Gaze around any Christian bookshop and you’ll struggle to find a great deal of fiction that deals with serious theological and lifestyle themes. Why is it that Christian fiction is the Cinderella genre of an already shrinking market?

As someone who fell into writing fiction, this has always surprised and frustrated me. Story is such a great platform on which to examine serious issues that relate to how we live out our faith in a rapidly changing world.

Many people find it more accessible and enjoyable than non-fiction, while its reach is potentially much broader. Doesn’t the fact that Jesus told stories suggest that this might possibly be an interesting line of enquiry to explore?

Why is Christian fiction so under favoured?

When it is a way of informing our minds and forming Christian character, why is fiction that reflects our faith dismissed so easily?

Some have argued that it falls below a certain quality threshold. Even among literary giants, it is easy for faults to be exposed; indeed CS Lewis was criticised by his friend, Tolkien for mixing his metaphors when he included Father Christmas in Narnia.

A more general criticism is that those seeking a church audience for their fiction are drawn towards a simplistic, even, utopian redemptive narrative arc in which at least one main characters come to faith in the end. I guess we all like happy endings – but is this part of the problem? Life just isn’t like that – stories are often unresolved – characters are complex – a bundle of contradictions and the breadth of the issues that we face often blur the categories of the spiritual and the sacred.

How many Christian books deal with the issues of doubt, failure and duplicity? If Christian fiction is poorly written, then perhaps we are all to blame for wanting our stories to be sanitised and all the loose ends tied up?

Reflecting the wider publishing world

In many ways the problems facing acceptance of fiction dealing with issues of faith reflect the wider issues in publishing – it is just that the Christian market, especially in the UK, is so small, that the issues are more exposed and the wriggle room for development so limited.

These issues relate to the reluctance of publishers to take risks, especially with unsolicited material and unpublished authors. This means reliance upon celebrity writers whose public profile is already established – even if they might need the help of ghost writers. The Christian market merely reflects this: we want authors we know, preferably those who have spoken at our favourite conference or who reflect our theological standpoint.

Cut the storytellers a little slack and let their stories be heard

The other issue is related; namely the cult of success, the preference of publishing self-help materials that promise a short cut to a successful business, a flat stomach, a happy home life and stress-free lifestyle.

The Christian market, once again, reflects these preferences, with its reliance on ‘how to’ manuals or insights into the management of Christian ministry or church organisation. We want short cuts to outcomes, destination seems more important than journey; no wonder the storyteller is side-lined. Once again, are we closing our eyes to the creative approach of the poet, musician, actor or storyteller?

The final obstacle might also relate to the sensibilities of Christian readers. The unholy trinity of sex, violence and bad language are some of the tools of the modern storyteller. Not that all stories must always contain these elements, but when they are ruled out of bounds in fiction, we immediately have to understand that we are seeking to establish a world as we might wish it to be, rather than one earthed in reality. Christian readers need to cut storytellers a little slack here and acknowledge a grittier style can be more authentic.

A personal journey with storytelling

My own experience of writing fiction arose from taking a sabbatical from parish ministry following a period of studying for a part-time post graduate degree.

At the time the idea of using my sabbatical to undertake further theological reflection utilising the methodology of academic enquiry was about as appealing as cheese-grating my face. I therefore undertook to explore the world of creative writing – what resulted was my first novel – Daydream Believer – essentially a narrative re-working of my academic studies sprinkled with a few jokes and personal reflections.

Initially I was drawn towards fiction as a way of communicating big ideas in a more accessible way. I was fortunate to get a no-risk publishing deal with my first novel, but subsequent work including a version of the Book of Job set in the credit crunch and my latest novel The Fading Smile –  a dystopian thriller set in a world where secularism has triumphed and forces of repression and consumerism have sought to fill the vacuum created – has meant joining countless others down the route of self-publishing.

Stories at the heart of God’s communication

Scripture has given us stories of God’s creative and redemptive purposes – the use of story must therefore lie at the heart of a God who wants to communicate. If we see our faith in terms of a journey of exploration, then, surely, we need a wide range of descriptive tools to help us to make sense of that journey?

Story enables us to interact with a subject more creatively – exploring it from the perspective of character and plot development; we identify with the characters as well as with the story. Therefore, taking a risk to give storytellers a greater platform for their work might not only help them to develop their craft but might also help us all to develop a wider appreciation of fiction as a language with which to explore spiritual issues and matters of gospel and culture.

Mike Burke is an ordained Anglican priest as well as author of Daydream Believer and The Fading Smile

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