This post title could also be called ‘Preachiness in Christian Fiction,’ but for my book the term ‘apologetics’ is more germane. The literary consensus is that preachiness is bad, and that a work should be Christian insofar as the underlying themes subtly reveal Christ, or a character models Christ-like behavior. But I’m not so sure that’s enough. In the case of ‘The Chronicles of Narnia,’ some literary folks say Lewis is too allegorical and heavy handed. At the same time, many (most?) who read it blow past the allegories and only see the story. For some of these readers, the idea of Aslan dying on the stone table will work on their subconscious, while other readers will remain oblivious. I think Lewis gets the balance right, especially since it’s a fantasy story and a children’s story. If he were more blatant with his purpose (he said everything he ever wrote was evangelical), it would feel shoe-horned in.
Now in the case of ‘The Shack,’ I don’t think anyone has ever wished it was more preachy. Paul Young says it’s his theology in narrative form, or some such. While I think it’s good for what it is, an illustrated sermon, if you go into ‘The Shack’ expecting a novel, like I did, you will get impatient with the preaching. Why is it so wildly successful? I think one reason is that morons like me took it at face value and thought it was a true story. That literary device was a brilliant choice by Young. Another reason is that it is a tract to help those who are wounded and mad at God heal. So while ‘The Shack’ is too preachy, it has a special anointing and is the exception that proves the rule.
I sent an earlier draft of my book to a literary agent and he was concerned about the characters’ discussion being too didactic, and rightfully so. He told me that a publisher told him, ‘When I sense an agenda, I stop reading.’ A defensive reaction to this would be, ‘Perhaps that’s why publishers turned down ‘The Shack’ and missed out.’ But the truth is that the publisher is right. As writers, our core job is to tell a good story, and when the agenda steps on the story, the reader is frustrated. The agent is correct in that the story should work on the readers at a deep level like Narnia. However, I contend that it is possible to integrate compelling ideas with story at the conscious level as well, although it’s a difficult tight rope for an author to walk.
It would be helpful here if I explained where my book came from. I experienced a crisis of faith during part of my 20s and 30s. I’ve always thought I was a writer and that I had a novel in me, even though there was little external evidence of this. So while I struggled with my faith, I had the following thought: if I pull out of this struggle, I’d like to write a novel in which the main character loses his faith, and then gets it back in the end. There are many novels where the main character becomes disillusioned. Not as many about becoming disillusioned, and then finding out that the original illusion was real all along. So when God pulled me out of the mire, I felt like I was pregnant with a book, even though I didn’t know what it was about yet.
The plot that came to me centered around The Shroud of Turin and The Family Tomb of Jesus. More specifically, people involved in scientific tests being done on these objects. This called for dialogue explaining some details about these items, where I had to avoid making it a data dump, and having the characters tell each other things that they both already knew for benefit of the reader. So–good when the dialogue forwards the plot and illuminates the reader, bad when it is knowledge for knowledge’s sake, or too esoteric to understand.
But the book is more character-driven than plot-driven, with the events in the flashbacks centering around the main character losing his faith and finding it again. There are real-world apologetic questions and answers the character learns, and perhaps the reader learns them with him. This has to be carefully done, because the reader did not buy an apologetic text book, but a novel, and so the specific arguments that are given, if they are not driving the plot forward, at least have to push the character arc forward. What I’m getting at is that I had some apologetic arguments throughout this novel in the early drafts, and these arguments were heavy handed and preachy. With each subsequent draft I have lessened those effects and integrated them more seamlessly into the story. One question I want to answer (in case any of you are asking it) is how I did that.
First, I found a fantastic editor, who was a little sympathetic for the unorthodox approach of the novel, but had the eye of a layman for the book, and pointed it out to me when I got too technical. I suppose it’s obvious that everyone needs a good editor. But second, and a better insight I think, is that I read the book out loud to a general audience, which in my case was my wife and three teenagers. I’m a little strange in the fact that I worked on this novel for almost four years and never shared anything about it with my wife, even though she’s a good fiction reader. I chose to trade away insights she could have given me during the writing for her insight at the finished product. Plus, I like to surprise people and wanted to see her reaction at the end. Reading the book to them was an absolute blast. However, anytime I read something that was superfluous to the story, it was very cringy, and I made a mental note to remove or edit those parts. I believe that left me with a book that is palatable for a general audience, but still has deep content for my core audience, which are people who have ever, or still, question their faith.
Back to the publisher who said, ‘When I sense an agenda, I stop reading.’ All authors have an agenda. Or at least they should. After writing my book, I started looking into self-publishing and saw that I was supposed to be ‘writing to market’ all along, because a full-time author needs readers, so write what they’re reading. Bull crap. I’m not writing to be a full-time author–to fill a market niche. I’m writing because I have something to say that’s burning inside me. Something to say that can help people who find themselves in the predicament I was in when I was younger. A novel is not a sermon. But Christians almost can’t help but be preachy when they write, because God has put inside them truths to communicate. And frankly, I think Christian readers want that. It’s possible to find a good secular story that isn’t R-rated, if I search hard enough. I can even find and enjoy a good Christian novel where I see characters who exemplify Jesus, while (I’m) not learning anything new about Jesus’ character. For the ideal Christian fiction experience, I want to get a revelation. I know that’s expecting a lot, but why not? That is why ‘This Present Darkness’ basically launched Christian fiction, with its revelation about the importance of prayer. It’s not half the novel that a later Peretti book is, ‘The Visitation’ (which I try to mimic a bit in my book), but it contains a special anointing. That anointing is what all Christian fiction authors should strive for.