What Are “Acceptable” Sins for the Protagonists of Christian Novels?

During the past decade I have read hundreds of Christian novels. I wouldn’t generally seek Christian novels out above “secular” novels (I’m more of a classics girl myself), but I read far more of them than anything else in my life because it’s part of my job. Over the years, I’ve read some with really fantastic writing, some with really intriguing plots, some that got me a little choked up, some that made me laugh out loud. There’s a lot of great writing that comes out of Christian publishers. And on top of that, much of it is truly edifying–meaning you come away from the experience not just having been entertained but having been educated and encouraged.

Now, in order to write a good, believable, engaging story a writer needs to have characters with flaws, problems, issues, whatever you want to call them, that he or she struggles with and, as is generally the case in Christian fiction, overcomes. You have to have conflict, and Christian novels have plenty.

From what I can tell, of the three main conflicts (man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself), anymore you normally only run into man vs. man and man vs. himself, often in the same work. Most of the time, for whatever reason, the man vs. nature conflict is left by the wayside or plays a minor role.

For Christian fiction, man vs. man is pretty easy to formulate. Christians believe in good and evil and generally have a fairly black and white view of what is sinful and what is not (and before anyone accuses me of painting with too broad a brush, remember that I count myself among this group). More and more today we have Christian novels that are willing to touch on and examine those gray areas that are difficult to parse out, but when it comes to man vs. man, there is a bad guy who really is a bad guy far more often than a bad guy who is just a victim of his circumstances or misunderstood (the convenient way to reject traditional morality that so popular in storytelling today).

When it comes to man vs. himself (or woman vs. herself) things get trickier. I see a lot of man vs. his sinful past or man vs. his mistrust of women because he’s been burned before. I see a lot of woman vs. her fear of what society will think of her or woman vs. her fear of abandonment or woman vs. her fear of not living her dreams or woman vs. her fear of becoming a spinster. (Are you sensing a pattern here for female protagonists?) What I see less often is man vs. his sinful nature or woman vs. her sinful nature. It’s out there, and some of the bestselling Christian novelists are those who tackle those difficult subjects, but it’s not the norm.

I can’t help but think, though…isn’t that the main conflict of all of our lives? If we all struggle against our flesh, why don’t we see it more plainly and more often in Christian fiction? Why are certain sins so much easier to read about than the sins we are tempted to commit or have committed (or are currently committing)? Why is it so much more common in a Christian novel to read about serial killers and stalkers and grisly crime scenes (which, let’s face it, most of us don’t struggle with on a daily basis) than, say, adultery? Which sins are okay for a Christian author to explore and expose in his or her writing?

Now, I will say that many Christian novels explore sexual sin, but most that I have read (and I certainly haven’t read everything out there) do it from a distance. Either the protagonist struggles with lusting after someone they’re not married to (and so the solution is to get them together by the end of the book so they can explore their desires for one another within the bounds of Christian marriage) or the only sexual sins in the book are those that belong to the antagonist–a pushy suitor who receives his punishment by the last chapter or a rapist who is finally caught or killed. We sometimes read about protagonists who were sexually abused in the past and finally find peace for themselves and forgiveness for the ones who abused them. But that’s not their sin they are struggling with–just their misunderstandings and misinterpretations about their worth and their own culpability.

I’m not saying that these are not things worth exploring in Christian fiction. They are. What I am saying is that we should be willing to examine every kind of sin and show the way to redemption and wholeness. Being human and having hearts that are desperately wicked, we all need to come to terms with the fact that we are all capable of sexual sin, from the more obvious ones like adultery to the subtly sinister ones like emotional affairs or lusting after someone in your heart. Yes, some people will have been forced by circumstance into sinful behavior (like the victims of sex trafficking). But sometimes, people are faced with a choice–and they choose sin.

I have read a novel–a well-written and well-researched novel by an author I respect–where the principle character was the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well. (Unfamiliar with the story? Find it in John 4.) Now, the Bible tells us that this woman had five husbands and the man she was living with was not her husband. And in the fictionalized account I read, I was curious to see how the author would deal with this. I was amazed–flabbergasted, really–when I got to the end of the book and not one of those relationships was the result of the woman choosing to live in sin. She was only and entirely a victim of her circumstances.

Really? Why? Why couldn’t the author allow that woman to make some bad choices?

How many Christian novels have you read in which the protagonist is struggling with sexual sin in her own life? You might find a few that deal with men and pornography, but what about women? What about a female main character who is involved in an affair?

If statistics tell us that those who call themselves Christians live no differently from those who claim no religious affiliation (spend a day combing the Barna Group website if you don’t believe me), then can’t we assume that a majority of Christian marriages are touched by infidelity? (Some statistics show that as high as 60% of marriages will be affected by infidelity.) If we publish fiction that helps readers find release and forgiveness for the shame that comes with being a victim of sexual abuse (which, we can all agree, a victim should not be made to feel), can we not also publish fiction that exposes the slippery slope toward adultery and shows the way to forgiveness and restoration? If we never show that situation, do readers of Christian fiction get the subliminal message that if they mess up they shouldn’t talk about it? Shouldn’t seek forgiveness?

Recently I gave my friends on Facebook, many of whom are voracious readers of Christian fiction this challenge:

Okay, readers of Christian fiction: give me your best example of Christian novels in which the PROTAGONIST is currently struggling with sexual sin beyond temptation (i.e., he/she is having an affair, sex before marriage, etc.). The protagonist does not have to be a Christian, but the novel should be geared toward the Christian reader.

I did get back a good number of responses. Some we had to throw out because they were biblical fiction or retellings of biblical fiction (and thus the characters were so far away in time and space that we can’t as easily appropriate their struggles as our own–they are “other people”). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was a prostitute (also “other people”). Some we had to throw out because it turns out the protagonist was the victim of rape or sexual abuse (see above for why this doesn’t count). Some we had to throw out because the protagonist was not currently struggling through the sin (it was the backstory rather than the action), though she may have been struggling with the consequences of that sin. Some I question because the protagonists are Amish (also sort of “other people”).

In the end, I’m not sure if I have specific titles to share because I haven’t read them and can’t say for certain if they truly fit the bill, but Francine Rivers was mentioned the most. And I do recall some YA fiction from Melody Carlson that fits. (I guess it’s okay to warn teen girls of the consequences of sexual sin, but we just assume most adults have got it all together?) Karen Kingsbury, Patti Hill, Lisa T. Bergren, and Susan May Warren made the list. It seems there might be some others out there.

But when you compare a handful of books from a handful of authors to the entire body of Christian fiction at large and you’re left with relatively little. And so I’m left with some questions.

Is there a market for Christian fiction that allows that even the “good guys” fall into sin and–and this is the most important piece of this–that there is still forgiveness for those people?

Is this an under-served market with room for growth?

Do we relegate all stories that deal frankly with this issue to the general market, which rarely points the way to true redemption and freedom in favor of a false promise of freedom (i.e., do whatever makes you happy and doesn’t hurt others)?

Or are people just not willing to sympathize with a protagonist who fails in this way? Can we not put ourselves in her shoes because we’re “above” that type of sin? (Actually, I think this gets really close to the issue.)

I’d love for others to weigh in on this. If you read Christian fiction, do you know of stories that fit the bill here? Would you be turned off by such a story? Why? If you write Christian fiction, what is your experience with exploring this subject in your writing? Is what I’m saying on target or have I missed the boat? If you work for a Christian publisher or are a buyer for a bookstore, what are your thoughts on this?

I’m not making a pronouncement here. I’m attempting to start a conversation…