View Full Version : Settings in Christian Fiction: Generic or Denominational?

Homesar Runner
06-01-2005, 08:32 AM
May I raise once more an idea that appears in this thread (http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=1390)? The last post in that thread was back in mid-April, and if I post my follow-up in it, I'm afraid others might miss it.

That thread has to do with what is verboten in Christian fiction. There are many things mentioned (profanity, graphic violence and explicit depictions of sexual activity). An industry insider quoted in this thread says "heavy" themes (prostitution, incest, divorce, etc.) are not intrinsically off limits, but practically they are if the authors do not have the requisite skill to treat them with discretion and finesse.

So far, so good. But here's something Patricia posted in message 12 of that thread which I want to examine further:

"Another thing to remember is to try and stay as 'denominational' free as possible. Dogmatic content does not go over well with the average reader."

Perhaps Patricia is correct, though I certainly hope she is not. Moreover, there are probably two things she is mentioning, though the quote above suggests it is only one. Narrative, setting, and dialogue which relies on authentic denominational features, customs, and styles could go a long way to bring texture to a story line. And, this would not necessarily involve anything dogmatic, in the sense of using the tenets of dogma as plot devices.

A couple of examples: Jan Karon's Mitford series, and Ellis Peters' Cadfael murder mysteries. First, Karon ...

Her protagonist is Father Timothy Cavanaugh, an Episcopal priest. I've read more than one reviewer comment on how she "plays down" the Episcopal angle. And, as one who has inhabited that ecclesiastical home for many years, I agree. Sort of.

Let's say that if you read any of the Mitford novels in order to learn the fine features of Episcopal spirituality, you would gather very little that is specific and concrete. On the other hand, as one who lived in an Episcopal Church longer than in all the other Christian denominations of my mongrel background combined, it is easy for me to see that Karon does, in fact, know a lot more (and she knows it accurately) about Episcopal worship and spirituality than she puts into her novels.

So, I would say that Karon does indeed "soft pedal" the Episcopal angle, but it is, nevertheless, very much "there" in her settings.

Peters' work, on the other hand, takes the Catholic rhythms of medieval monastic life in 12th Century Shrewsbury England and rubs our noses in it. I suppose few think of her as a "Christian" author or a writer of "Christian fiction," but that is simply an unfortunate oversight by those who traffic in these things.

Peters' knowledge of the spiritual framework of that age and time and her knowledge of the minutia of a monk's day-in-day-out cycles of prayer, work, worship, work, and more prayer are spelled out explicitly her narratives. Nothing is left for us to guess. And, the result is not off-putting, to judge by all my Baptist, charismatic, and Methodist friends who devour Peters' novels like popcorn.

A third example: the murder mystery novelist P. D. James. One of her most atmospheric efforts is set in an anglo-catholic seminary, and all the suspects are either students, clerics on the faculty, or staff in the seminary. Almost all the story takes place in this setting. And, again, James is spares us no detail of the ornate religious textures, sounds, sights, smells, and routines of life in such a setting. The book was quite successful (as all hers are), and the abundance of "denominational," even some "dogmatic" stuff, played prominently in the story telling.

Oh, I just thought of another example: G. K. Chestertonís Father Brown murder mysteries, featuring an English Catholic priest as the protagonist. A hundred years after they were written, these are still read and enjoyed, and mostly by Protestants or the nonreligious.

Now, I do not lay all this out to prove Patricia wrong, (though, again, I hope she is wrong!). If she is right, then "Christian fiction" is a sorry thing with regard to this point. There simply isn't any "generic" Christianity out there. The Faith is over 2,000 years old, and the majority of its various denominational communities are several hundreds of years old at the least.

I agree that one might write a novel so imbued with Tennessee Hills Pentecostalism that only someone from that culture could read the book with easy familiarity to all its nuances and depictions. But, still, would not such a novel -- if otherwise well written -- provide just as much, maybe more, interest value to those outside that culture? I don't know squat about that culture, but if the novel were satisfactory on other levels, I'd happily read it simply to vicariously enter that culture and learn about it. All the denominational texture would be icing on the narrative cake.

How about this? Any other thoughts on this idea? Those of you who are writing Christian fiction and making the denominational backgrounds "generic" or "played down," why are you doing this? I won't challenge you. I do want to understand the rationale behind this, since it seems so counter-intuitive to do this kind of thing.


06-01-2005, 03:28 PM
I don't know if it applies to books as much, but I've seen (over and over again) magazine guidelines that say it has to be non-denominational. Unless you're specifically writing for a denominational publications, they expect you to keep it open, to appeal to as many of their readers as possible. There are some exceptions, but that's what I've noticed. Now, if you do want to write for The Lutheran Witness, for example, you have to be very correct in your Lutheran doctrine. Some publishers (like Concordia) only approve messages that align with their church's doctrine. Others are more of a mass media outlet, while Concordia is a publishing arm of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod. It's very specific and has to keep with the church's doctrine. The Mitford series is denomination-specific, but the story has broad appeal. It has universal truths that apply to most other Christian denominations, but it had to be shown as one specific church because of the characters. I suppose Jan Karon could've just called him Pastor Kavenaugh and the church some generic name, but I think that would've made it too broad.

Homesar Runner
06-01-2005, 05:36 PM
Hi, Inspired,

I quite agree with your observation, because it only highlights the thing I'm puzzled about. Print publications are very much as you describe, especially if they're owned and operated by denominational agencies. It wouldn't do for The Baptist Standard to run a favorable article on Marian devotion, or for Our Sunday Visitor to feature an article on how to speak in tongues.

I suspect that this is one reason Patricia (or the one she got her idea from) would say "keep the denominational thing in a box" when writing fiction. On the other hand, the examples I've cited suggest that this would be a bad idea. Even in Karon's work, which plays down the Episcopal angle in its details nevertheless names Kavanaugh as an Episcopal priest and even dabbles in small ways with the minutia -- such as references to his clerical garb. Everyone who reads Karon is going to have some personal idea of what "episcopal" means (even if they're inaccurate), and they'll import that into their experience of her story. So, the denominational background is part of the story's texture without her needing to add much in the way of detail.

Consider, on the other hand, if she'd simply made him the pastor of The Neighborhood Church and had never uttered a peep about that congregation, its worship or doctrinal distinctives. Karon's already "gentle read" would certainly have become hopelessly flat and boring.

You mentioned exceptions to this "no denominational distinctive" policy for magazines. Do you have anything specific in mind?

I notice that Christianity Today, aiimed at the broadly evangelical reading public, routinely features articles with perspectives from identifiably denominational authors, even some well off the evangelical reservation -- such as Frederica Mathews-Greene (Orthodox), or John Neuhaus (Roman Catholic). Shucks, they had an interview with a Jewish chap in the past week. Admitted, theirs is not a smorgasbord of religious thought; but, their editorial policies have room for nonevangelical authors. I wonder of those pieces are commissioned?


06-01-2005, 06:40 PM
Christianity Today is 80% freelance, but most of that is assigned. I think they purposely like to have a variety of denominational slants represented, and as a regular reader, I appreciate that. I'm sort of a 'mongrel' myself, (raised fundamental evangelical, attend non-denominational Bible church and Episcopal services).

I think the thing in fiction is that (esp. for non-established authors) it is fine to include denominational details for the purposes of setting, etc.--but that they want you to stay away from advocating by your writing one preference as superior to another. It's all in the way you present the differences. Like you said, Karon does a great job portraying realistically the story of an Episcopal priest, without being exclusive in the way she presents it. I would think you could do the same.

Homesar Runner
06-01-2005, 07:02 PM
Hi, Pat,

Actually, I suspect that Karon is also a Christian mongrel. Just reading between the lines, dontcha know. She has one revivalist character, and the few notes she sounds with respect to him are authentic.

My chief model for cross-denominational fellowship is the magazine Touchstone, produced by the Fellowship of St. James. You can find selected articles from back issues here (http://www.touchstonemag.com/). The refreshing thing about them is that their "ecumenical" efforts are not the lowest common denominator thing which pushes the envelop on how much can we NOT believe in order to work together. Instead the Touchstone fellows remain fiercely Roman Catholic, fiercely Protestant, fiercely Orthodox, while at the same time understanding that the people at the heart of these circles are closer to one another (spiritually, dogmatically, culturally) than those at the periphery. Almost none of their published work is fiction (once in a while, poetry). But, I've always been enriched by the unapologetical display of their authors' denominational distinctives.

It's made me wonder why this should not be a feature of at least some Christian fiction.

The strains in my mongrelness are similar to yours: SBC, Bible-church fundamentalist, neo-evangelical congregations, Episcopal, and now I'm an Anglican cleric. By the way, that list does NOT represent any kind of "progression." For all my ecclesiastical muttiness, each component is clearly visible to those with eyes to see.

06-01-2005, 07:34 PM
Thanks for the link! Touchstone looks like a very good read; I'll explore it more on a break this afternoon. I agree with your post 100%, and especially identify with your last paragraph (the same is true for me). My faith is richer for the various traditions that have contributed to it.


PS I'm from what used to be a small town in N. Texas...

06-01-2005, 09:40 PM
I think the usual problem isn't "Don't show any denominations," as much as, "Don't go trying to convert people to your denomination." Making your Christians members of specific denominations will make the story more realistic but is not likely to turn off readers from another denomination if taken by itself. Hanging a plot point on something your denomination teaches is another matter - say, if the conflict is that you have to get a dying character "scripturally baptized" before it's too late.

Betty W01
06-02-2005, 08:56 PM
Homesar, you put it well. Unless a magazine specifically asks for certain denominational viewpoints, you do need to be careful about including controversial subjects unless the magazine wants controversy. However, in fiction, the details of the individuals' church lives add texture and interest to the story, whether or not you are Episcopalian, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant, or atheist. (In fact, a friend who strongly urged me to read Karon's books is staunchly Jewish and enjoyed the books very much, bible verses and all.)