To be Subtle or Not to Be Subtle

Dear Editor,

As a Christian writer, I want to make a positive spiritual impact on my readers. Specifically, I feel God wants me to be a witness to atheists and agnostics through my writing. Christian authors with far more publishing experience than I tell me, if I want to write for a non-Christian audience, I must not allow my Christian characters to make any references to our religious beliefs and only hint that they might have religious reasons for their actions. In short, I’m told, I need to hide my beliefs while trying to subtly influence the reader to believe, too.  This makes me uncomfortable, but I’m told I’ll only offend my audience if I do it any other way.

Sincerely,

Confused

As I understand the Bible, in any context, a faith that is hidden cannot touch anyone in a way that will draw them toward the faith. What can touch people is a plain-spoken, humble faith that is neither fake nor forced but rather lived out naturally. When we do that in any setting, the only non-Christians you’ll offend are folks too hardened for the Holy Spirit to draw them by any means. In my experience, aside from those guys, it’s actually Christians you most have to worry  about offending.

That said, the bible does present one subtle form of Christian story telling known as the parable, which is essentially an allegory where the hidden meaning is religious. However, parables are only for people with ears to hear. Before a parable can touch an unbeliever, they have to be able to figure out what it means. The atheists I’ve heard from feel like Christians who write subtle are trying to trick them. No one likes to be tricked.

Any time we’re wanting to persuade an atheist to become a Christian, if we don’t want to be perceived as rudely crossing the atheists’ boundaries, it’s best to be direct, natural, respectful, and to wait until they indicate interest in hearing our logical, rational case for Christ’s existence with an open mind.

In fact, most humans of all persuasions prefer it to be disclosed plainly up front what philosophical/political/religious perspective a media item is going to be taking so we can make an informed decision whether we’re interested in “being reached,” persuaded to switch to an opposing viewpoint. If we’re not interested, with a few vocal, rude exceptions, the question then becomes whether the story is good enough to merit overlooking that.

If you write an entertaining enough novel, so long as it maintains a level of your philosophical/political/religious beliefs that’s tolerable to readers committed to the opposite view, they will happily read to the end. However, they will go on with their lives with what they’ve read having made zero impact on their beliefs.

Christians well know this when we’re consumers evaluating materials advocating non-Christian beliefs, but we sometimes conveniently forget it when we’re producing materials advocating Christian beliefs. Why? Well, it pokes holes in our “evangelism” excuse for writing to please a market where we’ll get more money but not actually be able to make an impact because their minds are already made up. The only religious reason for us to want that person’s money is the hope that person will leave a positive review that encourages someone who is willing to be persuaded to give our book a try.

If God has called someone to write fiction for evangelism purposes, that fiction’s target audience is open-minded unbelievers. It’s only a bonus if it’s also enjoyed by either Christians or closed-minded unbelievers who don’t mind (can tolerate) the religious content that organically arises due to the POV characters being “seekers of truth” (like the target audience) who find Christ near the end of their book or series and convert for *believable* reasons in a natural, non-canned way. It’d be most effective to open with the POV character considering Christianity* as a possibility but having questions they feel need answered before they’ll commit. It’s also best if they have an external conflict that can be enjoyed by anyone who reads the book’s genre. Why? Well, this audience typically seeks Truth from non-fiction and reads fiction for sheer pleasure. However, everyone appreciates a hero that we can personally relate to who is doing cool stuff.

*In a Fantasy novel, the POV character would be considering the validity of the Fantasy world’s Christianity analogue.

Of course, there is another option: pre-evangelism fiction.

Effective pre-evangelism fiction would feature a non-Christian POV character with a secular problem they solve with the help of a Christian who is just quietly living his or her faith in front of them, or it’d introduce the Christian as the POV character’s adversary. Either way, due to the Christian character showing the POV character love and respect while living in a way that’s consistent with his/her own beliefs, the POV character changes from being indifferent or hostile to Christians to respecting them without actually changing his or her own beliefs.

Here, the Christian sidekick/nemesis would need introduced fairly early so there’s no “gotcha” but Christianity isn’t even on the POV character’s radar as a possibility until the end of the series or the stand-alone book. Note authors’ first instinct is to make the POV character be of the same persuasion as us, as it is easier for us, but it’s harder on our audience if our audience is of another persuasion. It’s our job to give our audience a hero/ine they can relate to, which means it’s our job to research until we can see life through their eyes.

I consider fiction to be more suited for pre-evangelism than evangelism, but if God has called anyone to that, do it.

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