Friday, February 20, 2009

What Makes a Book Christian?

My daughter asked to check out a Go Diego Go! book, Diego’s Springtime Fiesta, when we visited the library yesterday. I added it to the stack, and when we got it home, I discovered that the librarians had placed a “Christian Fiction” sticker on its spine. I’m perplexed by this designation – the book is about finding and counting lost baby rabbits! Maybe the librarians thought it was an Easter book, but even if that were the case, the rabbits-Easter connection hardly makes it a Christian story. If I look at the rabbits as symbols of fertility, could I label this book “Sex Education?”

I have long marveled at the somewhat arbitrary label of “Christian fiction.” Mediocre books that have little to do with Christianity beyond the fact that their authors identify themselves as Christians wind up on the Christian fiction shelves, while many excellent books that deal with Christian themes of redemption and forgiveness are nowhere in sight. Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, Les Misérables, even The Testament by John Grisham qualify as Christian fiction in my mind, but I doubt any of them have Christian fiction labels at my local library. Frankly, if I were a novelist, I would prefer not to have my work labeled as “Christian fiction.” That label is a sure way to drive away many readers who would benefit from seeing the world from a Christian’s perspective.

The same issue sometimes – though less frequently – occurs on the non-fiction shelves of the library. A writer who happens to be a Christian produces a thorough work on art or politics or social sciences, but the book winds up on the religion shelves. Faith in Christ should influence the way we approach every topic, but not every topic we approach qualifies as “religion.”

What do you think about classifying books as Christian? What criteria should be used to determine whether a book is Christian fiction? Have you read any good books that present Christian ideas but never show up on lists of Christian fiction or books on religion?


  1. The original "Christian fiction" label was used in public libraries to denote those fiction books with the Gospel message included. Over time, it became in many libraries a broader topic sometimes including "Gentle Reads" for those who were looking for stories with no sex, violence, etc.

    Like you, I have read many books that contain the Christian message without being didactic or poorly written.

    One of my favorite authors, Katerine Paterson, has spoken to this issue often since she has written award-winning realistic children's fiction and is the wife of a pastor and has been a missionary. I like this quote from her:
    "The challenge for those of us who care about our faith and about a hurting world is to tell stories which will carry the words of grace and hope in their bones and sinews and not wear them like fancy dress."

    See this page for more of the interview -

    Congrats on your new blog. I look forward to reading and discussing more of your views!

  2. Thanks Shannon for taking on a subject that certainly warrants more thought and discussion. Perhaps one day such 'labels' in and off themselves wont be as necessary. They do tend to pigeon- hole works of art, thus perhaps limiting potential audiences and impact.

    On he flipside, perhaps, I'm reminded of the main character in the Sun Also Rises, who in the midst of utter debauch goes and kneels and prays in the local Church, apologizing to God for being such a "rotten Catholic".

  3. I have to confess I've never read The Sun Also Rises, but I find that the "depraved" characters in many books are often the ones that teach the most about Chritianity. Without sin, who needs redemption?

    I love the image of a sinner feeling comfortable entering a church to pray, finding a perfect God to be more accepting than all of us flawed people here on earth. For that reason, I've always thought of the song "Signs" as a Christian song, even though I don't know that the members of either band that recorded it (The Five Man Electric Band in the 1960s and Tesla 20+ years later) ever considered themselves Christians.

    As for Katherine Paterson, I really enjoyed her book, A Sense of Wonder, which deals somewhat with what makes a book Christian. It was a gift from my sister, a red-headed reading woman.

  4. This doesn't really answer your questions, but for what it's worth...
    I struggle with this to a degree because I've gotten to a point where I don't read anything but "Christian" books or classics. The reason for this is that there is so much offensive material in so many secular books that I just don't want to deal with, but then I wonder what great books I might be missing because they're not "Christian." I also find that many "Christian" books are poorly written or even corny. But the greater concern I see with all of this is that the great Christian books that are written rarely make it into the mainstream, because far too many people have written them off and don't want anything to do with "Christian" literature. In that sense, we as Christians cease to effectively be salt and light, and really influential in our culture. It's great to hear that there are books with Christian themes that haven't been labeled as "Christian." Perhaps you can list some yourself, and enlighten those of us who have gotten stuck in the "safety" of "Christian" lit.

  5. I'm actually working on a post right now about reading secular books -- somehow I find myself more able to overlook the offensive stuff in secular books than the poor writing quality in the Christian books.

    I would also love to find some more of the good Christian books because I have nearly written them off, so please share any recommendations you have!

    I do like the idea of making a list of books with Christian themes, but I'd have to think it through -- maybe I'll write about each one I find as I read it.

    The few I mentioned in this post were off the top of my head, and I also thought of Jan Karon's Mitford books afterward. I think they do sometimes get a Christian label; I know they were better than I expected when I heard about them!

  6. Re: The Sun Also Rises

    The title of the the novel is derived from a passage in Ecclesiastes: "...The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to the place where he arose..."

    I kinda liked some Amy Grant tunes way back in the 80s or early 90s. Sorta catchy.


Thanks for your comments! Agree or disagree, but please comment respectfully.