Sunday, August 4, 2013

God as a Plot Device

You know what’s worse that Christian fiction that crams sermons into most dialogue and concludes with a fake-sounding lesson?

Christian fiction with a few stock spiritual-sounding phrases to make it qualify as Christian.

One of my recent freelance editing jobs was a Christian fiction story written by a non-Christian. Strange, I know. And I’m sure that there are many talented writers who can write convincing point-of-view characters even if they don’t share their convictions. This writer, unfortunately, wasn’t one of them.

The “Christian content” of the story was found in three paragraphs—one at the beginning of the novella where the main character’s mother talks about faith saving her from a life of drinking and drugs, one in a moment of crisis where the character prays to God for help, and one near the end where she talks about how God wants us to love our enemies instead of taking revenge.

I’ll admit, it was almost a relief to not have to deal with the heavy-handed morals at the other end of the Christian writing spectrum (You can usually spot them a mile away). But it was also interesting to see how outsiders think our faith should influence our lives. According to this author, God is a convenient plot device to use when….

  • You need a dramatic conversion to tear you out of a self-destructive lifestyle.
  • You want a miraculous intervention of some kind.
  • You are appealing to basic morality or the Golden Rule.

And it got me thinking: if I were a character in a Christian fiction story, how would the readers know that I was a Christian?

Because, remember, one of the rules of fiction writing is that you’re not supposed to include information (prayers, spiritual-sounding dialogue, actions like reading the Bible) unless it somehow advances the plot or tells readers something about the characters.

So the question isn’t, “How many religious-type things do I do?” but “How many times does my faith influence who I am and what’s actually happening in my life?”

Most of the time, if I think of a question, it leads me to several more. Here are a few of them, in case you want to want to wander around inside my brain.


  • Do most of my prayers look like wish lists and distress calls, or am I really interested in conversation with God?
  • How often do I think about what God would want me to do in simple situations, not just major life choices?    


  • Which of my words match up with my thoughts (being sincere)? Which match up with my actions (following through)?
  • Do I talk about my faith to other believers, much less unbelievers?
  • Why am I passionate about certain subjects and don’t care at all about others? (This isn’t necessarily bad--it's just good to understand why I care more about certain things.)


  • Why do I do the good things I do? Why and how do I downplay the bad things I do?
  • What would I do differently if I really believed that the people around me had equal value in the eyes of God?

Really, although I use the term because the genre exists in publishing terminology, there is no such thing as “Christian fiction.” There are only Christians who write fiction. That means that most people base their view of God not on happy-smiley-inspirational-romances, but on the actions they observe from the real people around them.

You could see that from what the non-Christian writer included in her story. She had to get her ideas of how a Christian would act from somewhere. And none of the things she included were bad (at least the main character wasn’t judgmental or narrow-minded…both unfortunate perceptions that many people have of believers). They just weren’t enough.

I wonder how her story might have been different if she had known Christians who let their faith radically transform their lives. And I wonder how her life might have been different too.

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