Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

With all the hullabaloo about the film version of The Shack I find it amusing to read reviews questioning whether the film (and by extension, the book) teaches biblical truth.

Twenty years ago, Christians had no problem suggesting that Neo in The Matrix was a Christ figure, and that popping that red pill to see how deep the rabbit hole goes was a metaphor for Christian conversion.

Fifteen years ago, preachers were happy to pepper their sermons with references to the Lord of the Rings film series.

And even though Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was based in part on devotional works like the Friday of Sorrows and the reputed Marian apparitions attributed to Blessed Anne Catherine Emmerich, Protestants happily hosted film nights and encouraged their members to bring their friends along to see it.

So why is The Shack being viewed so suspiciously? Presumably because it’s been cursed with the classification as a “Christian novel” in a way that, say, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe wasn’t.

C.S. Lewis was a devoted Christian and his Narnia books (and subsequent films) were embraced by Christians as presenting biblical themes, with Aslan becoming one of the most loved Christ figures in literature. But the Narnia series was never classified in a limited sense as “Christian fiction”.

Likewise, novelist and short story writer, Flannery O’Connor who wrote from a distinctly Christian perspective. She claimed every one of her thirty-two short stories and two novels were expositions of grace.  O’Connor’s stories are ironic and subtly allegorical. But they are always about grotesque characters – serial killers, blind evangelists, a tattooed, drunken sailor – most of whom are visited by grace as they suffer through pain, violence, and bad choices.

Explaining her approach, she wrote, “There is a moment in every great story in which the presence of grace can be felt as it waits to be accepted or rejected, even though the reader may not recognize that moment.”

Grace is there. But her characters can be unsavory, their choices depraved, their language uncouth, their values questionable.

I don’t hear people pulling apart the stories of C.S. Lewis or Flannery O’Connor or J.R.R. Tolkien or Marilynne Robinson in the same way they do The Shack.

I guess it’s because when they see a book has been classified as “Christian fiction” they apply different rules to their appreciation of it.

“Christian fiction” is meant to promote family values, teach moral lessons and depict good prevailing over evil. They definitely can’t contain bad language or descriptions of sex. If characters do have sex outside of marriage they either have to come to their senses or experience dire repercussions by the end of the story.

The novelist who writes these kinds of books is using fiction to commend their take on the truthful authority of the Bible. And since it’s assumed that books like Left Behind, or The Red Tent, or This Present Darkness or anything by Francine Rivers has been written to teach biblical truth, their critics have a heightened radar for untruth.

But it seems to me that The Shack falls between these categories. Identified as “Christian fiction” and sold by the bucket-load through Christian bookstores, it has the imprimatur of conveying biblical truth. But in reality it’s somewhat closer to that less classifiable genre, “Novels that have been written by Christians whose personal faith has shaped its themes.”

Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead is in this category. The reminiscences of an aging Congregationalist pastor in the small, secluded town of Gilead, Iowa, it explores themes of grace, conversion, spirituality, theology and the role of Christian ministry in the world.

As does Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop, and George Bernanos’ Diary of a Country Priest.

They’re novels written by Christians, but they’re not “Christian fiction”.

What if we saw The Shack in these terms? What if we didn’t need to exegete every word, every character, every metaphor? What if we saw it presenting a daring, surprising, unlikely, provocative understanding of God? What if depicting God as an African-American woman is no better or worse than depicting God as a lion?

Thanks to the internet we’re treated to minute dissections of every new or popular thing. We have such an over-heightened sense of vigilance and outrage these days. Blogging ministers feel it’s their duty to steer us away from untruth, and a great many of them have decided The Shack is full of it.

But so was Left Behind and This Present Darkness. So was Bruce Almighty and The Matrix.

Here’s a thought. Why don’t we abandon the “Christian fiction” genre altogether, and recognize that while Christians can write novels, novels themselves can’t ever be considered Christian.

Perhaps then we’ll be free to find fragments of truth and the sounds of heavenly strains in all kinds of places. Instead of arguing about whether Sufjan Stevens or Terrence Malick are “Christian enough” or parsing every scene in The Shack, or agonising over whether to see the beauty in Moonlight, we could see the whole world charged with God’s presence and look for God’s truth wherever it might be found.



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The views expressed are my own and do not necessarily represent the official views of Morling College or its affiliates and partners.

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19 thoughts on “Maybe it’s time to drop the “Christian fiction” genre altogether

  1. Oh joy to every word of this article! Brilliantly said.

    1. Love the article. …..
      But if we didn’t “parse every scene” if would give us one less thing to debate about, and we just love to debate.

      I personally think we should just stop stop debating others and instead become “especially fond of them”!

      1. Well said! It’s the sad truth of how “Christians” attack each other over the most insignificant things that hardly matter in the light of Eternity.

  2. If only we judged our own righteousness and holiness with the strength that we debate others decisions, actions and writings….. then our lives would tell the story of what we believe; that would make a good book!

    1. That’s a good comment. Thank you.

  3. Amen! I’d also like to see the genre “Christian music” dropped 😉

  4. Amen! I’d like to see the genre “Christian music” dropped as well 😉

  5. Great stuff Mike

  6. Tim Winton is in the same camp – his novels are full of grace, redemptions, struggle, reconciliation, moments of light etc, but I heard him say in an interview once that while he identified as a Christian, most Christians wouldn’t have a beer with him. It’s a shame that so much of the Christian sub-culture is mired in myopia.

  7. Tim Winton is another writer who fits the category of “Novels that have been written by Christians whose personal faith has shaped its themes.” They contain swearing, sex, tough characters, but also hints of grace and hope. The culmination of one of his most “christian” stories is a violent rape. But it would be foolish to allow the rough edges of his characters and situations to define him and his work, because I and millions of others find much more of worth there.

    1. Funny Eric – we were thinking the same thing at approx the same time – see my comment above.

  8. I absolutely love ‘The Shack’ , reading this book 2 years after my grandson passed away I found it incredibly helpful.
    I have loved Jesus since I was 5, I am now 60 and a minister.
    I cant wait to see ‘The Shack’ done as a movie.
    Personally I think this is Holy Spirit inspired……God uses many ways to
    make himself known..

  9. How many non-Christians paid money to purchase the book or the movie of “The Shack”? It seems obvious to me that the book and movie were pitched to primarily a Christian audience. I really doubt the publishers would have made a financial investment in the book and movie if there were no Christian market. So, if a book or movie is pitched to the Christian market, it would be honest if it were actually Christian in its theological framework, rather than just “coming on” as being Christian for the sake of sales. One difference between “The Shack” and the literature of C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor is that the latter two were not pitching their works to a “Christian” market. The other difference is the quality of literature – the idea of comparing “The Shack” to the literary works of C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor like it was actually on the same level of artistic accomplishment is just simply amazing to me.

    1. Did you read my blog at all? That’s exactly what I said – Lewis and O’Connor weren’t pitched as ‘Christian fiction’. And nowhere did I suggest The Shack had the same artistic merit as their work.

  10. I think the whole problem with “The Shack” is that it offended our Christian Brothers in the American south. Whilst they neatly ignored the story of Balaam’s donkey. As a Christian and a writer, my sense of irony is sparked at the thought of this oxymoron we call “Christian Fiction.” Just as it is puzzled by the notion of a Christian winning a contest called “Idol.” Jesus however wove fiction into his parables. His intention was to convey truth. The parable of the Good Samaritan was a direct jibe at the Pharisees and Levites in his audience. The method is less important. Truth is always of paramount importance. I can weave truth into my fiction. Because that what fiction is intended to do, convey a truth. What I cannot do, is weave fiction into truth. Because then it becomes fiction. But please Mike, how do you suggest I classify my trilogy when it comes out?

  11. Mike, thanks so much for this article. We’re so on the same page here! But, I’ve not read Flannery O’Conner – can you recommend a good place to start here?

  12. American Evangelicalism Rule 73: If it’s secular media, then we need to point out the Christian themes, however imperfectly modeled. If it’s Christian media, we need to subject it to a rigorous purity test.

  13. Peter Younghusband has a popular Christian blog in which a guest author (Anthony R Howard) dives very deep into the WHY of the Christian author storm, and some solutions . The article “The Catastrophic Storm of Christian Fiction” goes behind the curtains answer your question of how in the world did we end up here…and what really is Christian fiction.

  14. Funny that the Narnia stories are here considered as ‘Christian fiction’. Lewis did not admit to either Christian allegory or metaphor. The closest he gets to a definition of genre is in one of his ‘Letters to Children’ when he says he poses the question that writers who are of the Christian persuasion have used too : “What if Jesus…,” which ‘The Shack’ might have tried to answer. Not to satisfaction, judging by the overall reaction to the book. The film fared a tad better. The public know a metaphor when they see one.

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