Sunday, November 25, 2012

Whither Religious Fiction?

Perhaps that should be Christian fiction, as that’s the only kind I write, but I’m reasonably sure the qualms I’m entertaining would apply with equal force to Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, or any other religiously oriented fiction.

Major problem: Most religious fiction is bad. Unbearably so.

Implied question: Why?

Answer excluded from consideration: Because the authors are inept.

I’ve suffered through quite a lot of religious fiction. I’ve often asked myself whether I considered it penance for my own presumption in writing it. 90% of it (if not more) is genuinely awful, execrable, impossible for an intelligent reader to tolerate. Yet it’s not festooned with spelling errors or syntactic faults. The writers mostly obey the “macro” rules, such as those pertinent to management of viewpoint and consistency over story time. Most of the time, they choose reasonably dramatic conflicts around which to shape their plots. Nevertheless, rarer than rubies is the religiously-themed novel that genuinely entertains—that leaves the reader feeling that he hasn’t wasted his time or money.

My sense for the thing is that the authors are, in the main, too determined to press their religious messages on their readers. They’re preaching at the expense of entertainment. But few readers of fiction are there to be catechized. They’re there to be entertained; religious edification is a distant second, if indeed it’s among their desires at all.

I could be wrong about that. Most of the Christian fiction I’ve encountered was written and published by Baptists. They’re among the more evangelical Christian sects. They have few inhibitions about dragging you into the revival tent. Perhaps I’d find Catholic religious fiction less aggressively polemic. However, there’s a lot less of it—and what I’ve found has been less than impressive.

The overwhelming majority of Christian fiction writers display more than adequate technical “chops.” If they could somehow “gentle” their religious messages—transform them into subtext—the result would be must more appealing. But that raises the question of why those writers choose to write religious fiction in the first place, which for an onlooker—even one who is himself a writer of religious fiction—is unanswerable.

I know personally only two other writers of sincere Christian convictions. One is unreadably in-your-face; the other is one of the most entertaining—and popular—writers of science fiction practicing today. The latter gentleman handles religious themes with great delicacy; he’s almost entirely indirect about them. Indeed, I dare say that virtually no one would characterize his books as religious fiction. Yet the message is always there, and when you grasp it, you have that supremely precious feeling of having attained an important illumination entirely on your own. There’s a lesson there, and one that I strive not to misplace when I need it most.

I’ve recently enjoyed works by one other writer who works religious motifs into her fiction: Julie Cochrane, whose books Cally’s War, Sister Time, and Honor Of The Clan—all co-authored with SF titan John Ringo—have impressed me greatly for several reasons, notably the delicacy with which she handles those motifs. So perhaps there are more such writers out there, and I have yet to stumble over them.

I look forward to the encounters.

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