Preachiness and Christian Novels

Woman Yelling on Megaphone Inside a Book

When certain Christian Fiction novels receive criticism for being preachy, some ChristFic fans respond with comments like, “Well, we’re Christians, and this is Christian Fiction. Christians are called to preach the Gospel, so it isn’t bad for Christian novels to be preachy. Isn’t that what it’s all about anyway?”

Well…no. Being preachy isn’t what Christian Fiction is all about, and I don’t think all readers know what preachiness actually is.

First of all, the act of preaching itself doesn’t only have to do with the Gospel, with Christianity, or with any other religion or religious matter, for that matter. Different people with all kinds of different convictions preach about all kinds of different stuff. Hence, a novel doesn’t have to be Christian or any other kind of religious fiction to be preachy.

Figure at a Pulpit Before an Audience

Secondly, there’s a time and a place for preaching. A lot of it happens in settings or at events where sermons or other speeches are major methods of communication, a means of sharing information with an audience. For instance, the Bible shows Christ Himself doing His own preaching.

Still, Christ as a speaker had a thing for being aware of the time and place when He would speak. He was aware of His audience and didn’t speak to every audience in the same way. Yes, sometimes He conveyed truth through preaching, and other times He conveyed truth through…telling stories.

It wasn’t always the time and place for Christ to give folks a sermon. His preaching wasn’t the same as His storytelling.

Sermon Speech Bubble Beside Story Speech Bubble

“Preachiness” happens when a speaker starts preaching at the wrong time and place. Fiction isn’t the place for a speaker (an author) to preach or sermonize to an audience. Fiction is the place for a speaker (an author) to tell a story.

A preachy novel is one where an author gets in the story’s way, departing from natural storytelling to push an agenda. And again, that agenda can be about anything. It doesn’t have to be a religious agenda or take place in a religious novel.

A fiction author may believe that it’s great for people to wear sweaters.

A Teal Printed Sweater Beside a Pink Printed Sweater

There’s nothing wrong with a story mentioning or describing sweaters, showing characters wearing them, or even having a sweater play into the plot, like if a character cherishes a sweater someone knitted just for them. But if the author detracts from the flow of the narrative to insert conspicuous plugs expounding on the unmatched benefits and superiority of sweaters, and the characters start having conversations that don’t sound natural, rattling off pointers to each other about the virtues of sweater-wearing and the dire consequences of sweater-rejection, then readers will feel like the author’s being preachy, trying to force a sweaterly agenda through a story.

Yes, I’m exaggerating somewhat, but it’s to clarify what I mean without making examples out of specific novels, which I’m not going to do in this blog post.

Even so, the audience shouldn’t feel like they’re the focus when they read a novel. It shouldn’t seem as though the author is holding a megaphone and pointing it in the audience’s direction, talking through the characters’ dialogue and/or speaking over the narrative to make a point. Well-written, thought-provoking, and even motivating fiction is the kind that moves readers to think on account of good storytelling, not the kind where an author gets in the way of the story and/or the characters in an attempt to tell readers what to think.

A novel shouldn’t feel like a prop an author is using to drive home a message.

A Megaphone on a Book, Shouting About a Sweater

Sermonizing or obviously moralizing to the reader isn’t what makes for a strong novel. Fiction doesn’t need to be preachy to be powerful, and there’s an art to meaningful storytelling.

Granted, just as there are some ChristFic fans who misunderstand what preachiness is, there are also some readers who misuse or misapply the term “preachiness” to criticize Christian Fiction.

Yeah, some critics will cry “PREACHY, PREACHY!” at the mention of anything religious in a novel. But an idea or other element being of a religious nature doesn’t automatically equate it with preaching or proselytizing, and including a matter of faith in a story doesn’t mean an author is trying to tell readers what to think or believe. If a character in a novel simply saying “Okay, God—a little help here, please?” makes a reader pop off with, “Aw, give me a break! The author dumped this load of sanctimonious garbage into the scene to thump stupid religion into people’s heads!”—then that reaction likely says more about the reader than the particular book they’re reading.

Angry Reader Yelling for a Book to Quit Preaching

Yep, I’m exaggerating again, but you get what I mean.

Now, personal confession from a longtime ChristFic fan, here. 🙂 In my earlier days with the genre, during the ’90s and right afterward, I didn’t care as much when the storylines and characters didn’t always feel real and well-developed in the ChristFic novels I read. It wasn’t that big a deal to me if the faith and salvational messages and scriptures felt like contrived lessons rather than organic aspects of the stories. What mattered to me was that the content in ChristFic novels was usually safe for my lifestyle, and when the stories entertained me and encouraged my heart despite their stylistic issues, it was easier for me to give preachiness a pass.

But that isn’t me anymore.

While I still return to some novels for nostalgia and comfort rather than for the writing styles, nowadays I’m generally looking for authors who have quite a handle on the fine art of novel writing. I can get Bible lessons from…well, from Bible lessons, but when I read Christian Fiction, I want good fiction rather than something that feels too much like hearing a sermon or reading a devotional. And I’m not at all the only ChristFic reader who feels that way.

A Blue Heart Inside of an Open Book

These days, when I rave about excellent ChristFic novels that make me laugh, make me cry, and make me think, they’ve done so without preaching at me. That’s only appropriate when it comes to the art of fiction and to authors who know the time, the place, and their audience.

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Is That Christian Novel REAL Christian Fiction?

Open Book with a Cross and Question Mark Inside

A few years ago, I touched on the fact that some readers don’t consider a book to be real Christian Fiction or “Christian enough” for the genre unless it has explicitly Christian content in it: characters talking about God or coming to Jesus, praying, reading their Bibles, quoting scriptures, hearing sermons in church, learning Christian faith lessons, etc.

Some readers even figure that when a ChristFic book doesn’t contain explicitly Christian content, it means the author is “dimming their light” or “selling out” to the secular world just to make more money.

“The author or publisher says this book is Christian Fiction, but there isn’t really anything Christian about it. Hardly any mentions of God in it. No scriptures or anything.”

An Open Bible

That “nothing Christian about it” sentiment is an understandable one, since Christian Fiction has only been a genre on the market for less than a lifetime. (Yes, Christians have been writing for much longer than that. But Christian Fiction only became its own category in the book industry about forty years ago.) Hence, a lot of ChristFic readers know what the genre was like during its beginning stages in the ’80s and ’90s, when most ChristFic books indeed had elements like discussions about Jesus, evangelistic/salvational messages, lessons on Christian faith and Christian living, and whatnot.

Well. Although I think my past use of the term “explicitly Christian” got my point across at the time, my use of the term was a limited one. And besides the fact that Christ Himself didn’t literally mention God or use what we could call “explicitly Christian” content in the stories He told to convey truth, I believe the checklist of conditions some readers use to judge whether a book is real Christian Fiction or “Christian enough” is a faulty list.

For instance, it’d be faulty to judge whether a person is a real Christian or “Christian enough” to be called one by using a list like:

 If this person attends “enough” church services
• If this person prays “enough”
• If this person reads the Bible “enough”
• If this person quotes “enough” scriptures
• If this person mentions Jesus Christ’s name “enough” times in everyday life

then we’ll know this person is a real Christian!

Hopefully, that list sounds as silly as it is.

I mean, given that there are hundreds of different Christian denominations in the United States and literally tens of thousands of Christian denominations around the world, along with so many different Christian doctrines and schools of thought, it would also be faulty to think that every Christian has the same beliefs about what makes a person a Christian. Still, I think it’s safe to say that many consider believing/accepting Christ as one’s Savior and being one who follows the teachings of Christ is what makes a person a Christian.

And the teachings of Christ Himself do not say that how many prayers we pray, how often we go to church, how many scriptures we quote, and how much we mention God is what will let people know we’re Christians. (Not that Jesus did or would have used the term “Christian,” as He was a Jewish man living before Christianity existed, but anyway.) According to the Gospel of John, Christ said that people will know we’re His followers if we have love for one another.

And doesn’t the Bible say that God is love?

Checklist with a Light Blue Heart Covering It

So. If Christ Himself didn’t use a checklist of conditions like quoting enough scriptures, mentioning God enough, praying enough, and going to church enough in order to prove the realness of one’s Christianity, should those conditions be what determines whether a book is real Christian Fiction or not?

Of course, Christ says in the book of Matthew that “you will know them by their fruits” and that “every good tree bears good fruit.” The good fruit we see illustrated in fiction can help us to recognize if its Christian Fiction, and a key, biblical description of good fruit is found in the book of Galatians, where it details the fruit of the Spirit. However, the description doesn’t say that the fruit of the Spirit is people quoting scriptures, going to church, and mentioning God. Rather, it says that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Is it possible that sometimes when people judge that the light is dim, it’s because they’ve failed to see the brightness that’s actually there, or they see the light but misvalue it? Is it possible that while some ChristFic fans may be busy looking for scripture quotations and such in the stories they read, they may be discounting reflections of the fruit of God’s own Spirit—love, joy, and peace—shining right through those stories?

Light Blue Heart with a Dove

It’s pretty common knowledge in Christianity that the biblical book of Esther doesn’t mention God at all. Yet, Christians often say that we can still see evidence of Him in that book. And the reason Christians see evidence of God in that book should not merely be because the book is included in the canonized Christian Bible.

When you’ve truly gotten to know someone, you often recognize evidence of that person even without a mention of their name. You may be able to tell which person in your household did the laundry this week, not because the person left a blatant sign by the laundry saying, “So-and-So was here” but because you recognize that person’s style of laundry folding. Or you can walk into a room, inhale the air or smell a pillow, and you know that that person was in the room recently. Or you may see a particular gift someone left for you on your doorstep or on your desk at work, and just by the sight of that gift, you immediately know who’s given it to you.

Because you know that person.

Even though the book of Esther has no mentions of God, the evidence of Him there should be recognizable to people who know God. And a person doesn’t have to be a Christian for their mind and heart to be touched by such a story. Or for such a story to make them curious to discover more.

An Open Bible with a Light Blue Heart and a Crown

In any case, if someone doesn’t recognize or discern the evidence of God in Queen Esther’s story, it doesn’t mean the evidence isn’t there for others to see. And I’ve yet to hear a Christian say that because the book of Esther doesn’t mention God, it therefore isn’t spiritual or “Christian enough” to be a part of the Christian Bible or to be a common part of the Christian faith tradition, as it is. I also haven’t heard a Christian say that because Esther doesn’t mention God in her story, it means that she or the writer of the story must have been dimming their light.

Now, I understand some ChristFic readers’ longing for all Christian Fiction books to still be as many of them were in the genre’s earlier days. However, the genre isn’t in the same demand that it was back then. Bookstores prioritize their limited shelf space according to how well particular books have been selling (or not selling), and the Christian Fiction sections in a lot of secular bookstores have accordingly gotten smaller in recent years. Moreover, although many Christian bookstores may have been holding their own or thriving back in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s, hundreds of them have had to close their doors since then. (In my case, after some years of shopping at a few different Christian bookstores, I stopped because the rather narrow variety of ChristFic books on the shelves wasn’t enough for me anymore, especially given the glaring lack of diversity among those books.)

A Closed Christian Bookstore

ChristFic publishers have realized that it isn’t enough for their books to only sell well in Christian bookstores (many of which are disappearing) or to only sell well among Christians who liked the way the genre was back before it was faced with the declining demand for it. As I’ve mentioned before, the Christian Fiction genre has shifted from meaning only “fiction that is conspicuously Christian” to meaning “fiction that is suitable for Christians” and “fiction from a Christian worldview, suitable for broader audiences.” More ChristFic publishers are now seeking and publishing books that have crossover appeal on the market—books that more than only Christians can appreciate and relate to.

Because, in the genre’s earlier days, although readers may have imagined and authors may have dreamed of Christian novels “reaching the world” with the Gospel, most of the people buying, enjoying, and praising most ChristFic books were Christians already, and only certain kinds of Christian readers at that.

Yeah. Not even all Christian readers were happy or satisfied with the ChristFic genre as it was back then. But it would take another blog post to unpack that issue.

Two Shaking Hands Over an Open Book with a Light Blue Heart

The genre needs to be more than it was in the past if it’s going to reach more people. That means the genre needs more books that will speak to broader audiences. That includes people who may be turned off by bundles of scripture passages and “Christianese” expressions in novels but who can appreciate well-written stories with compelling illustrations of love, joy, peace, etc., even when the authors don’t include blatant signs in the stories that say, “Jesus is here.”

And no, concerning stories of “love, joy, peace, etc.,” I don’t mean they have to be sweet little tales where the characters are perfect and nothing bad ever happens. Rather, I’m talking about the overall points to the stories, even when they depict hard, evil, and tragic parts of life. Like Esther’s story does.

Now, am I saying that no ChristFic book should ever mention God or show a character praying if the book is to have crossover appeal? No, not at all. I’m saying that it’s more than possible to write meaningful and even powerful fiction that bears the essence and evidence of God with or without scripture quotations and the like. ChristFic stories that simply reflect the fruit of the Spirit can also be real Christian Fiction.

Further, for those who may read some ChristFic books and think or say, “Those aren’t really Christian Fiction. They’re just clean stories”—what would be wrong with the Christian Fiction genre serving audiences of readers, Christian and otherwise, who enjoy or prefer books that are free of the kind of “R-rated and above” content that a lot of other books have? Sure, there’s the “Clean and Wholesome” subgenre on the secular market, but that subgenre is limited to romance. The only general genre that offers a widening variety of books from romances to thrillers to sci-fi adventures and more that, in most cases, are free of certain content like spelled-out profanity and explicit sex is the Christian Fiction genre.

An Open Book with a Blue Check Mark in It

What would be wrong with readers, who may or may not be Christian, turning to ChristFic categories when they’re trying to find positive stories to satisfy their mood for nonobscene reading, or when readers want books that don’t conflict with their particular moral tastes? Would it somehow be unchristian for the genre to meet those readers’ needs?

The Christian Fiction genre is a great place for stories of faith, for wholesome and uplifting stories as well as grittier but constructive ones, and for stories that reflect the fruit of the Spirit, bearing evidence of the God Who is love. Indeed, reaching a wider range of readers by providing more than one kind of real Christian Fiction is something to bolster the genre’s relevance and to brighten its prospects rather than dim its light.

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2021’s Top Ten Posts

PP Top Ten

Prismatic Prospects just had its busiest year! Check out 2021’s Top Ten Posts.

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1. When Calls the Heart (Television Show)

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2. The Canadian West Series by Janette Oke

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3. Romance in Christian Fiction: How Much Heat is Too Much?

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4. Redeeming Love is Now a Movie. But…

Romance in the Bible

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5. Contemporary Fiction is a Real Genre

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6. Why Don’t More Readers Post Book Reviews? Well…

Uncomfortable on the Internet

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7. Christmas Book Picks 2021

Run Run A Christmas in the Alps

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8. Favorite Covers 2021

A Lowcountry Bride 1 Eden Hill Simulated Seal of the Sand Dweller

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9. Diversity in Christian Fiction: How Can Readers Help?

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10. Favorite Reads 2021

flame-of-resistance When Twilight Breaks (1) Franklin Endicott and the Third Key Lost and Found

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For Every Love: A Romance Writing Journey

A woman's hand writing in a notebook

Because people sometimes ask me how I get ideas for my stories, here’s a little about how For Every Love: Three Romantic Reads came to be.

The face of a smiling young woman with dark hairLove Unfeigned

I gathered key scenes from twelve emotional dreams I had and wove them together for this love story, with memorable pieces of my own life sprinkled in. Yeah, I know such a mishmash could have the potential to turn into a disjointed mess, but even I marveled at the way the scenes began flowing together, once I realized who the heroine, hero, and villain would be.

It’s like characters lead the way in these matters at times. “Youwith the pen. Here’s what we’re gonna do, here. Write it down for us.”

The face of a serious young manHope Unashamed

There are times when we wish a supporting character in a previous story had a “Happily Ever After” of their own. So I wrote this sequel to Love Unfeigned. It only took me four years after the first book to finally get this one finished 😀 , but I trust the characters still appreciate the outcome.

As for me, I have an extra dose of appreciation for this book because it’s a hero’s story. I’m rather sure it’s much more common for a fictional romance (one that isn’t a dual-point-of-view romance) to be a heroine’s story. But romantic love is universal, and women aren’t the only people in the universe. Men fall in love too.

The face of a smiling young woman with a dark AfroKiss and ’Telle?

Two supporting characters from Hope Unashamed nudged me for a few years to write out their own story. So I finally did! While the previous two books deal with some heavy issues, the characters called for more comedy in this third book.

What’s more, given the pandemic that began early in 2020, I wanted to write something for readers who’d be in need of something lighthearted. In mountaintop seasons, valley seasons, and all the seasons in between, laughter is so good for the heart.

For Every Love Series Boxed Set beside a stack of Christmas giftsFor Every Love: Three Romantic Reads

Though it took seven years for all three of these love stories to come into the world, they were meant to be together.

Also, because the Christmas season is my absolute favorite time of year, it’s no wonder that these three related romances include a bunch of holiday happenings. A horse-drawn carriage ride through Christmas-lit downtown streets. A Christmas food and gift festival. A family (and friends! 😉 ) Christmas movie night. “Christmas jams” to dance to at a romantic wedding reception… They’re year-round stories that are also holiday-friendly.

Check out the collection!

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Meet Nadine C. Keels