Novel v. Sermon

Last week, I posted this on Facebook:

If you’re a believer of XYZ faith, and you want to preach a sermon, find a pulpit and do so.

If you’re a writer of XYZ faith, tell a story.

Let your faith inform your story if you’d like, and let there be characters who practice that faith, but — please — don’t make folks of other beliefs into caricatures or idiots or villains simply because they believe differently.

And avoid proselytizing. Don’t lure readers with a promise of a good yarn, but then turn the tables on them and present a sermon instead.

They won’t praise you. They’ll distrust you.

There’s not much more to be said, I thought at the time, and that post sums up my thoughts.

Since then, however, this has been kicking around in the back of my mind, like a restless kid shuffling back and forth and playing kickball with rocks because his friends haven’t shown up yet on the playground.

I am a Christian. I am not ashamed of that, nor do I hide it.

Yet, due to other folks’ experience with people sporting the “Christian” label, I am sometimes hesitant to use the word:
1) Will they shut down and refuse to speak with me?
2) Will all their prejudices or poor encounters come rushing to the fore, creating a boundary that doesn’t need to exist?
3) Will they assume that anything and everything I write is a sermon? And do they expect me to start sermonizing right now?
4) What do they think a Christian is? An ignorant backwoods hick who believes in fairy tales? A self-righteous loudmouth? A corrupt individual who uses the gloss of religion to hide his misdeeds? A hypocrite? A prim prude who thinks she’s perfect?
5) Will everything I do or say be measured by their assumptions or misperceptions of what a Christian is, and therefore they will obstruct or impede my endeavors because they’re already predisposed to dislike or misjudge me?

But despite my hesitation — and all those questions zooming through my mind — I declared myself a Christian to a couple fellow writers who are of different mind, and their stories reflect those beliefs and questions, just as my stories reflect mine.

The conversation came about because one writer said she was considering modeling a shady and powerful organization after Christianity and/or the Catholic Church (I forget which precisely — the conversation occurred a few weeks ago). I asked her why, but she really wasn’t sure yet on some of her world-building. Knowing she is an atheist who has had poor experience with some bewilderingly clueless Christians, I cautioned her against turning a religion into a villain simply to jab at its adherents. After all, it’s not original, and it makes her story snarky, ugly-minded, and not the interesting, darkly funny, unusual urban fantasy that we’ve been reading in our writers meetings.

But, let’s be honest, we Christians do ourselves no favors when we puff ourselves up and expect everyone else to operate according to our (flawed) parameters. We do not reflect well on Christ when we flaunt our Bibles but misbehave in public. Or when we writers try to hook readers with the promise of an international spy thriller but we pull the ol’ switcheroo, story suddenly becomes sermon, and everyone is “saved” by the end of the book. Or when only the Christian characters are wise and good and noble. Or when the Christian characters can do no wrong and always make the right decisions.

Wow, are Christian characters often the least interesting ones. And, wow, are the other characters often cut-out caricatures — insulting, shallow versions of reality so we can play the puppet-master and make everything come out just the way we’d like it.

Oh, and God thinks like we do.

It’s the same thing that nonbelieving writers sometimes do: Make God in their own image — or their version of what they think He’s like — and then turn believers into bigoted, wishy-washy, whiny, or arrogant cartoons. *

Such storytelling serves no one but the readers who already agree with XYZ stance. If those readers are your intended audience, then your field is narrow, because it excludes the broader audience of eclectic readers who are willing to entertain good writing and excellent storytelling from various points of view.

I am such a one, and have read books written from worldviews far different from my own, simply because they were well-written stories that spoke to humanity and opened the door to perspectives I had not yet considered.

And yet, to be perfectly frank, I’m not interested in reading books that denigrate rather than entertain. Show people of faith in an honest, compassionate way, and even if they’re the bad guys or just average, flawed human beings, I’ll stick around. Show them as cartoons, as buffoons or criminals simply because of that faith and not because they made bad choices or need help or have other issues,  then I’ll bail. I don’t need to feed my mind and spirit on someone else’s bad attitude, ugly-minded agenda, or personal vendetta. **

Whether we realize it or admit it, whether we are theists or atheists, we write what we know — and what we believe. 

As a fellow writer and reader, I just ask that we consider how we present other points of view, and let’s not rely on just our experiences or our own agendas, but look past them to look through other eyes.

Research, ask questions, conduct interviews, ask why.

Listen. Contemplate.

And then, when we sit down to write, be honest, be compassionate, be real.

We just might find our own perspective has changed.

 

*  Sermons and agendas do not belong only to Christians or people of other faiths. There are political and religious themes in television shows, movies, and novels. For a specific example, I could link to various news stories and blog posts about James Cameron’s film, Avatar, which he admitted is propaganda. However, a Wikipedia article, Themes in Avatar, is a good one-stop source.

** Wesboro Baptist Church, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and others of their ilk use their religious beliefs as a cover, as an excuse to misbehave. That’s a conversation for another time.

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