Too Real?

woman and book

First of all, I have to confess to you all that I just entered into a blog drawing specifically for mothers. The prize is dinner and two tickets to see the revival of South Pacific. If I win, I will take those tickets without any thought or care for some poor, overworked, under-appreciated mother. And to top that off, to enter you had to answer the question “What does your honey do that makes him worthy of  this prize package?” Um…I'm not married. Though my answer could not be categorized as a lie. Creatively speaking.

I think this is a perfect example of one Christian lady (pronounced ledddy, with Will Farrell inflection) who often proves to the world how imperfect she is. (I think that's the first time in my life I've ever referred to myself in 3rd person. I'm about to throw up my queso.)  I screw up ALL the time. And in cases like this, sometimes even deliberately. But come on! I want in on that “Some Enchanted Evening!”

I've been thinking about this post for days.

I've also been furiously writing the final chapters of my next book for womens.  My food intake is disastrous. My posture? Think limp Twizzler. My butt glued to the couch, and every time I get up, I see visions of Mom Jeans. And sleep has been intermittent.

So after little rest last Thursday night, I woke up at the bright and early hour of 4:45 am to talk to the most lovely book group in Australia, hosted by Rel of Relz Reviews, a lady we adore in Christian fiction. They had chosen Just Between Me and You as their club selection. I'm not going to lie (I only do that on pro-mom blogs…), I got up extra early so my voice wouldn't sound like I ate cigarettes and did whiskey shots for breakfast. Yes, there were vocal exercises involved, which entailed me making myself sing “Party in the USA” loud enough for the neighbors to hear at this unholy hour.

And when I picked up the phone, I was ready. It was such a great conversation. We ladies talked about how we all appreciate reality in our Christian fiction. One woman, God bless her soul, said, “I was so glad to read the word ‘crap' in your book.” I just want to have that sewn on a pillow so I can display it proudly on my couch. Where my butt sits even now. One of the women said that it bothered her in Just Between You and Me that in the end Maggie sits by a Christian woman dealing with fear and teaches Maggie a much-needed life lesson. At just the right moment. And while that is so like God, she said “I didn't want her to sit by a Christian.” For her it was too neat and tidy and unrealistic. And in many ways, she's right. They talked about how sanitized Christian fiction can be, and while there's a need for it, there are a large group of people–like those ladies–who just want to see some reality. We talked about how our lives often are mirrored in fiction. How we're flawed, we say the wrong things, we get tested…and fail. We can even go through things and don't pull a single theme or lesson out of it. We pray for things for years with no answer and get mad. Not everything in life is happily resolved by just the right verse, just the right person, or just the right sermon or revelation. God moves powerfully and occasionally obviously, but there are also issues we face where we won't get an answer until we're standing before him, our earthly lives over. And I think given what we've seen from Congress (health care) and American Idol (Miley to be a mentor), we know we're going to see him sooner than later.

What about you? How much reality do you want to see in Christian fiction? When you pick up Christian fiction, do you roll your eyes or do you relate? Is it too sugared up? Too cleaned up and edited? Or is it just right? Or too PG? I recently got an email from a girl who was deeply offended by kissing in a book and the use of the word “gosh.” So while I hear a lot of complaints from friends and readers about Christian fiction, it goes both ways. If you read reviews, you'll see one book get reviews that say “that message was way too heavy-handed” to “where was God in that book?” All about the same book. We have different tastes in our reading, so where do you fall? Is Christian fiction too sweet? Too unrealistic? Does it look like your life? Or is it exactly what you need and you like to see the characters modeling the Godly behavior you strive for?

God has really been working on me the past year on keeping my mouth shut. So like in my books where the heroine screws up on a regular basis, I want you to know that I do to. And if I've been guilty in my books of making you think the Christian walk or the maturing process is easy, I'm sorry. Because it's not easy. And neither is winning tickets to see South Pacific. Or washing that man right out of your hair. Or falling in love with a French plantation owner, even though he has half-Melanesian children.

The conversation I had with the book group ladies really hit home with me, as we talked at length about how flawed we were and how we didn't always see that in our fiction. So despite the fact that humor and “real” isn't the hottest seller in Christian publishing, that's what I write. Because the faith walk is funny, embarrassing, awkward, frustrating, isolating, uniting, and messy. And rarely clean and tidy.

My conversation with the Australian ladies (and one from South Africa!) really stuck with me. And apparently with them too. Rel of Relz Reviews wrote a blog post on the same topic. You can visit it HERE.  I'd love to have your feedback as well. When it comes to Christian fiction, what works? What doesn't? What are you not seeing enough of? Where do we need to be safer? Take more chances? Leave alone? What makes you lean toward secular fiction more than Christian?  Can't wait to hear your answers.

Back to writing for me. See you in a few days.

JEN

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 49 comments
Shannon - March 23, 2010

I wanted to respond to this right away, Typically all I read is Christian fiction but my mother in law (who I share books with ) picked up one that looked and sounded good even though it was not Christian. I will tell you the story line is wonderful and has totally sucked me in but it has curse words her and there. I realize it is true to life since the majority of the words (even the F bomb) are said by an alcoholic mother. With all that being said I have been scratching out all the bad words so my mom in law can read it after me! I will finish the book but will never buy another one by this author. I love Christian fiction and know that it is all I will read from now on, as Christian’s I feel that we should fill our minds and thoughts with only things that glorify God! I like to see the characters striving to be Godly but failing too just like me! Can’t wait for your next book!

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Kaye Dacus - March 23, 2010

I wrote a book featuring a chef as a main character. A chef who couldn’t be seen using wine or other alcohol in his cooking. Why? Because it was published by a Christian publishing house for the Christian market. And while most Christians wouldn’t think twice about ordering Shrimp Scampi (made with white wine, if it’s made right) at a restaurant, the majority would be traumatized for life if a character in a “Christian” novel were to be portrayed using evil alcohol in his cooking.

Or would they? Those of us who write “Christian” (I prefer the term “inspirational” for mine, as the spiritual message is very light) fiction have to tread a fine line of trying to make our stories realistic while also trying to not alienate the touchiest amongst us.

Of course, I just had a reviewer say of my latest book that it was “too suggestive” because the hero noticed the vixen/bad-girl character’s legs twice (and looked away both times, chastising himself) but that “most of the characters were a little too ‘Christian'” which she liked but which was “not that realistic”—which really made me scratch my head. She didn’t like the fact that the hero had a very REALISTIC reaction to seeing an attractive woman’s legs but he wasn’t realistic because he was too Christian? Wasn’t quite sure how to take that.

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Danica - March 23, 2010

I love that you said crap. I would even sit on the fluffy embroidered pillow. And I really want to see South Pacific too. Rodgers and Hammerstein are geniuses.

I guess I see both arguments. There are things that we probably don’t need to see or read. Then again, I get tired of too perfect Christians who don’t seem to struggle with sin. I avoid those in real life, so it’s hard to relate to them in a book.

Kaye is right, by the way. Shrimp Scampi needs to be made with wine.

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Maddee - March 23, 2010

The main thing that I’ve heard is the issue many have with any language beyond words like “gosh” and “darn”. I’m not a fan of continuous strong language in literature, but I don’t mind writing with the occasional curse word. I think sometimes said language has a place where it’s appropriate, especially if it fits a character. However, I realize many readers in the Christian fiction market are offended by that kind of language, so maybe it doesn’t have a place in mainstream Christian fiction.

Having said that, it mystifies me that while even mild curse words are offensive to some, fairly graphic violence isn’t. A certain best-selling Christian author uses no language in his books (aside from saying “He swore vehemently”, etc), but I’ve had to put aside a couple of his books because the description of violence was so graphic, and I have an iron-clad stomach. Again, I don’t believe this is an set-in-stone issue, and different people may have different tolerances of both violence and language, and not be in sin, but on the whole, violence is far more tolerated in Christian literature than cursing.

So…on the whole, I am skeptical of a lot of Christian fiction because a lot of it (in my opinion, no offense intended) is too sanitized. I’m fine with an author using no strong language in his/her books. It just makes me lose interest in a book when characters are too perfect, or too cliche. (And too much Christian fiction, from what I’ve seen, which as a bookworm, is a lot – there’s just far too much in the romance genre. By that, I mean the stereotypical romance genre, as in something one might encounter in the secular romance section, minus the bodice-ripping, etc. I’ve no issues with romance in a book, but quite a bit of Christian fiction seems hopelessly unrealistic if written in the cleaned-up bodice-ripper tradition.)

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Maddee - March 23, 2010

Good grief. That wasn’t supposed to be such a long comment. I suppose I’ve been thinking on this for a while!

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Kim Cash Tate - March 23, 2010

Love this topic, Jen. I’m reading through typeset pages right now and remembering that my editor said something like, “No one will be able to accuse you of not being real.” There are no cuss words in the book (I personally don’t like that in Christian fiction), but the issue is faithfulness–in singlehood and in marriage. One of the main characters, who’s a strong Christian, is tested in a weak moment and passionately kisses a man who she knows is not right for her. So, Jen, your reader who was deeply offended by kissing might have a problem. And yes, Kaye, I guess one might call this “too suggestive.” 🙂 But the character pulls back, repents, and learns from it.

Christians get tempted (more than we’re willing to admit), and I like to put characters in real-life situations where they might be vulnerable to temptation and have to make the choice whether they will cling to God. I do think, though, that when we get “real” in Christian fiction, it needs to be tastefully done. We don’t have to over-describe what’s happening, thereby glorifying it and perhaps causing the reader to stumble.

As we seek God in our writing, He will lead us. There will be some for whom the book is simply not meant; others will scream, “This is just what I’ve been looking for!” 🙂

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laura - March 23, 2010

I have read all types of books – but when the language is offensive, or the behaviors are offensive (beyond telling the story) – I think of the children’s song “…be careful little eyes what you see, be careful little ears what you hear…” and feel like it’s leading down a slippery slope. Of course, who’s perfect? But, imagine the influence… We have a interim pastor at our church, he’s an avid reader (he says). I’ve only known him for 5 months – but, in that 5 months he has used words that are hard for me to hear…from the pulpit!! True. So, to the extent you are able to communicate an emotion, setting, character or whatever – using words God himself may be reading over your shoulder…you just can’t go wrong! Yes – describe the situation clearly, but focus more on the message than the language. I’ve always said, a really good commedian can be completely clean & completely funny. Same for a writer, wouldn’t you say?? If we want shock value, all we have to do is watch Congress. :0)

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Laura G. - March 23, 2010

I need realistic Christian fiction. I think it’s silly to create a fluffy world to read about that doesn’t deal with issues we experience every day. At the same time, what is our motivation? Do writers need to shock other Christians if there’s an equally effective way to get their point across? It takes a lot of wisdom, that’s for sure.

And this discussion reminds me of how important it is for us as believers to set standards and know why we won’t read or approve of certain things. Everyone is different, but we should all be discerning.

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WordVixen - March 23, 2010

Whew- you asked a lot of questions for a wordy person like me! I’ll try to keep it simple though.

What I like in Christian fiction- good writing. Good story. Not letting an agenda beat out the story. I love your books because they’re funny and make me smile (even re-reading the Katie Parker series made my giggles shake the bed and wake up my husband). I love Jeffrey Overstreet’s fantasy series because it was fresh- unlike any other fantasy I’ve read (at least book one is, two and three are a little more usual fare, but still good). Jill Williamson’s fantasy because she’s the first woman and the first Christian that I’ve seen do epic fantasy really, really well.

I don’t really care how realistic a book is as long as the story is good and the writing is strong. One thing that does drive me nuts, though, is when the entire cast of characters are Christians- or worse, there’s a token atheist. Unless you work in ministry and socialize only with your small group members, chances are that you interact with a lot of people who aren’t believers, or who claim Christianity because they think all it means is that they believe there is a God. Real life for the average person is not lived in a bubble.

Where I lean toward secular fiction is that they don’t feel the need to create a Christianity based religion for their fantasy novels. The worlds are built up from scratch, religions and all. They don’t have to tame down the magic for fear that CBA won’t publish them. They’re closer to CS Lewis and Tolkien than most Christian fantasy writers simply because they know that fantasy is fantasy.

But I absolutely loathe secular chick-lit (do these women ever think about ANYTHING other than clothes and sex and how to be mean to their druggie best friends?).

So, what I like best in Christian and secular books? Good stories with good writing. I should have just left it at that. 😀

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WordVixen - March 23, 2010

Oh- and on point with Kaye (who, funnily, I had in my list of authors that I love and why until I decided the list was too long), I LOVE characters who have a glass of wine, or a rum and coke (or what have you). Every time I see a CBA character take a sip, I internally cheer. Now- to finish my review of The Search For God And Guinness. 🙂

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Debra - March 23, 2010

I’m glad you brought it this issue, Jenny! I’m enjoying reading through others’ comments and will no doubt be back later to keep reading…

I seriously hate some of the crap out there that passes for Christian fiction. Fiction is definitely right, I wanna shout as I read these books. I hate when the characters don’t seem real. I want them to have real problems, real flaws, real issues.

That said, I read Francine Rivers’ Redeeming Love which was Christian fiction and found it offensive. Even though she tried to keep it PG, I still felt disgusted by some of the content.

While I want reality in Christian fiction, I also don’t want it to be graphic. Writers can talk about certain issues and subjects without being graphic.

But the problem you run into is that everyone has a different opinion on what counts as graphic and what doesn’t so really a lot of this conversation is ultimately subjective.

And another point and I might be alone on this one, I don’t mind language in my books. No, I don’t want everything peppered with the f-bomb but the occasion dang doesn’t offend me. I say that sometimes. I stub my toe and it’s out before I even have a chance to stop myself.

I enjoy your books. And with each one I read, I feel like the characters become more real. I can see where you’re growing as an author, where you’re striving to make the characters ‘real’. I really like that. I respect you a lot for it.

So…there you go. That’s my two cents and as I mentioned, we all have different opinions. 😉

Deb

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Jenny B. Jones - March 23, 2010

Shannon, I used to have a teacher who always said, “Garbage in, garbage out.” She was talking computer programming, but it’s always been so applicable to life. (unlike programming for me…)

Kaye, I think that’s another example of the two extremes. What is this 1850–when the glimpse of a lady’s ankle was a turn-on? That is seriously ridiculous. I am pretty good at brushing off reviews, but that one would have me ticked. THAT’S why the world thinks Christians are irrelevant. Well, that and occasionally Elizabeth Hasselbeck.

Danica, you are welcome to sit on my embroidered crap pillow any time. And I agree as well–there are some things I don’t want to see in a book, especially inspy fiction.

Maddee, I’m not for cussing in our fiction either. I tune it out while reading secular fiction. Often, I don’t even notice it. But there’s an expectation for Christian fiction, and that’s one could make a reader feel betrayed if they saw it in their Karen Kingsbury or Rachel Hauck novel. But I think the fantasy/princess element will always be in our romance novels. Often goes with the territory of escapism fiction. I’m still trying to get Fabio on one of my covers…

Kim Cash Tate, I cannot WAIT to read your book. It’s going to be awesome for readers and awesome for Christian fiction. I love how it brings an issue that affects everyone–atheist to Christian–and brings it to life. Christians do get tempted. And often fail.

Laura, so true. One of my favorite comedians is still Bill Cosby, who rarely cusses. But he’s also REAL. He talks about wanting to strangle his kids, how his wife wears the pants, etc. He’s just honest. And we laugh because we relate and think, “Why didn’t I say that?”

Laura G, it’s hard to strike that balance, isn’t it?

Word Vixen–great point. Story rules. You can forgive much if the story sweeps you up.

Debra, you say dang when you stub your toe? The Lord says to tell you he’s highly disappointed.

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Maddee - March 23, 2010

Yeah, I think the no-cussing in Christian fiction is part of its appeal. In a way, CF is safe in that respect, because I know I won’t run into problems with language. I’m all for the pleasure of escapism sometimes too – just wish there was more of a balance genre-wise. (I write all this having not been in the Christian publishing world, so I concede my inexperience 🙂

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Deborah - March 23, 2010

If there’s anything in Christian fiction that turns me off (and don’t get me wrong, about 75% of what I read is Christian fiction), it’s the lack of diversity. It’s REALLY sad at how few books there are that feature a person of color as a main character. Yes I know there are books out there that do feature POC characters and there are several really good POC authors (Camy Tang, Claudia Burney, Marilynn Griffith to name a few) but compared to general fiction, it’s insanely low. And then the few times that POC characters are included, stereotypes abound.

For example, I’m Asian American. I am TIRED of seeing Christian fiction books continually only portray Asian Americans as 1) adopted 2) immigrants 3) foreign exchange students. I can probably count on my hand the number of Christian fiction books that portrayed an American born Asian American like myself. And when they do talk about Asians, it’s always stuff that’s extremely stereotyped. Asians are always portrayed as very smart, and being doctors. I understand that an author might not be Asian, or African American or Latino when writing their character, but at least do some research and NOT use stereotypes!

For some reason, I think YA books are more open to talk about diversity than adult Christian fiction is for some weird reason. They are even featured on the covers which I can’t say for a lot of adult CF. I guess what I’m getting at is that Christian fiction is not realistic when it comes to diversity. I don’t know if it’s because the majority of the audience doesn’t want to read about it, the authors don’t know how to write about it, or the publishers don’t want to market to it or some other weird combination. And that is a serious fault that needs to be changed.

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Jenny B. Jones - March 23, 2010

Deborah, so right. But I think you’ll see more diversity when we have more than white ladies writing the books. I think those authors tend to go secular. No matter our color or culture, we all tend to write what we know. I think we’d all like to see some changes in that area.

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Deborah - March 23, 2010

I know…that’s the problem. And I think also the target audience is also white ladies. Which means Asian girls like me have to look elsewhere most of the time….

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Jenny B. Jones - March 23, 2010

You’re right. The target audience is white ladies. But that’s because they’re the ones buying. We target those handing over the money. But I think minorities (hate that word–do we have something better?) KNOW not to check our inspy shelves. So until we show them covers and authors and stories that will change their mind, publishers aren’t going to work as hard to gain their readership. But I do think we’re seeing some improvement here–slowly.

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Deborah - March 23, 2010

I’ve always been the oddball reader, I screw up statistics 🙂

I just find it interesting that general market readers are open to reading about different cultures, yet Christian fiction readers tend not to be. For example, books by Amy Tan, Lisa See, Tess Gerritsen, Terry McMillan and E. Lynn Harris are read AND enjoyed by LOTS of people regardless of their culture. Yet in Christian fiction, the majority (not all obviously but a lot) readers tend to stay away from POC authors, saying they felt they couldn’t relate because of the different culture. I just can’t understand it. 🙁

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Natalie - March 23, 2010

I love this post so much, Jen. This is why your books mean so much to people – because you hit the balance some authors haven’t been able to find yet (due to publisher restrictions or whatever). I’ve always thought Christians (myself included) are offended by all the wrong things. Derek Webb has a great song about that – he mentions all these hot button issues in the church and then asks why people are offended by that, but not by how many thousands of people starve every day. Extreme example, but still. I think there’s plenty of truth in that. I don’t like it in any novel when I trip over swear words (if it fits with the character, I’m fine with it. Sometimes I think it’s thrown in there in a failed attempt to be “edgy”). But crap isn’t even a swear word! Crap is common! (There’s an inspirational quote for ya.)

I typically don’t read much Christian fiction because 1.) I think it tilts a little too preachy. I’ve read books that feel very contrived for an inevitable Damascus moment in the end. And 2. (this is a very girly, frivolous confession), I think the romance can be too cheesy. I don’t need scenes that make my granny blush (as if such a scene could exist …) but I like it when characters kiss. And flirt. And act like a normal couple. And sometimes CBA novels skimp on all that. It’s like there’s no fun in falling in love. (I realize there are loads of great CBA novels that have nothing to do with lurve, but it’s nice to see fictional characters try to untangle their heart a little bit. I like to project all my problems onto fictional people ; )

Also. I’m not trying to be super shallow, but sometimes Christian covers are so corny they make me cringe. I’m seeing some major improvement in that area (and I can think of plenty of covers that are beautiful). I’ll still pick up a novel if it sounds good. But I wish the outside reflected all the awesomeness on the inside.

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Cathy West - March 23, 2010

Hot topic. One I struggle with all the time. I write fictional reality. Crap happens. Lots of it. All the time. Even to Christians. I read someplace that shall remain nameless, when they were discussing why not have more blood and guts reality (not literally) in CBA, somebody replied that they don’t even watch the news because they don’t want to be ‘scarred’ or something to that effect…so that’s why there are categories of books that are doing so well out there…and then there are those of us who are screaming for the publishers to wake up and smell the coffee that we just spilled all over the kitchen floor as the pot slipped out of our hands and we let go with a loud, “Oh, FIDDLEDYPOOP!!”
Yeah. Don’t get me started.
But I LOVED your book and I want to read lots more books like Just Between You and Me. And I think you should make that couch cushion hot pink with feathery trim. And sell them on your website.

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Nicole O'Dell - March 23, 2010

I hear you.

I tackle some tough issues in my books, but I try to balance the hard things with grace and forgiveness. It’s hard to do that without sounding preachy.

I had one mom write to me that she bought one of my books to help her daughter realize what she’d face when she started dating…but this mom complained that the characters kiss. Well…how can we talk about the realities of what goes on out there without talking about them?

I think we, as writers, need to do whatever we’re called to do. It takes all kind and we’re not meant to make everyone happy. The people I offend have another author whom God called to write what they prefer.

KWIM?

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Lyla - March 23, 2010

I can be leery of Christian fiction because it often feels fake and preachy. Especially with conversion scenes. Sometimes it feels like those are thrown in because they’re required. Basically, it seems to me that in Christian fiction the story is frequently subjected to the message. That’s why a lot of my favorite books are mainstream–they are written purely for the story. Conversely, I’m turned off by secular fiction with a message… it offends me 🙂

I agree with Nicole that writers just need to write what they’re called to. I personally would be disappointed in a Christian book with real swearing (because, honestly? Excepting the most gritty topics, it’s not necessary) but have no problem with stuff like gosh or crap. I also don’t feel like it’s necessary to have a blatant faith message and get everyone converted; then again, that’s the most meaningful part of a book for other people.

I think the key is to remember that even though we’re all Christian, we still have different tastes. And the book market ought to reflect that.

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Jenny B. Jones - March 23, 2010

Deborah, one thing I notice about the authors you mentioned (some, if not most–though def. not all) is that they get really neutral covers. Not covers where you pick it up and think, “This book is written for an African American audience.” Or “This book is written for Latinos.” It’s just a book with a cover that fits the theme or genre. That’s not exclusive like romance sometimes does–here’s a picture of my main character on the cover. She is the shade of______.

Thanks, Natalie. ANd I love the point about the covers. We both have a love for ABA (secular) covers, so it’s definitely a difference that can be noticeable.

Cathy, you’re right. Crap does happen. Lots of it. ; ) that would also make a good pillow or tshirt. Or campaign slogan? Or motto for a proctologist?

Nicole, GREAT point–we write what we’re led to write, and God will honor with the right audience. And I’m really glad you don’t shy away from issues in your YA books. Can’t wait to talk about your new releases next week on the blog!

Lyla, definitely a lot of tastes out there for readers. Hopefully there is more and more to appeal to everyone.

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Kristin - March 23, 2010

I honestly don’t read much Christian fiction. I always mean to read more of it, but for some reason never do. Pretty much all I’ve read is your stuff, Melody Carlson, and one of Beverly Lewis’ series (because I have a strange fascination with Amish people). And Frank Peretti/Ted Dekker, but that’s another whole creepy category.

But I like Christian fiction (or most any fiction) to be realistic. I do have a problem with cussing, because that is such a huge pet peeve of mine…in everyday conversation, not just books. I think your books have a perfect balance. Your characters seem genuine and they’re definitely memorable (and even the wacky wrestling plots seem realistic, LOL). I really like Melody Carlson’s books, some more than others, but sometimes I feel like there’s some repetition and quick tie-ups (but not very often). But when you’ve written like 100 books, I guess that’s necessary.

I recently stopped in a new bookstore, and the lady working there was super friendly (or either trying to make a sale). She was asking me about what I’m interested in, and once she found out I was looking at the Melody Carlson books, she started giving me a hundred recommendations for Christian fiction. It did make me curious to read more. =) (Plus, we have a bargain bookstore in town that has tons of CF for ridiculously low prices).

~Kristin

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Annie - March 23, 2010

What would Jesus do? Grin. I like “reality” in Christian “fiction” (is that an oxymoron?) Anyway…because let’s face it without grace we are all screw ups. I think as we endeavor to accept that grace (a life long process) that we find books written about “real life” and not “sanitized: and all tied up with the perfect bow reflect a “snapshot in time” of how that person is doing on the journey of grace. As long as we are in a flesh body, we’ll have to deal with the “flesh” and all the junk that accompanies it. The real message is we are saved by grace through faith and we are all on a journey-faith to faith, glory to glory. So many Christian fiction books I’ve read that aren’t “sanitized” have ministered to me. God works through them. He’s in the business of saving people not keeping them out. He’ll use His Word in many creative ways to get the job done! (P.S. Love your blog–you crack me up!)

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Annie - March 23, 2010

I like to see honesty in the Christian fiction I read. I want it to reflect the reality of journeying in faith. I remember one author whose books I’ve read, and her characters will say, “I’ve been wrong in this, and I’ve haven’t been doing this,” and I think to myself, “Realistically, who would say that? Nobody! Because I don’t know a single person who’s that meticulously self-accountable!” I don’t want to sound like I’m saying this just to say it, but I loved reading “Just Between You and Me” because it was realistic. It was honest. It was emotionally complex. It resonated so much with me and where I am right now in my own walk of faith. And I especially loved the humor–I’m a huge fan of dry humor and sarcasm and exercise them myself when I can. Please keep writing authentically. I think it’s that quality that really draws people in, and I can say with certainty that that’s what I like to see in the books I read.

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Paris - March 23, 2010

I love Christian fiction for the most part, but I haven’t read a lot of recent stuff lately. I think Melody Calrson has a good dose of reality in her books. One thing I hate about Christian chick-lit is when the teen girls obsess over their boyfriends the whole book and they’re basically miserable. And I read that, and I’m thinking, “This is so depressing!” I love books that make me laugh (that’s why I love your books!).

I think someone mentioned Chriastian fantasy, and it does get annoying when the story has to copy C.S.Lewis by creating another “Jesus” in their book. I see a lot of that, and it’s really predictable and boring.

Basically, I don’t won’t to buy a book I have to hide from my younger sisters because of cussing or descriptive kissing scenes or whatever, but I do agree with keeping it real because a lot of Christians are in public schools and are exposed to “real” everyday. That’s my two cents worth:))

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Suzanne Schaffer - March 23, 2010

Reality is good. I find myself quite often stopping after an unrealistic scene and thinking,
“that would never happen….” and then I remind myself that it’s fiction and in fiction anything can happen (it still annoys me though!) I like realistic characters that I can relate to. Characters that make me laugh.
I am appalled, however, by the amount of swearing in Christian fiction. The book I’m currently reading has a character taking the Lord’s name in vain. Um, isn’t that one of the TOP TEN? That really bothers me. I sent an email to a publishing house a few years ago (which will remain nameless) and got the reply that, “(this particular book) isn’t labeled as Christian fiction, it’s labeled as general fiction….blah blah blah.” My reply was, “that may be so, but it’s sitting on the shelf in a CHRISTIAN bookstore where unassuming folks like me are looking for stuff that isn’t compromising.”
It really makes me angry that some Christian authors feel the need to compromise in this area. What’s wrong with simply saying, “He swore”? It still gets the point across and the reader isn’t subjected to those words sneaking into their mind.
Yes, this is my current pet peeve. It’s right up there with tele-marketers and people who don’t use turn signals.

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Ally - March 24, 2010

I appreciate it when Christian books (especially those for teens) are very real and not ‘sugared up’ as u put it.
Being a teenager, its comforting to read about someone who faces the same obsticles I face everyday and how they deal with it – realisticly. or however u spell that word.
I don’t think theres anything wrong with kissing and stuff in a Christian novel, and I don’t have an issue with ‘gosh’, although I know some people who get offended when I say that.
I am looking forward to reading more of your books. I don’t know when they come out in Australia – is it the same as the US? anyway, i love your blog – i gotta say it’s different to anything else I read all day and that’s very refreshing!

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Gina - March 24, 2010

First, I promise not to tell you’re not a mom if you take ME along to see South Pacific. Second, I like more reality in my Christian fiction. Third, my pastor has said a word or two from the pulpit that made me raise MY eyebrows and I’m from NYC! Fourth and last…I think there’s a place for safe and real Christian fiction. Jesus came for sinners, the flawed and imperfect. I want to read about those people…so I can feel better about myself! 😉

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Erin Valentine - March 24, 2010

I don’t think it’s the lack of swear words or real-life situations that make Christian fiction sometimes a little too…pale. After all, look at Mary DeMuth’s Watching the Tree Limbs, in which a young girl deals with her rape. Francine River’s Atonement Child is my favorite fiction book that tackles abortion when the protagonist opts to keep the child that results from her rape. Fun and bittersweet are words I use for Angela Hunt’s series on a woman who deals with her husband’s infidelity while she learns how to deal with death as she runs a mortuary. There are plenty of realistic Christian fiction books that show that God’s people are most definitely not spared life’s difficulties.

When I don’t like a Christian fiction book, it is almost always a matter of the writing. I often pick up a book that reads exactly like a Harlequin novel without the curse words or lascivious sex scenes. Not to say that all Harlequin novels are poorly written, but let’s be real. An industry that has to pump out how many books per month to keep up with consumer demand? Quite a few get published just to keep up with production. Same with most other genres of secular fiction. And I think that’s what happened with Christian fiction. The demand went up dramatically, and a lot of material got published that was rather mediocre.

I look for Christian fiction that is well written, that imparts spiritual truths without theological diatribe, and that echoes my life – a blend of pain and laughter, organization and messiness, Christ-like commitment and sin-filled failures. It’s very important to me, though, that when the characters sin it’s very clear that they do so in opposition to our Heavenly Father and that they not only feel guilt, but that they deal with consequences from their sin as well. Our desire to please Him should be the hallmark of our lives and our fiction.

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Jenny B. Jones - March 24, 2010

Natalie, back to your comment, I wanted to say that I loved what you said about missing the “fun” and flirtiness of a romance. Whether it’s secular or inspy (or heck, real life), it’s the chase that makes it fun–the getting there. I’d like to more of that too–I think we shy away from flirty stuff. I’d like to see more of that even in secular.

Erin, I think you’re right-lack of swearing is definitely not a pressing issue. It’s the feeling behind that moment where someone might swear that has to stay legit. Great examples of some good Christian fiction.

Gina, South Pacific would be so good, wouldn’t it? I don’t want to hear “those” words from the pulpit, but we had a guest pastor come to our very conservative church and he said the word poop and butt or some others–not cuss words. But it was awesome. EVERYONE laughed. Those are NOT words our refined pastor says, but guess what, WE all say them, and he was speaking our language. Best sermon I’ve heard in our church ever. (not just for those words, but for just being real)

Ally, not sure of release dates in Australia. : ) Hopefully you won’t have too long to wait. And I appreciate the teen input.

Suzanne, I think it’s interesting some of you are mentioning swearing in Christian fiction because I have NEVER once read a bad word there. I gotta start reading more…ha. I wouldn’t like that bait and switch either.

Annie 1, God definitely carries his message in creative ways. So lots of room for variety. : )

Annie 2, great point–our characters are often too self-accountable. Not sure that’s realistic.
Interesting…

Kristin, our publishers LOVE that you have that strange fascination with Amish people…ha.

Paris, you guys are so right about fantasy novels. That’s a hard one and people get offended easily. Which is a shame. It’s such a hot genre right now–especially for teens, so we could be missing big ministry opportunities.

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Evangeline Denmark - March 24, 2010

Thanks for bringing this topic to light with your trademark humor and authenticity. I think the previous comments show that many of us are longing for more from our fiction.
I hope and pray that publishers and marketing departments are able to track that growing desire in the CF readership.
As a writer, I sometimes feel like my hands are bound, not by my faith, but my fellow believer’s expectations. My recent project, a supernatural romance for the Christian audience, came back from its door-to-door sales trip stamped “not Christian enough.”
Some of your readers mentioned that they’d like to see fantasy that didn’t hammer a vaguely-disguised gospel message. I agree. I like to read books that explore certain aspects of our walk with God or even just our humanity and our need. When I wrote my supernatural romance, I focused on one Biblical concept–to love is to serve. I wasn’t nearly prepared for where that one theme would take the novel. I grew and I learned as I wrote that book and it hurts to be told it’s not Christian enough.
Not to worry though, Secret Agent Man and I are putting together another project that will hopefully allow me to indulge my hunger for the supernatural, and, hopefully be “Christian enough.” Whatever that means. I’ll end with this question, can anyone ever truly be “Christian enough?”

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David A. Bedford - March 24, 2010

Just because you read a book in which a character uses language you don’t does not mean you approve of it. If you never hear it around you, it may mean you are overly sheltered in your life. That said, a good book must transcend categories and, now that it has been proven that we can write anything at all in a book, it behoves us to choose carefully what to write. There is a need for books of wide acceptability and strong literary quality which highlight the better side of human behavior as well as the bad. This is what I try to do in my new release.

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A J Hawke - March 24, 2010

God has called us to be holy as he is holy. It calls us as Christians to a higher calling and plane of living than we might otherwise choose. Tall order and a life long journey.

In our world today, it is hard to keep away from filthy language. A strong term but one used in Colossians 3:8. In Romans we are told to stay away from course joking, rude talk, and put downs.

As writers who are wordsmiths, we should be extra careful of the words we use, as when they are printed they become part of the world.

What does the common word crap mean? The first definition in the dictionary is that it mean excrement, the act of defecation. Would I use that word in a prayer to God the Father? Be holy as I am holy. The word gosh is an altered pronunciation of the word God, as is gee.

Can we communicate effectively with each other as Christians and non-Christians without using words that are offensive to God? Surely our English language is large enough to find words other than those that offend.

Just because it is in common use and one hears it every day does not mean that I, as a Christian, should use it. For many older people, the word crap is the same as the sh.., which I will not even type here, as it is too vulgar and also means to defecate. And is offensive. As a Christian, I am called to not deliberately offend my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Terry Burns wrote a blogpost about how to communicate in fiction to indicate that his character is cursing a blue streak. Very funny and very effective without using any offensive words.

We can write of the real world, of real people, of real language without writing and using language, descriptions, and narratives that offend God.

Who is our true audience? Mine as a writer is God, foremost and always.I am commanded to do all to the glory of God. If I keep that in mind, then others will benefit from my written words.

Thank you, Jenny for bringing up this topic. I appreciate so much your writing and spirit. The comments have also been thought provoking.

Blessings

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Jenny B. Jones - March 24, 2010

I’m loving this conversation. A.J., you have a point and I appreciate hearing another side. We are called to be above. Called to be different and set apart. (And Elizabeth Hasselbeck, that should be for GOOD reasons…) I have some of the same conflicting thoughts when I watch Tyler Perry. That man is without a doubt REACHING people, but yet there is cussing and drug references. Is speaking their language Godly? Is selling out a little worth the gain? I don’t know. But right now he’s getting the message of Christ in the mainstream.

Evangeline, the supernatural territory of fiction is just going to be a fight. But you are the girl to lead it! Can’t wait to see you on the shelves. We need it.

David, good luck w/your new book.

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Rel Mollet - March 24, 2010

Whoa, Jenny! Told you there were lots of people out there who want more reality in their CF. Good to see everyone’s comments here, too.

It is interesting how many people respond when we talk reality in fiction with whether Christian writers can use swearing in their books. Seems to me there are a whole lot of other issues that could be addressed in Christian fiction in a more realistic manner and yet language is the often the first response.

As we talked that night, Jen, we can be thankful for the progress many writers and their publishers have made since Janette Oke first made CF popular 🙂

Thanks for sharing with our book club – we had an absolute ball and if you don’t win the South Pacific gig, book a flight down under and we’ll show you something even better 😉

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Amy @ My Friend Amy - March 24, 2010

I long and ache for more reality.

It seems to me that Christians who write this way end up not getting published in the Christian marketplace and many Christians end up missing out.

I think there should be room for DIVERSITY. There’s a place for safe Christian fiction, I”m not asking it to go away. But I long for fiction that speaks to me, that meets me, that reflects my life, that makes me dig deeply, that challenges my thinking, and in the middle of all of this still points me to God. A completely safe God who tidily wraps things up doesn’t sound like the God I know therefore I’m not sure how Christian a lot of Christian fiction really is.

And I’m with Rel….I don’t need cussing and I really think that’s such a surface issue. And I think the fact that so many people are divided on this very superficial issue speaks to the general problem.

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Tracy - March 24, 2010

Hey Jenny! Glad to hear you’ve got those final chapters under control. I’ve been thinking of you this week as you’ve no doubt been madly and creatively typing your fingers to the bone!

There are just two things I don’t want to read:
1. swearing of the harsher variety
2. explicit descriptions of an intimate nature.

It is rare that I don’t enjoy the books I read, because Christian fiction is so amazingly broad. But within my doses of reality I really don’t want to be wishing I hadn’t read a word, or a scene. Indeed, one of the things I love about some of the more daring CF authors (like yourself, Jenny!) is that they have the ability to write scenes into their books that leave you with no doubts whatsoever, but is written so well that there is no need for a smutty or gutter-level approach. I want to be able to put a book down at the end and feel satisfied that I’ve been able to draw something from the story that will make me stop and think about the way I approach something in my life. Finding that life lesson in a book is one of the things that I have found really fulfilling, as a reviewer.

For myself, I find that some books, like Just Between You and Me have a perfect balance of reality, life and humour to be a complete read. There are other books that are so emotionally draining that you need some extreme light fluff to counteract the darkness that can begin to consume you. For me ‘A Slow Burn’ by Mary DeMuth was an incredibly ‘real’ book and a really worthwhile read….but it left my emotional balance out of wack. I felt drained and heavyhearted so much so that I read about five really light books before I felt like I could deal with something a little deeper.

As my girls come to the age where they can start plucking books from my shelves for their own reading pleasure, I’m finding that there is a place for the lighter stories. There are certainly some books that should be left for a little later when some life experience has been gained first.

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Rel Mollet - March 25, 2010

Excuse me, Jenny……Ally ~ all Jen’s current books are available in Australia from Koorong or Word book stores.

Tracy – you know I agree with you about our girls 🙂

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Word Lily - March 25, 2010

I love what Amy said, above: “I long for fiction that speaks to me, that meets me, that reflects my life, that makes me dig deeply, that challenges my thinking, and in the middle of all of this still points me to God. A completely safe God who tidily wraps things up doesn’t sound like the God I know therefore I’m not sure how Christian a lot of Christian fiction really is.”

I agree, too, that language isn’t really what I’m talking about when I say I want more reality in my CF reading. It feels to me that so much Christian fiction falls into the Thomas Kincaid realm of this writing art — not authentically engaging, not even really attempting to say anything, and each one very much the same as all the others. More a part of a marketing machine than actual art.

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Debbie, Genre Reviews - March 25, 2010

I’m in the “I long for more reality” group.

I don’t mind the occasional bad word, though I do prefer the bad language to be indicated with “he cussed” instead of actual bad words. I don’t mind the characters being tempted or even the gritty side of life being shown as long as realistic consequences happen. I also don’t mind books with “saintly” non-POV characters since they do exist out there. (As for POV “saintly” characters, they have struggles, just different ones).

If advice is handed out, I like it to be directed at and appropriate for the character receiving it rather than obviously aimed at the reader. It comes across as more realistic to me if the character receiving this advice doesn’t immediately accept it (with everything suddenly becoming all better) but instead struggles–trying her own way a little longer–or grows into it or even discovers that the principle is true but a different (still Biblical) method works better for her.

However, if I’m reading Christian fiction, I want Jesus/God to matter to the characters and be a part of their struggle (even if it’s not a major role) instead of just being stuck on without making a single difference in the character’s life.

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Raye - March 25, 2010

I am definitely not a fan of swear words. The Bible tells us to keep our language pure, and that should be the standard. Your books are hilarious and wonderful without bad words. Thanks for your amazing books!!!

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Erin McFarland - March 26, 2010

“So despite the fact that humor and “real” isn’t the hottest seller in Christian publishing, that’s what I write. Because the faith walk is funny, embarrassing, awkward, frustrating, isolating, uniting, and messy. And rarely clean and tidy.”

… And that is why I love your books! 🙂 And i honestly wish there were more books like that in the Christian fiction market. Can’t wait for “Save the Date”!!

… And it was so interesting reading all the comments! I gotta say, I feel like there’s a lot of pressure on a CF author to get it just right. Can’t please everyone and that’s ok.

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Rel Mollet - March 26, 2010

I agree with you, Erin. I think Christian authors have it tougher than most with not only their writing but also their faith and motivations under the microscope, from their fellow Christians, no less!

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Amy - March 26, 2010

I really don’t have anything intelligent to add…just that I enter MOMMY GIVEAWAYS all the time. I mean, it’s not *my* fault I haven’t met Mr. Right, had some kids, and you know, started a Mommy Blog. Besides, I let moms enter all my giveaway. All’s fair in blogging and contest entering. 🙂

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Shauna - March 26, 2010

Late to the party, but I’ve enjoyed reading this discussion. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot recently, especially after watching Precious (which Tyler Perry co-produced BTW) last week. It’s a powerful movie that’s difficult to watch, and it has a way of shaking you awake and drawing your attention to things that are usually kept behind closed doors and that you would rather not think about. Though it’s a secular film, it had a strong spiritual impact on me because of its portrayal of “the least of these” in our own country. It left me thinking: What can I do to be the hands and feet of Jesus to the real-life girls like Precious who are out there? But, the movie also made me feel like I had been bludgeoned over the head with a shovel, and I think it went too far with the disturbing content. Yes, it was gritty and raw, but is that the only way a novelist or screenwriter can drive home a message and be real? I kept thinking, “Enough!!! I get it! I don’t need to have my senses assaulted repeatedly in order to understand the extent of the abuse Precious suffered.” (Incidentally, I felt the same way about The Passion of the Christ and still wish to this day I had never watched it, though I don’t usually admit that.)

I think people should be free to read whatever type of book they want without apology, and the market is big enough for variety in the type of books offered. I read fluff and brain candy sometimes, too. But I usually want to read books that challenge me, make me think, and open my eyes. I do want more realism in the Christian fiction I read, but the manner in which the author handles the “ugly stuff” and rough content is still important and one of the reasons I read Christian fiction. I don’t personally want to read graphic violence, sex, and crude language when I pick up a novel. Lisa See’s extremely graphic descriptions of foot binding in China added painfully realistic details to her excellent historical novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, but I literally became nauseated while reading those scenes. I think Mary DeMuth does a great job of handling difficult topics in a sensitive manner. Her books have themes that are deep and sometimes dark, but she doesn’t describe too much or go overboard for shock value as some general market writers do IMHO. Tom Davis also dealt with some heavy, disturbing topics in Scared, and he didn’t sugar-coat anything or gloss over the very real suffering and violence that people in Africa face every day.

So, although I’m in the “more reality” camp and find some of the no-nos in Christian fiction silly (the list of guidelines from one of the Christian romance publishers that was posted and criticized in the blogosphere several months ago had quite a few examples of the more ridiculous restrictions in Christian fiction), I appreciate that we don’t all have the same comfort level and there is a place for more conservative styles of writing in Christian fiction. I also enjoy faith-based—but not overtly Christian—fiction by authors like Vinita Hampton Wright and River Jordan, whose books are published in the general market rather than CBA and which gives them more leeway. I’m not sure how this fits into the conversation, as I’ve never really understood what lesson I was meant to take from it, but one of the most disturbing, shocking scenes I’ve ever read is in the Bible in Judges 19.

Look! Now I’m writing a novel.

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Bethany Ellis - April 6, 2010

I’m kind of late in the game, but I was out of town when you posted this 🙂 I may end up repeating something, but I don’t have time to look at all of the other comments right now…I just wanna go ahead and share my thoughts…

There are two major things that I don’t like about Christian fiction:

1-Romance. Some books are just pure romance and way too much for me to handle. I’m a teenager and reading about all those kisses, makeout sessions and, in some books, the married couples going “into their bedroom” doesn’t jive well. I thing that romance is fine if it’s not the main point of the story. I mean, we’re Christians. Do we have to be obsessed with the same books the world is?

2-Christianity. I rarely find a book that meets my standards in that department. I think a lot of authors are too scared to put too much Christianity into their novels for fear they’ll come off too “preachy” –instead, they come across way too soft.

That’s one of things I loved about Just Between You And Me. Maggie was real. She was searching. She went to church. She -SURRENDERED- to God. You could see her living out her relationship with God. In other books, the charachter may go to church, but it’s often written in passing. You rarely read about a character reading her Bible, having devotions, etc… unless it’s important to a plot twist or something like that.

I think it’s important for Christian books to be Christian. I want to read something I can identify with – someone who is active in church, who is seeking God, who might have a hard time keeping up with devotions, but is striving to know and please God. And you don’t see that much anymore in books.

On to other things…
I have a hard time with some novels because the situations the characters get into are SO unlikely. I mean, really? Caught in a cartel war?

Also, the background of a character. It’s either really far-fetched, or really too simple. Another point for JBY&M – Maggie’s past. It was real. I know people who had that type of background, and who acted like Maggie. I can totally see it, grasp it, and understand it, even though I’m not in that position.

I think some Christian fiction IS too light and fluffy and PG. But sadly, that’s a lot of what sells. Every time I go into WalMart or LifeWay, all I see are those Pioneer romances or Amish books. And I don’t get it. 🙂 I get really excited when I find a good author that really incorporates Christ and has a good plot and good characters. It doesn’t happen too often 😛

Because of this, I don’t often find books that challenge me. I think I’ve read two Christian fiction books in the last year that really inspired and challenged me in my walk with God – JBY&M, and Erynn Mangum’s new book Cool Beans.

One of my favorite books is “The Rivers of Judah” (it’s a YA book) and the reason I like it so much is because every time I read it, God uses it to teach me something new. That’s what I’d love to see in Christian fiction today. Not romance, but a challenge. It shouldn’t be perfect, because life isn’t perfect. But it shouldn’t be fluff, because life isn’t fluff, and it shouldn’t be pure horror and mistakes, because life isn’t that either.

I think YA Christian fiction is focused toward helping young adults grow and mature in Christ – I mean, how many fictional books can you find for YA that don’t have a message? And most of them are pretty good. But once you hit the older stage of early twenties and want to move on from teen characters, you can’t find those books anymore. That’s what I miss.

There’s my two cents 😉 I’m done rambling for now. Hope that made some sense…

(sorry if there are any spelling/grammatical errors.. I’m up entirely too late and am heading off to sleepy-land 😉 )

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Amy Knox - December 14, 2011

I’m so glad I found your blog! Your wonderful Katie Parker series was a godsend to my teen-aged adopted children living here in Nicaragua (we’re American missionaries) at a crucial time in all our lives! I laughed out loud through most of the novels. Of course, for us it was wonderful to have a great heroine who had to grapple with a birth mom who could not parent her–it so echoes my own kids’ lives. But, more importantly, we loved the reality of the folks in the story.

I find some Christian fiction too fluffy and neat–perhaps messy enough for the very few folks who’ve grown up in church and intact homes with a real understanding of grace. But for the vast majority of us (very imperfect families and painful experiences), the truth and beauty and hurt of Katie’s life is just what we need. We also liked The Charmed Life series and Bella Kirkwood.

To be honest, I think seeing a character grapple with really having to overcome some severe trauma in her life (childhood sexual abuse, mental illness in a parent or sibling, identifying and processing how early loss sabotages our self-esteem) would be a wonderful gift to today’s teen-aged reader (and women of all ages as I’m almost 45) who likely has experienced that or has a friend who has. I know that sales might not be as high, because some folks read fiction simply to escape, but we do see through the success of Melody Carlson’s True Colors series that there is a hunger to know that pain is a shared experience and how to journey through it and come out whole. We who follow Christ know that it is only in him that we can do that–but many who follow him refuse to take that part of the journey, the healing part. Seeing a character have that sort of courage to face deep and aching wounds could be just what this generation needs to encourage them that healing is possible and worth the immense effort.

Sorry for rattling on, but I love your books, Jen, and I’m so very grateful to God for how he’s using you to meet the needs of my own children and so many other folks out there as well. (I am looking forward to ordering the ones that we’ve not read, so forgive me if you have addressed some of these issues more fully in any of them. I have to orchestrate getting the books down here with teams that come and do ministry here as we live here for three years at a time–no English speaking book stores in Managua.)

Merry Christmas–may you get a fresh experience of Emmanuel this year–God with us!
Amy Knox

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