I met Julia in the Dallas airport. I was seated in a crowded Chili’s, trying to time the number of bites it would take me to finish my burger with the minutes remaining before the boarding call.
She was one of those skilled waitresses who managed to be personable while harried. She asked me what I do as she refilled my Diet Coke, and I stumbled through a description of this obscure ministry, then topped it off with a less nebulous, “And I write novels too.”
“You’re a writer? What do you write?”
Cue crickets. This was supposed be the crystal-clear part of my answer.
Here’s the problem: My novels are classified as Christian fiction, but I’m not really comfortable with the title. If I hear the word “Christian” associated with movies, literature or visual arts, my knee-jerk expectation is poor quality and lack of subtlety. There are exceptions, but they seem to be rare.
“I write about broken people looking for hope,” I said to Julia in the few seconds allotted to her pre-dessert flyby, opting for a less spiritual description of the writing I do.
She’d been turning away, but stopped when my words registered. “Well, that’s certainly something we could use more of.” And with a smile, she scurried off.
Would she have said the same thing if I’d answered, “I write Christian novels”? Probably not. Because the world expects the same thing from Christian art as it expects from Christians themselves: triteness, lack of subtlety, shaming, clichés, ultimatums, preaching…
Case in point: A few months ago, I ordered “God’s Not Dead” from my On-Demand provider and tried to wedge some openness into my cynical mindset. I lasted less than an hour before reaching for the remote and turning the movie off.
The goals of the writers and producers of “God’s Not Dead” were likely laudable, but their execution was flawed because they emphasized messaging over art.
They tried to be persuasive by bludgeoning atheists into faith with solid arguments and irrefutable evidence.
And that’s why they failed. There’s a difference between Christian art and art created by Christians. The former aims to persuade. The latter, in its highest form, can’t help but be compelling.
One of the first lessons I learned in Creative Writing classes nearly three decades ago was “Show—don’t tell.” Let your readers witness the despair, taste the hope and believe in the evidence of redemption. Don’t over-explain or force-feed.
Because of the zeal we bring to our “Christian” materials, because of the eternal outcome we try to guarantee, we too often fall prey to telling without showing.
Isn’t the same true in our real-world lives? We rely so heavily on stating and persuading in our efforts to be witnesses… Wouldn’t telling our story and demonstrating the hope we lean on be a more effective way for us to reach our neighbors, our colleagues and friends?
“Show—don’t tell.” I don’t need to say God’s name or call for repentance in every conversation I have.
If I strive to live out the story of my existence, its dizzying highs and brutal lows, with my focus on Christ and a firm grip on his promises. If I can encourage openness to faith by exhibiting some of his heart.
If I can visibly display the hope and healing of his love.
If I can use my narrative to inspire curiosity—to invite relationship—God can use that softening to reveal himself and beckon toward faith.
But we keep blustering “God’s Not Dead!” in fiction and real life, hammering unwilling audiences with our best persuasive shtick. We keep slamming down the gavel of our rightness in the courtroom of our own imagination, instead of inviting others, perplexed by our difference and curious about its source, into a spiritual world where fear, hate and violence never ultimately win.
If we’d just let our living be the proof that God’s Not Dead, wouldn’t that make our existence—and our art—so much more compelling?
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