Is your fantasy too secular for a CBA publisher? Or maybe your passion is to write fantasy that will reach mainstream audiences who will never set foot in a Christian bookstore. Christians in general have a bad habit of mistaking discernment with an outright ban on all things secular. Of course, not everything secular is sinful. This includes fantasy.
As I mentioned in last week’s post, Is Writing Christian Fantasy an Oxymoron, Christian authors originally had no choice but to publish their fantasy work with the ABA because there was no market in the CBA for the fantasy genre. There is still a very narrow market within the CBA for the fantasy genre with the focus being more on speculative allegory than any of the other fantasy subgenres. Moreover, there is often an expectation for fantasy written by Christian authors to possess overt Christian symbolism in the same vein as Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia.” So, what about the Christian author who writes secular fantasy?
Secular fantasy does not always translate into a book devoid of Christian symbolism or Christian influence. For example, Lewis, Tolkien, George MacDonald (author of various fantasy books including “At the Back of the North Wind,” “The Princess and the Goblin,” and “Lilith”), and Madeline L’Engle (author of “A Wrinkle in Time” and other works) all wrote books where their faith had an obvious effect on their work or their books were written as allegories. A more up-to-date example of a Christian author who writes secular fantasy would be Stephen R. Lawhead. While a number of his books have been distributed through Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson and its imprints, “The Pendragon Cycle” was originally published through HarperCollins’ now defunct science fiction/fantasy imprint Eos and redistributed through HarperCollins’ science fiction/fantasy imprint Harper Voyager. “The Pendragon Cycle” is often categorized as mythic history (aka historical fantasy) as it combines the legend of Atlantis, Celtic mythology and Arthurian legend while weaving Christian truths throughout the books. Druids, the Celtic and Atlantean religions, pagan rituals, etc., are present within the book but characters also come to know the One True God.
Some Christian authors view the secular fantasy genre as a mission field and write with the mindset of exposing fantasy enthusiasts who would never pick up a “Christian” fantasy to the truth of Christianity. I applaud their efforts. However, I also caution those who are considering writing secular fantasy as an evangelism tool to be careful of browbeating the reader with their beliefs or taking an objectionable story and simply sticking some Christian elements into the mix. Now, there will always be critics who will say a Christian author’s fantasy is too Christian for secular readers or too secular for Christian readers, but it is important to keep in mind that a story does not need to be treated as if it is a pamphlet on salvation in order to have an impact. For example, I would consider “The Chronicles of Narnia” as moving beyond evangelism and initial salvation to exploring the different walks experienced by believers. In seven books, I have never felt as though I were reading the same story of “you must be saved” over and over.
When writing secular fantasy, I urge Christian authors not to let the evangelism overwhelm the story or force the evangelism aspect in when it doesn’t flow naturally. It will weaken the story and make the reader feel as though the author is trying to beat them over the head with a thinly disguised Bible. Planting the seeds of Truth does not always require an author to say, “This is Jesus. He died for you. You must believe in Him in order to experience everlasting life.” Sometimes, the Christian author is only meant to prepare the soil for the seed and allow the planting and watering to be accomplished by others. A character who struggles and grows through various challenges (including attacks on his or her faith) is one who will resonate with readers. A character who is angry with their God due to a particular tragedy or hardship in their life is relatable. You don’t have to be preachy in your fantasy to carry out work in the mission field of the secular market. All you have to do is allow your faith to suffuse and live through your writing (I’ll explore this topic more in a later post) in order to have an impact, much like Tolkien’s faith peppered “The Lord of the Rings” with various Christian elements including the Christ motif.
I would also advise Christian authors to keep in mind that secular publishing houses have a bit of a double standard when it comes to religion being featured in stories. I have read many secular fantasies where the characters prayed, worshipped, and continually mentioned the will of their deity with as much or greater frequency as one would find in a Christian novel; however, that deity tends to be a polytheistic one or a mother goddess. So, in order to publish a secular fantasy, Christian authors should be aware that they will probably be informed that they cannot have a mirror representation of the Christian Trinity. In fact, they might not be able to include a representation of God the Father and Jesus Christ but they’ll be able to have a single deity who can encompass both. I personally believe it is all right to write fiction that does not perfectly mirror doctrine, although I do not believe Christian authors should go the route of polytheism and mother goddess cults as the means of communicating Christian truths. Of course, the exception to this particular struggle would be historic and urban fantasies since those stories are often set in an alternate universe where Christianity is present with characters’ personal beliefs running the gamut from prominent to subtle, depending on the plot.
Perhaps you are an aspiring writer, someone who wants to write fantasy but is worried about a secular publisher forcing you into including un-Christian elements such as explicit language or sex scenes. In addition to having a lawyer who specializes in publishing contracts searching for any hidden caveats regarding content, a Christian author has the option of negotiating for a clean read. Clean reads are not inspirational fiction, but neither do they have explicit language, sex scenes, or other gratuitous elements featured in their stories. By being upfront about what you will not and have no intention of ever putting in your books, one can avoid nasty surprises or confrontations during the negotiation and even editing stages. Bottom line is that there are options for Christian authors who want to write secular fantasy without compromising on their personal beliefs.