A number of years ago the question of what is appropriate to include in Christian fiction was asked, and I wrote much of what is below as a reply. Recently, this issue jumped back into conversations with the release of the film Redeeming Love, based on the bestselling novel of the same title by Francine Rivers. (Some reviews of the movie, not the book, that wrestle with the debate can be found linked here: The Gospel Coalition, Plugged In, MovieGuide, and blogger Mike Duran). Thus I thought it appropriate to revisit this post.
Note that there is a considerable difference between the visual medium of film and the imaginative medium of print. This is not a discussion about filmmaking or visual media; I’d like to limit the discussion to novels in written form. Please keep the conversation inside this specific category.
Comments from the original post have been left intact to help aid our community discussion.
In Christian fiction, how do we balance keeping the message strong and not watering it down while still wanting to reach readers beyond Christian bookstores or churches?
This has been an ongoing discussion ever since Christian fiction became a significant part of the publishing landscape in the late 70s to early 80s.
The issue as it has been presented to me is this: “Why can’t there be ‘edgy’ Christian fiction?”
My answer stays the same and comes in the form of a couple return questions: “How does one define ‘edgy’?” And “Who defines it?”
There are three main areas of dispute: (1) sex, (2) language, and (3) violence.
(1) For some readers, any sort of sexual tension, even sensuality, is off limits. Even the description of a woman’s or man’s body could have limits. But for others the threshold is much different. They think books that would get a PG-13 movie rating or even an R are acceptable. Bedroom scenes, body-part descriptions, etc., are all fair game.
(2) For some readers, any sort of coarse language is off limits. But others say the lack of coarse language is unrealistic and therefore should be used all the time. But that begs the question of what constitutes “coarse.” (In movie ratings, albeit a different medium, the use of the f-bomb as an expletive, between one and three times, will be enough for the PG-13 rating. But, according to this article, if it is used as a verb, one time, the movie will receive an R rating.)
(3) As for violence? How much “blood splatter” is considered too much? What about description of the aftermath of a terrible car accident? What about head shots by a gun? What about war novels? What about suspense or thriller novels? Should Christian fiction instead all be “cozy mysteries” where you don’t see the dead body?
I love how one Christian writer used “language” without using it. In his novel Flags Out Front, Douglas Wilson writes a scene on page 181 where it reads, “He dumped out two buckets of cuss words onto the carpet, and then spent a good ten minutes kicking them around the room with his cowboy boots.”
In that example, there is obvious coarse language being used but; I didn’t have to read the words. Plus, the description of the tirade is funny but still gets the point across without diving into a cesspool of offensive language.
There is a market for clean fiction. There is no disputing that.
The problem is defining “clean.”
I was recently asked why novels are not rated like movies. The answer is evident. Who would decide what is “clean” and appropriate for an 11-year-old? Or a 16-year-old? If it were one group, they might say “no boundaries” while another group might declare everything off-limits. Current debates in America between parents and elected school boards for public-school education is a case in point.
I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from my thoughts. Feel free to discuss below.
Please read some of our other posts on this topic: