When it comes to reader reviews, authors of Christian fiction have it bad. Fantasy writers have it easier. So do writers of thrillers, suspense, whodunits, and historical fiction. It’s not common for someone to give to give a one-star rating to a Stephen King novel and explain the low rating by saying, “Well-written and scary, with very well-developed characters. But I hate the horror genre, and would never knowingly read a horror novel.” Yet this kind of thing happens to Christian fiction all the time. In reading a few hundred reviews of Christian books by Charles Martin, Ted Dekker, Dee Henderson, and others, I found that quite a few people panned books precisely because they were Christian fiction. These reviewers were mostly non-Christian readers who dislike the idea of any book with explicitly Christian characters or themes. Why bother reading and reviewing them? That makes as much sense as a vegan reviewing a steakhouse.
But that’s not even half the problem. Far more numerous than negative reviews by unbelievers are those reviews by believers who can’t agree among themselves about what Christian fiction is even supposed to be. [Why is this not surprising?] There seem to be three main schools of thought.
The Hold My Messages School
Devotees of the first school of thought see Christian fiction as clean and simple. By “clean,” they mean there is no cursing, no sex, and no violence. There is no dark subject matter. These people want books they can show to their preteen daughter or their pastor without misgivings. But they don’t want any preaching with their purity. They are quite clear about not wanting “message fiction” or a story designed to get them to think deeply about anything. As one reviewer put it, “I just want a good, clean mystery or suspense novel. I don’t want to feel like I’m in Sunday school.”
The That’ll Preach School
Followers of the second school demand more than clean content. They want explicit Christian messaging on top of the clean. A woman expressed her disappointment with one of the novelists by opining that all his protagonists have the same traits; they are strong, and noble, and faithful, and have a well-developed sense of right and wrong. But they don’t rely upon God. They are strong and noble in themselves. Their activities and decision-making are not guided by any apparent relationship with God. They have a good building with no foundation. For readers like her, books like that fail the litmus test for Christian fiction, no matter how clean they are.
The Save the World School
Members of the third school of thought are stricter still. Not only must there be Christian messaging, it must be evangelistic. Its purpose must be to move the non-believing reader in the direction of conversion. If it doesn’t attempt to do this, it’s not Christian fiction.
So people come at Christian novels with widely divergent expectations. And there is no way a novel can meet the expectations of all three schools of thought. Many of the one-star and two-star reviews I read stemmed not from poor writing, but from the reviewers’ surprise that the novel was not what they expected of Christian fiction. Whether or not the story was well told seemed of secondary importance to them.
What’s needed is an objective rating system, one that eliminates the unpleasant surprise of unmet expectations. People of every school of thought (and no school) will know at a glance whether or not they might enjoy a given book. I propose a three-part rating.
Part one would be a maturity rating, just like the MPAA film ratings used at the movies. Something rated G is for General Audiences; the material is fine for all ages, and contains nothing that should offend parents of young children. PG means Parental Guidance Suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children. PG-13 means some material may be inappropriate for children under 13. Parents should be cautious. This may be due to mature subject matter, disturbing imagery, or instances of harsh language. There’s probably not much potential for finding R-rated material in Christian fiction, but you get the idea.
Part 2 would be a messaging rating. Is there a theme or a message the author is trying to get across to readers? What is it? I rate messaging E for Evangelistic if the obvious goal of the author is to convert the unbelieving reader. I rate it P for Pastoral if the author’s goal is to bring Christian readers into a clearer or deeper understanding of some aspect of their faith. And I’d rate it NPR for Not Particularly Religious (See what I did there?) if the author’s goal is simply to tell a good tale, with no underlying religious agenda.
Christian Intensity Rating
Part 3 is the cutting edge part. It’s a rating of Christian intensity in the text. I use an index of Christian Heat Units to describe this intensity much as Scovilles are used to measure the relative pungency of hot peppers. You’ve heard of Scoville Heat Units, right? They’re named after Wilbur Scoville, the pharmacist who created the index. A bell pepper rates zero SHUs; original Tabasco Sauce is 2,500-5,000 SHUs; hot wax peppers are 5,000 – 10,000; super chilies are 40,000-50,000; and the vaunted Habanero is 100,000-350,000. Pepper spray (civilian) is about 2 million, while police-grade pepper spray is about 5 million. The scale maxes out at 16 million Scovilles, and yes, you can buy bottles of pure capsaicin that are that hot.
My Christian Heat Index scale runs from 0-100. The exact formula is a trade secret, extremely hush-hush. But I take into account questions like these: Does the book have Christian characters? Are they shown engaging in activities like praying, attending church, or reading the Bible? Do they talk with other characters about God or Christian principles? Is their decision-making influenced by their faith? Is their Christianity integral to the plot or incidental to it? Does God intervene in the lives of any of the characters, or does He stay entirely offstage, being believed in but not doing anything definite? Just how much of a Christian feel does this book have? Please note that this rating does not deal with author intent about messaging: it just tells you how high a concentration of Christian content is in a book. Let’s rate a few examples so you can see how it works.
Title: Jane Eyre
Author: Charlotte Bronte
Maturity: PG; Messaging: NPR; Christian Heat Units: 60
It’s a “clean” book, but it deals with issues that aren’t small child-friendly: abusive relationships, an insane woman that sets fire to her house, etc. So it gets a PG rating. There are no overt religious themes or messaging, so it gets an NPR in that category. However, there is quite a bit of Christianity in the backdrop of the book; people believe in God, discuss scriptural principles, and expect to live their lives according to scriptural precepts. There is no attempt to evangelize or instruct the reader. Religious belief is just a feature of the setting, like birds are a feature of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, or short beings are a feature of The Hobbit.
Title: This Present Darkness
Author: Frank Peretti
Maturity: PG; Messaging: E; Christian Heat Units: 100
This is also a clean book. But with so many demons literally flying around and possessing people, it’s not for small children. I would tend to rate most books aimed at adults at least a PG – just like the movies. There is messaging here, including strong attempts to evangelize one or more of the characters, and through them, the unbelieving reader. One of the main characters is a church pastor who tackles every obstacle with prayer. The necessity of prayer is a major theme of the book. From start to finish, nearly every human action is seen to be an extension of something going on in the battle between angels and demons. There are constantly people praying, people sharing the gospel, casting out demons, and so on. There is no plot separate from the spiritual warfare story. So by definition, this one is 100 on the CHU scale. Atheists would get the hives. So might Christians who feel that a proper Christian book doesn’t deal with “heavy” themes like demon possession.
Title: The Screwtape Letters
Author: C.S. Lewis
Maturity: G; Messaging: E,P; Christian Heat Units: 100
This is that rare G rating for content. It may be too sophisticated for very young readers, but it’s not inappropriate. Its obvious goal is to enlighten believers about how things work in the spirit realm, as well as to convince unbelievers to embrace Jesus. So it gets both an E and a P for messaging. Every chapter is a spiritual precept, albeit told from the point of view of the demon who apparently wrote the letters. It is entirely about the Christian life and the struggle for the souls of people. That’s why this gets a 100 on the CHU scale.
Title: Back on Murder
Author: J. Mark Bertrand
Maturity: PG-13; Messaging: NPR; Christian Heat Units:10
It’s a clean book in that it contains no cursing and no sex scenes. The book follows a homicide detective in a case that involves both murder and sexual assault (neither event actually shown). The circumstances of the crime account for the PG-13 rating. The protagonist is not a Christian. His wife becomes one, which is a source of annoyance for him. She is a relatively minor character in this book. There is no religious messaging or religious agenda on the part of the author. Some scenes are set in the offices of a church, and characters include staff members of this church. But there is relatively little overtly religious content, and faith is not a primary driver of the plot. So we’ll give it a 10 on the CHU index.
See how this works? It’s important to point out that none of the ratings for maturity, messaging, or Christian Heat Units measure how good a book is. You’ll get that from the body of the review, and from the star-rating assigned. The ratings we’ve been discussing are designed only to give a meaningful snapshot of a book’s contents, not its quality.
Armed with this information, the reviewer who objected to a certain Christian novel because it had one scene set in a bar could choose to read only G-rated novels. [If I were feeling snarky, I might suggest Christian Fantasy for her, because in the real world, not everyone lives like a member in good standing at her church.] Sensitive atheists who feel “hit over the head with religion” by any novel that mentions God more than once would prefer books with the lowest number of CHUs. [Again, if I were feeling snarky, I’d say “Toughen up, Cupcake: you are surrounded by millions of believers in the real world, and knowing a little something about them won’t hurt you a bit.”] The devotees of the Hold My Messages School will be able to easily avoid books that preach to them, or that encumber the plot with Meaning. And those who insist that every story must have a moral can confirm both the presence and the type of said moral.
In other words, in the few seconds that it takes to read the ratings grid, you can determine if any Christian book is potentially one you’d enjoy. How cool is that?