I received an interesting review of The Ghost Box the other day. The review was titled, “A great story, but it lacked the deeper meaning I was expecting” and followed by a three-star (actually 3.5, but you can’t do half-stars on Amazon) rating. The reader said,GhostBox_3D

If I was giving a rating based on the quality of the writing and the story alone I would actually have given it 5 stars. The story intrigued me from the beginning and kept me wanting to read just a few more pages every time I sat down with it. The story is well thought out and kept me guessing.

This is very encouraging indeed. And much appreciated. Sincerely. But then the reviewer clarifies what caused him to subtract stars:

My only disappointment with this book is that since it is written by a pastor/author/blogger (I have followed his blog for a while now and love it.) I thought there would be more of a spiritual tie into the story. I kept waiting for it to come and was left disappointed. Duran wrote a book about the genre of Christian Horror novels, and I know he has spoken on the topic at writers’ conferences. I enjoyed the book a lot, I just didn’t feel like there was much take away value from it. Maybe I missed a bigger picture or something, but I finished the book expecting a lesson learned, or a deeper meaning and I was disappointed when it was over.

This is something I’ve really wrestled with since deciding to write for the general market. I’ve built my “brand” around noodling over theology and culture, and wrestling with the intersection of art and faith. It’s still surprising to me how many of my readers spend time on my blog or know me through my social media presence. But that also has a drawback. In this case, because the reviewer knows I am an ordained minister, that I have written about Christian themes, and published in Christian fiction circles, he was expecting to find a “deeper meaning” in my novel.

Question: Is that a good or bad thing?

Contrast that with an older gentleman I spoke with last month who just gushed about my stuff. He said he’s read everything of mine and will be the first one in line for my next Reagan Moon novel. He spent the rest of the conversation talking about how a Christian worldview just shone through the story — an unbeliever (a slacker, as Kirk DouPonce put it) coming face to face with the Invisible and being challenged to lay hold of a much higher calling. It was one of those conversations that leaves a writer buzzing. Hey, someone “got” it.

I suppose the natural reaction, in the case of the review above, is for me to want to explain the “deeper meaning” of The Ghost Box. I want to sit down with this reviewer and have a Beer Summit. I want to listen to his take and then dissect a couple scenes in the book for him. But writers aren’t supposed to do that. Writers aren’t supposed to worry over people’s opinions and niggle over their stuff. And, to be honest, that novel was less about including some profound meaning than just having fun. I wanted the story to be a fun, fast-paced, over-the-top, but satisfying ride. And I think I accomplished that.

Perhaps the bigger problem here is… I wasn’t aiming exclusively at Christian readers. And this is where things get sticky. The reviewer concluded,

As I said before, based solely on the story and writing I would have given this 5 stars, but by calling it Christian Horror/Paranormal I was expecting some take away from the story at the end and was disappointed. (emphasis mine)

So here’s the thing: I don’t / didn’t label The Ghost Box “Christian” anything.


The Ghost Box marked a significant turning point for me. I’d published almost exclusively in the Christian market but wanted to break away, to broaden my reach. So I toned down (you could say, eliminated) overt Gospel messages and specifically DID NOT attach the word “Christian” to the book’s label. As you can see in the Amazon BISACs, The Ghost Box is Science Fiction, Fantasy, Paranormal, Urban Fantasy and Teen & Young Adult. Any suggestion that The Ghost Box is Christian Fiction is entirely on the part of readers. Can a Christian reader find something to enjoy in the novel? I think so. But my bigger hope is that fans of Urban Fantasy will enjoy it. Which, apparently, creates a bit of a limbo.

Perhaps this is just a lesson in branding. Some people know me as a Christian writer and blogger. Nothing wrong with that. Nor am I trying to distance myself from that label. So should these readers expect “deeper meaning” in my novels, primarily ones aimed at the mainstream market? Perhaps this is the big problem with being a crossover novelist — you want to respect your existing readership while seeking to gain new readership. The problem is, some readers might expect “deeper meaning” in everything I write.

(And, to be clear, this is NOT a smackdown of this particular reviewer. I genuinely appreciate people taking a chance on my books, as I do this reader. His review is fair and, frankly, it’s a plus to get reviews. Period. I write this only as an example of some of the potential branding problems a crossover novelist might encounter and whether or not Christian readers, fairly or unfairly, import expectations into our reading.)

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As part of my ongoing series on Christian creatives in the general market, I was thrilled to catch up with author KEVIN LUCIA. Kevin’s stories have appeared in numerous outlets including Shroud magazine, Cthulu Mythos, and Shock Totem. His most recent novel, Through a Mirror, Darkly, not only has a killer cover, but has been receiving some great critical reviews. Kevin was gracious enough to answer a few questions about the difficulties and opportunities of being a Christian while writing for a mainstream audience.

* * *

MIKE: Kevin, thanks for joining us today. When we first met, you were still debating shopping your stories in the CBA  (Christian Booksellers Association). Obviously, that changed and since then, you’ve built a significant platform writing for the “secular” market. This has to be a bit of a tightrope. So how do you navigate being a Christian while writing fiction for a general market audience?Kevin-Lucia

KEVIN: I guess it depends largely on your perspective. Are you planning Sunday School lessons for those in the church to learn from, or creating art for all mankind to appreciate and enjoy? In my opinion, art (and even that’s so subjective a field), has a much stronger impact when it works through subtleties and thematic treatments. At the end of the day, people are probably going to easily guess my worldview and beliefs, based on the subject matter I choose to write about. There may not be anything inherently “Christian” about any of my stories, there may not even be any Christians in the story, and the stories may also be pretty dark and damn depressing, but they dwell consistently on topics of faith, belief in a higher power or the existence of a higher power, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, or the inherent flaws that humanity – humanity on its own – suffers from: pride, anger, jealousy, vice, bigotry, hatred. To me, even if I use profane language or drug use or violence or even things of sexual nature to build characterization, if I’m highlighting humanity’s strengths – found in faith, belief, love, endurance, courage and bravery – or shining an uncompromising light on our weaknesses, I’m remaining true to my faith and my worldview.

And on a personal note, I tried writing a “Christian novel” with all the right words and doctrine and theology. There was no joy in the endeavor. It felt like a student dutifully filling out their homework, and nothing more. And ironically, my “spiritual temperature” was far LOWER when I was trying to write a “Christian” novel.

MIKE: Christian writers often view their craft in terms of a “calling” or a “ministry.” That seems a lot easier to do when writing just for Christians and selling your books in the church library. What about you? Do you consider your writing career a “spiritual calling” or “ministry”?

KEVIN: Again, itThrough-a-mirror depends. When God made me, He stamped lots of things on me: Father, Husband, Teacher, Athlete, Lover of Books…and Writer. I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I’ve loved books, so it was obviously meant to be. But as a horror writer, my “ministry” comes out in different ways: how I conduct myself when around my peers (mostly secular) at Conventions. How I treat other writers. How professionally I conduct myself when working with publishers, or, my work ethic as a writer, or when I’ve worked for publications as an editor. Am I kind and considerate and polite? Do I bother getting into all the “scuffles” that break out in the genre, or I’m focused on my writing, doing it for the love of it? I’ve had several people in the horror industry comment on my noticeable faith and spirituality – without me ever telling them about it, or even talking about it very much. That, to me, is my ministry.

MIKE:  A common complaint of Christian authors seeking to write for a broader audience is feeling stuck in no-man’s land, struggling to communicate spiritual concepts to non-religious readers. As a result, they often find themselves stuck between two markets. What would you advise an author who says their story is “too worldly” for the Christian market and “too Christian” for the general market?

KEVIN: All snarkiness aside – even considering my own misgivings in writing Christian fiction – I’d first suggest they get a real HONEST assessment of where their growth is as a writer. I hid behind that excuse for many years, when in reality I wasn’t a strong writer at the time. I’ve found that while the “too worldly” for the Christian market may hold some validity, if you’re striving for “art” and not “Sunday school lesson,” if your writing is of high quality, then you’ll find your readers in the secular market, (though it may be harder to find a “Big 5” publisher.) As a horror writer, I’ve had no issues finding readers of all stripes, and have been pleasantly surprised as to how many of them consider themselves to be Christians. There are thousands of Christian readers who don’t read Christian fiction at all. I’m one of them…

MIKE: So what advice would you give to a Christian novelist who is seeking to change from writing for the Christian market to the general market?

KEVIN: As a writer – focus on the story you want to tell. Let the story “be the boss,” as Stephen King says in On Writing. Even if you throw every Christian character and subplot to the wind, WHO YOU ARE will still shine through. People will still be able to tell. Although, I feel this is kind of a moot point. Either you’re the kind of Christian writer who works through themes, or you prefer a “three points and a prayer” storytelling method. Myself, I’ve never wanted my writing to inform or influence anyone’s spiritual journey. I’m a storyteller, a gabber, a teller of tall tales and yarns, not a theologian. If my stories edify or merely entertain, I’m equally happy both ways. Professionally, I’m less sure on that score. I ultimately decided to begin my career in the secular market, because I figured it would be easier to write something for the Christian market AFTER, than to try and cross over to the secular market after starting my career in the Christian market.

* * *

Great stuff, Kevin!

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My workshop at the Realm Makers 2015 conference on “A Theology of Horror” was very well-attended. But, man, it just flew by. We had a few technical problems and less than an hour to cover 50-plus slides worth of material. I was speaking a hundred miles an hour and still only managed to cover half my notes. For that reasons, I figured I’d provide a link to my Google Slides presentation. The material is pretty dense, but it should give you an idea of my approach to the subject.


Of course, in my latest non-fic study, Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, I expand upon this material in more detail. And if you’re a conference organizer and think this material would fit with your events, or if you’re simply interested in discussing this topic further via blog interview, podcasts, etc. feel free to contact me via email or my other social media outlets. Thanks!

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Scene from "War Room"

Scene from “War Room”

The most surprising thing about the recent release of War Room, the latest faith-based film made for Christian audiences, is not the critical drubbing it’s received from reviewers (Christian and mainstream alike), but how well it’s done at the box office. To the chagrin of its critics, in it’s second week of release, War Room secured the number one box office spot. Of course, some explain this as a marketing and logistics issue.  A”religious drama explicitly pitched to religious moviegoers with a history of turning out for movies of this nature” and opening “at the tail end of the summer without any other competition of note”was a recipe for success. Still, the reviews have been scathing. And the film’s box office receipts only rub salt in the critic’s wound.

Some, like this review from Christianity Today, while offering constructive criticisms and alternative fare, still charge the film with being “a sermon illustration, not a movie,” having “lazy writing,” and offering “easy fixes” to life’s problems (i.e., just pray really hard). Others go deeper, faulting the filmmaker’s theology. In Genie Jesus and the War Room Problem, John Mark Reynolds concludes,

Let’s be blunt: this is not so much a Christian film as a perversion of Christianity driven by a consumerist American heresy. We have reduced God to wish fulfillment and a person created in God’s image. Genie Jesus is not part of the Holy Trinity and if he exists then he is whimsical and unworthy of worship. Genie Jesus answers some prayers (Did the person pray hard enough? Use the right words? Screw up their faith to the sticking point?) while he ignores others.

…Sadly, most “faith based” films are the products of a theologically impoverished Christianity that produces bad art. One suspects the profit motive is as great as the prophetic motive: sincere people will accept inferior films in the name of the message. That we turn of[f] a generation and make our non-Christian neighbors less likely to be Christian matters little. (bold, mine)

This reviewer flat-out calls the film’s (and filmmakers’) theology “heresy.” Then there’s this vitriolic, profanity-laced, rant/review in The Stranger:

The surprise box-office hit War Room is bad. Not just bad in the acting and the dialogue and the story line. It’s bad in the greater sense of good and evil, light and dark. This movie is bad and dangerous and wrong, and it should not exist. I’m angry that someone made it, and I’m angry that I watched it.

…This movie should offend any person, especially any Christian, who believes that God is a loving God. This is not what love looks like. And this is not what faith looks like. If any movie could make one lose faith in God, this would be it.

For the record, I’m not a big fan of contemporary evangelical films. Or “Christian art” in general. In fact, I’d probably share many of the sentiments of these critics, especially the idea that “theologically impoverished Christianity” inevitable “produces bad art.” Nevertheless, as a Christian artist and as someone who wants to see more Christian artists at work in the arts, I find myself conflicted about cinematic efforts like War Room. On the one hand, cheesy art is a terrible witness. And if, as some of these critics assert, unorthodox or heretical beliefs are at its core, that problematic witness is exponentially compounded. Yet in a purely pragmatic sense, giving Christian artists room to grow, room to ply their craft, room to make mistakes and develop, and room to compete in the pop cultural marketplace, is in the long-run a good thing.

In this sense, I wonder if the critical drubbing War Room has received from Christian critics will lead to better films made by Christians or just more of the same.

A similar debate occurred with the release of the last big Christian film Courageous. Author and cultural commentator Andy Crouch’s take about that film (and Christian critics’ responses)  has always stuck with me. I think it’s applicable here. Crouch wrote:

I’ve seen neither FIREPROOF nor COURAGEOUS. My friends who know movies are pretty skeptical of their artistic merits (to say the least). For my part, I suspect they are pretty thin artistic efforts (like an awful lot of stuff that passes for cultural creativity from Hollywood itself). But I celebrate them, for two simple reasons.

First, it is better to create something worth criticizing than to criticize and create nothing.

Second, one or two Christian kids with real talent somewhere in this vast land are going to see these movies, get the sacred-secular dichotomy knocked out of them at an early age, move to LA, work their tails off, dream, fail, and try again . . . and one day make truly great movies. These movies are significant not for their own excellence but for the door they open to cultural creativity that the church never should have lost. (emphasis mine)

This is a gracious response, and frankly, it’s a response I often lack. It’s also a response I see lacking in many of my Christian brethren regarding War Room. It seems to be becoming trendy to slam Christian films. I mean, what better way to elevate your cultural cred and distance yourself from those whack evangelicals than by hating on the cheesy films they make? However, does it help anyone — either Christian artists or consumers — to sit in judgment of such efforts?

Many would say “no.” Who are you to determine what’s excellent anyway? they’d retort. People are inspired, lives are changed, by Christian films like Courageous and Fireproof. That’s proof enough of their effectiveness. So why nit-pick over technicalities? Hollywood has a good share of its own crap. Besides, the Gospel is getting out there.

Hard to argue with that. War Room will inspire and change some people’s lives. God can use anything He chooses to reach, save, and inspire people… even bad movies.

Please note: Crouch is not dismissing artistic mediocrity, but seeing it as part of a growth trajectory toward excellence. This is an important distinction and one that, I believe, is a watershed in the discussion. Is our criticism of efforts like War Room inspiring Christian artists toward artistic excellence? Indeed, if the issue is less about good art and more about sound theology then that problem is not so much addressed by discussions of art and cinema as it is related to grassroots evangelical culture. And in the case of War Room, both craft and theology are on the table.

Either way, as Andy Crouch suggested, I believe it’s helpful to see films like War Room, Courageous, and Fireproof as brave, even necessary stepping stones towards Christian excellence in cultural creativity. Yes, we should hold Christian artists to higher standards, both technically and theologically. Nevertheless, we must give Christian artists grace to grow. Who knows but that films like War Room might motivate some aspiring Christian filmmaker to begin blazing a trail to wildly creative cinematic excellence. Or as Crouch put it, “These movies are significant not for their own excellence but for the door they open to cultural creativity that the church never should have lost.”

My question is whether our posture towards War Room is one of grace or simply elitist condescension. It’s possible to be critical of the film and its theology while still seeing it as part of a trajectory toward excellence. However, I wonder that some of the responses from Christian critics will actually quash future efforts of Christian artists rather than encourage them. I’m hoping we can accomplish both.

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Sleeping Dragon, Pedro Lopes' speed painting

Sleeping Dragon, Pedro Lopes’ speed painting

In his essay, “Sometimes Fairy Stories May Say Best What’s to be Said,” C.S. Lewis famously explained why he wrote fairy tales:

I wrote fairy tales because the Fairy Tale seemed the ideal Form for the stuff I had to say. Then, of course, the Man in me began to have his turn. I thought I saw how stories of this kind could steal past a certain inhibition which had paralysed [sic] much of my own religion in childhood. Why did one find it so hard to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God or about the sufferings of Christ? I thought the chief reason was that one was told one ought to. An obligation to feel can freeze things into an imaginary world, stripping them of their stained-glass and Sunday school associations, one could make them for the first time appear in their real potency? Could one not thus steal past those watchful dragons? I thought one could.

The “watchful dragons” Lewis spoke of were, in his case “inhibition[s]” about the religion of his childhood, obligations to “to feel as one was told one ought to feel about God.”

The contemporary Christian storyteller encounters similar dragons — defensive mechanisms that guard readers’ hearts and minds when the subject of God, Christ, or religion are broached. Lewis chose fairy tales because of their “Form,” their disarming quality, their ability to “strip” stories of “their stained-glass and Sunday school associations” making the Gospel “for the first time appear in [its] real potency.”

Most Christian writers would probably say they want their stories to have such “potency.” They want their stories to slip past their readers’ “watchful dragons” and stir something beyond the fortress of their inhibitions. If so, I wonder that we’re doing it all wrong. Why? The chosen “Form” for many Christian storytellers is “Christian fiction” — stories aimed at Christian audiences with an overt Gospel message. The problem with such stories, however, is that they wake “watchful dragons,” they alert the reader’s defense mechanisms, they signal that Gospel content is present and should be handled with caution. If handled at all.

Lewis sought to retain the Gospel’s “potency” by writing fairy tales, embedding the Gospel in a less overt, less didactic fashion. In his essay “Christian Apologetics,” Lewis suggests that Christian writers should apply a similar principle to their own writing:

“What we want is not more little books about Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects – with their Christianity latent.”

To be “latent” is to be “embedded,” “naturally organic,” an “intrinsic part” of something else. The opposite of “latent” is when something is “obvious,” “manifest,” “clear,” or “apparent.” Thus, Lewis suggests that the types of “Christian stories” most able to “steal past [the] watchful dragons” of defensiveness and inhibition are not stories with an explicit Gospel message, but stories where the Gospel is less “apparent” and more “organic” to the tale.

And this is where I think much Christian fiction loses its potency. For the Christian writer hoping to reach unbelievers the absolute worst thing they can do is announce their story as “Christian.” No, I’m not talking about bait and switch, sneaking your book into the mainstream market in order to clobber readers with the Gospel. Christian writers who do this deserve to get reamed by readers. Nor am I talking about going out of the way to conceal any reference to the Gospel in your story. Writers who do this may deserve to be charged with “compromise.” My point is simply that when we adopt a “Form” — in this sense, the label “Christian fiction” —  we immediately wake the watchful dragons of contrary worldviews and prevent our stories from reaching unreached audiences.


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The Christian Crossover Novelist: Is Writing for the General Market Compromise?


Phyllis Wheeler, co-founder of Castle Gate Press, recently cited me in her article Could You Write for the General Market? at the New Authors Fellowship. Phyllis attended my workshop at Realm Makers 2015 on The Crossover Christian Novelist. She writes, Christian horror author Mike Duran wants to reach Christian readers… who read primarily in the […]

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Does Christian Fiction Have a Race Problem?


After returning from the Realm Makers (RM) 2015 conference last weekend, I posted several random observations. One was about the refreshingly even ratio of men to women (which I’m guessing was about 50/50). I say this was “refreshing” because one of my complaints about the ACFW conferences has always been the large disparity of women to men […]

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Realm Makers 2015 Debriefing


I arrived home from Saint Louis and the Realm Makers (RM) 2015 conference yesterday and promptly took a two-hour nap. Writers conferences are not the best place to catch up on rest, nor should they be! Better to burn the candle at both ends, meet people, grill industry insiders, hob-nob with “celebrities,” and take advantage […]

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Writers Conference 101 — Don’t Over-Prepare!


This week I’m flying to Saint Louis for the Realm Makers Writer’s Conference. This is my sixth writers conference, but only the second in which I’m part of the faculty. Nine years ago I attended my first conference ever. And man, was I nervous. Exhibit A: My editor appointment. At conferences, much of the interaction with editors […]

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The Soapbox Novelist


For novelists, one of the more interesting opportunities/dilemmas created by social media is the ability to voice their opinion,  not just on writing, to more people. Now, not only can you follow an author to learn more about their writing habits and upcoming projects. Stick around and you’re liable to find out their feeling on politics, […]

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Is Beowulf the First “Religious Horror” Story Ever Written?


In my recent book Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, I note that the epic poem Beowulf is often considered one of the earliest horror stories ever written. Coincidentally, the story is also filled with religious content, making Beowulf, perhaps, one of the earliest examples of the fusion […]

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Bleeding Protons for the Glory of God


The lead character for The Ghost Box, Reagan Moon, experiences a bizarre phenomenon throughout the story which he struggles to comprehend, much less control — he bleeds protons from his fingertips. It’s not real magic, nor is it straight science. In fact, the source is rather vague. Is this a gifting from a higher source? Or […]

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