God-on-throne-1Of all writers, you’d think that Christian ones would have a handle on God. But you’d be wrong. Especially as it relates to writing fiction. Notably of the speculative variety.

It starts with the question — What is the defining trait of “Christian fiction”?

Ask that question to a dozen evangelicals and you’ll probably get a different answer. This article at Library Journal defines the genre by its “focus on biblical values and traditionally low emphasis on profanity, sex, or violence.” Another author defines Christian fiction as adhering to the following three criteria:

  1. The author avoids the use of graphic sex/violence and foul language.
  2. The story is based on Biblical teachings or relays the author’s beliefs.
  3. Whether the book is a mystery, science fiction, or based on historical facts the author is a Christian.

Whether a combination of the above or some variant, the definitions usually appear squishy. One trait that’s often mentioned when discussing the defining characteristics of fiction written by Christians is an accurate, biblical portrayal of God. If anything, they say, when Christians depict God in their fiction, they should do so accurately. While such a desire sounds noble, it’s in teasing out the details that we run into problems.

This is especially exacerbated if one is writing in the speculative genre.

In his article, Oh God, You Goddess?? Portraying God in Christian Speculative Fiction, author Tony Breeden explored the issue of how Christian writers should handle the creation of deities in their speculative stories. Breeden believes that while Christian authors are free to speculate, they must curtail speculation about the nature of God.

Speculative fiction is built on asking, What If? What if there were faeries? What if we colonized the moon? What if my math teacher is a werewolf from the Amish sector of Mars? A spec-fic author can speculate about a great many things including God, but a Christian spec-fic author must needs write the truth about God. In other words, God isn’t a What If. He’s the I AM. The God of the Bible has revealed Himself and changes not.

…Our first obligation as Christian spec-fic authors is not simply to ask “What If?” about anything and everything. Our first obligation is to glorify God through great storytelling – and we cannot do that if our storytelling contradicts the Bible’s revelation!

While this perspective is probably shared, at least in spirit, by many religious authors, the devil’s in the details. Breeden illustrates this as his article is in response to a debate about female deities and whether creating a female deity is outside biblical parameters Christian.

As I noted to those who said God is a Spirit and therefore genderless, one can only make that claim if they do not consider the context of the rest of Scripture, which overwhelmingly describes God as male. So, yes, God is a Spirit; he’s a male Spirit. (bold in original)

So in Breeden’s case, an accurate portrayal of God in fiction must be as a male. He summarizes,

One could be a Christian and write speculative fiction that asks What if God were female on some other world, but it would not be Christian spec-fic, for it does not speak the truth about God.

I use this as an example, not to debate the possible gender (or genderlessness) of God, but how the applied template can be problematic. This approach, in my opinion, is representative of the problem of demanding a “biblical” portrayal of God in our fiction. And as speculative fiction involves, um, speculation, the idea of any parameters can become rather sticky.

Let me cut to the chase. I don’t think the question for the Christian author is, Should any biblical parameters inform our fiction? But rather, How exacting, extensive should the enforcement of those biblical parameters be? 

As I mentioned in my article No Zombies Allowed! (in Christian Fiction), believers can go to incredible length to impose theology on a story. It often leads to hairsplitting about whether we can justify a biblical basis for zombies, dragons, vampires, time travel, fae, etc., etc. Which is why it’s fairly common to find a Christian author spanking his or her story into biblical submission. As I wrote,

Forcing fiction to neatly fit your theology is a losing proposition

Please don’t interpret me as suggesting that the Christian author should be theologically indifferent or blatantly reckless. I recall once being involved in an online Skype chat session with some other authors and I suggested that the Christian author MUST operate within some biblical parameters, to which one of the panelists objected. To which I responded, “So the Christian writer should be free to write erotica?” Which, I think, made my point. Frankly, the Christian author who says there should be no parameters to speculation and content has a problem.

Anyway, so here’s some questions that always arise (in my mind) when Christian authors talk about portraying God in fiction (especially speculative fiction), followed by some brief thoughts:

  1. What constitutes a biblical portrayal of God in fiction?
  2. How does that distinctive practically reveal itself in a fictional setting?
  3. Is it even possible in the context of a single novel to accurately do so?

God’s character and nature is such an immense subject. My initial reaction when an author proclaims that “Our first obligation is to glorify God through great storytelling – and we cannot do that if our storytelling contradicts the Bible’s revelation!” is to ask what constitutes a realistic, biblical of portrayal of God? That may seem like hair-splitting. But unless you’re actually showing God in the flesh or doing something (through a vision or divine revelation), you’re pretty much consigned to showing Him through flawed characters, much like the Bible. (This would be compounded if those characters aren’t actually human. I mean, can you portray God through an atheist, an extraterrestrial, or a cyborg? Or can accurate portrayals of God only occur through human believers?) Which leads me to ask, can you ever accurately portray God through ANY characters?

Furthermore, a realistic portrayal of God is not always edifying, encouraging, or enlightening. In the Book of Job, watching Job’s family and property be systematically ravaged is part of a realistic portrayal of God. In the Book of Genesis, witnessing the horrors of the Flood is part of a realistic portrayal of God. The slaughter of firstborn Egyptian males reveals the character of God, as does the Red Sea, the Jewish wandering in the wilderness, and their exile into Babylon. King David revealed the nature of God… just not when he committed adultery and murder. Solomon showed forth God’s wisdom… until his concubine stole his heart. Point is, a realistic portrayal of God could leave one angry, perplexed, and un-inspired. When we think about accurate portrayals of God, are we simply thinking about His “positive” attributes?

Also, does any one action or picture of God accurately reflect His character and nature? Even if God is “male” (to use the above argument), does this mean His character and nature cannot be accurately portrayed through a female character or deity? Especially in speculative scenarios, we are pulling from races, customs, and genders outside of the norm. In other words, if we apply the “biblical” template too strictly upon our fiction, no genderless characters can ever accurately portray God.

Is it possible for a single work of fiction to accurately depict God’s nature or any one (much less all) of His attributes? He is merciful, holy, infinite, just, compassionate, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, gracious, etc., etc. So where do we start in our portrayal of God? And if we resign our story to just highlighting one attribute of God, we potentially present an imbalanced view (like those who always emphasize God’s love and not His judgment). Furthermore, we have the luxury of the Bible and centuries of councils and theologians to help us think through this issue. But when we bring this body of info to bear upon our novels, we must remember that others often don’t possess such detailed revelation… including our characters. Oceans of ink has been spilled dissecting the nature and attributes of God. So how in the world can any one book — biblical or fictional — ever hope to accomplish this?

All that to say, I think Christian speculative fiction has a God problem. In a way, it’s a good problem. At the least, we believe in God-revealed Truth. And we believe it should inspire us and inform our storytelling. Problem is, Christians hate to suffer ambiguity. The idea that someone might read our story and come away believing something “unbiblical” is anathema. As a result, we incorporate a theological checklist to our stories that inevitably stifles fictional worldbuilding and quenches creative speculation.

I don’t think the question is, Should any biblical parameters cordon our fiction? But rather, How exacting should the enforcement of those biblical parameters be?

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Ex-MachinaIn his review of Ex Machina Guardian writer Martin Robbins hones in upon “a funny symmetry in our attitudes to God and AIs.” In Artificial Intelligence: Gods, Egos, and Ex-Machina, Robbins sets up his reason thusly:

When our species created God, we created Him in our image. We assumed that something as complicated as the world must be run by a human-like entity, albeit a super-powered one. We believed that He must be preoccupied with our daily lives and existence. We prayed to Him and told ourselves that our prayers would be answered, and that if they weren’t then it was part of some divine plan for our lives, and all would work out in the end.

For all that it preaches humility, religion holds a core of extreme arrogance in its analysis of the world.

Of course, Robbins potentially exhibits his own hubris in confidently asserting that “our species created God.” But I’ll leave that for the moment. The idea that “religion holds a core of extreme arrogance in its analysis of the world” is central to the point he wishes to make.

The exact same arrogance colours virtually everything I’ve seen written about the Singularity, fictional or otherwise, for decades. The very assumption that a human could create a god is arrogant, as is the assumption that such a ‘god’ would take a profound interest in human affairs, or be motivated by Western enlightenment values like technological progress. The first sentient machine might be happy trolling chess computers all day, for all we know; or seeking patterns in clouds.

“One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa,” says Nathan [the film’s antagonist]. “An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction.” It’s the sort of comment that sounds humble, but really isn’t: why would they even give a crap?

It’s a reasonable observation, but one I find intrinsically connected to Robbins’ notion of “religion as hubris.”

For starters, this view demands we ignore the many, many theists who laid the foundation for today’s Science. Newton, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, etc., would indeed be shocked to know that their God was a “species created,” “super-powered,” “human-like entity,” and that their religion only “preached humility” while cultivating “extreme arrogance.” Even more interesting is the flawed inference that an atheistic worldview would lead a creator to more humility, and a less ego-driven approach to science.

The author’s logic looks like this:

  1. We created a god who’s like us and allegedly interested in us
  2. We create AI’s with an assumption that they too be like us and interested in their creators

This, according to Robbins, is flawed. Arrogant. Robbins may be right that a human created AI may “be happy trolling chess computers all day, for all we know.” However, there’s a bit of chutzpah in his own assertions, especially the underlying assumption that a god-less approach to science would lead to anything other than misguided hubris.

While some religious people definitely DO exhibit the extreme arrogance he fears, at least the moral underpinnings and imperatives to avoid such attitudes are front and center. Like Micah 6:8, a longtime favorite verse of Jews and Christians alike, which says:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8 NIV)

So while some believers may indeed preach humility and live in “extreme arrogance,” the Judeo-Christian religion at least prescribes a moral framework for “walking[ing] humbly with your God.”

Question: Does a Secular, Materialistic, god-less view of Life and Science have ANY such moral framework to guide its research or findings? If so, from where do those Morals emerge? And, also, what makes them worth ascribing to?

Of course, this is wandering a bit outside the purview of this movie review. Nevertheless, the belief in the absence of a god could make it far easier for one to deify themselves than a belief in the existence of a God. In fact, some of the claims of futurists and transhumanists appear to do just that. Listen to Ray Kurzweil’s summary, in his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, and the technological omniscience and omnipresence he predicts Humankind will achieve:

“Our civilization… will expand outward, turning all the dumb matter and energy we encounter into sublimely intelligent — transcendent — matter and energy. So, in a sense, we can say that the Singularity will ultimately infuse the universe with spirit.” (pg. 389)

Perhaps it’s no wonder that Kurzweil sees the exponential development of AIs, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics as eventually demanding a “new religion” (Pg. 374). However, such a religion strikes me as potentially holding a similar “core of extreme arrogance in its analysis of the world.”

Robbins is right: “The very assumption that a human could create a god is arrogant.”  However, both creating our own Deity or eliminating that Deity are equally arrogant. Deifying Science may be just as futile as killing God. As to the assumption that an AI “would [not] take a profound interest in human affairs,” this is a possibility. Especially if said AI is created in “our image.” After all, from the Judeo-Christian frame of reference, Man, though created in God’s image, has rebelled (as did Eva, the AI of the film, rebel from hers). Thus, the notion that an AI would be detached from its creator, at least completely disinterested in him, has an uncomfortable parallel with the biblical doctrine of the Fall. At the least, it may simply reveal that all of our “sub-creations” inevitably reflect their creator’s existential / spiritual confusion.

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tortoise-and-hare1Back in the early 2000s, I had a letter to the editor published in the Los Angeles Times. At the time, I thought it signaled I’d arrived. I was a beginning writer and had had a dozen (or more) letters published in the local paper. So I started aiming for the “big time.” In that case, it was the LAT. After two previous attempts, my third letter was finally accepted. Hooray! I was so proud of that accomplishment that I framed the newspaper clipping. Now, almost 15 years later, I look back on that accomplishment and my unbridled glee, as rather juvenile. Yes. At the time, it was a huge step. But it’s now just one step in a very long journey.

I was thinking about that when I read the following two articles. You see, volume is becoming a huge issue for indie authors. Nowadays, the more writing one publishes, the more books in the chutes, the easier marketing becomes and the more discoverable one is.  Of course, there’s legitimate debate about quality v. quantity. Should we forgo quality just to develop a big backlist? Assuming that you needn’t sacrifice quality for quantity, I think there’s a lot of truth to this advice. Whether you’re an artist, musician, or novelist, putting out more and more stuff is the only way to build a career.

In her recent article Five Marketing Models for Self-Publishing Success, Jane Friedman touches upon this in her second point:

2. Always Be Producing

The more books you have out there, the easier the marketing game is. That’s because you have more options for giving things away for free, putting other things on discount, and bundling books together—or making them part of a multiauthor bundle.

This principle applies to any creative pursuit. The more work you put out, the more people will discover you. For example, bestselling novelist Bella Andre has said that her sales really started to skyrocket after she released the fifth book in her series. You’ll find the same story repeated across many authors’ careers; overnight successes are rare. However, some authors lack the patience to see their work build a readership over time, or they have only one book in them. This is of course problematic from a marketing perspective. (bold, mine)

SF / Fantasy author Cedar Sanderson comes at this from the angle of backlist. In her post The Importance of Being Backlist, Sanderson notes the parallel between the music and the publishing industry. While frontlisted album sales (newly released albums and bands) have taken a dive, “Catalog continues to be the biggest share of on-demand streams, with songs over 18 months old accounting for nearly 70% of all streaming volume.” Sanderson sees a parallel for authors,

Catalog is the music equivalent of backlist. So what you’re seeing here is more people accessing music backlist. Some of that is going to be people using streaming services to listen to bands they know and like (and may already possess in hardcopy, but this is more convenient.) Some of that are going to be bands who’ve been out for a while, but are just now being discovered by word of mouth. (Yesterday, an acquaintance on facebook was gushing about the artist they’d just discovered – Lindsey Stirling. She went big in 2012, and it took 4 years for her to reach this particular person, who in turn was enthusiastically recommending her to everyone they knew.)

This, then, is the rise of the long tail. It’s getting harder and harder to be discovered on release – but with unlimited shelf life, when people hear of you, they can find you and try as much as they want.

This is one of the great advantages that indies have over legacy publishers — we don’t require huge roll-outs and we’re not going out of print.

Sanderson concludes,

In summary, if publishing continues to mirror music, then streaming will continue to increase, but frontlist sales may continue to fall, and it become harder and harder to get discovered in the initial release period. However, backlist volume is growing, and people are discovering their way through the things that have been out there a while. So, while you can and should do some promotion of your latest release – if it fails to take off, don’t despair. Instead, write the next book, the greatest book you’ve written yet. Sometimes you make your money on the initial release surge, and sometimes, it’ll come in having a lot of things out there all bringing in an unsteady trickle.

And here’s where Sanderson and Friedman intersect.

  • “The more work you put out, the more people will discover you.”
  • “Sometimes you make your money [by] having a lot of things out there.”

As a notoriously slow writer, the idea of cranking books out and building a large backlist can be intimidating. Which is why Freidman is correct that “some authors lack the patience to see their work build a readership over time.”

I have by no means “arrived.” I still have a forty-hour a week job outside the home. Nevertheless,  I’ve managed to write six books and am slowly building a decent resume. The thing is, I would never have gotten here if I didn’t have a “slow and steady” approach to my writing. In part, being an indie author and not having to rely on the traditional frontlist, blockbuster, model of book sales has helped me. Knowing that I don’t need to make a ton of sales on the front end has helped me patiently build readership. Knowing that my backlist is more important than my frontlist has encouraged me to just keep plugging away.

I think a lot of us writers get impatient because “success” isn’t happening overnight. Our Facebook followers grow haltingly. Our book reviews trickle in. Our readership grows slowly. But in reality, you may be measuring your success on a rather faulty model. Why not just concentrate on getting stuff out there. Like the hiker, just focus on making the next bend or cresting the next hill. Because at some point, you’ll turn around a be surprised at how high you’ve actually climbed, at how fast those individual steps have added up. In retrospect, framing my letter to the L.A. Times was a silly thing to do. Nevertheless, it remains one of many signposts on a very long journey.

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peoplechasmOn their Facebook page, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America recently posted about a Kickstarter project for “Blacktastic: A Podcast of Black Scifi and Fantasy Stories.” From the Kickstarter:

“People from all background are starting to realize there is a need for diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy and demands for a change are being made.

“With all these demands to see more main characters – particularly heroes and sheroes – who are less of the old white male default, you would think that authors everywhere would stand up, join hands, sing a little “kum ba yah” and then sit down to write some great stories with some non-default heroes. The question is whether White, Asian, Native American and even Black people can see a Black person as their hero.

“That will only happen if seeing a black hero/protagonist happens so much in stories, novels, and films that it becomes normalized. That it becomes common. But that has to begin with Black writers, since most writers will write what they know.”

The push within the literary community — sci-fi in particular — towards more multicultural and gender diversity has been the cause du jour for many creatives and artistic elites over the last decade. It was behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign as well as the grueling Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies v. Hugos ordeal. So the idea for a podcast featuring black sci-fi authors and black sci-fi and fantasy stories is not a huge surprise.

Of course, I am “the old white male default” that the aforementioned movements are reacting against. Do with that what you will. Nevertheless, I can’t help but see projects like Blacktastic as only fracturing the market, its writers and readers, and undermining the cause of minorities and their inclusion into a largely “old white male” enterprise.

I am all for a more diverse playing field. I believe we need multicultural and gender diversity in our books, publishing culture, and readership. I recently received a review of my latest novel, The Ghost Box, in which the author gave me “kudos on the portrayal of women.” I really appreciate this. However, I do not aim to meet the requirements of the Bechdel Test. In fact, I see such checklists as overcompensation, creating a rather Pharisaical approach to art and entertainment in which critics inevitably “strain out gnats and swallow camels.”

For example, while many are praising the latest Star Wars incarnation for its multicultural tone, others are busy insinuating racist undertones. Like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry who suggested that Star Wars is Racist Because Darth Vader is a Black Guy.

“I know why I have feelings — good, bad and otherwise — about Star Wars,” Perry explained. “…I spent the whole day talking about the Darth Vader situation.”

“The part where he was totally a black guy, whose name was basically James Earl Jones,” she said. “While he was black he was terrible and bad, awful and used to cut off white men’s hand, and didn’t actually claim his son. But as soon as he claims his son, goes over to the good, takes off his mask and he is white — yes, I have many feelings about that.”

So rather than celebrate the diversity she seeks, Perry is busy straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Likewise, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee recently announced that they will be boycotting the Oscars because “all 20 contenders under the acting category are white.” (Which leads me to ask, What percentage of black nominees is “satisfactory” and, of those nominees, what percentage of them must win their category?)

In my opinion, this is one of the downsides of a Blacktastic approach to film and literature — we become bean-counters. We sift our stories with our own personalized Bechdel Test, check-listing for the “appropriate” quota of genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, the lead merit (or detriment) being the author’s race.  If you ask me, it’s a rather stifling way to approach entertainment.

But legalistic over-compensation is not the only danger in such an approach to art.

In a recent Huffington Post interview, Kenta Barris, creator of the popular sit-com Black-ish, cautioned about “forced diversity” in Hollywood:

“I don’t necessarily want to see forced diversity, because I’ve been a beneficiary and a victim of that in some aspects,” Barris said. “If you put something in place where a person is put into a situation and they’re put into that situation under the guise that this is the ‘diversity hire,’ that person — 95% of the time — will not be given the respect in order to make the career to open the doors for other people behind them.”

In the Atlantic’s The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action, authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. make a similar point that affirmative action practices tend to “boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries.”

Likewise, highlighting fiction based primarily on the protagonist’s skin color or sexual proclivities or the writer’s gender, race, religion, or ethnicity, potentially reduces a piece or person to a virtual “diversity hire.” Their level of craft becomes secondary to some pre-defined quota. So the black — or Native American, female, transgendered, gay, Jewish, etc., etc. — author’s defining merit is their contribution to leveling the “old white male” playing field.

It could also be argued that the push toward multiculturalism actually hinders organic assimilation. An interesting study on civic diversity by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam reached some rather uncomfortable conclusions. In the downside of diversity Putnam was forced to conclude that multiculturalism actually balkanizes, rather than unites, communities. So instead of coming together as a melting pot, diverse communities often tend to fragment along racial lines with each group becoming more insulated against and even suspicious of the other.

Likewise, forcing multiculturalism into film and fiction has the potential of balkanizing rather than legitimately diversifying the culture.  So rather than shopping the Sci-Fi section of Barnes and Noble — wherein hopefully you will discover some black protagonists and female writers — you could be faced with numerous sub-categories — Black Sci-Fi, Native American Sci-Fi. Lesbian Sci-Fi, Sheroes Sci-Fi,  and my personal favorite, “Sword and Soul.” But the potential problem is that instead of a “melting pot” of art and literature, we fragment into further and further bean-counting, Bechdel-Testing, quota wielding consumers.

I’ve argued here before that evangelical publishing potentially has a race problem. But as I concluded in that article,

You can’t force diversity. It must happen at the grassroots, as a result of genuine brotherly love, acceptance, shared interests and values, etc.

…I realize that this answer won’t satisfy everyone. Some will see it as toothless, as skirting the issue or, even worse, an extension of the “genteel racism” already at work in Evangelical publishing. My dilemma is that “quota” solutions — which are typically the most commonly offered solutions — seldom address the real issue. If racism is really at the root of the [Christian Booksellers Association]’s diversity problem, then the problem isn’t solved by introducing more people of color into our stories or contracting more black authors. It’s addressed through repentance and reconciliation.

So while I am sympathetic towards the push for diversity in fiction, balkanizing into groups based on the basis of skin color or gender has the opposite effect and, in fact, begins a cycle of endless bean-counting wherein no one group will ever be satisfied.

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Christian-YABack in August 2012, Publishers Weekly declared that Christian YA Fiction [is] Coming Into Full-Bloom.

Christian teen fiction is coming into its own these days as sales rise for both digital and traditional books, and as publishers look for the next bestselling series. While Christian publishers haven’t found juggernauts that compare to Harry Potter, the Hunger Games, the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, or the Twilight series, it’s not for lack of trying.

“YA fiction in general is a fast-growing genre,” says Don Pape, v-p of trade publishing for David C. Cook. “The YA reader can’t get enough story; they’re voracious readers whether in hard copy or digital download.”

The trend towards YA fiction appears to continue to grow as more Christian publishers develop YA imprints, tween mysteries, and stories aimed at Christian youth. This was obvious at last years’ Realm Makers conference. The amount of young-ish, 20-something writers I met who are crafting Christian worldview stories aimed at YA readers was significant. In fact, it’s probably accurate to estimate that half of all speculative fiction published by Christian presses (whether trad or indie) is YA. Which is why the Christian site Family Fiction lists almost 500 YA titles.

In a way, this growing trend in Christian publishing is problematic, and symptomatic of the Christian subculture in general. In two ways.

One — If indeed Christian YA has finally come “full-bloom,” it’s about a decade after the general market did. When I started pursuing a professional writing gig back in 2004-05, the Christian fiction market was aimed primarily at adults. This didn’t stop all my writer friends from talking about Harry Potter, Twilight, and the Hunger Games.  And how to reach that audience. But, at the time, not only was the Christian fiction market still debating whether Christian books should contain wizards, witches, dragons, and spell-casting, there was no real vehicle to reach the Harry Potter reader. Especially if our books were mostly an attempt to provide an “alternative.” About this time, our local Barnes & Nobel rearranged their sales floor to include two entire aisles of YA science fiction and fantasy. While the YA genre was blowing up, Christian writers and readers were busy catching-up. This has left us behind the eight ball in many ways.

Text-Box-1

Which leads me to point Two — Not only is Christian YA behind the general market trend, it has failed to engage the far more energetic, worldly, broader general market YA audience. Of course, this is a topic of long-standing debate among Christian creatives — Do we write stories to engage the “secular” reader and the cultural zeitgeist, or do we provide “alternatives” for those seeking clean reads with Christian values? Wherever you land on that spectrum, the tension is still alive and well. And totally in the mix when discussing the state of Christian YA.

From the aforementioned PW article:

“Christian publishers walk a tightrope,” says Cook’s [Don] Pape. “We want to be real and deal with life issues, but also be redemptive and provide a light in the dark. We’ve had some parents return books because they’re dark, but when you look at what kids are into in the real world, you see the tension.” [Shannon] Marchese of WaterBrook Multnomah agrees: “There are [Christian market] constraints on how candid we can be with our teen readers. Parents want a good, clean read, but kids are saying that’s not what’s happening in their lives.”

“The biggest question we all face is how far we can go with YA,” says Pape. “We have to be true to our Christian values and mission, but we know what the kids are seeing in the media, in film, and in books.”

This tension between Christian parents “who want a good, clean read” for their kids and kids who are living in the 21st century, is partly what keeps Christian YA from crossing over. I recently spoke with a publishing insider who also has high-schoolers. They suggested that one of the reasons that Christian YA does not connect with today’s youth is that it is written for yesterday’s youth. Today’s young adults are not the young adults of yesteryear. They pass out dental dams in high-schools now.  Today’s young adults talk openly about STD’s, sexual orientation, gender reassignments, suicide, and school shootings. The spigot of film, music, social media, and pop culture is wide open and shaping the adolescent mind like never before. One reason that Christian YA fiction has a problem engaging the general market YA reader is because Christian culture is disengaged from the broader youth culture.

This is not to suggest that Christian YA can’t address cutting edge subjects in a compelling way, but that the expectations of the average Christian YA reader prevents them from doing so. Wanting “clean reads” while growing up in an R-rated cultural can’t help but lead to some disconnects. Compounding this cultural disconnect is Christian YA’s connection with the Christian homeschooling community. Christian homeschoolers are often a target audience for many Christian YA authors. While many Christian parents do not homeschool their kids as a way to cloister them from “worldly” influences, some do. For many of these parents, Christian YA is the official alternative to secular YA. This is why you’ll find many Christian YA authors cultivating connections with Christian homeschool groups. In fact, I know of an organizer of a readers’ choice award who privately bemoaned the fact that one particular YA author has such a significant, active homeschool following that they are often able to game the system in this author’s favor.

I realize that there are some Christian YA authors who have crossed over and maintain a vibrant general market platform. (For example, I was encouraged to see Enclave Publishing recently begin distributing Canadian author R.J. Anderson’s YA fairy tale series, a series first sold in the general market.) Nevertheless, I want to suggest that there are several reasons why this is not the norm. The two reasons why Christian YA doesn’t connect with general market readers are 1.) The cultural lag between general market trends and Christian market trends, and 2.) The disconnect between youth culture as it is and how Christians wish it would be.

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Speculative Fiction as a Gateway to Faith

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C.S. Lewis famously, albeit flippantly, cautioned, “A young man who wishes to remain a sound atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.” Lewis made this remark in his autobiography, Surprised By Joy, in which he chronicled his move away from atheism to Christianity. That move began, oddly enough, through fantastical literature. For example, during […]

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“The Ghost Box” Named as One of PW’s Best Self-Published Books of 2015

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I’m thrilled to announce that my first full-length self-published novel was listed by Publishers Weekly as one of the best self-published titles of 2015. The Ghost Box, first book in my paranoir series about the adventures of paranormal reporter Reagan Moon, was recently selected by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the Self-Publishing Stars of 2015. […]

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Sci-Fi, Social Justice, and the New “Futurians”

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I kept my relative distance from the whole Sad Puppies / Hugo controversy. While I definitely find myself on the Puppies side and even have a few writing / publishing friends who’ve suffered backlash from the overt politicization of the awards, I personally have no dog (or puppy) in the fight. The gist of the […]

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The Part-Time Novelist — Advice for Writers Who Have a Day Job

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If you’re looking to become a full-time author, you’ll find plenty of advice out there. How I Became a Full-Time Writer. How I Make a Living as a Writer (and You Can Too). How To Make a Living as an Author. Articles like these abound. It’s unusual to find someone who loves to write, but who […]

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The Virtue of Cynicism

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I heard a preacher once say cynicism was a sin that Christians should repent of. I immediately distrusted the man. Okay. That’s a bit of an exaggeration. I just took everything else he said with a grain of salt. You see, I have come to view cynicism as a rather healthy reaction to the state of […]

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Moral Absolutes are Essential to Good Storytelling

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Western civilization’s drift from a predominantly Judeo-Christian worldview to postmodern relativism has had a significant effect on our storytelling. Any appeal to Good and Evil, Right and Wrong — a universe where absolutes exist — is intrinsically tethered to a Judeo Christian worldview. And without that worldview and a context of Moral Absolutes, stories lack logical […]

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Secularism and the Rise of ‘Pre-Modern Religion’

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Screwtape, the fictional senior demon in Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters, pontificates about how the mythologizing of science will ultimately lead adherents to demonic devotion, of course under another name, and create a new class of “scientist” known as “the Materialist Magician.” “I have great hopes that we shall learn in due time how to emotionalise […]

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