Bad Spirituality = Bad Storytelling

christianmingle1

Nothing’s better than pulling up a cheesy Christian movie on Netflix and laughing the night away with your sister. So my sister and I started Christian Mingle: The Movie with the highest hopes that it would be as entertaining as the movies from Hallmark’s Countdown to Christmas.

Worst. Idea. Ever.

To catch you up on the plot, the desperate Gwyneth Hayden fakes her Christianity to sign up for ChristianMingle.com (because there are no other online dating websites in the world, obviously) and continue her budding relationship with the plaid-button-up good Christian guy she meets through the site. Of course, his mother and wannabe girlfriend sniff out Gwyneth’s fake relationship with Jesus, which leads to heartbreak, which leads to Gwyneth meeting Him instead — which the opening monologue already told you, so why did you waste a couple hours watching this movie?

It’s hard to put my finger on exactly what bothers me most about this movie. The pink, outlined, Times New Roman font? The mother’s Botox overkill? The Christian cliches you didn’t realize sounded so corny until you watched them on the silver screen? The fact that the mother and wannabe girlfriend discovered Gwyneth’s fakery after Gwyneth could not answer the world’s toughest question on the problem of evil with a Bible verse? The other disturbing fact that Gwyneth wears high heels as a missionary teacher in Mexico?

Kidding aside, I puzzled and puzzled over why this movie, like so many other well-intentioned, decently-made evangelical Christian movies, bothered me. I finally found the words over a chipotle chicken avocado melt at Sunday brunch:

What if it’s not a coincidence that evangelical movies are cringingly awful? We blame the evangelical moviemakers for their lack of vision and storytelling, but what if part of the problem is evangelicalism itself?

Because it’s not accurate to say that Christians are bad at storytelling. Christians are some of the best storytellers in the Western literary canon. J. R. R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Flannery O’Connor, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Dante Alighieri — almost every single classic author since Christ’s death and resurrection has been Christian or at least steeped in Christianity.

But none of them are evangelical.

They are mostly Catholic, or Orthodox, in Dostoevsky’s case, or Anglican, in Lewis’s — but rarely Protestant, and never, to my knowledge, evangelical. Of course, those three traditions have held longer sway in history and literature than a movement less than a century old, but still.

I don’t mean this to be a hate-fest against evangelicals, as if they’re bad at everything. They’re not. Evangelicals are good at things like nonfiction, marketing, multimedia, preaching, and motivational speaking. But I don’t think they’re good at storytelling.

It’s just not in the evangelical DNA, really.

I mean, evangelicals revere some of the best literature in the world — the Bible — but nobody sits down and just reads it, or examines the poetic structures of Genesis 1 and 2 (unless they’re liberal heretics), or notices the remarkable storytelling of 1 and 2 Samuel. They get in groups and dissect whole passages into tiny chunks that makes getting through an entire book a three-year long process. They study it to death.

And when it comes to great art and literature, many of us grew up without it, because that picture had a nude woman in it, or that movie had a couple F-words, or that book depicted someone’s tragic loss or atheism or sin, and Christians are to avoid any appearance of evil. That’s why we watched PG-rated movies, exclusively. Our “literary analysis” often looked far too much like moralism.

But I don’t blame fundamentalism for chasing the evangelical movement away from good art. I think there’s something inherent in evangelical spirituality — stripped as it is from the larger Christian history, from a sacramental emphasis, from the sensory elements of bells, incense, and spires — that makes evangelicals so bad at storytelling.

Maybe our stories sound cliched because evangelical spirituality only allows for a one-size-fits-all relationship with Jesus?

Maybe our stories are moralistic because our spirituality is moralistic?

Maybe our stories tie up in neat little bows because we’re always trying to tie up our suffering and doubt in neat little bows?

Maybe our characters are one-dimensional because there’s something suppressed in our spirituality?

Maybe our bad guy-versus-good guy is so black and white because our worldview is so black and white?

Maybe our portrayal of atheists, agnostics, Muslims, and nones is so off-base because our religion doesn’t allow us to listen to other people’s narratives?

Maybe our stories are preachy because that’s what’s most important to our faith — getting people to agree with us?

Maybe our stories, music, and art are ugly and trite because we think that truth can be divorced from beauty?

I’m not 100% sure whether this is the fatal flaw of evangelical storytelling — but I strongly suspect it is.

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73 thoughts on “Bad Spirituality = Bad Storytelling

  1. Shaun Jex

    My memory is faulty here, but if I’m not mistaken I think Phil Vischer of Veggie Tales fame is Evangelical isn’t he? He might be the one exception I can think of and I think the reason he’s such a good storyteller is that his artistic influences are, by and large, from the world of popular culture like Disney, comics, cartoons, and movie directors like Wes Anderson. Then again, he has also done things like question the church’s support of Trump, and opposed the Evangelical boycott of World Vision when they welcomed gay volunteers, so he’s hardly representative of the movement…

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    • Bailey Steger

      I was thinking of Phil Vischer too as the one possible exception. Didn’t he come to dislike the moralism in the Veggie Tales series, though? And he’s definitely more nuanced than the typical evangelical. I don’t know what to call his type. Subversive evangelical? Nuanced evangelical? Open-minded evangelical? ;)

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  2. inohnothing

    Thank you, Bailey. That’s why I’m writing an “edgy” Christian young adult novel. It has sex, f-bombs, bitterness and unforgiveness and how to learn to love. Kind of like the accounts of believers in the Bible itself–people had affairs, bitterness and unforgiveness, and cursing is mentioned. It’s not sanitized. It’s real. I think belief should be expressed more authentically and for that I can be misunderstood and almost censured. Why have labels like evangelicalism when they do no good or stand for a lack of love. And thanks for reviewing the movie. Won’t waste my time on it. 😃

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    • Bailey Steger

      Yes. Authentically expressing belief. That’s the key. Some of my favorite novels are explicitly about people finding, leaving, and wrestling with God. It’s not that there shouldn’t be stories explicitly about faith or Christianity; it’s that they need to be *authentic.*

      Liked by 1 person

    • Elizabeth Erazo

      And here’s a question: If its produced by an evangelical but rejected/condemned by the demographic, is it still evangelical? Look at Rob Bell — one moment, he’s evangelical then almost overnight he became “progressive”.

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  3. mb

    “Maybe our stories are preachy because that’s what’s most important to our faith – getting people to agree with us?” In this point, at least, I think you’re right on the money. I do think you’re painting with a broad brush when it comes to all evangelical storytelling ever (but I wasn’t expecting something super different with a fb post that mentioned “Snooty Literary Rant”) – but I do think that in the case of this movie, Christian Mingle, you’re right. (I watched the trailer and the funniest/most depressing thing to me was how she’s so dissatisfied with her amazing career and evident lack of sexism in the workplace. Gee, que horrible.)

    What exactly do you mean by evangelical spirituality only allowing for a one-size-fits-all relationship with Jesus? How are high church traditions different?

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    • Bailey Steger

      Of course, generalizations are only generalizations, and I’d love to hear about an evangelical storyteller who doesn’t deal in cliches. I don’t know any.

      I’m still trying to work out what I mean by evangelical spirituality being one-size-fits-all. There’s a new evangelicalism that’s more freethinking, but still not liberal — people like Addie Zierman and Phil Vischer and even me, to a certain extent. That’s not the evangelicalism I’m talking about.

      I think the one-size-fits-all evangelicalism is one that tries to be “Biblical” about everything, as if there are rules and models and paradigms and patterns for every single area of life. It’s the sort of spirituality where questioning is only good up to a point, where your emotions are only okay up to a point, where you need to suppress genuine pain and anger and sorrow and humanity to be the right kind of Christian. There is a Christian appearance to keep up, to yourself, to God, to non-Christians, to other Christians. It’s wearying. I don’t know how to describe it to people who have never experienced it or are experiencing it but don’t realize it.

      By saying that the evangelicalism I encountered is one-size-fits-all, I’m not necessarily commenting on high church traditions. I am not familiar enough with high church traditions to criticize them fairly.

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  4. Abigail

    I strongly agree with your observations, but what you are criticizing seems to be evangelical subculture, not a state to which its fundamental tenets must lead. I grew up and remain evangelical, but I was a small child when I started criticizing Christian kitsch and implausible, hyper-spiritual stories and life outlooks. I recognize that I was very blessed in a unique church, and know that my family influences and voracious, often historical, reading had great sway over my inner development. Nonetheless, I’d like to respectfully point out that evangelicalism does not inherently have to be “bad spirituality.” You are spot on in criticizing mainline, watered-down, theologically weak evangelicalism, but evangelicals can be gifted at storytelling and intellectually free. They’re just not telling the kinds of stories that can be peddled effectively to the lowest common denominator.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Abigail

        That makes sense! I have tried to think of evangelical novelists that I would recommend, but most of them are too historical and long-dead to qualify. Nonetheless, I’ve come back with some thoughts. I apologize for how long this is.

        I have read many books that incorporate strong Judeo-Christian themes but are marketed as mainstream. I’ll get to the end, read a beautiful and theologically robust reference to God in the acknowledgements, and think, “Oh! That explains the story’s profound emphasis on redemption/grace/love/whatever.” Although adult books tend to have a very sharp Christian versus non-Christian dichotomy, I have read great picture books and juvenile novels that I later learned were written by subtle believers.

        Although many have criticized Veronica Roth’s Divergent series just for being YA dystopia, her work was unconventional in some ways, and I admire how she harmonized her Christian background with the demands of a modern YA series. Her books brought up profound spiritual questions about the nature of identity, human relationships, just government, social organization, and even religion. The books aren’t squeaky clean and could NEVER be sold in LifeWay, but they tell the truth about life in a clear-sighted, deep way. It thrilled me when they were popular, because I knew that scores of people were getting exposed to ideas and perspectives that they might otherwise never consider.

        The one clearly and unequivocally evangelical author I can think of to recommend is Jill Williamson. Her “Blood of Kings” trilogy is one of the best series I have ever read. The book incorporates faith in an original and dynamic way, allowing characters to be skeptical or even angry. The book asks painfully difficult questions and presents profound spirituality without watering down or excluding anything. Not only that, but this trilogy dealt with the most mature topics of anything I’d read at the time. None of it is graphic or sensationalized, but it’s all included in the story as a real part of life. These books taught me that one could, in fact, write about sexual sin to the glory of God! I highly recommend this series without any reservations, not just as an example of a good evangelical author, but just because it’s WONDERFUL and ought to be better known and loved.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Justine

    Oh is that what the problem is? All I know is usually I’d rather read non-Christian than Christian fiction, with the exception of C.S. Lewis and his ilk. A lot of Christian fiction just seems so unrealistic and simplistic. It drives me crazy.

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      • ChrisW

        Yes, it can.

        My husband casually remarked this evening: Evangelicalism splits the world sharply into good guys and bad guys. It holds up one meta narrative and all stories must reflect it and fit the good/bad guys mould. Moreover all stories will be read through this lens, and if they can’t be, then they are bad.”

        We weren’t talking about your blog beforehand, but were afterwards!

        Liked by 1 person

      • David

        My objection to evangelical fiction isn’t that it’s trying to convert people; it’s just that it’s so /bad/ at it. So bad in general, really. So clumsy. So blind to how life actually works — to how people actually talk and think and behave. Certainly blind to how we *heathens* see the world.

        I’m dating myself here, but evangelical fiction is like the love child of a Chick tract and Soviet literature (which, for you young’ns, can fairly be described as “boy meets tractor” — just these turgid, dreadful tales of proletarian virtue where everyone constantly praises the Party).

        Bottom line: if there’s only one acceptable way for the story to end, and there’s only one acceptable tone for the characters to strike… why would I pick up the book at all? I already know how it goes.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Yes, yes, yes!!!! Exactly. I just found out that a different Christian team is making another Christian comedy about a guy who fakes being a Christian but then finds Jesus at the end. I could not believe they weren’t at all deviating from the most recent Christian comedy flick, “Christian Mingle.” Of all the potential comedies one could write, it has to be *this* worn out plot again?

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      • Belly of the Whale

        Everything is propaganda as it will lend itself to what the author believes to be true and what they would like to express to the reader. Every post you make on this blog is propaganda. You are taking your beliefs and expressing them to those who happen upon your blog. You will tear down or rebut any position that does not match what you believe to be true. You even block those who may disagree or point out the faults in your argument by stating that they are rude and yet at the same time laud those that are actually rude, condescending and making personal attacks on that same person all in the idea that they are coming to your defense.

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      • Bailey Steger

        I didn’t realize Daniel Abbot had such a cohort of loyal friends willing to go after me. :) Thank you for sharing your opinion. I do try to be open-minded, while at the same time maintaining healthy boundaries within this community, and I am sure I make mistakes.

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      • Belly of the whale

        I am not a friend of Daniel Abbot and do not even know who he is. My thought is that everything is propaganda to a point. Some of it may be truthful, some may not, as it depends on the belief of the person writing it and that of those reading it. The bigger issue is the lack of absolutes to determine the truth. As shown in this blog and many others the truth is normally determined by what one wants it to be. Many claim to be Christians and yet have totally opposing viewpoints on what that means or entails. They will take scripture and pick it apart through different means including special revelation, culture, false context, emotions, or just a plain desire to make it their own religion in which they make the rules. This however would be a totally separate discussion. I am not attacking you Bailey. I am pointing out inconsistencies in which how you reply to those who agree with you and those that do not.

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  6. Ellen Ray

    I have to disagree with the generalization here and can think of several examples of wonderful, wonderful Protestant storytellers. Marilynne Robinson (the Pulitzer-winning author of Gilead and Housekeeping) springs to mind.

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  7. Corrie Elizabeth

    It was sometime in my high school years when I connected the dots and realized that all the best authors and poets of the twentieth century were from a tradition other than my own – primarily Catholic and Anglican. I’ve read that growing up with Catholicism especially can engender a kind of openness to mystery and storytelling. I’m an English major and I find in myself that same evangelical urge to boil every short story or poem into a digestible moral. When someone wanted Flannery O’Connor to tell the “meaning” of a story, she said, “If I could say it in a sentence, I wouldn’t have written the story.” In evangelical storytelling, the story is just a padding for the moral sentence, like a spoonful of sugar with your medicine. There’s nothing intrinsically redeeming about the story itself.

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      • Corrie Elizabeth

        Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I heard it in a lecture. It was in the context of C.S. Lewis, who of course was Anglican, but he grew up in Catholic Ireland, and either my professor or a documentary about Lewis talked about how his early exposure to Catholicism strengthened his imagination. Transubstantiation or experience with relics are both doctrines that appeal more to our imagination than our rationality. It seems that in a Catholic setting especially, going to church could itself exercise of a Christian imagination.

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  8. Shaun Jex

    One of the issues might be that, as a few people have pointed out, the story is really just a delivery system for the chosen moral. It’s pedantic. Not just evangelical literature, but lots of activist literature in general runs into this problem. The characters are two dimensional and the plot becomes overly simplistic because the entire point of the story is more akin to propaganda than art.

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    • Bailey Steger

      You know what really tells me this is a problem? I read some of the director/writer’s comments, and he said things along what you were saying — everybody does the same thing, it’s all about converting people, but why can’t we just make a fun movie with Christian values? So he’s aware of those issues but STILL writes a movie with all the tropes he said he disliked about Christian movies! -.-

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  9. Daniel Abbott

    Not subscribing to Netflix, I have not and probably will not watch this movie, however:

    You realize that, according to Corbin Bernsen, the writer and director of Christian Mingle The Movie is not an Evangelical?

    Snow globe enthusiast, yes. Over 8,000. Actor, yes. Director, yes. Writer, yes. Evangelical, no. Not the Evangelical Free Church, not the Evangelical Covenant Church, not the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, not the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, not the generic evangelical Christian.

    Please, do your due diligence.

    The American Evangelical movement started in the 1820’s which is well over a century ago.

    As far I am concerned, Evangelical is another term for Protestant. If you wish to debate that then go back to Roman Catholic martyr Saint Thomas Moore, as he is the first person to use the term to describe a group of people. And explain how he is wrong.

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      • handtothyplough

        Bailey, I don’t believe he was being rude. You may not like his writing style as I am sure some do not like yours but that doesn’t make him any more rude than you. He was pointing out a flaw in your argument that you either missed or ignored. This is a good thing as it allows you to make adjustments to your argument which in turn makes it more credible. The response by those “coming to your defense” was rude. They made fun of the poster and also delved into name calling. Did this bother you as rude? No, because they are on your side. You ban someone who disagrees with you for rudeness but applaud those who will sink to a type of bullying and offer no actual substance to the conversation.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Thank you for your comment. From this interaction alone, I can see how it comes across as me censoring someone merely because he disagrees with me. But this is not an isolated event. He has harassed, shamed, and berated me for years, and I tolerated it in the name of open-mindedness and allowing alternative viewpoints. This was the last straw, and I feel no regret in my decision.

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      • handtothyplough

        It is not you censoring someone as much as calling out his comment as “rude and condescending” while not doing the same with those that responded to him in your defense. Could he have pointed out the oversight in a more loving manner? Yes, but at the same time not everyone expresses themselves the same way. Those that responded to him were childish and definitely “rude”. You should have called them out in like and not pat them on the back. Also, if Daniel has been doing all these unkind things to you for years you shouldn’t have continued to publish his comments and after proper rebuking maybe you should have broken off all communication with him. Something to ponder – all we have to go by are the comments that are posted and your responses to said comments.

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    • Sean Cannery

      Hello,

      Well I hope Corbin Bernsen recognizes that the movie Christian Mingle The Movie is a movie and not a person of Evangelical faith.

      Can afford Netfix, yes. Over 9,000. Flat earth, yes. Protestant Tradition, oxymoron. Thing, no. Lists of subject-less sentences, check. Adds to constructive conversation, no.

      Please, do use due intelligence

      I’m pretty sure the Men’s Rights movement was in the 1970’s.

      Richard Doyle is one of its forerunners, He uses the word neoconservatism. Please, explain to me how he is wrong with that terminology.

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      • Daniel Abbott

        Reading ain’t your strong suit.

        “Of” is a preposition. It indicates a prepositional phrase. “Of Christian Mingle the Movie” is a prepositional phrase. “Writer and director” is the subject. Because the writer and director is the same person, we in proper English grammar use the singular verb “is”. Corbin Bernsen is both of those people. The writer and director is not Evangelical.

        Stick to the slap stick, you’re pretty funny. In a few years you might make a career out of it. Who knows?

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    • David

      Daniel, can I offer you some life advice?

      Don’t be a dick.

      You strike me as someone who’s in dire need of human connection. Also, unfortunately, as someone who has no idea how to get and keep it. So let me put that in more positive terms:

      Bite your tongue before you argue about anything. Ever. With anyone. Arguing pushes people away. To draw folks closer, you need to show them that you care about them. Be a positive presence in their life, full of praise. Do small, thoughtful favors for them. Be good to folks, and they’ll be good to you.

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      • Daniel Abbott

        David,

        Let me explain something to you:

        The people I connect with are human. They prefer honesty and sincerity to flattery. With honest openness, I form very deep, very personal relationships over many years.

        And it is with this intention that I comment to Bailey. I think honesty is a good to do to others. And I think she appreciates it. Even though I frustrate her with a different approach and perspective, than others.

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      • Bailey Steger

        I’m puzzled that you think I appreciate the way you share your opinions after I’ve told you multiple times that I don’t. Three people have just done you a good turn by calling you out on your rudeness. What I’d really appreciate is if you’d listen to them and change your ways, instead of pretending your rudeness is something good, necessary, and beneficial.

        And speaking of sincerity and honesty, thank you, Sean and David, for coming to my defense.

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      • Daniel Abbott

        How did either Sean or David defend you? Was it the insinuations by both that you are unable to deal with me. They assume your response is insufficient?

        What you said was sufficient. When you accepted their insult of your abilities and published their comments as if they added something to what you had said, you destroyed your own credibility. That you are able to discern rudeness and condescension.

        If you do not appreciate my sincerity, I apologize for my misunderstanding. And will leave you to those who use flattery to covertly insult you.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Okay, we’re done here. You are permanently banned from this blog, with no more second chances like last time. Do not comment. Do not comment with the disclaimer that “I know you’re not going to publish this, but here are my thoughts anyway.” Do not contact me in any way, shape, or form. You are an emotionally abusive manipulator, and I want you out of my life and this online community.

        Liked by 1 person

      • handtothyplough

        Can anyone really say to someone “Daniel, can I offer you some life advice?
        Don’t be a dick.” without being one themselves? You the go on to personally attack him and follow that up with giving advice that you yourself do not follow or maybe I misunderstood what you meant by “To draw folks closer, you need to show them that you care about them. Be a positive presence in their life, full of praise. Do small, thoughtful favors for them. Be good to folks, and they’ll be good to you.”. If you meant to personally attack them and insult them then I will admit I was wrong and you did follow your own advice. If not then you may want to read your own words and compare them to your actions.

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  10. Laura Jinkins

    I don’t doubt a bit that you are well-read, and a graduate of Hillsdale, no less. But can you be sure that there are none, and have never been any evangelical writers who are good storytellers? I won’t argue with you for one second about that sad little movie. I tripped across it late one night when I was doing laundry and mindless watched it to the end. It was terrible. But not because it was an “evangelical” movie. It was just a terrible movie!

    My suspicion regarding some of these works, both written and cinematic, is their creators are desperately trying to honor the Lord by putting away the ugliness of their pre-salvation lives. They haven’t figured out yet that some people need to see the ugly to be able to grasp and appreciate the transformation, and desire it for themselves.

    Have you ever heard of or read Francine Rivers’ work? I would strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of her book “Redeeming Love”… or “The Atonement Child”… or “The Mark of the Lion” series. From a recent interview:

    “While studying the Book of Hosea, I felt nudged to write another novel, but one that would show the difference between what the world considers love and the unconditional, sacrificial, all-consuming love of God. The result was Redeeming Love. The writing process kept me close to the Lord; I depended on him for everything from the plot (Hosea) to understanding the broken character of Angel and the Christlike love of Michael Hosea.

    Questions of faith kept rising up and with them, characters to play out various points of view.
    I thought the book was a one-time project to let people know how my life and career had changed. But questions of faith kept rising up and with them, characters to play out various points of view. So I tried again, keeping Jesus at the center of my work. The primary question troubling me at the time was: How do I share my faith with unsaved family members and friends who don’t want to hear about Jesus or read the Bible? I wanted that kind of courage to witness, so I wrote A Voice in the Wind, about a Christian captured after the fall of Jerusalem who lived in fear and found courageous faith.” (For the entire interview, go here:http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/may/i-was-addicted-to-romance-novels-francine-rivers.html?start=3)

    Her books are incredibly well-written and woven throughout is the story of the Gospel. They are not sanitized (The Atonement Child is the story of a college girl who becomes pregnant through rape and has to decide what to do. It is based on Mrs. Rivers’ personal experience of abortion before becoming a Christian. I borrowed a copy from a friend, read it in less than three hours and had to apologize to her for the mascara stains on the last few pages….)

    Anyway, I would encourage you (and anyone else reading my comment) to check out Francine Rivers’ books if you haven’t already. They are truly authentic, telling stories of broken people in search of a savior, even when they don’t realize it.

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    • Bailey Steger

      This post wasn’t to say that there can never be any evangelical writers that write great works. It’s been encouraging to get some suggestions of good books by evangelical authors! I have read “Redeeming Love,” and while it was certainly better than other Christian books I’ve read and avoided some pitfalls of evangelical writing, I personally don’t consider it a classic book. But see, so much of this discussion is based on personal preference and exposure to literature, too.

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      • Laura Jinkins

        I guess I didn’t pick up on the narrow parameters of “classic” literature since the post began with a discussion of a movie called “Christian Mingle”… I assumed — incorrectly, it appears — the discussion was about the existence or nonexistence of good evangelical storytellers. I judge a work of literature by the way it affects me, how it challenges me as a person and as a follower of Christ. Mrs. Rivers’ book, The Atonement Child, had a major impact on my heart because of my own experience with abortion. Redeeming Love, similarly illustrated to both myself and my sister the unconditional love of God,who never gives up on us, no matter how far we may have fallen. Most Christian fiction steers dangerously close to the “cheese factor,” (Amish romance anyone?), but I would put works like those above a good bit higher than that. Thinking about these things is good, but don’t let cerebral ponderings hammer the heart out of personal experience.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Perhaps “classic” isn’t the right word, then, if it’s conjuring up words like “cerebral.” :) I do factor in a book’s personal impact — I don’t read cerebrally. For me, “Redeeming Love” did not capture enough truth of the world to affect me deeply, but I see little reason to discourage others like yourself from enjoying and resonating with such books!

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      • Laura Jinkins

        I guess I am struggling with the tone of the original post and some of the comments, too. I’m obviously not your mother, so I’m not trying to “lecture” or “chastise” with my comments, but I’m truly bothered by statements like this: “But see, so much of this discussion is based on personal preference and exposure to literature, too.”

        Personal preference, most definitely. But in saying “exposure to literature,” aren’t you making assumptions about the people who may not agree with you? I will be 53 in January. I have a bachelor’s degree in English, and have read more than my share of “classics,” both for academic reasons and personal enjoyment over the course of my life. While some classics are truly epic in their contribution to the literature of the ages, some of the classics I’ve read were, in my opinion, boring. At some point someone decided “This is a great work of prose! This delves into the very heart of darkness and shall live forevermore as a CLASSIC!” (Not a fan of Joseph Conrad, by the way. I will never forgive Dr. Freida Yeager for sucking every bit of enjoyment out of the classics we read by assigning symbolism to EVERY. SINGLE. WORD. AND. PUNCTUATION. MARK.)

        I guess the question is, what determines whether something is “classic” or not? The way in which the work affects a number of readers? How many readers? Or does something become a classic because Oprah put it on her book list and everyone who loves Oprah jumped on board? (Who’s to say the “Oprah” of La Rive Gauche didn’t say something about Hemingway and everyone said, “That Ernest! He’s the Cat’s Pajamas! You HAVE to get his book!”)

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      • Bailey Steger

        I am sorry this post is offensive to you. I was afraid our particular conversation would go this direction, and I’m sorry it did. Really, literature should be a banned topic, like politics and religion at the dinner table — it gets so personal so quickly. :)

        I think our particular conversation is jumping outside the bounds of the original post. There are so many reasons why we read and so many different ways of reading and so many arguments on what does or doesn’t make a classic, and I feel that we agree more than disagree. (Conrad? Yuck.) There are many classics I read that were boring…and then many classics I thought were boring until I took a class on them and finally understood what they meant. Fortunately, I never had a bad English professor experience that made me hate a classic even more. ;)

        That’s, I think, what I meant by the “exposure” comment. I didn’t mean it as an either/or (either you’re exposed to good literature or not exposed, intelligent or unintelligent, educated or uneducated). I meant that the books we read and the education we’ve received on those books and our life experiences create an individual spectrum by which everyone judges other books as “better” or “worse.” In other words, we don’t judge storytelling in a vacuum. It’s not purely objective. It’s so personal. And I’m giving credence and weight to that personal nature of our literary exposure.

        I’m also speaking as a relatively young person who just finished her education. I can remember how my literary appetite and comprehension expanded and changed over the years, depending on what I read and the classes I took. I can remember certain books affecting me for specific reasons at specific times in my life — even ones I wouldn’t re-read or consider “good storytelling” now. I can remember books I used to love looking cheesy as I encountered more of real life or books that told a similar story in a more compelling way. I can remember, like I said, finding particular classics boring and stupid until a teacher unpacked why that book was so awesome.

        So again, I made that comment as a way to validate and explain our different opinions on a book, not as a way to make you feel bad that you like it. I’m sorry it came across that way.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Shaun Jex

        I don’t see why it is objectionable to people to think that you might be able to judge the quality of a book and or its writing. There’s such a thing as bad writing. There’s such a thing as mediocre and cliched writing. The doodles in the margins of my notebooks are not Da Vinci or Rembrandt. I’ve read plenty of “pulp” that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed, but I was fully aware that what I wasn’t reading Nobel quality literature. It is entirely possible to be moved emotionally by an average or even bad bit of writing, movie making etc. Recognizing that it isn’t well crafted doesn’t invalidate your enjoyment of it or the impact it has on you.

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      • Bailey Steger

        Well, I think in this case it’s objectionable because both of us agree that we can judge good storytelling from bad, but we’re not reaching the same conclusion. Then it becomes an issue of judging who has the better judgment, and that can get really ugly really fast. :)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Shaun Jex

        I think we’re actually reaching the same conclusion as to good and bad storytelling, unless you are using “we’re” to refer to the larger group of people in this conversation. OR I’m completely lost as to who is saying what, which is a distinct possibility :) . I was more confused that people seemed upset that you were making judgement statements about the quality of writing. I see no issue with doing so.

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      • Shaun Jex

        That seems like an idea for a whole new blog post! Why are people more passionate about their reading material than about issues of gender and race equality? I’m sensing an entire series… :)

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      • Bailey Steger

        Sure! Obviously, that would be a big list, and this post is not just talking about classics like “The Tale of Two Cities” or “The Iliad,” but the (admittedly vague) category of “good storytelling.”

        I gave some more modern examples in the post, I think — Graham Greene, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Harper Lee. “The Help” I consider an excellent story in every way. Children’s novelists like Neil Gaiman and J. K. Rowling I consider excellent. Do those books paint a better picture of what I mean by good storytelling?

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  11. Laura Jinkins

    Let me add one additional bit of information: my sister is NOT a reader. She would much rather be making things with her hands, playing a game with her kids, watching a movie… But twenty one years ago, she called me and said, “You HAVE to read this book.” I thought it was a wrong number, but she kept talking and I realized my sister had found an author she enjoyed. She was reading The Mark of the Lion series by Rivers, and she could not stop talking about how great it was. She is one of those people, who when she does read, has a little movie going on in her head as she reads. She said this was a GREAT “movie.” A few months later, she recommended “Redeeming Love”… she loves that book so much that she has given away her personal copy SEVEN TIMES, buying another for herself whenever she felt someone else needed her copy more.

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  12. Karen Wright

    Thanks for the observations, well articulated. As a musician, I have seen this same phenomena in the music typically written by and for evangelicals. And in visual art (thomas kincaide, anyone?). Usually, the less “accepted” an artist/author/musician is by mainstream evangelicalism, the more interesting their art is, I’ve noticed. What really stuck out to me was your differentiating between evangelicals and protestant/catholic/orthodox traditions. The label “Evangelical” suggests that the tradition is all about converting people; in other terms, selling something. Other christian traditions are more concerned with reverence and mystery and spiritualism, in other words, experiencing something. Pretty easy to see the difference, and how it leads to different qualities of art. It’s been hard for me to let go of these white knuckle grasp on evangelicalism and the idea that conversion is central to faith. Slowly, I’ve started to accept an idea that journey is central to faith, rather than a specific moment or a specific “climax” moment (such as we see in predictable, unrealistic, poor quality story telling) A book I’ve started reading recently that reminds me of this is by Peter Rollins called “Idolatry of God.” It doesn’t address literature or art per say, but his central idea is that life is hard, nothing (not even God) can satisfy the longing of our hearts, and there are no answers. Sounds pretty bleak, but apparently later in the book he’s going to explain how God subverts our inner cry for satisfaction (happy ending/conversion/moment of truth/etc) rather than satisfying that inner hunger (that he argues is Original Sin). Interesting stuff, and your post connected to what I’ve been reading in that book. Thanks for airing your opinions. Even if people disagree or controversy ensues, at least that means you’re making us all think and you’re challenging our assumptions. That’s never bad. Keep it up.

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  13. Laura Jinkins

    Stopping by just so you’ll know I’m not upset or angry or any of a number of other negative things. It’s been a very busy day and I was away from my computer for quite a while (client appointments and then a Christmas dinner with my husband and his coworkers). I had no idea my comments would add such tinder to such a smoldering flame! And while I was a little bothered, I promise you, your comments were not offensive to me — thought provoking in a slightly uncomfortable way, but not offensive.

    I really was (and am) serious about my question, though. What makes a classic? Inquiring minds want to know! Long before your post I have often pondered this question regarding the “point of ignition” for a lot of different things. Recently I contemplated the question of slang — there are so many slang words in common use today and I wonder about their origin. In my previous comment, I used the phrase “cat’s pajamas” — it was a popular slang phrase in the 1920s’. Who first said “cat’s pajamas” to indicate something or someone “cool”? When did the word “cool” stop expressing temperature and start expression popularity?

    As far as my example of Hemingway… when he was still working on his first novel, the classics were the works of Dickens, Tolstoy, etc. At what point did Hemingway cease to be the “new kid on the block,” and become one of the classics, too? And why? At what point did Robert Jordan (For Whom the Bell Tolls) become the main character of a classic, rather than just the main character of a novel? Is it possible that someday the main character of a more current work of fiction (name your favorite non-classic novel) will become the main character of a classic?

    What are your thoughts on Scarlett O’Hara and Sam I Am? Would you consider “Gone With the Wind” and “Green Eggs & Ham” classics? ;) I most certainly do! LOL

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    • Bailey Steger

      I’ve wondered the same things too! My sister and I made up a crazy story about how Abraham Lincoln (accidentally) invented snapping your fingers — during the Gettysburg Address, of course. ;) Trends, slang, anything whole cultures do — I wonder when, where, and how those things started.

      I’d hazard a guess that a classic is something that endures the test of time — it touches hearts, awakens imagination and empathy, and strikes a chord with many readers, over many generations, transcending fads in writing style and topic.

      I don’t know how to explain it beyond that, but there just *are* those sorts of books. It’s amazing to me how rapt my kids are when I read them a classic like “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” or “Blueberries for Sal.” Those books have nothing to do with the lives of inner city kids, but they spark something real and deep in my kinders, in ways ordinary picture books don’t. (And yes, “Green Eggs and Ham” is a classic!!!)

      But there also seems to be a “sub-category” of classics, right? — books that wouldn’t make the canon but you still need to read to understand a particular genre or culture. I think “Gone with the Wind” fits that category (if it’s not *technically* a classic), and Francine Rivers’ works are definitely the classics of the Christian genre, and most modern “classics” like “1984” or even “Harry Potter” are still in this limbo category.

      I’d be really curious to see what modern fiction gets canonized in the future. I’m rooting for “The Help” and works by Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh. We’ll see. ;)

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Elizabeth Erazo

    I’ll make a few observations. I haven’t read all the comments on this thread, but I think its obvious you’ve touched on something compelling.

    First, I think we should remember that Evangelicalism is still a relatively young religious movement. Compared to Catholicism or Orthodoxy, I mean, they’ve had hundreds of years to refine their worldview into something cohesive and robust, and also a lot longer to develop “classic” literature. Even Anglicanism is old compared to Evangelicalism. Think about it: How many generations has evangelicalism been around? how many writers does each generation produce? Now how many of those writers are actually *good*? And out of the good writers, how many are producing literary rather than genre fiction? Answer: not a lot.

    Besides the time they’ve had for classics to rise to the top and their own terrible writing to sink to the bottom and lost to history, they also have MANY more numbers among them, if you lump all them against evangelical Christianity (Catholics + Anglicans + Orthodoxy = approx. 86,572,000,000 compared to 800,000,000 total Protestants, and only a fraction of that number may identify as evangelical — ~13% of Christians worldwide, all numbers from Wikipedia). Statistically, your simply WAY more likely to find the good writing among the group with more people.

    Lastly, we might make the mistake of comparing “genre” writing to “literature”. If something has “Christian” tacked to the beginning, its likely not going to be as “artful” as something which was written as art. There are for example endless paperback mystery and romances put out which, while they may be entertaining, enjoyable, and even “good” writing, simply won’t be labeled as “literature”. For that, you’d have to look into “Literary Fiction”. Its the same way with inspirational/Christian writing. In many ways, like all genre fiction, it follows a certain genre stereotypes because that’s what the readers want. They want a storyline of redemption and maybe some light romance. Not necessarily realism or literary fiction.

    Now maybe the question is actually “are there evangelicals who produce literary fiction?” or “cinema” rather than pop-genre movies. Honestly, I don’t know. What about Don Miller? Makoto Fujimara may make the list for visual arts.

    The last issue I want to put forward is that its especially difficult to find good evangelical art because evangelical is not a denomination in and of itself. Its a transdenominational movement that can include Wesleyans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Lutherans, Salvation Army, Mennonites, and even Episcopalians! So before we can ask where the evangelical art is, we must pin down a way of identifying an evangelical and that is almost as hard to do.

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  15. Mandy PS

    I know this is an old post and I’m over a month late, but I had to comment! Because I complain about this ALL THE TIME.

    I stopped reading the “Christian” books my mom gave me sometime around high school, because as I would tell her then “a good message doesn’t mask bad writing.” But I think ultimately the problem is with the “Christian” label. Books can’t be Christians. I mean I love books, and I sincerely hope there will be books in heaven, but if my dog eats a book, it doesn’t have a tiny book soul that will go to heaven upon it’s untimely destruction.

    There are, however, Christian authors. Brent Weeks is one I can think of off the top of my head, who writes epic fantasy, one of my favorite genres, and happens to be Christian (and I believe even evangelical). (Which I only know because his wife told me at a convention…because yes I am the sort of person who goes to the sorts of conventions where one might meet epic fantasy authors.) His books are amazing. They’re epic fantasy. I buy them all as they come out, and my husband and I both devour them. But they don’t particularly have a Christian message. At least not in an obvious way. You could have to do literary analysis and pick out certain themes and influences, but there is no Aslan rising from the dead with obviousness.

    Somewhere along the line the writers of “Christian books” have decided that because the message is so important, the art aspect of writing doesn’t matter. Sort of like the preacher who decides because he’s preaching the Gospel, his speech writing or delivering abilities doesn’t matter. And he can stand at the front and drone in a monotone voice–nothing else is necessary–because his message is good.

    Our “Christian books” are monotonous*.

    Even worse than the droning is the over simplification so many of these books contain in their story telling. The bad guys are mustache twirling bad. The kids who believe in evolution are also into drugs and are promiscuous. The good man can do no wrong, even when his actions are in fact wrong, the writing rationalizes it because he is the good character and can’t in fact do any wrong. (Except for perhaps one “flaw” to show that he is not God and is an imperfect sinner like the rest of us, but usually those books rationalize that flaw too.) There is rarely ever any acknowledgement that there are good people walking around without faith, and bad people claiming faith.

    They don’t allow their characters to be real people. They never acknowledge that people outside the faith have honest concerns, but rather always throw up the same old straw-man. But in the end, I don’t want to read a “Christian book” where yet another atheist blinded by straw-man arguments gets converted. I want to read books about characters who feel real, and who honestly struggle and change.

    And I have learned far more from Marvel movies about God and myself than I have ever learned from a Christian book. Seriously, the movie Thor changed my life, I watched that movie and ended up in tears and felt convicted and my life has never been the same since. God uses all fiction to talk to us and it doesn’t matter if it’s made by a believer or not. God talked to Balaam through a donkey, He can talk to us through anything.

    And perhaps that is the thing that makes me angriest of all: that “Christian books” think they have the market on books that can change lives. Which isn’t to say your life can’t be changed by Redeeming Love. But my life has been changed by Thor, by Harry Potter, by Ender’s Game, by the Wheel of Time**, and so many other books. Not because they hit you over the head messages. But because they made me feel and learn something about myself and the world and God.

    And I just realized I wrote you an entire essay here, but as you can tell I have very strong feelings about this. :)

    *Obviously this is a generalization. I contend that both Frank Peretti and Francine Rivers write compelling books. I don’t always agree with their exact bits of theology and some of their sentences may be clunky, but over all they write page turners where people want to keep reading.

    **Robert Jordan the writer of the Wheel of Time was Episcopalian, so not evangelical, but Protestant.

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    • Bailey Steger

      Oh, I love this so much!!! Spot on! I think your argument that “books cannot be Christians” is SO TRUE. We get all these problems that you mentioned because books are often held to the same standard as evsngelical Christians — they have to affirm certain moral or theological things in black and white, they have to keep away from evil, they have to show that their POV is superior to all the nonchristians. So aggravating, so false, and such a recipe for uncompelling fiction and flat characters. I particularly resent the angry, blinded atheist trope. If that’s how they really view those who question and doubt, no wonder evangelicals seem out of the loop.

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  16. WorkinMama

    Interesting discussion!

    I think any story can become overly simplistic and flat if its main purpose is to convince the audience of the author’s point of view, regardless of what that point of view may be. In other words, propaganda does not make good literature. Yet the most compelling stories — the ones that really speak to us — don’t just entertain us. They speak to us on a deep level about things that matter, like philosophy, theology, or even politics. They inspire us and challenge our assumptions. They address universal human struggles like love, freedom, justice, revenge, redemption, temptation, anger, fear, etc.

    I think it’s tough to find a balance. I’m not a professional writer, but right now I’m working on a novel. I originally started writing it for my kids, for them to read when they get older, and I also have dreams about publishing it some day (my kids are preschoolers now, and the novel is more on a teen level). The genre is fantasy/fairytale, but the story is largely a critique of the so-called “Christian patriarchy” movement, in an allegorical and satirical way. I really want it to address injustice, sexism, and racism, and how a person can resist injustice and stand up for the rights of others. Yet at the same time, I’m keenly aware of the danger of becoming too preachy in my zeal for feminism and social justice. I’m trying to let the story tell itself and let the characters speak for themselves.

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    • Bailey Steger

      I absolutely love your perspective on this! Agree 100%. And I think the new Christian patriarchy movement provides fascinating fodder for storytelling. Oddly enough, the movement is so black and white and preachy that I feel it’s easier to more naturally make a point. The characters would naturally “preach,” and their conversations would become cliche. So that’d be an interesting balance — trying to have a nuanced meaning against the backdrop of a movement fueled with propaganda-like beliefs.

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