Faith and Fiction

November 28th, 2012

Real faith is stranger than fiction. So, maybe, that’s why Christian novels—from history to mystery—are leading so many of us now to biblical truths.

While we’ve immersed ourselves in the actual writings of historic biblical figures like David and Paul, more of us are also engaged in the romance and drama and wisdom of characters who never lived and breathed, like Molly and Ryan in The Bridge by Karen Kingsbury, or Cody and Liliana in Shattered Silence by Margaret Daley, or Hadassah and Marcus in A Voice In The Wind by Francine Rivers.

After all, Jesus himself taught in parables, fictional stories designed to express a greater truth. Christ was our divine example, but he used the illustrations in the Bible so that human beings could understand grace, stewardship, promises, obedience, forgiveness, mercy, abundance, thankfulness, and caring for others. Writers have just taken this to a new Christian art form over the past two decades.  

Jesus used imagery common for his audience, while today’s Christian fiction transports readers to a variety of times and places, which rise and fall in popularity. Those in the book business call this “trending,” when particular storylines for writers become more popular than others among readers.

“Amish—both historical and contemporary—has been selling for a while, and it looks to keep doing that in the future,” says Ramona Richards, senior acquisitions editor for the 45 to 50 fiction authors at Abingdon Press, which entered the Christian fiction market in 2009. “So is Western Christian romance. Mysteries are not, but suspense is, doing well for now.”

More than a Lucrative Market

Faith in the market for Christian fiction is what led religious and secular publishers alike to begin divisions for the genre, revenues for which grew to an estimated $1.45 billion in 2011, according to the American Association of Publishers.

Belief in its ministry is what keeps authors like Julie Cantrell and Krista Phillips writing make-believe for their readers. While they know it’s a multi-million dollar industry, they’ll leave it to their publishers, and trade groups like the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) to figure the overall profits in our economy.

“I never set goals for sales. I just took—and still take—nearly all the jobs I’ve been given so I can get published,” explains Julie Cantrell, the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of Into the Free. “I finally just decided that I’d write a novel by getting up from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m. daily, and I gave myself three months to do it.”

Into the Free came from the faith Cantrell had in God and herself, and how she took the wisdom and knowledge from it to portray her characters in fiction. For Cantrell to really be an author, though, she also had to overcome her fear of never becoming one. It was in the education system that she was introduced to her worst critic, when she was about to graduate from high school. She almost didn’t recover from the disapproval.

“I had an English teacher in the 12th grade who made us write in a journal, and she was always reading mine out loud to point to my mistakes in front of the other students,” Cantrell recalled, as a speaker on a panel at the Southern Festival of Books in October. “After the final week, she took me aside and told me that I’d never sell as much as a greeting card. For a long time, I didn’t write anything.”

Doubt in a major story concept nearly kept another author—Krista Phillips—from writing a book. “When I was 18 years old, I started an outline with a female lead who talked of suicide,” explains the wife and mother of four little girls. “I wrote three chapters before I realized that it was too dramatic and it was just not me.”

Instead, the first-time novelist released Sandwich with a Side of Romance through Abingdon Press. She takes her advice from God, she says, and occasionally, her pre-teen daughter, in refining her concepts and characters.

Whenever she can’t think of another sentence at the computer, she remembers what truly matters: God and family. “This was the dream I felt God calling me to do for myself. There are sacrifices you have to make for it,” admits Phillips, who stays up late at night to finish manuscripts after her children have gone to bed. “But, I’m also showing my kids to follow theirs.”

Julie Gwinn, of B&H Publishing Group in Nashville, affirms the personal side of fiction writing as well. “Although sales are nice, you have to be true to your voice, your gift, your calling,” Gwinn writes in her blog for the American Christian Fiction Writers. “Write the story God wants you to write. Your fans will thank you for it.”  

Useful for Teaching

We live in challenging modern times, and it can be difficult to imagine in ancient Scripture what it’s like to be Joshua battling over the Promised Land or Esther saving a nation as one of the King’s harem. In a Christian novel, however, the vision of a man in uniform going to war in Afghanistan, or a sister who rescues her brother from hunger on the streets of New York may be easier for some of us to identify with now than those far-removed scenes from the Bible.

Between the lines of fictional tales, readers can find real, life-giving truth.

This bridge between storytelling and spiritual growth is made more overt by the emergence of Bible studies based on Christian fiction. Abingdon Press premiered its new Faith and Fiction series with a study based on Melody Carlson’s “The Inn at Shining Waters” trilogy. The study, Healing Waters: A Bible Study on Forgiveness, Grace, and Second Chances, connects the characters and themes in the novels with Scripture and issues contemporary women face. (Download a free sample lesson below, provided by the publisher.)

Another study, based on Barbara Cameron's Amish novel, Her Restless Heart, is slated for next spring.

Fiction can be a way of delivering the word of God to the receptive, both those active in faith and those exploring their spirituality more privately.

“People have told me that there was something deep in them that needed to hear the message in my book,” says Cantrell. When authors do this, “it gives us the freedom to know you and I are loved by God.”

For the author and the reader, this much can be witnessed from Christian novels. Faith takes a 110 percent commitment to know God, but fiction only asks that you suspend your belief in the unknown for the next 200 pages.

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