Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Christians Should Write Historical Fiction

Greetings all, this is John J. Horn writing about one of my favorite topics — historical fiction.

I have a passion for historical fiction, have read hundreds (maybe thousands) of books in that genre, and write it myself.

But why is historical fiction impactful, and why should Christians be writing it?

Here are several reasons why I believe that Christians should write historical fiction.

Historical Fiction Is a Teaching Tool


There are two main ways to learn about history. The first is textbook/lecture learning, memorizing facts and dates. The second is what I call “enhanced history,” where you learn history in the context of stories. That second method is where historical fiction comes in, and I think it can play a key role in giving readers an understanding of our past.

You can feel the past in a historical novel. You can hear the cadence of the characters’ speech, imagine the smells, and connect with the fear, and agony, and triumph of the story’s heroes. Historical characters become more than names — they become people.

As a boy I learned much history by reading the works of G.A. Henty. His books aren’t perfect theologically or story-wise, but they’re packed with greatness, and they introduced me to history in a way that a textbook simply can’t.

For example, when I think of the Punic wars I think of young Malchus and his bravery as a soldier of Hannibal in The Young Carthaginian. When I think of the wars in Spain and Portugal between the English and the French, I think of Terence O’Conner from With Moore at Corunna and Under Wellington's Command.

You get the idea.

True, there is potential danger in learning history through fiction. Because fiction is untrue there are parts of historical fiction which are necessarily also untrue. The line between real and fake may become blurred, and the author’s bias will certainly affect his or her interpretation of fact. But as long as you recognize that danger and approach historical fiction wisely, I believe that the result can be overwhelmingly rewarding.

Christians should be teaching history. Historical fiction is a great way to teach history. So that’s one reason why I think Christians should write historical fiction.

Historical Fiction Is a Mirror for Today


Mirrors are funny things. They tell you that the hair on the back of your head is splayed in a ginormous cowlick. They tell you that your teeth need brushing. They tell you that you have blemishes.

Historical fiction is a mirror which tells us about our ideological blemishes.

Every reader has a set of preconceived notions about reality. It’s called “worldview.” A reader's worldview will always affect the way he reads, but when a story is set in modern times, the reader will have a far more nuanced worldview and will interpret the story’s message differently.

Sound confusing? Let me explain.

In my book The Boy Colonel I wrote about the concept of just warfare. I could have written a novel about Iraq and posited the same question: What is a just war? But modern readers already have preconceived ideas about the war in Iraq, and this would have affected their receptivity to the answers I give in my book. The reader would be biased by political affiliation, by the way the war has been conducted, and by a thousand other things which are inherent to that specific conflict.

By creating a fictional war in Siberia between the British and Cossacks, I distanced readers from their bias. I was able to focus readers on the question — what is a just war? — instead of the complicated circumstances surrounding the war in Iraq.

Circumstances change, but principles remain constant.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t have any problem with novels being set in modern times, and I wouldn’t have any problem with a novel set during the war in Iraq which asked the question: What is a just war? But I think that historical novels give us perspective which modern novels can’t quite match.

Christians need to write about today’s problems. Historical fiction can explore today’s problems with needed perspective. That’s another reason why I think Christians should write historical fiction.

Historical Fiction Gives Hope


In the 1600s, Scottish Covenanters were persecuted for not recognizing the King of England as the head of the Church and not worshiping God according to High Church principles. They were hung, drowned, and tortured.

In the same century, the Waldenses in Piedmont who would not join the Catholic Church were massacred in what is probably one of the most brutal persecutions in world history.

Douglas Bond novelized the plight of the Covenanters in his Crown and Covenant trilogy. James Byron Huggins wrote about the Waldenses in his novel Rora.

Why do I mention these times and novels?

Because these historical novels give us hope.

They give us hope because they show the levels of persecution which God’s people have been subjected to in the past. This should not only make us thankful for the blessed freedom Christians enjoy in America today, but when times grow tougher it should give us hope that all has seemed lost before, but God has always preserved a remnant of believers.

Historical fiction gives us hope by reminding us that no matter how bad life is, it’s been that bad before. The circumstances of this particular “bad” may be different, but its extent is not. As the author of Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.”

Christians should write books that give hope. Historical fiction can give hope. That’s a third reason why I think Christians should write historical fiction.

Why do you think Christians should write historical fiction? Leave a comment. I’d love to hear your perspective!

Disclaimer: I have linked some of the book titles I referenced to Amazon.com, with which I am an affiliate. I've mentioned the books because they're relevant to my article. If you want to buy any of them, so much the better!

John J. Horn is a Christian writer from San Antonio, Texas. You can learn more about him and his Men of Grit Christian Fiction series at johnjhornbooks.com.

4 comments:

  1. Good post! I agree with everything, particularly about principles remaining the same, but needing to still expound on issues and such. For me, my greatest difficulty as a historical-fiction author is balancing reality with purity. Detail and accuracy must be there, inside of principles that will promote Christ, not evil.

    Enjoying The Boy Colonel immensely. We may need to have a chat about the benefits of coffee, however.... ;)

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    1. Yes, I've also had to spend much time thinking about the balance between reality and purity. Especially with my latest book, which involved Ancient Romans, I had to constantly ask myself: Why am I including this element? Am I doing so because it's titillating, or will it glorify God? I still have much to learn in this area.

      Glad to hear that you're enjoying The Boy Colonel. Yes, well, I'm afraid that perspectives on coffee vary. :)

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    2. Your book is about the Romans? How interesting that mine is too! It will be enjoyable to compare thoughts. I already know our styles do vary considerably, but perspectives on the historical elements will be interesting.

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  2. This is a great article. I enjoy the way historical novels thrust us readers into a world with different priorities and customs, but at the same time show that human nature is always the same. As you said, they can give us hope and change our perspectives on the lives we lead. And if Christians don't teach history, somebody else will!

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