Friday, April 17, 2009

Fine Line or Green Belt?

I was intentionally quiet on the comments this week as I prepared for my post on this topic. Ethics in Christian fiction covers a broad range of ideas with very subjective opinions covering both ends of the spectrum and everything between.
We've talked about Christian conversion and violence in CBA fiction, but other issues that fit the topic are sex, profanity, the fear factor -- how far to go with disturbing or frightening material -- to name a few.
I've racked my brain this week trying to recall a conversation I recently had with someone about edgy fiction in CBA. I can't remember who the conversation was with, but I remember the essence. The person I spoke with said she doesn't believe getting as close to the edge of the cliff of decency is what defines "edgy." Rather it's addressing the really tough issues with honesty while preserving the Christian standard. That's the finest definition of "edgy" I've heard and it's given me a new way of looking at things.
Debbie and Katy mentioned a Mount Hermon keynote speaker from a few years ago who said if we soft-pedal darkness, we diminish God's glory to overcome it. (Yes, Katy, it was Ted Dekker, and his address was amazing.) I completely agree, but there's a way to do that without crossing the line. Which brings me to the title of this post. Is it a fine line between the standards of CBA and ABA fiction, or is it more of a greenbelt, a span between the borders? Do we come as close to the line as we can possibly get, falling within Christian publishing guidelines by a hair's breadth? Or do we leave a gulf fixed between us? After that conversation with my elusive friend, I'm not so inclined to think of it as a fine line anymore.
I just finished the latest novel of a best-selling Christian author, who most definitely addressed several tough subjects -- and came as close to publishing profanity as I've seen in CBA. First letters followed by the appropriate number of dashes left little to the imagination. The publisher might as well have spelled out the words and been done with it. In my opinion, it wasn't edgy it was gratuitous. The same novel also talked about sex in a way I've not read in CBA, yet I didn't have a problem with it, because it was germane to the story. It wasn't there to titillate.
There are so many gray areas when you get into a topic like this and countless opinions as to how they should be addressed. I think Lori Benton said it best in her comment: "That niggling voice was telling me I'd crossed a line." As Christians we answer to God, so it's best we listen to Him. There's a world of difference between believers and unbelivers, and I think it should be clearly evident in our writing. Do you agree or disagree? I'd love to hear your thoughts.


Susan Storm Smith said...

"The person I spoke with said she doesn't believe getting as close to the edge of the cliff of decency is what defines "edgy." Rather it's addressing the really tough issues with honesty while preserving the Christian standard. That's the finest definition of "edgy" I've heard and it's given me a new way of looking at things."

This is me is a beautiful and complete answer. I have read Christian Fiction that was not much different than the things I could read in the secular section. Fiction and throwing Christian on top of it to sell to another market is only a lie. Enough of it and it ruins your credibility as a Christian and as a writer.

thanks for a thought provoking week!

Bonnie Grove said...

This week on Novel Matters has really had me pulling a Winnie the Pooh: Think, think, think.

I wonder. . .

When an author aims and misses - wiffs the ball rather than hits the home run - let's say the author is me - I wonder if I miss becaues I get too caught up in trying to tell the gritty human story rather than focusing on the awesome God interacting with our gritty humanity.

I suppose it's been said before, even on this blog, and I agree that Lori said it very well. I guess I'm just digesting all the great conversations we've been having here. I'm working through the application.

I love hanging out here. I'm so glad I get to do this with all of you.

Kathleen Popa said...

Bonnie, do you do the Pooh Bear arm movements, too? I do: left arm across the forehead, right fist pounding the thoughts in. (Feel free to reverse left and right.)

I love the gritty human story. I love the whole Christian take on it: that we are beautiful, but desperately fallen. That bad things happen to us and (sigh!)through us every day. BUT that love, incarnation, redemption and resurrection happen too. All the time.

Violence is part of that story. Sex (let us all hope) is also part. But the essence of each, the violation or cherishing of something holy, is psychological, emotional. Focus too much on the mechanics, and I think you miss the point, and the story suffers.

Roundtable Tea Company said...

As a Pastor I find people know evil well, but what God can actually do, they are woefully ignorant. Latest polls are startling about what American Christians don’t know about God and what they do know about evil.

There are many graphic images in the Old Testament and evil is often revealed but the power of God is always dominate and supreme. I was once told that too much explicit shock writing is the sign of poor writing skills. My theory is that it reflects an author who is struggling with depth of meaning. The more meaning we can embed in an image, the less explicit we will need to be in our descriptions. That’s why I developed the Lightbox Method ( It really works for me.

Good talk! Love your blogs! Came from Twitter…

John Wiuff

Melinda Walker said...

Great topic, which I’ve given a lot of consideration over the years. One big issue is that people have such varying backgrounds and experiences, and thus, different definitions of objectionable elements. I grew up in a quite conservative environment—although my Christian home was quite troubled—but my professional life a nurse has given me a different perspective of reality in the world. As an adult, much of the fiction that follows “the (conservative) rules” seems rather fairy tale-ish to me. Do I want to read fiction with gratuitous elements in it? Absolutely not. Do I want to read fiction that portrays to some extent the reality I know? You bet.

I’m actually glad for those people who enjoy sweetness-and-light-type fiction (and I know many of them) and the authors who write it. It’s great that people have the perspectives that allows that type of fiction to resonate with them. The Christian women I know with different perspectives of reality, turn to secular fiction, not because they want to be titillated, but because they want to be entertained in a challenging way.

Here’s an example from my own experience: when I gave CBA fiction another try a few years ago, I read a book by a very popular romantic suspense author, at the recommendation of women in my church. As the relationship between the Christian H/H progressed, the physicality between them was warm and fuzzy, without so much a hint of physical passion. I’m all for keeping physical intimacy off-scene, but in this day and age where we are bombarded with alluring sexual messages in commercials, billboards, and society’s pop heros (to name a few places where exposure is almost unavoidable), in my opinion it’s a disservice to characterize a godly romantic relationship as asexual. (And it certainly doesn’t make a godly relationship very attractive to Christian young people, who don’t yet have the ability to conceptualize a deeper, spiritually intimate relationship.) I realize in recent years, a handful of CBA fiction portrays a bit more in this area.

So this is my conclusion, I’m striving to portray the truth of my life and my world. First and foremost, God is my truth, and His reality never changes. I hear Phillipians 4:8 used as the standard for Christian entertainment (whatever things are true, honorable, right, etc.,). The inference I hear in evangelical circles is that only lovely things are to be pondered. I’m not sure how this interpretation works with the blunt sexual images of Ezekiel 16, where God uses prostitution to convey Israel’s response to Him, or the images of Song of Solomon (certainly no one could question the beauty or purity). But the same level of sensuality—including the description of Body Parts—in fiction, in any context, would be quite offensive to the CBA audience I’m familiar with.

This is way too long, I know. (I’ve used all my nearly sacred writing time this morning to write it.) But let me reiterate, lest I be totally castigated, I have utmost respect for the standards of CBA publishers and authors, and it not meant as a criticism of that part of the industry. I’m going out on a limb here, to express my opinions and conclusions, because I do feel strongly about them. And I’d like to see more of what I like to read published.

Cynthia Ruchti said...

Sharon, the conversation was with me! We share the same heart on so many issues. Thanks for this message today. Inspiring, as always.

Mary DeMuth said...

Perhaps it's the Kite Runner in me, but the more I grow as a writer, the more stark my writing becomes, the more real. That doesn't mean I titillate or shock, but that I paint the reality as best I can, relying on Jesus for the words. The aim of the Christian who writes fiction is to stay true to the literary dream, to keep the reader buckled into the story without scandalizing.

But then again, wasn't Jesus scandalous? His death wasn't pretty (but it was beautiful). And His sacrificial act is the hingepoint of everything, the ultimate expression of light conquering darkness.

That's my hope in writing, that I would portray evil as evil, but that the light of redemption would stay true to Jesus' scandalous act on the cross.

Christa Allan said...

I like would Mary shared: "...paint the reality as best I can, relying on Jesus for the words."

I think of Tim O'Brien's THE THINGS THEY CARRIED [it's not Christian fiction], a book that I would love for my juniors and seniors to read. I can't assign it, however, because it does contain some words that would require me to use the shift key here. But, the dialogue is from soldiers, most if them in their 20s,in VietNam. If Tim had used dialogue like, "Gee, Billy, this is a darn difficult situation," I'd wonder if the book had been meant to be a comedy. The language is definitely not gratuitous.

So,I do believe we're called in Christian fiction to the same portray what we are writing about as real and not sensationalize for the sake of sales.

Does that mean Christian fiction can't deal with war? No. I think it means we, as Mary said, rely on Jesus for the words.

Ultimately, isn't that what I should do anyway?

Tracey Bateman said...

I love this topic. It's relevant and timely for me right now as my book THIRSTY goes into production. I've struggled with the whole concept of "edgy" for quite a few years now. And I've come to the conclusion that I really hate that word. What is edgy anyway? One person's edge is another person's soft, fluffy middle. As someone here mentioned, it's all a matter of perspective.
However, I also believe we have to always weigh our choices against the power of God's Words. His themes, his choices. I have no trouble writing about a vampire because it's a symbol. A metaphor for something else that parallel's the heroine's issues. But I would have trouble throwing in a vampire sex scene or something like that. Even off screen.
Recently, I wrote a play for our church that used "heck". One woman read it and was so very grieved in her spirit that we would choose to use a euphemism. It didn't come from a place of judgment or religion, she just honestly felt that word down to her soul. So i took it out. Not because I have a problem with it, but because as a Christian leader (and leaders are simply those who influence--so writers qualify), I feel like I have a responsibility to know my audience and show them respect. Paul talked about showing compassion for those who are more conservative and I think sometimes in our efforts to be "real" we forget that there are precious brothers and sisters in Christ who truly will be hurt and confused by a "Christian" writing with such edge. And this probably applies more to the supernatural, thriller type books rather than what Mary Demuth was referring to.
No one will purchase THIRSTY without having an understanding that they're getting a gritty book. The cover blurb is pretty straightforward that it's a freaky book.
I guess my point is that we can be real without removing our morality from the pages. We don't have to cuss and show breasts. The world does that. I don't want to add to the demoralization of our society. And the decay of Christian principles in literature. If the world doesn't know I'm a Christian by the fruit of my hands, what good am I as a Christian novelist? I could write romance for a secular company and still entertain without violating my principles, but bottom line, I want to entertain while conveying a message of hope. The message that Jesus never fails. I will use whatever tools God puts in my hands. And if that's too edgy for some, you can bet it will be not edgy enough for others. :)
I can't think of a nice wrap up line so...that's about all I have to say about that.

Steve G said...

One of the problems is that holiness doesn't sell. One of the reasons I like the "hero" genre is it is close to the call of God in our lives to become more like Jesus. I am all for people having a character(s) that stands out because they are mature in their faith. We hear lots about making people "real", but sometimes that "reality" is one of great morals and ethics and language.

I used to follow a blog. I stopped when a guy swore in a comment. Both he and the blog's owner defended the language by saying it was used to denote the level of his emotion (remember it was a written comment, not verbal or off the cuff). Are we at the point where the only way to express deep emotion is to swear? Our society really is digressing if we accept that argument. I look for a certain amount of intelligence in life (and my reading) and I'm sorry, but resorting to swearing in order to express yourself takes you down a few notches in my mind. I am not saying I judge a person for that (they can do what they want), but in life we all choose where to spend our time and efforts and resources (and I chose to drop that blog).

And dialogue can be over-rated. Instead of having a character swear, there are other ways we can be made aware of his/her language without going into specifics.

Giving me a character like Joseph in your writing also encourages me that it is possible to be in the world and not of the world - and it is not about me, but the God in me. I really believe God is great enough to lead me to holiness.

Anonymous said...

I love the discussion we're having here today. Steve, I really agree that there are ways to get the point across without being blatant. It really is a cop out, one Christian writers don't need to resort to.

Tracey, it's great to hear your comments here today. You're absolutely right, we can be real without removing our morality from the pages. I can't imagine that God has gifted us this way to any other end. I included in my draft of this post the Scripture where we're admonished not to cause someone else to stumble, then I took it out when it didn't segue into my next point. Thank you for bringing it up.

Melinda, thank you for sharing your writing time with us. I know how valuable it is, so just know how much we appreciate it.

Cynthia! Forgive my brain freeze. And thank you for the definition of edgy. It may not resonate with everyone the way it did with me, because it's true that "one person's edge can be someone else's fluffy middle," but it definitely settled some things for me.

Thank you all for your comments. Keep them coming. We love to hear from you!

Bonnie Grove said...

Thank you SO much for sacrificing your writing time to contribute to the conversation. I LOVED what you had to say about striving to understand the diversity of perspectives and tastes.

I also like what you had to say about the romance novel you read. I love what God has to say about intimacy with Him and in marriage. I too roll my eyes when two people in a book who love each other have no feelings of passion toward each other. I agree, I don't want to SEE it, and I don't need descriptions of people making out or whatever, but lets acknowledge that human beings are sexual beings and that God has said "It is good".
Like all things about human nature, it is best when offered up to God with our thanks, and respected for the gift it is.

Crista: Loved your thoughts on realistic language in difficult situations like war. I've read books that I loved so much I simply let a small amount of bad language pass - but I've set books aside because of language too. I don't know if I even understand my personal standard all that well.

You guys rock. I love this.

Cathi-Lyn Dyck said...

I have nearly a page of notes/quotes just from the comments section alone. Thank you all for being my teachers today, and for spending the time (with God!) to develop such deep, precise and instructive thoughts.

Janet said...

This is a huge issue, and I haven't crystallized all my thoughts on it. I know that in my book the characters engage in illicit sex (off-stage) but they don't know God's laws, so what do you expect? And I never say that it is bad, either. I figure the reader is capable of drawing his or her own conclusions.

For me, at least on this issue, we have to acknowledge human sexuality without arousing lust in the reader. This is pretty tricky stuff, but if Jesus told us that lust is the spiritual equivalent of adultery I have no business as a writer of leading people in that direction. At the same time, I can't pretend that no one experiences desire because that is a falsification of life. Our hormones are God-created, after all.

Violence is another thing that creates a hormonal response in us, whether we want it to or not, which explains how people get addicted to it. So yet again, we cannot deny the existence of violence in the world, its impact on our lives and on our hearts, but we should handle the details of its depiction with a great deal of care and prayer. But a story that doesn't even ruffle the doilies is like a meringue: all sugar and no substance. That can be pretty disgusting too. Life is not a series of Precious Moments.

Bad language. I'm struggling with this too. I've never used it myself, although I must confess that in moments of extreme provocation some rather unpretty things have gone through my head. But how do you leave it out if you're dealing with soldiers or drug dealers or even teenagers? The problem here is that it is the word itself that is offensive, but leaving it out can be ridiculous. I've resorted to the time-honoured tradition of telling not showing on this point - "She cursed under her breath." - but a couple of times I inserted some mild language because I just couldn't imagine the character speaking any other way. We'll have to see what editors have to say about it.

Margo Carmichael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Wow, the stuff I miss when I have to go to work! Unfortunately, my boss frowns on blogging on company time.
I'd like to jump in to say that I especially enjoyed Tracey's statement about edgy-fluffy boundaries. Since it can be such an touchy topic for readers, I found myself wondering whether there might eventually be some sort of rating on Christian fiction in regard to language, sexual situations or violence. Just a thought.

Lori Benton said...

Loving this discussion!

Kathleen Popa said. "But the essence of each, the violation or cherishing of something holy, is psychological, emotional. Focus too much on the mechanics, and I think you miss the point, and the story suffers."

I say, "Yes! Exactly. It's all about what's going on in the heart and mind of the character."

Margo Carmichael said...

I love that, Sharon and Cynthia: "Addressing the tough edges with honesty while preserving the Christian standard."

That is exactly what we owe the reader, along with an entertaining read.

A song says, "You're the only Jesus some will ever see." Like it or not, that goes for our books, too. Especially when we are known to be Christian.

As the Hippocratic Oath allegedly says, but actually doesn't, LOL, but does imply:

"First, do no harm."

Well, obviously, we don't show kids playing with matches and gasoline. At least, not without consequences.

But I also ask myself this: Do I lead anyone astray with my story? And if my story is the only one a non-Christian ever reads, what impression does she have, now, about the Gospel? Does it make her want to learn more about Christ and Christians--and how to become one? Or does it turn her off to Christians--people, pastors, church, and therefore, the Gospel?

It's fine if not everyone feels called to spell out in their stories how to be "saved." Many choose simply to write wholesome stories about people who at least acknowledge God, maybe go to church and pray. How we need those stories.

If we want to be truthful, we can show *most* Christians as ordinary people with good intentions. They may slip, stumble, sin, but they rise again in God's forgiveness, and go on with their good intentions. For those that don’t, we can at least balance it with others that do. For the sake of the reader.

And do we lead people into something God clearly warns that He detests—the occult? He seldom gets much stronger than in Deuteronomy 18. Could it be He doesn’t want us entertained by even the idea of powers not from Him? It’s a matter of loyalty, too, I think, to our good God.

Also, a recent article confirmed once again: clean stories sell. The bad news is, as we all know, while Hollywood and publishers still produce the other kind, they also produce stories that make the Gospel look bad. Or make Christians look stupid and/or evil.

Do we? Not on purpose, of course, but--do we?

We know it's not PC on television, in books, in movies, in news stories, to disparage any group--except Christians. That would include many people reading here. Us. Persecution of any group--like us--always begins with disrespecting and disparaging that group.

May our books never, even accidentally, do the same. May our books never cause anyone to stumble away from the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

If they do turn a reader off, are we guilty of causing a little one to stumble?

Because then, as we know, Jesus says, we're better off having a millstone tied around the neck and cast into the sea.

And that is not my idea of the fun of writing.

Margo Carmichael said...

(Revised to give credit to Cynthia, too, for a great thought.)

Nicole said...

There are some excellent reponses here, heart-felt.

I would guess the "fluff" stuff in CBA fiction comes mostly from those authors who've grown up in the church, but I could be wrong.

My work, probably to some, falls into the "edgy" category, but here's how I explain that: "Edgy" is a term which conjures up all kinds of debates and controversy. If by "edgy" you mean it's not "fluff", it addresses sinful issues plainly without judgment, and it shows the lifestyle of a young person growing up without God in his life [in The Famous One], then, yes, without a doubt it is an "edgy" Christian story.

When you contrast the world to real Christianity in story form, like many of you have said, the contrast must be real but tempered depending upon your story. I spent 30 years in the world before finding Jesus, and it isn't pretty out there. Authenticity is important but doesn't need to be graphic for the most part.

Each writer is answerable to the Lord in his/her life. And no one else can determine what God has asked of an individual. Some of the prophets did some humanly questionable things in obedience to God.