Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Myth of "Secular" Fiction

If some novels are "Christian," then the rest of them are not. We have chosen to call those "not-Christian" novels "secular." Secular novels aren't necessarily bad (in the moral sense), they're just not "Christian." Or "Christian" enough. 

Early in an author's career, they are forced to make a choice and decide what kind of novel they will write -- "Christian" or "secular." For the most part, Christian authors are the only ones faced with such a dilemma. It is a very important decision, one that often defines a writer's career. Problem is, the line between the "spiritual" and the "secular" is rarely as definitive as we'd like it to be. 

Case in point: I recently finished reading a friend of mine's first novel. It will be released later this year. It is a "secular" novel. However, it was not always a "secular" novel. For a long time, it was a "Christian" novel and passed through the hands of Christian publishers... publishers who eventually deemed it was not "Christian" enough. So now it's a "secular" novel, published by a "secular" house, to a bunch of "secular" readers. But this itself is problematic because the novel contains lots of "Christian" themes. Even though it is "secular." 

And that's the corner we have forced ourselves into. 

I was recently re-reading C.S. Lewis' essays on myth. During one such reading I was struck by the overlap of these two topics, how our approach to mythology often mirrors our approach to "secular" art in general. The C.S. Lewis Institute has distilled the author's work down to Seven Key Ideas, one of which involves Myth: 

Early in C.S. Lewis's life he noticed the parallels between pagan myths and classic Christianity. In his education it was assumed that the pagan myths were false and Christianity true. Why was this religion--and this one alone--true? This is one factor that led to his unbelief. 

He resolved the problem and wrote about myth in a number of places. A key to his resolution was the increased understanding that if God created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure, it is not surprising that patterns reoccur. The only question is, Are any of these myths truer than others or, more precisely, Are any of these myths also fact? He came to believe that Jesus was the "myth become fact." 

Later he defined myth as an "unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination." (emphasis mine) 
Notice how the exclusivity claim initially turned Lewis off to Christianity. The assumption that "pagan myths were false and Christianity true" did not jibe with his experience. A blanket condemnation of all myths -- especially myths that are so rich in spiritual allegory -- does not do justice to either myth or Christianity. Which is why on Mars Hill (Acts 17), rather than condemn the pagan poets, the apostle Paul quoted them, highlighting elements of their art which corroborated biblical truth. Maintaining a dichotomy between Christianity and myth did not serve the Church's purpose nor accurately represent God, man or art. 

Likewise, by dividing art into "sacred / secular" camps we do injustice to the nature of man, truth, and art. Because God "created the world in a certain way and the human mind with a definite structure," we should anticipate an "unfocused gleam of divine truth falling on human imagination." Even "secular" imagination can reveal reoccurring God-"patterns." In other words, if the pagan poets can occasionally "get it," can't "secular" authors? 

By dividing the "spiritual" and the "secular," not only do we create potential animosity or suspicion between camps (the same animosity that forced Lewis towards unbelief), we simply miss God's larger work in the world. Not to mention, we create an artificial separation.


Frederick Buechner wrote, "The world speaks of holy things in the
only language it knows, which is worldly language." Yes, the world "speaks of holy things." They just use "worldly language." Instead of posturing ourselves in opposition to the "secular," Christians would be better off looking for the "unfocused gleam of divine truth" in their eyes.

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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 www.mikeduran.com, or follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

10 comments:

Iola Goulton said...

I've had similar experiences. I didn't like the latest Siri Mitchell novel, because I didn't think the faith elements were strong enough to call it "Christian", yet she then released The Miracle Thief (as Iris Anthony), which had wonderful "Christian" themes—yet she couldn't publish it in the "Christian" market. Go figure.

I've recently read (and reviewed) another "secular" book which was more Christian than many—Five Days in May by Ninie Hammon, And there are more ...

I know as Christians we are called to be in the world but not of the world, but it does seem as though most "Christian" fiction isn't even in the world.

(P.S if your friend is looking for reviewers, let me know).

Heather Day Gilbert said...

I do think this is where Christian indie authors are making all kinds of inroads, straddling that fence very effectively and reaching this generation of readers where they live. I see indie authors addressing themes/topics that NEED to be addressed, and yet from a Christian viewpoint. We all have different audiences, but I think crossover Christian books will become more and more common as indie authors blur those "this is what Christian fiction MUST look like" lines that were set sometime in the Janette Oke era.

Nicole said...

The only element missing from this post is the rage from some secular readers regarding the inclusion of Christian faith elements. These militant unbelievers are the one-star reviewers who review what they perceive as "Christian" novels and resent having to read about "religious" themes, characters, or anything which points to our God. They are the extremes, but they're out there in the Christian and secular markets.

I agree with Heather in that indie publishing definitely liberates Christian authors to address more honestly those issues which are excluded from some Christian fiction, but I must admit I don't necessarily see the novels which include measures of Christian faith elements gaining a new wave of secular readers. JMO

Ane Mulligan said...

Remember what Paul said - "I've become all things to all people so I may win some"? If every book has strong faith elements, a lot of people would not be won. Some are meant to plant seeds, the same as with evangelism. Some people plant, others harvest.

I believe people let down their guard when they think they're being entertained. Then, when they least expect it, our words can reach out and touch hearts, planting the seeds that will change lives.

Heather Day Gilbert said...

Nicole, you are so right. There are always those readers who will one-star you for ANY Christian content. I had one of those, but then the majority of my readers (Christian and non) expressed that they enjoyed how the main character was not preachy and how she lived out her Christianity (and struggles with sin). I do think it's possible to touch non-Christian readers with our books, if not to win them to Christ on the spot, then at least to show them "this is what a Christian really looks like and how we think." I think creating characters/stories that stick with people can go a long way toward having that effect--like the Chronicles of Narnia, etc.

Even the Bible itself pulls back the curtain on real people's struggles with sin and shows how they fail or are victorious. THOSE are the stories that stick with me. But many elements of those biblical lives are spiritually discerned. I agree with Ane, above--we all have different audiences. Some try to build up the body, some try to reach the lost. Some are trying to do both. But Christian writers are stepping up to the plate, whether they're getting picked up by major CBA publishers or not. Nearly every month on Joel Friedlander's indie covers blog (large ABA blog), there are several Christian indie authors' covers featured. THAT is making inroads right there--when Christian indies are setting high standards and shining in the indie world. :)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

BTW--one thing I finally wound up doing (because occasionally my books go free and are available to a large non-Christian audience) is to put a "This novel is written from a Christian worldview" under the description. I might have lost some sales by adding that, but at least it's clear to the reader I am a Christian author, whether or not my books would fall neatly into the "Christian fiction" category. It's just one way to deal with that shocking "1-star-because-a-book-mentions-God" effect.

Captain Travis said...

Mike for me this issue is simpler than for some other people. I like hard science fiction and that sort of story is not just about characters--it's about technical ideas that relate to how the universe really works. So I don't know how many stories I've read that speculate about the nature of evolution and what kind of creatures it would produce--from the presumption the universe is essentially random.

That characters seem to also have to have at least one obligatory sex scene and engage in questionable moral behavior at times (if not all the time) is also true but rather beside the point.

I want to write science fiction in which the life forms show signs of having been made by a single creator God, where creation is explored as an intellectual concept rather than evolution, where the universe is also seen as a place where morality matters--not just "survival of the fittest."

So for me, in my field of interest, there is a HUGE difference between looking at the world as a Christian and not...

C.J. Darlington said...

I would have no problem reading more secular fiction if not for the fact that SO MUCH of it includes so much swearing and sex. I picked up a C.J. Lyons novel recently to try it out, and while well-written, for me personally it was just too much. I found myself thinking about things I didn't want to think about after. Not to diss Lyons as she's a great writer I respect for how she's taken control of her publishing career, but this is why I read Christian fiction, whether the message is blatant or subtle.

Nicole said...

C.J. and Captain Travis bring up the primary reasons some of us gravitate away from "secular" literature - because it is overall "secular". A great deal of it is filled with humanistic philosophies, actions (graphic sex, filthy language, secular humanism) and, as C.J. suggested, it detracts dramatically from the actual story even if it's well-written, and at times it overshadows and/or overcomes the story. A steady diet of secular fiction can't be healthy or helpful to a Christian. It tends to lack any moral compass or respect for moral content which can leave an emptiness and a need to take a shower. All this from a "normal" genre selection.

While I do not generally condone the over-the-top restrictions and restraints of some CBA publishing houses - maybe most - neither can I attest to any value in over-the-top sex scenes and a constant barrage of four-letter words.

Some of us tend to think general market literature offers "better" writing, but I think the writing itself is on equal footing with CBA. There are good, bad, and mediocre writers in both markets. It's the content which can be vastly different. And the restraints or no restraints.

Alyssa Faith said...

You hit it on the head Nicole! ��