There’s “religious fiction,” of course. Everyone is aware of the “Left Behind” series, which despite its many flaws was widely read and applauded. We also have the works of writers such as C. S. Lewis, Taylor Caldwell, Frank Peretti, Ted Dekker, Karen Kingsbury, and others. Their novels are explicitly religious, almost polemic about the faiths they uphold and promote. Their readers tend to be equally religious and passionate about it.
There’s also completely secular fiction, in which religion has no place whatsoever. Innumerable novelists write this sort of tale. Their characters are never depicted in a church or temple, in prayer, or in worship of any other form. While some of their readers might be as religious as the devotees of the writers in the previous paragraph, surely they’re not there for a religious message, as there won’t be any.
Tales that fall between those two poles – i.e., stories whose characters do allow religion a place in their lives, though it doesn’t utterly dominate the tale being told – are exceedingly rare in contemporary fiction. When we consider that most Americans do have a religion of some kind and do give it some portion of their daily or weekly attention, the paucity of such stories seems rather strange.
If Americans are largely believers of some kind, wouldn’t fiction that allows religion a place be more realistic than either the religion-dominant narratives or the utterly secular, religion-never-mentioned variety? It seems logical – which might be the first hint of an explanation for the scarcity of such tales.
The first demand of the reader of fiction is for entertainment. Religious settings and practices are almost antithetical to entertainment. Alongside that, the typical reader doesn’t pick up a novel to read about himself or his own life. He has at least some desire to escape: to depart from the “real” world he inhabits and to spend some time in another. So the omission of certain aspects of “real life” might be an asset to the storyteller.
All the same, there’s something not quite right about the total absence of religious ideas and practices from fiction other than the explicitly polemic sort. After all, religion is one of the most important of the forces that have shaped human history. Depicting crises in the lives of persons who sincerely hold to a recognized religious faith, and showing how their faiths can assist or impede them in coping with those crises, is one of my major reasons for writing. As I have a hard time naming another writer who does so, it can make me feel rather alone.
Just now I’m reading a first-contact novel, Revelations by Robert Sells, in which the religious convictions of certain participants play a significant role. I’m not yet ready to recommend it, but we shall see. At least it includes persons with religious convictions that matter to them enough to act upon them. They don’t just sit around fingering their rosaries. And in this Sells’s tale strikes me as more realistic than not, despite its science-fictional premises.