Entertainment and the Christian Novel

Why Do People Buy Novels?

I can only think of three reasons. Sometimes the reader expects to be elevated by classic literature. I tried reading War and Peace for such lofty reasons once. Truth be told, I didn’t finish.

Literary novels are also read by students. Most purchases of the great classics are probably intended for the classroom. For every copy of Moby Dick or To Kill a Mockingbird bought to pass the time on a plane, I imagine ten are bought by somebody in a literature class.

Most novels, however, aren’t fine literature. Few writers can expect future doctoral dissertations to be written about their works. And that brings us to the reason the vast majority of novels are published: for entertainment. People love to read stories—and any fiction writer who forgets that fundamental human motivation is in danger of becoming unemployed.

The Christian Novel

Surprisingly, though, many aspiring Christian novelists seem to think otherwise. Since Christians believe in absolute truth, they suppose novels ought to be written for didactic purposes. In such books the characters pause at critical junctures to give long sermons. Listeners sit in rapt attention while the mouthpiece character expounds his theological views. All of this lets the author convey divine dogma. But this isn’t realistic. People don’t sit quietly with bright eyes and busy little pens when somebody starts talking about doctrine. Believe me, I know – I’m a theology professor.

So does this mean the Christian novelist should “sell out”? Just write books that keep the readers turning the pages, with no intent to communicate lasting truth? Make our novels as vapid and nihilistic as secular fiction?  Surely there must be a balance.

When I wrote the Chiveis Trilogy, I had to confront these issues head on. I wanted to write a page-turner. My editor said the plot is “cinematic,” and I was glad to hear she thought so. I always felt I was writing a grand adventure that could sweep you into a swashbuckling escapade like the Indiana Jones movies I loved as a kid. However, my day job is teaching theology. Did I have to hang up my theological hat when I penned my three novels?

A Place for Theology?

I hope not. There’s a lot of theology in the Chiveis Trilogy, and my particular readership wants that. Yet you have to use subtle patterns as a writer. For example, the over-arching structure of my trilogy is Trinitarian. In the first book the characters encounter the Creator God as seen in the Old Testament. In book two they quest for God as he is known in Christ. The third book centers on the Holy Spirit in the catholic church. With this macro structure in place, various theological themes can be expressed naturally in the individual scenes—often without the readers even knowing they are imbibing theology!

One especially important theological topic is evil. The Christian novel must present sin on the page—sometimes with gut-wrenching, jaw-clenching intensity—and not gloss over it like cotton candy religious novels often do. Even so, evil must be revealed as grotesque. It always exacts a terrible cost, and in the end it does not win. My trilogy includes scenes with torture, rape, adultery, prostitution, violence. Those scenes make the reader’s heart beat faster because the terror is real. But I promise you, the depictions are not “gratuitous.” They are part of an overall narrative in which moral evil is shown as atrocious—yet the all-sovereign God still reigns on his throne. Christian novels should reflect this truth and not descend into pessimistic hopelessness.

Entertainment to the Glory of God

Some Christian novelists think they must aspire to something higher than entertainment to justify a novel. Though unbelievers might write for “mere entertainment,” Christian novels should always teach or they have little reason to exist. When this instinct leads to unpleasant sermonizing, readers see it and run.

But we’re all going to entertain ourselves with something. Much of what comes out of Hollywood or the New York publishing industry reflects an anti-Christian worldview. Believers consume these works for their excellent entertainment value while trying to filter what is objectionable. Doesn’t this indicate a crying need for works that are truly entertaining—but which glorify Christ as well?

Many readers have said the Chiveis Trilogy brought them closer to the Lord. The person who finishes the three-part cycle can only look back on it and say it elevated God’s name. However, if it doesn’t also keep you up past your bedtime, dipping into the next chapter although you promised yourself you’d quit, then I haven’t done my job. Christians need entertainment that honors Christ instead of trashing him. A novel’s first purpose must be to tell a great story—and there’s no reason it can’t be glorifying to God as well.

This article was first published for Crossway on November 29, 2013.