Do I HAVE to Be a “Christian Writer”?

confused woman--question marks

For my first eight years as a publishing writer, I had a hot New York agent. She hung with me through high times and low—until the day I sent her my new manuscript, which was overtly faith-based. She dropped me like a potato on fire. I knew that would happen. But I had to obey God and offer explicit Scripture-based hope. Most of my subsequent books have done the same.

I never wanted to be a “Christian writer.” I never wanted to be confined to “Christian readers.” I wanted to write for ALL people, and I still do. But I also know my faith can turn people away. Here is our dilemma: how do we write the truth with integrity, yet speak to all people, regardless of faith? Here are some thoughts that guide me through the thorny “Christian Writers” thicket.

We need not tell all the truth about anything at any one time (even if we thought we knew it). Life, issues, experiences, even under the purview of God, are all complex, multi-layered, paradoxical. Communicating Truth and truths is a process that we engage in over a lifetime, encompassing many possible stages: plowing, sowing, watering, reaping. We need never feel that we have to roll out the entire plan of redemption in any one novel or memoir to make it “Christian.” There’s time. Think of your work as a body of work over your lifetime.

old books on shelf

Though I want all people to know Christ, more, I want Christ to be made known.
Because he is found everywhere in life, in all places, in all things, I am not only freed but compelled to discover Him and make some aspect of His being known through twig, creek, moonrise, miscarriage, forgiveness, cyclone, salmon, burial, and supper.

Belief in Christ’s truth-claims do not narrow our art. Christians are accused of being “narrow-minded” because they subscribe to Christ’s radical and exclusive truth claims (“I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the father but by me.”) Belief in this claim does not confine, exclude, or narrow our art: nothing and no one is more capacious, more inclusive, more imaginative, more original than Christ himself, who created all things, who is before all things, who binds all things together, who can be found in every cell of creation.

Pacing in Writing | Wordserve Water Cooler

I intend to write only out of calling and passion. I seek that from God, not my agent, not the market, not editors, or even my publisher. This guarantees a wobbly path rather than a sure career. But, face it: there is no sure career in writing except the career of writing from faithfulness, obedience, and joy.

God’s truths are not just propositional and communicable by language: they are experiential, relational, incarnational. I desire to write from a faith that I am trying to live in and out of, rather than a faith I am simply pronouncing. Without lived-in faith, our words truly are noisy gongs. As Joy Sawyer has so brilliantly written,

“ . . . without an ever-increasing, tangible portrait of our God engraved upon our hearts, we reduce our proclamation of the gospel to the “clanging symbol” of language alone. Maybe that is why our message suffers so much when we rely upon mere rhetoric to communicate our faith: it’s simply bad poetry. Just as a poem can scarcely exist without images, we most fully express our poet-God by daily allowing ourselves to be crafted into the image of Christ.

I end here. I believe that writing is a calling, a kind of pilgrimage that takes us, like Abraham, from one land to another, through, of course, wastelands, where the promise of a promised land appears invisible and impossible—-but the writing inexorably, day by night, moves us closer to the city of God. And if we write well and true, we will not be traveling there alone. Others, at first reluctant, will slowly move with us, following our own feet and our words, drawn to the brightness of a city with open gates and lights that never dim.

Open gate--stone wall

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About leslieleylandfields

Leslie is the multi-award winning author/editor of 10 creative nonfiction books, including Crossing the Waters, Forgiving Our Fathers and Mothers, The Spirit of Food, and Surviving the Island of Grace. She is the founder of the Harvester Island Wilderness Workshop, a writers' workshop led with Phillip Yancey, Ann Voskamp and many others. She leads writing retreat and speaks around the world on matters of theology, forgiveness, creativity, culture, family and food. She lives on Kodiak Island, Alaska, where she works in commercial fishing with her husband, her daughter and five sons.

29 thoughts on “Do I HAVE to Be a “Christian Writer”?

  1. Well said. This is something I have struggled with at times when I write. As a general, overly broad statement, I dislike most Christian fiction I have read, and I want to write something I would like to read. But is that what Christ would have me write? Your post is a good reminder to be obedient to what He would have us each write, whether it is Christian fiction or not. Christian ideals, morals, and themes can be found in “secular” writing, and can reach that larger audience–but our first goal must be to write what Christ would have us write, not what we want to write. Thanks for such a reminder.

    • Kelsie, thanks for your honesty. I think sometimes as Christian writers, no matter our genre, we try too hard. We feel like we’ve got to get the whole salvation message in a single book. Or/And, our understanding of salvation is narrow (saving souls, leaving the body and the earth behind.) I hope we’ll be first of all excellent writers–writing to the very best of our abilities, and then writing out of obedience, wherever Christ leads us. Blessings as you seek His direction!!

    • Kelsie! I think there’s a great need for really quality fiction—“Christian” or otherwise. Look at Marilyn Robinson, who writes with such beauty and depth, and in such a way that she doesn’t divide her audience. Fiction particularly doesn’t have to slam us with redemption. Let the world you create be real, let Christ seep in through the edges of a world rendered truly and beautifully. Thanks for reading and writing back!

      • I agree. It feels like writers (and editors and publishers) have gotten sloppy about what is published these days. Although a great plot can conceal some writing flaws, it shouldn’t have to.

        I much prefer a novel with a gentle theme of redemption than one which shoves the Scripture’s truths down my throat! That said, I know many Christian readers who disagree! 🙂

  2. Thank you for a great post. I write mainly non-fiction and courses, but have two Christian novels… Which I am fearful of publishing. I do expect that they won’t appeal to my non Christian followers and that doesn’t bother me at all. What stops me dead in my tracks is the brutal criticism I will get from other Christians and it will come. I have been attacked on the most innocent of subjects in the past. This novel will set the cat among the pigeons. So I write for me. Maybe one day I will see the way clear to publishing, but I will have to have the total peace of God to do so. I am no one’s shooting range, favourite target and there are so many variations in beliefs out there, friendly fire will assuredly come. It makes me so sad.

    • Cate—–this is unsettling! So sorry to hear you’ve gotten such critical responses from fellow believers. (I do think we get really sloppy online and forget about loving our neighbor when we respond online to a piece of writing.) Also, non-writers have no idea how much courage it takes first, to write at all, and then, to bring our babies out into the public glare. Do keep writing, Cate. Don’t let anyone stop you. And share your work with supportive friends, and people whom you know your words will bring light and blessing.

  3. Thank you for this post. It is so encouraging. You’ve put into words exactly what I aspire to. Faith is interwoven in everything I write, but in writing realistically about flawed characters, and doing so with love and compassion, I have more doors closed to me in some Christian circles than among the broader readership. I am so happy to meet you on this bumpy path! I believe there are readers who prefer salty truth to sugar. If enough of us practice our faith, hone our skills, and give them great stories, together we can grow that audience. (I have never been attacked for the spiritual tone of my work, but I have been taken to task for mildly profane content.)

    • Yes indeed, Syd! Here is the other strange reality—that some publishers are very worried about offending their readers, so characters and settings are bleached and purified, sometimes beyond recognition. Is this really the world we live in? Sometimes—-no. Which is why I seldom read “Christian fiction.” But there are model for really excellent work that portrays both the world we live in as it truly is, yet also brings hope. Marilyn Robinson is a marvelous example of this. Frederick Beuchner’s fiction—some of it biblical fiction—-is gloriously human. I do believe that audience is growing. It needs your voice and your help!!

      • Doing my part, Leslie. I’ve published The Sheep Walker’s Daughter and The Lyre and the Lambs with HopeSprings Books, a small publisher who was willing to take a chance and push some evangelical boundaries. I would add Ron Hansen to that list. (I would even go so far as to add John Updike, very profane but a Christian world view and
        very spiritual, albeit in unorthodox ways.)

      • Totally agree—with John Updike, Ron Hanson. So many good people out there publishing in mainstream venues yet who write from a Christian worldview. And wow! Good for you! Two books–hooray!

  4. Thank you for an excellent post. Although my success has been small by many standards, when I gave my writing to God and came to the realization that His glory–not a byline–was the most important thing to me, then He blessed my efforts. Most of my writing has been ghosting for others without credit, and eight years ago I discovered that all I’d learned with writing craft, the industry, and Chicago Manual of Style opened doors to study and become an editor for a small Christian publisher.

    • Vie—how terrific! That’s a success story! I do editing as well, and there’s great reward in helping others shape their work into the best possible form. I have a feeling that you’ll keep on writing, and some day your name, your own name!! Will be on one of those book . . ..

  5. True words, Leslie. Committing to write for God can be a straight road, albeit one filled with obstacles, rocky fields and rivers to cross. Love this journey! Thanks for motivation for the week to come.

    • Jan—-you know all about this in your writing life!! I too love the journey. I love where I’ve been, and where I’m going I’m not exactly sure, but God really does give us joy and companions along the way. WHich makes the trip SO much sweeter! Thank you for your always kind words and presence!!

  6. Thanks for the encouragement. I struggled at first with my writing because I was told they weren’t “Christian enough” — no prayers, no salvation scene — you know the drill. So I went back and put those in, but it always seemed forced. I wanted to write characters who come to a knowledge of Christ because of what He’s doing in their life, not because of a revival at a huge stadium or even an altar call at church. So I went back and took that stuff out. Now before I write, I pray that God would dictate the story for me to transcribe, and I thank Him for allowing me to be the first person to hear/see this story, and that it be written for His glory.

    • Donna—yes, I agree with you, that it’s simply an obvious and overused plot device to get a character to a revival and knock her down to her knees. Yes, it happens for some, but it’s simply too convenient when it happens in every Christian novel. I think if we’re awake and attentive to ALL the ways GOd works, fiction would be much more layered, complex, interesting and true!! Blessings as you write Donna!

  7. I have found much of Christian fiction shallow, and basically entertaining. On occasion I read the new “Christian” fiction and barely find anything spiritual about it at all. This is confusing to me and makes me wonder if I should change my goals. Thanks for your thoughts on this. I especially like your thoughts on calling instead of building a platform and putting out works that you are pressured to do because of publishers, markets, or agents.

    • Thanks Diane! I think our best models for “Christian fiction” are simply the best novels written, particularly the classics, which often were written from a Judeo-Christian worldview. (And Yes, I cannot write a book for anyone but the Lord–and myself—and the ones I think who want and need that particular topic addressed. Writing to please an agent or publisher simply will not sustain you through the long agonizing process of writing!!)

  8. Thank you for this, Leslie. Beautiful and straight-forward, as usual. (How do you do that?) After years of writing “just the facts” as a news reporter, I struggle with how much of “me” I can include in the type of writing I do today — even my blogging. You are spot-on with the counsel that we don’t have to lay out salvation every time we write. We just need to write true. A friend recently shared this C.S. Lewis quote with me: “Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original; whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.” If I’m to write with integrity, all I can do is tell the truth as I know it. Sometimes my words won’t fit the mold for Christian writing or even draw attention in the secular world, so who knows whether they’ll ever be published for general consumption. But if I’m intentional and truthful, my work will be original and hopefully, because of who God created me to be, it will be of use to someone.

    • Ahhh!! Well said Ingrid! I love that! “But if I’m intentional and truthful, my work will be original and hopefully, because of who God created me to be, it will be of use to someone.” The beauty and modesty of that! What a pure aim for all of us, that our work would simply be “of use to someone.” (I think your writing here just reached its goal!)

      • I’m currently reading Wendell Berry’s “Jaybe Crow”. Talk about good, classic fiction from a Christian worldview — that’s Berry. LOVE Buechner, too!

  9. “Authenticity”
    That’s the word that kept coming to my mind as I read your post.
    “Christian” writing has to be an expression of the Truth as well as “the truth” of where you are in your life as you are writing.
    Madeliene L’Engle wrote memorably about this, as she, too, struggled against being put in the “Christian Writer” box.

    • The perfect word, Michele! Thank you. Write authentically from who you are, where you are. That’s it. (The publishing world makes it more complicated—but I think this clarifies so much.)

  10. I’ve written two Christian fiction books, and I’ve been amazed by how little support I’ve received from fellow believers. Some turn up their nose because it’s a “romance novel”, although one with a message of redemption. Meanwhile, I’ve had a few non-believers read my book and enjoy it. It may not be Christian enough for some, too Christian for others. You really just can’t win. And I will end with two words: Debbie Macomber. She’s a devout Christian who isn’t called to preach, but to write. We all need to go where God leads us. I know for certain I want to first do no harm to the faith. Face it, many of us can without ever intending to.

  11. Excellent post! Thank you. As I walk this writing journey with Christ, He often has me go places and write words I’d rather not. But my life is His. So is the writing. Your honest and gentle post was the kind reminder I needed today.

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