going to find a home in CBA.
    It's going to be interesting to figure out where I fit. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  3. vvdenman.com

    I like this analogy. We really do need both. Not everyone is ready for solid food, some still need milk.

    Thanks for a great post!

  4. Liz

    Great discussion! Long, long ago I attended a writing seminar by a long, long-forgotten writer. He was very good and I ended up buying a book or two of his. In addition to "mainstream" writing he also did "Christian" writing. I think he was more an advocate of "burying" the message.

    Maybe "Christian" writing is sometimes just about people living Christian lives? I personally don't like being hit over the head with a message — I prefer more subtlety and situations that are more like real life. I'm reading a work of Christian fiction right now that I think most of us can relate to: "Rain Dance," by Joy DeKok. It involves a friendship between two very different women, one who's mourning her inability to have children and one who's had an abortion. How can they be friends? Well … in real life, they can. Not everything in real life has easy answers. And this book makes clear that abortion is personal as well as political.

  5. Heather Sunseri

    Oh, yeah, Tim Downs really made me think with that message as well. I think I'm one who likes to hide the eggs and let the reader find it, but I also agree with Jill that it depends on the story. My current story is about a couple of missionaries, so Christianity is always there on the surface, but what the characters learn through the story, I've tried to bury for the discovery.

  6. Jill Kemerer

    Great topic! And my answer is easy–it depends on the book. Some books will have the eggs laid out on the grass, while others require some hiding.

  7. Jeanette Levellie

    Whoo, boy, this is one great topic for discussion, Katie. I think it also applies to non-fiction writing.

    Some readers do not care for fiction, so will only read nf. This is why I like to add humor to my stories–it provides some tall grass to hide the eggs. Depending on what audience I'm writing for, I put the eggs on a plate and hand them to you, or barely allude to eggs in the universe. The only exception is when I write for the Army of Ermas, a pure humor blog. I consider this a part of my platform, and use it to win non-Christian friends, hoping they'll develop a hunger for eggs through knowing me. But I keep everything clean, always. My worst word ever was butt, and I winced when I typed it.

    Love this post!

  8. David A. Bedford

    I also like the analogy. I am a believer and I write fiction. Therefore my books cannot help but display my belief somehow. Here's where I come down: there is a place for telling the gospel (preaching and witnessing). Fiction is a different matter. Good fiction has always had something of universal importance to say. That's why it is a great medium for a Christian writer. If you write for serious readers, hide the eggs good.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

  9. Janna Qualman

    Awesome analogy. Thanks for sharing this, Katie! I so appreciate the message here.

  10. Jaime

    Great post. I think each book is different. Christian fiction to me can go so many directions. Sometimes it's just a refreshing pure drink of entertainment in a world tainted by – crap.
    Other times its a challenge to go deeper (ROOMS, by Jim Rubart – WOW!)
    And sometimes, it's a pleasant mixture of entertainment and good faith/theology mixed in (Tracie Peterson)

    At least, that's my humble opinion πŸ™‚

  11. Julie Jarnagin

    He was such a great speaker! I loved it!

  12. Rosslyn Elliott

    Katie, I really liked that Harvest/Sower analogy too.

    I want Faberge eggs. They can be hidden or not hidden, as long as they're eggs, they're beautiful, and they last a long time.

  13. Sara Richardson

    Hi Katie! Tim Downs was a great speaker. I believe there is room for both, and I also think that there may be different seasons in an author's life. Sometimes they may feel called to hide the egg, sometimes leave it in plain sight. For now, I guess I would say I hide the egg, though it's not deliberate. I just focus on the story and how it plays out. For some reason most of my protagonists have been either nominal Christians or have had no faith background at all. I don't write conversions into my stories because to me it feels forced, but I always try to leave the reader with hope that their lives will change because of love/grace/mercy. Great discussion! Hope your writing is going well.
    Blessing, Sara

  14. Kristen Torres-Toro

    This is great, Katie!

    CF is 99% of all I read.

    I like to hide it in mine… simply because there is something wonderful about the thrill of the hunt!

  15. Carol J. Garvin

    I think there's a place for both, and who your market is will determine whether the "egg" is hidden or obvious. Life lessons are welcomed by those who are expecting to find them but others will only be turned off by them. I'd rather entice readers into a story where the moral or Christian message is subtle and hope that seeds will be planted.

  16. Keli Gwyn

    What a great question, Katie, one that made me think.

    I consider my stories entertainment, so I tend to hide the egg. I want to produce a story my hair dresser, postal clerk, and other non-believing friends can read and enjoy, one I hope makes them think. If I were to inject a heavy-handed conversion into it, I would run the risk of turning them off and losing the opportunity to reach them.

    I heard editors at the ACFW conference say it is hard for them to believe that a character can make a decision to follow Christ in the length of a novel, and I tend to agree. Seeds can be planted, yes, but conversion comes about over time, and most of my stories don't span but a few months. If I were to have a character come to Christ, he or she would be close to making a decision at the beginning of the story. I'm more inclined to have a character learn a lesson that deepens his/her faith or brings him/her back to a faith once held.

  17. Patti Lacy

    Great discussion! I love stories that show a moral premise, a redeemed character.

    It doesn't matter to me how they're packaged, labeled, or stamped!!!

    Blessings, dear one.

  18. Shannon O'Donnell

    Wow, Katie. What a wonderful post and comment thread. The comments are so thought-provoking and genuine.

    @ Jessica – good for you, for putting it out there.

    To me, that is exactly what Christian fiction represents – the willingness to put Jesus and faith in the fiber of the story. But it doesn't necessarily have to be the whole story. Terri Blackstock does a wonderful job of writing riveting stories and balancing them with the joy of Christian faith. Wayne Thomas Batson is another author I think does a wonderful job.

  19. Terri Tiffany

    This is a wonderful analogy–and I think there is room for both for certain!

  20. Sarah Forgrave

    I was apparently waayyyy too tired at the conference because I don't remember this analogy, lol.

    But I will say I agree that there's a place for both. Some people may never come to Jesus if it's explicit, and an author's hidden egg might prompt them to follow the author, etc., and the author's testimony might be the key. Others might need the egg out in the open if they'll ever *get* it.

    I think I fall somewhere in the middle. In the first half of my latest book, the egg is hidden, but as the heroine goes along on her own journey, the egg gets moved to a more prominent spot…Kind of what I do for my son if I've put the egg in too difficult of a location.

    No matter what side we fall on, it has to be done organically within the story. Otherwise, it's just preachy and no one wants to read a preachy novel.

  21. T. Anne

    I write secular fiction with strong Christian themes. My characters are way too flawed to fit into the CBA market, but then most of us CHristians are too. πŸ˜‰

  22. Cindy R. Wilson

    Hi Katie. I loved Tim Down's story and the analogy, too. It really made me appreciate that Christian fiction is branching out. After I became a Christian, which wasn't that long ago, I had an idea what Christian fiction would be like–and figured I wouldn't find anything deep or entertaining, or anything I liked to read. I was surprised when I found something that fit so perfectly, it not only strengthened my journey in the Lord but made me see that I could actually write Christian fiction and still hold onto the passion I had for particular stories.

    I'd definitely say there's room for hiding eggs and keeping them out in the open. If not for that, I might not be writing or reading Christian fiction now and I'd be missing out on something wonderful.

  23. Susan J. Reinhardt

    Hi Katie –

    I've read so many pros and cons about Christian fiction. Like Tim and you, I agree there's room for many expressions within the overall boundaries.

    I'm reminded of Paul's methodology in spreading the gospel. He used what would be effective for the audience he faced.

    We're admonished to write to our audience. No one is "one size fits all."

    Susan πŸ™‚

  24. Erica Vetsch

    I've thought about this since hearing Tim Downs speak.

    I guess I worry that if the egg is hidden so well, that if–as a lover and knower of Christ who went into reading a book with the expectation of finding Him referenced somewhere in the pages, whether overtly or indirectly–I'm still searching for the egg after I finish the book, I have to wonder how a non-believer is supposed to be pointed to Christ as a result of reading the book.

    If the egg is so well hidden that a Christian can't find it when they know what they're looking for, then how is an unbeliever supposed to find it, and if he can't, is the book still Christian fiction?

  25. Katie Ganshert

    Great discussion so far ladies! Jody – I definitely think you're right. we need to know who our audience is.

    Jessica – no biting! I think that was a very well-thought comment. It made me think – and those are the kind I love! When Tim was talking about the egg, he meant a Christian message – or one that pionts to Jesus. He made this other analogy that I really liked. How there's a season for everything. How some books are going to be Harvest books, but others are going to be sowing books (where maybe a seed is planted…and maybe not everyone will pick up on that seed). Interesting brain fodder and important stuff to reflect on.

  26. Diane

    Absolutely there should be room for both. They both serve a different purpose and need to be accepted for what they are. :O)

  27. Wendy Paine Miller

    What a great conversation starter. Where are you when I want to talk? πŸ˜€

    So many thoughts on this. I've grappled with whether to call myself a Christian who writes fiction or a Christian fiction writer. The last novel I wrote certainly pointed to faith elements. But not all my work has.

    I tend to lean toward reading and writing hidden eggs. It's just my taste. But I'm open to reading the eggs out in the open.

    Am going to come back to read more of these responses. Off to tweet this bad boy.
    ~ Wendy

  28. Jessica Nelson

    I like the analogy in theory but not so much in practicality. I've read "Christian" books that were more like a moral book. Like, it was clean and there was a good moral, but what made it Christian? What makes anything Christian?

    Sometimes I think the Christian world likes to act like we're the only good people. That if a book has a moral premise or a Godly theme (ie, forgiveness, kindness, etc) that it must be Christian. I'm not sure I agree. Almost everyone has a moral compass that God gave us, regardless of their religion.

    If a book is gonna be Christian, then I think it should point people to Jesus, not just to being Good. Does that make sense? I hope it doesn ecause I'm not trying to knock the hidden eggs. If those hidden eggs lead to Jesus, awesome. But if they lead to a moral lesson….then why bother calling it Christian?

    Okay, I'm putting this out in Cyberland. LOL Hopefully it doesn't come back to bite me you know where. LOL

  29. Jody Hedlund

    Good morning, Katie! I really enjoyed Tim Downs too. And I thought this particular talk fascinating. I really do think that the world needs both kinds of "eggs." There are some who need the message in plain sight and then some who need it hidden. There are even those who want something in the middle. Publishers, too, have ideals for what they'd like to see in their books based upon the types of readers they sell to. Do you think, ultimately, we have to know what kind of reader we're targeting with our stories?

    Hope you have a great week and are enjoying your fall!


Comments are closed.