Under the Radar: Christian Fiction

If you want to ridicule or denigrate a subculture, you read the worst diatribes and pulp fiction that subculture has to offer, use excerpts to support your prejudices, and go merrily on your way. If you want to understand a subculture or group, you could read the best fiction or apologetics that group has to offer and see if there’s a connection, something to value. So because I read and learn from fiction, I try to read fiction by all sorts of authors in lots of genres: young adult fiction, science fiction, Islamic authors, African authors, graphic novels, postmodern novels and many others. Sometimes I get it, and sometimes I don’t. At least I can say I tried.

I say all that to preface my contention that “Christian fiction” has gotten a bad rap, partially deserved. Some so-called “Christian fiction” (just like some YA fiction and some post-modern fiction) is nothing more than a bad sermon disguised as an even worse story. However, some of the fiction published by Christian publishing houses is not only exemplary and literary, but also just good reading. If you are a Christian and you want to be challenged to think more deeply about the world and about God’s hand in this world, or if you are not a Christian and you want to read something that challenges you to see Christians and the world in general in a new light, from the inside out so to speak, I have two authors to recommend who are “under the radar” because their books tend to be marketed only in Christian bookstores or in the religious section of Borders or Barnes and Noble.

Jamie Langston Turner: Ms. Turner lives in South Carolina. She graduated from Bob Jones University, and even worse, she teaches there. (I’ll admit to a little prejudice myself against BJU.) However, put all that aside, and take a look at her novels. Her first novel, Suncatchers, was published in 1995, followed by Some Wildflower in My Heart, By the Light of a Thousand Stars, A Garden to Keep, No Dark Valley, and Winter Birds. Winter Birds, published in 2006, received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly and a Christy Award for excellence in Christian fiction. It was the first book by Ms. Turner that I read, and I found it fascinating and insightful.
Here’s my review. I then started looking for Ms. Turner’s other novels: not in my library system. That would be the entire Houston library system. I just checked, and despite the fact that Ms. Turner’s latest and greatest won a Christy Award, there are only three copies of Winter Birds available from any branch in the Houston Library System. (I’m a former librarian; I know the library can’t buy all the books. Don’t tell me.)

Anyway, I found one of Ms. Turner’s other novels, A Garden to Keep at a used book sale. I read it and liked this story of the dissolution and redemption of a marriage just as much as I liked Winter Birds. Not only does Ms. Turner have stories, she also creates real characters: an 80 year old woman who bribes her relatives with promises so that they’ll put up with her bitterness and sarcasm, a substitute teacher who loves poetry so much she takes night classes, a teenager whose parents homeschool her to keep her away from a toxic boyfriend, a nephew who talks too much, is somewhat pretentious, and still turns out to be a decent guy. My descriptions of these characters are, however, over-simplifications. The characters in Ms. Turner’s books grow and surprise you and stick in your mind. If I’ve managed to pique your interest, you can read my review of A Garden To Keep here. Then find the books. You may have to search a bit.

Athol Dickson also won a Christy Award in 2006 for his novel, River Rising. That same book was also selected as one of the Booklist Top Ten Christian Novels of 2006 and a finalist for Christianity Today’s Best Novel of 2006. (This time I find six copies in the Houston Library System–yay!) Here’s my Semicolon review of River Rising. Briefly, it’s the story of Louisiana Mississippi delta town with a big secret and of the preacher who blows the secret wide open. Rev. Hale Poser is a little odd for a preacher, and the town of Pilotsville doesn’t know quite what to make of this black pastor who doesn’t know “his place” and doesn’t conform to the established mores of this 1927 Southern enclave. The book is disturbing and provocative, two qualities you may or may not expect from Christian fiction.

Dickson’s most recently published novel, The Cure has a completely different setting and characters, but continues in the same disquieting and thought-provoking vein. In this novel, the premise is a question: what if there were a cure for alcholism, a pill that would take away the craving for alcohol completely? There’s a catch, though, of course. If, after being cured, the patient touches even a drop of alcohol again, the cravings come back even stronger and more destructive. You’ll have to read the book to see what Dickson does with this set-up as he mixes in a couple of homeless characters, a huge pharmaceutical company, and some missionaries in South America. Here’s my review.

So as Levar Burton said many times on Reading Rainbow, here are some great books, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Read them for yourself. Gain some insight and understanding. Enjoy.

15 thoughts on “Under the Radar: Christian Fiction

  1. Thanks for the reviews. My library system has several copies from each author. They’ve been added to my TBR list.

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  3. Our library actually does have nearly all of Langston Turner’s books. I read them through a few years ago, and we discussed a couple at our book club. I think she is amazing! In fact, I actually ventured in to reading Christian fiction again because she gave me renewed hope in the genre.

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  5. I love Christian fiction — it’s my most often read genre. There are some bad ones — but that’s true in any genre. I have a post percolating on the back burner that I want to write some time on reasons to read Christian fiction.

    I have read all of Jamie Langston Turner’s books, the first one primarily because I am a BJ grad (I’m sad that you’re prejudiced against it. Don’t know why but I would just say don’t believe everything you’ve read or heard about it. :) ) I’d have to admit she’s not my favorite author, but I do like where her characters end up and what they learn along the way. Winter Birds is probably my favorite, vying with Some Wildflower In My Heart.

  6. There is an interesting mix of authors and perspectives represented in the Christy Award finalists in recent years. I read and reviewed four books for my Christy Challenge earlier this summer and interviewed several Christian novelists who were up for Christy awards this year on my blog (click on the Christy Challenge image in my sidebar to find a post with links to the interviews and reviews). I have Winter Birds in my to-read pile right now.

  7. My husband just finished The Cure; it’s now on “the shelf” too!

    Jeanne

  8. All new titles for me; thanks for the suggestions.

    Very, very true about reading the fiction of a group. I worked at a library that had a very big ultra Orthodox Jewish population, so read many of those books (some good, some not so good — as you point out, just like any other genre.) And learned a lot.

    Anyway, I’ve put Winter Birds on hold…but cannot put the others because I filled up my hold list.

  9. You might also check out Lisa Samson (full disclosure, she’s a friend of a friend). I’ve been seeing rave reviews of her book, Quaker Summer; it’s not what one might think of as “typical” Christian fiction. I’d agree that the stereotypes about Christian fiction have a lot of truth to them, but I also think that the quality has improved in recent years–Melody Carlson is another good author in this field, particularly for the way she writes about tough issues without oversimplifying them.

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  12. What if you honestly have great christian science fiction ideas but have no writing skills? I have non-fiction authors friends that encourge me to wait until right person comes along but it still pains me almost everyday because I am creative to a defined point.TruthSleuth.net

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  14. Christian fiction rightly has a bad wrap, but I feel bad when the stars (because I know they exist) don’t get to shine through…thanks for highlighting them!

  15. I meant to mention Jamie on my favorite Christian authors list– thanks for reminding me. I haven’t read Athol, but his chapter on “Evil in Fiction” in A Novel Approach was one of my favorites.

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