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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Should Christian Fiction Specialize in Hope?

by Mike Duran

Thanks to Jessica Dotta, for the heads up on this. From the article in
The Tennessean, Christian fiction thrives during economic crisis:

Local Christian publishers who launched or expanded their fiction lines in recent years are enjoying the fruits of their labors thanks to an unlikely source — the flagging economy.

While sales of Christian nonfiction have stalled during the recent economic crisis, sales of Christian fiction remain strong.

Karen Ball, executive editor at Southern Baptist-owned B&H Publishing Group, said that people are looking for a way to escape from the bad news of layoffs and plummeting stocks. "When reality gets ugly, fiction takes off,'' she said.

Along with escape, Christian novels specialize in Christian hope.

"
There's some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it's not offering any hope," Ball said. "If anything it's discouraging. In Christian fiction, there's hope in the midst of trouble." (Emphasis mine)
Framing Christian fiction as an agent of hope -- perhaps the only fiction "offering any [real] hope" -- is interesting, and I think captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, redemptive, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic. But specializing in hope has its pros and cons.

Some Christians authors will, no doubt, hedge at that suggestion. I mean, what could possibly be wrong with offering hope to a dying world? Isn't that what the Gospel message is intended to do? After all, people shouldn't approach Christian fiction expecting to be bummed out or dejected. Nevertheless, being consistently hopeful --
especially as it relates to storytelling -- has its downside.

One problem with defining Christian fiction in terms of hope is predictability. In other words, if readers buy Christian fiction to feel good and extract hope, then no matter how bleak a storyline, they should always expect a somewhat uplifting resolution. Not only does this expectation handicap the genre (i.e., most conclusions are foreseeable), it hamstrings Christian fiction writers into more conventional plotlines. Furthermore, an overly optimistic angle whitewashes the failings and pitfalls of our lives and faith. We are forced to frame the Christian experience as inevitably rosy, and ignore the ambiguity, regrets and ruin that sometimes befall followers of Christ. While Christian fiction should provide hope, it should also be artistically free to explore the realisms of life with and without God. In fact, it is this grim reality that often spurs one on to a less superficial search for answers.

There are many stories in the Bible that are not manifestly hopeful. Take the Book of Judges. The recurrent phrase in this Old Testament book is “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” The result? Bad men ruled them, and the nation suffered. The consequences of sin are as much a part of the Christian worldview as is the hope of redemption. But the Christian novelist who seeks to leave their reader with just that conclusion (i.e., that narcissism, self-indulgence, egoism and gluttony lead to ruin) will have a hard sell in today’s religious market. In other words, by specializing in hope are we unintentionally downplaying or ignoring other equally relevant themes in the Gospel?

So specializing in hope has its downside, one that authors and readers should genuinely consider.

On the other hand, there are good reasons why readers migrate towards Christian fiction during difficult times.
For when it comes to hope, Christianity trumps all other worldviews. Of course, this statment will not sit well with the PC police. But the fact is, without God, there can be no real hope. With every terrorist bombing and nuclear sub, the utopia of humanistic conspirations gets more and more laughable. Atheism offers nothing beyond a vapid existential buzz before eternal evaporation. Hinduism proffers an impersonal karmic cycle when, after millions of migrations, we merge with the Soul of the Cosmos. Like it or not, the biblical worlview is philosophically congruent, jibes with the state of things, and unlike humanism, atheism, and Hinduism, is practically applicable to the human plight. No wonder people seek out Christian fiction during troubled times!

In the article above, editor Karen Ball notes, "There's some wonderful secular fiction out there, but it's not offering any hope." This observation is not unique to readers and publishers of religious fiction. Some have suggested that this years' Academy Award juggernaut,
Slumdog Millionaire, was riding the reactionary tide against last years' incredibly dark Best Film nominees. In other words, filmgoers wanted hope. Atonement, There Will Be Blood, Michael Clayton, and the ultimate Academy selection, No Country for Old Men, were all pretty grim fare. I liked all of those movies, yet it's hard to not feel crappy after seeing them. (This is also why many feel that a better film, The Dark Knight, was virtually snubbed at this years' Oscars -- it was just too dark.) While Slumdog has its dark elements, it is ultimately buoyant. (But as I suggested in another post, even though the film took place in the dregs of the Hindu caste slums, it had to appeal to a more transcendent element, i.e., Destiny, to invoke hope.) Obviously, people are sick of bad news. We need to see a movie with a bang-up dance sequence once in a while.

But back to my point:
People choose Christian fiction because it is more naturally grounded in hope than secular fiction. Humanism offers me no real hope. Atheism offers me no real hope. Hinduism offers me no real hope. But if the tomb of the crucified Nazarene is really empty, I've got a pretty good reason to end my book with a bang-up dance sequence.

Specializing in hope is a tightrope that authors of Christian fiction must walk with the utmost care. While making our characters live happily-ever-after may satisfy both audience and editor, more often than not it can become contrived and predictable. Not to mention,
unbiblical. After all, the hope supplied by Christian fiction must be far more than just a happy ending.

12 comments:

Angie said...

Thanks, Mike, for these thought-provoking insights. I agree that it's such a tight line to walk in trying to balance out the God of Hope with the reality of sin and death. As you said, many Christian readers want to read specifically for a happy ending.

While I read this article, however, for some reason I kept thinking of Angela Hunt's Unchartered and several of her other books that ended in a less than happy way. I've always left those kind of books really thinking and reflecting on my life and worldview and how well I'm sharing my faith with a dying world. Yes, I do enjoy a happy ending as much as the next person, but there is no happy ending for those without Christ. It doesn't hurt for Christians to be reminded of this (in the form of fiction) every once in a while. Just my 2 cents. :)

Again, great article. Thanks for sharing.

Mike Duran said...

Thanks for commenting, Angie. I think you're right in suggesting that non-happy endings tend to leave us more introspective and thoughtful than do overtly happy endings. And in many ways, leaving our readers sober or reflective may be better than leaving them (superficially) happy. Perhaps the real tug of war is between a tidy resolution and an ambiguous one. Happy endings usually require no loose ends. However, life is hardly as clear-cut as our fiction.

lynnrush said...

What a great post. It has me thinking.

Thank you

Amy Deardon said...

Mike, thank you for a hopeful (if I may use that term) piece on Christian publishing. Nonbelievers watch Christians very carefully, and can be astonished at the triumph of attitude that Christians facing devastating situations can manifest. One example very quickly is Joni Eareckson -- I've heard her interviewed multiple times on the radio, and although she is a quadraplegic, she can't help bursting into song. Christian fiction helps to point to the gospel, the good news, that no matter how bad we may be, we can be reconciled with G-d. People naturally recognize the values of honesty, humility, compassion, love, and are encouraged to see characters modeling how to live closer to these ideals.

As a Christian writer, I'm also encouraged to think people may want to read what I write :-)

Ane Mulligan said...

Great post, Mike.Not all situations in life end happily, for the Christian as well as the non-Christian. The difference is that my JOY lies in Christ, not my circumstances. If we can show that through fiction, without being preachy, then we've offered hope where there was none.

Dayle James Arceneaux said...

Happy endings and hope are not necessarily synonomous.

The juxtaposition of hope through a sad ending or a grim story can be even more powerful.

Lynn Squire said...

Christian hope isn't wholly placed on experiencing good things here on earth. Christian hope is placed on eternal life. Perhaps we need to remember this as we create stories that fall under the Christian label.

Sad or tragic ending should be buffered by the message that those whose hope (and therefore faith) is placed in the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ can overcome when they are in heaven with Him. For me, this provides another reason for Christian stories to point the way to Christ. We have the hope and we are told to share it.

Mike Duran said...

Lynn, I think your comment points out the tightrope a Christian author walks regarding hope. By its nature, Christian hope rests in the afterlife. But this promise of future resolution is not easily translatable to stories in the here and now. Allowing a character to die with the hope of heaven, does not necessarily give hope to our readers. So unless we are willing to allow for some ambiguity, which seems troublesome for much Christian fiction, we are forced into happy ending scenarios as the primary means to communicate hope to our readers. But this, as I mentioned in my post, can itself be problematic. Thanks for your comments!

Janet said...

Good stuff to think about here, Mike.

I think that ultimately, we have to look for hope in something deeper than "they lived happily ever after." In my own walk with God, I've gotten pretty battered sometimes, and a lot of my dreams got shattered. But I'm happy. And not for the reasons that I thought I would have been when the younger me looked hopefully ahead.

Janet said...

Lynn, when I was a teenager, I got quite disillusioned with thinking of eternal hope as a ticket to heaven. It just didn't seem very satisfying. I found the answer in Jesus' words in John 18 "And this is eternal life, that they know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent."

Going to heaven is a function of knowing God. Knowing God is the goal, and heaven an eternal continuation of knowing Him.

And this can be effectively communicated in fiction, Mike, because it isn't a future resolution; it's a present one. When we have given even our hopes and dreams to God and found our happiness in him, here and now, that is also a powerful story. And you don't have to invoke harps or streets of gold or gates of pearl, images that don't resonate deeply with the modern reader. Job worshipping on the ash heap is perhaps a better one to reach a cynical culture.

Susan J. Reinhardt said...

As I read your post, it occurred to me that hope doesn't always mean a happy ending. If someone suffers a loss, does hope disappear. No, a period of mourning follows, but as they process grief and trust the Lord, they move on to new experiences.

Part of the Christian message relates to hope in spite of life's tragedies. Whatever circumstances befall us or our characters, it's how the Lord brings us through the situation into a meaningful future that keeps hope alive.

Blessings,
Susan :)

Lori Benton said...

Janet,

Thank you for putting that into words that resonate so powerfully with me.