Someone recently asked me about how much is too much Jesus in their Christian fiction book.
It’s a legitimate question, and it’s one I’ve heard before, too. I have a couple of super simple answers, too, but it sort of depends on who I’m talking to. Not everyone gets my sense of humor.
Answer A: You should always write the story God has given you to write.
Answer B: How much is too much Jesus in your life?
As you can imagine, I haul out Answer A way more than Answer B. ^_^
While I absolutely believe that we should always write the stories that God gives us, I also know that readers have different likes and dislikes about how much faith shows up in books. Not everybody wants page-long prayers. Just like not everyone wants a book that calls itself Christian fiction but in no way reflects Christ.
We each have our own ideas about how much is enough and when it crosses over into too much. We also have varying opinions about what kind of faith elements are good and which ones are kind of a fictional turn-off.
When I first started writing Christian fiction, for example, I thought that every book needed a salvation scene. It felt like a Christian duty to include that. Eventually, though, I realized that most of my readers are already saved. It didn’t really do any good for me to tell believers how to find Jesus. Instead, as I developed the spiritual themes for each of my books, I started focusing on areas that believers struggle with and trying to show new and different ways that we can live out our faith in the midst of the sorts of struggles we all face. I’ll still include a salvation scene if the story calls for it, but I won’t ever again put a salvation story in a book because I think I have to in order to call it Christian fiction.
So here’s my question for you. Or questions, really. Because I have a whole list of them. ^_^
How much is too much Jesus in a book?
What sorts of religious themes do you like to see in books?
And which religious themes are a total turn-off to you?
Does it bother you if an author takes a strong position on a debatable topic (like dancing with the opposite sex or having a glass of wine with dinner – things that Scripture doesn’t necessarily say are wrong but that some believers have strong feelings about)?
How much is too little Jesus in a book? At what point do you decide the book can’t even call itself Christian anymore?
Do you have any thoughts, opinions, or feedback on the topic that isn’t covered by one of these questions? If so, tell me! I’d love to hear what you – the readers that we all serve – think about this topic.
Blessings to you in the coming week!
Interesting at the australasian christian writers blog tomorrow we are asking if books have too little or too much christian content.
For me I don’t really have an issue except when you get several pages of a sermon. I admit I have skipped the sermons (and this is not just once but every time they are in church). I know mind a quick summary of the sermon but not pages of it.
I think with things like dancing and drinking are dependent on the denomination. I know I personally don’t drink but other churches its fine. Same with things like a lottery or even a raffle ticket I would rather not see that in a christian book but others have no problem. I don’t have an issue with dancing. My brother use to go dancing at an family friendly dance hall which was mainly older dances but one girlfriend he had wasn’t aloud to as they don’t believe in dancing.
I like redemption stories like when one of the couple has fallen away from God but comes back. It may be because they blame God for something or they just drifted away but thanks to the hero/heroine they see the need to reconnect with God. I don’t want one day they don’t believe and the next they do, I want a journey. I also like when there is a crisis and someone is questioning their faith or needing others to help them know God is still in control.
I don’t like constant preaching and constantly explaining why the character is preaching or witnessing (ie they are working with working girls but its explained constantly they are witnessing if that makes sense). I also don’t like it when hero or heroine are non-christians and they go to church and are suddenly converted or all the issues are sorted without really being sorted. I want to see some of the processing. Yes I know people are converted the first time they go to church. Mum went once and had to keep going back. But she didn’t become a christian overnight she had issues to sort through first.
Heather Gray says
Everything you said makes really good sense. Sometimes I go back and read some of my early books – and I find myself skipping over sermon scenes, too. Which is sort of when I realized that I needed to cut back and be more natural about my characters’ faith and less preachy about it. I think it’s important for characters to have real conversations (and to be “real” people, for that matter), but only some of those conversations are about faith. When I think about my life, I talk to people about all kinds of things, and while my perspective on all those other things is shaped by my faith in Jesus, I don’t talk about him in every conversation. If someone wants to know who I’m voting for in an upcoming election, I say who and give my reasons – I don’t say who, give my reasons, and then explain how my reasons are derived from or linked to my faith. That wouldn’t be natural. It would be…well…kind of weird. And if it would be weird in real life, then it probably doesn’t belong in my fiction, either. ^_^
I use to read a lot of Lori Wick books and some are so preachy and have pages of sermons.
Have the conversations is good. You may have a lapsed christian reading your book who is searching and a conversation may just be what touches them. Or someone experiences a situation your characters are and not sure what to do and that situation may be what helps them. While it wasn’t exactly a Jesus conversation a situation where a character was a carer and struggling helped me by having an outside person seeing what was happening and helping the heroine understand what was happening. It was a light bulb moment for me. I am sure other conversations etc help readers in the same situation.
I think people and their ideas vary and so variety in stories meets the needs of different people. One thing that irks me is when people credit everything to God/Jesus and show no grace, if someone wants to thank them, then have the grace to acknowledge that. Looking forward to the interesting comments/discussion tomorrow from this thought provoking post :)
Heather Gray says
Interesting Dianne! When I was in college, I had a roommate who would occasionally compliment me about something. I never really noticed it. Then, one day, she complimented me on a shirt I’d gotten or something, and I told her I’d found it on clearance for like 75c or something. She put her hands on her hips, gave me a frown, and said, “You should practice saying thank you when someone says something nice.” I had apparently developed the habit of either putting myself down or putting down the thing being complimented. I simply wasn’t comfortable with compliments, and I didn’t know how to gracefully accept them. I started working on it after that, and to this day – 20+ years later – I still sometimes have to remind myself to “just say thank you” when someone compliments me about something. Which is a completely different topic than the one you were talking about – but it’s sort of tangentially related. Maybe. If you stretch your imagination a wee bit. ^_^
It is and to this day I still find being graceful a challenge too :D
Sonnetta Jones says
I think for the people that thinks there is too much Jesus should ask themselves these questions. Why are you reading Christian Fiction? Is it to make yourself feel good doing something that you think pleases God? Or it is convicting because it reminds you of what Jesus has called you to be?
For the people that think there is too little Jesus. Are you looking at Christian Fiction as a way to feed your relationship with God? Is this your only source of Jesus?
Both of these issues call into question the holes that is in your relationship with Jesus.
There are some very clear cut things in the Bible that I do not debate on. The issues of drinking alcohol, dancing with the opposite sex, kissing etc I leave it to personal preferences. You know the things that will lead you to sin and you are responsible for your choices. I think of the scripture in 1 Corinthians 10:23
All things are lawful [that is, morally legitimate, permissible], but not all things are beneficial or advantageous. All things are lawful, but not all things are constructive [to character] and edifying [to spiritual life].
Heather Gray says
Well said, Sonnetta!
I think that we often hide from the things we don’t want to face about ourselves – such as where there may be holes in our relationship with Christ. We don’t all like to face those things head-on, and that sometimes leads to some interesting patterns in our lives and how we perceive the world around us.
I was reading Romans 14 recently where it talks about the weak in faith/conscience and the strong in faith/conscience and how – I’m paraphrasing here – the strong may have the freedom to do or not do certain things, if in doing those things, they cause the weak to doubt Jesus or to stumble, then they should not do them. A book I was reading pointed out that Christian liberty is not the freedom to do whatever we know God doesn’t directly forbid. Rather, it is the freedom to discipline ourselves so that we do or not do things based on whichever will be best for the advancement of the gospel in a given situation. We don’t often think of liberty and discipline together, but I think it works. That definition resonated with me.
As for in fiction – I think we read for different reasons. Sometimes I read because I want a break, but I still want to be challenged. Sometimes, though, I read purely for escape – a little mini staycation in my own living room. What I look for in a book depends a lot on why I’m reading to begin with.
I think for me, often it’s not so much the quantity as how it’s done. If it’s too heavy-handed, I can find that hard to enjoy; if it feels like it’s just plugged into an otherwise secular book in a couple of spots so that the book can be called ‘Christian’, I’m not impressed. I guess some of it is also how the (Christian) characters live, whether it feels like it fits in?
Heather Gray says
Excellent point, Cathy!! I’ll often have my characters pray before a meal, but I do that because it’s a good way for the listener to learn something about the pray-er. I keep those sorts of prayers generally brief, and sometimes they lead to a conversation about faith – especially if it’s early in the book. But sometimes they don’t. And if my characters share a lot of meals, I might include the prayer on one or two, but the rest of the time, I just mention that they prayed or assume that the reader knows they’ve prayed – I don’t write out an entire prayer every time because, to me, that would feel heavy-handed. So you’re right – it’s not so much about quantity as it is quality. It has to be something that works for the characters – and what works for characters varies wildly because different characters are at different places in their lives and in their walks with Christ. Some characters are even antagonistic to God as part of their spiritual arc. They usually come around and don’t stay antagonistic, but they definitely don’t come around by every person they meet beating them over the head with the Gospel. ^_^
Toni Shiloh says
This is such a great discussion. I love redemption stories and to see a “bad” character find grace.
If I read a book that has no mention of God, then I don’t consider it Christian fiction. I’ve also never read a book I thought was too much. I may have read ones that didn’t feel natural, but that’s about it.
Heather Gray says
It is really important for the faith element to feel natural. I think, to some extent, if the writer feels like they have to force it into the story, then it comes across as unnatural. I think the more natural our faith is to us, the more natural it ends up in our writing. But we’re all also at different places in our walks with God – so some of might include more or deeper faith elements and others might include less – and that’s really okay. Our job as writers is (IMO) to encourage each other both in our walks with Christ and in our writing. ^_^
For me, a book isn’t CF if the only faith element is praying at meals. You’ve got to have that walk with Christ, or at the very least, that they’re struggling with knowing Him. I like to see a strong faith thread in books, it doesn’t have to be a lot of words about it, but that you get the sense of it. I really love books that show faith even when struggling with accepting. I like redemption stories, but also grace and mercy being shown. I do like the salvation ones, too! Oh, face it, I like anything and everything as long as the faith is there in some fashion! I don’t mind dancing in books, and I’ll admit I struggle with the drinking sometimes. It doesn’t bother me as bad as it used to, as long as the Christian character(s) don’t get drunk or act stupid from drinking, unless that is used to get them to see where they are using it instead of facing reality and getting right with God. I’ve read books where it seemed you were getting thumped on the head with the biggest Bible they could find, but it didn’t keep me from reading. I don’t look books that portray some people as being unrealistic. I do get turned off by those.
Heather Gray says
I think I can speak for just about every Christian author out there, when I say that we LOVE readers who enjoy variety in their Christian fiction. ^_^ Because you like so many different types of stories, you won’t be afraid to give new authors a chance, and if it wasn’t for readers like you, very few of us would have gotten our start in this industry.
You did make me laugh, though, because I JUST used praying at meals as an example of a place where I incorporate faith into stories – but my point was that I only do it when it’s natural and only if it serves a purpose within the story – like letting one character get to know something about the other character. But in my defense, that’s not the *only* place I include the faith of the characters. When faith is a part of who our characters are, it should bleed through in all kinds of unique and different ways – just like it does for us in our lives. ^_^
Actually, I’ve read a “Christian” book that the only time anything was even hinted at about faith was that they prayed before a meal! Nothing else anywhere in the book, and the main male character was to be a vicar. However, it was “he’s the 2nd son of an Earl, so the only thing left for him to do was to be a vicar or an attorney” and that meant he was “Christian.” It was sweet clean, but no way “Christian” when there’s no faith element at all. I like when they pray before meals, if that’s not the only time faith is in the book.
Nicole Santana says
I’m not a fan of reading a novel that’s called “Christian” but really is just a clean read. Jesus has to show up in the story somewhere authentically for it to be called “Christian.” I love clean reads. Don’t get me wrong. But it can’t be called “Christian” if there’s no Christ.
With that said, I need my “Christian” novels to be authentic. I can’t stand sermony books that are judgy. Luckily, we’ve really gone away from that style in Christian Fiction. I love when books are realistic. When the characters illustrate real humans. I’ve never been perfect in my walk with Christ, so when a hero or heroine is, I roll my eyes and stop reading. I appreciate vices being discussed in “Christian” books because we all have them. For me, I like to see how a character deals. I like to see those authentic moments of prayer from a character who’s dealing with real-life stuff. I like to see how the characters bring Jesus into their lives. I like to see their relationship with Jesus. I like all of this because, even though it’s fictional, I learn from the characters or I feel like I’m not all alone.
Heather Gray says
Yes! Three cheers for not-judgy!! Our Christian fiction should show grace, love, and patience. Fiction is not the place (nor is anywhere else, in my opinion) for finger-shaking and lecture-giving. People grow in their faith when they are encouraged, not when they’re torn down. Nobody wants to read a book that tears people down. Unless, of course, it’s by a terrible person who gets his or her comeuppance by the end of the book. ^_^
Lila Diller says
This is a great topic!
For me, there is never too much Jesus. I read Christian Fiction to enhance my walk with God. That means I want my faith to grow, to be equipped, and to be inspired to continue walking as a follower of Christ.
I don’t need a salvation scene in every book. In fact, the ones I like best are the ones of current Christians who grow in their faith, grow closer to Christ.
I don’t really care about dancing. But I personally don’t like the mention of Christians drinking, but that is just my personal preference, and it usually doesn’t affect my review unless it’s excessive.
I also personally don’t appreciate sexual themes. I am bombarded enough with that stuff in my life as it is. I don’t want to read a Christian book where I need to try not to imagine scenes like that — even if the act is not graphically portrayed or not in the scene at all. My imagination is too vivid. I know many believers struggle with these sins, but I just can’t read about it myself.
How much is too little Jesus in a book? At what point do you decide the book can’t even call itself Christian anymore? This is harder. I usually mention in the review as a negative aspect if there is not enough of a faith thread. For me, just mentioning that a person went to church or called themselves a Christian isn’t enough. I want to hear a prayer, see them reach the Bible, see how their faith affects their actions. If they don’t, it’s not enough for me. There’s no such thing as too much faith.
Oh, I agree, Lila! You’ve stated it well!! I don’t want the language from secular in my CF, either, and I agree about the sexual themes, too!!
Heather Gray says
Thank you for sharing, Lila! You make some excellent points. I, too, enjoy books more when they have current Christians who are growing in their faith – but maybe that’s because I can better relate to those characters.
Sexual themes are a hard one when it comes to Christian fiction. As Christian authors, I think we have a responsibility to portray authentic characters, and that means that our characters will sometimes make bad choices or struggle with certain things or come from pasts that had a lot of ugliness in them. It’s also our responsibility, though – or I should say, I think it’s also our responsibility – to care for and protect our readers. I wouldn’t want someone putting thoughts/images in my mind without my permission, and so I try not to do that in books that I write. One of the books I’ve been working on has a main character who has a very sexual past, and as he’s coming back into a relationship with Christ, he struggles with those memories and the random flashbacks that pop into his own head – and it’s been really hard to write those parts. They’re a real part of his character, and they’re integral to who he is in this story, but at the same time, I don’t want to overdo it – I don’t want to put images in my readers’ minds that they don’t want to have there. I haven’t written a character with this particular issue before, and it’s been more difficult than I expected it to when I first conceived of this character and his trials.
You’ve reminded me of some key things, though. When a reader picks up a Christian book, they have certain expectations. Maybe they don’t have specific expectations about what they should get out of that book, but they definitely have expectations of what they do not want to get out of that book. And as Christian authors, we need to keep that in mind with the stories that we craft.
Valerie Comer says
I once heard the joke: What do (insert conservative denomination of choice here) have against pre-marital sex? They fear it may lead to dancing.
I was raised anti-alcohol, anti-dancing, anti-a-whole-bunch-of-things. I’m still not PRO most of those things, but I can also see that they don’t have to be a big deal. And so those things have found their way into some of my stories.
My characters come from all kinds of backgrounds, and so they have varying ideas, too. Also, different walks toward faith or a deeper faith. To me, that is a hallmark of a Christian romance — there needs to be a journey or arc in the main characters’ belief systems as well as in their love life! So a mere mention of saying grace or having been to church is nice, but it doesn’t a Christian story make.
Heather Gray says
Amen! The world is full of variety – and the Christian life is full of variety. As believers, we’re all in the same family, and we’re going to spend eternity together – so we might as well learn to love each other (and our differences) sooner rather than later. There’s no reason to get hung up on the little stuff when the big stuff (Christ) is what really matters.
And you’re so right – a developmental arc is important – both in the characters’ relationship and in their faith. Regardless of where Point A is, as long as Point B is somewhere closer to God or deeper in faith, then the journey is one worth writing (and reading!) about. ^_^
Sally Bayless says
What a great discussion! I appreciate seeing the careful consideration the commenters have given this issue.
One thing I do wonder about–how would an author categorize a book that was not really aimed at the Christian market, but at the market that needed to meet Jesus, perhaps for the first time? I haven’t written this book, but I would like to someday. I write my current series with the hope of encouraging Christian readers in their faith. But I would also like to write a book that might lead someone who wasn’t a Christian to want to know more about Jesus. I think this type of witness in prose would need to be very skillfully done, not bashing the reader over the head with guilt or condemnation or the language Christians use that others don’t understand.
But how could you market it? You can’t publish a book without being forced to fit it into a slot. But which slot? It wouldn’t be secular fiction–most of those readers might feel like it wasn’t what it claimed to be. On the other hand, if you marketed it as Christian fiction, some of those readers might think it didn’t have enough of what they expected. It isn’t about the reviews, but if a book gets bad reviews from both camps, the reader who really needs it might never pick it up.
I pray that one day, when I feel ready to write this book, God will also tell me how to market it.
Maybe it would be a sweet fiction (is that the word). Clean without language and sex scenes.
I know some call it Worldview with a faith element. This is a category that is needed.
Heather Gray says
Sally, that’s a great question. I wish I had an answer for you. If you want to reach the nonbeliever, you kind of need something you can market as general fiction. At the same time, though, if you want to have any amount of Christian element in the book, it might get really bad reviews from secular readers, which would result in less sales and less reach for your story. The faith element would need to be subtly and skillfully handled, as you said. Definitely a topic for prayer!
Alicia Haney says
I don’t think Thanking God is ever too much in books. I Love Christian books because they are clean and anyone can read them. Putting God in books is Always good because actually if you are a strong believer in God, you don’t even have to mention Him very much at all, because we know why things go right and it is all Thanks to God.
Heather Gray says
Well said, Alicia! When God is a natural part of our characters’ lives, the faith element is there naturally – even when it’s not specifically spoken about, it shapes the actions and words of the characters.
Merrillee Whren says
This is a great discussion. I prefer to read books about Christians who may struggle with their faith or Christians who need to learn to trust God with their decisions. So that’s what I write. I don’t think I’ve ever written a salvation scene in any of my books. I’ve written several books in which a characters who has lost faith because of a bad experience realize they do need God. I love to take a character who has made mistakes and finally realizes that God forgives.
I like a good strong faith thread in my stories, I want it to feel like a natural part of the characters life without it feeling forced or fake. I don’t mind a book where a person isn’t saved, but gives their life to the Lord at the end. I like characters who struggle because we’re human and don’t always respond the way we should at all times. But also characters who, when they mess up, have genuine remorse, ask forgiveness from God & the person they hurt, and turn away from doing that again. I like redeemable characters, those who grow in the faith (whether they are new or old Christians), characters who aren’t ashamed to talk about Jesus or their faith, and who are excited to go to church and learn what the Lord will teach them through the Pastor or Bible study teacher or Worship leader. I also like characters who have done some rotten things before becoming a believer and don’t mind admitting it but giving the Lord credit for turning their lives around. Maybe even using that situation to minister to someone who is struggling in that same area.
I have been disappointed in big name Christian publishers lately who’s books have very little faith in them. I understand that you want to draw a more general public to read a book they normally wouldn’t pick up & share the gospel in a way they’ve never heard. But I am a Christian who needs to not only be entertained, but more importantly my faith to be feed. If I went to church just to feel good & hear words that make me smile but there was no underlying gospel truth, I would starve spiritually. I also understand an author doesn’t want to offend or push away a non-believer, but I still feel there needs to be a clear understanding of what it means to be a Christian and who Jesus is in the story. You can certainly write in a way that presents the gospel without watering it down to where it loses it’s true meaning.
I have always felt like writing is a ministry that God has called authors to. Why not use your words to draw people to him? God has placed a story in your heart…and just like each of us….you have a job to write it.
I love romance in my stories & I do understand the struggle to not cross a line when it comes to physical attraction. I want to read about characters who want to honor their relationship with God & with the other person and to do everything they can to keep themselves pure in heart and actions. Sometimes characters mess up in this area, but what I love, is when an author shows how they change and the grace & forgiveness God extends when they are genuinely sorrowful. I certainly don’t want to read details about HOW they messed up, only how they handle themselves afterward :-)
I know I’ve said a whole lot here & there are many more things that I could list. There are stories I won’t read due to things characters do or say (especially blatant rebellion when they know better) of course, but sometimes it really comes down to how the author handles certain things. It also all comes down to wanting a good faith theme in a story for me, I want my spirit to be fed along with an entertaining read.
P.S. I absolutely love this question: “How Much is Too Much Jesus in Your Life?” because I can’t get ENOUGH Jesus in my life :-) I just really love how you put this Heather, its something to ponder! :-)
I think the best stories are authentic ones, dealing with real life issues. I’ve heard some people say certain Christian Fiction authors kiss scenes are too steamy, but people deal with that temptation in real life so why shouldn’t we read about those feelings and learn from how the characters react, whether they exercise self-control or go too far and have to find redemption. As long as the book ultimately points us to God, not in a preachy way but in an authentic been there way, I think it’ll always be a good rea.
What I find interesting is we have a library at the Church most books are read by non christians and they read them because they know they won’t be sex scenes and bad language and they love them. They don’t complain about them being to preachy etc as they know they are Inspirational fiction. On the other had I had a Christian lady complaining that some of the books were to preachy. I stumped me because they are Christian Fiction the same books these non christian ladies had no issue with. I was a little worried to start then it struck me maybe it wasn’t so much as to heavy handed or preachy but maybe what the book was saying was hitting to close to the bone and convicting her.
I also know the Library had a lot of books I donated and the readers couldn’t get enough of them because they were clean reads. True these people don’t review books but its highly possible the books will change them
Thoughtful questions. Sometimes for me, simply being a Clean read is refreshing and nice. I also have a few favorite Christian authors whose characters struggle (as you mentioned) with “everyday issues” and the options and thought processes they consider reflect a Believers perspective. I read fiction mainly to de-stress and unwind after a day at work so I’m not looking for anything too heavy or dogmatic, especially on debatable theological issues.
There are Inspirational books and Christian books, and some overlap. Depending on what I’m reading, I know what to expect.
Margaret Bunce says
I really hate it when a supposed Christian/inspirational book only has God mentioned in the context of the characters attending church or having a Bible on the shelf etc!! To me that’s a clean read, not inspirational!!
I agree that sermons in books need to be short, even a summary of punchy points, and relate to the story itself.
Love the use of modern translations of Scripture. One book I read really impacted me with Zeph 3:17 because of the translation used and its relevance to the main character.
God bless all you dear author friends who minister in this field of Christian fiction. May Holy Spirit continue to inspire you and we will only know the fruits of your service when we all stand before Him. I think you will be amazed at the souls won by the impact of your writings.
Mmm hmm, that’s a head scratcher. Perspective and context make for a wide spectrum of expectations and prohibitions. Tim Downs, who is a regular speaker at Family Life’s Weekend to Remember marriage retreats, has written a book on engaging contemporary culture (Finding Common Ground). He has also put his money where his mouth is by writing a series of thrillers aimed at the secular market. They are rather dark but as I recall, he keeps the language clean. He also makes a point of having a person of faith show up in a supporting role and be presented in a positive light. Other characters may not be believers but they value things like justice and marital commitment. Obviously, these are not romances (though there are romantic themes present). He succeeds in telling engaging stories and providing positive images of faith to those who might not otherwise see them.
In my own reading, I don’t enjoy preaching for its own sake in stories that are meant to be stories about relationships between people. If it furthers the story, by all means. If I feel the need for Bible study, though, I have scripture and all manner of study materials available to me. It’s funny because there are other kinds of story elements that I do not enjoy because they ramp up the conflict too much. Maybe I’m a picky eater where romance or romantic suspense is concerned.
A final thought: One of the most engaging stories in the Bible actually makes to mention of God at all. It’s the book of Esther. Could we write such engaging stories where the presence of God is so clearly felt yet have no overt reference to Him? It is a worthy goal to consider.
Concerning the book of Esther, that should be “makes no mention of God at all.”