This last weekend, I attended my local ACFW chapter meeting. Lots of great Italian food, lots of good information, but most markedly—lots of love. Hugs, genuine concern—like I’ve seldom felt from “smiley Christians” in other circumstances—and lots of genuine celebration for each other. I will freely say that, out of all the writers’ groups I’ve been affiliated with, this is one of the most loving I’ve ever experienced.
Yet when it was over, in the clear light of day, a little naggy voice returned to the back of my head. A voice that’s been clutching at my proverbial sleeve for a long, long time. A voice that says, “Technically, my dear, you don’t belong in this group…and you’re really in there under false pretenses.”
Let me explain.
Years ago, RWA had a bit of a kerfuffle when they began recognizing “inspirational” fiction as a category for the Golden Hearts and RITAs. A Jewish author, no doubt speaking for a great many people, objected strongly to calling the category “inspirational”—because in essence, the word had been pre-defined to mean “evangelical Protestant Christian religious fiction.” She maintained that a true “inspirational” category would have room for Jewish fiction, Muslim fiction, Wiccan fiction, New Age believers…and the whole spectrum; that by accepting the delineation that “inspirational” would only mean “evangelical Christian faith as an element of the story,” RWA was in effect lying to its membership.
Subsequently, the guidelines for the category were written in such a way that “religious faith” was the wording involved; I don’t know if they’re still that way, as I’m out of RWA loops nowadays. But the reality of the situation was—and maybe still is—that if you sent a Wiccan romance to the inspirational category of the Golden Heart, you might have a hard time getting a judging panel to evaluate it fairly; you might even get some nasty feedback from the contest coordinator herself.
So, in effect, RWA may still be lying to its constituency...in much the same way that “Christian” publishing lies about who it represents. And it’s really starting to bother me that by belonging to ACFW, I’m in effect saying that that’s all right.
It’s a cruel irony that ACFW is such a loving place; that they’re one of the few writers' groups I can belong to where the name of Jesus will not be mocked. That’s a good thing. But what’s not so good is that sometimes, ACFW seems to stand for “Anything-But-Catholic Fiction Writers”...and that’s something that’s started to convict me on a personal level. Because, frankly, what am I doing in an organization that has that attitude?
I can get a lot of “information” from ACFW meetings—but in many cases, it’s information that does me as a writer no good. I can hear about publishers’ guidelines—but I can’t meet those guidelines without writing something I don’t believe in. I can pitch work to “Christian” agents and editors at ACFW conferences—but, with very few exceptions, most of those “Christian” editors and agents won’t want to see my work, or will demand that I change it so their “audience won’t be offended.”
Yet I’m a Christian…and so is their audience. So HOW CAN I OFFEND THEM?
Simple. I may offend their perceived audience by BEING, AND WRITING, A DIFFERENT TYPE OF CHRISTIAN THAN THE NARROW BAND THEY HAVE PRE-DEFINED AND DECLARED TO BE “RIGHT.”
Yes, it’s wrong. But it's more than that: it's a lie. The “Christian Booksellers Association” moniker that is the actual meaning of what we refer to as the “Christian market,” in effect, doesn’t represent many Christians AT ALL. It represents only one PORTION of Christianity: the conservative, evangelical, Protestant side of Christianity. Which means it can hardly, by ANY stretch of the imagination, call itself representative of the "Christian market." As for writing Catholic characters in these "Christian" books—even in historical situations where Catholic would be all the Christianity there IS? Good luck trying that one. It’s liable to hit you in the back of the head on the walk home from the post office.
For an illustration of how ridiculous this attitude is, let’s consider a secular hypothesis.
Imagine, if you will, a newspaper publisher marketing its paper as “the definitive American newspaper” when its entire market and contributor base is limited to the population of Naperville, Illinois. Naperville residents are Americans—but are they the DEFINITION of Americans? I think common sense would tell us, “Well, no, not hardly.”
So, considering that as a reasonable assumption, suppose that someone born and raised in the city of Chicago decides they’d like to write for “the definitive American newspaper.” They certainly qualify as an American. They probably qualify as an American with a much broader range of experience than a person who only knew, lived in, ate, slept, drank, and was educated solely in his hometown of Naperville. Since the city of Chicago’s settlement predates most of Naperville, you might even say they could consider themselves to be “more authentic” Americans than even the Napervillians were. But when this writer submits his story (which by the way, is not insulting in any way to Naperville!), it’s not only summarily rejected, but the “definitive American newspaper” tells this author in no uncertain terms that “you don’t represent Americans with this. Naperville is America, and if you don’t write about it, you’re not writing about Americans at all.”
How would we feel about this? What would we say? Would we take it lying down? Would we give that “definitive American newspaper” a moment’s credibility?
So then why, in heaven’s name, do we continue to allow CBA (and “Christian” arms of secular) publishers to get away with calling their products CHRISTIAN fiction, when they have editorial guidelines that force at least part of us to compromise, to water down OUR faith, in order to fit in? And why does ACFW, in its close relationships with said publishers, allow this exclusion of so much of Christianity to go unchallenged?
It’s time more of us step up to the plate and call on CBA (or any other alleged "Christian") publishers to quit the absolute hypocrisy of not allowing Catholic characters and plots and writers to be portrayed positively, or even accurately, in their lines of allegedly "Christian" fiction. Either that, or we need to respectfully insist that they change their name to Evangelical Conservative Protestant Booksellers of America, and demand equally that “Christian” publishers do likewise with their “Christian” lines. Choosing to ignore—and to refuse to publish characters who belong to—the only Christian Church in town for 1,500 years of recorded history, yet still defining themselves as representative of quality “Christian”writing, is almost as laughable as RWA’s claim to be "author advocates." Neither is true, and it's time to stop pretending and lying about it.
We’ve talked about this before, as individuals. We’ve lamented it. We’ve complained about it. We’ve tried to change it. And we’re getting NOWHERE by doing so. It’s clear, therefore, that individual authors railing against the pubs or bewailing the plight will do nothing. But maybe, there could be strength in numbers. If ACFW accepts Catholic members, and it does, could it not object to their faith not being a legitimate part of the Christian fiction printed page?
It’s not just Catholics who suffer in this climate, of course. As the "Christian" publishing world stands now, it doesn’t even represent Protestant Christian belief in all its varieties and possibilities. (There's a reason that Jan Karon didn't pitch her Episcopal rector to a Christian fiction house first.
I, as a Catholic, am increasingly being nagged by that still, small voice inside. The one that says I’m not being true to my faith by pretending it’s OK that so much of my professional life is tied to an organization that at times, in effect dismisses me as not being Christian at all. I’m sailing under false colors, pretending it doesn’t matter. It DOES matter. It DOES hurt.
The question is, what do I do about it.