I recently attended a worship service in the Midwestern town where I went to college. The church was red brick with a tall, white steeple that rang out the hour of eleven. The high, spacious sanctuary was decorated in the American colonial style with padded pews and white balconies on three sides. A huge pipe organ dominated the front, playing the most gorgeous music.
The choir loft was full. Not a screechy soprano among them. They did a piece by John Rutter, one of my favorite contemporary composers. The congregation sang three classic hymns, followed by a content-rich sermon from 1 John. Despite having two services, the pews were so full that a few unfortunate late-comers had to be escorted to the front row beneath the pulpit.
I consider myself to be a traditionalist. After all, I was born mid-twentieth century. This service represented the best of what I grew up with. I should have fit in perfectly. So why did I come away disappointed?
I guess what I crave is blended worship. I love all three of the familiar hymns we sang. One was even sung at our wedding. But the most modern on this particular Sunday was a hundred and thirty years old. (The one I liked best was actually seventeenth century!) I’m frustrated when a church is so caught up in what is current that a praise song from the 1990s is considered too old-fashioned, but I am equally frustrated when worship doesn’t acknowledge that anything that lifts up God has been written in the last generation (or four!)
I got my first clue that maybe the church wouldn’t be what I wanted as I walked in from the parking lot. There were a variety of ages, but they all had my skin color. And all the women I saw wore skirts. Now, I was wearing a skirt, too—a comfortable cotton for a summer day. But you know what? I don’t want to go to church with a bunch of people just like me, who dress like me, have the same northern European ancestry, and love the same hymns I have sung since childhood. John Rutter gets to feeling pretty sweet and sappy after a while.
What does this have to do with Christian fiction? If we Americans have to have an American character in the story or we can’t identify, what does that say about our monocultural view of the Kingdom of God? Heaven is not going to be filled with people just like me. It is going to be filled with people who look different, speak differently, even smell different from me. We will be united by one Lord, one faith, one birth, not by one style of art or worship or dress. When I sing a contemporary praise song with a bit more beat than I grew up with, it reminds me that God is still at work in my world. When I sing in Spanish or Chinese, I remember that God’s Kingdom is drawn from every tribe and nation. When I sing a Latin choral piece like Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”, I revel in being part of something so much bigger than my local congregation founded in 1964. The Church of Jesus Christ has been his Body on earth for two thousand years.
I want to challenge my fellow-American readers to look beyond the character that is “just like me” in international fiction and let the story take you into the world of someone who is different from you. International Christian fiction should open our eyes to something more than our own neighborhoods, thrusting us inside the skin of someone who has grown up with completely different values and expectations, who is meeting God in a unique way. It should shake us up and leave us uncomfortable. It should stretch us and expose us to our own prejudices and misconceptions as it reveals wholly different ways of thinking.
Thank you to my brothers and sisters on this blog who are writing stories that aren’t about Main Street, Midwest. Or even New York or LA. It’s a tough market out there, but I praise God that you are who you are. Keep up the effort! We need to hear your voices.
LeAnne Hardy has lived in six countries on four continents. Her books for young people come out of her cross-cultural experiences and her passion to use story to convey spiritual truths in a form that will impact lives. You can find out more about her books and travel adventures on her website and blog.