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November 21, 2008



This is the concern which captured my attention, Mark. "Apart from being brave, how do you introduce spiritual content organically, especially when your story doesn't lend itself to much theological angst or assurance?"

I cannot imagine a story not lending itself to much theological angst or assurance. I can imagine (without any problem) lots of unbelievers and their lifestyles in a story--I write them in mine--but always growing out of anyone being "lost" is the "opportune moment" for an injection of "theological" contrast via a peripheral character or the heroine/protagonist. Organically rising out of a set of circumstances, conversations, scenes, etc., one encounters the presence of, the awareness of, the contemplation of, the fear of, the disdain for, the pleading to, the necessity for God. Seems very doable to me whether front and center or backstage.

Tony France

Hitchcock used to say that a movie can only be as good as its bad guy...which makes sense I think because all good fiction revolves around a great conflict, and to have a great conflict the bad guy must be a worthy challenger...I think that the main drawback to CBA fiction is not so much the fact that it peddles a spiritual message in a heavy handed way...Dostoyevsky did that quite is that there does not seem to be any real conflict in that the antagonist is not drawn convincingly...the spiritual thesis, if you will, is not opposed with at least equal vigor by an antithesis...


Tony, your comments make good sense and valid points until you generalize CBA fiction as being unable to contain convincing antagonists with real conflict. Obviously, you haven't read much of the thriller genre or possibly much else from Christian fiction in recent times.

sally apokedak

I wonder, though, if we all have different tolerance levels. I know you hate that, Mark. You know that good fiction is not a matter of taste--it's measurable, right?

But there was a guy teaching Sunday School the other day and he made a plea for us to evangelize by befriending the lost. He wanted integration. He defined that as doing what you love to do but taking a lost guy along with you.

When he asked what we could do with the lost guy, one person said we could take him golfing and another said we could invite him to dinner. A third said we could invite him to Bible Study and the teacher said, "No, there are many who aren't ready for Bible Study. You can't invite him there."

And I thought, "But you just said I am supposed to do what I love to do. I don't love to golf. I don't love to cook dinner. I do love to go to Bible Study."

I don't think we're all called to invite our neighbors to dinner. I think we are all called to evangelize but I don't see it as a "one size fits all" proposition. So isn't there room in books for all types?

I think our novels should have the right and the left and the middle and the weird toad venom guy. And let them all work things out in their own warped ways (because we all are warped--some more than others, granted). My theory is this: If you present four answers with four characters, the reader will be able to weigh them all and decide which on is best. If he chooses to follow the Satanist, you didn't make him do it just because you painted the Satanist. He chose that because he's not saved. Oh well. That's not your fault. If he had any spiritual insight he'd choose to follow the good guy.

So we don't have to convert every Satanist or secular humanist or gay guy in our books. We can leave some of them in darkness and they can even enjoy common grace. The gay guy doesn't have to die of AIDS. All we have to do is present both sides. And if God is working in the reader, he'll hunger for the truth.

Is this way off what you're talking about? What I'm trying to get at, I think, is that novels that feel contrived to me are ones where everyone comes to the same happy conclusions. Where everyone is shallow. But the answer is not to do away with strong Christian characters and replace them with doubters and ones full of regret--like I thought Robinson did in Gilead. I thought her pastor was not like the great pastors God has given me.

Anyway, why not have a strong Christian character in a genre novel but not have him convert everyone to Christianity? Look at Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee. Do they convert everyone to native spiritism? But Hillerman didn't soften it at all.

Why not do that with a character who is unapologetically Christian and yet doesn't feel a need to correct everyone else? It works with Catholic and Jewish characters.

I can just see it. A hard-boiled Christian detective. "She walked into the office wearing a tight sweater and pouty lips. I said a quick prayer and bounced my eyes to my framed eight by ten of my wife and daughter. 'Miss Krenshaw,' I called to my secretary, 'come in and take notes.' No way was I going to be alone with this babe. I was fleeing temptation. She'd been there only forty-three seconds and already I needed to repent of twelve seperate acts of adultery of the heart." heh heh This could be great fun.

The spiritual theme, then, would simply grow from whatever crime he was solving. It would be specific, as you say, and it would change with each book.

The problem we have with the strong Christian character, of course, is that it is absolutely true that when we present our requests to God by prayer and petition with thanksgiving, the peace of God guards our hearts and our minds in Christ Jesus. Boom. Inner conflict gone. Bummer.

But then there was Jesus who was pretty strong and he had conflict. Not my will but thine be done. That sounds conflicted. Sweating blood. Pretty conflicted. Sinless but conflicted. Perhaps it can be done.

But he was only conflicted at the end because his outer conflict was pressing on him. Throughout his life, the greatest hero of all was tempted from without but he didn't have a lot of inner conflict. So maybe outer conflict is enough to carry the book.

Who made the law that we have to have inner conflict? Is that written in stone?

(Sorry this is so long, but you did ask for discussion. I know I'm not navigating the deep end, but I'm doing the best I can to keep up, so cut me some slack.)

susan fish

Thanks for this, Mark. I am very challenged by this. I think one thing I am learning to do is to let the gestures and the moments in my writing be smaller. Right now I am writing a novel, exploring how my main character becomes part of a small, isolated community. I really want to make the church a distinct and "better" community within the book, but the local community is also strong. For now, what I am doing is simply writing and seeing where it goes, which I think is the antidote to the fear you correctly name as a cause for inorganic writing. I think another important aspect of this is to write three-dimensional characters whose dialogue rings true. When we do that, we are much less likely to be apologists with our fiction.


Sally, right on. Long or not. Some good points.

Madison Richards


I love that you don't shy away from the hard questions either - this is great fodder for discussion.

If writing is about developing a relationship with the reader, then the way an author presents their themes is going to be telling. More often than not, it is a reflection of the way we approach relationships in our 'non-fiction' lives. It's not easy for a leopard to change its spots - evangelical, charismatic, or main-line. That's not to say that a writer can't learn to embody different characters, but on the whole, it's often easy to see where the plumb line has been dropped. We write what we know...

The challenge of writing organically is really a challenge of living organically, then writing out of that.

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