Warning: May Contain Christian Content

It is just over five months since Alpha hit the virtual bookshelves of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and other such emporia (yes, I had to look that up). During that period I must have checked for reviews on average about once every minute. Happily, and much to my surprise, the vast majority have been overwhelmingly positive. I am bracing myself for a negative review but, mercifully, I have been spared that particular anguish. The next person to read my story may hate it and feel obliged to tell the world. Looking through reviews of other Christian books, I have found that this happens a lot, especially when people feel they have been “tricked” into reading something that has Christian content.

One of the reasons I write science fiction is to counter the trend of secular authors to portray all things Christian with anything from mild amusement to outright contempt. In the last book I read (by a best selling author no less) religion was portrayed as a means of escape from the harsh realities of life. The author was obviously an atheist and this came across very clearly in his writing. Did I put the book down? No, because the story was worth reading. Did I write a bad review on Amazon? No, because I respect the author’s world view and his right to portray religion as he sees it. I may disagree with his views about God, but that is his right. Did I feel “tricked” into reading something anti-Christian? No.

During my time on Amazon, I have read many reviews of books by Christian authors and have started to notice a trend, especially with books that do not “look” intrinsically Christian. These books often have star ratings clustered around either end of the scale. You will see many four and five-stars, counterbalanced by a large number of one-stars. These one-star ratings are generally the work of disgruntled atheists who claim to have been “duped” into reading Christian content. They claim to have seen a book that looked interesting (perhaps with a spooky cover)  only to discover at some point in the story that the hero is a Christian, or the plot involves an altar-call or, horror-of-horrors, Jesus is mentioned in a way that does not involve swearing. The ironic thing is that many times these people have downloaded the book for free, so it did not cost them anything. All it cost them was time and presumably, since they only discovered the Christian “conspiracy” at around the half-way mark, an otherwise enjoyable read.

So how are we supposed to deal with such people? I wanted to leave a comment suggesting that all Christian books have a warning somewhere on the cover: “May Contain Christian Content” to avoid offending people who thought they were buying a “normal” book. I was going to, but sarcasm probably isn’t a very spiritual attitude. And anyway, how much Christian content is too much? Perhaps the warning should be: “May Contain Traces of Christian Content” just to cover all our bases.

In Alpha, there is a salvation scene but it is a vital part of the main character’s development. He attends church to please his future wife, and even goes forward to accept Christ as his saviour, but he still does not really believe. For some, salvation scenes in Christian fiction have become a cliché. Perhaps, but since this represents the most important moment in a Christian’s life, can we blame people for wanting to include it? It represents that vital moment when we move from being lost to being found. Personally, I love a salvation scene so long as it is vital to the plot. At that point it stops being clichéd and becomes necessary for the story to make sense. Throwing it in for no apparent reason is obvious and doesn’t work.

I think Christian fiction should tackle real issues with real people. Christians are not perfect and are as prone to making mistakes as everyone else. I don’t want to read a story about perfect people because I have no point of reference to help me identify with such individuals. I want to read about someone who faced problems and overcame the with God’s help. I want to read their testimonies and perhaps learn a thing or two. I also want to know that God is in charge and that the universe is in safe hands. This, however, would probably guarantee a one-star rating because anything that portrays Christ in a positive light is bound to be seen as a conspiracy by atheists unless the book looks obviously Christian.

But why should we label what we write, as though it were some sort of poison? I see my writing as perfectly valid story-telling, but from a world-view that science fiction readers aren’t accustomed to seeing. The fact that science and Christianity are often seen as polar opposites doesn’t help. I see science as a way to explore God’s universe. I suspect most science fiction readers don’t share that view. When they see God presented in a positive light their brain cells cannot cope and they instinctively start writing that one-star review  to express their horror.

The problem with people who complain about Christian content is that they do not see it as a valid word view and so they want to eradicate it. Yet these same people will watch “The Karate Kid” and emerge all teary-eyed from the cinema even though that film is drenched in religion. What is it about Christianity that drives people nuts (or traces thereof*)? The world is now so bent on driving Christianity into a corner that they cannot bear to see it in anything that is not specifically labelled as Christian. They wanted God out of the government, and they have succeeded. They wanted God out of the schools, and they have succeeded. Now they want Him out of the arts as well, safely sealed and stamped and labelled. Take the recent film “The Book of Eli” for example. I enjoyed it as an entertaining piece of film-making. Denzel Washington is one of my favourite actors. It is generally agreed that the direction was excellent, the dialogue believable, and the cinematography a work of art. And yet people complained and rated the film as low as possible for the simple reason that it is about the King James Bible. How ridiculous is that?

Personally, I wrote Alpha for Christians to read, to minister to them and perhaps help draw them closer to God. The title makes it fairly obvious that it is about spiritual themes, and it is classified under religious fiction. They only way an atheist would end up downloading it from Amazon is if it were free and they just went down the list clicking without paying attention. It isn’t free, and so this is unlikely to happen. They would have to actively choose to read a Christian book, in which case they cannot complain about being “tricked”.

Of course I would love it if atheists read my book, in the hope that one or two are somehow moved closer to God through it because they identify with the main character and his problems. I may end up receiving my first one-star review in the process, but it would be worth it. It has been suggested that we should not be trying overtly to spread a Christian message through our speculative novels (for fear of appearing clichéd, among other reasons) but then how do we avoid doing that? We can write clean fiction without any reference to our faith, but then we might as well be secular authors. For me, the whole point of writing from the Christian perspective is to write about God either directly or through strong allegory. Atheist writers say God does not exist and make this very clear in their books. We believe God does exist, so why shouldn’t we make this abundantly clear in the books we write?

And as Christian authors, don’t we have a duty? When we stand before God, will He be impressed that we created fancy literature? Will He be pleased that we were able to avoid offending anyone? Will he smile because we managed to hide the Gospel so effectively that nobody actually noticed it? I suspect that God will be more interested in knowing what we did to help one another and to reach the lost. God’s word does not come back void and so I say let’s continue duping the atheists. Let’s continue wrapping the Gospel  in “normal” covers in the hope that someone will stumble across it. Let’s continue to offend. They may hate us for it now but the seed will have been planted and, who knows, perhaps one day that seed will start to grow.

* I have just received a complaint about that joke. I apologize. Your complementary NAF anvil and cheesecake are in the post.

About P.A.Baines

P.A.Baines writes computer programs for a living but would much rather be writing Christian speculative fiction, which he does whenever he gets the opportunity. Educated in Africa, he is studying towards a degree in Creative Writing through Buckinghamshire New University in England. He enjoys asking "what if?" but is tired of how speculative fiction deals with religion in general and the God of the Bible in particular. His stories are for Christians who enjoy science fiction but who normally avoid the genre because of its tendency towards an atheistic world-view. His aim is to write entertaining and thought-provoking stories that stretch the imagination, but which keep God in His rightful place as Lord over all creation. P.A.Baines is British but currently lives in a small corner of the Netherlands with his wife and two children and various wildlife. He spends what little spare time he has keeping fit, watching films, and playing computer games with his children. He does most of his reading via audio books, which he listens to while commuting to and from work on his trusty bicycle. He speaks reasonable Dutch and is in the process of learning French.

27 comments on “Warning: May Contain Christian Content

  1. Wait. If we complain, we get cheesecake? I want cheesecake. But I don’t know what to complain about. I liked Alpha Redemption. Oh, there’s something to complain about. Paul, you never said the full title of your book in this post and people might not know that. “Alpha” is a shortened nickname, which might still come up in an Amazon search, probably better than my nicknames for my long titles. (i.e. “NIBAC” will probably get you nothing on Amazon, while “Nor Iron Bars a Cage” does quite nicely). Go search “Alpha Redemption”, folks, and buy the book!

    Where’s my cheesecake?

  2. All of our books carry a “rating” on the first page or two. Included in that rating is a “disclaimer” (I prefer to call it a “description) if a book happens to contain said “Christian content” — “Contains light to moderate Christian content” — or “Contains strong Christian content” or some variation of such.

    The goal at PYP is to have a rating not only on our books, but on sites such as Amazon. That way, a reader can’t claim ignorance to religious content therein. I’ve not yet heard of other publishers doing that, but frankly, I love the idea. I wish they all did that, based on their own specific worldview (i.e., “Contains moderate pagan teachings,” or “Contains strong ant-Christian content” or whatever.

    I realize it may never happen (i.e., likely will /never/ happen), but still, I wish publishers would voluntarily implement such a system.

    • It could be really useful, especially when it comes to trying out new authors. I know I would make full use of it, although some titles would no doubt slip through the net. The book I’m reading ta the moment isn’t blatantly ant-Christian but you can feel the agenda from the subtle remarks and made here and there. I actually stopped reading the book but not because of this “agenda”, but because it is just so incredibly dull.

      And I can’t help wondering if such a system would one day become mandatory, especially considering the way things are going, to avoid upsetting people who find Christian content offensive. And it could get a bit ridiculous. Like those bags of nuts with the warning on the back: “may contain traces of nuts”. I could imagine a book with the title “Jesus Loves You” or something obvious like that, with a warning across the front: “may contain traces of Christian content”

  3. I’m hoping your asterisk is a joke because I thought it was hilarious! If it wasn’t, point me in the complainer’s direction and watch the turtle snap!

    Great post, as always.

  4. If she gets cheesecake, I don’t know why I can’t have some, too. Maybe with blueberries on it….

    • Does complaining about not getting cheesecake count? I reckon it does. Blueberry cheesecake it is!

      • I just finished reading Alpha Redemption. It was part of the giveaway that New Authors sponsored awhile back. I used to read a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy because my dad enjoyed it, and always passed his finds along to me. My favorite author was early Asimov before he sold out. But it has been a number of years since I picked up anything like it.

        Alpha Redemption piqued my curiosity right from the beginning. It took me a few chapters to realize what was happening, but when I did, I hated to put the book down to go attend to other things. I liked the humor sprinkled throughout the narrative and found I absolutely could not put the book down once I began the last chapter. It holds together well, and the two main characters were well-developed. You handled the Christian content well.

        I really appreciated the opportunity to read this book and enjoyed it immensely.

      • Hi Susan. Thanks for taking the time to let me know what you think of the book. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed the story. For me, I’m always a bit wary to try a new author so I’m really glad you took a chance on Alpha (and stuck with it to the end).

  5. Excellent post, Paul! And quite a lot to think about for sure. I think that ultimately we all need to write to the absolute best that we can and write the stories that we know that we ourselves will enjoy. For some of us that will mean that we include a strong degree of our faith in the stories told, for others not so much, and when writing “true fiction” then frankly no matter what the belief of the writer is, the story shouldn’t even show whatever that particular belief might be. (i.e. If an atheist were to write “true fiction” then they would be able to write a story in such a way that you thought it was either Christian fiction or fiction from the point of view of any other religion) And I thought the point about The Karate Kid was a very good one. Both versions of the film. 😉

    • As Rick points out later on, we should write what we feel led to write. Personally, I feel led to write stories with strong Christian content, but God works with each of us differently. For my next story I may feel led to tone it down, but that is up to God.

  6. “your anvil and cheesecake are in the post.”

    Haha! Paul, it was a fabulous joke. Love the choice of accompanying images also…

    “Let’s continue to offend. They may hate us for it now but the seed will have been planted and, who knows, perhaps one day that seed will start to grow.”

    Thank you, thank you for that encouragement.

  7. Anvils and cheesecake for all! LOL

    Great post, Paul.

  8. Well said, Paul. (I was contemplating writing on this subject, but I think you’ve put it as well as anyone could. Thanks!)

    I’ve seen a bit of this in the reviews of my books, but thankfully it is a very small sample so far. I know each one bugged me, though. I wanted to scream: “How much sci-fi have you read? All the great stuff touches on spirituality in some form! Asimov, Bradbury, Heinlein, Herbert…” But I think it is just as you’ve written it–with few exceptions–it is only content where God or Christianity is portrayed in a positive light that we get this reaction. Negative light, fine. A positive light on anything else–from Dune saviors to God as a tentacled being, also fine. But an accurate representation of the God of the Bible? Or the ressurected Christ? Sci-fi blasphemy!

    Lately, though, I’m of the mind that I’ve taken those few negative reviews all wrong.

    The Christian writer who gets annoyed at these things is leaving one thing out of the equation. They are seeing only writer and reader, pitted against each other. What they fail to see is God’s workings in the heart of the reader. The review that complains about Christian content should be worn as a badge of honor. The writer has done exactly what he is supposed to do. He has presented a work offering that the Spirit used to stir the lost.

    Amazing. Wonderful. Awesome!

    • Hi Kerry. You know, I think you and I are operating on pretty much the same wavelength. So often I read something you’ve written and just nod in agreement.

      I think it was Cat who commented to you on Facebook that a negative review is far better than a lukewarm review. At least with a negative review you have moved somebody. I’ve had a lukewarm and it just took the wind out of my sails. I’m dreading getting a negative review because I know it will upset me, so I guess part of the reason I wrote this blog post was to help prepare myself mentally in case it happens. A few weeks back I let a work colleague have a read. He’s an atheist, a self-proclaimed fussy reader, with qualifications in biology, so I’m curious to see what he thinks. Could be interesting. I wonder if he has an Amazon account…

      • I believe the review in question was only lukewarm due to that reader’s non-preference for science fiction. Such are the dangers inherent in taking on groups of reviewers – unless they are genre-focused, there’ll always be some that dislike that aspect of it. We’re just too weird for some people; but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

      • I used to a bumper sticker that said “Why be normal?” To me, normal just means in the boring bit of the bell-curve. Better to be out on the edge where all the interesting stuff happens 😉

  9. AMEN! (Was that enthusiasm too Christian?)

    You hit the nail on the head. There really does seem to be a trend here, and I really don’t understand why people have become so anti-Christian. In a blog post I did in December, I talked about some of the things I had seen online about the new Narnia movie, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. Some of the comments and ratings for the movie which I had seen were very antagonistic and vile. And the ones which irritated me the most were the posts by people claiming they felt “tricked”.

    I say, “HOGWASH!”. If they felt tricked, it is because they were clueless, and quite possibly, lazy. C.S. Lewis was VERY open and public about his Christian faith. He did not hide from it. If anyone had ever heard anything about him and his books, even if they had never read them, they should have known that the movie would have strong Christian themes in it.

    Claiming they were tricked is a cop-out. Especially if they saw the first movie.

    I agree with you: If it offends people, so be it. I’m certainly not going to stop writing what I write.

    If you are curious about my blog post, you can find it here: http://www.daronfraley.com/2010/12/if-c-s-lewis-caught-you-off-guard-its-your-own-fault.html

    • Hi Daron,

      Thanks for your comment. I agree, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to feel tricked with something like the Narnia series, unless they’ve been living under a pebble for most of their life. I just wonder, if Lewis had been a Buddhist would those same people get upset? Take The Matrix, for example. To me, that film series is loaded with Christian symbolism, and yet I haven’t seen people getting all riled up about that. Perhaps it’s seen as acceptable to use Christian allegory so long as you are not a Christian, because then you are not seen as trying to dupe people…

  10. Well, I know I’ve offended at least one person with my more overt Christian book. Like you say, so be it. There are going to be those who are anti-Christian, who will go on attack mode at the first hint of a book containing anything positive about Christianity.

    But I do think there is a place to write from a Christian world view in the more secular market. Christian themes may be there, but not so overt as to cause people to run. It accomplishes at least two things in my mind, and is why I do both kinds. One, it provides some initial seed evangelism, where what they read in these genres are not decidedly anti-Christian or anti-religious, etc. That’s like the seed getting a foothold that a later seed can come in and open it wider. Two, my hope is if people enjoy my more non-overt Christian work, that they will be open to taking a look at my more overt stuff, and be moved that much more closer.

    The specific calling I felt when I dove into writing fantasy and space opera is that there needed to be more Christians writing great stories that can compete with the more popular secular world-viewed authors out there. Each person has their calling, and too often the ones that have one calling tend to, for whatever reason, look down on those with a different calling, when what we should be doing is supporting each other’s endeavors.

    Good post though. Write what God puts on your heart, and let Him determine your audience. As long as you are on the same wavelength as He is, such negative reviews shouldn’t bother you. As you point out, they can be indications that God is working in a person. It may be seed on a path, but it has to start somewhere and you never know when one of those seeds will work their way into the earth and start something new.

    • Hi Rick.

      I agree. I think that as long as we are doing what we feel God has called us to do, we are doing the right thing. I know that when I started writing I tried a number of approaches, varying from outright blatant Christian content, to stories with no Christian content at all. Where I am now is where I think God wants me to be (at least, for the time being). I know that my next story will probably be a lot more offensive to atheists than Alpha simply because I poke gentle fun at their world view (as well as Christian romance novelists and many other things), but I am writing it because I enjoy it. I believe that God will not let it be published if it isn’t what He wants.

      Yes, let’s support one another, no matter what our calling. Can you imagine the impact an author could have if s/he has built a large following of readers purely through excellent prose, and then those people found out s/he was a Christian? I suspect that would dramatically affect a lot of people.

  11. My dearest Paul,
    Just write what God puts on your heart and leave the rest up to Him. You should know better than anyone else that God does things in His own time, not ours. He is in charge, not us. I pray that He stays with you quite awhile, cause I’m loving what He has you writing!

  12. […] my last post I discussed the tendency for some people to get upset at the merest suggestion of a Christian […]

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