Sunday, August 17, 2008

The Quality of Christian Fiction

Megan McArdle asks:

On a vaguely related note, why is Christian popular fiction so awful?

I've read a fair sample of the big names--Frank Peretti and of course, a few of the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad Left Behind novels. I don't think they're bad because of the religious aspects; though I'm not myself a believer, I have a healthy respect for other peoples' faith. Besides, if I can suspend disbelief for Dark Knight, I think I can manage a few demons and angels.

The problem is, the writing is dreadful. The Left Behind series reads like it was written by a fourteen year old B student with a HUGE crush on Jesus Christ. To call the characters cardboard cutouts would be an insult to paper dolls, which are vastly more realistic than anything created by Messrs Lehaye and Jenkins. The dialogue reads like it's been triple-starched. And the plot belongs in a churchyard.

Her first commentor nails the answer.


johnmeunier said...

Great quote and the commenter makes a really good point.

I suspect part of the problem is that for a story to be good and have a human protagonist, it has to be basically Pelagian in theology.

I suspect another part is because most "Christian" writers are not widely read. Lots and lots of good writing is not terribly Christian (to put it mildly). So, to learn to write you have to read a bunch of stuff that assaults your basic moral outlook and theology - even if you are not all that conservative.

On the plus side, LeHaye's wooden prose and thin characters are tailor made for Kirk Cameron's acting.

brownpau said...

This is why C.S. Lewis said not to write with the aim of imparting a didactic moral, but to tell a story whose moral rises "from whatever spiritual roots you have succeeded in striking during the whole course of your life. But if they don't show you any moral, don't put one in. For the moral you put in is likely to be a platitude, or even a falsehood, skimmed from the surface of your consciousness." He was talking about writing for children but the message applies to other writing as well, including of the "Christian" variety.

Jeff the Baptist said...

I liked the posters who simply cited Sturgeon's Law: 90% of everything is crap. Sturgeon created this maxim to defend science fiction from similar criticism over 50 years ago, but it's logic is equally valid for Christian fiction as many of the same market forces exist between the two segments.

Dan Trabue said...

Megan's right on:

The Left Behind series reads like it was written by a fourteen year old B student with a HUGE crush on Jesus Christ. To call the characters cardboard cutouts would be an insult to paper dolls...

What a great quote.

I will note that she ought to make the distinction... MODERN "pop christian" fiction is awful.

We do have some classics out there (Pilgrim's Progress, the Narnia and Perelandra series from Lewis, etc) that at least I think are pretty good-to-great.

Jeff the Baptist has a good quote too, above. But I think Brownpau is probably hitting the nail on the head - almost any time you write something with the express purpose of being moral, you run a good chance of writing crap.

Hoot was a movie that came out last year, based on a book which I haven't read. I can't speak to the book, but the movie was crap. It had a pro-environmental responsibility message that I agreed with but was so preachy and treacly that I was rooting for the bad guys.

On the other side of things, Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park, etc) - whose writings I normally enjoy - tried to write an anti-global warming book and it was just awful. Preachy, ham-fisted, know-it-all protagonist and ridiculously stupid and 1/2 dimensional characters and bad guys. Bleh!

That would be two examples from the secular world of this same phenomenon - trying to write with a message results in crap. Remember that.

Or, to paraphrase Lord Acton:

Moral certainty tends to corrupt writing. Absolute moral certainty tends to corrupt writing absolutely.

elizaw said...

I am both a Christian and a novelist... but I don't think that I'll ever write fiction for the Christian genre. The prospect comes with an obligation of propaganda, so to speak, and when the message becomes more important than the story, the story tends to fade.

I'm reminded of when the band Evanescence became very popular, and Christians thought that their band was also Christian. They played it on their radio stations. The lyrics very easily could be interpreted as religious. Most of the tracks in their Fallen album have very Christian elements, frequent calls to be saved or rescued. The last song included a Latin chant of 'Servatis a pereculum, servatis a maleficum', which translates to, “You (pl.) save from danger; You save from evil.”

Yet when Evanescence declared that they were not a Christian band (in a particularly vulgar statement, true enough), the songs were pulled from the Christian radio stations. It wasn't the message, apparently. It was the people behind it that they cared about. We don't look for songs or books that keep with our ideals. We look for our own little genre. If you want a really good Christian book? Go read Les Miserables. But I can guarantee you won't find it in a Christian bookstore.

John said...

Here's the bright side:

Left Behind is the only novel that I've read in which I could honestly say that I could have done a better job, using an honest assessment of my own abilities as a fiction writer (nota bene: very limited).

So, talent is no longer critical for literary success. The average person is capable of writing a bestseller if s/he taps into a lucrative market.

Look at the success of Left Behind as a money-making opportunity that can be exploited. Like the Ferengi say, "Opportunity plus instinct equals profit."

Ken L. Hagler said...

I think Elizaw makes an excellent comparison. When Christian bookstores stay away from Les Miserables there is a real issue. Look at the message of Hellboy. I doubt you're going to run across THAT anywhere but it is some of the best artistry and an incredible twist on the full extent of th power of grace. Stephen Lawhead's work is quickly found in any bookstore's fantasy and sci-fi areas except the Christian sort.

I always feel a bit unclean entering most "Christian" bookstores. Very little of it seems of much use beyond being dust catchers and shelf badges.

Dan Trabue said...

Wow. A topic that unites everyone: Hatred of "pop christian" fiction.