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Master craftsmen

Some talented authors are showing that the stereotype of sugar-coated Christian fiction does not match reality

Master craftsmen
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Recently, at a party, a Christian leader raved about various novels. When asked about a particular Christian novelist, he replied, "I never read Christian fiction. It's predictable, sugar-coated, preachy, and poorly written!"

"Can you give some examples?" I asked.

He couldn't. Not one. He'd last read Christian fiction 20-some years ago. I politely suggested that since he never reads it, his opinion might not be up-to-date and well-informed.

I've encountered the same stereotypical comments countless times, often from people repeating what they've heard. I read secular fiction, but also enjoy novels with a Christian worldview. I'm part of an online group of 263 Christ-following novelists that started in 1999 with 15 of us. I've witnessed firsthand these writers' dedication to improving their craft. Some of their work, in my opinion, is breathtakingly good.

So, as one who actually reads them, I'm going on record-many of today's Christian novels are well-crafted. Their authors artfully develop engrossing storylines with spiritual themes.

True, I enjoy the absence of explicit sex and extreme profanity. However, it's not just what Christian fiction lacks I appreciate-it's what it offers. The variety is vast: contemporary, historical, suspense, mysteries, adventure, young adult, romance, fantasy, science fiction. Christianbook.com sells 24,000 different novels.

Sure, some are cookie-cutter stories with forgettable prose and poor editing. Some secular novels are the same-in my experience, no more, no less. Every writer has a worldview, and preachiness isn't unique to Christians-consider The Poisonwood Bible, Isaac Asimov, Carl Sagan, and Dan Brown. (I've read atheist and agnostic fiction, but no one calls it that.) Even Stephen King, a master wordsmith, climbs on soapboxes. But does anyone stereotype secular fiction as "predictable, preachy, and poorly written" just because some of it is?

Many modern Christian novels develop gritty themes. Rene Gutteridge's Listen, opening with a teenager's suicide, depicts the devastating consequences of verbal bullying. Terri Blackstock's Predator portrays a high-tech abductor stalking a girl online, then on the street. Karen Ball's The Breaking Point, strikingly realistic, offers hope for dying marriages. The God Hater by Bill Myers gets inside an ardent atheist's head in an imaginative story utterly outside the box.

Sugar-coated? Murder, abuse, adultery, drug addiction, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, infertility, pornography, homosexuality-I doubt there's any thorny issue that hasn't been explored in Christian fiction with honesty, authenticity, and a redemptive touch.

Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, is a heartbreaking Hosea-like tale of a prostitute and the kind-hearted farmer who marries her. I read Francine's Atonement Child 15 years ago and have never forgotten its story of rape and the child conceived. Karen Kingsbury's One Tuesday Morning, set in the weeks surrounding September 11, 2001, pulled me in, then totally surprised me with a credible twist.

Contrary to common belief, Christian fiction did not begin with Catherine Marshall, Janette Oke, or Frank Peretti. In 1678 John Bunyan wrote the remarkably influential The Pilgrim's Progress. Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), an overtly Christian novel, forcefully challenged American slavery. Lew Wallace's Ben-Hur (1880) and Charles Sheldon's In His Steps (1897) stirred huge audiences.

As a brand new Christian in the 1970s, I consumed C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and his space trilogy, and savored the novels of J.R.R. Tolkien and Madeleine L'Engle. Later I discovered G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers. I read and reread Calvin Miller's The Singer Trilogy.

What's been written in the two decades since that leader last read Christian fiction? Byzantium, by Stephen Lawhead, is a hauntingly beautiful epic. Lisa Bergren's medieval mystery The Begotten transported me magically to another time. One of the most unforgettable characters I've encountered is Sema, a gorilla in Angela Hunt's Unspoken.

Enjoy courtroom dramas and legal thrillers? I loved T. Davis Bunn's The Great Divide and Randy Singer's Directed Verdict.

Suspense? Brandilyn Collins' Over the Edge. Literary fiction? Athol Dickson's The Opposite of Art. Readers of The Shack should try James Rubart's Rooms-equally creative but with better theology. Dan Walsh's The Unfinished Gift is a moving father-son story set at Christmastime 1943.

Does a pulp fiction eBook about a 1955 L.A. boxer with a quick jab sound interesting? Download James Scott Bell's "Iron Hands." Graphic novels? Babylon is the story of Daniel vibrantly unfolded by Kingstone Comics. The Action Bible is a colorful Genesis-to-Revelation storybook.

Fantasy? I started Jill Williamson's By Darkness Hid, and before I knew it hours had flown by. For dragons, try Donita Paul. Biblical fiction? Walter Wangerin's setting and characters pulsate in Jesus and Paul. Amish fiction? Beverly Lewis' The Shunning and Cindy Woodsmall's When the Heart Cries will likely change your mind.

I listened enthralled to the audio versions of Wendell Berry's Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. There's nothing like a great novel read by a skilled voice actor-and you can listen while driving, cleaning, exercising, or sitting in the dark.

Though I don't read much romance, Robin Lee Hatcher's Ribbon of Years won me over as she skillfully chronicled a colorful woman's seven decades. Tamera Alexander's A Lasting Impression drew me in with strong characters and intricate details of post-Civil War Nashville, including mouthwatering descriptions of Southern food. Colleen Coble's Blue Moon Promise is an engaging tale of arranged marriage. Liz Curtis Higgs writes enchanting Scottish novels, including Mine Is the Night.

While I'm told secular romances often degenerate into erotica, Christian romance novels encourage purity and committed marriages. When plots lag, many secular authors inject gratuitous sex or violence. Because Christian novelists don't have that option, many learn to portray romantic attraction and character conflict more skillfully.

Fiction is not one-size-fits-all. What some Christians call "preachy" draws certain unbelievers to Christ. Readers' tastes differ, as do writers' styles. While character conversions aren't obligatory, God's life-changing work is real and can be powerfully rendered (think Les Miserables). Novelists shouldn't be heavy-handed, but in the spinning of an engaging story, spiritual themes can emerge organically and believably, swaying readers' heads and hearts.


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