Thinking Christianly about Telling Stories
Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I’ve been on a few podcasts lately, and it seems that whenever I get interviewed, the question of the Christian nature of my books comes up. “Are your books Christian?” My knee-jerk response is, “No.” My usual lengthier response is, “They are too Christian for the general market and not Christian enough for the Christian market.” But then I wonder if that’s even a true statement, or if I’m reading something into my personal experience that doesn’t actually exist. The fact that it keeps coming up, though, indicates that “What makes a story Christian?” is a question people are interested in—and it’s not an easy question to answer, not even for me. So when a discussion cropped up recently in our Christ and Pop Culture member’s forum about what it means for a story to be a Christian story, I thought it might be time for me to tackle it directly.
My podcast answer reflects an inner tension I, and many Christian storytellers, feel when it comes to not only how we think about stories, but also how we should craft and create them. Storytelling is art, but it’s also work; it’s both passion and pragmatism. We are all ruled by more than passion and pragmatism, though—for a Christian, we try to tell true stories, and we choose to be submissive to God. I am a Christian, but does that make my novels Christian novels? And where and how should I seek to publish them? In over ten years navigating the publishing industry, I haven’t come up with good answers to these questions.Stories aren’t “Christian” or “not Christian.” They either tell the truth or they don’t.
There is an entire subculture of Christian entertainment that exists for the purpose of creating, marketing, and selling what has been determined to be Christian stories to Christian audiences, but a lot of Christian creatives do not feel at home in that world—some of us never have. Some have moved in that world for a long time despite the tension, challenges, and changing formulas of what is allowed and desired in “Christian storytelling” in the 21st century. When Christianity becomes commoditized as Christian entertainment, what suffers in the process? What gets lost in translation? In the Christian market, it’s often a content discussion—and not just about what is forbidden to be used, but also what is expected to be included.
Every now and then, someone publically breaks from the Christian industry. In a Religion Unplugged opinion piece titled “Why I Won’t Make Another Christian Film,” actor and producer Nathan Clarkson explains why he’s exiting the Christian filmmaking industry. He wants to tell stories that tell the truth about life—that are honest reflections of the messiness of the world. The restrictions placed on him in the Christian industry prevent him from doing that. Clarkson writes:
But, as I go back and watch over the films I’ve created, I also think over the real and personal life events I’ve both experienced in my own life and witnessed in the ones around me. I think over the struggle, pain, despair, doubt, heartbreak and angst I’ve endured (all of which have served to deepen my faith), and then I think how rarely those things were ever explored in depth in my films—and when they were, they were done at a safe distance or a comfortable separation. It seems there has been a stark contrast between the reality I exist in and the one I created in my films.
When Christians leave the Christian-specific market to create stories for the general market—or when Christians never want to create within the Christian market in the first place—the conversation tends to end up boiling down to content. Accusations that explicitness make a story more authentic is an argument that works both ways: wielded as an accusation against Christian creators and as a defense by some Christian creators who feel they need to depict the world as it really is. Clarkson addresses explicit content himself in his essay, and it’s probably the weakest part of his argument, but I empathize with him, because when we try to explain ourselves, we often don’t know how to phrase our arguments any other way.
Christianity is not a product to be sold, but the transformation of art into a consumable product forces creators to weigh everything we create against saleability and marketability. When, therefore, religious content parameters are set in place because certain types of people won’t want to buy certain things, the result is an unfortunate conflation of “safe” content with Christianity. And so the only way to have a discussion about what makes a story Christian or not is to talk about content, and that couldn’t be farther from the, well, the truth.
It’s the same lie as telling people that once they become Christians, they won’t sin anymore.
This isn’t the way we should think about stories, and it isn’t the way we should tell stories. It’s not the way I review movies and books, and it’s not the way I write—and I am far from being alone in this.
The reality is, however, that Christians who don’t want to create artistically in Christian spaces usually desire simply to make art that is true. As Christians, how can we do anything less? Sometimes that may include some material that can only be labeled as explicit, but not all art is for people of all ages to enjoy at all times. That doesn’t make it not good.
I have maintained for years that it is not the content of a story that makes it good or not, or Christian for that matter—it is how the content is handled. Part of the tragedy of the sequestration of Christian creators into a subculture of Christian entertainment is the fact that the discussion always comes back to content and what will sell to a Christian audience. Stories do not have to fit a certain content formula to be Christian—this is a rubric that will always fail. This is one reason why I have always fumbled my answer when I’m asked if my books are Christian fiction, and why I will always say I am a Christian who writes fiction (but not a Christian fiction author!)—because my books would fail the Christian industry “content test” all day, even though I handle all content in non-explicit ways.
For decades we’ve been told that content equals Christianity, and audience consumption habits determine value and success—and that is patently false. Speaking as a Christian storyteller, I have been far more able to evaluate the so-called secular stories of general market creators than I have been able to explain the Christian nature of my own work.
So here I am, having given this much more thought and taking a much better attempt at the answer to the question:
Stories aren’t “Christian” or “not Christian.” They either tell the truth or they don’t. As a storyteller and as a reader, viewer, and listener, I am not interested in lies. When we tell the truth as a story, we invite people to love the truth and to identify the truth in real life, as well.
If all truth is God’s truth, when we tell the truth, we are pleasing the heart of God. When we make things that are beautiful, we resonate with creation. And then what we make can be called good. We can do these things in all industries, whether constructing a building or writing a novel. What’s unique to the liberal arts, though, is that they lead people into a contemplation of all the big things about life. And in the stories we tell when we portray pain, brokenness, grief, happiness, joy, love, and so on. we should be explicit or implicit on a scale appropriate to our audience in such a way that does no harm to the image of God in people or his glory in the world.
What we must not do is lie to people. Narrative propaganda, whether it is sugary sweet or grotesquely explicit, leads people to despair. God is not a God of despair. This is not a matter of counting swear words or measuring skirt lengths; it’s a matter of speaking truth in beautiful ways to a broken world.
Those of us who are Christians will not be able to help telling stories in a Christian way. We love Jesus—he literally died to save us from our sins, rose from the grave, is living still, and is returning to establish the New Heavens and the New Earth. (Yes, we believe all that!) We are filled with gratitude for what God has done for us, and we long for what is coming. It fills every story we tell, everything we create. What makes our stories “Christian” if the label must be applied? We do, and by “we,” I really mean God’s sanctifying work in us.
We, who are sinners daily being sanctified, create art out of the messiness of our lives and the grace of God working in and through us. We want to practice our craft with excellence, to rise to the top of our field. We’re tempted with pride, self-reliance, doubt, and sometimes crippling depression. Our stories will reflect all this and more.
How can we help Christians who are artists, storytellers, actors, and more to flourish? We want to be welcomed, acknowledged, and supported by the universal church, and our local church communities. We long for fellowship with other believers who love the arts like we do, but most especially we long for professional support—whether in a revitalized Christian industry or in the general market. If Christians are finding themselves unable to create stories within the content frameworks the Christian entertainment industry has established, then we should ask ourselves why that is and how the problem can be fixed. The very last thing we should do to Christian creators who find they cannot tell truthful stories within the Christian industry is dismiss them by saying “they just want more explicit content.” Listen to them—hear their desire to use their talents to glorify God, and enable them to use their abilities within the church and without.
It’s not about content, and as much as the entertainment industry is a business, Christians who are storytellers must be enabled to tell the truth. Art is vital to the life of the church. We can and should pave the way for a revitalization of the arts within Christianity—one that doesn’t put up walls to keep the world out, but that builds a greenhouse to allow people to grow and invites people to contemplate beauty. Storytellers are eager to serve and to tell stories that are True, Beautiful, and Good.
I just listened to you on the Strong Women podcast, and I wanted to thank you for your perspective. As a literature teacher by trade and training, I am constantly trying to express these ideas to people. All literature fundamentally points us to the idea that something is wrong in the world, and we need a savior.
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