In one of my very first books, I had a church scene with an altar call – or invitation if you’re more familiar with that term – and my editor commented and said something like, “I’m a Christian, and I’ve never heard of this. Remove it so you don’t lose your readers.”
I thought that was the strangest thing in the world. How could a Christian not know what an altar call/invitation was!? Oh, how little I knew…
There are a lot of things that we write into our Christian romances that not all Christians recognize. Or even events that they sort of recognize, but we’ve written them entirely differently than they’re used to.
Any author will tell you that we try to avoid putting things into our stories that will pull readers out of our stories. For example, if I’m reading a book that has a lot of references to fashion – something I’m admittedly clueless about – I will stop to look up those words, get a definition, look at pictures of the item, et cetera. The goal, obviously, is to understand the item and quickly return to the book. But let’s face it – that doesn’t always happen. So, as authors, we generally try to avoid putting elements into our book that will send our readers off on a random online rabbit trail of curiosity. If we use a word or phrase we think people won’t recognize, we try to subtly and organically explain it within the passage so that our readers don’t feel the need to jump ship in search of more information.
Christianity is full of different little idiosyncrasies, though, and it’s hard to avoid them all. Here’s an example we can easily get tangled up in. Some people call it the Lord’s Supper; some call it Communion. Sometimes it happens on the first Sunday of each month, sometimes it’s weekly, sometimes it’s quarterly or just completely unscheduled and infrequent. Sometimes the elements are passed one at a time and everybody waits for someone up front to say something and indicate that they should eat the wafer or drink the juice. In some churches, though, people eat and drink the elements as they’re passed rather than waiting and all doing it together. Sometimes the elements are a loaf of bread and a goblet of wine, and everybody gets in a line to walk past, tearing off a piece of bread and dunking it into the wine before eating it. (I admit – Just the thought of soggy bread makes me gaggy. The one time I was in a church that did it this way, I chose not to participate. The last thing I wanted was to have to rush out of service to vomit because I couldn’t handle the texture or taste of the juiced bread. I kind of thought I’d be permanently labeled a heathen if partaking in the elements made me throw up. Shudder.)
Anyway…the point is that many God-fearing churches conduct this single event in many, many different ways. So if I’m writing a scene that includes the Lord’s Supper (or Communion), and I get too specific, most of my readers will find some fault with the passage because my characters aren’t doing things the way they’re used to it being done. And if a reader is noticing everything that’s wrong with a passage, then they’ve definitely been pulled out of the story.
Here are some smaller examples (that are slightly less convoluted):
- It always startles me when characters recite a known prayer. My faith tradition doesn’t have specific prayers that we memorize, so that always gives me pause when I see it in a book. I’m not saying it’s wrong – it’s just different than my personal experience.
- I think candles are beautiful. There’s something peaceful about them. I’ve never been to a church, though, where a specific candle table was set up so that people could come in and light a candle, and I struggle to picture that. Is it in the foyer? At the front of the sanctuary? If so, do people just walk up and light candles while someone is preaching?
- Thinking outside of church – different faith traditions think differently about alcohol. While I don’t think any condone drunkenness, some are okay with alcohol when not used to excess, and others are completely against alcohol.
- The same is true for dancing and playing cards. Some Christian denominations are completely against either while others are fine with them both.
I’d love to hear your input on this. What are some faith elements you’ve seen in fiction before that seemed alien to you? Or at least alien enough to make you stop reading so you could try to figure out what was going on?
This is just my two cents – but we have a lot of diversity within the Christian faith. We don’t all attend cookie cutter churches or have a cookie cutter faith. Not only that, but we’re all at different places along our faith walk. Some of us have been walking with Christ for forty years and have been in church every single week for all of those years, and others of us have walked with Christ for a much shorter time and perhaps have no church experience. While there are some bedrock truths that are central to the Christian faith, there is also a lot of room for us to experience our faith differently. Those differences can present challenges and sometimes confusion, but they also make the body of Christ richer, more layered and complex, and even more beautiful than we imagined.