On the depiction of Christianity in stories–featuring why I love stories with sketchy Christians

Hello, friends!

Today’s post is…well, I’m not really sure what it is. It’s a discussion post, I suppose, and one that I’ve been thinking about writing for a while. In the actual writing it has morphed and changed a fair bit, and I’m not quite sure what it’s about anymore.

Generally speaking, it’s about the depiction of Christian faith in stories. And real life. And tangents. Lots of tangents. My English professors would be appalled by the lack of thesis and organization, but I never claimed to be writing a coherent essay, okay??

Let’s get started, shall we?


The way I see it, the depiction Christianity in stories is usually handled in one of five ways:

1.) That ONE Christian who is EVIL (or stupid)

I’ve seen it so many times. Oh, I quail at the thought. To be reading along in a book populated by normal, complex people–then, lo and behold, the author says, “Oh, hey but here’s a Christian. They’re abusive and oppressive and pretty much the scum of the earth.” It bothers me. Perhaps even more so when it’s thrown in casually–a character listing off different families he has stayed with mentions a preacher and his wife who were horribly abusive, someone mentions the boarding school they went to as a child where they were beaten and told they were going to hell by the Christian staff, etc. It’s peripheral to the rest of the story, but it’s obviously deliberate, and the author’s message is clear: the one Christian in the entire book is a terrible person, because Christians are the scum of the earth, am I right?

Alternatively, the Christian character is stupid and naive for believing in God and morals.

2.) Christians are perfect and superior to everyone else

Oh, man, I think this is even worse. You know those movies made by Christians with a Christian worldview, made for a Christian audience–and sure, maybe they have a good message, but they’re just really badly made? (This Blimey Cow video is one of the most accurate things I’ve ever seen on the subject.) Well, what’s even worse is when they have bad messages. Like “Christians are awesome, and Atheists are evil monsters.” WHOA, SON. Must we polarize the issue further? Must we write scenes in which Atheist characters behave horribly just to act as a foil to the goodness of Christian characters?

And must we have Christian characters who are perfect and always do the right thing? I think not.

3.) It’s not addressed at all

Most of the books I read fall into this category. The subject of religion is never brought up–neither in a positive nor a negative light. I have no problems with this (indeed, this approach encompasses nearly all of my own writing). A good story will speak truth on its own. You don’t have to spell out your worldview or make sure your readers know where you stand in regards to faith (or anything really). [It’s not like you see the characters whipping out their bibles or praying in The Lord of the Rings, but the story is bursting with spiritual truths.] Tell the story you want to tell, and it will reflect what you believe.

The thing I love about this approach is it breaks down barriers between people of different beliefs. Some people’s defenses will immediately go up at the mention of God, but if you simply show them God’s truth they’re more receptive. On the flip side, I have read so many books by authors that I know have very different worldviews from myself–authors who certainly are not Christians–and yet their books are full of spiritual truths. Because the desire for truth is something that is hardwired into us as human beings. People seek truth without understanding what it is or why they want it.

4.) A nod of respect

These are few and far between, but I occasionally come across a story where a character’s faith–while never discussed at length–is implied or briefly referred to. And it is shown respectfully. A big deal isn’t made over it, but it seems to say, “Hey, this person is a Christian. We cool with that.”

I believe several Kate DiCamillo and Gary D. Schmidt books fall into this category. An example that particularly stuck out to me was Kids of Appetite by David Arnold. While I had some issues with this book and overall wasn’t overly fond of it, the character of Baz impressed me (and not just because he was a wholesome human being and took on the role of big brother/dad for this group of kids, what a dear). The author had a very different worldview from me, but Baz’s Christianity was handled with respect. In the afterward/acknowledgments, the author said Baz was based on someone he knows in real life, and I think that makes all the difference. When we actually take the time to get to know people who have different views from us, we can learn to respect them and what they believe, even if we don’t agree with it.

Which brings us to what I originally set out to write a post about, before it turned into a discussion of the different ways faith is depicted…

5.) Super Sketchy Christians, but….

(Wow, I can’t think of a coherent title, okay.) A type of story I’ve recently been thinking about goes something like this: protagonist is mistreated by people who call themselves Christians. Understandably, protagonist is not a fan. But, as the story progresses, we see them come face to face with something that challenges their bitterness and anger toward the idea of God and Christianity…

This is weirdly hard to articulate.

Hang on, I’ve got some examples.

“Deathbed” by Relient K

So…this is a song. Y’all thought I was just going to talk about books, didn’t you?

This is an eleven minute narrative song, drastically different from the “Mood Rings” or “My Girl’s Ex-Boyfriend” variety. The (…singer? narrator? eh, let’s go with narrator) is on his deathbed (betcha never saw THAT coming), looking back on his life, and….it’s a sad life, guys.

[If you don’t want spoilers….well, there are going to be spoilers. So go listen to the song real quick. I’ll wait.]

The narrator’s father was a traveling preacher, but recall the category of stories we are discussing. Sketchy Christian. And by sketchy I mean he abandons his wife and eight year old son. So, bad. Very bad.

But he left once to never return
Which taught me that I should unlearn
Whatever I thought a father should be
I abandoned that thought like he abandoned me

In the following years, the narrator’s life down-spirals. He “acquires a taste for liquor and nicotine”, marries a girl after getting her pregnant, gets divorced…yeah, it’s kind of a downer. BUT. It doesn’t end there.

I was so scared of Jesus
But he sought me out

The narrator has long since given up on God, his own soul, and pretty much everything. BUT GOD HASN’T. Because he doesn’t. God is like that. (God is so awesome, guys).

I’ll restrain myself from quoting half a dozen more chunks of lyrics, but suffice it to say Jesus shows up at the end of the narrator’s life, and–okay, I lied, I’m quoting more lyrics:

Then Jesus showed up
Said, “Before we go up
I thought that we might reminisce.
See, one night in your life
When you turned out the lights
You asked for and prayed for My forgiveness.

At the end of the conversation, Jesus carries him home.

It’s…so good guys.

Before I try to articulate what I love so much about this, let me give you another example.

Leap of Faith (Broadway Musical)

I have never seen this show, so I only know as much of the story as is told through the cast recording. I could be wrong in some of the conclusions I’ve drawn but, chances are, none of you have seen it either, so there’s no one to challenge me, hehe. Also the music is by ALAN MENKEN, so….you know. Good stuff. (If you don’t know who Alan Menken is, he’s the genius behind all the best Disney music [and if you TRY to come at me with arguments that Frozen or Moana or some such film have better music, I will be throwing “Out There” at you, because THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME, PEOPLE. THIS MUSIC.])

A-hem. Where was I? Right. Leap of Faith.

[Once again, I am going to spoil things. You have been warned.]

“Reverend” Jonas Nightingale is a con man running a traveling revival. He is great at reading people, getting them to give him money, and skipping town before anyone catches on. He’s also great at not relying on anyone except himself.

Problems arise when Jonas actually starts to care about some of the people in the town they are currently conning.

Did I mention there are SIBLINGS? Jonas has a younger sister named Sam who he has been taking care of since they were kids. Eventually, in the song “People Like Us”, Sam gives us a bit of the siblings’ backstory. Their father was a preacher, and he physically and verbally abused Sam and Jonas. So yeah, it makes sense that Jonas thinks all this God stuff is garbage.


Jonas–who has been in the business of faking miracles, tricking people into believing they’re seeing the hand of a God who doesn’t exist–comes face to face with something he can’t explain. He witnesses a real miracle.


[At this juncture, I implore you all to go listen to “Jonas’s Soliloquy”. You don’t have to listen to the rest of the show–just listen to this song, because it knocks my socks off.]

Full of denial and confusion, Jonas finally reaches the point where he cries out to God for something to believe in and… *jumps up and down, screeching* It’s…really good, folks.

So what is it about these stories that I love so much?

Both Jonas and the narrator of “Deathbed” start out with a jerk father who calls himself a Christian. As a result, they reject God and everything to do with him. What I love is how these stories acknowledge the damage that can be and has been done by so-called Christians. They don’t belittle the negative impact it has on these characters’ lives, but ultimately they show that God’s love is so much bigger than the damage people create in his name. He can reach even the people who have every reason to distrust him, and he can bring about redemption in even the most broken lives.

This is so important to me. While it bothers me to read stories in which all the Christian characters behave horribly, I can’t deny that people like that do exist. When I hear stories about such things happening in real life, it’s incredibly discouraging. I remember my mom telling me about a church she went to as a teenager where they found out that the youth pastor was having an affair with one of the girls in the youth group. Hearing that story was devastating. It shook my faith in the leaders of churches in general.

But here’s the thing: our faith is in God, not in his people. Yes, it’s good to build trust with people, but at the end of the day–no matter what happens–God will never fail us. And he will help us repair what we have destroyed.

Sometimes I look around or look in the mirror and wonder what hope we have of convincing people of God’s love. But all we have to do–all we can do–is do our best. We must do what we can to love people, to listen to them, to respect them, and to show them God’s love by our behavior.

And no matter how much we screw up, or what horrible things people do in God’s name, God can still reach people.

The worst that humans can do is no match for God’s love.

EDIT April 4th: Something was bothering me about this post, but I wasn’t sure what it was until now. I want to be clear that I am talking about two different things here: people who call themselves Christians but show no evidence of it through their behavior, and Christians doing their best to show God’s love in spite of their own flawed humanity and the damage done by the first group of people. I am not saying that people who abuse their children or abandon their families are “just doing their best” and God’s love will cover it, so it’s all cool. Just wanted to make that clear.


WELL, that was something. I don’t know what it was, but…it was something. Hats off to you if you made it through this long and rambling post!

Oh, I was also going to mention Jane Eyre, Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney movie), and Les Miserables (Broadway), in the sketchy Christians discussion–as stories that have sketchy Christians AND good Christians–but this post is already too long. Well, I mentioned ’em now.

What are your thoughts on the way Christianity is depicted in stories? Do you like stories with sketchy Christians? Does it drive you crazy when Christians or Atheists, or ANY group of people has to be relegated to the role of evil knevils? Did you listen to “Jonas’s Soliloquy”? Hmmm??? What stories do you consider to have lots of solid truth in them, whether they’re written from a Christian perspective or not? Do tell!


6 responses to “On the depiction of Christianity in stories–featuring why I love stories with sketchy Christians”

  1. I’ve definitely experienced both the first, and to a certain degree the second, depiction of Christianity, and it’s just…very frustrating. There’s also the depiction, often written by well-meaning Christians, where once someone is Pious and Holy, and Loves Jesus, There Are No Problems In Their Life, and They Weather All Storms With Grace (even in the absence of a demonized atheist foil). And that one drives me crazy, because humans are imperfect! Even people who love God still have trouble following His law sometimes! We’re still broken, even if we’re Christian!

    The nod of respect is a good one, though, as is it-not-being-mentioned-but-truth-being-shown.

    I hadn’t heard of either of your examples for Super Sketchy Christians, and I don’t think I’ve read/watched/heard many (any?) examples, but I wish I saw more of that! Because it’s, from what you said about your examples, a really powerful way to see God’s grace, even when Christians are imperfect and broken or even just plain bad. Beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ack, so frustrating. And yes! I know exactly what you’re talking about with the “You Are Perfect and There Are No Problems When You’re Following Jesus” type of story. Sometimes I wonder if it’s meant to be inspiring? Like, “look at this person who Does Everything Right! Don’t you want to be like them??” But it’s….not. Because that’s just not how life works.
      I haven’t encountered many Super Sketchy Christians stories myself–it’s only recently that I’ve even started to realize it’s a type of story (and one that I like)–but I’m on the lookout for more now 🙂


  2. Yeah, I can really tell when a writer thinks that there’s NO way a reasonable, moral person might have different religious beliefs from them. Like some people just don’t believe in God. Some people do. This honestly doesn’t really say all that much about how well they treat people. I don’t understand, because it seems like it should make sense to people that everyone’s going to have a different approach to their religious beliefs (or lack thereof) and they aren’t ALL going to be evil or more moral than everyone else. But yeah it’s SO annoying to me when the author tries so hard to make the Christian character Enlightened and then the atheist character is just benighted, or vice versa. I’ve run into both versions and they’re just terrible. Genuinely I would love for a book to just be neutral on the atheist and Christian characters. I want atheist and Christian characters who have valid reasons for what they believe, in the same story. Or trashbag atheist and Christian characters in the same story! I’ve run into a ton of trashbag Christians and atheists!

    I think what I’d like the most, though, is a character who is Christian having to deal with Christians who hold terrible beliefs, because that’s something I’ve been through a lot. Like don’t use the church as a reason to just hate people???? For some reason I rarely see deconstructions of the worse side of Christianity, and whenever I do come across it, it’s usually like…the stock evil Catholic in a historical novel, and it’s so frustrating and doesn’t line up with my experience (or any experience, because it’s badly written) at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think it was until the past couple years that I was able to understand and articulate the importance of respect for people’s beliefs in stories. Obviously people disagree on a lot of things, and often very strongly, but when we throw respect out the window and start calling anyone who doesn’t agree with us either evil or idiotic….there are issues. Part of being a good author is having empathy–being able to write from the perspective of characters who don’t share all your own experiences or beliefs. If an author doesn’t have that empathy and respect, they’re going to shut a lot of readers out (including even readers who have similar beliefs but don’t want to see characters bashed for believing something different).
      I would like to read more stories involving Christian characters who encounter other Christians with terrible beliefs and have to grapple with that. There are so many issues that are so complex, and, as a Christian, I constantly find myself grappling with them, and I’d love to see that more in stories. More than anything, I just want stories in which people are people–with all their conflicting beliefs and worldviews–grappling with what it means to be human

      Liked by 1 person

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