The evolving world of Christian fiction

Plenty of novels deal with religious themes. But when do you call a novel a work of Christian fiction?

I asked myself that question recently as I read “Painted Dresses” ($13.99, WaterBrook Press), a new novel by Huntersville resident Patricia Hickman.

The answer, I've learned, has changed a lot recently.

“Painted Dresses” tells the story of Gaylen Boatwright, a woman dealing with a failing marriage, a crazy sister and a secret family history she resolves to uncover.

Its main characters don't attend church, and the book includes sexuality.

“At one point, they asked me to remove it,” Hickman says. “I decided not to. I wanted the book to stand with its honesty. People get naked and hug.”

Hickman, a pastor's wife and author of more than a dozen faith-based novels, got her start in 1995 with “Voyage of the Exiles,” a historical novel set in Australia.

In the '90s, she says, Christian novels were mostly formulaic historical or romance stories: The heroine faces peril, but by the tale's end, thanks to her strong faith, “everything lifts off her,” Hickman says.

Hickman followed that formula in several novels, but felt unsatisfied. “That just wasn't my life. It felt like a lie to write like that.”

Luckily, the genre was evolving as she changed. In 2005, one Publishers Weekly article quoted an editor at a Christian publishing house saying that readers were tired of novels “driven by a dogmatic evangelical agenda in which flat characters interact in a sanitized world.”

“The lines are blurring,” says Shannon Marchese, Hickman's editor at WaterBrook, a division of Random House that publishes Christian books. (One notable example: Jan Karon, author of the Mitford novels, was first published by a religious press, then moved to Viking Penguin.)

Often, inspirational fiction devotees are “looking for something that's not going to surprise or horrify them,” Marchese says.

And often, inspirational fiction authors “are interested in making sure there are signs of grace, hope and love in their books somewhere.” But her aim is to publish novels anyone would enjoy.

In Hickman's novel, Gaylen struggles to overcome emotional scars from childhood that are sabotaging her adult life.

Eventually, she learns to forgive and move on. “I wanted to show how God would draw people to him with or without church,” Hickman says.

Hickman says she's been told she's broken new ground with “Painted Dresses.”

So where will you find it in your local bookstore? Maybe in the general fiction section. Maybe in the Christian fiction. Maybe in both.