Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Can this be done? How?

Like most people who write novels from a Christian worldview, I struggle with parameters. How much violence is too much? How should discussions about sex be handled? Where is the line between gritty, timely, relevant description and that which is salacious and offensive? We’ve touched on this issue here on NovelMatters before but the controversy is perennial.

Some people think I stepped over that line in Latter-day Cipher. (Look at some of its reviews on Amazon.) In this novel, I described the acts of a man who wanted to enact the old Mormon custom of punishing apostates by shedding their blood (a practice known in Mormon history as blood atonement.)

Long ago, before I ever wrote a novel, I had a theory. I thought that it would be proper for a Christian to write within the parameters of the Bible. (I thought it was my original idea. Probably not.)

Should be fairly straightforward, it seemed: Just talk about what the Bible talks about, in the way it talks about it.

Sounds good? Well, let’s see. That would allow discussions of incest, gang-rape, murder, corpse desecration, child sacrifice, and other horrific subjects.

It would contain very little of what we call romance (except that steamy Song of Solomon, but in the narratives – almost nowhere.)

And it wouldn’t address a boatload of “hot” issues like global warming, drug abuse, or social media. (Or any media except books and letters, for that matter.)

You see the problem?

Could this be done? Is it possible, without descending into legalism, to set such boundaries? And what role would the Bible play in setting such boundaries?

I found that some publishers have their own lists of which words can and cannot be used. But aside from just vocabulary, how have others of you who are writing “realistic” Christian fiction handled this issue?


Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Can it be done? I ask myself this often. And my only answer is to tell the story straight. I don't pull punches or self edit - especially during initial drafts. And I find that smaller details work themselves out later.

I remind myself that the Bible is still the most controversial book in the world. Anything I write will pale in comparison. Shocking stuff in that Bible.

My current WIP tackles a number of issues that are hardly PG material. But I've been around long enough to know that life is rarely polite or sanitized. So just like the setting - 1930's New York City - the story will be gritty, and, I hope, compelling.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Sometimes it can be more in the word choice than the event/situation itself that publishers object to. I had to tweak one life-changing experience for my main character in Raising Rain, not because of the situation, but because of my word usage. I switched 'her naked body' with 'her bare shoulders.' It got the point across without being titillating or using a buzzword that might pull readers out of the scene, which was the editor's main concern.

Unknown said...

Gritty. Maybe that's a good word to help "feel" our way toward some parameters.

Ariel, when I read a couple of chapters from your WIP recently I saw how you used description of setting and characters to create a foreboding atmosphere (in a bar, no less.) Yet -- no foul language, no explicit detail even though sex was alluded to in the second chapter.

It can be done, as you showed. But boy, when we are dealing with situations and emotions that cry out for a graphic description or loaded, prurient words -- that's when we have to ask the Holy Spirit to help us with the right words.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

I agree with you, Latayne. I think some publishers are more open to it than others because of their readership.

Lynn Squire said...

I think the issue is where are you taking the imaginations of your readers?

II Cor 10:5 Casting down imaginations, and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ;

A good writer stirs the emotions of the reader, even to the point of stimulating a physical response ("I laugh; I cried. It moved me Bob" Larry Boy from Veggietales). What we cause our readers to think, imagine, and physically feel, through our words determines when we cross the line of what is right.

True we are not wholly responsible for another's thoughts or actions, but we don't want to be that stumbling block to a reader . . . we don't want to be that stimulus for the woman who decides her husband doesn't match up to what a man should be (for example) leading her to decide to a divorce.

Mark 7:21-23 "For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, Thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lasciviousness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness: All these evil things come from within, and defile the man."

I think as authors we need to ask ourselves are we drawing what is within our readers out? When they read a sex scene, are they committing adultery in their minds? When they see a character murder another, do they see that as the solution to their problems? Do they see the characters suffering consequences for what wrong things they do?

No, we can't be fully responsible for the actions of another, but the serpent enticed Eve to eat of the fruit because of what he suggested it would bring her. God judged the serpent for his words.

Unknown said...

Something quite odd happened recently when I attempted to read a well-reviewed book by a well-known Christian author.

It was fiction, and without going into too much identifying detail, it began with a child-in-danger scenario.

(Now, I've WRITTEN a child-in-danger scenario. So I'm not allergic to that idea.)

But the book I was reading, though it used no graphic language nor descriptions, terrified me. I couldn't keep reading. If it weren't for the cover copy I wouldn't know that the child's dangerous situation ultimately went bad. The author so effectively made me fear for the child that I simply couldn't keep reading.

I respect the author. I know she must have brought redemption at the end, but I couldn't bear to go the journey with her.

Someone might say that this is our goal as authors-- making something so real and plausible that it draws the reader in emotionally. But in this case it caused me to close the book. Perhaps forever.

Nicole said...

All of these comments speak the truth, but they also speak of the subjectivity of interpretation. Not necessarily of the word of God, but how it's applied to writing a novel. If something offends me, chances are I won't capture it (or maybe even use it at all) in my story, but if it doesn't offend me or send me off on an illicit journey in my mind, I'm going to write about it because if it doesn't offend me, it probably won't offend the intended audience.
If we write to a specific audience, we need to know what will serve them best.
I came out of the world, so literature that is soaked in Christian lingo and churchy settings without what comprises "reality" to most of the population doesn't get it for me. I need to see the actions and hear the thoughts of the lost (without graphics or judgment) on their journeys to salvation--IF they get there. The Christian characters must conduct themselves organically as to who they truly are.
"Her naked body" is real, especially in that situation. Beautiful substitute, though, Debbie.
It blows me away sometimes that a writer would have to substitute something for "naked body". Um, do Christian people have sex, experience passion, enjoy kissing?! The lost certainly do. I can understand not including erotic material, but, good grief, where does "chaste romance" get off without passion?
Think Redeeming Love. Now there's a literary classic which isn't "safe" at all.
To each his own, but obviously a hotbed (no pun intended) issue for me, who as a writer contrasts the world's view of love, romance, and sex to God's view of the same.

Bonnie Grove said...

I am beginning to think that fiction isn't about being "real" it is about creating a credible story world.

I like Debbie's example of changing one phrase in order to explore the meaning of scene in a way that wouldn't distract the reader - take them out of the story world she created.

What made Redeeming Love acceptable to Christian readers? (More than acceptable - it is a perennial bestseller) The story deals with some of the most base, vile subject matter on earth (child abuse, child prostitution, sex in various forms and for various intentions, unabated sin, etc) - yet it is a beloved book. Why? I think, in part, because the world Rivers created was an older world - a step removed from our own lives, which give us a barrier of safety. Also, the evils were dealt with in a subjective manner - "This happened to me and here is what it was like to experience this event". This helps us to understand the event from a first person, rather than universal, point of view. Subjectivity has long play in today's modern reader. It does for me!
Rivers also examines the evils of the story world she created without subjecting the reader to vile words (Aren't we all sick to death of the F-bomb everywhere?). She uses poetic language to help us understand the meaning of the events rather than focusing on the events themselves.

Just some random thoughts from a chick who is still far from having it all figured out.

Rosslyn Elliott said...

Great topic, Latayne!

It's hard to draw lines--and I'm not sure I want to--because as a friend once told me, good taste depends on so many small choices like the ones other commenters have mentioned.

Despite the fact that Latter-Day Cipher had some scenes of graphic violence, I never found it troubling in the "should I be reading this?" sense.

By contrast, I read a CBA novel in which a murder occurred in a rather tame way, technically, (strangulation), but I found the depiction of it so abhorrent that I will be very slow to pick up one of this writer's novels again. It's hard to nail down why one scene is prurient violence and another is not, but it would make a GREAT seminar at ACFW.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I just stopped in to say I read the comments and have mulled over this topic all day. This is a highly fascinating discussion and I echo Rosslyn that it would make a great seminar topic.
~ Wendy

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Great discussions! I guess it would have been good to mention that the passage in Raising Rain that I changed was not a romantic or sensual situation. It was an unwanted source of sorrow for the protagonist, but I was spare with the details to keep from sensationalizing what happened. Still, it 'happened' and the character had to deal with it.
I agree with Latayne - I picked up "The Lovely Bones" in Sam's one day and couldn't put it down until the end of the first chapter and I walked away practically traumatized. Even though she told the story matter-of-factly, it was like being unable to look away from a car accident and I wish I'd never read it. But each of us has a threshold we don't like to cross and that was mine.

Anonymous said...

I just started reading "Latter Day Cipher" and that first chapter made me feel like a rug had been pulled out from under me. It really grabbed me! Unfortunately I have to put it aside for a while because I do reviews and received a box of books so need to read them first.
Several years ago I received a book (and I can't even remember the title of it right now). It was written by a Christian author. The first chapter didn't pull the rug out from under me, it made me sick to my stomach! The author had the killer use wolves. Two would pin down the victim and the third would go for the throat. The visual in my head still haunts me and the author had the guy go after a child, too. The child didn't die, but still. Just the thought of it....I definitely think that author crossed the line and couldn't believe a Christian author would use such graphic detail and choose such a horrible way to kill people.
My two cents!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Was pondering this again (imagine that) and I wonder what role our preferences play in the discussion? There are certain novels I won't read (or write) out of principle and there are others I won't read (or write) out of preference.

But the definition of "acceptable" varies from reader to reader. As authors, how do we create that credible story world, as Bonnie put it, without alienating our readers?

Unknown said...

Well, I've been up this morning thinking about this, too. Ariel's comment about preference, and Lynn Squire's comments might be used to snag this discussion by its coattails and bring it back to one of the questions I originally posed: What is the role of the Bible in all this?

I mean, we are Christians writing -- whether or not our fiction might be considered overtly Christian. So Christians have the Bible in common with one another. It's where the buck stops, I believe. And as I said, it doesn't address all specific issues. But the Bible, being the mind of God in written form, should help format our minds. Right? It should trump personal preferences, right?

Here's something I want to throw into the discussion. In Jeremiah God said several times that child sacrifice such as the pagans practiced was something that He not only did not command as a rite of worship, but that such a thing "never entered" His mind.

So we see that even God Himself self-edits, so to speak. How can we apply that principle as writers?


PS Lynn (not Lynn Squire). I know you said you have only read the first chapter of Latter-day Cipher. Now, about wolves..... we may need to talk later. :)

Unknown said...

Also: Debbie, Nicole, Bonnie, Rosslyn, and Wendy -- I haven't responded directly to your posts but I am blown away with the depth of thought that you have put into this issue. I can't thank you enough.

Debbie Fuller Thomas said...

Latayne, this was a timely post and one that should keep us thinking for a long time. Thank you!

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Latayne - great thoughts to bring us back to your original question. And also a fantastic observation about how God self edits.

May I offer a quick clarification on my lack of self editing in initial drafts? I didn't mean that I write without restraint. Simply that I let the story wander within it's natural boundaries. Boundaries put in place by my faith and my conscience.

And I think that's the crux of the discussion. Scripture provides a litmus test of sorts to what we write. Though the Bible can be shocking, God didn't write it for shock value. But to enlighten the human condition and make us long for Him.

I think we can find the balance in realistic prose when our words have the same motivation. Our stories should be appealing, not appalling.

Bonnie Grove said...

I find the Bible shocking - largely because it says things that most Western, evangelical people don't talk about much. Like how we are called to suffering (not skipping from mountain top to mountain top with bags of money and divine health and fancy cars). Like how God's goal for us it to strip us bare. How grace is a vehicle to show us our desperate need for a Savior - and I'm talking about those of us who are Christians and are trying to follow Jesus.

I find it shocking that God will go to extremes to get our attention.

As far as how that plays out in my fiction, I'm always exploring the ways God communicates with us, stalks us, consoles us, gives us our marching orders. I'm am endlessly fascinated with the knowledge that He hasn't thrown up his hands and walked away from us - Yet he never lowers his standards of what he expects from his kids (holiness! Good heavens, we're on a journey to holiness!)

Talking to the Dead was inspired by the book of Ruth. My next novel, Time and Time Again (coming in September) is inspired by parts of 1 Samuel. The novel I'm currently at work on explores the second half of Job. The stories and characters are original, but the timeless theme of God bending to touch the ruddy cheek of humanity is my endless exploration.

Nicole said...

Lynn, that novel with the wolves is one of my favorites by "that" author. He is a devoted Christian man and a dear friend of mine, one of the most generous Christian authors in this entire biz. I can understand why this is offensive to you, but considering the entire plot is about a self-appointed antichrist, he chose the horror of such things to demonstrate the source.
And this is the thing, isn't it? Perhaps thrillers aren't the best option for you as a reader. Granted the scenes you described are horrifying, but within the story they work to implicate the wickedness involved.
We must be allowed to write the stories God gives us to tell. If we step over His line, then He will tell us if we listen.
Too many readers assume their standards should be applied to every writer. They have every right to be offended, but to point at an author and accuse him/her of not hearing from God is presumptuous and unfair--unless there's a blatant attack on the basic doctrines of Jesus and salvation.
LaTayne, regarding child sacrifice never entering God's mind, it speaks of evil which we have to assume doesn't enter God's mind because He is good and holy, even though He knew the fall of man ushered in unlimited perversions. However, how we interpret good and holy is a conundrum. God ordered the death of entire people groups: men, women, children, animals.
These stringent judgments put on pieces of literature should be self-censors not intended for everyone.
The sweetness and light stories come close to offending me except for a few.
Sorry for my diatribe here. As always: JMO.

Unknown said...

Ariel and Bonnie: I think you guys are hitting the nail on the head in looking at the character and history of God's dealings with humanity, and (like me) struggling to find out how we as novelists can make that relevant-- no, urgent-- as an issue for today's readers.

Nicole -- rant on! (I, after all, am the reader who threw away The Good Earth (!!!) when I was offended by the fact that it actually described a man and his wife having sex.)

Your comment shows how one thing can be deeply offensive to one reader and redemptive to another. As a further example, one reader of this blog said that the book I put aside and couldn't read is one of her favorites.

So it can't be, shouldn't be, just about how things "hit" us as individuals, can it?

But I think we're getting to the real meat of this matter with the Jeremiah passage I mentioned. (BTW, Jeremiah 7:31.) Your comments were perceptive.

Here's the deal: God said this concept -- burning up your child -- was something so offensive to HIm that He limited His own thinking processes regarding it. He chose to exclude that thought from His mind in formulating commandments for people.

AND YET-- He is the one who brings up this very issue in the Bible! We only know about this thing that He didn't want in His mind because He brought it up.

Here's what I'm thinking: He responded to a horrific situation that was far outside His wishes. He talked about it, and took a stand against it.

Could that be the beginning of one of these parameters: to address issues, even hateful ones, in such a way that we show our allegiance with God against such issues?

Anonymous said...

This is a very stimulating topic, Latayne. It demonstrates that "the line" is markedly different for every reader, writer and publisher. I think to be real and convincing as writers who are Christians, especially if we hope to do more than preach to the choir, we have to contrast the good with the bad, without being gratuitous. But what that means varies tremendously. An author I've read and admired for several years, who's been controversial to say the least, has, in my opinion, crossed the line from contrasting good and evil, to shocking his reader purely for the shock factor. Purely because he can, now that he's "arrived." That's fine for him, but he's lost me as a reader.

There's no way to resolve the issue. We measure this line with a slide rule. All we can do is be true to stories we tell. For some that means tying every loose end with a bow. For others that means tackling tough issues that have no pat answers. In each case the thing we must not omit is God's grace. It's the non-variable in all of our lives, and if we at least introduce it into even the grittiest and most hopeless storyline that's often enough. I always think of the scripture in 1 Cor. 3:6: "I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow."

Lynn said...

One thing is clear by all the posts..."the line" that shouldn't be crossed is a very subjective concept. And I respectfully decline to believe that content that (having a hard time finding words since I'm definitely NOT a writer), fills out the basis of a plot line can be allowed just because it goes with the plot line. Can't that excuse be used to allow anything into books?
And I have problems with the concept of God giving writers stories in every case. How would you know that it was God who was giving you the concept?
I guess I'm finding out that I have different "lines" for different authors. If I'm reading a secular author for lack of a better term, I have one line. But when I'm reading works by a Christian author, that line is definitely different.

Nicole said...

Lynn, I wasn't criticizing your "line" for determining what you read and from whom you read it. Of course it is your choice however you define acceptable. I just wanted to give you some background on this author who I know personally. Because I think a plot line works doesn't in any way mean that you should think so also.

I can't speak for other authors, but I can tell you I couldn't come up with idea one without the Lord giving me a storyline. Zippo without Him. I know unequivocally that I answer to Him for the way I write. Apart from Him I can do nothing.

April M. said...

In the comments, several people have referred to the book "Redeeming Love" by Francine Rivers. I read this book back in Nov. 2005 and didn't like it - although I did think the writing was generally good from a descriptive standpoint. I found the story a bit far-fetched and unlikely - but I realize it was basically a retelling of the biblical story of Hosea and Gomer and in that light I can respect it.

I almost never read anything which is "Christian" fiction or listen to "Christian" music - so much of the time, the quality is sub-standard or it is overly-positive and not relevant to my own experience of "real life." The only reason I read Redeeming Love is because my closest friend called me to say she'd just finished it and wanted to kill herself that very night. A friend had insisted on loaning it to her and she'd read it out of a feeling of obligation. “Lynn” had experienced horrific sexual abuse by her father until she was 16 - the worst case her counselor has ever dealt with personally - something I'd known about since 2000. Anyway, I realized that there was something in the book which was resonating with what “Lynn” had experienced - something she wasn't prepared to say outright but was hinting at by mentioning the book. The next day, I bought the book and read it - but couldn't figure out why it had driven her to the brink of suicide. Since I have never been sexually abused or assaulted, it wasn't triggering to me in any way - it was just a story I didn't particularly like.

I then called “Lynn” and told her I'd finished the book but that I didn't quite see what she had found so troubling about it. She was still extremely suicidal and it was a very difficult conversation - she finally swore me to absolute secrecy and said what aspect of the book had sent her over the edge as she told me something she'd never told anyone - not even her counselor.

Anyway, in this case it probably wasn't so much what Francine Rivers wrote which set off this crisis - but the fact that it was read by someone who had a very dark secret she had carried alone for years and was no longer able to keep it stuffed down deep inside. Even “Lynn” doesn't know exactly why this particular book triggered such a crisis at that point in her life - she'd read plenty of other books which dealt with similar issues before this time, without affect.

Someone else mentioned the book, "The Lovely Bones." I have the book but haven't read it and probably never will (“Lynn” passed it on to me after she'd read it - oddly, it didn't trigger much of a response in her). For some reason, the subject matter doesn't appeal to me - but I am sure the book is well-written. However, I have read "Lucky, " which is also by Alice Sebold, and really connected with it. However, it took an act of discipline to read the first chapter, in which she graphically describes her own rape. She drove home the point that rape is not an act of sex - but is the utter violation of the person's soul and sense of self. I hated her description of her rape but it pushed me to hate the act of rape itself. What I liked most about the book was her determination to survive the rape, seek justice and eventually rebuild her life (“Lynn” also liked the book). Overall, I found it to be a very positive book but it isn't one I would casually recommend to someone else.

Well, that is my two-cents worth and it didn't clarify anything at all.

Nicole said...

April, I'm sorry I can't let this comment slide: I almost never read anything which is "Christian" fiction or listen to "Christian" music - so much of the time, the quality is sub-standard or it is overly-positive and not relevant to my own experience of "real life."

If you haven't actively read Christian fiction since 2005, I must tell you there's a whole lot of good writing goin' on since then that most definitely deals with the "reality" that can be life.

Sorry about the horror your friend experienced.

April M. said...


I am the first to admit to not having any relevant input regarding "Christian" fiction - I was reluctant to post due to this lack of experience. I did not mean to imply that there aren't any good Christian fiction writers or that "secular" writers are somehow superior. I assume the ratio of good to bad writers is the same, regardless of religious belief.

I think the biggest problem Christian writers face is their audience. In my experience, most long-time Christians, particularly those who are conservative and were “raised in the Church,” have an expectation that a book be “Biblically” based with a tidy scriptural and moral resolution at the end. In my opinion, this often results in simplistic books, some of which are just glorified romance novels. I have known many Christian women throughout the years who would be deeply offended at a book being marketed as being “Christian” which contained profanity, alcohol, drug or sexual references, violence, or had a dark ending. I don’t know if the average Christian man has the same issues - I don’t recall ever hearing any Christian men in my acquaintance discussing Christian fiction.

I hope all Christian writers, fiction or not, continue to work together to push their audiences to think beyond their own narrow world view. I have an open mind and am looking forward to learning more about Christian fiction through this blog.

Nicole said...

Excellent point, April. I have known those readers as well. That's why they're not my audience. They need their novels, too, but all the rest of us deserve what we consider to be valuable novels as well.

Unknown said...

April, you're new here and I want you to know that we want to hear from people who come from a different point of view. In fact, people who have in the past been turned off by Christian fiction are the ones we really want to woo. Our goal is to so practice our craft of writing that we make the message of Christ full of grace and winsome to all. But as our own Bonnie Grove observes: Life is messy--God is love. We are trying to cut open all those neatly-tied packages of simplistic fiction and dump out the contents and see what hope God-- not an artificial happily-ever-after plotline-- can offer.

I am so sorry that your friend came to a point of despair. Speaking from my own personal experience, at many crucial, make-it-or-break-it times in my life, it was fiction, not nonfiction, that broke my heart.

I hope your friend is doing better. How is she now?

Thank you so much for your insights!