Monday, August 16, 2010

Much Ado About Fiction

We've had some interesting posts the past few days, that have generated more comments than usual, beginning with Eric Wilson's post on Monday, August 2: "Is it Time for Christian Fiction to Die?" I understand there were heated discussions on other blogs that posted his article. We here at Novel Matters are pleased that the comments left here were varied and thoughtful, but respectful and kind. Thank you all for your great participation.
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In reading the comments generated by Eric's post, and by the posts which followed, there were some statements that caught my attention and caused me to think a bit on what was said. In response to Latayne's post on Wednesday, following Eric's, Megan Sayer said: "We as a church tend to gravitate towards the middle ground, non-offensive content. Even when so many of us will watch movies and read books that present new and beautiful stylistic and artistic forms we don't talk about them except in the secret, safe places, because we may offend people. And yes, there's wisdom in that -- looking after those whose faith is weak ..."
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While I agree with Megan's observation, I drew a different conclusion: not that those who might be troubled by certain content in movies and books would be offended because their faith is weak, but because their relationship with Christ is such that they don't want to offend Him. I wrestle with this in my own life. There are authors I enjoy whose work is exceptional but who use profanity and are more sexually explicit than I personally prefer. In light of Philippians 4:8: "Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things," I wonder if I disappoint the Lord with some of the books I read. I'm just being honest here, sharing what came to mind from the discussion.
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Does that mean I only want to read -- and write -- what's been described as "safe" fiction? Absolutely not. I'm not at all satisfied with fiction that ignores the realities of life, that makes trite the struggles each of us face, that offers unrealistic solutions with happy-ever-after endings that tie every loose end into a nice little bow; fiction, in short, that turns off the mainstream. I want to read -- and write -- fiction that addresses the hard issues of life, in a redemptive way. As Eric said, "If our own writings fail to wrestle honestly with life's difficulties, it seems to me that we gloss over the bloody, earth-shaking war that Jesus fought on the cross -- and we undermine the triumph of His resurrection." I couldn't agree more. No subject is taboo, but any subject can be handled with grace, as evidenced by MaryDeMuth, Lisa Samson, Jamie Langston Turner, and so many other outstanding CBA authors. And, in my opinion, they can be handled in a manner appealing to a larger audience than Christian fiction tends to draw at present.
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It seems we're making much ado about fiction on this blog, the make-believe stories that spring from a writer's imagination. But there's little doubt that the creative arts are enormously important to the human race. Karen Shravemade said it well in a comment to Bonnie's post on Friday: "God created art and gave us the ability to create art." He so absolutely did, and I'm so thrilled that he allows us to be part of His creative nature. She went on to say, "...so it angers me when we use art to belittle him and make much of ourselves, or worse, to make nothing of anything." I wholeheartedly agree.
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So this is where I find myself in the evocative discussion we've had here the past few days: As a reader and writer I want fiction that stimulates my imagination, that draws me into the story world because it's relatable -- even if it's fantasy -- that is not base or profane in its presentation, but is still edgy and provocative. I want it to be redemptive but not preachy, and above all, it must entertain. That should be its primary function. Am I asking for too much? I don't think so. Not for one minute.
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What about you? What do you expect of fiction, and what role does it play in your life?

24 comments:

Karen Schravemade said...

I think that's the first time I've ever been quoted... I feel special :) Thanks Sharon!

You make an excellent point here, and I'm glad you brought us back to this. As much as a growing minority of us cry out for edgier Christian fiction, it's important to keep all things in balance and our gaze on Christ.

For years, the sex and language and violence in secular fiction barely caused me to raise an eyebrow. In a way I think I've been proud of this. You know: I'm such a broadminded person, I keep things real, I refuse to compartmentalise myself from the world, and so on. You know what, though? Just lately, I'm becoming jaded with it all. Why can't we be real without wallowing in filth? Why can't we take the gritty stuff of this life and transform it into something beautiful and meaningful? Not sidestep it or ignore it, but lift our gaze above and beyond?

I'm glad there are artists like you and the other authors on this blog who are working to bring transformation to the literary arts, page by quiet page.

Nicole said...

It's the conundrum of how deep can we go in the mud before it sucks us in? Every Christian must learn the borders to their ventures into the world. We remain in the world not of the world; we must go into the world to be the witnesses of Jesus Christ not to join in the behaviors--of what we've left behind; to exemplify compassion and understanding without enabling and accepting sin; to judge sin in our lives and recognize it in others without condemning people for being sinners.

We write fiction to tell stories, and as Sharon said: stories entertain. But I think semantics require that not all entertainment is pure pleasure. Instead it requires investment and participation which can imply winning or losing and judgment calls as to whether or not the entertainment factor is viable and even worth it.

Meaningful fiction should be the attachment to every novel a Christian writes simply because we are to be the light in a dark world. Somewhere from the amazing, humorous, light-hearted, and/or literary pieces, a story which compels hope and recognizes redemption should emerge. Subtle or bold, the greatest story ever told must infiltrate those pages, or really, I wonder, what's the use?

Just my thoughts . . .

Wendy Paine Miller said...

I want fiction to rattle my thoughts, to stir them, to help me see things in a different light. I want to grow and learn from it, but not know that's happening as I read. I want a story & experience wrapped into one.

In hopes to teach my kids that Phil. verse I wrote it with swirls and in pretty colors and hung it on our fridge earlier this summer. The other day I caught my three-year-old cutting the paper in dozens of pieces.

That imagery right there sums it up for me--in what I write and read, I don't want to do anything to chop up that verse.
~ Wendy

Annette said...

I am a big reader of various genre's of books. Included in that I read both Christian fiction and non-fiction. When I read non-fiction I expect to learn something, stir my thinking, I want to feel as if I've taken something away from the book that will encourage and strengthen my walk with the Lord. When I read fiction learning something is a bonus; but I want a good story with good characters. I live the real raw life and don't necessarily "always" want to read an edgy Christian fiction read, I want an escape. I draw an imaginary line with what I will watch on television, movie theater, books. I know me, I am a visual learner and some stuff I don't want swimming around in my head. But, at the same time it is good to have fiction books that are not so light in reading that they could almost be considered children's books; but instead dive off in to the real adult world. Instead of complaining, I will say I am glad that we have books to choose from that are light reading--meaning they steer clear of the rough world, and we have edgy Christian fiction books.
I am reminded of a verse in 1 Corinthians 6:12
"Everything is permissible for me- but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible for me-but I will not be mastered by anything."
The study part of my Bible states--"One may become enslaved by those actions in which one freely chooses to indulge."

Chris Jager - Baker Book House-fiction buyer said...

Annette - Love that verse. I wonder how I have missed it till now. Thanks for sharing it.

As I tell my husband "I either read books or take up drinking, your pick." Just kidding and I am not sure he wouldn't pick drinking some days. :-)

Ficton first and foremost must entertain. That is what it is all about. But even Jesus used fiction to teach and encourage discussion. I believe that his parables left people talking for days after they finished hearing them.

He taught very controversial stories. As I learn more about the meanings behind his word pictures the more I understand he wasn't just telling a nice christian (jewish) story, but he was trying to get people to think about why they believed what they did and was it right. He was pointing them in his direction without being in their face about it.

Fiction today can do the same thing without all the language issues and do we need a detailed description of any sex act?

I love to read fiction that makes me think and engage in the story, maybe that is why I love mysteries and thillers. But there is a place for that fluffy fiction that purely entertains also. I need that once and awhile, life has enough pressures that once and a while pure escapism (new word:-) is a good thing.

ritan said...

I've read many Christian Fiction Books in my lifetime. Some haven't made much sense to me, however, many have shown the hand of God in everyone of them. Even though it is a fiction book, the lives that have gone through these books and the struggles that been written in each of the lives, shows how likely it can happen in real life. I feel that someone like this Eric person, thinks it is time for Christian Fiction to die, tells me that he is someone that needs Jesus in his life and wants to shield away from it by making such a statement as he made. I pray that someday someone will walk into his life and show him just how important Christian Fiction is as these stories can show those who read them, how God can work in one's real life.
God Bless all of you that write and may you continue to show God's grace through your writings.

Rita Newlin
ritan@cass.net

Heidi said...

I was discussing this very issue with a friend of mine a few months back.

This, I believe, is our job as writers. We must write those stories—the ones that face the realities and struggles of life in an artistic, beautiful, God-fearing and God-pleasing way. We must write those stories that fall between the unrealistic, syrupy ones and the questionable, crude ones. I think we can let God's light shine through us and through our work without being preachy or presenting a falsely perfect sketch of life. And we can, as you said, handle difficult subjects with grace. We have to. It's our calling.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Rita, thank you for your insightful comment. I'd like to make a clarification regarding Eric's post. Eric, who is a Christian, wasn't saying that novels written by Christians, with a Christian theme, pointing its readers to Christ, should die. I think what he was saying was that the classification "Christian Fiction" is unnecessary. It should be as much a part of mainstream fiction as anything written by non-believers, or followers of any other belief system, all of whom have a voice in mainstream fiction. That, I believe, was Eric's message.

Maybe if you re-read his post with this in mind you'll see a different message. Thank you again for joining the discussion.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Great comment, Karen, especially the last few lines of paragraph 3.

Nicole, I really appreciate what you had to say. "Meaningful fiction should be the attachment to every novel a Christian writes simply because we are to be the light in a dark world. Somewhere from the amazing, humorous, light-hearted, and/or literary pieces, a story which compels hope and recognizes redemption should emerge." Very well said!

Wendy, "story and experience wrapped into one." Exactly.

Annette, the Scripture you cited from 1 Corinthians is one I know well. I've seen it used to justify behavior by Christians who choose to do one thing or another, that maybe the majority of their circle doesn't do. From my own experience, if I have to justify something, it's because I'm convicted by it. I love the commentary your study Bible adds to that verse.

Chris, I agree. I think Jesus' parables had a lot of people talking, and thinking. I would have loved to hear him tell a story.

Heidi, I concur. And I love your "photo."

Genre Reviewer said...

Sharon,

I agree. I'm careful in what I read because I want to follow Philippians 4:8 and honor God. I also find that what goes in (through reading, movies, etc.) comes out (in an unintentional cuss word, negative talk, etc.), so the easiest way to control my thoughts and behavior is to watch the inputs.

I want fiction with realistic characters dealing with realistic problems with an underlying message that aligns with what's taught in the Bible. And I want that without explicit bad language or explicit sex scenes. I also much prefer it when the author doesn't preach at the reader in the novel, though I don't mind the characters having short God-talks, searching the Bible for answers, etc.

Thanks for writing this post.

Ariel Allison Lawhon said...

Thank you, Sharon, for your thought provoking post. It got me pondering a few things, starting with the verse you referenced:

"In light of Philippians 4:8...I wonder if I disappoint the Lord with some of the books I read."

This is a verse that all Christian readers and writers struggle with. But I do wonder sometimes why we elevate cursing and sex to a higher level of offense than other things in Scripture that God says are bad. He's quite clear that we shouldn't lie. That it's hurtful and offensive. Yet I've never seen a Christian author or reader wonder if they are dishonoring God by writing or reading a book where someone lies. Nor have I seen them suggest that a book with lies will encourage or condone the act.

God, it seems, can handle lying. It happened in His book. Rahab lied to protect the Israelite spies and it pleased God so much that not only did she become the great, great grandmother of King David, but she was singled out by name and applauded for her actions in James 2:25.

I think God can also handle cursing. I once watched my father lead a drunk hitch hiker to Christ by using a profanity laced gospel presentation. My dad met him in a very earthy and authentic way and I don't believe for a moment that God was displeased with him. That hitch hiker is still faithfully following Jesus. Seven years ago he eulogized my dad at his funeral.

It is possible to do God's work in unconventional ways.

So what do I expect from fiction? I expect it to be authentic. And sometimes authenticity is messy. Yet I know that if God can use harlots and hippies to bring redemption to the world, He can use brave writers that aren't afraid to meet readers where they are.

cherry odelberg said...

I like your word redemptive. In the best of secular material, there is a redemptive theme, and so I think it needs to be in all fiction. Perhaps it is not so much the topic or scene raised, even in explicit narrative, as the word (duh) choice. When I was young, my mother would not let me use cuss or swear words (or even replacement slang). She said it showed ignorance. I made it a point to find the appropriate word to express my feelings and endeavored to pass this policy on to my children. My youngest is now capable of verbally shredding an offender to bits, modern Churchill style, with nary a base word, but plenty of touché.
I want to apply that principle to my writing so the most necessary of sordid or steamy scenes is still communicated with class and good taste.

Sharon K. Souza said...

Ariel, you make some interesting points and drive them home with the touching story of your dad and the hitchkiker, and the story of Rahab. I mentioned profanity and sex in my post because they're the two issues that are the most offensive to me personally in fiction or movies. I can handle some profanity, but I hate when certain words are used, especially by women, which I think is so tasteless, particularly taking the name of the Lord in vain, and I hate explicit sex in either fiction or movies. Those are just my particular peeves.

Genre reviewer, I like the point you make that you don't want author intrusion when it comes to pushing the Gospel, but you don't mind characters talking about it. I tend to agree. I just finished Some Wildflower in My Heart (for the 2nd time) by Jamie Langston Turner, and there was a good deal of Gospel-speak, but from one character to another, and it was very much in character. Though very overt, it wasn't at all preachy due to the way Jamie handled it.

Cherry, what great wisdom your mother (and now you) employed. I love when an acerbic point can be made Churchill-style, as you labeled it. It brings to mind some of the great scenes in old Katherine Hepburn movies, for example, where she makes her point very well with language anyone could use.

Megan Sayer said...

Karen I loved your comment - feel like copying and pasting here - I'd say exactly the same thing on nearly all counts!

Sharon I've never been quoted before either! Found it a bit confronting (suck it up Megan, welcome to the internet...lol). And you absolutely nailed it. How can I be so busy being broadminded and passionate about literary and artistic pursuits that I could forget that I could be offending the One I love the most!

For me the books that really inspire are those that reflect elements of the human condition in a fresh or original way. Stories that show us that we aren't alone in our humanity. And they have to be well-written.

Karen Schravemade said...

Hey Megan - I just clicked on your blogger profile and found out that you're an Aussie! Me too! Cheers to us :)

Ariel, I've been thinking about your comment. I thought you made a really interesting point and although my gut reaction was that I disagreed with your premise about lying vs. profanity and sex in novels, I wasn't sure why. It made me think.

Having thought it through, here's my counter: lying is offensive when it's done to us, or to a real person, because it causes real damage. Having a character lie is not offensive because it's fictional and simply part of a novel's necessary conflict. Characters obviously can't be perfect or we'd have no story. The important thing here is not the "sinful behaviour" itself but the way in which it is handled by the author. If a book exalts lying by showing how a character uses it to get ahead, and the overriding message of the book is "good for him, lying doesn't matter anyway", then yes, that would be offensive and I think many Christians would feel unsettled by that.

Profanity is offensive to some in real life because they don't like to hear it or see it graffitied across a wall. Therefore it's also offensive to those people when they see it in a novel because it's viewed in exactly the same form as real life.

On the same lines, sex is not a sin. That doesn't mean I want to watch other couples in bed or that everyone is comfortable reading detailed descriptions of sexual encounters that paint unwanted visuals in their minds. The Bible contains plenty of sex, rape and prostitution without painting detailed descriptions of any of it.

Having said all that, I'm an edgy writer, no doubt. I've used profanity and sensuality in stories that have a Christian message, and I earnestly, wholeheartedly agree with your final statement about authenticity. However I do understand that what is acceptable to me may cause offense to others and - bottom line - I don't think they're wrong to be offended. I'm just thankful that today we have markets and audiences for all types of Christian stories.

And btw, I like you a lot :)

Megan Sayer said...

Hey Karen, always good to hear from a fellow Aussie - cool! Tag on the stay-at-home-mum-with-two-little-boys (except I have a daughter as well). Tag on the one-year-old-and-desperate-for-a-good-night's-sleep...And tag on the edgy fiction.

I'd really like to read some of your stuff. Is any of it published anywhere? Short stories online?

Karen Schravemade said...

Yes, Megan, seems like we have a lot in common! My parents live in Tassie (Ulverstone)... beautiful part of Australia. So excited to "meet" a fellow sleep-deprived edgy-Christian-story-writing Aussie stay home Mum! Yay!! :) Looks like we have the jump on everyone else in the comments section at the moment cos they're probably still in bed across the pond :)

Sadly no, I don't have anything online that you could read. I've had a couple of short stories published here and there in obscure places over the years, but nothing readily accessible. Just had word yesterday though that "Relief: A Quarterly Christian Expression" (literary journal) has shortlisted a story I sent them a while back. It may not come to anything but I'll be keeping my fingers and toes crossed. If you love edgy fiction and quality writing from a faith perspective, you'd LOVE Relief. You can order back issues from Amazon.

Can I ask the same question of you? - love reading other peoples' stuff...

Sharon, sorry if I've hijacked your post... I don't mean to dominate the conversation. Thanks for kicking off a great discussion. I'll be quiet now :)

Karen Schravemade said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sharon K. Souza said...

Megan, ooh, I didn't mean to be confronting. Certainly don't mean to offend. Love the chat between you and Karen. Please, both of you, feel free to chat away.

Megan Sayer said...

Sharon don't worry too much - I was actually quite honoured too! Most of my comments are things I've thought about deeply, but have to type out in a brief few minutes with a one-year-old on my lap. The very last bit of mine you quoted was a quick "Oh I better clarify that" thought - your post was excellent in that it DID make me question myself, and remember the fact that if I'm gonna be a writer EVERYTHING I say online can be referenced (as was pointed out in a post here a few weeks ago). All good.

Karen - that's great news about Relief shortlisting your story - well done! I'm really excited about checking out this mag - I'll do a search later today, thanks for the reference.

And no, I don't have anything to show you either sorry. I wrote a lot of "sex, death and angst" stuff years ago which I quit and really don't want to revisit, and now (besides the book - in early draft 2) I'm working on a few mainstream freelance pieces - articles for Reader's Digest, Practical Parenting, etc. Stuff to pay the bills (hopefully).

And yes, I'll be quiet now too...been fun chatting : )

Nikole Hahn said...

Great post!

I read all sorts of stories from secular to Christian fiction to safe fiction (not neccessarily Christian) and safe Christian fiction. Some of my books have too much explicit detail in which I skip over (and not because I want to appear extra good or anything..lol) but because it doesn't belong.


I think we're shooting ourselves in the foot by saying, "Should Christian Fiction Die?" We shouldn't discount even Safe Christian Fiction.

Plus, I read for enjoyment. Before I was saved, I read Grace Livingstone Hill (you want to talk about SAFE? LOL). I grew up in a non-Christian household. Safe fiction reached me.

I believe we should stay true to the story and follow it's many rabbit trails to see where it goes.

I don't remember where I read this or on whose blog, but The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemmingway was touted as having a message. Ernest Hemmingway swore he didn't put a message in his story. It's just an Old Man and it's just a sea.

We should write and leave the messages to God. My sister in law thought Nicholas Sparks is a believer. I don't know if this is true or not, but his books are timeless. He writes for the secular market. If he were a Christian, about the only objectionable book I read from him so far was "Nights in Rodanthe."

I think insead of writing open letters one should follow thier calling and write secular. Leave the messages for their blogging online or for their face-to-face encounters. If you are a believer, a non-believer will see there is something different about you. I saw it in the believers around me before I was saved.

Sheila Walsh said something that struck me and I think it applies to here: "God is more interested in what He is doing inside of us than through us." I don't think God needs our help to reach the lost. He is all powerful and all knowing. I think our writing can impact, but I think writing will also help us change and grow, too.

Sara said...

Great discussion. :)

I'll throw a couple of comments out late in the game . . . just a little more to chew on.

I've found that my own tolerances and reactions have grown and shifted significantly over the years. I read "sex" much differently now as the married mother of four than I did when I when I was never-been-kissed high schooler at a conservative Christian high school. My own experience has shifted my reading. In fiction, too, I'm likely to react much different to married than unmarried sex, though I agree with Karen that there's a limit to how much I want to stand in someone else's bedroom.

It makes a huge difference, too, whether or not the "sin" is simply gratuitous or whether it's doing crucial things with the plot and character. In the first Terminator movie, the entire plotline hinged on one encounter--it couldn't have simply been left out of the story.

Going to the Phillipians verse which has been quoted (and which I love). It seems to me that one of the most lovely things that is to dwell on is redemption and healing. But redemption only comes to the unredeemed and healing to the broken. The problem comes in secular fiction when sickness (sin) is mistaken for health and portrayed as fine, and in Christian fiction when people would prefer to believe that we don't actually need to be redeemed from anything at all because we're all such nice people.

Karen Schravemade said...

Sara - YES!!!!

"Redemption only comes to the unredeemed and healing to the broken. The problem comes in secular fiction when sickness (sin) is mistaken for health and portrayed as fine, and in Christian fiction when people would prefer to believe that we don't actually need to be redeemed from anything at all because we're all such nice people."

In two sentences you've managed to sum up everything I believe and have been trying to say in all my long-winded comments over the past couple of days.

That's exactly what has been bugging me about secular fiction. Not the content itself necessarily, but the context. That's also why I am personally drawn to edgy Christian fiction, because I believe raw, redemptive storytelling has real power.

I'm done now. Really. :)

Sharon K. Souza said...

Oh, Karen, I hope not! But I agree, Sara nailed it!