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Sunday, July 27, 2014

7 Christian Classics that Could Not Be Published in Today's Christian Market

I guest posted at Speculative Faith a couple years back, and my article Why Fiction is the Wrong Vehicle for Theology garnered some lively, if not predictable, responses. One of my favorite comments was from Melissa Ortega (read it HERE) in which she rattled off "classic novels" that DO contain some heavy theological elements. She writes: 

There are few books that sermonize more than Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Dickens sermonizes a great deal in A Christmas Carol. G.K. Chesterton’s Napolean of Notting Hill is as Free Will vs. Destiny type of story as one can get. And who can forget his Man Who Was Thursday? with its sermon at the end on becoming, ourselves, the Accuser? The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is an inside-out sermon that preaches on a multitude of sins….from Hell’s point of view, of course. And the Great Divorce steps on very, very specific toes every third paragraph at least.

It's a great comment. While Melissa is spot on about theological themes in classic Christian lit, her observations also show how far we've come in what we call "Christian fiction." 

Many of the books we consider Christian classics could NOT be published in today's Christian market. 

I remember the first time I stumbled upon this phenomenon. I'd just started to pursue a writing career and wanted to familiarize myself with the Christian market. Some of the writers I respected often referenced Flannery O'Connor. I'd never read her and decided to purchase a collection of her short stories. The first Flannery O'Connor story I ever read was "A Good Man is Hard to Find." It stunned me. Why? 

***Spoiler alert*** 

It ends when a shallow, phony Christian woman is faced with her sin -- and possibly converted -- by being murdered by a psychopath. The Misfit, an escaped convict, shoots her three times, puts the gun down, casually cleans his glasses and says, "she would have been a good woman, if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life." The End. 


The story seemed so unlike anything I'd read thus far labeled "Christian fiction." Its "theology" was front and center, but the imagery was so stark and the ambiguity so thick, there's no way it could find footing amidst the squeaky clean, predictable, bonnets and romance fare that now dominated the Christian market. (A cursory discussion of "A Good Man is Hard to Find" and possible interpretation in THIS Wikipedia article.)

Anyway, Melissa's comment made me think of other Christian classics that would have a hard time being published in today's market. Here's seven of them: 

  • The Man Who was Thursday is sprinkled with mild expletives like “go to hell” (ch. 9), “damn it all” (ch. 2), and my favorite, “You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, Godforsaken, doddering, damned fool!” (ch. 10). Such language would never see the light of day in Christian fiction. (Note: Christians abhorrence of even mild language in their fiction is evidence of deeply flawed theology.) 
  • A Christmas Carol‘s primary “biblical” lessons are delivered by… ghosts! And everyone knows that ghosts are really demons, right? 
  • The Great Divorce occurs in a sort of purgatorial limbo. But Christians do not believe purgatory is biblical or that souls in hell might get a second chance to glimpse heaven. So strike this as “biblical.” 
  • The Lord of the Rings — Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “...called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” But despite the author’s stated intent, Wood affirms that “Tolkien’s work is not self-evidently Christian.” In fact, many eschew Tolkien’s classic as “Christian” on the grounds that it employs magic, sorcery, etc. Poor Gandalf. 
  • Dante's Inferno is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. Not only might the horrific imagery find resistance in today's market, once again, purgatory is a stumbling block for evangelicals. I'm afraid old Dante must ply his wares in the "secular" classics. 
  • A Wrinkle in Time, though containing many “Christian themes,” has been opposed by many Christian parents on the grounds that it teaches New Age philosophy. And, oh, it has witches. 
  • Flannery O'Connor's works -- Not just language, but the incongruous imagery and ambiguity. Like Hazel Motes, lead character in her first novel Wise Blood, a traveling evangelist who spreads the gospel of "anti-religion," lives with a prostitute (whom he discovers is a nymphomaniac), wraps himself in barbed wire as penance, blinds himself, before killed by an arresting police officer. Signet originally advertised the novel as "A Searching Novel of Sin and Redemption." Ha! Try selling that to today's mainstream Christian readers.

So... what's happened? Why has the Christian market changed so
much? Or is it Christian culture that has changed? And can you think of other "Christian classics" that would find a hard time being published in today's Christian market?


Mike Duran is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea. You can visit his website at, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. One thing I do not like about squeaky clean Christian literature is that it is so predictable. Christians are supposed to act one way; God acts one way, therefore the characters and plots are predictable. Yet, I've never met a Christian who acts as she/he should all the time. We're confused, lost sinners who strive to find our way.
    And, as an aside, in A Wrinkle in Time, the future telling witches are good.

  2. "So... what's happened? Why has the Christian market changed so much? Or is it Christian culture that has changed? And can you think of other "Christian classics" that would find a hard time being published in today's Christian market?"

    Probably no easy answers to these questions, Mike, but I'll hazard a few guesses. Years ago on my blog when I polled several authors for their answers to "What is Christian Fiction?, the most common answer was a story with a Christian worldview. Now there were more specifics and variations to their answers, but bottom-line, that's what they said. By giving that answer, they left the door open for non-specific stories with Christian "themes" such as forgiveness, redemption (overt or covert), etc.

    But I do think one thing has changed (JMO), and that is I think some houses have narrowed and focused on a tighter demographic which includes and caters to the more militant (aka legalistic) readers. I have nothing against those readers or their preferences and feel they should have those novels to read providing they don't criticize those with different opinions and insist other types of authors shouldn't write what they write.

    I also think the Christian "culture" has changed. And not necessarily for the better, but I think it isn't so much the culture itself that has influenced fiction as it is the ensuing "post modern" theologies and all that entails. Some readers cling to what they believe is "pure" Christianity in their reading to escape the corruption of the world and what's happening to "the church" in some cases.

    Personally speaking, I find the post-modern era the beginning of the apostate church, so my writing reflects redemption in Jesus Christ alone either overtly or covertly. But writing realistically without the "clean and chaste" derivative presents a great contrast to what the world "offers" as opposed to the Truth of what God has for individuals (the world). Portraying that using some rougher language or scenes or characters doesn't mean the solid redemptive message isn't given.

    It comes down to what readers expect and want from their Christian fiction. I prefer a deeper reality. Others don't.

  3. I'm no expert, but I'd call all of those Christian fiction. (Haven't read Flannery O'Connor, but must remedy that.) But I suspect you're right. Here's what I think: Those works weren't written as "Christian Fiction" (the genre), they were written in reality from a Christian worldview. So you're really comparing apples to oranges (sorry about the cliche.)

    CF today is not a description, it's a genre. And like every other genre there are expectations. That's not bad or good, it just is. We can't remake the genre into what we want it to be.

    If any of these writers were writing today do you think they'd give up because they couldn't be published by the CF genre publishers? No, they'd just keep pounding away at the keyboards and at finding a secular publisher who recognizes excellence--regardless of genre.

    Last thought, part of the problem is the idea of genre itself, I think. Our desire to "categorize" everything is the real culprit. That way we don't have to decide for ourselves if any given work is worthy of our time. And if we enjoy "X", we'll probably enjoy more books that are written like "X" and since we do, we ,may pick up "Y" (since it's so close to "X"), but there's no way we'll even try "R", because that's too far away from "X".

    And if "X" makes money, what do you wanna bet there will be more "X" in the marketplace?

  4. Don't forget C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy, with its use of mild expletives like Damned, Hell, and other assorted pleasantries.

  5. Michael, I think you've touched upon a catch-22 (excuse my cliché, too). Many readers have been systematically (although not intentionally) eliminated from reading the "genre" of Christian fiction because of the excessive "clean and chaste" offerings. They're now seeking acceptable fiction (to their tastes) in the general market, hoping they can find those books which don't celebrate filth and New Age philosophies. To get some good writing, they'll tolerate some profanity and maybe a little more graphic (if not effusive) sex to get to some good stories which hit the heart of humanity.

    Personally, I can only read so much secular/general market material without gasping for some real redemption. I can tolerate more than the current Christian fiction demographic because I lived some of it and understand that kind of life and emptiness. It generally doesn't "offend" me, it saddens me - or in some cases depresses me.

    But by publishing excessive "clean and chaste" material, you've subtracted dollars from your marketplace and potentially erased a certain demographic that hungers for a more realistic Christian fiction menu. So you rake in the dollars from a very tight market, but in the process don't realize how much money is available with novels which portray a deeper reality. Some of that money is gone for good - trust issues with the publisher being able to deliver the kind of books these readers prefer. If the publishing houses don't want them, fine. It can't be all about the dollar signs when you could be making more. Again JMO.

  6. I've been wrestling with this idea for some time. Frankly, about half the novels I read are outside of Christian Fiction, because I love literary fiction, and CF hardly publishes any pure literary these days. The novels I write tend to be more graphic, and they deal with more realistic topics. If I were an establish author, I could probably get away with it. In today's CF culture, though, I wonder if Redeeming Love would be published. The Mark of the Lion series? I don't know if publishers would take a chance on Francine Rivers today.

    Mike, you make the statement, "Note: Christians abhorrence of even mild language in their fiction is evidence of deeply flawed theology." I tend to agree with you, and I'd love to know your logic for such a statement.

  7. Hi Mike this is a great post! I write a Christian blog-
    I wanted to write from the perspective that I am the sinner (so true!). I didn't want to point fingers at other people. I think it's been a successful approach. My blog is a Bible Study. So I show how Paul, Rahab, Moses, Abraham and Sarah all sinned and God forgave them. He even forgave me! God is not an angry monster out there, He wants to forgive all of us. I get hits from all over the world. When I see Ukraine visiting- I want to pray for them to give them hope. The world is so much smaller now- we can't really point one finger at a horrible character and forget the 3 pointing back at us. To be successful, we need to do what God told us to do- be humble. I think this applies to all Christian writers.

    When I read Flannery O’Connor it made me feel depressed and hopeless. Lord of the Rings left me feeling like I could do anything. A Christmas Carol helps me remember that time goes by fast, I need to call my Dad. do the things I haven’t. As far as the ghosts in Christmas Carol- they made me feel like I don’t want to die like that! It had good humor in it. But I’m a nerd so I am more pragmatic.

    I love CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein. I think one of the successes in the Lord of the Rings and the Hobbit is the lack of faith and sin Bilbo and the other characters display. And then the "Ah ha" moments come to the reader or viewer. The stories are timeless. You see the pain Aslan endures and realize it's like Jesus. He was innocent.

    In the USA, we don’t trust leaders as much. We want someone who is honest and hard working. But wonder if it will ever happen, will we ever trust again?

    Other books? What about The Complete Father Brown by GK Chesterton? The mysteries are hard.

  8. I think it comes down to the literature world being balkanized just like TV and the internet. No more broad spectrum fiction, now everyone reads a specific genre. And as a genre balkanizes it's readers become very specific and to alienate them is to destroy your career.
    I'm fond of saying in speeches, "Gone With the Wind couldn't be published today because it has too much God in it."

  9. Those books were written - and published - before Christian fiction as we know it now was born. Back when a secular publisher was your only option and when they weren't afraid to publish a book that mentioned God as something other than a curse word.

    Both ABA and CBA have evolved since then. The first doesn't want to promote Christianity, and the second doesn't want to promote the world. The battle lines have been drawn.

    If ABA started to publish fiction with a strong Christian theme again, and if CBA started to publish worldly Christian fiction... my guess is they'd merge back into one entity. I don't think I'd like that very much. I like the choices and I read from both.

  10. I understand this statement, Pegg, but I'd like to add just a little qualifier to it: "and if CBA started to publish worldly Christian fiction... " I was never talking about "worldly Christian fiction" in my statements above just to clarify my comments. I'm talking about the restraints used in most CF which skirt a lot of realities in many people's lives by leaving out issues, some use of minor profanity, and non-graphic sexual instances. Those particular issues don't make CF "worldly". Christian fiction to me means a story that illustrates redemption but doesn't necessarily have a "come-to-Jesus" moment for every character, and it presents a story that portrays real characters with all of their flaws. They might be worldly, but overall the story is not.

  11. Don't forget the really obvious Christian allegory throughout the Harry Potter series, to which J.K. Rowling admitted after the series ended (she said she had been afraid to mention it before because it would have made the plot progression obvious).

    I think one of the big hindrances to decent Christian fiction these days is the rise of a type of evangelical religion favored by people who have no capacity to understand metaphor.

    1. I tend to agree with you Anon. I really don't like most romance books yet that seems to sell. J.K. Rowling wrote a great series and I loved it. It kept me waiting for the next book. It seems like we need to redefine what good Christian books are. The Bible is a given. I wonder if a Christian fiction writer were to try and write a story (not a romance) about the children coming into the USA like the classics were based on. What would it look like in 2014? Would there be a strong Christian Dumbledore overseeing the disaster? We still have the social problems for sure.

    2. Agreed with and respected your comment, Anonymous, until you felt compelled to disparage an entire group of people without having the guts to use your name or any evidence, anecdotal or otherwise.

  12. Isn't it the case that many of the CBA publishers are owned by ABA publishing houses? So, essentially they have merged again, but are purposely separating the two types of books.

  13. It's a parallel industry, much like the Christian music industry. So their goal is to create a Christianized version of whatever is popular. Therefore, it runs off of a fair amount of mimicry, just as Christian pop music does. Flannery O'Connor was an Iowa writing workshop graduate. She wasn't in the parallel universe of marketing a Christian equivalent.

  14. Randy,

    Actually in Book 2, our hero ran around buck nude for most of the book. That might have been an issue.

    Now onto the article itself.

    But I also have to say, "You know what else wouldn't be published?" Pilgrim's Progress. The tome would be denounced as heavy handed and too preachy. No publisher at any house would take it.

    Which kind of brings me to the question of the list. If the point of the article is that times, tastes, and focus have changed. Well, alright then. If it's that Christian publishing houses are populated by a bunch of Philistines who wouldn't know good fiction if it slapped in the face or bit them in the rear end, then I really have to say the issue isn't on point.

    The modern Christian entertainment industry has been a reaction. to the changing face of secular entertainment. Most of these works weren't published by religious publishing houses in the first place. The bigger and more important question maybe how many of these books could be published in the secular book market. Could we see Tor publishing the Space Trilogy? I mean, really. And who would touch, "The Man Who Was Thursday" or "The Great Divorce"? Would Flanery O'Connor be published without being told to tone down the faith element?

    Most Christian entertainment is a reaction to secular industries that are very hostile to Christians. Sometimes, the hostility is very open such as most science fiction writers who are very passionately anti-God. Sometimes, it's romance publishers who encourage writers to put in very lurid sex scenes in the books. Beyond sex and language issues, many secular books are filled with subtle and not so subtle expressions of support for abortion, humanism, ultra-feminism, environmentalism, political liberalism, etc. And keep in mind, most of us buy books for entertainment. Is it so bad that a woman might want to unwind, read a romance novel that doesn't have the F-bomb, doesn't violate her faith, and isn't soft core porn and might have a gentle faith-affirming lesson. Do you begrudge her that? And if not, how then are the publishers who provide this the great Satan of publishing?

    Now we can claim that Christian publishing has gone too far on some things and that there needs to be more variety, more publishers with different standards, and more freedom for Christian authors to express themselves without inviting some sort of inquisition, but the fact that Christian publishers have standards that would make them not to say yes to some great books isn't a very compelling argument. These are different times and different books will get published.

    1. SOME science fiction writers are anti-god. Poul Anderson is no more anti-god then anti anything else. Many of his best characters are strongly religious if not necessarily Christian. For instance the Wodenite hermits(one Christian, one Buddhist), in Technic History or the eagle winged Ythrians with a religion of their own(a might grim and stoical but not ignoble in some ways), or the narrator of The High Crusade. Anderson liked Worldbuilding and was not the sort to be patronizing over other people's cultures. Most real cultures have religions so he put religion as a facet of imaginary culture.

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  16. And one more thing. I have to comment on this wistful attitude about secular stuff. Yes, there's some Christian stuff out there that's downright awful (God's Not Dead, Persecuted to start with), but the idea about trashing secular music v. Christian music or Christian book seems kind of, "The Grass is Greener on the other side."

    Reading this criticism, you would think we are in a golden age of music rather than having a bunch of pop stars who climb the charts based on sex appeal rather than actual talent. You would think we're in a golden age of cinema rather than having Hollywood making formulaic films and then remaking them. And we could argue that the wisest words and best novels in human history are being produced by secular publishers rather than one novel becoming a best-seller and publishers all trying to copy.

    Yes, there's some good stuff out there. You can cite examples, but there's probably a lot more stuff that is garbage or is absolutely forgettable on the secular market. The same is true of the Christian market, but it's somewhat silly to act like there's a unique problem.

  17. I think there might be a wave of new Christian classics that are coming via indie publishing. Books that tackle topics the CBA doesn't feel it can market. You can't really stop writers from writing on the topics close to their hearts, even if those topics don't fall in the "acceptable" or "marketable" CBA spectrum at this stage. I'm just thankful for this option and I have found SO many indie authors I will champion, and I know their readers will champion them, as well. Readers are looking for new voices/topics/locales, and they will migrate toward those writing/publishing them, bottom line. I have nothing against CBA and I think it's ministering to a certain segment of the Christian population. But I do see indie books making inroads where many CBA books might not--namely, with non-Christian readers. God will use His authors to reach readers, no matter what the era.


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