To Preach or Not To Preach (in Fiction)?


Jesus is considered by scholars such as Weber ...

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This Saturday, March 24, I’ll be teaching a workshop at the Lancaster Christian Writers’ Super Saturday one-day conference. I’ll be talking about themes in fiction and writing more than a story.

And whenever you talk about themes in novels you eventually wind up talk about sermons in fiction. Preachiness. Jamming the gospel down the throats of unsuspecting readers.

Then the debate starts. Should fiction be used to preach a sermon or not? It’s a debate that has gone around and around for too long and I don’t know if there’s really any clear answer.

I only know how I feel about it.

Recently, I did an interview with Greg Mitchell, a fellow author and great all-around guy. He asked me about this whole sermon thing and how I respond to critics who say I’m only trying to disguise a sermon with fiction. My reply is below:

I am trying to disguise a sermon with my fiction. I say that unapologetically. And what’s wrong with that? Every story has an agenda, really, something the author is trying to say. Jesus’ parables were all sermons disguised as stories. Somewhere along the line sermons got a bad rap and were banished to Sunday mornings only. I disagree. I believe our lives should be sermons. Everything we do should have an agenda, a higher meaning, purpose, a message behind it. So why should it be different with my fiction?

The challenge is to weave the theme seamlessly into the story so the message isn’t jarring. And with every book I’ve written I get email after email from readers saying I succeed at that. They say there is obviously a strong faith message there but it doesn’t feel like I’m preaching at the reader because I tell the story through the eyes of the characters, not me as narrator pushing my agenda.

I know some will disagree with my assessment and that’s okay. Some will wonder how I can weave a message of faith and hope in a scary suspense story . . . they’ll just have to read my books and find out. Others will agree wholeheartedly.

I’ve said this before and I’ll no doubt find myself saying it again umpteen times. I take writing very seriously, not just for the art of it or the expression, but for the eternal impact it can have on a person, and I need to make my writing count for something. For me, it has to be about getting a message across, a sermon, if you will. Something that will inspire or encourage or convict. That’s me. It may be different for others and that’s fine. But I need to follow my heart.

What do you think? Should fiction be used to pass on a message? Is it okay for an author to have an agenda? Is there a place where fiction and sermons can intersect?

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About mikedellosso

Mike Dellosso is an author of wide-eyed suspense. He writes stories that not only entertain but enlighten.

Posted on March 22, 2012, in Writing craft, Writing Life and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 25 Comments.

  1. I agree completely with how you feel.
    If you have something on your heart you need to tell others.
    Being Christians our every thought should be of the Lord and our wanting to tell others.
    People can read reviews to tell if it is a book they don’t want to read.
    If they don’t like Christian books than they can take the time to find out what book they are reading.

    • Thanks, Trinity. I can never separate my calling as a writer with my calling to be a follower of Christ. The two should be so intertwined ther’s no telling them apart.

  2. Absolutely it should be there. Reading the Left Behind series brought my husband to the Lord. I know a few other people who happened onto the Christian faith the same way. Some people relate to things better via a story that involves fiction. Easier to digest? Easier to relate to? Non-threatening time of which their thoughts are provoked and yet they come to the realization completely on their own?…okay the Lord is involved too. You writers have been given a gift. The ability to write. You are also using your talents for the Lord. Now if the reader’s intent is to grab the next thriller, perhaps they could pick up another book…not-Christian. However it is a seed that has been planted. The Lord will handle the rest.

  3. Amen! God bless you as you make your writing, and your life, count for God!

  4. Great thoughts Mike and yes there are other Christian writers out there just as adamant that fiction should never answer questions, just ask them. Thing is, I’m still trying to figure out who wrote all these rules about fiction. An author should write with his or her voice and mind however God leads them to – pure and simple.

    You do that with the best of them!

    • Tim, you are so right. I probably sound so redundant whenever discussing this topic (and maybe a little wishy-washy to some) but it’s important that people understand this is how I feel convicted. Not everyone does and that’s okay. As you said, each author has to follow his or her own heart and calling. I can’t tell them what it is. Nobody can. It’s totally between them and God.

  5. If we have nothing to say, then why write at all? Or speak? Telling a story admits we want to say something. Whether or not it’s drivel, preaching, entertainment, it’s all driven by a purpose. Writers have agendas. If they feign it’s “simply” to entertain, they fool themselves. To treasure words, to be devoted to hours of being alone striving to create, to jump through and annihilate all kinds of obstacles to achieve publication, then that writer better have something to say. Yeah, it can be bold or bald, agenda driven, syrupy sweet, or flat out boring, but to the writer it better have something to say or it’s pointless. Why is “preaching” and “sermonizing” just associated with Christian writers? The gospel being “preached” or portrayed in Christian fiction is far less abundant than the hopelessness, green/apocalypitc/climate change, and/or leftwing agendas preached by many secular novelists. Sermons can be valuable in any form, but any sermon must be done well to hit home in the hearts of readers/listeners. It’s about quality not agendas. JMO

    • Oh, I love your thoughts, Nicole. Just like a preacher can lose his “audience” if the message doesn’t touch them on some level, an author can lose his/her reader if the story/theme isn’t captivating. There has to be something there that resonates with the reader. The challenge for any author is to write a story that pushes forward and keeps the reader turning pages and at the same time delivers a message or theme that has the power to linger after the final page is turned.

  6. Mike, this is so encouraging! I get distressed because secular writing instructors and secular writers understand that novelists should have something to say. It’s Christians, apparently, who have bought into this idea that our writing should do nothing other than entertain or raise unanswered questions.

    I’m all for questions. I think real lessons are the ones we learn for ourselves, not ones handed to us, but the questions shouldn’t be without some direction. As John Truby (The Anatomy of Story) says the theme comes through as the reader sees which of the characters’ worldviews is superior to the others (Miller paraphrase. :lol: )

    So happy you’re teaching on this!

    Becky

  7. I believe that all authors have something to say, I think some Christian authors are to intent on their message and forget to write an engaging story. Also some Christian authors do no make real characters instead their “unsaved” are caricatures. I am so glad to see that there are more and more good Christian story tellers out there, by this I mean people like yourself who tell good stories with believable characters and good message woven in. I know I’ve told you this before my biggest pet peeve in the Christian novels is when an author has someone so thoroughly anti-Christian throughout the novel get saved right at the very end. I know its an encouraging and uplifting way to end a novel but in real life people don’t always get saved the first time or even the second time around, sometimes unfortunately not at all and its refreshing when novelist can have a recurring character warm to Christ through a few books. However I know that this is just my opinion.

    Please excuse typos and bad grammar I’ve had an 18 month old crawling on me while writing

  8. Sure, theme is important. I think the problem comes in when that theme begins to outpace the story. When the message the author is trying to get across becomes the whole point of the story, rather than entertainment. If you can entertain me first, I won’t mind a message in there. It’s why shows like Glee are so successful despite their obvious indoctrination-style message.

    Proper execution for any artist trying to spread an idea is to aim for the heart, not the mind. My thoughts, anyway.

    • Thanks for your thoughts, Tony. Interesting approach and probably more true than a lot of us would like to admit. We can overlook a message we disagree with if the story is good. I know I’ve sat through TV shows or movies or even read books that contained obvious themes I didn’t spiritually or intellectually agree with . . . but the story captured me so I endured the message.

  9. Tony, that’s really interesting. In essence your position is, readers can take the message, even one that’s blatant or “preachy,” as long as the story is funny or dramatic or suspenseful, or in some way entertains. In your way of thinking, I assume, the criticism of Christian fiction being preachy is misplaced. That really turns things on it’s head for me. I’m going to have to think about that more.

    Becky

  10. I couldn’t agree more with this post. The way I see it, without a message, the rest of a story is nothing but mundane action. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind mindless comedy from time to time, but if I’m going to invest time into reading – or writing – a book, I want to come away from it with something meaningful.

  11. Story is a vehicle. What’s wrong with responsible Christian drivers getting behind the wheel and carrying the reader through to a place with purpose and meaning that they can carry with them after the last page has been turned. I agree wholeheartedly, Mike. Traditional stories told father to children were used in many cultures as vehicles for life lessons. In our present age, the younger generations are beginning to spurn the wisdom of experience, and reject teaching. [Matt 10:21 & Mark 13:12]
    Story is and always has been a very powerful way to communicate in such a way that the hearer remembers. [Psa 102:18] Why should we let others stifle the message that has been written on our hearts. [Pro 25:11] We are under a charge and commissioned to hold forth the torch in the darkness of this world. To demonstrate that God’s purposes will not be thwarted, though evil may triumph for a season, its end is sure and certain. Even when C.S. Lewis first began writing “The Lion, thw Witch and the Wardrobe”, he did not set out to write a Christian story, but “the Lion” lept onto the pages in the course of his writing of the mental image of a winterland wood, a lamp post and a fawn encumbered with parcels. As Christian writers, we cannot help but let “the Lion” leap into our creative works.
    Fiction allows us to cross over from circumstantial life to philosophical speculation. To live vicariously through characters in interesting situations. It allows authors to take part in the wonder of creating something out of nothing. Yes, evil transcends and permeates our thought life and we are reminded that the Christian life is also being immersed into a warfare of thought and mind. Preaching, whether it’s done from a pulpit or in the trench warfare of life as we know it or imagine it, is what reminds us of truths that are transcendant. Preaching reminds the wanderer to use our compass, and set it by the truths revealed in Scripture, so that even in the journeys we take through thought and speculation, we never lose our way. May we never be ashamed to shine the light in the darkness. Evil men will hate it [Jhn 3:19], but those lost in the darkness and seeking will see it as a lighthouse signalling where the dangerous reefs lie and guiding them back to the harbor port in the storm. —
    “(18) For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God.” – 1Cr 1:18 KJV
    “(18) Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the LORD:” – Psa 102:18 NIV
    “(11) A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.” – Pro 25:11 NIV
    “(19) This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” – Jhn 3:19 NIV

    • VERY well said Brian. I agree, story is a vehicle, a means to an end, not the end itself. And I suppose that is where the primary disagreement arises between the theme and no theme camps. I see a higher purpose for my stories than just entertaining or posing some questions. I want to guide readers to answers . . . to the Answer.

  12. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. Let your light shine in your books. I read “Scream ” and looked the message. I am from around the area written in the book. Continue your message. God loves you.

  13. *loved

  14. Good thoughts in your post, and I appreciate your outspoken Christian message in your books. I haven’t read all of the comments, so I might repeat something someone else says, but here’s what I think: the most important thing in life is God, and serving Him. If a person is a true Christian, that is going to come out in everything he or she does, says, writes, sings, etc. Along with that, the most important thing a Christian can do is influence others to serve God. I think its sad and pathetic for a Christian to write a book and NOT try to “preach”, if even in an assuming way. One day we will all stand before God, and it isn’t just the minister who stands behind the pulpit who will give an account of how he lived his life and what he did to win souls to Christ. I believe we all will. We are all commanded to win souls for Christ, and what better way for a Christian fiction author to do so, than through a story. Jesus evidently thought that was a good idea. He told a lot of stories through parables, and many of them were “preachy”. Some of them were “scary”, but they all had a message to make the person think.

    It may sound judgmental on my part, but I don’t have much time for singers, authors, actors, and other such people who claim to be Christian, yet it never shows in the books they write, the songs they sing, the movies and shows they take part in. We need to lay aside this idea that as Christians we need to bundle up Jesus and set Him aside in a box while we whatever it is in life we enjoy. He is to be part of it all. He will come out in whatever we do, if we truly love and serve Him.

    A personal note: I have a deep struggle that I have dealt with all of my adult and teen years. My “bestting sin.” I have thrown up my hands and quit many times, straying far from God and giving in to the sin. I love Christian fiction and no matter how far I have gone in my sin, I still found myself reading it. I cannot count the times when something I read in a Christian novel convicted me and/or gave me hope, where it wouldn’t have in a sermon.

    Guess I kind of preached my own sermon, but no…… there is nothing wrong with an author preaching in a book. The Christian reading it shouldn’t have an issue with it. If he does, then he must need the preaching. The sinner may take issue with it, but so what….. he needs it.

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