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Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Danger of Inspirational Fiction

The term “Inspirational Fiction” has become synonymous with much of what is labeled Christian fiction.

  • Hopeful
  • Uplifting
  • Positive
  • Wholesome

These are words commonly associated with the genre. But does “Inspiration” rightly portray the essence of the Christian Gospel?

At the outset of our current recession, one columnist noted that 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 [Ball is no longer with B&H] , 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)

This portrayal of Christian fiction as an agent of hope is common, and I think it captures the essence of what many readers expect from the genre. They want something uplifting, inspirational, encouraging, and/or ultimately optimistic.

So is this why the genre exists, to evoke or inspire hope in those who despair? Is this why readers seek out Christian fiction, to recharge their Inspirational battery? If so, I think that’s a problem. Let me offer three reasons why the term Inspirational Fiction can be dangerous for both writers and readers.

LITERARY PREDICTABILITY: If readers buy Christian fiction primarily to feel good and extract hope, then no matter how bleak a storyline, they should always expect a somewhat uplifting resolution. This is a common charge against Christian fiction. Not only does this expectation hurt the genre (i.e., people know what to expect), it also hamstrings Christian fiction writers into more predictable plot-lines. Things have to work out, or else it’s not… inspirational.

SUPERFICIALITY: Another problem with defining Christian fiction in terms of Inspiration is that it potentially glosses over the “darker” elements of life and faith (i.e., that humans are depraved, do depraved things, reject God, and can ultimately spend eternity in hell) and opts for convenience (happy ending) rather than complexity. Stories that move predictably toward uplifting resolutions often sacrifice deeper issues (and biblical clarity) for superficial resolutions.

AN INCOMPLETE GOSPEL: It’s been said, The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Before the Gospel “frees,” it makes us “miserable.” While the Holy Spirit infuses God’s children with love, joy, and peace, He also convicts world of sin, righteousness, and judgment (Jn. 16:8). The Gospel damns before it releases. Much Inspirational Fiction misses this “miserable” part of the Gospel. It conditions us to see God as The Fixer and our stories as Pep Pills for troubled times. The ultimate message is, “Come to Jesus and everything will work out.” But is that the essence of the Gospel?

This last point is the most important, and potentially the most charged. Does Inspirational Fiction (or, at least, our expectations of it) trivialize the Gospel, turn it into a bandaid for all our ills? Does the genre substitute theological depth for feel-good fluff? I think it can. Sadly, many Christians have replaced theological “steak and eggs” with a Chicken Soup for the Soul mentality. And Inspirational Fiction potentially caters to that mentality.

Yes. The Gospel offers inspiration and hope. It is good news! But real biblical hope is based on a sense of hopelessness, not humanistic, formulaic, emotional quick-fixes. We can’t save ourselves, we need a Savior. And following Him means carrying our cross along a very narrow road. That road is often rocky, strewn with unpredictability and hardship. Multitudes have died seeing their hopes and promises left unfulfilled.

But does Inspirational Fiction accurately capture that reality?

* * *

Mike is a monthly contributor to Novel Journey. He is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of WordServe Literary. Mike's debut novel, "The Resurrection," is in stores now and his novella, "Winterland," will be available in e-book October 2011. You can visit his website at


  1. I see no issue with calling it inspirational. That is what it is. For all that the book of Job was, it was still inspirational. At the end of our lives, we who believe still find ourselves in God's presence in a place that has no tears no matter the circumstances of our (sometimes) miserable lives. That's the beauty of the gospel, and the beauty of (good) Christian fiction.

  2. I don't see "inspirational" as defined by happy, tidy, and predictable stories. Semantics, I suppose. I see inspirational as hopeful, giving a choice of what can be used to instill hope in the bleakest of circumstances. Whether or not some Christian fiction takes on the qualities listed in the post (and some works definitely do), how the story is written ultimately determines whether or not the stories appear as described.

    Amen, Gina.

  3. Gina said, "At the end of our lives, we who believe still find ourselves in God's presence in a place that has no tears no matter the circumstances of our (sometimes) miserable lives." And then there's that part about wailing, gnashing of teeth, a broad road that leads to destruction where eternal anguish is their lot. Some of our spouses, children, co-workers, and in-laws are headed there. Which is not very Inspirational at all...

  4. I hea.r you, Mike, but dwelling on that is not our cross to bear. It is our duty to preach the gospel to the ends of the earth, but the results are not up to us.
    Phil 4:6-8

    Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

    8 Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

  5. "And then there's that part about wailing, gnashing of teeth, a broad road that leads to destruction where eternal anguish is their lot. Some of our spouses, children, co-workers, and in-laws are headed there. Which is not very Inspirational at all..."

    That's the two-fold basis for inspiration, Mike. The Love of Jesus for people is supposed to inspire us to tell people of the choice they have. Granted, it's heartbreaking to watch people - anyone really - opt for the selfish and hellish decisions, but it can inspire us to keep praying and hoping they will change their minds and hearts.

    I think it's a misconception or misinterpretation of "inspirational" to think it gives a license to "sweet and easy" stories, but I understand how it often falls under the same stigma as "Christian Fiction" in general.

  6. This is a topic I've pondered a great deal in writing over 50 inspirational flash fictions. I rarely end with "happily ever after." But the element of hope must always be included even if in the end things aren't resolved for the MC. And I've been complimented many times on my unpredictable endings.

    My characters don't always get what they want, and things aren't perfect for them. That's not reality.

    But if we don't offer hope, what's the point in writing?

    Thanks, Mike, for a thought provoking article.

  7. i think the ending of the book depends a LOT on the protagonist--are they changing for the better or worse? sometimes, classics careen into the "worse" area, but usually it's to prove a point (ie--don't follow anna karenina's footsteps, or scarlett o'hara made some bad choices, or jude the obscure lost his faith...). yes, as Christians, we have that hope in Jesus Christ. but if our protag. is not a Christian, or a Christian who is waaaaay out of God's will, i think it's realistic to have an unhappy ending. however, i don't think those books will ever make it to print w/a Christian pub (or even non-Christian, b/c who wants to acknowledge that the wages of sin is death, and sometimes physical, too?).

    i do think, as Christians, we need to somehow present the fact that there IS hope. perhaps the main character neglected to lay hold on it, but it's THERE. modern secular fiction frolics in the evil and gives an overall hopeless view on things (postmodernism)--just read some sylvia plath and think about her end, as well. you can tell, reading those books, that things will never improve, and there is no hope for improvement. i think we need to offer that hope in some way in our books. but sometimes (as in real life!), people don't want that hope of Christ--they want to figure it out on their own. and then it's hopeless.

  8. Thanks for commenting, Sarah!You said, "...if we don't offer hope, what's the point in writing?" I can think of a lot of reasons to write besides just "offering hope." Showing that "the wages of sin is death" or that "the road to eternal life is narrow and few find it" is just as important as showing redemption. Should Christian fiction offer hope? Absolutely. But it must also be truthful, biblical.

  9. I hear you, Mike. I agree with some of these comments, here, too. The industry seems in a constant state of flux between, "be deep, but not too dark." "Be real, but not edgy." "Be hopeful, but not too literary." The CBA wants to compete with ABA books like The Help, but seems reluctant to pick up such risky manuscripts. And yet, like the woman with the alabastar jar knew, redemption throws inhibition to the wayside, for the sake of knowing Jesus--and making Him known--more deeply than ever imaginable before. And in the end, He blesses such risks, especially if taken and shown with love and grace. Thanks for these challenging words for thought, Mike. I'll be processing them for awhile!

  10. Exactly, Mike. If you show hope without the realistic consequences of sin, people are turned off. "Cute, but so unreal. I gave my life to Jesus and it's still messed up." It's an interesting balance, showing both sides. But I believe Christian fiction shouldn't have one without the other.

  11. Mike, I hear what you are saying, and maybe I'm not well read in Inspirational Fiction, but many of the books featured here at Novel Rocket, over at Speculative Faith, and even in The Rabbit Room... they don't seem to be the stories you are talking about, and I've never read such a story myself. I'm glad I haven't because I can see nothing "Inspirational" in an easy superficial read that does not challenge my faith and walk with Christ. I find it hard to believe that anyone would.

    It is inspiring to me to hear that so many are turning to Christian Fiction for hope. Why you have twisted that to a negative is baffling to me. I believe that we should always give hope, along with a challenge to be intimately connected to the source of all hope, and actively be engaged in reaching out in hope to all the lost. The reality of Hell should not steal hope, or cause any to resign themselves or loved ones to that end. There must always be hope. Jesus is the judge, and I am just His servant, and I will always hope.

    The books you are referring to sound like hollow candy hope. I hope that these people who are turning to Inspirational books in their time of despair are not disappointed- expecting a yummy nougat and finding only air. If they are reading any of the books that I've heard recommended from the sources I've mentioned I really doubt they will be disappointed.

  12. Steven James did the keynote at the North Texas Christian Writers Conference. One point he made was about a famous Christian film where once the man prayed, his infertile wife had twins, his team won and his friends liked him. He said something along the lines of, "That is not a Christian movie." Why? Because he said a Christian movie (or a novel) must portray truth. The truth is sometimes we pray and our prayers go unanswered. Sometimes our team loses. Sometimes we are barren.

    The beauty of writing from a Christian worldview isn't to tack "happiness" or "Happily ever after" on our work; it's that we portray redemptive struggle. What does it look like to love others when it's hard? What does perseverance look like when our prayers aren't answered? And what, underlying it all, is God's heart for this world?

    Ted Dekker said it well at Mount Hermon a few years ago. "The beauty of redemption shines brighter on a dark canvas." That means we portray it all, the good, the bad, the dark, as a contrast to the beauty of God.

    I write fiction because I'm mad. Maybe you do too. I see injustice everywhere. So I portray it, let the reader see it (much like To Kill a Mockingbird or Uncle Tom's Cabin). In the framework of a powerfully told story, evil is exposed and good shines all the brighter.

  13. Food for thought here, Mike - thanks. I was nodding along when I read this post, because I have read novels such as you describe - and they are boring. There are some authors I haven't read in years just because their books are too predictable. Christian romance in general is this way.

    Mary, I love your comment. Bang on. (And I love your books, too. Definitely not predictable or easy to read, and yet they are hopeful and inspirational.) Take us somewhere deep and dark and show us how God works there, even in our struggles and hard times, even when He says "no" or "wait."

    I don't want fluff in my novels; I can find thatin Yahoo answers. I want real life in a novel - yet the Truth of God there too. And it takes a very talented author to deliver that.

  14. Alas, I don't read inspirational fiction, so I have no idea what you mean, aside from formulaic writing. (I've spent lots of money on series that turned out to be all formula, and felt so ripped off.)

    Are we talking about the Amish romance craze that I keep seeing bashed everywhere? :-)

  15. Patrick said, "It is inspiring to me to hear that so many are turning to Christian Fiction for hope. Why you have twisted that to a negative is baffling to me."

    As I've said, Patrick, the Gospel is not all peaches and cream. There is sin and death and injustice and armageddon and Satan and the souls of the unrighteous going into outer darkness. By "forcing" our message to always steer toward hope, we potentially "trivialize the Gospel, turn it into a bandaid for all our ills," and "substitute theological depth for feel-good fluff." So do you think that the word Inspirational sums up what Christian fiction should primarily be? I sure don't. Thanks for commenting!

  16. Mary, that's a fantastic comment! And your statement -- "I write fiction because I'm mad" -- is classic. Perhaps the Christian writing community could use a bit more anger, eh? Blessings!

  17. By "forcing" our message to always steer toward hope, we potentially "trivialize the Gospel, turn it into a bandaid for all our ills," (Mike)

    Mike, I'm sorry, but I don't get this. Our ills are constituted in sin. If portraying all of our ills and not enlisting hope in some measure, then we are giving only a partial picture of the Gospel. The Gospel is "good news". There is hope for all the filth we allow in ourselves and view in others. Hope is definitely not synonymous with fluff and light and easy and tidy. It means that from the depths of dirty, we can be clean. It might not come easy, and it certainly won't always eliminate the pain of living in a sinful world, but the eternity of hope in Christ is the subject and objective of many a good story. If we choose not to "steer" our stories toward hope, then we don't need to write inspirational fiction. We can portray the world as it is with their philosophies intact and write hope-less stories. Either choice can be written well.

  18. Nicole, I think Mary DeMuth put it well in her comment above, "...a Christian movie (or a novel) must portray truth. The truth is sometimes we pray and our prayers go unanswered. Sometimes our team loses. Sometimes we are barren."

    Does this mean Christians don't have hope? No. It means that having hope does not automatically fix us or make our situations better. Some Christians get abortions, become drug addicts, get divorced, cheat on their taxes, go to strip clubs, die of AIDS, and live enormously unhappy and unfruitful lives. Writing stories where this type of ambiguity is not tolerated is "dangerous" and potentially unbiblical. At least, that's the way I see it. Thanks for commenting!

  19. This industry is driven by money, not inspiration. Most publishers are looking for what they think will sell with minimal regard for its value to inspire. If those who rejected "The Shack" (whether you liked the book or not) could have known that it would sell 6-7 million copies, I suspect some of them would have overlooked their objections, published the book, and touted it as "inspirational."

  20. Thanks for the kind words, folks!

  21. I read all genres of fiction including all types of inspirational fiction and I have to disagree with Mike .I am always mindful that I am reading FICTION if I want the true nature of man and his fall from grace and God redemptive nature I trust in non fiction - The Bible
    I think denigrating inspirational fiction as a genre is hurtful to those who choose to both write and read it - I enjoy it as a form of entertainment and again not as the source of the Gospel Message . Mainstream inspiration fiction may be in his mind too simplistic and too hopeful but it is so much better than 99% of the secular fiction that uses graphic violence and sex to sell . I know it is not the whole and complete picture of salvation and grace but it offers for some a an escape additionally I have had non christian friends ask to read a inspirational fiction novels and while I do no anticipate any novel including Mike's " biblical ones" will result in a conversion experience God does work in mysterious ways

  22. Interesting comments and discussion.

    Personally I don't read Christian fiction, especially the romance novels. I have nothing against them. They're not my cup of tea, generally.

    I like Christian speculative fiction, which has endings that are anyone's guess!

    But I hear you.

  23. Interesting article and comments! I'm an unpubbed writer, working on a novel (currently in blogfiction form) that deals with the issue of emotional abuse. My MC is a Christian who was emotionally abused by her father (who was a Christian then turned his back on God), and it has deeply scarred her. She struggles with forgiveness, with seeing herself as worthy and loveable, with not being a burden to her husband, etc. When I began writing the story I pictured it with a sort-of happy ending where she would completely come to terms with her emotional abuse and move on in life, everything all wrapped up neatly with a bow. But that's SO not reality. I was emotionally abused by a boyfriend, and now, thirty years later I still have the scars, I still struggle with those feelings of worthlessness, or being a burden, of forgiveness. Some days I'm fine and I think I've moved on. Other days I'm a wreck in need of redemption all over again (not "salvation" per se, that's secure, but renewal). So I began to realize I can't end her story that way. If she's anything like me (a real human), she'll struggle with this stuff the rest of her life.

    But rather than ending it on a hopeless note ("I'll never be over this! I'll be struggling with this forever! What's the point, then? Why don't I just end it now ..."), I can end it on a hopeful note ("I'll be struggling with this the rest of my life, but Lord, as long as I know You're in it with me, I can hang on, even if just by my fingernails, I can 'endure to the end' and receive that crown of life You promised.")

    Maybe that's what people here are saying, that "hopeful," i.e., "inspirational," fiction is about slogging through this life holding onto the Savior's hand. It's not always pretty, and it won't get tied up neatly with that shiny silver bow until Heaven, but we have hope to continue on, even during the darkest, loneliest times of our lives.

    So I agree that some "inspirational" fiction is just unrealistic fluff, which doesn't appeal to me. But I do want there to be a hopeful thread in what I read, especially if it claims to be Christian. Yes, there is sin, there is pain, there is ugliness in this world, don't gloss over that. But show how God's love, through Christ, can redeem lives.

    Anyway, this discussion has been helpful to me in thinking about the direction my novel/blog/story should take. Thank you!

    Stacy A.

  24. Amen!

    I personally have a problem with the idea of fiction being "biblical" (unless it's actually based on a Bible story), but those who see it that way need to remember that the Bible is full of sinners. There's some really X-rated stuff in there (last 3 chapters of Judges, anyone?). When we pull out only the G we eviscerate the Gospel.


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