His name isn’t the first one you think of when you hear the words “Christian fiction.” Yet Oprah-crowned author Bret Lott is a committed believer whose faith permeates his bestselling writing.

“Anybody who reads my work can scratch the surface – with just a preliminary scratching – and figure out where I come from, and know that I am saved and that I am a Christian,” Lott said, during a recent tour to promote his latest book, "A Song I Knew by Heart" (Random House). “But I’ve never thought of books as gospel spreaders. They don’t have the four spiritual laws in the back, as an appendix. They point toward the fact of redemption.”

The tension with a good novel, Lott believes, is between right and wrong, and good and evil.

“With the right way being made available, which way do we choose?” he said. “Which way do we go? How do we reconcile ourselves with the choices that we make as human beings living in a fallen world and trying to do the right thing? The thing I want not to be, and the quality I want not to have is to be moralistic. I want to have moral quality.”

That moral quality is reflected in all of Lott’s writing, from the bestselling "Jewel," which was chosen by Oprah in 1999 as part of her popular book club, to his latest work.

"A Song I Knew by Heart" is a modern recounting of the story of Ruth. Publisher’s Weekly describes the book as “a quiet, tender novel about what it means to go home again” in which Lott “returns to the notion that some burdens are, in fact, blessings.”

The novel begins when Naomi’s son dies in a tragic accident. Having lost her husband eight years before, Naomi decides to go home to South Carolina. Her daughter-in-law Ruth follows. There, as the ocean tides renew their souls, even long-buried secrets cannot prevail against the forgiveness and hope that both women learn to practice.

Lott committed his life to Christ as a freshman at Northern Arizona University at a Josh McDowell rally more than 20 years ago, and often speaks to Christians about the link between faith and writing. He struggles, he said, with the term “Christian fiction.” He also laments that much of what sells under that label seeks primarily to evangelize, rather than simply reflecting God’s truth.

“I was a Christian before I decided to become a writer. As a consequence,” he explained, “the things that I first wrote were these terrible Christian allegories. I was trying to beat people over the head with the written word. You know, ‘Be a Christian! Be a Christian!’  It was terrible.  It was lousy.  I had a real breakthrough when I realized that that is not the purpose of a story. The gospel is spread one-on-one.”

A Change of Heart

This change of heart was sealed after Lott received a reply from author John White, who stated his belief that the most important thing is to “write simply with the integrity of Christ.” Lott was also greatly influenced by writers like C.S. Lewis and Flannery O’Connor.

“Lewis has a wonderful quote in which he says, ‘The world doesn’t need more little books about Christians. It needs more books about everything, with latent Christian values,’” Lott said. “That is, the division that you bring to the world should be reflected not just in saying, ‘Christian, Christian, Christian’ but say, as in Flannery O’Connor’s works, the inherent Christian outlook. O’Connor will beat you over the head with a two-by-four – but it’s of God. She’s not evangelizing everything, but she’s [showing], in her work, the difference between sin and grace – that giant chasm that none of us can cross without Christ.”