One Star Reviews #2: Papa Don't Preach

As I continue my quest to squeeze as much wisdom as possible out of one-star reviews of generally respected fantasy books, I came across an issue that a commenter on the last post about this topic touched upon: visible religious content in the narrative. More specifically, overt parallels to Christianity seem to have a distinct talent for drawing the ire of the one-star reviewer.

Some of these reviewers have railed against feeling as though books have snuck up on them under the guise of fantasy stories and then somewhere in the middle, pulled a "bait and switch." Some have even suggested that if authors intend to have Christian content in their stories, that they should preface the book with a warning. Something like a allergen label, I guess:

Processed in a facility that may leave trace amounts of stuff that sounds and feels like the Bible.

Or perhaps: 

Caution: Contains characters that bear an undeniable resemblance to Jesus or other biblical figures

Few reviewers have any problem with a religious system in fantasy. In fact, many of them applaud the depth of world-building it takes to give characters an intricate and fully-realized belief system. But if that belief system comes across in a way where the reader begins to feel the author is trying to tell him what he should believe in real life, well, look out. Those one star reviews will come hurtling in like flaming balls of catapult shot. And if that belief system reminds people of Christ, that only compounds the intensity with which people react. If there's anything reliably divisive in this world, its Christianity.

Honestly, I can't entirely blame the one-star reviewers for getting ticked off when a fantasy book suddenly starts to sound like an over-preached sermon. Themes are wonderful. Deeper meaning is what makes a good book great. But when it comes to religious content, the old mantra--know thy audience--becomes imperative.

If I'm writing for Christians, they are going to be much more willing to read an object lesson in my work and see what they can take away from that. We're used to that method of operations, since most of us engage in that exercise at least once a week if not daily. But if I think I'm writing for a crossover audience, they will drop me like cast iron that's been sitting over the fire if I start to let my characters become mouthpieces of specifically biblical teaching. This is entirely my opinion formed from observation, but I believe we all have an inner eye that recognizes our Maker, even if we are choosing to ignore him in our daily living. For those who do not have an active faith they are pursuing and an understanding of God's loving, relational nature, the detection of that God can be unsettling, to say the least.

Now then, that doesn't account for the books that are out there that, to the Body's shame, preach in the negative sense of the word, casting a reproachful, down-the-nose glance at the reader who does not align to the worldview of the story. I don't contest the single-star reward such writing earns.

The conclusion I come to is this: we need to handle all content that parallels a Christian worldview with a deft and winsome hand. It's so easy to fall into "tract mode" when we are in the territory as something as important to us as our belief systems. I sincerely believe it is far better to write a story that helps to raise excellent questions than one that tries to have all the answers.


  1. " I sincerely believe it is far better to write a story that helps to raise excellent questions than one that tries to have all the answers."

    Well. Said.

  2. Now that was more what I was expecting when it came to one-star review. This is a very interesting series! I'll be interested to see what else you pull out of one-star reviews.

  3. Totally agree! I skip over sermons myself, too, if I have the bad luck to find one in a book. There's a very distinct difference between making someone think (my ultimate goal as a writer) and telling someone what to think (ughh!).

  4. I agree with most of what is said here. Overtly religious content will, indeed, draw flame from non-believers, and ergo, one-star reviews. But, how, then, are we supposed to transmit the message we feel in our hearts to our readers? Should we just leave them wondering with unanswered questions, with half a message or a watered-down version of what we really intended to say? And when you think about it, is it about pleasing the reader, or pleasing God? And, of course, is it pleasing to God that we include such content in our books? I suppose there are no easy answers, 'cause if we irate our readers, the message is moot. But if the message is too soft, or hidden, or implicit, will the reader actually get it? A real conundrum.

  5. Omar: I think if your story is illustrating your message, then you won't have to outline your moral. That whole "theme" deal in fiction.

    Like, instead of preaching a sermon on forgiveness, a book like Green Dolphin Street shows what happens when the guy who is loved by both sisters marries the wrong sister, and how the other sister has to work her whole life to forgive both of them.

    The author never comes out and shouts it at you. But you get a clear picture of the moral by what happens in the story.

  6. Yes, Christ is divisive. No one is terribly bothered by a general belief in God, or Buddha or human goodness or evil, because why should they be? Those things aren't offensive or dangerous to the nature of man. Jesus is. Jesus is revolutionary. He's perfection. And he's present. Our nature is to be shamed by our condition and thus aggressive toward him even if no one wants to admit it. When you look at Christ and hold the mirror up... well, even for a believer it is painful. So sneaking him in is sort of like masking bitter medicine in a spoonful of pudding, people can taste it if he's there. And many of them will spit it out.

    And that, of course, has nothing to do with the handling of such content of fiction :)

  7. You are both right, Kessie, imla. If I want to illustrate a moral of forgiveness, I shouldn't preach it to the reader. But, if I want to illustrate God's plan of salvation, per se, how can I go about it without explicit mentioning of "religious" content? For example, the manuscript I'm working on is mostly about the discovery of the existence of God. If there are no mentions of God in it, it kinda beats the point. How would one go about that? Note that I speak as a novice writer who is still learning the ins and out of craft, so what I ask is not to impose my viewpoint, but to actually learn the best approach, the one which will please God the most, while alienating as few readers as possible :)

  8. This is a great conversation you have going, folks, and I appreciate the challenge in choosing what we want to say at the center of our fiction. For an author who feels called to relay the gospel message in his/her work, I suppose the inevitablity of rejection by some readers is just a concept he/she has to be willing to live with. But the reward of giving someone hope who previously had none would be a great reward. :)

  9. Hi, this series you're doing. I've dipped into this kind of research myself, and I agree there are important lessons to be learned from 1-star reviews.

    Your point about the "inevitability of rejection by some readers" is crucial...When I study the 1-star reviews of books I absolutely *loved*, it reminds me that every choice we make as writers will be criticized by someone (Too much detail, not enough detail; too much characterization, not enough characterization; prose too plain, prose too poetic). To guard his/her sanity, I think every writer has to plant a stake in the ground: "Here's what I'm willing to be criticized for." And then proceed to make craft choices accordingly, knowing that some won't agree.

    Congrats on landing "Sword" with WWC. I'm also working with them, and they're a great bunch. "Sword" was one of my favorites in the MLP Select contest, so it's exciting to see it published.

    Merry Christmas!

  10. Hi Alan! Thanks so much for your contribution to the discussion. I agree that we do need to know what battles we want to fight...what hills we are willing to die on, so to speak.

    I'd love to know what project you have going with WWC. Thanks for the good word on my work--I'm glad you enjoyed it, and hope you will enjoy it even more when it's all polished up. :)

  11. It's Primary Source, the supernatural/historical thriller I had entered in Jeff's MLP Select contest. An editor from WWC was watching those proceedings, and she contacted me privately because she loved those first few pages.

    So Jeff was right...even if you don't win, you never know what can happen!

  12. That's great news, Alan. You're right, you just never know, out there in web-land, who might be watching what you say and do. Not in a conspiracy sort of way, but in a good way. :)


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