Latent Christian Faith

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by  Christians on other subjects– with their Christianity latent.”  -C. S. Lewis

That’s a quote I’ve always loved. It’s more than a quote, it’s a challenge.

Most of you know I only represent books written by Christians with a Christian world view. That’s a very individual choice each agent makes– what will be the parameters of my practice? I decided early on that this life is too short to represent anything that doesn’t offer that world view within the pages.dreamstime_xs_20783917

So does that mean that the nonfiction book needs to be prescriptive or filled with apologetics or theology? Does each novel need to have a character bending his knee in acknowledgment of God’s saving grace? Of course not. That can get positively clichéd.

So what makes a “Christian” book? In fiction it’s just a story that not only explores the plot and characters but explores faith issues as well, however subtly. In nonfiction it’s looking at the subject through the eyes of faith.

It has nothing to do with whether a book ends up in the CBA market or the ABA market. There are plenty of writers in the general market (ABA) who can’t divorce their faith from their storytelling. John Grisham’s The Covenant was one book that comes to mind. Debbie Macomber’s books are another.

It’s true that in the Christian market there are strictures– CBA readers expect the books to be free of profanity, gratuitous sex and violence. We expect a gentle read. That has little to do with whether a book has a faith arc in it, however. There are many a sweet romance in the general market that meets those restrictions.

So let’s talk. You tell me. What makes a book a “Christian” book? How can a book have latent Christianity? Do you worry about whether your book is too “Christian?” Not “Christian” enough? Is there anything wrong with speaking Christianese? What is a faith arc in fiction? I look forward to hearing what you think.

38 Responses

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  1. Great subject Wendy, and far too ill to be more than blunt.
    * Christianity is not gentle. Our salvation was bought through pain more horrific than most of us have ever experienced, and through degradation – Christ’s assuming our sins – than we could ever know. It’s the journey from hell’s own cesspool to Glory.
    * it’s not about drinking and smoking and sex.
    * The faith arc is about the total victory that resides in total surrender. Else it is meaningless.

  2. Mac MacCullough says:

    A contortion-istic topic I’ve wrassled with for years and four novels. Authentic characters in real experiences trying to recognize or be true to faith as they find it. Wendy, you have recognized the convoluted and difficult expressions of reality and the challenges writers assume. We appreciate it.

  3. Carol Ashby says:

    I think a novel can express latent Christianity, but mine don’t. They’re unabashedly Christian but very seeker friendly. They don’t assume American Christian culture because they’re set a little after AD 100 in the Roman Empire.
    *They follow the faith arc of at least one main character through the transition from sometimes hostile unbelief to faith, and that occurs in a way that even a non-Christian can follow the logic driving the character’s transformation.
    *Every novel in the series is a story about how our love and faithfulness can inspire another to open his or her heart to God. At least one main character’s love of Jesus is the most important factor in the hardest decisions they must make, and that plays a key role in the faith arc of the main character who’s transformed.

    • “Don’t assume American Christian culture.” I’m glad you brought this idea to the table, Carol. Part of Christianity’s majesty and mystery is that it applies to every culture. Let’s tell the world about Jesus!

      • Carol Ashby says:

        You and I share a missionary heart, Shirlee, and a call to share our faith very openly in our writing. I just discovered yesterday that Goodreads shows the country of origin of the readers who have selected my books to read or rate. My heart sang when I saw readers in Hungary, New Zealand, and Bermuda have loved it and some in Norway and South Africa have it on their to-read list.

    • “They don’t assume American Christian culture because they’re set a little after AD 100 in the Roman Empire.”
      Oh yes, this.
      Everything from the telling of time to the phrases used, this is SO important!

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Spot on, Jennifer, and the research I had to do to portray that culture accurately became the Roman history website that attracts international visitors who might want to read about living the faith in dangerous times. I love how God uses what we do in unexpected ways.
        *Don’t forget to contact me next time you come to Navajoland on your research to get everything right in your stories. Kindred spirits need to meet face-to-face when it’s less than a 200-mile drive.

  4. I was just having this conversation with my husband today. I am working on a nonfiction title that is a little different from my other books. I am still at the point that I could change things up a little and instead of creating a Christian title I could create a title that is written for a broader audience but from a Christian perspective. The struggle about doing so, is very real. Should I? How? Is that what God would want? I couldn’t sleep so here I am reading this blog at 2:30 in the morning and my answer is right there in front of me. Thank you for helping me to see the direction that I should go. It will be written for a broader audience but still contain the voice of a Christian because that is who I am.

  5. I don’t often open Facebook in the morning, but now I know why I did today. I am reading a craft book called Christian Fiction by Jeff Gerke who makes the point that who you’re trying to reach determines how “Christian” your book should be. I agree, but I also think these days writers with a Christian message/theme have to walk a fine line to get our messages heard. It’s not about offending or not offending someone, it’s about helping people see the beautiful balance of God’s love and justice – and to realize that faith is life-giving. To me, a Christian book is one that speaks the truth in a loving way and in a voice people (Christian and non-believer) are open to hearing.

  6. David Todd says:

    For some time I’ve felt my “calling” in writing (to the extent I can say I sense a calling) to be to write secular books underpinned by a Christian worldview. I suppose that’s latent Christianity. I do this by:
    .
    – showing temptation. In order to show victory over temptation, you have to show temptation, and your character yielding or close to yielding. That’s a challenge, but one I think I’ve successfully pulled off, so far.
    – include Christian characters, who aren’t the typical stereotype you read about in the both the CBA and ABA markets, or see on television. They have to have flaws that they overcome, at least in part, during the book. They need to make mistakes. They need to live lives apart from church.
    – don’t make religion a major part of the book or plot, but don’t quite ignore it either.
    – don’t have obvious conversions. It’s Christians who want to read about that, not non-Christians.
    .
    Bottom line: If I want non-Christians to read my books, I need to not drive them away by my books being filled with overt Christianity.
    .
    I don’t figure many people will be converted when reading my books. That’s okay. As long as they are led a little closer to the Living Water, it’s the Holy Spirit’s job, and maybe another writer’s job, to take them the rest of the way.

    • One thing I see a lot with low ratings on Christian books is that the reader isn’t a Christian and they were turned off by too much jargon. They weren’t turned off by God. Maybe they would have kept reading and rated it higher if there hadn’t been too much Christianese. It’s like writing a book in a different language that the reader can’t understand. We have to speak simply, write simply, for others to understand. And you’re right, maybe many won’t be converted, but they might be led to know you better, who you are, what you believe … open doors. 🙂

    • Peggy Booher says:

      David,
      I like your perspective.

  7. I grew up with the knowledge, based on many long-distance calls home to my dad’s family, that strife and war were part of our life, but not a part of most of my friend’s lives. Anytime there was a bombing or an attack of some kind in his hometown, I would wait for word that Grandma and the rest of the family were okay, usually while doing my homework.
    Yes, they were Christians. Yes, they had deep faith. But they lived on Hell’s doorstep.
    It’s no wonder that I write from the viewpoint that God carries us through the brutal struggle on wings of hope and promise, and even though we may feel like we’re being dashed against the rocks, His love never wavers.
    My characters get angry, they protect their families, they laugh, they cry, they mess up, they even dare to challenge God, they see His love and grace, they lead their loved ones to the point of belief, but they each find their way to Him in a different manner.
    One of my biggest pet peeves is too much Christianese, whether in life, or in books. In my personal opinion, that is a language best saved for pot-lucks and revivals. For me, I found it obstructive to conversation, especially when I had to translate the latest Christianese phrase for my poor dad (who speaks English) who wondered why anyone would want to “get slayed in the Spirit”.
    Not everyone reading a book in English has English as their first language, thus, for me, I stay away from phrases that are head-tilters.
    My beta readers have thanked me for not being preachy. As one said “Faith was a common theme in those says, you weave it into their everyday lives, but you don’t shove it down the reader’s throat.”
    I was very happy to hear that.

    • Jennifer, you’re so right about Christianese. I wonder if a lot of people doesn’t use it for one-upsmanship, proving that they’re better Christians than those who don’t have the jargon down pat.

    • And for what it’s worth, my favourite all-time bit of off-putting Christianese is “Falling in love with Jesus”, especially when said by a man.
      * Where I come from dudes don’t fall in love with dudes.
      * Yes, I do know that many writers, including C.S. Lewis, have said that developing a personal relationship with Christ is best described using that metaphor, but you really have to ‘be there’ already to see its truth.

  8. CJ Myerly says:

    I consider it a Christian book when there’s a thread of grace woven through. As a writer, I strive to show who Christ is without preaching and without speaking Christianese. While there’s nothing wrong with the Christian terms we’ve come to know, they can throw off someone who doesn’t know them. I read one book recently in the Christian genre that had too much that I objected to and little of a faith arc. There are other books that I read that are mostly romance, but then have faith woven into their characters lives. Those are the books I love.

  9. You are speaking my language, Wendy. This has been on my heart. I was judged pretty harshly by one for not downloading my character’s faith in the first chapter. Afterall, I had plenty of words. Had I missed something? I asked a Christian author friend, and she told me to introduce their faith naturally, as I had, when it feels right. I love that. Some of my favorite Christian novels don’t have a conversion moment, nor is the Gospel spelled out. Personally, I don’t want faith pushed at me in a novel, because then it feels fake. If it feels fake to me, as a Christian, surely it would feel fake to a non-Christian. It explores “faith issues” … I love that. “Follow me as I follow Christ.” Yes. I know I have much to learn on this issue still, but what makes a book a Christian book? Is that like asking what makes my home a Christian home? A Christian lives in it. Someone seeking God lives in it. I could talk and ponder about this all day. 🙂

  10. Wendy, I like your take on this topic. I think what makes a book a “Christian” book is one that has a Christian worldview, that shows the reality of who God is and what Christianity looks like in the lives of everyday mortals. Life is messy, and I think the best Christian books shed light on what God’s love looks like in the middle of the mess. The hope and redemption He offers. The love He has for us. It doesn’t have to be overt, but it should be present. Sometimes the best books aren’t the ones spout Christianese and Christian concepts, but rather the ones where the truth of God’s love is woven through the stories or the chapters (nonfiction).
    *I’m thinking perhaps a faith arc is something that reveals a character’s blindness to a facet of God and his love for them at the beginning of the story, that shows a lie the character may believe. As the story progresses, the character begins to see truths about God and His nature. Through the story, they confront that lie and come to understand the truth through the course of the story. I’m probably rambling, but these are my two cents. 🙂
    *Great topic, Wendy!

  11. One of the things that perhaps needs bearing in mind is Jesus’ instruction to His followers to be salt.
    * While we generally don’t think of it in this context today, salt was not so much a seasoning as it was the vital part of making food edible after it had started to spoil, and preserving fresh food; jerky and biltong are merely salted meats and would have been instantly familiar as a staple to anyone in ‘Bible times’.
    * The parallel, both then and now, is that the practicing Christian is vital in the ‘preservation’ of a society that is rotting. In His day, Judaism was fast becoming a web of legalism and privilege, and groups like the Sadducees had essentially abandoned the transcendent part of their faith.
    * And so Jesus, realizing the the ‘establishment’ did not really WANT a messiah, opened His heart to people like Matthew and Zacchaeus, the Samaritan woman and the woman taken in adultery.
    * If a couple of bikers and a prostitute walked into your church and sat in a back pew, would you sit near them? Would the members of the ministry teams welcome them?
    * Our commission in our writing is so similar to the salt of the disciples’ world; as salt gave a kind of meaning to meat, we hold the key to give meaning to a rotting soul.
    * It’s not a box to be checked along our personal faith walk. It’s a simple requirement for anyone who chooses to follow Christ.
    * What does it mean to the writer? I can only speak for myself; becoming a Christian is much more a process than a revelation, and it’s that process, written before me by the likes of Chesterton and Barrett and Greeley. It is a great leap for me to walk in the bootprints of these giants; their stride is so very long! But I feel myself lifted as I fling myself to the next spot of dinted snow, and set down onto firm footing, another step along the path.

  12. Fascinating question, Wendy. I think Stephen Lawhead’s books are an excellent example of latent Christianity. In the Hall of the Dragon king and The Silver Hand were some of my favorites. As for the Faith arc, for myself, I know that a character must have and outward story arc and an inward story arc and I make that inner story one that involves the character’s faith or lack thereof.

  13. Seems to me that one of the most important things in writing from a Christian perspective, with faith latent or overt, is to be accurate as to what Christianity is about.
    * One of the worst things we can do is cherrypick, choosing verses and stories out of context, and setting them up as a guiding principle. Jeremiah 29:11 is a good example:
    “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the LORD, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
    * On the surface it’s a heartwarming passage, but if you read Jeremiah 29:10 you realize that the promise is made to a people, and not an individual. Take 29:11 out of context,make it individual, and you’ve misrepresented God.
    * Christianity is not a place of happy temporal endings; to make it such in our writing is not ignore two millennia of history, along with the Bible itself.
    * Not all Christians will prosper and find their true love; not all will be healed. The miracle is not in the deliverance; it’s in the willingness to live the hard days without resentment.

  14. I’ve thought about this a lot. Here’s what I came up with a few years ago: “All the fiction I will ever write will be Christian by definition because that is who I am. It isn’t a style I have adopted or a vocabulary I have learned or a formula I’ve acquired in order to sell my stories. That is probably the main difference between this genre and all others. Christian fiction is not something you write as much as it is a reflection of who you are.” That seems consistent with the idea of a Grisham or a Macomber (or any other Christian) writing for the “secular” market. And it reminds me not to judge other believers who choose a different path than I. (I can remember painful examples of that when Christian artists have “gone secular.”) It’s up to each individual writer to decide where God has called them … and then to stick to it through thick and thin.

  15. I’m going to keep my comments to fiction, since that’s what I’m more familiar with as both a writer and a reader.
    I think it is important to keep things natural (unless you’re writing fantasy/sci-fi, then “natural” becomes relative). If your main character is a minister, then it would be rather odd if he never shared his faith or talked about God. But if your main character is overwhelmingly shy, then to have her give a theological treatise to a large group of people is more than likely going to feel fake.
    Keep it real. Fiction doesn’t work if your reader is constantly thinking, “That would never happen” or “No one talks like that.”
    Whether your message is extremely subtle or more overt, the key is to make it feel natural in light of who your characters are and what is happening to them. Preaching to your readers rarely goes over well in fiction – it leaves a bad taste and will probably be ineffective. But the ability to weave spiritual truth into (not over top of) your story so that your readers come away with a stronger faith is priceless.

  16. This is one of those topics/questions that peels the lid off the top of the can and lets the worms roam freely all over the desktop. 😉
    The first thought that flashed through my mind as I read through this blog posting is the way in which I tend to refuse the term “Christian.” I do not refer to myself as a Christian, but rather as a “follower after Christ,” or a “Christ-follower.” The term “Christian” has become so bastardized in our western culture that it is practically devoid of any quantifiable meaning. The United States is supposedly a Christian nation. Really? Have we watched the news recently? Do we see what is debated politically and culturally?
    For far too many, “Christian,” today means not saying bad words, or drinking unapproved fluids, or walking under the archway of a church building once a week, or once a month. It has little to do with transformed hearts, surrendered lives, and an inner burn to see men and women who are hell-bound become heaven-bound instead. I have little interest in living like, or being bound to rabbit-hole Christianity that is terrified of getting its hands dirty by charging into the darkness to rescue those who are perishing there. The people sitting in darkness have seen a great light because Jesus went TO those people sitting in darkness. If I plan to rescue a drowning man from a mud-hole, I’m going to get a little dirty, and I cannot simply pretend that he isn’t really drowning. I cannot shy away from his/her foul language, worldly values system, and abrasive manner. So, what does “Christian” mean in this culture and this time? I really do not know.

    • Damon, I think you just defined Christian pretty well.

    • Carol Ashby says:

      “An inner burn to see men and women who are hell-bound become heaven-bound instead.” Amen, brother! As my kid’s eighth-grade teacher said at their graduation ceremony, “I want to see you all in heaven, and bring as many people with you as you can.”
      *I prefer to say I follow Jesus instead of Christ, but I flex the word choice around depending on the person I’m talking with, what their background is, and how they are reacting to my words.

  17. When I was a kid the Christian publishing industry didn’t exist. Nearly everyone went to church on Sunday, but I’m not sure there were more real Christians then than now. Most fiction, including things published for centuries, had some Christian content even if it was just a little bit. Even more recently Christian fiction doesn’t have to be blatantly religious. For example, in some of Lee Roddy’s books for kids the only Christian content is characters going to church, and those books are with a CBA house. So many people in our culture see Christians as ignorant rednecks and that’s why they won’t even consider joining us. We need to share out faith with the world in subtle ways.

  18. How “Christian” my book is usually depends on the message I am trying to convey. My second book was a story of a young boy who helps another child in need. Though not listed as Christian fiction, serving others and helping the poor are concepts with Biblical ties.

    It’s tough for me to totally separate my faith from my work since it’s so much a part of who I am.

  19. Love this. I’ve worried that my manuscript about barrenness and adoption is a bit “Christian-heavy”. I had a reader suggest that I change some of it to appeal to non-Christian readers but that feels false and insincere to me. I think books that reflect both the joys and the struggles of life and do this in a way that honors God, are ones that resonate with readers – Christian or not.

  20. Sheila King says:

    Sorry that I am late to this conversation, but my question would be “who will publish these books?”

    I have written a upper middle grade book in which the main character kids are not Christian, but are helped near the end by some people who are believers. Pretty latent, but I fear still too Christian for mass market, not Christian enough for Christian publishers.

  21. jo says:

    A Christian book…the words between the covers feed the soul and open the heart. As a non-fiction writer, I rely not on my typed words, but on what He feeds my mind and heart to scatter to others who need to feed upon. My ministry has always been to feed others, and I am just His waitress. Jo Wilmer/ “M” Words and the Christian Woman