Saturday, October 8, 2011

Characters in Christian Fiction Who Reject Faith

Not long ago, Amy Riley at My Friend Amy, on her Faith and Fiction Saturday, posed an interesting question regarding Books Where the Main Character Rejects Faith. She asked about the

…lack of books where characters consider faith or religion but decide against it for one reason or another.

Rejecting faith is a part of the faith experience like embracing it so do you know of any books where the characters have considered faith and rejected it?

That question probably divides differently along religious and traditional market lines. Portrayal of “faith experience” in the general market can be as stereotypical as that of the Christian market. The conversion-to-rejection rate of the characters no doubt bears that out. Nevertheless, in the Christian market, I think it’s safe to say, “there’s a lack of books where characters consider faith or religion but decide against it for one reason or another.” In other words, most main characters in Christian fiction who are confronted with faith, inevitably “accept” it.

Admittedly, I don’t read enough Christian fiction to comment authoritatively on the actual percentage of conversion-to-rejection ratio of characters. However, the majority of Christian fiction I have read does include — in fact, center around — some form of “conversion,” whether it be a backslider returning to the faith or a seeker discovering it. So I think it’s safe to say that conversion scenes and/or conversion processes are one of the earmarks of Christian fiction.

This conversation fascinates me for several reasons. For one, as Amy mentions, “Rejecting faith is a part of the faith experience.” So why don’t we see more “faith rejection” in Christian fiction?Are we afraid to show someone (albeit fictionally) deciding against the religion we defend?

The second has to do with my debut novel. What I’m about to say may require a minor spoiler alert. So be forewarned. But a central character in The Resurrection, after rigorous “Christian evidence,” remains largely agnostic. While conversion is an issue throughout the story, it is unresolved in this character’s case. After much thought, I believed that ambiguity was so true to the character and so integral to the story, that I could not remove it. When my publisher approached me about edits, I was prepared to concede a lot… but not that. If my editor asked me to convert this character, I would have refused. Which is one of the reasons I am so thankful that Strang let me tell that story.

Anyway, I’m interested in your take in that conversation. Do you agree that most characters in Christian fiction who are confronted with faith, inevitably “accept” it? And if not, can you name some Christian fiction books that don’t?


Greg Mitchell said...

This is a really loaded question and I've been coming back to it multiple times today, trying to think of something intelligent to say.

I have a lot of gut reactions to this, but I guess the first thought is "Sure." There is a place for stories within Christian Fiction where the main character ultimately rejects faith. Just as there is room for stories where the bad guy wins, the hero dies, or that couple decides to get a divorce after all. Artists should be allowed to explore those themes and feelings.

But the question I have is deeper than that--"Why would you write that?" Not to say it doesn't have a place, but what's the driving force behind an author doing that? Is it because they think it's "lame" that the character comes to Christ in the end? If that's the thinking, then I have multiple problems with that and this would turn into a long rant, but I'll save that for another day.

I think of it like this: The famed "rich young ruler". He rejects faith in that story, but it's viewed as a tragedy. That story is told from Jesus' point of view. We don't identify with the ruler in that story, but rather we stand with Christ in the narrative and see the young man walk away from us/Christ. It's built as a tragedy because Christ views it as a tragedy and he's our identifying character. So in that sense, I think that's a very "pro-faith" story, even though the subject of the story--not the identifier--fell away from the faith.

However, if the story had been told from the ruler's perspective, and we we were meant to identify with him and we feel "How dare Christ ask us to sell our possessions? I'm outta here", then what would be the message? What would be the "authorial slant"? Then I think you run into problems.

Is it a valid concept to have someone reject the faith? Sure, it happens in real life everyday. And sometimes the story calls for that--but I have to question, like the young ruler story, as authors are we siding with Christ or with the ruler? What's the heart behind it?

Drusilla Mott said...

I am currently re-writing my first Inspirational Romance. I don't know about other Christian fiction, but one of the main requirements for it to fit into the Christian Romance format is for the main characters to come to faith by the end of the book and to be established in a church. If that doesn't happen, then I would think the book doesn't get published.

You have veteran writers here that can answer that better than I; but I think my question would be -- 'If the characters are not going to be Christian, why put it into the Christian format?'

This will open up another whole argument; but to me, this goes along with the question of when a book becomes too preachy.

My reason for writing Christian fiction was to share my faith by putting the gospel message in there and use it as a witnessing tool. I discovered that this is not necessarily desirable when the story I am now rewriting was rejected because it was too preachy.

Like I said, I am new to this, and the veteran writers here can probably answer this better than I. But I am wondering, if you don't have Christian characters, why publish it as Christian fiction? Why not just publish with a 'secular' publishing company and not classify it as Christian fiction?

As you can see, I am struggling with the boundary lines here, and could really use an indepth explanation.

Greg Mitchell said...

"... but one of the main requirements for it to fit into the Christian Romance format is for the main characters to come to faith by the end of the book and to be established in a church. If that doesn't happen, then I would think the book doesn't get published."

Drusilla, is this your own personal requirements--what you would want to see happen in the story for you to feel satisfied--or has a publisher given you this mandate to carry out? If this is what YOU want to happen in your story, then that's your right as the author, but I don't think that any publisher should have the authority to tell you this MUST happen in your story for it to A) be considered "Christian" or B) to be considered for publication.

If you're changing your story for fear that it won't be published unless your character is saved and established in a church, then I think that's a misconception of the CBA (Christian Booksellers Association). Mike, himself, mentioned in his post that his main character remains largely agnostic at the end of his book--and that's a CBA book.

I think we sometimes don't give the CBA enough credit and we think everything "has" to be neat and tidy by the end for it to be accepted. Yes, some publishers are like that, but there are many that are not. If you want an untidy ending, I say continue looking for a publisher who will back you up on that.

But I'm hardly a veteran. I'd love to hear what the others think!

Drusilla Mott said...

Thanks for your response Greg. To answer your question, I chose to write my story in the Christian format because I wanted to share my faith, and have based it largely on my own life experience. In making that decision, I wove my own faith journey through the story, and brought the characters to faith before the end of the book.

That was my choice, but the mandate to have both main characters be saved by the end is in the publisher's guidelines. The following is copied directly from Harlequin's Love Inspired 'Mission Statement'; "An element of faith must be present in the books, and should be well-integrated into the plot. The conflict between the main characters should be an emotional one, arising naturally from the story. And the progression of the story must incorporate the faith journey of hero and heroine, whether struggling to accept faith or simply being active members of their church community. By the end of the story, hero and heroine must be both believers and members of a church community."

This is not the only one that I have seen with similar guidelines, but that was the quickest one for me to find.

I realize I could just as easily take the faith element out but then why try to publish it in an Inspirational format?

I think what I am struggling with is the line between Christian fiction and secular fiction. I always thought Christian fiction was different than other fiction because it pointed people to a faith in Jesus.

I wrote the previous draft with that belief, going by the guidelines I had found, and had it rejected because there was too much of a Christian element in the storyline.

There are so many seemingly contradictory guidelines to follow; I am fast learning that there is still a great deal that I need to learn.

Greg Mitchell said...

Drusilla, I absolutely understand your desire to work your faith journey into your work--that's exactly what I've done with my series and the other authors on this blog have done as well. And, because of that, we've all landed in the "Christian Fiction" category. So please don't think that I think you should cut out your faith elements.

My only concern comes from the publisher's guideline that your story must end a certain way--with both hero and heroine believers and active in a local church. While that's certainly an ideal situation (in real life), sometimes a story just doesn't want to go in that direction. Sometimes a story needs to end ambiguously or sometimes, like Mike's original post suggests, some should end with a character rejecting faith, even. Sometimes the story *does* need to end with the hero and heroine claiming faith and joining a church--but that should be because that's what the story dictates, not the publisher, I'd say. The story's got to be able to grow and be what it needs to be without limitation on structure. Now, yes, all Christian publishers have restrictions on *content*--such as graphic sex/violence, cussing, etc--but that's piddly stuff compared to dictating the direction a story must take.

While it's the publisher's right as a business to come up with their own stipulations on what's suitable for them to publish or not, I bristle at their formula for how the story must go.

You can absolutely be "Christian Fiction"--sharing your faith and your faith journey proudly--without having to follow a "cookie cutter" story structure.

Having said all of that, while my series is right smack in the middle of the "Christian Fiction" section, it's a book about monsters and scary things :p I'm not sure how the Inspirational Romance game is played :)

As for contradictory guidelines, yes, every publisher has different things they're looking for. But that should encourage you to write your story--however you want it to be told--and trust that God will lead you to a publisher who will accept it, rather than crafting your book in a particular way (that you might not really want) just to get picked up by a certain publisher (unless you're already under contract by them, which is an entirely different situation). "There's more fish in the sea."

Drusilla Mott said...

Greg, I can see where I am going to have to do more research on Christian fiction. I have really only read the romance fiction, the Left Behind series and some other fiction by Tim LaHaye. I've never been into monsters and scary things (:p back-at-cha') but I will have to check out some other kinds of stories and see how different they are from what I am used to. :) Thanks for this conversation. You have opened my eyes to other possibilities and ideas.

Erica said...

I have to be honest...the books i have seen where someone converts is in non fiction. However I do love Mark Mynheir's main character in the Ray Quinn series. He is surrounded by believers but have not made that "giant leap" yet. He remains sarcastic and probably agnostic to a larger degree.

I can see why there should be more books showing those who reject it, or perhaps a series where a character rejects for many books and accepts at the final end? Either way its best to show that in reality many people will not accept Christ and we must allow this to show how God's grace and mercy can sometimes be taken for granted. At the same time we must make sure the consequences are real as well.