no longer back-shelf item
By Kirk Noonan
fiction has proven to be a powerful influence in the marketplace.
If done well, it can take readers to places they have never
been and allow imaginations to soar. Along the way, it might
also impart biblical principles, morals and values, or even
lead one to a relationship or a closer walk with Christ.
have defined much of the genre for years. But, according to
some, so have unrealistically perfect characters, sickening-sweet
endings and the use of “Christianese” and preachiness.
Such attributes have kept much evangelical Christian fiction
out of the hands of nonbelievers and perpetuated the notion
that writers of such works can’t produce material to
compete with secular offerings.
However, in the
past two decades writers of such fiction have taken the genre
to never-before-seen levels by wrapping believable characters
in compelling plots sans any coarse language, graphic violence
or sex. The result has been stunning.
Since 1985, Christian
fiction adult book sales have risen from 4.3 percent to more
than 12 percent of the Christian market. In 1980, Christian
books and product sales totaled about $1 billion; today, annual
sales of such products exceed $4 billion. Some Christian fiction
also has climbed to the top of secular best-seller lists,
caught the attention of major media outlets and publishing
houses, and become the basis for movies. But industry experts
believe there is still room for growth, primarily in the quality
of the product.
positive insofar as it empowers the imagination that God endowed
us with,” says John Wilson, editor of Books &
Culture in Carol Stream,
Ill. “It’s negative, in that this fiction is doing
less than it is capable of doing.”
Even today, with
the millions of dollars spent on writers’ advances,
agents and marketing, few Christian fiction books —
especially evangelical ones — have been able to match
the widespread excellence and acceptance of books such as
C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe
(The Chronicles of Narnia, Book 1).
It seems Lewis
knew that one of the most powerful ways to share one’s
faith was to tell a good story much the way Jesus told parables:
without preaching. That simple premise eluded many writers
of evangelical Christian fiction until 1986 when Frank Peretti
released This Present Darkness,
a spine-tingling, spiritual warfare tale.
Then in 1995 Tim
LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins offered the first book (of 11,
so far) in their Left Behind series, prompting evangelical Christian fiction’s boldest move
into the mainstream market. Left Behind topped secular best-seller lists, found shelf space at Barnes & Noble
and Wal-Mart, and made it on the cover of Time. In the years since, the series has sold more than
55 million books, convincing publishers there is indeed a
huge market for redemptive books without R-rated content.
like anything that’s racy,” says Nancy Stark,
75, who attends Neighborhood Church, an Assemblies of God
congregation in Modesto, Calif. “Secular novels have
a lot of swear words and they’re suggestive. I don’t
like that. That’s why I read Christian fiction.”
fiction — especially those books published with the
Christian Booksellers Association imprint — is squeaky
clean, many nevertheless deliver hard-hitting, engaging stories
that force characters to grapple with some of life’s
most challenging issues.
“I felt there
was no way I would write Christian fiction because the characters
were so perfect, always hitting their knees at the right time
and always having the right response,” says Karen Kingsbury,
a best-selling Christian fiction writer in describing her
journey into Christian fiction writing. “That’s
great, but that’s not where we usually find ourselves.
I wanted to write fiction with real characters who made good
and bad choices.”
Despite her reluctance,
Kingsbury started writing Christian fiction. Ever since, she
not only has created realistic characters, but she has been
able to minister through her stories.
In one of her latest
books, a married character has an affair with a younger woman.
After his wife learns of the infidelity and painfully comes
to terms with it, he eventually seeks her forgiveness. She
grants it, but not all ends happily ever after.
“I try to
write books where the characters become real and the story
will touch and soften a reader’s heart,” Kingsbury
told PE Report. “At the end, a reader might be crying,
but at least she is still hopeful.”
Christian fiction has made great strides of late, it still
must clear several obstacles in order to be as effective as
its writers and publishers hope it to be. One of the main
challenges the niche faces is convincing non-Christians to
pick up the books and read them.
of Christian fiction sold at places like Barnes & Noble
is being sold to Christians,” says David Horton, editorial
director of fiction at Bethany House Publishers in Bloomington,
Wilson of Books
& Culture concurs.
“By and large,
Christian fiction is being read by people already in the evangelical
world, especially books published clearly under a CBA imprint,”
he says. “I don’t think you’re going to
often see people reading them who are from outside that world.”
To a certain extent
there is something for everyone when it comes to evangelical
Christian fiction. Subgenres run the gamut from Westerns and
legal thrillers to fantasies and military adventures. The
downside is that with each new subgenre comes a new learning
curve that must be mastered. And that takes time.
But if history
is an indicator, Christian writers can catch up with their
secular counterparts and eventually surpass them. Experts
say good storytelling is the key. That’s a craft most
writers recognize, but few have yet to master.
writing books people are going to be reading in a hundred
years?” asks Wilson. “No. But they are good novels
and they create an imaginative world that you believe in and
they wrestle with important questions of life from a Christian