Recently there has been a surge in authors writing Biblical fiction. I had the opportunity to talk with Amy Green at Bethany House about the growth in this genre and what readers are looking for in Biblical fiction.
Melissa: Hi Amy. Thank you for answering a few questions for us. As we have discussed, this genre really seems to be taking off and I look forward to hearing your thoughts on this subject. It seems like in the last couple of years, Biblical fiction has grown in popularity. What seems to be driving the growth in this genre and how do you see it progressing over the next few years?
Amy: When it comes to the “whys” behind cultural trends, we can only offer theories, but here’s mine: we’ve seen a blitz of superhero movies in the mainstream recently, and I think the Bible-based movies, T.V. series, and novels are popular for the same reason. Essentially, in a very cynical and depressed culture, we need heroes. Bible stories are just about as close as you can get to superhero stories without involving Marvel or DC—the are often about ordinary people who do extraordinary things.
That fairly humanistic explanation probably also explains why non-Christians can watch or even produce Bible-based entertainment. With Christian fiction, though, you have the added dimension that the authors are intentionally pointing readers to the truth of the God who does the empowering. The hero is actually God himself—and the stories of those he uses bring even more glory to him.
Melissa: In general, what are readers looking for when it comes to Biblical fiction?
Hopefully, a great story with characters who are raw and real and relatable, because that’s what our authors are delivering. I think a lot of readers are also intrigued by the familiar names and stories they think they know—stories that are more bulleted plot-points in their minds than descriptive, fleshed-out narratives. That’s what the fiction aspect does to stories of the Bible: it fills in the blank spaces to give the characters life and depth, it takes their words and colors them with tones and subtext, it makes a generic setting into a specific one with cultural and historical detail.
Melissa: I’ve always felt this genre is a little risky to write. Most people who pick up these books are going to have preconceived notions about the characters and events. I’ve read some books that do not stray far from scripture, while others could be better described as inspired by the Bible than Biblical fiction. At Bethany House, what are you all looking for in a Biblical fiction novel and what boundaries you are unwilling to cross when it comes to taking liberty with scripture?
Amy: Our authors themselves are wonderful guards of this, actually, before the editors even get to their manuscripts. I asked Lynn Austin a similar question, and this is what she said: “My goal is to stay as close to the scriptural text as possible and not add to it, but merely to fill in some of the historical and cultural background. I hope that my novels will bring the Bible to life and not only help readers visualize the stories, but also to see biblical characters as real flesh-and-blood people. I don’t want to replace scripture with a novel, but to draw readers back to the Bible so they will read it for themselves and maybe understand it a bit better.”
One thing I love is that our authors who write Biblical fiction always loved the Bible before they loved the plot of the novels they wrote. Angela Hunt has a doctorate in Biblical Studies. Cliff Graham created his Lion of War saga to help bored men in the church rediscover the relevant, jaw-dropping excitement that is the Old Testament. It’s a reoccurring theme: these writers are committed to accuracy and detailed research because they want to share their passion for God’s word with others.
Melissa: Just as there is a wide range of scripture content and interpretation within Biblical fiction, there is also a wide range of cultural content. Biblical times were quite violent and not nearly as neat as we’d like to believe them to be. There are writers like Cliff Graham that vividly, yet appropriately, portrays the barbaric nature of ancient warfare and the struggle of the Israelites to come together as a nation. How do you see these more realistic portrayals of Biblical times faring in the market?
Amy: That’s one of the trends in Biblical fiction I’m really excited about. Adults in the church grew up hearing simplified and sanitized Bible stories with neat endings and clear, fable-like morals. And that can be an appropriate way to teach the Bible to young children, because it reaches them at their level. But if we start engaging with the stories of the Bible in all of their depth and detail, I believe we have a lot to gain.
When familiar names in the Bible are depicted as real people, even pedestal-planted heroines like Esther, we can better understand our own fears, doubts, and struggles. When the setting brings to life the culture of the exiles and their struggle with doubts in a pagan land, we see a historical counterpart to our own difficulties as believers in the world, but not of it. When the battles and action of the conquest and kings are recounted in vivid detail, it makes a compelling story, sure, but also reminds us that the Old Testament isn’t some long, unnecessary prologue until we get to Jesus—it’s full of fascinating events and spiritual lessons.
Melissa: I’ll be honest, I am thoroughly geeked out about Cliff Graham’s upcoming novel, Exodus. I am a huge fan of his Lion of War series and love the excellent blend of intense warfare with touching scriptural insight. What are some Biblical fiction titles that you’re totally excited to read?
Amy: I’m going to cheat and look a full year ahead—next spring, we’ll be publishing Connilyn Cossette’s debut novel, Counted With the Stars, which is a story in first person that focuses on a major Biblical event (in this case, the Exodus) from the point of view of an anonymous person. On her blog, Connilyn described why she made this choice: “I wanted to imagine myself inside the world of the Bible. I wanted to walk a mile, or a few hundred, in the sandals of an Egyptian that went with the Hebrews, or a Hebrew midwife living at Mt. Sinai, or a Caananite woman whose family has been killed by the invading Israelite army.” I love that thought! And the first few chapters I read when we were considering Connilyn’s manuscript for publication were great and made me excited to read more.
Also, if you’re having a hard time waiting for May, when Cliff’s Shadow of the Mountain: Exodus comes out, here’s an interview with him about the book to tide you over (or possibly make your waiting even more agonizing…sorry about that!).
Melissa: Ha! You’re killing me 😛 Thanks so much for taking the time to answer our questions. I look forward to seeing this genre continue to grow and continue to reach people with the truth of scripture.