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2. What Do We Mean By Saying ‘It’s A Christian Story’?

Let’s explore a big debate: Should we look for the “Christian label” on Christian-made novels, movies, music and other creations?
Fantastical Truth on Jan 28, 2020 · Series: · 9 comments

In Fantastical Truth’s second weekly episode, your hosts (E. Stephen Burnett and Zackary Russell) take on a big theme.

(We do this because exploring these big themes will help us be happier, holier, and more like Jesus. That way, we can get even more beauty and truth out of these stories.)

Christian fans often discuss and debate this question:

What do we mean by saying that a story is “a Christian story”?

Also: should Christian fans feel they should “look for the Christian label”?

Many people say they prefer avoiding the label:

  • Critics of Christian movies
  • Critics of Christian books
  • Some readers at Speculative Faith

They might say, “We don’t need any more Christian stories. We just need more good stories that happen to be made by Christians.”

Others parody this line, such as the Babylon Bee article “Man Not A ‘Christian Pastor’—He’s A Pastor Who Happens To Be Christian.”

So let’s talk about what images/meanings we have when we say “a Christian story” or “a Christian movie.”

First, let’s stop by a Fantastical Truth podcast on again/off again feature. We’ll call this The Concession Stand.

  • I (Stephen) am not a cultural fundamentalist. I mean that I was not raised by a family, church, or subculture to view The Outside World with suspicion. I don’t believe we automatically presume that popular culture, movies, TV, or any other creative work is evil.
  • But I also don’t spend a lot of time “hate-watching the Church”  for culturally fundamentalist behavior. If you do that, you may just repeat the same “subculture X is bad” belief, only turning it against a particular group of Christians (instead of The Outside World).
  • That’s why I personally don’t have a stigma about attaching the label “Christian” to things like stories, music, or movies.

Stephen’s definition of ‘Christian story’

Stephen uses the term Christian story (or Christian book, and so on) simply to mean: A story or book made by a Christian.

  • The word Christian means Christlike one.
  • Christians steward the gospel in the world.
  • But we’re not just souls. We’re embodied persons.
  • So everything we touch is somehow influenced by the gospel.
  • We’re one “degree” removed from Jesus, and our creations are one degree removed from us.
  • We could get nitpicky and say our stories are Christian-ian stories. But the word Christian works fine as a shorthand.

Zack’s definition of ‘Christian story’

Zack offers a different or expanded definition. He ranks “Christian stories” is an image of concentric circles:

  • For: a novel for a Christian audience. Focuses on Christian characters, Christian theology/issues, uses Christian jargon. Ability to do a deep dive but can be too exclusive.
  • About: a novel about Christianity, for those inside or friendly to the church. Less jargon, more inclusive, but can be too generic in its portrayal of Christians or Christianity. Features Christian and non-Christian characters, either in conflict, or on a faith journey.
  • Like: a novel that says, “Christianity is like this,” for an audience that includes the spiritually curious. These are driven by analogy or metaphor, which can fall into the extremes or either too subtle and hidden, or too preachy and on the nose.
  • By: a novel by a Christian, for a wide audience. It’s not message– or theme-driven, but the author is known to some extent to be a believer.

We explore several possible examples of each kind of story.

What we can do

However we define Christian story, or whatever meanings we attach to the term, we recommend this:

  1. Don’t get all nitpicky when people want to say “Christian story” or have distinct stories by/for Christians. I think that kind of nitpicking reveals more about the person’s need to grow up/come to grips with/heal from their possibly tragic backstory than it does any actual ill with the wording.
  2. Recognize that every group naturally has their own “subculture.” Why should Christians be exempt? Subcultures aren’t evil. But, like any good gift, they can become disordered and idolized by fallen human beings.
  3. Don’t turn the label “Christian” into an excuse for un-Christian content (which is not true) or non-excellent art (which is not beautiful). Anything made by Christians ought to aspire to high standards, based on the gifts and calling of the creator and the rational expectations of the audience. It must be true (biblical). It must be beautiful (excellent). And it must be good (as God is).

Join the mission

That’s a big topic. You’ve heard our takes. Now we want to hear yours.

On our next episode

We’ll explore another great book we’ve found, called Hidden Current from Sharon Hinck. This fantasy novel poses the question: What if dancing could control the world? So we’ll talk about dance cults (as one does) and try not to step on too many toes while we explore the whole idea of dance and what purpose this gift serves.

Fantastical Truth
Fantastical Truth

Lorehaven explores fantastical stories for God's glory: fantasy, sci-fi, and beyond.

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    In the Fantastical Truth podcast from Lorehaven, hosts E. Stephen Burnett and Zackary Russell explore fantastical stories for God's glory and apply their wonders to the real world Jesus calls us to serve.
    1. […] the big theme of our new Fantastical Truth podcast episode (new ones release every Tuesday). You can listen here, or right […]

    2. notleia, untrue Scotsman says:

      Insert joke about a story about the dangers of dancing must have been written by Baptists or Methodists.

    3. Loved the podcast. I’d like to offer a few of my thoughts after listening to this episode.

      I think the label “Christian” should be reflect the art itself, not the creator of the art. I often have no idea if the author or filmmaker is a Christian. It seems odd to me to label something “Christian” if you need extra, outside information to make that claim.

      I think the label serves us best when it reflects the CONTENT of the art. While I liked the concept of art FOR, ABOUT, LIKE, and BY, I find it easier to see everything as on a spectrum. On one side is art that has overt Christian messages and themes. On the other side is art that has hidden messages and themes. I also think the overall amount of themes and their priority in the story are factors as well.

      Examples of overt themes would be the Kendrick Brothers’ movies, Left Behind, etc. On the other side with hidden themes would be Lord of the Rings. In the middle would be Narnia. This model then encompasses all types of Christian art. Yet I would also argue that the LABEL “Christian” should be reserved for those things that are more overt in their Christian themes and messages. After all, a story that has hidden messages, in my opinion, simply falls under the normal genre. So, Lord of the Rings is simply fantasy with Christian overtones, rather than Christian fantasy.

      This view helps solve the dilemma of labeling stories like The Matrix as Christian just because it has some Christian themes and terminology. It is not a Christian movie, but a science-fiction story with Christian themes.

      And, by using a spectrum, there is lots of cross-over and gray areas. I’m not offering hard and fast rules. I’m simply finding terms and language that helps me to understand this issue. I hope this helps others as well.

      Thank you for bringing up this topic. God bless.

    4. I can be kind of a difficult person, so I identify with the avoidance of putting Christian bumper stickers on one’s car.  I don’t hide my beliefs either, but no matter how hard I try, there will be times when I have a bad day and don’t want people to blame it on God/Christianity.  I already work on myself a lot, so it’s not that I avoid fixing my issues, it’s just that self improvement’s a long and imperfect process.

      As someone that writes a lot of stories with varying degrees of Christian content, I somewhat dislike the idea of deciding things are Christian just because a Christian wrote them, or because a few of the story’s themes can be interpreted as Christian.  What I usually look for instead is a combination of content and authorial intent.  The content doesn’t have to be constant or blatant.  Some of my own stories have a cast of chars that aren’t even aware of God’s existence, but I still consider those books Christian fiction because God exists in that universe and influences it in some way, regardless of whether the chars know.  At the same time, some of my OTHER stories don’t even have God in the universe and aren’t meant to make a Christian point, so I wouldn’t want people to call them Christian or Christian fiction, just be willing to acknowledge that a Christian wrote them.

      Additionally, if an author didn’t intend for a story to be Christian, it’s important to respect the author’s intent and beliefs as much as possible.  Authors are individuals and readers should respect their voice.  At the same time, readers don’t have to agree with the author’s beliefs, and there’s nothing wrong with doing things like writing fanfiction that speculates on what could have happened if a character made a difference choice, had a different personality type, different attributes, etc.

      On the podcast’s topic, a response that’s balanced in terms of respecting both authors and readers might be ‘I know the author isn’t Christian or trying to make a Christian point, but this aspect of the story could be a good analogy for a particular Christian concept, so that will be a lesson I take away from the story, even while I acknowledge and respect that the story isn’t Christian.’

      Just for an example of why respecting authorial intent is important, I have several stories with atheists as main characters.  Heck, those stories are even Christian fiction.  They take the time to show the world from those atheists’ perspectives, and they don’t necessarily become Christians in the end.  They’re three dimensional chars that grow and change, but since they don’t become Christian or obviously prove the Christian world view, some atheists might like those books a lot.  Would it be right for those people to label those stories as atheist/atheist fiction and then get irritated/offended when I say those stories aren’t meant to promote that worldview?  No.

      In reality, I write stuff like that for the sake of realism, to illustrate different viewpoints that way people can understand them better, and because it’s fun to write from various perspectives.  I wouldn’t mind an atheist identifying with my work and treasuring it because it voices how they feel or something.  That would mean I did a good job illustrating that character’s perspective.  But I wouldn’t appreciate them mislabeling what the story is, or acting like it’s wrong for the book to have a different intent than what they’d like.

      So that’s why I kinda try not to label a story as Christian if the author clearly doesn’t believe that way or have that purpose for the book.

    5. […] You can use this page’s comment section. Or use the form here to send your note straight to the Fantastical Truth mailbag. […]

    6. Autumn Grayson says:

      Having trouble posting, so this is just a test. Looks like my other post finally went through since it say it’s awaiting moderation?

    7. […] creators of Lorehaven magazine started a podcast entitled, Fantastical Truth. In their second episode, they attempt to address this question. Their discussion brought up some […]

    8. […] have a friend who co-hosts the Fantastical Truth Podcast. In their second episode, “What Do We Mean by Saying ‘It’s a Christian Story’?” they discuss ways of defining Christian fiction. I highly recommend listening to the show, […]

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