Disembowelments, drug addictions, and villains blown apart by rockets: Christian fiction isn't what it used to be.

Bookstores and reviewers haven't yet noticed the change. The mainstream press—confused, perhaps, by the number of Tim LaHaye/Jerry Jenkins novels in circulation—is still proclaiming that Christian readers want old-fashioned stories: Christian fiction, announces Time, has "no explicit sex (and almost none implicit), no bad words, virtually no violence." Christian readers want "renewal of faith" and "action without all the sex and profanity," pronounces the Chicago Tribune.

And those responsible for putting Christian fiction on bookstore shelves still agree: Christians, says a Spring Arbor executive, are looking for something that they will feel "safe in reading." "Readers feel comfortable with [Christian fiction]," says a Moody Press representative. "They know they will be entertained and at the same time not have to worry."

But in 1999, some consciously Christian fiction (from evangelical houses) and some genre fiction (mostly from Catholic houses) shunned Bible lessons, talked about sex, occasionally swore, and quite often failed to convert anyone.

Ironically, the most didactic religious novel of the year was published by a secular house. Joseph Girzone's Joshua: The Homecoming (Doubleday) features Jesus, thinly disguised as a man named Joshua, paying a visit to late twentieth-century Earth. Worried about the doomsday movements popping up as 2000 approaches, Joshua spends most of the book explaining to Americans that God does not work through apocalypse. San Francisco then falls into the ocean, but Joshua clarifies for us: God isn't judging California. "When we gave free will to people," he explains, "my father tied his hands behind his back."

This message trumps all else in Joshua: The Homecoming, which features awkward theological exposition inserted into the storyline in the grand tradition of evangelical fiction—though this book is written by a Catholic priest. "Dear Minnie," Joshua begins, "God does not play games. Why would God bring the world to a sudden end? The world ends for each one when he or she dies. That is the only end that people should be concerned about."

This year's novels from evangelical Christian publishers, by contrast, are much more stylish. Vinita Hampton Wright's literary novel Grace at Bender Springs (Broadman & Holman) lovingly chronicles the lives of Bender Springs' citizens as they fumble their way toward God. Pastoral couple Sarah and Jacob Morgan are failing miserably at their first pastorate; Tony Gardino is tempted every day to kill himself, and every day puts suicide off just until morning; Dave Seaton lives, uneasily, with a deeply troubled and much younger girl.

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"Rona," Sarah Morgan asks her friend, "do you think it matters at all to God—how hard I've tried?"
Rona answers, "Yes. I think he hates to see us trying so hard."
"I wish he'd help out a little more, then," Sarah objects. "It would take the pressure off."

Rona, like most of us, has no answer.

Literary fiction is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Christian market, and the newness shows: Grace at Bender Springs, one of the better books of the year, still has awkward spots. It should be 100 pages shorter, and Wright's metaphors induce the occasional giggle ("Annie's face reached out to take hold of him"). And in the first 100 pages, the characters have no visible connections with each other and nothing particular at stake.

Romey's Place by James Calvin Schaap (Baker) also suffers from technical difficulties. This coming-of-age tale is perceptive and realistic, and the troubled relationship between narrator Lowell Prins and his perfect father is beautifully disturbing. But the novel is choked by Schaap's narrative technique, which continually overlays the voice of adolescent Lowell with the intrusive editorializing of the grown Prins.

At a moment when we should be entirely caught up in a torrent of unfolding events, Schaap writes, "Just for a second she looked at me in a way I'll never forget, in a way my memory has preserved and maybe even exaggerated over the years—but in a way I later came to believe was something of the approval she didn't get from my grandfather, the warrant the old preacher wouldn't give her, even though the two of us—me and grandpa—finally and surely agreed at that moment on the state of Cyril's soul." The flood of interpretive de tail drowns the story, here and elsewhere.

Didacticism isn't preventing these literary novels from effectiveness; craft is the sticking point, and the publishers serving the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) desperately need capable and experienced fiction editors to bring this genre to maturity.

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Evangelical literary novels aren't alone in striving for sophistication. Christian mysteries and histories—the best mostly from Catholic and ecumenical presses-- were equally ambitious in 1999.

David Manuel's mystery novel A Matter of Roses (Paraclete), for example, features a widely assorted and well-developed cast of characters: a menacing Vietnam veteran turned real-estate developer; the girl he almost married and her present husband, a botanist whose lungs have been destroyed by the chemical defoliant he developed for the Vietnam-era military; Brother Bartholomew, a monk in the ecumenical Faith Abbey community; Laurel, the girl he left behind when he professed.

After the murder, the disentangling of clues is accompanied by a spiritual crisis: Brother Bartholomew wonders, after meeting Laurel again, whether his call to the Brotherhood was genuine. He wrestles with his desires in the chapel, with nothing from God but silence. When he surrenders to God, there is still nothing but silence. But the day after, freshness and joy overwhelm him: "He was home. And, O God, he had been away too long."

A Matter of Roses doesn't show us anyone else at peace, or getting right with God. Once Bartholomew has reconfirmed his monastic calling, Laurel visits the church and says, "This is where you live. … Nice house. But don't get any idea about me starting a relationship, or anything." There is potential for much more exploration of these matters than we actually get; A Matter of Roses disintegrates, at the very end, into a made-for-TV-movie chase involving hostage-taking, lots of explosives, and the fortuitous appearance of a large black dog who saves the heroine's life.

An evangelical offering with similarly complex characters is Linda Hall's suspense novel Island of Refuge (Multnomah), though it suffers from the opposite problem. Island of Refuge features a set of misfits living on Lambs Island, off the Maine coast, in an abandoned church. After one of the refugees is murdered, the islanders search among themselves for the killer. In the end, each misfit finds a subdued, but real, resolution: a dropout goes back to school, a deserted woman finds new love. Jeremiah, a once-famous preacher accused of sexual misconduct, sums up, "This church building has made me see that God, though he may be silent at times, is still there. … I was in need of the mercy of God, the grace of God. … I needed Him to forgive me. … And He has done that."

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As a portrait of the destitute, angry, and unforgiven searching for redemption, Island of Refuge succeeds. As a suspense novel, it doesn't work particularly well; it's perfectly obvious by the middle of the book who the killer is and how he did it. Fortunately, Hall's characters are interesting enough to keep the reader's attention engaged.

Robert Waldron's historical novel The Hound of Heaven at My Heels: The Lost Diary of Francis Thompson (Ignatius Press) holds attention for another reason: it's a brave and often poetic attempt to portray a battle with drug addiction. The novel begins with a foreword by a fictional Thompson scholar, determined to find the lost diary rumored to have been written by the author of "The Hound of Heaven." The scholar traces the diary to the monastery where Thompson—rescued from the street by a sympathetic editor—was sent to battle with his opium addiction. The fictional diary itself follows: Thompson struggles with his impulse to take the opium he has hidden in the top drawer of his desk and is haunted by a green-eyed rat that sits on the desktop, calling him. In his despair he lies on the floor, repeating "Please give me the courage not to succumb," until morning.

Unfortunately, the length of the novel (86 small pages with lots of white space) militates against a thoroughly realistic portrayal of Thompson's agonies. Al though the diary headings tell us that Thompson entered the monastery on February 20, 1889, and finally threw his opium away in September, the book's brevity leads us in short order to the point where Thompson no longer desires the drug—making his struggles seem, really, not all that bad. Most damaging of all, the diary gives no hint that Thompson's triumph is temporary. As Waldron tells us in the afterword, the poet lapsed back into addiction repeatedly, visiting monasteries to be nursed back to sobriety time after time; his death was probably from opium addiction. Surely this lifelong struggle should be foreshadowed in the story of Thompson's first victory over the drug.

The prize for wedding craft to story and both to good theology goes to another historical novel, Lucy Beckett's The Time Be fore You Die: A Novel of the Reformation (Ignatius). Robert Fletcher is a monk living through the unsettled years of Henry VIII's Great Matter, Bloody Mary's religious tyranny, and Elizabeth I's politic neutrality. Thrown from his monastery by Henry's looting soldiers, he suffers from the changing dictates of rulers and bishops: first allowed to marry, then required to put away his wife; first allowed to serve as a priest, then condemned as a heretic, then reprieved.

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Fletcher rails against the church's corruption, is condemned by Catholics as a Protestant heretic for agreeing with Luther's declarations on salvation, and yet continues to affirm Catholic doctrines, like the sacramental bread and wine becoming the body and blood of Christ. And he understands more and more clearly that the church of God cannot be identified with a ruler's purposes, no matter how great those purposes seem.

"The worst harm that the burnings have done your cause and your Church," he tells the cardinal who delivers him from the threat of the stake, "the harm that will be the most difficult and the last to mend, is that the people think of those who die that they die not just for the truth but for England too."

The cardinal objects: "The Church is not the queen's. … She is the Church of God, the body of Christ."

"I know, my lord," Fletcher replies. "I tell you only what the people see when they look at the Church, now."

The political maneuverings of cardinals and queens and the proper theological evaluation of their effect on God's kingdom is potentially dry stuff, but Beckett skillfully weaves births and marriages and illnesses and executions into it so that it flows like a story, not an examination of the difficulties of church-state relationships. She writes lyrically, but not self-consciously. And the death of the aged Fletcher is a thing of beauty.

These books certainly don't meet Time's checklist of no sex, no bad words, and no violence. Fistfights, car chases, explosions, and violent deaths ("The Chief was surprised that the human body contained such a quantity of entrails") occur throughout these Christian novels. Sex isn't taboo either. Romey's Place is frank about adolescent sex, as Grace at Bender Springs and Island of Refuge are about marital relations; the descriptions are non-titillating, but the topic is obviously not off-limits. And the occasional hell even salts the conversations—although only in the speeches of villains and prodigals.

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Nor are any easy solutions here. The lost lambs of Bender Springs find themselves in slightly greener pasture at the book's end; James Schaap's narrator discovers a measure of peace; Brother Bartholomew reaffirms his call. But there are no climactic conversions or neatly tucked-in edges to these realistic tales.

Instead, the novels are united by the consciousness of God's unspectacular work in everyday life. Walker Percy, asked whether he would call himself a "Catholic novelist," sidestepped the question: "There is hardly a moment in my writing," he answered, "when I am not aware of where, say, my main character—who is usually some kind of Catholic, bad, half-baked, lapsed, whatever … stands vis-à-vis the Catholic faith." The same might be said of each of these "Christian novels." Whether populated by Kansans, Maine misfits, or monks and novices, each novel is constantly aware of the relationship between the characters and their God. Mainstream novels also do this as well; Wrights' Grace at Bender Springs is not so different from Doris Betts' Souls Raised from the Dead, or A Matter of Roses from an Ellis Peters mystery.

Readers might not notice the difference between mainstream and evangelical Christian novels, but reviewers and book distributors rely heavily on the "Christian fiction" label attached to the novels put out by evangelical publishers. "Art must come before faith," sniffed Michael Dirda of Washington Post Book World, explaining why he refuses to review novels from religious presses. "Very few religious novels … achieve the kind of originality, artistry and stylishness that permit them to overcome a de rigueur didacticism."

Main stream bookstores shelve Christian fiction (if they carry it at all) far away from the New Fiction shelves, over with the Inspiration and New Age paperbacks. When James Schaap walks into his local Barnes & Noble superstore, he's likely to find Romey's Place shoved in next to Jim Bakker's autobiography.

Nor will these novels find much shelf space at the local Christian bookstore. While Christian fiction may be growing away from the "safe read," the shoppers who frequent Christian chain stores still want a certain predictable level of comfort in their reading—an expectation symbolized by a complete lack of tolerance for profanity. "We simply cannot publish a book with any profanity in it, even if the villains use it," an editor at Bethany complains. "If one consumer complains to a chain store, we might end up with 1,500 books shipped back to us the next day."

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Violence isn't such a red flag; in Charles Colson's 1995 bestseller Gideon's Torch, a female character blew the head off a doctor in a spray of blood and brains, without a single reader protest registered. But bad language signals the far edge of acceptable Christian entertainment.

"We once published a Western where the writer used the word bitch to refer to a female dog," an editor at Word told me. "Readers brought it back in droves."

This last remaining taboo (in itself, not such a bad thing) reflects a certain unhealthy belief about Christian novels: They should do nothing more than provide a refuge from secular culture. And it isn't just the readers who buy into this definition. "Fiction is a wonderful staple for every Christian store," the widely-read bookstore journal Christian Retailing chirps, brightly. "It can be suggested as the perfect gift, turned to as an inspiring chance to escape during tough times or used as a source of relaxation in the good times."

Serious Christian readers (including a number of editors at CBA publishing houses) have largely given up on bookstores that see novels as nothing more than escapism or "the perfect gift." Yet those same readers—the ideal audience for the novels of Wright, Schaap, or Hall—are unlikely to see Grace at Bender Springs or Island of Refuge reviewed in the magazines they read, or to stumble across these novels on the shelves of their local Borders.

Evangelical publishers, recognizing that the readership for their quality fiction has jumped ship, keep making noises about starting ABA imprints. (The American Book Association serves the mainstream market.) So far, the attempts have fizzled. Christian fiction may be growing up—but it's mired in an awkward adolescence, with talented and passionate writers stranded between readers who won't buy them, and readers who can't find them.

Susan Wise Bauer teaches literature at William and Mary College and is author of The Revolt (Word) and Though the Darkness Hide Thee (Multnomah).

Related Elsewhere

The Dallas Morning News also ran an article suggesting that Christian fiction is improving. Publisher's Weekly, meanwhile, says such improvement is leading to larger markets.

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Joshua: The Homecoming,Grace at Bender Springs,Romey's Place,A Matter of Roses,The Hound of Heaven at My Heels,Island Refuge, and The Time Before You Die are available at the Christianity Online bookstore.

Earlier Christianity Today articles by Susan Wise Bauer include:

Peretti Out-Grishams Grisham | God and the Devil in the summer blockbusters (Aug. 9, 1999)

Oprah's Misery Index | Her book club's selections' recurring theme: Sufferers who save themselves (Dec. 7, 1998)

Satan with a Stethoscope | Novels you don't want to read before surgery (Oct. 5, 1998)

The Myth of a Better Prayer Life | Bagfuls of books on this subject showed me I wasn't struggling alone. (Apr. 27, 1998)

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