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Have you ever read a book of Christian fiction and thought that it just did not measure up to your favorite fiction authors? I have as well. When I contemplated the reason for this difference, I came to the following advice for Christian fiction writers.
Characters need depth
When I mention depth, I mean for writers to move beyond the stereotypes. Certainly we tend to think in stereotypical ways and may even plot our characters to fulfill certain roles, but real life is not very cut and dry. Good people do bad things. Look at any Bible story and see this truth. Even saints make bad choices. The characters in your novel need similar complexity. Resist the temptation to have every Christian fiction piece have an overly simplistic Jesus-type. Look at the complexity of Jesus’ words in John 17 to see genuine personal struggle.
The story has to be strong
And it should be from the beginning chapter. The best stories are ones that grab you from the first chapter and never let go. There is a reason why I picked up John Grisham’s The Firm in high school and could not put it down until I read the entire novel. Books with a good first chapter still need to build suspense and have realistic plot points that move along the action. Contrivances just don’t work.
Go with real-life dilemmas
Readers can identify with issues related to love, friendship, work, personal mistakes, and everyday choices. Everyday choices may lead to unexpected places, but you want the reader to identify with the character and possibly being in his place, identifying with his choices.
Choices have to seem logical
If the decisions of a main character start to appear illogical and don’t make sense to the reader, you will quickly lose the reader. This is especially true when illogical decisions mount in a primary character. Real life dilemmas and real life decisions make the story believable.
Give depth and complexity even to the “bad guys”
As mentioned before, people who make bad choices aren’t just bad. They make bad choices for a variety of reasons connected to their past and current situation. Similar to the good character discussion above, resist the urge to have overly simplistic characters portrayed as pure evil. What are the reasons that bring them to the place they are in the novel? Readers want to know how a person could be like that or why they make those choices. Equally, people who do horrendous things also can be redeemed and make unbelievable turnarounds. Look at the Apostle Paul. His move from persecutor and accessory to murder soon turned to his becoming the greatest missionary of the Christian message of hope.
Make us want to come back for more!
Your ending should be satisfying in a way that readers want more. The best books have endings that leave you feeling that way but without an obvious to be continued ending. You don’t want to assume there will be an audience for the second book you have in mind just because you wrote your first novel to have one.
I grew up on a farm in North Carolina, and my mom always reminded me of the simple beginnings that North Carolina native Billy Graham came from. His life and message can inspire and inform your writing. Graham’s simple message gives a helpful model for writing, thinking theologically, connecting to the biblical text, and living out the truths you hold dear. Check out the following.
1. Heart and integrity matter. Billy Graham is evidence that God can use those of humble state to do great things. This theme is found throughout the Bible, describing the type of person God uses. Look at David; his own father did not summon him to meet Samuel when asked to gather them to anoint one as the next king. Jesse may not have considered David to be kingly material, but God did. God saw through the ruddy exterior to David’s heart. David focused on his relationship with God, again and again, through mistakes and great moments alike. Your heart and integrity matter in your writing. It will enable you to write with authenticity and passion.
2. Keep it simple. Billy Graham focused on a simple gospel message in his evangelistic sermons and crusades. Every sermon had a clear presentation of the Christian gospel, founded upon the message of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that He sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him would not perish but have eternal life.” That message was the heart and soul of every evangelistic crusade, everywhere he went. There was no need to reinvent himself every so often. Sometimes the best writing avoids contrivances, complex language, and complicated research. Certainly not all writing can be simplified for a popular audience but don’t think that complex subjects always require complex presentation.
3. Don’t overlook the biblical text. Listen to any sermon that Billy Graham ever preached and count the number of times he said, “The Bible says … .” He didn’t begin many sentences with “I think” or “I feel” or “I believe.” In that regard, Billy Graham, like the Reformers before him, believed Sola Scriptura. He spoke it, lived it, and preached it. Jews and Christians have longed been called “people of the book” because of the importance placed upon the scriptures held dear. Theological thinking should always deal first with an examination of biblical text. Not to do so ignores a huge portion of the Christian community.
4. Don’t get sidetracked by tradition and popular opinion. Billy Graham was a student of the Bible and was not swayed by opinion polls or church traditions that didn’t match biblical content. I have seen this error too many times in my own Understanding the Bible classes. Undergraduates know what they have been taught about the Bible, what others think about it, especially how others have used it in outrageous and terrible ways to justify actions that were anything but godly, yet so rarely know what the Bible actually says. Many times we look specifically at famous stories from the Bible, such as Genesis 1-3 or Jesus’ birth accounts in Matthew and Luke. Students are looking for Eve to bite an apple or wise men to show up at the manger and are often surprised as much by what the Bible does not say. Popular portrayals and church traditions do not always match what a fresh read of the Bible will reveal. Set aside your preconceived notions and hermeneutic of the moment. Anchor your writing to the biblical text first before moving to tradition, then evaluate tradition in light of the biblical text.
5. It’s about God. Graham was not just armed with biblical authority (The Bible says …) but a clear systematic theology grounded in the God of the Bible. To Graham, the Bible is indeed a message of God’s love, God’s invitation, God’s searching for lost coins and lost sheep, waiting with open arms like the father of the prodigal. You did not find God, but God found you and offered an invitation to join Him and become an adopted son or daughter in His kingdom. Those invitations at the end of his crusades were not marked by extreme use of emotion, drama, or sales pitches. Graham thought that a clear understanding of God, His love, and His sacrifice would move people to respond. His invitations reflected this thinking. He most often used the hymn Just As I Am for the time people were given to respond to the message, which reflects the invitation to respond to God just as you are. Writing that responds to others in their current life situations will similarly be on target every time.
6. Emphasize freedom. In that regard, Graham taught that the message of God brings freedom based on your identity in God and the salvation work of Jesus. Graham preached and lived and breathed this message. Seek knowledge and truth in the same way. God is pleased with those who do so, recognizing the search is pleasing, not just an end goal. Graham’s argument clearly taught that a relationship with God frees one from bondage. If your writing liberates, empowers, and transforms, that is the highest goal you can attain—to connect with readers in a way that changes their lives.
7. Personal purity strengthens a simple message. Bringing this discussion full circle, Graham’s life reflected what he thought, believed, and preached, bringing power to his message through living it out every day. I remember hearing about how Graham had rules about not riding elevators or having a meal with a woman alone other than his wife. His purpose was to avoid any appearance or possibility of anything inappropriate. He kept a close circle of friends who kept each other accountable. Likewise, his children and spouse testify of his godliness and life and its consistency with his message. Living out your passions brings life to your writing and will inspire others to share in your journey.
The Bible presents four Gospels, which despite their commonalities are four distinct presentations of Jesus as the Messiah. Looking a little closer at each one and seeing their unique traits can help transform your writing.
Matthew wrote his Gospel for his people, the Jews. He carefully connected Messianic passages to their fulfillment in the person of Jesus. He wanted Jews to see all the ways that Jesus fulfilled prophecies of the coming Messiah. In doing so, Matthew gives a carefully crafted argument why Jesus is the Messiah. Unique to Matthew is the genealogy through Joseph’s side of the family, connecting Jesus back to the lineage of David, including a unique nod to four women in his ancestry. Even at the end of Matthew, his resurrection account is careful to point out the earliest lies about the resurrection that had spread among the Jews of the day.
Matthew had a heart for his people as he tried to communicate the message of Jesus as Messiah. Matthew had learned of forgiveness and grace from Jesus. As a tax collector, Matthew likely would have been viewed as a sympathizer with Rome, the so-called Herodians of the day. Jesus extended a call to Matthew and others who were known as sinners and outcasts of that day, proving that Jesus’ message of salvation was for everyone. Matthew even ends his Gospel with the passage that we commonly call the Great Commission, commanding the disciples to carry the message of Christ throughout the world, teaching and baptizing as they do.
The heart of Matthew’s message was not just to convince the Jews, his own people, that Jesus is the Messiah but also to move them to fulfill their mission to bless the whole world through God’s special revelation to them. This blessing was revealed to Abraham in God’s covenant with him. But like Jonah, too often the chosen people ran the other way or refused to rejoice when God wanted to bless non-Jews. There are several stories in Matthew that surprisingly reveal God is ministering to non-Jews, including the only telling of the visit of the wise men to see Jesus.
Your passion will be evident in your writing, but are you willing to expand your message in other ways? Do you likewise limit your ministry and calling to those whom you feel most comfortable ministering? Or do you equally welcome and pursue all people? Does your writing empower people to live out their life’s purpose? If your writing liberates and frees others to carry out their life calling, you will have multiplied your effectiveness many times through your investment.
Mark, according to tradition, wrote from Peter’s perspective. It is the shortest of all the Gospels but communicates the heart of the Gospel in simple form to the Gentiles. Mark’s Gospel also uses words of action, such as immediately quite often in transition from story to story. Mark’s Gospel is fast paced, direct, and to the point. Mark also emphasizes the timing of God in revealing Jesus and His work of salvation. Jesus often told others not to tell about Him yet, emphasizing a special timing directed by God that Jesus, as Messiah would be revealed.
Mark shows that good writing can be direct and to the point, fast paced, and still effective. Peter’s work in Rome to Jews and Gentiles alike grew that congregation into the strongest church in the world. Mark was most certainly used in reaching people like these to the message of the Gospel.
Good writing can do the same for you: deliver concepts directly to the point in an effective way that presents others with information, allowing them to act upon it. Like Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, Mark presents readers with the Gospel directly and without apology, giving readers the opportunity to respond. Move your readers to action whenever possible. Present the calling that many will respond with action.
Luke, the physician who traveled with Paul, wrote the Gospel bearing his name. Luke’s Gospel is written to Theophilus and is described as a careful laying out of the facts and truth about Jesus. Luke references the earliest information about Jesus’ birth, the traditional Christmas story. Luke also presents the point of view of Mary regarding the birth of Jesus. There are numerous post-resurrections appearances in Luke as well. One of the fascinating theories about this document is that Luke may have written it as part of the documents representing Paul in his appeal to Caesar. Thus, Theophilus may have been a person involved in the court system of the day, hearing Paul’s appeal for Christ.
Writing that carefully lays out facts and one’s belief will appeal to those who have not heard your message or need encouragement. This approach appeals to those who like things presented systematically and logically. We don’t know if Theophilus or others who read the Gospel believed, but they heard the Gospel message and had opportunities to respond.
Luke also wrote a second volume that we know commonly as Acts. Luke carefully presents the expansion of the Gospel and early growth of the church, ending with Paul’s journey to Rome. Luke describes the early church growth in the face of persecution with missionaries like Paul who presented Christ to the Jews throughout the reach first and then to the Gentiles.
Good writing follows the same path that Luke describes in the beginning of his Gospel. It should carefully lay out the facts and truths about which you are writing. Good research is the foundation upon which your writing is built. Luke also was passionate about his writing and the truth it presented. He wanted others to respond to his writing. He was not afraid for it to break down barriers that stood between Jew and Gentile. Good writing also pushes boundaries and challenges individuals with your passion and truth.
John: The apostle John, the oldest surviving apostle of his day, wrote John. John features seven I Am Jesus taught and seven corresponding miracles. John says that he wrote his Gospel so that people would believe Jesus is the Christ and would have eternal life in Jesus’ name. John indicates that he carefully chose the stories he wrote to accomplish this purpose, remarking that all the books of the world could not contain all that Jesus had done.
John shows that good writing is focused. Like the other Gospels, it is focused on the reader and wants to move him to action. John likewise fills in gaps in some stories that are missing from the other Gospels. For example, we read the sermon Jesus preached after the feeding of the 5,000 plus. Good writing builds upon the knowledge people have and fills in missing gaps of information, motivation, and inspiration. It both informs and liberates.
Writing with a similar focus and passion as these Gospels can make your readers become lifelong followers of your work and the vision you are creating through it!
In discussing science and religion, several typologies arise explaining how science and religion relate. These typologies often include conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration. This discussion has benefits for the fields of science and religion and gives insight into subsequent writing in those and related fields of study.
Conflict: Many people think of science and religion as being in a state of conflict. In fact, both scientists and people of faith have argued this to be true. Think of the sharp division in sides that emerged during the Scopes Trials for example. The prevailing thought of the conflict point of view is that science and religion contradict one another and are incompatible. Thus, one is right and the other is wrong.
I find that many incoming freshmen in my Introduction to the Bible courses tend to think in black and white terms regarding science and religion. Sometimes a student will speak with great passion, identifying himself as a man of science or a man of faith, implying that science and religion can’t exist together.
No matter which introductory course I teach, we invariably deal with this faith and science discussion near the beginning of the course as we jump into Genesis. I invariably ask the hard questions: Is the creation story incompatible with evolution? Is the only possible interpretation of Genesis 1 that of a 7-day creation? Are there limits to science? Does it take faith to believe in science? Sometimes the sparks fly in this discussion, showing a true unwillingness to budge from preconceived beliefs.
I oftentimes try to get students to examine and hopefully understand the other point of view, even if they are unwilling to change their own point of view. Thankfully, popular culture also provides many entry points into this discussion. Through the past several years, we have used television shows, such as Lost and Fringe, to talk about the nature of faith and belief as well as science and reason.
Benefits: There is nothing like discussion and conflict to help a person refine his beliefs, present his point of view in a thoughtful manner, and to take ownership of what he believes rather than mimicking what others have taught him. Conflict sharpens one’s understanding in many ways. A key is the level of respect and understanding that you show a person of an opposing viewpoint. Questions arise: can you understand and represent accurately a point of view that you do not hold and even oppose? Can you see another’s viewpoint? Can you agree to disagree?
In performing dissertation editing, I sometimes can see clearly the writer’s point of view in the midst of evaluating different viewpoints. Sometimes derogatory language gives that away. As a researcher and writer truly seek to understand an opposing viewpoint, even if you are unwilling to consider it as part of your personal belief system. It will help you grow in your research and writing skills and give you a better understanding of those who believe differently than you do.
Independence: Theories that fall into the independence category generally hold that religion and science are separate realms of enquiry and do not involve one another. Usually this line of thinking explains that science deals with observable facts gathered through the scientific method, developing theories that explain empirical data. Religion, on the other hand, deals with questions of ultimate meanings and moral and value questions that arise in life. These two realms of inquiry are not in opposition; they simply do not overlap and remain separate.
I often point to statements of personal belief that people use in conversation, citing evidence for their belief and how it differs in religious and scientific language.
On a basic level, scientists lean toward statements of “I observed the following” while people of faith make statements that begin with “I believe.” Thus, the fields of study sometimes mimic portions of the human experience and the language people commonly use. I once talked with a doctor who worked in the field of genetic engineering. He basically expressed an independence point of view by explaining that his job was to develop the technology, but that my job was to decide the moral use for that technology and where the limits are.
Benefits: Those who tend to think of religion and science as valuable fields of study, but addressing different areas of knowledge and experience, may be described as compartmentalizing each field of study. Sometimes this is portrayed negatively, especially in our age of quick media polls for or against topics.
The media tends to oversimplify complex issues into sound bytes and may spur on the general public to take sides. However, there is something to be said about letting each field flourish on its own and carry on investigations where the other field of study cannot. This approach to each field of study is much like the experience of a child becoming his own self in a family of other distinct personalities. Each child is unique and special.
As a writer, your voice is unique. You must develop and nurture it no matter your detractors or how much you differ from or are similar to key figures in your area of study. Dissertation writing is unique in many ways in that your writing must review the literature on a specific topic, tipping your dues to the giants whose shoulders your dissertation stands upon, but then to make your own unique contributions to the field through your work. We all tend to label others as to where we think their writing falls into an area or field of study. Resist the labels others try to affix upon you. Be your own unique voice in your field of study.
Dialogue: This typology acknowledges an overlap in interests and fields of study and allows their work be influenced through this dialogue. Thus, there is true conversation occurring between fields. A model of dialogue might say that both science and religion speak to the ultimate truths of human existence, having theories about the problems and answers to human existence and giving insight into that reality.
When I think of models of dialogue, David Tracy’s modified method of correlation always comes to mind. He took Paul Tillich’s method of correlation, where biblical truths speak to the philosophical questions of human existence, and makes the flow of questions and answers a true dialogue. Dialogue is not just one side asking a question, and the other answering it. As information is communicated, it literally changes the conversation, both the answers and questions. That is the true test of models of dialogue. Do fields of study truly allow questions from other fields and allow modification of theories and approaches based on those questions? Is there room for growth? This is the heart of dialogue.
Benefits: Having true dialogue of different beliefs and viewpoints is one of my goals every semester in my Introduction to the Bible courses. Each person, even if he is not of the Jewish or Christian faiths, offers different viewpoints based on his beliefs and experiences. These small class discussions are about topics like creation and evolution, the possibility of supernatural intervention in our natural world, and the central questions of human existence (such as Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens when I die?). This conversation mimics dialogue that occurs between other fields of study. As a writer, you have the opportunity to build bridges and tear down silos and break down barriers between fields of study and explanatory theories. Don’t back down from branching out into uncharted territory.
Integration: The integration typology describes those theories that attempt to unify both fields of study. These theories concentrate on similarities between the fields, focusing on how both fields speak about the world we live in and questions of ultimate concern.
Whether these theories start with the foundations of science or speak of all truth being God’s truth, this person has a predisposition that the two fields of study are interrelated on multiple complex levels. A theory of integration might say that science and religion are really getting at the same truths through different languages. Some say this approach has at its heart Anselm’s concept of faith seeking understanding. They begin with a belief that informs their worldview and shapes how they understand the data and interpret the world around them.
Benefits: When I think of people who are able to see connections that others don’t between fields of study, I think of one of my Ph.D. professors. He always clearly identified differing points of view and how many times people talk past one another by not understanding the other’s unique perspective.
There is a true talent in ignoring differences and focusing on areas of common ground. This professor often pointed out how humans are creatures of personal stories that explain the world around them, assigning meaning and purpose to events. It is natural to have a personal narrative that explains one’s history and background. Similarly people like to explain the history and background of how things came to be, why bad things happen to good people, and what their purpose is in life.
This tendency toward personal story allows people to work on unifying theories that bring together the fields of science and religion. Readers respond to stories in the same way. Don’t be afraid to share your personal story and let your passions influence the direction your research goes. How you put together the field of science and religion is important to your research and can inspire others to keep working through these important issues.
1) Begin with existential questions that flow out of human experience. Some people have different names for these questions, but they are the basic questions of human existence: Who am I? What is my purpose? What happens to me after death? Tillich’s method starts with the questions of ultimate concern that reach to the heart of one’s being.
If your writing can identify first the questions that people are asking and keep your writing in line with those questions, then you will have a greater opportunity to touch the hearts and minds of individuals everywhere. Theological writing in particular has to make sense to an individual’s daily life and provide answers that are practically applicable to the life of the reader. Otherwise your writing may be insightful but not transformational.
So don’t be afraid to ask your deepest questions. Too many times Christian traditions even hinder and discourage people from asking questions, as if they are somehow signs of a weak faith. In reality, the questions always coexist with faith and make faith stronger, durable, real, and life changing.
2) Answer questions of human existence with the revelation of God. Traditionally revelation has been described in two different ways: general and special revelation. General revelation includes one’s conscience, the mark of God’s creative handiwork in the world, and the image of God that all humans carry. Special revelation includes God’s revelation through the Bible and through Jesus, his life, death, and resurrection. Tillich’s method of correlation urges readers to let revelation speak to the deep questions of human experience. Revelation provides answers, comfort, healing, salvation, and encouragement.
In your theological writing, start with and integrate biblical passages throughout your work. If your writing can address questions of human existence in the same way biblical revelation does—bringing healing, releasing from bondage, empowering, encouraging, comforting, and answering—then your work will resonate with a large audience in powerful ways.
3) Human experience is the filter through which God’s truth is understood. This basic concept gives explanation to the great variety of interpretation between people of faith and allows each person to experience God’s revelation in a way that is life changing and practical for his specific life circumstances.
Some writers are so prescriptive or limiting in their writing that it automatically limits or even alienates key audience segments. Writing that is best applies in different ways to different individuals. What are some practical ways to accomplish this? Present illustrations from your experience with which others can identify. This will bring practical application to your writing as well. Also, pull out practical applications from your theoretical discussion. Takeaways like this are valuable for readers and make writing come alive.
4) The form is important in answering the questions with God’s revelation. We all know examples of people who carry biblical answers but do so with vindictiveness or other approaches that cause others distance rather than reconciliation. The form is important in answering questions of ultimate concern. To Tillich, the content of God’s revelation is given but the form changes. Many churches deal with these questions on a weekly basis: How do we continue to appeal to the younger generation? Do we adopt newer, contemporary forms of worship? Do we change traditions completely or update them? Do we modify old forms of ministry and outreach in favor of new ones?
Form is important in your writing as well. Sometimes theological truth comes in unlikely places. Think of the impact that the book The Shack had on the general American public as well as the church. There is no doubt that the author addressed theological issues throughout, but in the context of a novel that held readers’ attention. Look at the impact of popular Christian books such as Randy Alcorn’s Heaven or Dan Piper’s 90 Minutes in Heaven had on those longing to know what lies on the other side of death or what happened to loved ones when they die. They appealed to readers in a way that caused them to think theologically and deal with questions of ultimate concern but not in a traditional theological treatise.
The most important aspect of this teaching is that answers must address the real questions people ask. Standard, pet answers do not work nor do they satisfy the true longing for knowledge and truth that people have. Seek to deal with the real questions with real answers.
5) Revelation changes one’s state of being. In the words of Isaiah 55:11: “So is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” Likewise, Hebrews 4:12 describes God’s Word as “living and active.” God’s Word changes, shapes, molds, and brings to God the hearts and souls of people. It accomplishes God’s salvation work. Therefore, this model is not a reaction or accommodation to the fact that life changes. Revelation is an agent of change in and of itself.
Writing that changes lives, not just one’s actions, but who a person is. Now that’s valuable writing! Aim for theological writing that changes the lives of people. In our current culture, academia and the church are sometimes seen at odds, as if their conversations are not about the same topics or ideas. That should never be the case. All people think and speak theologically when addressing questions of ultimate concern. Writing at a theoretical level but does not touch church practice or daily life is missing the mark.
6) Questions change as life changes. There is a reason why some people observe that change appears to be the only constant in life. Change happens. People grow. That’s why a model of questions and answers is consistently needed. Since revelation changes people, their questions naturally change as well.
Writing that lasts is writing that changes people, causing emotional reactions, invoking life change, and challenging presuppositions. Writing that grows as people grown and change will last and continue to be applicable for years to come. Scripture has a way of speaking in different ways to different situations and people.
Want to really dive into Paul Tillich’s Method of Correlation? Pick up Systematic Theology Volume 1 for a fascinating read!