What Makes a Great Christian Novel?

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Sarah Arthur, a writer and speaker, is one of the preliminary fiction judges for CT’s annual book awards. She put a list together of what she’s looking for as she wades through the potential finalists, and it’s a good reminder for any of us working to write a novel. (Read the list here.)

Early on in the piece she makes an important disclaimer:

I’m one of those grumpy English majors who walks into a Christian bookstore and wants to know why Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities or Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or Anne Tyler’s Saint Maybe aren’t on the shelves. As authors of faith, we stand in a long literary tradition that did not start with Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and is not limited to the Christian Booksellers Association. It goes much further back and reaches much farther out. This is how the good news of the gospel works.

This idea is one I’ve heard N.D. Wilson point out—that Christians have zero reason to be embarrassed about the art the Church has put into the world over the centuries, and I would argue that some, if not most, of the greatest novelists of our age have been Christians. I would add Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson, The Lord of the Rings, Till We Have Faces, and The Book of the Dun Cow to the list.

What else?

Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

As a singer-songwriter and recording artist, Andrew has released more than ten records over the past fifteen years. His music has earned him a reputation for writing songs that connect with his listeners in ways equally powerful, poetic, and intimate. He has also followed his gifts into the realm of publishing. His books include the four volumes of the award-winning Wingfeather Saga.


24 Comments

  1. Walt

    I read “Cry, the Beloved Country” for the first time this summer. It’s a beautiful journey through sorrow, grace, and redemption.

  2. Profile photo of David Michael Bruno

    David Michael Bruno

    @guynameddave

    The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene comes to mind.

    And here’s another question. Could we expand the definition of “Christian novel” to include stories written by non-Christians but that explore themes of truth? I think about Umberto Eco or Philip K. Dick. Hardly the most Christian of men. But their novels are ripe with theology and explorations of truth.

  3. Profile photo of Danielle Chalker

    Danielle Chalker

    @daniellec

    Would anyone consider Les Miserables a great Christian novel? I’m reading it right now and loving it but I’m not quite far enough in to determine what Victor Hugo’s spiritual perspective is (except that he makes concepts like forgiveness, grace, and repentance come alive). It certainly is a beautiful story…

  4. Esther O'Reilly

    I think Christian bookstores should carry great Jewish fiction too. See Chaim Potok’s The ChosenMy Name is Asher Lev.

  5. John Barach

    Gene Wolfe (notably The Book of the New Sun, currently published as Shadow and Claw and Sword and Citadel).

    Larry Woiwode (notably Beyond the Bedroom Wall and Born Brothers).

  6. Christopher Hagen

    The best novel I’ve read, Christian or otherwise, is The Island of the World by Michael O’Brien.  O’Brien is a Christian who writes with a spiritual depth of character and cultural critique that is deeply moving and invigorating.  Any of O’Brien’s novels are food for the soul.  He is the only contemporary Christian novelist I know who is compared to Dostoevsky, O’Connor. Williams, and Lewis.

  7. Profile photo of Christopher Hagen

    Christopher Hagen

    @christopherhagen

    The best novel I’ve read, Christian or otherwise, is Michael O’Brien’s The Island of the World. Any of O’Brien’s novels, shot through with beauty, mysticism, parable, heartbreak, and hope, are nourishment for the soul.  He is the only contemporary Christian novelist I know who has been compared, to Dostoyevsky, O’Connor, Lewis, and Williams.

  8. Profile photo of Nathaniel Miller

    Nathaniel Miller

    @nmiller

    I agree with David.  Thomas McKenzie once said that the word Christian makes for a very good noun and a very poor adjective.  Silas Marner by George Eliot was written by a woman who rejected her faith, and yet she seems to proclaim it in that story.

  9. Profile photo of Andrew Peterson

    Andrew Peterson

    @andrew

    @guynameddave I totally agree–and I think that might be my next post. Is there such a thing as a specifically “Christian” novel? I would say songwriters like Rich Mullins wrote songs that looked through a specifically Christian lens, used Biblical imagery, and existed not just as things of beauty but as means of edification for believers. Not all his songs were that way, but many of my favorites were. A great Paul Simon song might carry certain truths and deal with theological ideas, but I would hesitate to put them in the same category, you know? I would say novels like Peace Like a River fall into the Rich Mullins category, while Philip K. Dick (who I’ve never read) might fall into the other. It’s a complicated conversation. Are these categories harmful or helpful?

  10. Profile photo of Brian Schellenberger

    Brian Schellenberger

    @scheb0rk

    Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ is considered “the most influential Christian book of the nineteenth century” and sold more copies between 1880 and 1980 than any book besides the Bible.  Yet its author, Civil War General Lew Wallace himself declared “At that time [of writing Ben Hur], speaking candidly, I was not in the least influenced by religious sentiment. I had no convictions about God or Christ. I never believed nor disbelieved in them.”  He further declared in his autobiography:   “I am not a member of any church or denomination, nor have I ever been. … Should one ask of another, or wonder in himself, why I, who am neither minister of the Gospel, nor theologian, nor churchman, have presumed to write this book, it pleases me to answer him, respectfully–I wrote it to fix an impression distinctly in my mind.”

  11. Profile photo of David Michael Bruno

    David Michael Bruno

    @guynameddave

    @andrew please do write that next post! I want to think that there is a “Christian” way to do things, including write novels. But what I struggle to reconcile is that sometimes non-Christians seem to do things the Christian way. Sometimes, when that happens, it does not seem like there’d be a more Christian way to do the same thing; perhaps, other than explicitly giving God the glory for having done the thing well. Maybe that is the most Christian way to do things: to do them in God’s name. And maybe that’s why shoddy Christian art feels so wrong, because it gives glory to God for things done poorly.

  12. Profile photo of Esther O'Reilly

    Esther O'Reilly

    @esther

    @danielleec, Yes! Loved Home. I do think Gilead is the greater novel, but anyone who loved Gilead and hasn’t yet read Home needs to go do so. Lila is also a good prequel, deeply sad and not, I think, as good as her first, but still worth reading.

    @christopherhagen I’m really glad to see O’Brien get a shout-out, even though actually don’t think he’s one of the all-time greats, objectively. I haven’t read Island of the World, but I read the Children of the Last Days trilogy and A Cry of Stone. At times he’s brilliant, but he needs a good editor, because he goes off on waaaaay too many tangents and sub-plots. I do think A Cry of Stone is a great novel, however. A perfect example of what Andrew is looking for, and a great treatment of the significance art from a Christian perspective. For those who’ve never read it, it’s about a Canadian-Indian woman who’s called to a life of homelessness and poverty, but makes beautiful paintings.

    Since nobody else has mentioned Brideshead Revisited yet, I will add it to the list. Also, I have to give it to George Eliot for both Silas Marner and even more so Adam Bede for writing two very fine Christian novels, despite her atheism. Damn, her evangelist in Adam Bede is more real, full-bodied and convincing than any Christian character I’ve seen in any officially Christian film put out in the past decade. People: you gotta raise the bar!

  13. sean

    Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus is a set of short stories I’d recommend for any bookshelf. Shusaku Endo’s book Silence was just made into a Scorsese movie, andbeyond being a great novel, it is a reminder of how very much bigger and older the church is than the tiny part we know all about.

  14. Profile photo of Roy Friend

    Roy Friend

    @rfriend

    I’d suggest The Lord of the WorldThe Dawn of All, and Come Rack, Come Rope! by Mons. Robert Hugh Benson, the classical fairy tales by the Grimm Brothers or Hans Christian Andersen, Beowulf and the majority of the Anglo-Saxon literature (especially The Dream of the Rood), The Brothers Karamozov by Doestoyevski, and (one of my favorites) The Napoleon of Notting Hill by Chesterton.

    @daniellec Les Miserables was certainly written with christian influence, but not with per se with Christian belief. Victor Hugo was born into a Roman Catholic family and, in his early life, practiced his faith. As he grew older he turned away from the Church and ultimately away from Christianity, settling into a form of Rationalistic Deism which Wikipedia describes a being like that of Voltaire. I’m not sure where along that timeline Les Miserables was written, but it was under constant criticism and eventually ended up on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the Catholic Church’s list of books banned as dangers to faith and morals) along with other works of Hugo. It was later removed from the Index, so I imagine it was reviewed and found not to be as dangerous to Christian faith and morals as was previously thought. Nowadays Catholic literary critics consider it to be part of the canon of Catholic literature, with a similar regard as Don Quixote.

    @esther Challenge accepted.

  15. Doug

    What makes a Great Christian Novel?

    Before we can answer this question, we must first identify who the “Great Christians” are.

    Only afterwards can we identify the qualities that make each of them novel.

    Or am I missing something, here?

    #simplelogic

     

  16. Geoff

    I came across a comment from Toni Morrison where she tries to describe what it means to write a black novel:

    I remember the language of the people I grew up with. Language was so important to them. All that power was in it. And grace and metaphor. Some of it was very formal and Biblical, because the habit is that when you have something important to say you go into parable, if you’re from Africa, or you go into another level of language. I wanted to use language that way, because my feeling was that a black novel was not black because I wrote it, or because there were black people in it, or because it was about black things. It was the style. It had a certain style. It was inevitable. I couldn’t describe it, but I could produce it.

    It strikes me that I could echo the first part of her description with Christian writing: A Christian novel is not Christian because a Christian wrote it, or because there are Christians in it, or because it is about Christian things. It is something else . . . a perspective? a mindset? It’s more than a world view. I’m convinced that if you cut a Christian novel (and you may have to cut it, to read it symbolically) it bleeds the gospel.

    Leland Ryken exposes a few fallacies of what makes a piece of classic literature Christian in his book Realms of Gold.

  17. Rebecca Jean

    I recently finished reading Dred by Harriet Beecher Stowe (her second novel, written 4 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and BY FAR the superior book) and it had me thinking about this topic.  Stowe was a Christian in a cultural sense, at least, and seems to have a pretty strong handle on the Gospel, but her books are rarely considered Christian novels.  BTW, if you want to read a novel that resonates almost painfully with our current political climate, you must read Dred.  I read a lot of 19th century lit for my work, and Stowe is often criticized for not being as literary as Hawthorne (an interesting author to consider in this discussion) or Melville, but I believe this novel could hold its own with them 🙂

  18. Profile photo of kadubb

    kadubb

    @kadubb

    It’s an interesting question to ponder, and I realize that I have categorized novels into two different veins:
    1) Books written by Christian authors that are profound and significant
    2) Books written by authors who have not indicated whether they are Christians, but their novels have Christian themes and stories.

    I suppose it’s like all art – there is music and movies which aren’t “Christian” but which encourage me in my walk with Christ.  I suppose it’s because we are all made in the image of God so God’s story can be told by all people. (Or not, I’m honestly not sure.)

    One of my favourite portrayal of an authentic Christian is in a book by William Kent Kruger, “Ordinary Grace”.  The main character’s father is a minister and is a beautiful example of an authentic believer who loves his neighbours and ministers to all.   One quote from that book is

    “I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love,. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night it’s still within our power to hold faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may feel ourselves unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who chooses to discard them.”

    I am not sure what makes a novel “Christian”, but I know that there are beautiful lessons to be taught by books written by both believers and non-believers.

     

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  19. Profile photo of L.A. Smith

    L.A. Smith

    @lisa

    @Geoff I love that quote! It has given me something to think about.

    You all have mentioned many of my favourite novels that I would consider “Christian” but I would like to submit a couple more: Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord series – Out of Egypt and Road to Cana. I was blown away by the first book, where the child Jesus slowly grows into an understanding of who he is. I loved the exploration of the question, did Jesus know he was Son of God as a child, or not? And if not, how did he come to understand that? The second book set just before he begins his public ministry, show us the adult Jesus preparing to follow his Father’s will and all that will mean for him. I know that some are uncomfortable with these books but they truly blew me away. And Rice’s meticulous research into the culture and politics of the times gave me a deeper understanding of the biblical events in history.

     

    Also a shout out out to Fredrick Buechner’s Son of Laughter. A biblical patriarch like you’ve never seen one portrayed before. Wow.

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