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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Should Christian Fiction Provide Answers or Provoke Questions?

by Mike Duran

Paradox is not something Christians like to concede. We believe Jesus is the Answer, and as such, questions exist to be dispelled rather than nurtured. However, the universe rarely cooperates. There is mystery and wonder. Even the grayest of saints must, on occasion, plead perplexity.

Yet for the Christian author, paradox is not something we need fear. In fact, provoking questions can be a powerful apologetic tool. Jesus did this often. It is estimated that Christ asked over 80 questions. Obviously, He did this not to alleviate ignorance (His own) but provoke thought in His listeners. As followers of the Answer, Christian authors are uniquely positioned to frame life's most vital questions.

Problem is,
Christians often view their fiction as a tool to provide answers, rather than provoke questions.

Barbara Nicolosi, founder of Act One, an organization that trains Christians for careers in mainstream film and television, was once asked about "the most prevalent shortcomings in scripts by Christians." (You can read her entire answer HERE.) In response, Nicolosi broached the subject of paradox:

The biggest shortfall I find in beginning writers - Christians and pagans - is the failure to understand and harness the real power in the screen art form. Anyone who wants to write great movies has to plumb the depths of the multilevel nature of cinema and then begin to exploit the levels to create paradox.

The real power to help and heal the audience in a work of art is in paradox. We really want to haunt the audience in the way, for example, that Flannery O’Conner’s stories are haunting. She’s the one who created that phrase, saying that in order to make a story a work, she had to find a “haunting moment.” This refers to a moment in a story that is at once completely true and completely shocking. I have really brooded over this a lot, and it is clear to me that a work of art stays with an audience, and leads them into rumination, in so far as it incorporates paradox.

So, what happens in a movie is that the audience walks into the theater distracted, munching their popcorn, burping and scratching. Then, they encounter the movie, and suddenly they find themselves at the end with a new and irritating/pressing question: “Rats! I have a question now that keeps coming back to me!”

Too many Christians think we are supposed to use the arts to give people the answers. We’re not. We’re supposed to use the arts to lead them into a question. (emphasis mine)
Nicolosi's contention that Christians should use the arts to provoke questions rather than provide answers goes against the grain of much thinking regarding Christian Fiction. Leaving unanswered questions in the minds of the reader -- in particular, questions about God, Christ, the Church, the Gospel, sin and evil -- appears anathema for many religious publishers. Christian Fiction, so they say, should provide the seeker with clarity rather than just, as Flannery O'Connor put it, a "haunting moment." Nowadays, the Christian author must do more than just lead her audience "into rumination." She must articulate orthodoxy.

But simply exploring paradox seems antithetical to Christianity. The believer has, after all, arrived at a set of conclusions (via the Holy Spirit) -- conclusions that, most likely, inform / inspire her storytelling. Nevertheless, fiction that is bent on providing answers can potentially become preachy and propagandist. The story is submerged by agenda. On the other hand, fiction that only provokes questions can potentially become needlessly provocative and lacking a moral / theological center.

So what is it? Should Christian Fiction provide answers or provoke questions? Your thoughts...


  1. I love this concept. It certainly rings true in my ears. Thanks for posting!

    It's all in balancing out the two sides. A good work of fiction would need both and I can't think of a book I actually like that doesn't include both. However, I can think of several that only expound answers and they are all boring.

  2. I love books that ask questions they don't answer. I hope I write that way. Though some questions are answered in my mind, each reader will walk away with their own conclusions based on what their experiences have been.

    So often writers want to lead the reader to the conclusion they've set up for them. This is propaganda and so unpowerful an experience. The truth is true always, every time, so fearing the reader will not drink of it if we lead him to the well is silly. Some will drink and be refreshed, and some will walk away without partaking, bemoaning their thirst.

    As always, it's our job to bring them to the well, but as the adage goes, you can't make them drink... and if you do, the water's likely to go down the wrong way and choke them.

    Thanks for writing this piece, Mike.

  3. Thanks for the comments, Daniel and Gina. The problem with letting people reach their own conclusions about the "message" of our story is the possibility that they may reach a conclusion other than the one we intend. For the Christian author, opposing interpretations can sometimes be intolerable. We can't allow people to misunderstand the nature of sin, salvation, and the Savior. Or so we say. The inevitable response is to over-correct and spell everything out.

    Great art involves nuance, subtlety; it leaves people thinking, debating, and haggling over interpretations. In this sense, I think it's far better to have our work misinterpreted than being so obvious no interpretation is necessary.

  4. That was the point I meant to make, Mike. The truth is always true. It doesn't change no matter how anyone misinterprets it. Those who seek it will find it and those who don't won't, even if we yank them to the well and shove their head into the water.

    There's no more powerful way to get someone to consider deeper things than to pose questions of which we often don't have all the answers.

    No one likes to have the conclusion made FOR them. I certainly don't and would have bucked anyone who tried to force theirs on me. I had to come to the truth gently, in my own time and wrestle with it for myself first.

    There was no real danger in me staying lost in misinterpretation. (Though I certainly visited awhile :) I'm a truth-seeker and the Bible says, seek and you shall find. Not everyone is seeking and we can't make them even if it's all spelled out from A to Z.

  5. I agree with your point about the possibility of misinterpretation. This is where we trust the Holy Spirit to work in those who have ears to hear (or eyes to read).
    I think of Jesus' parables. Why did he speak in code, the disciples wanted to know.
    I think of Job asking his question and never receiving the answer.
    I think of the lilies of the field, clothed in beauty, and misunderstood by those who do not know their Creator.
    Fiction is not a Sunday school lesson. It was never meant to teach in the way that a sermon does.

  6. To provide our own parameters of what other authors should convey to the readers in the form of answers and questions to the varied species of humanity and their conditions seems ill-conceived.

    Ultimately, writers write what they write, publishers publish what they publish - but readers buy what they want.

    Many Christians read Christian fiction because it provides an alternative or a reaffirmation of their faith. Therefore providing an answer can be of great value.

    To others who may stumble upon a work of Christian fiction, may be at the moment of decision in their life where they need an answer or a question or both.

    We probably all fall in-between and so do most novels. Even the Christian ones.

    Truth provided as an answer always leads to the question: Do I accept it?

  7. I think there needs to be a balance and it needs to be subtle. There are too many Christian fiction books I've read (or attempted to read and just stopped halfway) that are either too preachy or too unrealistic. Most of the time I find it's due to what I call "sugar coating" the tough issues and not really confronting them.

  8. I don't oppose the premise, but I also agree with Dayle. Fiction period is what it is. Look at ABA novels--they spout off their secularism as if it is the unbending truth. And while I agree with Nicolosi to a point, never in our history have we had so many propagandized films produced--not money-makers by any stretch but en masse nevertheless.
    I can give you two current CBA novels which provide both truth/answers and provoke questions both by the same author Tosca Lee: Demon . . . a memoir and Havah, The Story of Eve to prove Mike's point.
    And a classic CBA novel which provides answers in a thought-provoking story is Francine Rivers' novel Redeeming Love.

  9. Nicole, while many ABA novels may "spout off their secularism," I'm not sure that the CBA alternative should be to "spout of our non-secularism." I believe that kind of reactionary response pervades too much of our writing and leads to predictability and preachiness. We can't see Christian art as primarily an "answer" to secular art or we're doomed to being critics and copycats rather than purveyors of something genuinely original.

  10. I've read all the novels Nicole mentions. These are great examples of doing it right. Tosca Lee took some liberties with Demon and Havah, and did it beautifully, but I don't believe she provided all the answers. I also don't believe Redeeming Love provided all the answers either. It left a lot for personal interpretation. When the tough questions were raised, ie. How could God let such a horrible thing happen? The answer isn't laid out for us (as in the character thinking, "I guess God let's children be abused so that He can demonstrate the contrast between light and darkness and later show the renewal"... blah, blah. Ick.

    These authors didn't blatantly state their own conclusion through the character in these mentioned novels (though in some Christian fiction, it IS that outwardly stated.) Still we're left with the same conclusion because of what the character does not because we're told to. It's so much sweeter that we came to the realization ourselves through the story and not through a sermon.

    I think we're all trying to accomplish the same thing, teaching through parables, but some have finess and other's are too heavy-handed. It seems almost like a control issue. (I will write this book and you WILL get my message loud and clear! I dont' trust you to think for yourself or that the truth will be revealed.)

    The heavy-handed books are the reason many Christian readers refuse to read Christian fiction. At least that's what I've found among discussions with friends.

    We need to do better and in many cases, we absolutely are.

  11. Gina, I agree your assessment. But the problem with a discussion like this is that there is no base starting point.

    In other words, one woman's well executed novel in the fashion you speak of is another man's "too preachy" or "bible thumping".

    I have to assume that those who think Christian fiction is too preachy are living in the past. I have read at least 20 cba novels in the past year and I didn't find any of them too preachy. But, someone else might read those same novels and say half of them are.

  12. I'm not suggesting we react as you described, Mike. I'm saying that it doesn't matter who you are as a writer, you are inclined to deliver some kind of "message" whether you intend to or not. You can't help but be a proponet of something. The thing is are you preaching it in the story or are you showing it in the characters and plot, leaving that avenue open, depending on your style, open to interpretation or thought-provoking questions.
    Depends a lot on the genre and the writer.

  13. Jesus asked the questions with the answer in mind, as should we. That doesn't mean we should ask leading questions, however.

    Quite the contrary.

    I'll put it this way: what "answers" does great fiction (and I include great Christian fiction, as if there can be a distinction) EVER "provide?"

    Who in their right mind ever picked up a novel in order to "learn" something?

    What question does "A Christmas Carol" answer? Or "The Glass Bead Game"? Or "The Brothers Karamazov?" Or "A Secret History?"

    To completely paraphrase Sam Goldwyn: "If you want to answer a question, write an encyclopedia."

    Or an Encyclical.

    If you want to engage a reader, provide a haunting.

    I credit the movie "Blade Runner" with engaging my young (at the time) mind with questions about humanness. I credit the man and god Jesus of Nazareth for providing important answers.

    And even then, with those answers came many questions.

    After all, what is the definition of the word "question?"

    Its root is "quest," which is "to seek."

    A reader is on a quest. Quests are much more attractive when what is sought is not pre-ordained.

    After all, are we God? Can we replicate in words the personal experience of an engagement with the Lord? Or can we ask questions, can we aid the quest, so that a reader may, in their own experience, seek more than story, but an audience with the Storyteller?

    I can't haunt you with an answer. But can't a question blow like the wind, taking you where it will?

  14. I wouldn't say they were living in the past, Dayle. It sounds like you're wise or informed enough to read the good stuff. There are plenty of recently published CBA books which even to a born-again Christian are far too preachy, but I'm very selective in my reading. I have friends who call me up and read me over the top Christianese passages from recent releases. This appeals to some of the choir, and that's fine.

    It's true that it's all considerably subjective but just because we can't scientifically measure what amount of Christianity is too much or whether a prayer is believable or contrived, I know it when I see it. Most readers can smell a shoe-horning a mile away.

    I've loaned my copy of Redeeming Love to many of people who would never read Christian fiction (Buddhists, agnostics, etc.) and they loved it. Why? Because she does it right. When a story is presented in a truthful way, it will ring true. We as Christian writers need to take off the holy masks we and our characters wear, and present a story authentically for better or for worse, in all it's glory as well as it's filth and let the chips fall where they may.

    The truth has nothing to fear. The Lord blesses and curses, gives and takes away and sometimes we die without having the answers and sometimes unfair things happen to good people and sometimes it makes no sense to our human minds. We DON'T have all the answers, so we do our best to point readers to the one who does. How we do that makes all the difference, but then not as much as the Holy Spirit.

    Some readers are rolling their eyes at that statement. They're not the ones we're really talking to. We leave the many to go and find the few. That's who I'm writing for.

    Some will most definitely, as you've said, think that any amount of Christianity or one authentic prayer is too much. That's okay too. There's plenty of stories that will appeal to them.

    What I hope for is incredible fiction, like Peace Like a River, Tosca's books, A Bigger Life, etc... that points to the truth in a well-written, entertaining and AUTHENTIC way. That's the goal.

  15. Gina,

    I have to agree with your examples. Peace Like a River is a great novel and Tosca is the best as far as I'm concerned.

    Of these "Christianese passages" you mention, would you say that it's really an issue of author intrusion? The author is speaking instead of the character?

  16. How it reads to me isn't even as benign as author intrusion, which is annoying enough. It's more like this is a Christian novel so I will insert A, B and C, prayer along with a conversion or life changing alteration of the main character and a minor alteration of the secondary character. It's like a weird little formula that reads like a weird little formula. Non-Christians talking in church speak or praying as their hair catches fire. That sort of thing.

    Like I said, we're getting much much better, but these books still exist and are the ones being left around for others to read. Instead of giving the really bad books away, like I'm known to do, I suggest chucking them. We're only hurting the cause by circulating anything that's less than the best.

    Let's give away the good books if we really want to promote Christian fiction. I can't think of a better way to do it.

  17. Dayle, the more a work of Christian Fiction veers towards theological subtlety or ambiguity, the less "christian" it becomes in the mind of many. The "starting point" you spoke of in one of your comments is the expectation that Christian Fiction should look a certain way. We expect certain themes, restraints, and resolutions -- or what Gina so eloquently called, "weird little formula[s]". Without those elements / formulas, a book cannot (at least, by conventional standards), be Christian. As a result, the Christian author gets handcuffed by expectations, is unable to fully explore paradox (Nicolosi's point), and feels obligated to articulate (at least, imply) "answers" for the initiates.

  18. I wonder if we could use the term "reveal." Art asks questions. It may also reveal certain things to us: a personal experience, a reality about humanity, an aspect of God, beauty (broken and/or transformed). In revealing, perhaps it isn't giving answers but pointing to something. I'm thinking of The Ghost of Christmas-Yet-to-Come and his endless pointing. Scrooge wanted answers, but this ghost didn't give answers. He revealed things to Scrooge so horrifying, these things (along with what the other ghosts revealed) caused Scrooge to change his life upon waking (literally and metaphorically). Is this too a function of art? Is it different from provoking questions or providing answers?
    Just random thoughts in my brain.

  19. I don't think that's really true anymore, Mike. There are still a good amount of those type of books but so many others now that do exactly what they should without the weird little formulas AND they're being accepted as Christian fiction. The standard is changing. I believe it's partly due to so many writers and readers being hungry for that change and vocal.

    We're moving in the right direction in my opinion. Public opinion needs to catch up with the reality that is today's CBA.

  20. Oh I meant to say I loved your thoughts, Nicole :)

  21. Interesting discussion here. We need to remember that all kinds of Christian novels can meet needs. We can't let our personal preferences dismiss those we don't necessarily like. I'm a huge fan of Tosca Lee and was so relieved to find her. I prefer books like hers, that tell the story beautifully and let me make my own conclusions, but obviously there is a market for what I call the "safe" Christian novels. They are selling because there are people who want them, who need clarification of what they're reading in their Bibles, who want clear-cut applications in their stories. God works in many ways. We need both camps--those that spell it out and those that pose the questions--to meet the needs of all believers.

  22. I think that's sort of a separate discussion though it does overlap with this one. We've been public that we on NJ completely agree with the thought that God works in different ways with different folks in different genres and styles. Formula Christian books that don't appeal to many of us, do appeal to others and that's perfectly fine. Excellence is what we hope we're advocating. Discussions like this one help each of us flesh out in our minds where we fit in and why we bother.

  23. I believe that creating questions and haunting dilemmas for readers is a tremendous way to introduce Christ. Jesus didn't explain his parables to the crowds. I believe he wanted them to have a story they would easily remember but not fully understand. If they had understood all he was saying at the time, they would have dismissed it because it was not what they wanted to hear. He said that they refused to hear and refused to understand. In his mercy, he withheld answers so that his teaching would remain with them longer. Not all was resolved. He left them something to ponder so that they could receive the truth at a later time when their hearts were more willing to embrace truth.

  24. "Should Christian Fiction provide answers or provoke questions? Your thoughts..."

    One need only look at Jesus' own example to know that the answer to this is: Both. Jesus spoke both bluntly and in parable. He sometimes told people the answer (even boldly proclaiming he WAS the answer), and sometimes he told a story as to let a listener reach his own conclusion.

    While preaching is okay in non-fiction, I myself don't like preaching in fiction. To me, there's nothing worse than being hit over the head with an author's message. Being a writer myself, therein lies the difficulty in writing: wanting to get a belief or truth across not because it was hammered in, but such because it was received and thought about.

    Christian authors who believe they need to be blunt (i.e. preachy) for fear their message might not be received should think about this: even when Jesus was his most blunt, there were those who still did not believe. So I don't think anyone should feel bad about readers who don't get the message, whether it is presented subtly or bluntly.

    Anyway, I guess I'd look to Jesus example and say that sometimes it's okay to tell it like it is, sometimes it's okay to use symbolism, metaphor, analogy. I myself don't enjoy preachy books, but rather those that allow me to use my brain and reach a conclusion.

    I think the obligation of Christian fiction is to present the truth of the gospel in whatever form the author feels compelled to present it, and however their God-given talents allow them. Wasn't that how Jesus did it?

  25. Above all, I think we as Christians need to deal in truth. Sometimes that means showing our dirty laundry to the world. They see it anyway, and when we act as if it doesn't exist, we deny the unbelievers' reality. God is big enough to handle our questions.

  26. I pretty much agree with you on every point. When we're writing as Christians we should WANT people to know more. Paul said the same thing in the Bible.


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