Christian fiction. The very name of the genre causes many lovers of great literature to shudder. Christian fiction often has a bad reputation for its clichés and cheesy endings. But Dr. Hans Madueme and Dr. Robert Erle Barham hope to change that.
They have initiated the Nicholas Barker Short Fiction Prize, that will be awarded to a Covenant College undergrad who submits a short story masterfully exploring what Christian fiction can be. The title of this prize is named after former Covenant English professor Dr. Nicholas Barker, as a way of honoring him as a beloved faculty member who served from 1966 to 2006.
On Friday morning, November 2, in Barham’s office, which is brimming with books, Dr. Madueme and Dr. Barham sat down and discussed their inspiration and hopes for this contest.
“We are a part of a small reading group: the two of us, Dr. Macallister, and Barbara Beckman, actually. And we love fiction, we read together and talk about what we’re reading,” Madueme said. “But as that has been going on, for some years, we’ve had this conversation about the power of literature and just wondering, is there Christian fiction and are there fiction writers drawing on the Christian tradition in some way and what does that look like?”
This underlying question has been at the forefront of Madueme and Barham’s minds as they have spent time sleuthing around for modern fiction that grapples with the reality of God and his supernatural presence in the contemporary world. They have concluded that there is not much of this kind of short fiction done by living writers. So, they are calling Covenant students to inaugurate modern work of exemplary fiction that achieves this same goal.
“It sort of came to me, the idea that there doesn’t seem to be an abundance of this kind of Christian fiction,” Madueme said. “We are at Covenant College and steeped in this tradition, so why not? Why not? If we are looking for this kind of fiction, why can’t we get our students to try a hand at it?”
Madueme went on to explain how current great fiction writers rarely dabble into the realm of Christian themes, and if they do so, it usually is in the background or as a foil. He said that writers who deal with Christian themes directly are often of mediocre quality. Christian authors, Madueme noted, tend to either produce great fiction or Christian fiction, but he asked: shouldn’t there be something that encapsulates both?
“In part, what we are looking for is pressing right into the Christian material and doing it at a high level that provides a rich reading experience,” Madueme said.
Thus, Madueme and Barham decided to initiate this fiction competition to encourage Covenant writers to partake in this mission of writing good literary fiction centered on Christian themes. These two professors will be the primary judges of the submission and will award a prize if there is an entry of sufficient quality.
The piece of fiction must be a 2,000-8,000 word unpublished piece, written by a current Covenant undergraduate student, submitted anytime between now and March 1, 2019 in PDF form to firstname.lastname@example.org. Barham said entries have already started coming in.
Madueme and Barham further explained the kind of fiction they were hoping to read and how it might meet their criteria for good Christian fiction that transcends the secularized material world and imaginatively engages supernatural realities.
“A particular range of fiction we are envisioning is able to sort of draw the curtain and allow readers to glimpse something of the world of Scripture,” Madueme explained. He added, “Not in a flat-footed, simplistic way… We are looking for fiction that is able to provoke evocatively to take the reader to consider the transcendent spiritual realities.”
Barham added that part of the challenge of the competition is its breadth that allows different avenues towards accomplishing this task. Some genres of fiction they suggested include contemporary, historical, fantasy, magical realism, science fiction, and even detective fiction.
He said that, “the idea is to have a portrayal of the world that is informed by the supernatural, the spiritual, that is consonant with Scripture, so it’s not strictly a material world. It could be a brush with the supernatural, or an explicit encounter… It could just be a portrayal of the world as a kind of everyday holiness.”
“I think it would be wonderful if Covenant College is the place where all of you writers, using all of who you are, write stories that pull us out of our spiritual slumber.” Madueme said. “I want to read that fiction, so indulge us. Write these stories!”
Later, in Barham’s special topics course, Narrative and the Christian Imagination, Madueme challenged the class to embrace the call to write these stories:
“Where are those stories that gleam like lightning? Where are those novelists subverting the secular narratives and undermining the anti-Christian strategies of the devil? That’s my question. Where are they? I hope you can help me figure out this conundrum. I need your help… We want to see you writing these stories. Please, please write these stories. Christian fiction may be dead today, but for the sake of heaven, let it rise again, like a blazing phoenix over Lookout Mountain.”
So, Covenant College, will you take part in the challenge?