Whether it’s Harry Potter, vampires, dystopia or the latest historical romance series, plenty of secular authors have readers lined up to devour their latest release. And Christians are regularly among them.
But what about the latest fiction output from an author who is Christian? Do you read their work? Can you even name a handful of Christian authors?
If you can’t, perhaps part of the reason is because you have assumed that a fiction writer who also happens to be Christian will only pen work that looks and sounds, well, holy. “Bonnet” tales a la Little House on the Prairie, or novels where Jesus is front and centre, and important gospel lessons are taught.
After talking to four writers who attend Sydney Anglican churches, it’s clear that while they are writing through a Christian lens, their focus is on telling a story. And they do it in very different ways.
“I think all fiction veils the gospel to a certain extent, because the number one aim of fiction is to entertain,” says Kristen Young, whose first young adult novel, Apprentice, was published last year.
“Preaching a sermon goes down like a lead balloon in fiction! You’ve got to be able to weave a captivating story at the same time as including the Christian worldview in terms that are also captivating, but perhaps not always recognised.
You’ve got to be able to weave a captivating story at the same time as including the Christian worldview in terms that are also captivating, but perhaps not always recognised.
“There are enduring classics like C.S. Lewis’s Narnia tales that hold precious truths within an entertaining fictional narrative. It’s almost like a parable... those who have ears to hear will hear it, and it won’t necessarily do anything other than be a pleasant story for others.”
Claire Zorn, the multi-award-winning author of four young adult novels, agrees.
“It does depend on the angle you’re coming at it from, [but] it’s informed by what you think literature for young people should be,” she says. “There is an old-fashioned idea that it should somehow be instructive: let’s tell stories about perfect Christians behaving perfectly so that kids will read it and think, ‘Oh, that’s what I’m supposed to do’.
“There are a lot of problems with that. Perfect Christians don’t exist, and it’s also not my job to provide instruction. I try to reflect the world and what’s happening in the world. There’s a lot of stuff that isn’t great and if I write cosy pictures where everything is lovely, I’m not reflecting the world. Kids know straight away if you give them something that isn’t authentic, and you lose them instantly.”
The why of writing
When Cecily Paterson decided to make good on her childhood dream to be a writer, she made a conscious decision to focus on girls in their tweens and “write books that could be their friends”.
“There’s a real drive to do it. I can’t not,” she says. “I don’t particularly enjoy the process of writing, but I really love having told a story – a story that will move other people and has meaning.
“I tend to start with a character that I can see in my head, and often I will start by giving that character a list of questions to answer in their voice, like a school project... then their voice starts to come out. But often the character is based on someone I’ve actually seen or know or have come across.
“The first book in the Kangaroo Valley series was [inspired] by a choir night I attended. Three girls were on the stage, and just by looking at them you could see the power dynamics in that group. Then I saw another girl a few rows up and I thought, imagine if she came up and disrupted their power dynamic? What would happen there? I was already building the story in my head.”
Scott Monk began writing books for young adult guys in response to the fiction he was required to read at high school, “which was American or British and it had nothing to do with an Australian teenager who is interested in girls, footy and cars”.
At the time, in the 1990s, the push was to get teen boys to read more – a problem that still exists now, he says, in a market flooded with fantasy and the supernatural. “There’s a big group of young men out there who want to identify with real issues that they as teenage boys wrestle with: identity, respect, sexuality, the meaning of life, mateship and power. And at the moment, there’s a real sense that young men, and men in general, are devalued – in a lot of ads, they’re the stupid one, for example – and there’s a lot of confusion about their roles in society.”
Monk says it’s very important for Christian voices to be in the secular fiction market, otherwise non-believers will “dominate that creative space”.
“Our voices have every right to be in the mainstream publishing world, where you can raise the kind of big life questions we’re wrestling with in the pews every week,” he says. “You want your mainstream readers to see the world from a different perspective – to introduce them to characters who are Christian but don’t fall into the stereotype of the crazy religious nutjob or the weak inoffensive Christian who has very little resemblance to a real person of faith.”
“Our voices have every right to be in the mainstream publishing world"
Issues and impact
Zorn says there’s a moment in her first novel, The Sky So Heavy, where the Christian character, Arnold, explains his belief to others. To her joy, when visiting a school’s book club in Brisbane after the book was published, a young teen said she had read this section out to a friend to help describe her own Christian faith, saying: “This just explains it perfectly”.
“That does not feel like something I have done,” Zorn says. “That feels like it came from a Creator far more capable than I am! It still blows me away when that kind of thing happens.”
Monk has also experienced extraordinary feedback – hearing of a teenage girl in Newcastle who had read his first two books dozens of times, was able to quote whole sections verbatim, and told a teacher-mentor that they were what had kept her alive during a very difficult period. He has also met a young man in juvenile detention, who wept as he told Monk how much his books meant to him.
“When you write you never realise how much impact your writing is ever going to have, but God is using your stories to help people in ways you never could have expected,” he says. “It may not convert people, but your books can inspire people and change people and give them hope.”
While the kids Paterson is writing for are younger, the issues they face are just as real and complex.
“I always want young people to be filling their minds with good and helpful things – not necessarily nice-as-pie things, but good, real things,” she says. “Life can be dark and unpleasant... so, to touch on that and show that there can be hope is something I want to convey, because some young people don’t have many others who can show them wisdom. I want those things to be there for them.”
In one of her books, Invincible, the main character – who is 13 – has a boyfriend who, over time, wants to push the relationship further than she wants it to go. Paterson was disheartened to see a one-star review on Amazon by someone who declared this made the book unsuitable for its declared age bracket.
“I wrote it because something happened to a 12-year-old I knew, and she had to learn to say ‘No’ – girls need to know how to say ‘No’ to the pushy boys in their lives,” she says.
“Of course, every parent’s entitled to say what’s suitable for their children... some people think it’s too ‘old’, but you can’t just hope that every kid or every parent is going to be okay with your book! You can’t please everyone.”
Safety and “appropriate” content
Young works as a lecturer and pastoral worker with Year 13 students, and her experience is that young people “want to turn to something that is safe... but it’s hard to know what is safe”.
She used to help young people see “how awesome Jesus is” through non-fiction. Now, she hopes to do the same thing through a different medium.
“I always knew my trilogy was going to be a Christian story,” she says. “It’s based on an alternative universe, but the themes are too overtly Christian for it to be a secular work, so I intentionally wanted it to end up with a Christian publisher.
“I know there are some communities, for example, where [a character] swearing is a big deal, so it is important to have an opportunity for that community to be catered for. I guess it depends on what your goal is when you’re writing.”
She says for a “clean read with none of the swears, sex etc” she would likely send a reader to one of the American Christian publishers. Having said that, she regards Zorn’s books – which do contain swearing – as “really great for teens” because of the serious themes they explore.
Zorn considers her faith to be in everything she writes – in the chaos and calm, the beauty and ugliness – saying she doesn’t regard “swearing or the other sinful things that people do as unsuitable for books [written by a Christian]. It’s like saying paintings about war are not suitable, because war is a bad thing. There are classic paintings of war that are very graphic, so should they not exist because war is bad? I realise it is actually incredibly important because it shows an experience that we need to know about.
“I have these stories in my head and I have to get them out,” she adds. “It’s not, ‘I have this certain belief and I should write a story that expresses it. It doesn’t work that way at all. It’s more organic. And while I think a lot of my – I hate using the word ‘ministry’ – is through my writing, it’s never felt like I’m performing some sort of ministry. It’s just something that I have to do.”
Monk’s observation is that the sinfulness of the world, and how that appears in one’s work for authenticity’s sake, is “one of the biggest moral wrestles Christian writers have”.
“Profanity, sex scenes and blasphemy will keep you up at night and really have you questioning whether you can be a mainstream writer,” he says. “My personal policy is, I have to answer to Jesus for what I create and present to the world. I’m known for writing gritty young adult fiction, yet there is no swearing in any of my books. I’ve been asked to put sex scenes into my novels... by my publisher and I flatly told them no.”
I have to answer to Jesus for what I create and present to the world.
It’s the same for Christian readers or parents. Some will be happy to read or recommend fiction with swearing; others won’t. Some will have issues with fantasy or sci-fi content, or the depiction of bullying or drinking or criminal behaviour; others won’t. As Paterson says, you can’t please everyone.
Given the inclusion of certain elements is a dealbreaker for some, it’s helpful for potential purchasers to undertake a little research before parting with their hard-earned. That way everyone knows what they’re paying for and is (hopefully) happy.
Whatever our reading choices, it’s encouraging to know that Christian writers are represented – in an industry full of secular attitudes – creating fiction that can resonate with us, our society and our faith.
“If people like an author, they should support them,” Paterson says. “Buy their books, go and hear them speak, follow them on [social media] platforms. The number of times I’ve thought about giving up, then I get an email saying, ‘I love this book or that book, please don’t stop writing’. And I think, someone doesn’t want me to stop! Maybe I’ll keep going.”
Who they are
So, what style of books do our four writers create?
Kristen Young, who attends St Paul’s, Lithgow, has created an alternative world in Apprentice. It’s the first novel in the planned three-part Collective Underground series and has been nominated in the science fiction category of the US Realm Awards. The second book in the series, Elite, will be published in September.
The characters Claire Zorn (Fairy Meadow Anglican) writes about grapple with a range of difficult issues in a real-world setting, although in two of her books – including her March release, When We Are Invisible – this happens during or after a nuclear winter.
Cecily Paterson, who is married to the rector of Belrose, has written numerous books over the past decade aimed mostly at 11- to 12-year-old-girls – although more recently she teamed up with another Christian writer, Penny Reeve, to create the Pet Sitter series for kids aged five to nine. The fourth book in her Kangaroo Valley series, The Ava Show, will be released in September.
Scott Monk (Church by the Bridge) writes young adult fiction with guys in mind. His first book was published in 1996 and his second, Raw, was on the HSC English reading list for eight years.
Other local Christian writers whose work you may like to investigate include Laura Sieveking, Meg Mason and Penny Morrison.
Know other Christian fiction writers whose work you’d recommend? Send us your thoughts: firstname.lastname@example.org