Patricia E. Clawson
If you glance around most OP church libraries, you will probably see a lot of theology books. Perhaps you will find children’s books as well. What you might not spot is adult Christian fiction.
The reasons are many. Some churches simply don’t have room on their shelves to add fiction for adults. If a church librarian on a tiny budget must choose between Berkhof’s Systematic Theology and Tolkien’s The Hobbit, doctrine trumps fantasy every time. Some librarians feel that adult Christian fiction doesn’t belong in church libraries.
Yet even when a church library has shelves set aside for Christian fiction, it’s often difficult to know if a particular novel will pass muster with the session and readers. Placing adult fiction in a church library usually makes it available to any reader, young and old, so the book needs to be suitable for precocious young readers. Add to that the challenge of ensuring that the book’s theology doesn’t conflict with our Reformed faith, and you’ll see that selecting adult Christian fiction for church libraries is no easy task. Library staff from two OP churches and an OP pastor-novelist share their insights.
About 475 Christian novels line the shelves in the adult Sunday school classroom at Faith OPC in Long Beach, California. The adult fiction collection, all of which was donated, joins 1,100 books in the main library and more than 500 books in a separate children’s library. Church librarian Gale Curtis brought her favorite Christian novels from home to share her love of fiction with others.
Although the library doesn’t have any official guidelines for what is included in the adult fiction collection, Curtis reads every book before adding it to the collection. She tries to include historical as well as contemporary fiction, but avoids works that are too graphic about sexual sins, involve demonic warfare, or are labeled “romance.”
Curtis’s favorite Christian authors include Lori Wick, Karen Kingsbury, Dee Henderson, T. Davis Bunn, Janette Oke, Judith Pella, Francine Rivers, and Michael Phillips (early titles).
“I love reading Christian fiction myself and wanted to encourage others to do the same,” said Curtis. “Besides being so enjoyable, reading these books is a tremendous help to me spiritually. I tend to dwell on what I have read and the lessons that the characters learn from God.”
After Diane Fisher became the library committee chair at Bethel Presbyterian Church in Wheaton, Illinois, in 2007, she bought new editions of the classics that were on the shelves and added new novels she cherished. When Kathy De Jong joined the library committee two years ago, she brought a personal reading log that included a summary and a ranking of many potential books for the library.
Bethel’s library now offers about 125 adult novels, chosen by Fisher and De Jong with input from the church’s pastors, Christian Education committee, and the congregation—and after considering reviews in New Horizons, World, Christianity Today, and Church Libraries (an Evangelical Church Library Association journal). Each book is read before making it to the shelves, and some are rejected.
“We look for explicitly Christian works that speak strongly about God’s redemptive purposes,” said Fisher, now Bethel’s librarian. “We ask for a lot: rounded, believable characters who grow, high-quality writing, true-to-life situations, and a lack of preachiness.”
Although Fisher and De Jong look for fiction that is compatible with Reformed theology, they include books that embody Christian truths from other perspectives, such as Athol Dickson’s River Rising and George MacDonald’s LilithPhantastes.
Some novels are rejected because of poor writing or not relating a nuanced spiritual journey for at least one character. Others are “too gritty, too violent, or have too many social issues, such as child abuse, abortion, divorce, or white slavery, loaded into one plot,” said Fisher. “We continue to look for a spectrum of fantasy, historical, contemporary, and classic fiction for our readers to enjoy.”
“It is really exciting when we do find an author and/or title that seems to be a good fit for our audience,” said De Jong. “It is gratifying to have discussions with our readers that help all of us in our faith journey.”
Why fiction? “Fiction opens up entire worlds of creative possibilities,” said De Jong. “Everyone enjoys a good story. More than that, a good story, well-crafted, can become a means to ponder truths about God and the people and things he has created.”
For church libraries, Fisher suggests all the works of C. S. Lewis and Lynn Austin, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Marilynne Robinson’s GileadHome, Bo Caldwell’s City of Tranquil Light, Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Nine Tailors, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown: The Essential Tales.
Organizing pastor Jeremiah Montgomery’s second fantasy novel, The Scarlet Bishop, was published recently by P&R. He recommends that a discerning church member first read novels before including them in the church library. “Material found in a church library carries the implicit approval (to some degree) of the session,” said Montgomery, of Resurrection OPC in State College, Pennsylvania. “It may not be necessary to read every line of reference material, but it is easy to read a work of Christian fiction.”
Montgomery says that librarians should look for books that are well written, as God does all things well. Characters and imaginary worlds should be consistent because God is a God of order. There should be clear standards of good and evil and a clear purpose. He adds, “People coming to faith should struggle with the bad news about themselves and the good news about Christ.”
He recommends looking for adult fiction from trustworthy publishers, such as Banner of Truth, Christian Focus, P&R, and Reformation Heritage Books.
“History, which is God’s story, is moving in a definite direction toward a definite goal (eschatological consummation),” said Montgomery. “God is saying something with his story. Good Christian fiction should do the same.”