I grew up in a small town, one where almost everyone went to church. From the mayor to my eighth grade English teacher to the sad, old, homeless drunk we called Uncle Stanley. In fact, the only person I knew who never went to church was my granddad, who was living proof that there are atheists in foxholes. With the exception of my granddad, my whole family went to church, twice every Sunday, and most Wednesday nights. Whether we wanted to or not. No one in my family was particularly devout, and outside of church we did not pay much lip service to God or the Bible. The only meal we prayed at was Sunday dinner, and then only if eaten at home. In our world view, only “odd birds” prayed in restaurants. In more ways than one, church was less a religious institution and more of a social club.
It’s that ethos that informs much of Lie Lay Lain, my second novel, which will be released on April 1. By chance, when I started writing the book, I was working as a church secretary. Not through any great religious zeal, or any notion that working for a church was a higher calling. I needed a job, they needed a secretary, and I was savvy and polite enough to keep my own opinions on religion to myself. There’s no doubt, however, that the book absorbed some of my experiences and observations as a church secretary.
The primary observation that soaked into Lie Lay Lain and its characters is that people who go to church are regular people. I knew that from my childhood, but after 20 years of adulthood, in which I stayed far away from church and religion, I had started to believe the messages about Christians that are so often promoted in the media. The primary message is that Christians are wholesome, inspirational people who obey the Bible and rise above the bad things that happen to them. The message is rarely that Christians are just regular people. When we look at the books and the movies that are promoted as Christian entertainment, so often the product being offered is sanitized. Remove the swear words, the sex, any suggestion at all that Christians are inclined to misbehave just as often as non-Christians. The industries that produce these products sweep the dirt of humanity under the rug and declare their products safe for Christian consumption. Consistent with Christian values.
On the reverse, you can’t help but notice that when a movie or book is proffered as a mainstream entertainment product, spiritual and religious elements are stripped away. Tell me, how often do you read a mainstream book or see a mainstream movie or TV show in which the characters go to church, and it’s not for a wedding or a funeral? If you believe in the mainstream message, average people don’t go to church. They don’t pray. They don’t have crises of faith. Despite this message, we know they do. We know people of all walks of life, who are not puritanical or devout or zealous, yet who value their religion. One of my raunchiest, most irreverently funny friends goes to church every week. She wears a set of rings with Bible verses on them.
As I start to see reactions from readers to Lie Lay Lain, I hear echoes of the responses that I got from agents and editors when I first started looking for a home for the book. People are puzzled to find a book in which mundane life intersects with religious life. More than a few people suggested that I’d find it a lot easier to sell the book if I could strip out either the divine or the profane. If you took out the sex and the swearing, you could sell this as Christian fiction. Or more ominously, If you took out all the church stuff, you’d have a better chance at selling this. A book that has both—sincere prayer and enthusiastic fornication—is an alien concept to many people.
This fact leads me to wonder about how far we’ve gone to segregate things into their “appropriate” niche. If a novel has Christians in it, it must be Christian fiction. You’ll find the same trend repeated throughout your average bookstore. If a novel has a person of color on the cover, it must be African-American fiction. Shelve it over there. If a novel is about gay people, put it over in the LGBTQ section.
The reason behind this pernicious niching is marketing. If we shelve the books in their niche areas, we can help people find the exact kind of books they are most interested in reading, thereby selling more books. It seems to me that in many ways we are walling up certain books and movies into their own entertainment ghettos, and that’s a bad thing. If a reader has to ferret out the tiny African-American section of their local bookstore to even have a chance of stumbling over a novel about people of color, that narrows their view of the world. If all the books you can find about Christians are Christian Fiction, you’re going to develop a skewed perspective about what it means to be Christian.
What I’m saying is, Let’s start seeing other people. Take a chance on something outside your niche. Take a risk with something that doesn’t fit neatly into a box.