Friday, February 26, 2010

Getting Dirty for Christian Fiction

Time for a giveaway! I'll put your name in the hat for Seeing Things if you've commented on any of the Novel Matters posts this week. We love hearing your erudite voices.

If you missed Wednesday's post by Latayne (brilliant!) and the comments by our readers (also brilliant!), take a minute to enjoy a very thought-provoking discussion on the parameters we either self-impose or are imposed on writers by publishing houses or the market.

Believe it or not, this discussion has been going on for quite a while. Prior to 1964, the year of her death, Flannery O'Connor wrote an essay on the aim and purpose of fiction. The essay was included in a collection of her work posthumously, Mystery and Manners. She wrote:

Ever since there have been such things as novels, the world has been flooded with bad fiction for which the religious impulse has been responsible. The sorry religious novel comes about when the writer supposes that because of his belief, he is somehow dispensed from the obligation to penetrate concrete reality. He will think that the eyes of the Church or of the Bible or of his particular theology have already done the seeing for him, and that his business is to rearrange this essential vision into satisfying patterns, getting himself as little dirty as possible.
Flannery O'Connor, Mystery and Manners

You have to love Flannery O'Connor. She calls out writers who shirk their responsibility to know the world they live in. I love her chutzpah.

I have to ask this question: How do we get "dirty" and honor God at the same time? (Notice I didn't ask how to please every reader at the same time.)

We look to Jesus.

No one saw the world more concretely than Jesus. A whore washed his feet with her tears. He not only made wine, he drank it. He touched leprous skin. He invited himself to a tax collector's house for lunch. And, I'm thinking, he heard naughty words there. Caked with blood, spittle, sweat, and dirt he took the nails for us. Gruesome. Violent. Definitely off-putting. That's crucifixion, the purest act of love.

To follow in the steps of Jesus, to write in a God-honoring, "dirty" way, we must see the world--as best we can--as Jesus sees it, with empathy, detail, and love. And so it is for the Christian writer to observe and portray the beauty and brutality and pain and suffering and redemption all through the eyes of love.

There will always be someone imposing rules. It's our nature. It's much easier to operate with rock-solid parameters. I believe our calling is higher. Our writing--and everything else in our lives--is a product of our relationship with Jesus--subject matter, theme, genre, word usage, voice. Every element is fruit of the faith with put in Jesus, the manner in which we allow ourselves to be loved and love so shallowly in return. Before art and through art, we love Jesus.

It takes a great deal of courage and a solid foundation of faith to look at the world as concretely as O'Connor suggests and as Jesus modeled. I pray for that courage and faith daily.

Can the kind of fiction O'Connor is advocating happen in today's CBA market? Who is getting "dirty" writing fiction for the CBA today and doing so artfully? How have you gotten "dirty" in your fiction? Is Flannery O'Connor, well, wrong?


Wendy Paine Miller said...

Erudite...that's funny. I've so enjoyed these posts b/c this is something I've been thinking on for quite some time.

I think Flan. had it. And I think you do, too. If we look to Jesus, trust in Him, walk forward unafraid and with honesty and reality entrenched in our work then yes, we will upset some people, but we just might open the eyes of many more to what kind of merciful, grace-filled God we have.

This is one of my favorite blogs.
~ Wendy

Nicole said...

For some of us it's much easier to get "dirty" in Jesus because we've lived it. We're in the formerly known group such as tax collectors, whores, drug abusers, alcoholics, liars, whatever. Some authors' lives contain less drama and filth because they had the extreme pleasure, wonder, and benefit of knowing Jesus at a young age. Doesn't mean they didn't fight through their sinfulness or experience their own level of filth, it simply means they had access to the Spirit's correction and recognized His ways and discipline.

If we want to reach a certain audience, we have to present dirty with its available Grace. Out of the mire, there remains Jesus.
Probably the thing which is most difficult for me in this whole writing gig is the judgment thing. Accusations made about and against writers questioning their faith in Jesus, their walk with the Lord, because those writers go where that specific reader doesn't want to go. What about those readers who've been there?

No one is forced to read a novel that offends them. They put it down, give it away, burn it. The Shack became a hugely controversial novel which was debated all over the blogosphere. The theology was suspect to many, but many more loved the little novel. We can discern the doctrines we believe are wrong, but it's not up to us to determine the author's relationship (or lack thereof) with Jesus. We can present our opinions, our differences and conflicts, and seek counsel from our Lord, but to attack and accuse an author doesn't get it.

The indeterminable approach to dirty comes from the heart or the flesh. If we as a reader find the story of the flesh, we simply put the book down or state our opinions of why we couldn't read it in a respectful manner.

There are myriad ways to write what God places on a person's heart. It's really between the person and God how it comes out. We will answer to Him.

Bonnie Grove said...

Patti - your post is brilliant. I think everyone in the CBA needs to read what you have written. Excellent - excellent, excellent. Your wisdom is profound - and I can only hope and pray I have a measure of it. Thank you for writing this.

Wendy - I always love hearing from you! Walking unafraid is such a powerful thing. Well said.

Nicole: The wonderful thing about Jesus is, no matter our background, we have all been saved from being "tax collectors, whores, addicts, etc" each one - and yet he loves. When we were enemies of God he died on the cross for us.

I believe God works with us in the art of creation when we write. He is the art itself and that's why we can never exhaust it's resources.

LOVE this post, Patti.

Jan Cline said...

Wow. I really needed to read this post today. I am very lose to finishing all the edits on my first novel. It's Historical Romance, and there is a scene that involves the prostitution issue in 1800s London. I thought I had done a pretty good job on it, but now I think I need to go back and deepen the impact off it all.

Those of us who are first time novelists may swing on either side of the pendulum. This gives me perspective on living and writing as a Christian in a messy world.

Thank you for the post! I agree with Wendy - this is one of my fav blogs! Keep it coming!

Patti Hill said...

Wendy~Loved your comments:"If we look to Jesus...we will upset some people..." Jesus upset people, too!
Nicole~I appreciate your passion, girl.And you're so write, the act of creating is one of the most intimate between God and his people. If the artist chooses, art is a powerful tool of refinement...with sharp edges!
Bonnie~You are so dear!
Jan~Go prayerfully into your revisions. In fact, let me pray for you: Creator God, anoint Jan to tell the story you've given her. Shepherd her step by step as she revises and refines. In Jesus' name, amen.

Janet said...
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Janet said...
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Janet said...

Good blog Patti. I think what it means is being real. Just as the inspired authors of Scripture did not remove the "dirty" people from the stories, should we?

Redemption is for the sick. Stories were told about Jesus and the sick. I write stories about the sick and how they are healed (or not) through God's redeeming power, and editors have called them edgy because they have "dirty" people in them. Well, head out into the world and that is who you will find.

These 'dirty' people are real and the stories that tell of their lives of sin (as Scripture does as well) ~ they are real. They show what life is really like and how much they need a savior. I am one of those people, saved, but still need Jesus, my savior.
A lot of Christian fiction (romance, etc) is not real ~ it is an escape from reality. Is this what we are to do as Christians ~ escape from reality in terms of not presenting "the dirt" of life? Perhaps this is the better question.

Please don't take as me saying that we have to swear and describe the sorted details ~ I am not saying that. We have to be better writers using embodied words to give enough of a picture, that people get it.

Also, even the best of Christians in Scripture had difficulties ~ life is the best ever with Jesus, but it still isn't easy sometimes. I think we need to show that as well.

This weekend I listened to Philip Yancey say 'Jesus wrapped the truth in people's sense of reality'. I think we should do the same ~ I guess this means we get a little "dirty".

Patti Hill said...

"Jesus wrapped truth in people's sense of reality." Wow, thanks for sharing, Janet.

Kathleen Popa said...

Patti, your post so inspired me, as did many of the comments. I just love the conversation that's been going on here this week.

It's timely. I've been listening to the audiobook of Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, and listening to it read outloud poses a problem, because his characters are prostitutes and junkies and New Yorkers and the language can be horrendous. So I only listen when no one's around.

And why do I listen? Because of one character who is wounded and flawed and nevertheless as radically like Jesus as such a man can possibly be. He's such a compelling character that I have to know what ripples his life will create in the lives of all those prostitutes and junkies and New Yorkers. I think I'm finding - I'm hoping to find - grace and beauty in the midst of concrete reality.

Wendy, thanks for saying this is one of your favorite blogs. All of us at NM get downright glowy over comments like that. We are so happy to have you here as a regular part of our discussions.

PatriciaW said...

Love this post. Get dirty. Umm, I've always loved dark, rich earthy-smelling dirt.

I love it in my fiction too. Not sensationalism but realism. Not gratuitous sensuality but intimacy.

Christa Allan had a quote on her FB page yesterday that I feel spoke to this. "Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader-not that it's raining, but the feeling of being rained upon."-- Anton Chekhov

I want the fiction to rain on my senses, my emotions, even my faith. I want to be challenged so that I may affirm what I believe, so that I may consider my thoughts or responses to certain characters and circumstances, so that I might grow in my understanding of grace and mercy. I think "dirty" fiction helps me do this.

BTW, Christa's book, Walking on Broken Glass is an excellent example of dirty fiction. So are Sherri Lewis's My Soul Cries Out, Christa Parrish's Watch Over Me, Claudia Mair Burney's Deadly Charm, Tamara Leigh's Faking Grace, Jerry Jenkins' Riven, Marilynn Griffith's Songs of Deliverance, and your own Bonnie Grove's Talking to the Dead. I could go on.

So can it be published in CBA? A qualified yes. Qualified, in that not all of those were CBA books. It does happen but not nearly as much as I would like.

Kristen Torres-Toro said...

I love this, Patti! This is so great. I've been out of the country, but will go back and reread all the posts from this week.

Love Flannery O'Connor. What an amazing writer. I think she's completely right. And in my novels, I really try to get dirty, to not be afraid to go to the hard places. I really try to be concrete in my description and prose and remain true to Art as well as my faith. It's a charge I believe we all must attain.

Heather Marsten said...

I suspect there is a big difference between dirty and raunchy. Sin is a part of this world, a look at the Bible is an eye opener, Sodom & Gomorrah, Tamar, prostitution, idolatry. It is part of life, but fortunately Jesus comes in with His Redemption. I have been praying to God regarding writing my memoirs, something I may do after I finish the book I am working on - I will have to find a way to share the abuse I received and my rebellious reaction to that childhood abuse in my young adult years - to present it truthfully and not raunchy will be a balancing act, but I know that God will help in that. I am just so grateful for His love and that He kept pursuing me when I was hell bent on running from him. Check out my blog for a link to my testimony if you are interested in how God can redeem someone like me. Heather

Anonymous said...

What a great discussion. The posts and comments here this week have been real and thought provoking. It inspires me to dig deeper within myself to write the most compelling story I can write. Thank you all for your contributions. I love the community we're becoming.

LeAnne Hardy said...

I agree with Sharon. You inspire me to dig deeper.

Patti Hill said...

Oh my. I stepped out for a few hours and return to some of the best writing on Christian fiction in the blogosphere. Thanks to all of you for joining the conversation.
Katy, darlin', you have me intrigued about this story. I'll be anxious to hear the final verdict on the story.
Patricia~You are eloquent! Yes, let the rains come to our fiction, our lives, and our faith.
Kristen~Yes, we have to go to the hard places. The world is watching to see if faith is relevant. We have to show faith in its working clothes.
Heather~Thanks for sharing a pinch of your story and your gratitude for His pursuit of you. He's crazy about you.
Sharon~We have the best readers. I learn so much. And I'm so encouraged by their passion and honesty. I see the integrity of Jesus in their words.

Jan Cline said...

Thank you for praying for me. I am blessed by it. I just want my words to be His.
Have a great weekend.

Anonymous said...

I always enjoy visiting 'novel matters.' A wonderful posting, Patti.