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A Letter to the Writer: Don’t Photocopy the Bible

You’ve seen them before: “this is the Christian version of _____!” “This site is the Christian version of Facebook (except only people who will agree with you).” “This hot band is the Christian version of Mumford & Sons.” “This is like a Christian Hunger Games!” The world is full of “Christian” alternatives to secular culture. But many times, these alternatives hurt both Christians and non-Christians, and put out a pixelated, distorted view of what it really means to be a Christian. Friends, don’t write “Christian” books.

In what universe would it be a good idea to make this statement? Well, this universe. Here’s the problem with Christian books: many times they’re just a low-quality version of whatever secular culture is producing, with a few sermons thrown in to encourage any Christians who may be reading, and maybe even convert the unsuspecting non-Christian who happens to be reading the book. It’s a win-win!

There are two problems with this approach. The first is the idea that the good message of the books can paper over any writing issues. Many times, these books aren’t just preachy, they’re painful to read. A minister’s sermon works as a deus ex machine to convert the main character, and along the way, set him on the path to the stolen artifact he’s been searching for! In my own first (oft-reviled and thankfully unpublished) novel, the climactic battle between fantasy forces is interrupted by the literal second coming of Jesus, who conveniently destroys the evil army. Of course, that only happened because of the dramatic conversion of the main character three quarters through the book and…I’ll stop there.

This sort of stuff is painful to read because it uses the Christian message as a crutch to get by with bad literature. This doesn’t work because people don’t read bad literature. Sure, there are the perennial “badly-written” books that are still wildly successful, for a time, but is that really the model we want to be following? A good message can’t save bad writing. In fact, bad writing will corrupt the message. The two are inextricably linked, and if one is bad, it will poison the other.

The fact of the matter is, your book very likely will never convert anyone. No sermon in a book will cause a reader to stop and say, “Well, by golly, he’s right.” A reader isn’t looking for a sermon — if he were, he’d go to a church. When he does find a sermon in his book, he feels cheated and misled, which puts him off to any future sermons, as well as finishing your book.

So what is the right approach?

Don’t write “Christian” books

I’m serious. Be subtle. Don’t explicitly integrate your faith into the book.

Instead, consider the almost subversive power of a book to influence you long after you first read it. Think back to books you have read that have greatly influenced you. Okay for Now taught that happy endings happen in real life. Bridge to Terabithia was a primer in imagination, just like The Phantom Tollbooth is a brilliant defense of education. The View from Saturday taught the power of love and friendship.

These writers aren’t necessarily Christian, and it doesn’t matter. As a fifth-grader reading their books, I didn’t care about these broader themes. I enjoyed the story, and the story stuck with me — and from the story sticking with me, so did the themes. If any of these books had dropped out of their story to deliver a one-page lecture on their theme, I would have set the book down. That’s not good storytelling!

Think of your writing in the same way. You are not trying to bombard the reader, but subversively weave your themes through the book, through an incredible story, so that when he puts the book down, he can’t stop thinking about it, he can’t get it out of his head. The best stories stick in your head a long time after you’ve finished them. And when the story sticks, so does the theme.

So write incredible stories. Write intricate plots that echo all the crazy unbelievability of everyday life. Write believable human characters who make mistakes and are selfish. Write about the fates of great fantasy kingdoms, and write about the very smallest parts of this world. Write all of it, and write it well.

This whole world asks a question that only the gospel can answer.

And if you do that, if you faithfully echo real life as you see it, Christianity will be in your book. This whole world asks a question that only the gospel — God become man, dying on the cross for our sin — can answer. And if you ask that question in everything you write, and the unspoken answer hovers just out of reach for the entire book: _that_ will stick in a reader’s head. That will keep them looking and searching, until they finally find what they’re looking for.

Your mission is not to write out the gospel. Your mission is to show it: to whet appetites and cause people to start looking. Your readers will read your books and be fascinated by the pictures you portray, by the world that you present. Little do they know that you’re echoing this world, the world that we live in. It’s a world inseperable from Christianity and the gospel.

So, dear reader who is a writer, write incredible stories. Write gospel-saturated stories, not gospel-garnished stories. Know the world around you, God’s world as it really is, and let that soak into everything you do. Let your pen be subtle, and your message true.

Published on 19 January, 2015. Last updated on

2 Comments

  1. Katie Lynn Daniels

    Dude…you stole my line. I’ve been saying that I want to write books that make people ask questions rather than beating them over the head with answers they don’t want to hear for YEARS.

    So I’m glad someone else is saying it too. Maybe someday people will start listening. šŸ™‚

    • Andrew Joyce

      Good to hear it! Beating over the head doesn’t work…it just doesn’t. A secular pub (Vox.com) actually had a really good editorial on it a few days back.
      The best way to get people to listen is to create literature that does it right.

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Into the Book was born out of a crazy idea of a blog that'd provide book reviews for teens. There aren't very many book review websites out there exposing awesome, high-quality Christian literature, and there are even fewer that target teenagers. Since 2009, we've been providing high-quality book reviews to the world through our blog. Into the Book has grown around reviews since then, but it remains our oldest project.

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