When you write for a target audience, in my case teen/young adult, it’s good to know what that audience likes. And doesn’t. It’s one thing to read the popular books, but something else again to find out what makes those books popular. You find that out by talking with your audience. I have the advantage of teaching at the community college level, which means I have a wide range of students, but most predominantly those on the upper end of my target audience’s age range. I have learned a lot of from them.
But I also want to understand the lower end. Toward that end, I recently had a very illuminating conversation with the young daughter of a friend, who talked at length about what sorts of things she likes, what works and what doesn’t and what I need to do to be effective in catching her interest. Her father also participated in the discussion and between them told me a lot that might otherwise not have occurred to me. It was very beneficial.
But the most interesting part came at the end. Her grandfather was nearby, overhearing the discussion as well, and, as it was winding down, asked a question that wasn’t really a question so much as an assumption:
“So this is a Christian novel.”
I didn’t know how to respond. Let me say at this point that I am not religious, and do not consider myself a believer. But nor am I a disbeliever. Some would say that makes me an agnostic, but I don’t much care for labels. Let’s just say that I am able to respect spirituality, and believe that the universe is interesting enough that no one way of understanding it can be sufficient. On the other hand, blind faith worries me, and I tend to have a rather low opinion of organized religion.
So I didn’t know what to say to the grandfather, who is, it’s safe to assume, a very devout Christian. I mean, what exactly is a Christian book? To me that would be the Bible, particularly the New Testament. Obviously that’s not what he meant. Is it a book that emphasizes Christian themes, as in the works of C. S. Lewis? Perhaps it’s simply a matter of having the protagonist be nominally a Christian. No, I bet that’s not enough.
There exists a significant amount of Christian fiction, including, of course, in the YA genre, and from what I’ve seen, it largely plays out in one of two ways: either the protagonist is a Christian, and relies on her faith to carry her through adversity, or else she is initially not a Christian – or barely one – who, though experiences, comes to find a deeper relationship with God. Either way, the book is about being a Christian, and the faith dominates every element of the story.
If that’s what he meant, no, I’m not writing that. It’s much too limiting. There are plenty of people out there who will only read Christian books, and, similarly, only listen to Christian music. In other words, everything they do must be about praising Jesus, and also spreading the word to others. Okay, if that’s what you like, go for it, but how narrow. A story can be good without having the character go to church. More to the point, the fact that the character doesn’t go to church doesn’t make the story bad.
The result of this mindset is a disproportionate amount of hack literature. The idea is that there is an audience that will read it simply because it has the Christian label. The same is true of Christian music, which is often derided by the mainstream music industry, and not without justification, because a lot of it seems to be weak pop or rock or country that is all about Jesus. Not to say all of it is bad; there are some excellent Christian musicians out there. It’s the difference between music that has Christian themes and Christian themes set to music.
My book happens to not involve religion, but that’s simply because it’s not necessary to the story. But the grandfather’s question actually has a greater significance when you consider the other part of my genre: science fiction, which actually tends to lean to the other extreme. Not only are the characters not religious, but, in many cases, religion doesn’t even exist. At least, not religions like Christianity.
There might be “alien” religions, which are either revealed to be primitive superstitions being used to control the masses (a thinly veiled critique of the history of real religious institutions), or else they are noble, mystical belief systems with a tangible basis in reality. On other words, alien gods are real.
On the other hand, the humans in the story are not religious, and sometimes the narrative makes clear that we have outgrown such nonsense. There are of course exceptions, and characters with recognizable beliefs exist, but the veracity of their beliefs is never examined. Or, alternately, some non-supernatural foundation for such beliefs is established, and so it turns out the angels were actually advanced aliens. But almost never do you see Christianity presented the way the actual Christian experiences it. And the few exceptions are mostly found in that category of Christian fiction.
The reason for this antipathy toward religion in science fiction isn’t surprising. After all, most sci-fi writers are in it because of the science part, and thus they are scientifically inclined, empirical, skeptical and generally believe there must be a logical explanation for all things. Naturally this will inform their writing.
But it seems to me this is as unrealistic as the expectation that a good novel has to have Jesus. The idea that we will reach a point where we all of a sudden wise up and say, “Why were we all believing that crap?” just beggars plausibility. There is something in our basic being that looks to something greater than ourselves. We are driven to be religious, or at least spiritual. Many would say this is bad and point to all the terrible things that have been done in the name of religion. But a lot of good things have been done in religion’s name as well. Religion is neither good nor bad in itself. It’s simply an inescable part of the human experience.