What’s Wrong With “Christian Fiction”

April 14, 2016

Walking the shelves of my local library, I was surprised to find a label on a book that said “Christian Fiction.” It was just above the regular label that makes books findable in  the stacks.

christianfictionTopsham Public Library puts labels on fiction that say FIC, and then below that, again in caps, the first three initials of the author’s last name: JAM for a book by Marlon James that I’m reading now. Across the river, Brunswick Public Library puts  labels on fiction that say FIC, then below that the author’s last name, below that the author’s first name, and below that the first eight letters of the title.  That’s a little more detail, but it’s essentially the same idea.  Without these labels a library user would have a hard time finding a book.

The “Christian Fiction” label, with the image of the cross, is clearly meant for a different purpose.  It categorizes the book, and for certain readers calls it to their attention.  In a way, it recommends it.

genre labelsThis is a genre label, and I’m familiar with other such genre labels.  I regularly see books with similar stickers on them that say Mystery or Science Fiction or Western or Crime.  Some people stick predominantly to books in just one genre, and these labels help them find them.  Publishers, I gather, have begun marketing books under the genre label “Christian Fiction,” and library services companies have begun such selling spine labels.  Library patrons, I understand, ask for books in the genre.

I have no problem with a “Mystery” sticker or even one that says “Classic,” even if I think the book so labelled is no such thing.  So why does “Christian Fiction” give me pause?

One reason is that it has my public library recommending a book (yes, all such labels recommend) on a basis that I don’t think a public library should use. Another reason is that there is no corresponding label in use that says “Islamic Fiction” or “Jewish Fiction.” (I gather some libraries do label some books Jewish fiction, but not mine.)  These are reasons that go to the heart of the intellectual freedom issues with which libraries regularly wrestle.  The American Library Association provides professional guidance for librarians on such matters.  Here’s what the ALA says in recommending that public libraries not use labels like “Christian Fiction:”

What are examples for determining whether a genre label is a viewpoint-neutral directional aid or a prejudicial label?

Fiction genre labels such as romance, mystery, and science fiction are used by many libraries as viewpoint-neutral direction aids. While there may be some differences of opinion about which titles fit within specific genre areas, the choice of genre is viewpoint-neutral and does not suggest moral or doctrinal endorsement. On the other hand, some public libraries label Christian fiction with a cross as a symbol. This practice, especially when other religious fiction is not designated, communicates a message of preference for Christianity, a violation of the separation of church and state that is prohibited by the establishment clause of First Amendment as well as the Library Bill of Rights. People of all persuasions and traditions have sincere, heartfelt concerns when their government addresses religious issues, fundamentally different from an interest as to whether a library item bears a “Mystery” or “Western” sticker. In recognition of this, some libraries seek to avoid entanglement with religion by using a label to identify “inspirational fiction”, including material that does not have religious-based content. As long as both the selection of materials to be so labeled and the label used are viewpoint-neutral and inclusive, this practice would not violate the Library Bill of Rights.

The most important reason I don’t like the practice is something different, and it goes to the question of what those who use the label mean by “Christian Fiction.” Genres have rules that authors need to respect (not necessarily follow slavishly) to make a book count as belonging in the genre.  Here’s one list of the genre rules of “Christian Fiction:”

Rules :
1. Accept the infallible authority of the Bible
2. Addresses life’s dilemmas through faith in Jesus
3. Believing that Jesus is divine, died, and rose again for the sins of humankind and will return again.
4. No profanity, sex, or extraneous violence
5. Characters do not have to be Christian in the beginning, but will be by the end.

I have no problem with someone writing a book that adheres to those rules. I have no problem with a publisher selling such a book or with a library acquiring it.  But I do object to a public library affixing a label that says “this is what it means to be Christian.”  The genre label hijacks the word “Christian” for a very particular understanding of what it means to be “Christian.”

No, I don’t think you have to believe in the infallible authority of the Bible to be a Christian. No, I don’t think you have to avoid reading about “profanity, sex or extraneous violence” to be a Christian. (I wonder, have those who promote the label read the Bible? Do they know how much profanity, sex and extraneous violence it contains?)  And there’s a creed implicit in those rules: I don’t think you need to accept a creed to be a Christian.

I don’t want my library to be subtly coaching people about what it means to be a Christian, and that’s what this genre label does.

also posted on QuakerQuaker

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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One Response to What’s Wrong With “Christian Fiction”

  1. Chad says:

    What an interesting post! As a Quaker and a librarian, this is a new perspective to me. Some background, as a librarian who, by profession, is associated closely with the publishing world, I hope I can share some insight.

    Like the real estate market, the book market works to make general products more specific and appealing to niche groups to produce better sales with genres, naming conventions, and groupings which help people better access what they are looking for in their purchase. On a national scale, the Christian market is surging as a genre. If you haven’t been to a Carpenter Bible bookstore recently, just go take a look and see. Public libraries serve public reading interests, hence this section and, most likely, the cross label.

    As for other religions, there are stickers produced by library vendors to demarcate these focus/market/genre groups as well (http://bit.ly/1XxQj85). There are so many ways to categorize books and these are the most general that most people understand (see: http://www.demco.com/goto?PNHC72) and which marketing materials are produced for purchase. There is a general “Religion” sticker along with lots of other choices. Which stickers to use, however, are definitely up the library itself but can be based on which vendor’s stickers are chosen. This can lead to an oversimplification for some people in the community, such as your post identifies, and for others it can be helpful to know to avoid or choose those books more easily by browsing rather than by reading every book jacket or using the catalog and subject headings–who does this anymore, except librarians and library lovers? The library, I believe, in its best representation tries to offer books to all people in the community which are in their interests in one place, and offers them the challenge to explore beyond their community in a safe and private environment of confidentiality.

    More specificity, what I find actually more challenging for libraries is using the Dewey system–ten categories with only 1000 subcategories–for all topics in the world and which continues to be the most pernicious system in American schools and, by experience of users, the most commonly exported abroad by Americans who go abroad to help local communities start libraries. This system is inherently male chauvanistic, Euro-centric, and controversial in it’s own right for many reasons due to its 1880’s view of the world which were very reductionist (see: John Dewey). If you look Quakers up using this categorization, all our text appear as 289.6 and if you go to a Quaker library, such as the one in my Meeting that uses this system, the whole room basically exists as decimal numbers under this general number. Ugh. Library of Congress does a much better job, with its two letter and four number combination which offers a great improvement on subcategories (e.g. http://1.usa.gov/1qK41uj).

    I appreciate the perspective, as a librarian, that you want more specificity in your categorization, and possibly a more diverse collection which describes distinctions within the Christian community. I think everyone would be helped by better religious literacy in today’s America which lacks educational tools or programs in the public sector. The library, I believe, continues to offer this and is shaped by the community it serves, but also asks the community to step toward one another as open learner of communities which they are unfamiliar. I hope yours is offering this as best it can but you are also being a great library steward by letting them know that you are watching them and part of the community as well!

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