Sunday, June 24, 2012

Starting your Novel out 'Too Catholic'

On today's episode of EWTN Bookmark, Catholic novelist Marcus Grodi suggested that the reason many Catholic novels don't have many non-Catholic readers is that they start out 'too Catholic'. That is, they throw out too many specifically Catholic things at the beginning, which can be off-putting or mystifying to the non-Catholic Christian reader.

It occurred to me that this idea has a more general writing application. I remember one time my sister-in-law, who was raised in an Assemblies of God church, told me about something they were doing that seemed a bit odd to me--- not like something I'd seen in churches I'd ever attended. I can't remember exactly what it was, so let's use the hypothetical example of speaking in tongues, which seems to be a routine part of the Assemblies of God Sunday worship service.

Imagine if a writer from an Assemblies of God background started off his novel with a typical example of someone speaking in tongues at Sunday worship. Many Christians, both Protestant/Evangelical and Catholic, would be put off by that scene. We don't do that at our Sunday service!

The same would go if an LDS writer started off a novel writing about temple ordinances, or a Catholic started off with Eucharistic adoration. It would put off readers from other faith backgrounds who don't do that sort of thing.

This doesn't mean that one has to write something bland and generic that doesn't touch anything that Christians don't agree on. Marcus Grodi's own novel, Pillar and Bulwark, is about a Congregational minister whose life is turned upside down when he begins to believe that the Catholic Church might have the truth on its side--- a story that is bound to have some Catholic content.

The idea, I think, is to start off with some common ground. If you are seeking a general Christian audience, start off your story with content that Christians in general can identify with, rather than with things that are denominationally specific. Later in the story, when the reader has gotten to know the characters involved, things specific to one denomination or Christian group can be introduced without as much risk of alienating the reader.

Of course, you can't always do that. The Left Behind series by Tim Lehaye and Jerry B. Jenkins has a plot specifically centered around a controversial doctrine--- the pre-tribulation Rapture--- that not all Christians share. Not even all Evangelical Christians share it. And since the story-action doesn't start until the Rapture hits, this non-universal doctrine has to be introduced very early in the novel. And it didn't work out all that badly for Lehaye and Jenkins. They won over a lot of readers who did not believe in the pre-tribulation Rapture. I became a loyal fan myself, even though I was a Norse Pagan at the time.

Another thing I might suggest, along the line of handling specific denominational doctrines in Christian fiction, is that the writer needs to trust in the Holy Spirit. You do not need to bore your reader with  a list of proof-texts or compelling arguments for every doctrine you mention in passing. You don't need to waste time defending against the doctrines you think are false. You can handle these things with a very light touch and let the Holy Spirit do the heavy lifting in the reader's heart.

On an even broader level, the Christian writer with an ambition to evangelize non-believers would start out with things that are common to us all, whether we are religious or non-religious, Christian or pagan. And then, gently, as the story progresses, gently introduce a bit of Christian content.

Of course, there are some writers that do the exact opposite. They throw out the very specific parts of their denomination, religion, or world-view from page one. While this alienates many readers, it may be a way to gain an intense following among readers who share your views. If you, as a writer, realize that you are sacrificing readers by taking an intense Catholic/Baptist/Lutheran/Marxist-atheist approach from day one, and you are OK with that, go ahead and write for the audience you want to write for.

Question: when you read an author whose faith differs from your own, have you ever been put off by too much 'difference' too soon in the story? 

1 comment:

Laura the Librarian said...

I'm a Catholic who works in a Jewish library, so I read a number of Jewish novels. These writers are usually writing under the assumption that all of their readers will be Jewish, so they tend to use a lot of terms I'm not familiar with. I don't find it off-putting though. If I can't figure it out from context clues I'll look it up online. Also, the more Jewish novels I read, the fewer things I need to look up.

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