For most of my writing life, I wrote secular stories. When I first started writing, I had no inkling that I would ever write anything that would be remotely related to my Christian faith. In my early adulthood, and throughout my creative writing studies at university, I kept a tidy division between “church” and “state”, preferring to keep matters of faith neatly confined to one area of my life, and matters of philosophy or ideology carefully corralled in another. Then I discovered Christian fiction.
I’ve noticed that even in the Christian world, very few people seem to take note of Christian fiction. Many see “good Christian fiction” as an oxymoron—and perhaps this reputation is deserved, given that “Christian” often means little more than “clean” versions of secular pot-boilers. This was certainly my prejudice when I first began writing: wasn’t Christian fiction all sweet Amish romances (sometimes nicknamed “bonnet fiction” or “bonnet rippers”) and fluffy inspirational stories like the ones you see on the Hallmark channel? I wanted to read (and write) fiction you could sink your teeth into.
I was astonished to find a wealth of stories that shattered my preconceptions about Christian fiction. Stories that—unlike much of what the world produces—spoke to the soul.
But years later, I was astonished to find a wealth of stories that shattered my preconceptions about Christian fiction. Stories that—unlike much of what the world produces—spoke to the soul.
What is “Christian” fiction, anyway?
Stories are undeniably powerful. Not just in the way they tug at our heartstrings or open our eyes to new ways of viewing the world, but also in the way they shape our attitudes—and even our faith.
I’ve often thought that the gospel is like a multi-faceted diamond. Shine a beam of light, and you’ll illuminate one facet of the gem—one powerful truth that will pattern and colour your life, should you allow it. Turn the gem a little to the side, and you catch another sparkling surface—another startling, life-altering truth. You can live a hundred years in this world and still be surprised by a beam of light shining on that gem, illuminating something you never noticed before. The words of God are truly living and active (Hebrews 4:12).
Christian fiction, very simply, aims to touch our hearts with stories that illuminate particular truths; which have the power to permeate and pattern every aspect of our life. With such potential, was it any wonder that Jesus himself often spoke in the language of stories?
Mere head knowledge is not enough. It is entirely possible to acknowledge something intellectually and remain largely unchanged—like the man in James 1:23-24 who looks at himself in the mirror, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. For the writer of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, John Newton, it was years before his convictions about Christianity penetrated his conscience to the extent that he abandoned his slave-trading activities and became a prominent supporter of abolitionism.
I am hardly the first person to point out that humans are sometimes more teachable through stories. Pastors who begin their sermons with pithy quotes or meaningful illustrations understand this intuitively. C.S. Lewis reflected on this at length (see this excellent article for a summary of Lewis’ views on the power of stories), observing the power of myth and story to illustrate deep truths about reality and human nature. More recently, Jared C. Wilson put it like this:
Can even the Christian scholar and philosopher deny that the facts of the gospel are received on a frequency deeper than just the intellect? We discern the facts of the gospel with our minds, of course, but we receive them with our hearts because the Spirit has freed our hearts to receive them as true—to receive Christ as The Truth, the one true myth that is incontrovertibly fact.
Most people would have heard of déjà vu—the new or strange appearing familiar. But few have likely heard of its opposite, jamais vu (French for “never seen”)—which refers to the familiar appearing strange or new.
Christian fiction, done well, functions as literary jamais vu: taking the well-studied, emphatically underlined and dutifully highlighted truths of the Gospel and rendering them momentarily unfamiliar so that they can be contemplated and appreciated anew—especially for those of us who have been Christians for many years. It is this sudden illumination that enables us to take in wondrous Gospel truths as if we were beholding them for the first time—to marvel at the beauty of the gem—to truly contemplate the reality of what Jesus has done for us.
Christian fiction, done well, functions as literary jamais vu—taking the well-studied truths of the Gospel and rendering them momentarily unfamiliar so that they can be contemplated and appreciated anew.”
Do we need Christian fiction when we have the Bible?
Before I re-committed myself to Christ at age eighteen (midway through my first year of university), I had carefully steered away from traditional sources of Christian authority and teaching. In all honesty, I found it difficult to engage with the Bible itself, because I wasn’t yet sure if I could trust its assertions, or even its accuracy. I dove headlong into apologetics (particularly the works of journalist and former atheist Lee Strobel) which convinced me of the historical reliability of the Gospel accounts—though that is a story for another time.
But, interestingly, it was Christian fiction which first touched my heart as a young person—opening the way for me to engage with the stories (and The Story) contained in the Bible itself.
The first Christian fiction book I read was Francine Rivers’ A Voice in the Wind, the first instalment of her Mark of the Lion trilogy, followed by her best-selling debut novel and literary statement of faith, Redeeming Love. Sometime after that, I read Catherine Marshall’s Christy on the recommendation of a friend, which profoundly influenced my attitude to suffering … more than any other book I’d read on the subject.
I cannot begin to quantify the effect that these books (and many, many others I’ve read since) have had on my Christian journey. Apologetics influenced my mind, but it was Christian fiction that moved my heart—opening the way for me to accept the truth of the Gospel, just as it did for the long-term sceptic, C.S. Lewis. Having been raised in a Christian home, by parents who strived to reflect Jesus, my first need wasn’t more head knowledge but a fresh experience of the wonder of the cross.
But why fantasy?
As a Christian writer, I want to write stories of depth and rich meaning that reflect, if only in part, the depth and richness of God. My goal is to shine light on one facet of the Gospel to help the reader see a particular truth as if they are viewing it for the first time—Soli Deo gloria (to the glory of God alone). In my second (as-yet-unpublished) book, The Secret of Fire, one character tells another “the deep in you is only an echo of the depth of Him [God]”.
I find fantasy to be the easiest genre through which I can accomplish this goal. Its universal themes of good versus evil, sacrifice, hope, and redemption, serve my jamais vu—my attempt to make the familiar strange. As a blog post by Darrick Dean discussing why young readers are increasingly turning to fantasy recently expressed: “Perhaps a good dose of fantasy is, ironically, needed to show us reality”.
While many of us often retreat into fantasy as escapism (myself included), our love of fantasy seems also to be a reflection of our attempts to find, as Dean puts it, our “true purpose…[and] place in the Story”.
While many of us often retreat into fantasy as escapism, our love of fantasy seems also to be a reflection of our attempts to find our ‘true purpose…[and] place in the Story.’
For this reason, every one of my books to date has been in the fantasy genre (although I cannot speak for future books). My first two books, The Darcentaria Duology (consisting of The Sword in His Hand, which will be released in 2020, and its sequel, The Secret of Fire) is a fantasy transformation of the story of Ben-Hur and an exploration of suffering and vengeance. My next two books, The Soul Mark Duology, explore the tension between mercy and judgement/sacrifice, purity and guilt. Another, in the works, deals with how people respond to pain in a world where it is possible to remove and anaesthetise memories.
For all those who’ve wondered at the place of Christian fiction in Christian living, I hope this presents a compelling argument for you to engage with the transformative power of stories…and with your children, too. For some children, reading is as natural as breathing, and is the way that they directly experience the world. For those of you who are parents to avid young readers, why not expose your children to the stories of The Chronicles of Narnia and other great Christian works?
For those who have resisted the idea that truth can reside in fiction, I would encourage you to discover the ways—outlined much more eloquently in the work of C.S. Lewis himself—in which God is a God not just of logic and fact but of story…. and ultimately, the Great Story that He has authored since the beginning of creation: a Story in which He invites you—not just as reader, but son, daughter, and beloved bride—to take your part.
First published at jjfischerauthor.wixsite.com