I have a friend who is working on a novel in which a character who is, for the most part, agnostic, but is marrying a devout Catholic girl. The story takes place in Victorian England, so there are some issues of prejudice, but the real intent of the story is his own personal musings on faith. In the end, the character does not undergo any miraculous conversion, merely the realization that there is more to faith than he’d previously assumed, and that perhaps he needs to give it more attention. Nonetheless, she’s concerned that she’s going to put readers off.
A week ago, a friend tried to get me a book signing at her local Catholic bookstore. The timing is bad (the owner is recovering from the post-First Communion rush), so I suggested a secular bookstore. She said she couldn’t see how she could successfully approach a secular bookstore when my book has a Monstrance—a Catholic symbol—on the cover.
I find it ironic that in a mostly Christian nation, the bookstores—esp. the sci-fi, fantasy and horror sections—are full of pictures of demons, pentagrams, and other occult symbols and books with descriptions of pagan ceremonies and magic, yet Christian writers are certain of a strongly negative reaction against their books that mention faith—either as a characterization, plot sequence or cover art.
I see this as sadly indicative of two things: how hypersensitive we have become to the topic of religion and how many Christian writers have only made the way rougher by writing high-handed, self-righteous works under the guide of fiction. Certainly not all, and perhaps not even most, published Christian writers do this, but enough have done it to give faith-filled fiction a tarnished reputation.
However, much has been said on both of these topics, so today I want to talk about what we as writers can do about it.
First and most obvious is simply to write good speculative fiction. For example, as I explained to my friend, Infinite Space, Infinite God is science fiction first, with Catholicism as its “twist.” When we put out a call for submissions, we judged first the quality of the writing, then the plot as a SF story, and finally the positive use of the Catholic faith. That’s why it’s gotten great reviews, even when most of the reviewers are not Catholic.
Second is to make the faith an integral part of the universe and the characters rather than make the characters, plot and world work for the sake of the Biblical message. In Flashpoint, for example, Frank Creed has a lot of Scripture in his story, but he’s woven it in as part of the cyberpunk universe. If it weren’t for the notations (Matthew 3:16, for example), someone not familiar with the Bible might not even realize that they’re reading the Word of God. Many successful Christian writers I’ve met have told me that they do not force the moral into their books but rather concentrate on the story and let the Holy Spirit weave its way into the writing.
Once we’ve worked our pieces so that they are quality literature with a Godly message rather than Godly literature of dubious quality, we need to promote. Not just to a narrow Christian audience, but to the mainstream. If people want a book to help them pray or learn about their faith, they may go to a Christian bookstore. However, if they want to read something for entertainment, they go to a secular one, whether independent or a big chain. If we want to reach people and sell our stories, we need to go to them. After all, Jesus didn’t just sell his stories in the Temple, nor did he tell the Apostles to preach only to a select few.
We need to go out there, unapologetic and un-apologetic. Promote your books to the secular market as a great read in the genre. Don’t hide the religious nature, but don’t hammer it, either. After all, folks should read our stories because we’re good writers with compelling tales; if they want a “Christian message,” they can go to Church or read the Bible itself.
When I promote Infinite Space, Infinite God to secular stores, I tell them the anthology has all the things that define sci-fi: interstellar and time travel, fantastic futuristic devices based on current and speculative science, utopias and dystopias garnered from projecting the trends of today. There’s even a good-old-fashioned alien abduction. Yet all are done with a twist—a Catholic world view. If I get raised eyebrows or just simple interest, I’ll go on to explain that just the Church has played an active and positive roll in science and technology for thousands of years; in ISIG, we see that roll continuing as the Church and Catholic characters use their faith and ideals as well as technology to handle the conflicts they face. Thus, this is not evangelization but the study of how technology and faith interact—and what is sci fi if not a chance to explore these kinds of questions?
Finally, once we’re out there, we need to build our audience—and we do that by being kind and encouraging, fun and informative to talk with—and by producing more great stories.
Only when we take our place as a rightful member of the mainstream--not defensively feeling like we need a special store or even a special spot in the store, but with confidence that we, too, have something readers will enjoy—will we be able to gain acceptance for our own unique take on a well-established genre.