The “magic formula” for a bestseller in the Christian book genre

Genre-bending a so-called “Christian book”

I went to see the movie “Debt” last night, which I highly recommend. Not for the squeamish. I won’t ruin the plot.

The movie reminded me of something I was determined to avoid when writing my own book, a phenomenon that is all too widespread among writers who cater to a Christian audience. (One of the few segments of the book industry which has held steady during the recession).

Generally, it’s the willingness to succumb to conventional pressure to create a happy ending that isn’t there. In the movie the three agents are tracking down a Nazi war criminal. Laudable of course. In the parallel Christian genre, the zealous missionary goes off somewhere and sets up a jungle clinic, maintaining serenity through a disciplined prayer life, finding just the right Bible passage to guide them through each turn of plot. The Movie demands that Mossad the Israeli CIA, always gets their man; the Christian book formula demands a happy ending in which God puts everything right and the problem is solved.

What if there is no happy ending?

In real life it just doesn’t work that way, and the movie explores this issue. My own observations at a medical mission situation was that a lot of difficult situations go down which leave everybody heartbroken and ultimately shellshocked. In the case of both this specific movie and the book genre, it’s a deep challenge to faith when the most fervent prayer goes unanswered, and senseless things happen. That’s why I thought the movie was such an excellent exploration of the issues of mythmaking.

Does God care about his reputation?

What if you go abroad with a deep sense of calling, and you fail? Does that mean that God failed? Does God ever fail? For a fundamentalist, the only answer is no. For some missionary Christians, the lack of a neatly resolved ending in favor of God causes a deep sense of failure and shame (“my prayers weren’t good enough”) or questioning of God (“why can’t God give everyone a happy ending?”). This results in the tendency to gloss over the crappy details of the things that happen.

Telling the truth to the next person

There is a vicious cycle that happens when the story is not reported that way it happened: the next person to go, is given a description that sustains a fantasy about how unrelentingly positive this kind of service to God will always be. We all idealize missionaries. Albert Schweitzer, Mother Teresa…. The details of what a medical missionary actually does, are left kind of hazy. I have news: they don’t sit aournd all day acting spiritual. they work their tails off.

Conventional writing -sticking to the formula

I was acutely aware of this power of myth when I wrote my own book. I could easily have stuck to the conventions of the Christian genre. I could written it with a happy ending. I could have left out all the personal motivation to do the things I did along the way. I could have used the Bible as a shield to insulate  the reader from the difficult reality of life in rural Nepal.

I rejected that idea partly because I was deeply in “reverse culture shock” after my first trip to Nepal. I felt as though I had seen a side of life on Earth that was difficult to reconcile with God’s Christian purpose. Yes, I took refuge in Christianity (I still do) but I felt betrayed by the vagueness of preparation material specific to the job I had just done. It seemed clear to me that if I told the story only as a series of clinical vignettes, I would be missing a larger point. I was determined to tell it as it happened, including the failures and the questioning. The truth was ugly.

If I had decided to conform to the rules of the genre, I am sure I would have sold a lot more copies of my book to the Christian market. But it would have been fiction.

Find a genre and stick to it

This was advice I was given by a few people. I knew at the time of writing that the book was part adventure, part medical, part Christian, part travel book, part drama. It was nonfiction, and not so neatly bundled into one particular category.

In a bookstore,what shelf will it be on?

I still dunno….. it’s time to write another one, i have been saying for awhile now… just can’t begin to do it – that last one took a lot out of me  – I want one that’s more fun but still informs people about the medical care situation in Low Income Countries….

Back to Debt

And so the movie – – –  Debt. The movie shows well intentioned zealots and the choices they make in dealing with unexpected outcomes. (Zealots after all, were a Jewish sect) It deals with this issue of mythmaking, head on. Go see it.



Filed under Christian books, Uncategorized

3 responses to “The “magic formula” for a bestseller in the Christian book genre

  1. M A

    Life is full of unhappy endings. Sometimes we like to have hope and seek refuge in a happy ending. M A

  2. Thank you. Yes, lots of folks read books as a form of escapism. Nothing wrong with that, although I don’t seem to anymore – I can’t recall the last fiction novel I read (short stories in the New Yorker don’t count).

    If I write a second book, I need to think more seriously about the reader. The first one, was written *for myself* just getting the satory down, and it remains difficult to pigeonhole in the sense of marketing. I do think of it as a Christian book, though most “Christians” would cringe (I used the F word and did not always think pure thoughts). Obviously not for the Fundamentalist Christians! But then it’s an adventure story and it’s also a medical book with a bit more seriousness of purpose. It’s not a novel and yet it’s not scholarly.

    Somewhere I read that “when a writer takes the reader on a trip, the writer has a solemn obligation too bring them back in one piece.” Just not sure I was able to accomplish that first time around; maybe next time…..

  3. Mark Schnell

    Even solemn obligations have to be run by the legal department. Bring you back in one piece? You might want to add the warning, “Some assembly required.”

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