Monday, December 19, 2011

Define "Preachy Fiction"

Today's post is part of the CW blog chain and the topic is "Gifts of the Heart". Please be sure to visit the posts by other writers (see sidebar at right).

Years ago, I used to just sit down with a notebook and just write. I did not look at what the books were on the bestsellers list or take a poll of my family and friends to see which topic would be the most popular with them.

Then, about a decade ago, I began to wonder what it would be like to incorporate more overtly Christian themes into story. I wanted to add these elements because they were organic to the story and not because it was the latest trend or because I wanted to see how much sermon material I could pack into a novel.

So I started looking around at various forums and reading some distinctly Christian novels. I also "reverse engineered" some novels (both Christian and secular) and read a lot of blogs. Over and over on forums and in articles I kept seeing a familar theme: don't write preachy fiction or worse, don't write agenda-driven fiction.

I thought to myself, "What's preachy fiction?"

In the meantime, I kept reading my Bible and saw God move in some dramatic ways.

Then I started seeing awkward but well-meaning conversations of how to stay true to Christianity but not write preachy fiction. Often times this was accompanied by comments about the current state of the CBA, the CBA's rules, how agents just don't understand, how readers are just misguided, or that current Christian fiction was not edgy enough and needed more gore, violence, or whatever. Then there were comments about how to work Christian "themes" into a story without any type of reference to a Bible, Jesus, or God in any recognizable way.

Throughout all these conversations I kept thinking, "Who are these people truly writing for? Are they writing for themselves or for an ever-shifting market?"

The reality is, in a profession filled with rejection, writing Christian fiction will probably garner you even more persecution, even if your writing is top-notch. Will this cut into sales? Who knows. Yet the Bible talks about being persecuted for being a Christian, whether you are a farmer, a trucker, a writer, a lawyer, or a football player. After all, numerous prophets in the Old Testament were persecuted for their message (and God even told some of them this would happen ahead of time) and Jesus makes it clear persecution will happen.

So again I ask, what's preachy fiction anyway?

If you have a Christian character in your story and your book is read by an atheist, does that make the book preachy?

If a character cites a Scripture verse and makes a stand based on their faith, does that make the book preachy?

If you create characters with authentic traits that also have a Christian worldview (complete with real-world struggles) yet the reader cannot relate to them because they never attended church does that make a book preachy?

Let me put it another way. A while back I watched the movie Tron Legacy in 3-D. Great special effects aside, I noticed the story seemed to have a Zen/Buddhist feel to it. I then read reviews about the movie and did not see any comments anywhere about it being "preachy".

Likewise, I'm sure someone could write a book or make a movie with characters that have completely relativistic worldviews that continually contradict one another. Would that make it preachy? Would anyone even notice?

What if someone makes a movie which is filled with non-stop gore, has heads being severed and blood pours forth in every other scene for the sake of being edgy and "realistic"? Would anyone call that movie preachy?

Not likely.

What about books like Animal Farm, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, and others of that nature? Aren't there inherent messages in these books? Although they really don't deal with Christian themes they are generally not considered "preachy". What if you want to write a book similar to these and it contains a Christian character or two?

Congratulations! You just wrote a preachy novel!

Nowadays it seems if a writer feels led to write a story which contains Christian themes, characters, or gasp...a message...then it runs the risk of being categorized as "preachy" or "agenda-driven". After all, readers read solely to escape and don't want to think. Right?

Or so lots of articles tell us.

At what point, though, does a writer stop writing for themselves (or God) and write based on whatever way the critical wind blows? By the way, the critical wind always blows, regardless of whether you write with Christian or secular content. At what point does a writer lose interest in what they are doing because of this?

Whatever happened to working on your craft, putting out the best stories that you can, and writing from the heart? Either your writing ability is a gift or it isn't. Is it better to put that gift to use or bury it in your backyard?


  1. Forgive me if this comment is preachy. ;o)
    I don't think there should be art directed toward the Christian community. Art is art, pure and simple; and if a work of art contains Christian themes, it is because the artist is a Christian. If this is not true, if Christian art is a genre that's defined by its target audience, or by its plot, or any other external criteria, then anyone can make Christian art — believer or infidel. Michelangelo did not give us the Pieta because he was trying to create Christian art; he gave us the Pieta because he was a great artist who allowed his Christianity to penetrate and inform his art.
    As I've already implied, a Christian writer (or artist of any kind) is a person who allows his Christian faith to penetrate his fiction. This does not mean that the Christian writer must write about getting saved or the end times, or quote the Bible. In short, a Christian writer doesn't have to write about anything Christian.
    If a Christian writer doesn't write about Christians, what makes his fiction Christian? The way he understands his material does. One of the first lessons a Christian writer must learn is the lesson that distinguishes the apparent immorality within a work of fiction and what makes a story truly immoral. Both Anna Karenina and The Bridges of Madison County have as their major plot engine adultery; but Leo Tolstoy and Robert James Waller have very different understandings of adultery. Whereas one novel is moral, the other is immoral. It's on this deeper level that the Christian writer must allow his Christian conscious to bear witness.
    Peace and Blessings this Christmas Season.

  2. We have to remember that we are not part of this world. Our citizenship is in heaven. There will ALWAYS be people out there criticizing anyone who believes in God. There will always be people against God especially in this day and age. Good post, thanks for sharing!

  3. Luke 6:45 The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

    I can't really add to this verse. It nails it for me. Very thought provoking post. Thank you

  4. Michael, as always you "bring it"- great post. I know many Christian writers or artists who struggle with the very points you discussed. However, I never for one minute had a debate within myself who I am writing for or about- and I can give a rip about persecution, why? Because I know the Lord and He is the one who I serve. Being a best selling author is not the goal of my gift-to honor God is! I've had a message in my very soul for as long as I can remember- share the Good News and I try to use all the creativity that the Lord has given me to get that message out.
    The choice is ours how use the gift that God has given. We can bury it or invest it. Whatever we choose has it's rewards. It didn't work out to well for the servant that buried his talents.

    God bless you and Merry Christmas!!

  5. As your post so aptly shows, 'preachy' is not easily defined. There is a fine line that must be tread between writing from our hearts (a place of authenticity as well as 'calling') and thinking about one's audience. Not everyone is going to like what what we write, no matter the genre.

  6. Amen! I don't write fiction and have never published a book or made a single cent from any of my writing, (which might completely exempt me from offering this opinion) but I simply write from the heart and release the words to God to use as He chooses. The world may never know who I am, but that's OK, because my Heavenly Father does and He rejoices over me with singing. Could there be any greater reward?

  7. Thanks for the comments! And...Merry Christmas, too.

    @E.G. - Excellent points. It's funny because I'll find myself wanting to imitate a particular art style without all the undermining of faith that seems to accompany really original works of art these days.

    @Suzette - Exactly. Yet it's difficult, too, because many writers take critical comments personally.

    @Mike - Well said.

    @Terrie - And for my next lecture, let me tell you all about what wrong with [insert controversial topic here]...

    @Tracy - A lot of these discussions remind me of a Bloom County cartoon I saw years ago where the several people are standing around a bus stop talking about what offends them. Then they started getting offended by each other's comments. Then they all yell out that "life is offensive" and run away. Opus is left behind and utters one word, "offensensitivity."

    @Cindee - I think I've earned enough to cover some postage costs. :-D Hopefully that will change, but we'll see where God takes things.

  8. just write because what is in you will come out in your writing. good thought provoking post.

  9. wow, you really touched on an excellent and exciting topic with that one Michael !!

    I will add, without having read all of the previous comments... that I many times will rip on myself in writing, and while that is preachy in a way, I find it would likely help someone else to share my own experiences. Otherwise, I really dislike the whole Christian vs. secular thought process... when you read John 3:16 I believe the key word is "believe"

    The best writing style that I have is to try and not even put in a verse, just being real and downplaying the whole thought of "bringing someone to God"

  10. Great post, Michael. The points you make apply to any gift or talent we have. Just yesterday during my hoop practice, I couldn't really get into flow, and at one point I thought about a friend I haven't hooped with in a while and how much I wished she were with me.

    Right on the heels of that thought was the realization that my hoop dancing had become more about what my friends would think or how the wider audience I reach through YouTube and Hoop City would react to my videos than about the joy of the dance. I knew at that moment I had to rediscover the joy I found at the beginning.

    It's the same with our writing. We have to write to please God and be true to who we are. If the market likes it, okay. And if the market doesn't like it, okay. :)

  11. Great post. I know this has been a sore spot with many.

    I've only found one solution, to write what God gives me, no matter what.

  12. Well thought out and presented post. I immediately thought of The Book of Eli - oodles of violence and gore but God was in the movie from beginning to end and not a bit preachy IMO.

    I think "preachy" is more overt explaining--stopping the action or plot to well...preach. If something (message, character trait, gospel) can be shown through action or character then it moves from preachy to underlying message. But like so many have commented--write what the Holy Spirit inspires and leave the results to time.

    Thanks for making us think.

  13. Hmm, must get my spade and dig it up !!

  14. Thanks for the great comments. Lots of good points, everyone. Whatever the case...

    Merry Christmas!

    P.S. Wait...was that preaching? Was there a hidden message in those two words?

  15. Hello. My name is Scott . . . and I write preachy novels.

    Can't help it, really--especially now that anything not only agenda-driven, but containing a message, agenda, or moral of any kind, is considered preaching. I think we should be focused on authenticity more than anything else. If the message is real, and if the conduit--the characters, the circumstances, etc.--is real as well, the reader will still be left with the choice of whether or not to buy into what they're reading. But if they don't, they can't blame it on the author. They'll have to look at their own shortsighted tendencies.

    So I may be guilty of preaching a bit when I write . . . but as far as I'm concerned, that's just preachy-keen.

    Nicely done, Mike. You really hit it out of the park with this one. ;-)

  16. Of all the "Gifts of the Heart" posts, this one caught my attention the most. Preachiness is something I struggle with in every story. Perhaps that's an advantage to self-publishing: nobody to tell me I'm preaching to the choir.

    Actually, bottom line, preachiness is in the eye of the reader. If an atheist should read one of my books, he'd call it preachy, but not if a Christian should read the same book. I like Carol's definition of "preachy." I don't step out of the story and homilize what a character means by a certain comment.

    I never include a full-scale salvation message, but many of the situations my Christian characters (which all my protags are) get into are unsavory and anti-CBA. Murder, rampant sex, brutal violence, cussing, con games, even illegal drugs, have been present, but discussed in ways not to glorify them, but to show their true nature.

    I don't want to hide my faith, but neither can I hide it behind symbolism, as some publishers would like me to do. I can't invent symbolism, or it'll come off contrived; but it automatically shows up when I write what God inspires in my heart.

    Thanks for a great post, Mike.

    ~ VT

  17. This was such a great post. I was thinking all along, "define preachy" because every author has a worldview/starting point. I don't think it's at all possible to write *anything* without being "preachy" in one way or another. I guess if publishers want me to hide my Christianity, I guess I will always be self-published. Otherwise, it just won't be *me* writing.