Quality Christian Novels: An Oxymoron?

Recently, I overheard a Christian leader rave about various novels he’d read. When asked if he’d read a particular Christian novelist, he replied, “I never read Christian fiction.”

“Why not?”

“It’s predictable and sugar-coated; preachy, and poorly written!”

“Can you give some examples?” I asked.

stack of books

He couldn’t. Not one. He’d read his last Christian novel over twenty years ago. I politely suggested that he may not be in the best position to say what it’s currently like.

I’ve heard the same stereotypes about Christian fiction repeated countless times. Yes, I read secular fiction. But I like novels with a Christian worldview. I enjoy the absence of explicit sex and extreme profanity, but it’s not just what Christian fiction lacks that I appreciate—it’s what it offers.

The variety of today’s Christian novels is vast: contemporary, historical, suspense, murder mysteries, adventure, young adult, romance, science fiction.

I’m part of an online group of 263 Christian novelists that started in 1999 with fifteen of us. I’ve witnessed firsthand these writers’ dedication to improving their craft. Many current Christian novels are not only well-crafted, but artfully integrate spiritual themes.

Sure, you run into cookie-cutter stories with limp language, just as with secular novels. No more, no less. Every writer has a worldview, and preachiness isn’t unique to Christians—consider the novels of Carl Sagan and Dan Brown. Even Stephen King, a master wordsmith, periodically gets on a soapbox. But does anyone claim all secular fiction is “predictable, preachy and poorly written” just because some of it is?

Many Christian novels develop gritty themes. Rene Gutteridge’s Listen depicts the consequences of verbal bullying, opening with a teenager’s suicide. Terri Blackstock’s Predator portrays a high-tech abductor stalking a girl online. Karen Ball’s The Breaking Point is strikingly honest, offering hope for struggling marriages. The God Hater, an imaginative story by Bill Myers, gets inside an ardent atheist’s head.

Sugar-coated? Murder, adultery, addiction, Alzheimer’s, infertility, homosexuality—I doubt if there’s any thorny issue that hasn’t been explored in Christian fiction with honesty, authenticity and a redemptive touch.

I read Francine River’s Atonement Child fifteen years ago and have never forgotten its story of rape and a child conceived. Karen Kingsbury’s One Tuesday Morning, set in the weeks surrounding September 11, 2001, pulled me in, then totally surprised me with a credible twist.

Contrary to common belief, Christian fiction did not begin with Janette Oke or Frank Peretti. John Bunyan wrote the influential Pilgrim’s Progress in 1678. The most potent work challenging American slavery was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, (1852), an overtly Christian novel. Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur (1880) and Charles Sheldon’s In His Steps (1897) reached huge audiences.

As a brand new Christian in the 1970’s I consumed C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels as well as the novels of J. R. R. Tolkien and Madeleine L’Engle. Later I discovered G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy Sayers. I read and reread Calvin Miller’s The Singer Trilogy

As for novels written within the last twenty years, Byzantium by Stephen Lawhead is a hauntingly beautiful epic. Lisa Bergren’s medieval mystery The Begotten transported me to another time and place. One of the most unforgettable characters I’ve encountered is Sema, a gorilla in Angela Hunt’s Unspoken.

Enjoy courtroom dramas and legal thrillers? I loved T. Davis Bunn’s The Great Divide and Randy Singer’s Directed Verdict.

Suspense? Read Over the Edge by Brandilyn Collins, with an opening that grabs you by the throat.

If you like literary fiction, get Athol Dickson’s The Opposite of Art. If you read The Shack, try James Rubart’s Rooms, equally creative but with better theology.

Does a pulp fiction short story about a 1955 Los Angeles boxer with a quick jab sound interesting? Download James Scott Bell’s “Iron Hands.”

Graphic novels? Read Babylon, the story of Daniel strikingly captured by Kingstone Comics. The Action Bible is a colorful story book I often read.

Fantasy? I started Jill Williamson’s By Darkness Hid, and before I knew it hours had flown by. (The publisher, Marcher Lord Press, produces nothing but Christian speculative fiction.)

Biblical fiction? Try Walter Wangerin’s Jesus or Paul. Wangerin is a student of Bible lands and customs, so the setting and characters pulsate.

Can’t imagine Amish fiction being interesting? That’s what I thought before reading Beverly Lewis’s The Shunning.

I listened to the enthralling audio versions of Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow and Hannah Coulter. There’s nothing like a great novel read by a skilled voice actor—and you can listen while driving, exercising or sitting in the dark.

Though I don’t read much romance, I enjoyed Robin Lee Hatcher’s Ribbon of Years, Tamera Alexander’s A Lasting Impression, and Colleen Coble’s Blue Moon Promise. Liz Curtis Higgs writes captivating Scottish novels, including Mine is the Night. (While I’m told secular romances often degenerate into erotica, Christian romance novels encourage purity and committed marriages.)

Some believe Christian novels shouldn’t depict anything openly spiritual. Certainly conversions aren’t obligatory, but God’s life-changing work is real and can be powerfully depicted (think Les Miserables). By spinning an engaging story, novelists earn the right to develop themes that sway readers’ heads and hearts.

If you’ve stayed away from Christian novels because you’ve heard them disparaged by others, why not find out for yourself? Read a variety of genres and writers. Likely you’ll discover compelling stories and new favorite authors.

And whatever your opinion, it will be current, firsthand and informed.

A version of this article appeared in the June 29, 2012 issue of World Magazine.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries