Faith in Fiction


As most of you know, I am a magazine writer with aspirations to publish a novel. I’m also a person whose life and faith are inseparable. This doesn’t mean I feel a need to walk around quoting chapter and verse all the time, but faith has to be a holistic part of every moment of life, not something that gets compartmentalized and thus rendered irrelevant.

Of course, this means I want to reflect the same attitude in my writing. And therein lies my trouble.

Christian fiction is a big market these days, but I have trouble reading it. Maybe this is just my problem, but when people start talking faith in novels, my muscles tense up. It sounds fake to me. It makes me want to roll my eyes. Now, why is that? I wouldn’t react that way in ordinary life.

Well, actually, sometimes I do. There are catch phrases used by Christians that set my teeth on edge. Ask me if I’ve “been saved,” and my gut reaction is to say something that would make you think the answer is “no.” And on the Catholic side, I have a real problem with the phrase “our Lord.” (“Our lord tells us…”) I don’t know why, it just annoys me.

It comes out in character, too. If Christian and I were at a movie and he said, “You want some popcorn?” I would say, “No, I really don’t need it, I’m trying to keep control of weight during pregnancy.” Now, a lot of people would say, “Oh, go ahead, you’re pregnant, eat whatever you want!” But Christian would say, “Yeah, I don’t really need it either, let’s skip it.” In real life, this is admirable. But imagine reading that exchange in a book. You’d roll your eyes and call him a goody-two-shoes. Right?

So here’s the conundrum: How do I reflect what I believe—which, let’s face it, is radically countercultural—without using religious language?

Recently I tore through A Game of Thrones. I found the treatment of religions very interesting. Characters often referred to prayer, but it didn’t come across as preachy. After a while I realized why: the religion was a) made-up and thus non-threatening; and b) shallow and undeveloped, and didn’t even really affect the characters’ lives from moment to moment. When they had something on their minds, they’d go to their grove of trees and pray, but the undeveloped nature of the faith—meaning, without a lot of theology or real-world overlap—meant that it never crossed into the discomfort zone.

Interesting, but it doesn’t help me as a writer.

The only books I’ve ever found that incorporated Christian faith, and did it in a way that felt natural to me, were:

  1. A Canticle for Leibowitz
  2. Five For Sorrow, Ten For Joy
  3. Quaker Summer

In two of these books, the main characters were religious: a monk and a nun. Those who live in religious communities incorporate faith into daily life to such an extent that religious language feels natural, not something put there for the purpose of edifying and enlightening the reader. In the third, the main character was so conflicted, so deeply in search of authenticity, that when she confronted the lack of authentic, vibrant faith in the institutions she was accustomed to, it resonated.

But how to do it in non-religious fiction, with non-religious-professed characters, in a non-religious book?

I’d love to hear people’s perspectives as reader or writer, but this isn’t the first time I’ve written on these issues, and in the past, nobody’s had much to say. (Go ahead: prove me wrong! Fill up my comment box!) It’s just something that’s been on my mind lately. I wonder if I’ll ever figure this one out?