Edgy Christian Fiction

In Christian fiction, how do we balance keeping the message strong/not watering it down while still wanting to reach readers beyond Christian bookstores or churches?

Thank you Carrie for a great question.

This has been an ongoing discussion ever since Christian Fiction became a significant part of the publishing landscape in the late 70s – early 80s.

The issue as it has been presented to me is “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: Sex, Language, and Violence.

For some readers any sort of sexual tension, even sensuality is off limits. Even the description of a woman or man’s body could have a limit. But for others the threshold is much different. They think books that would get a PG-13 rating or even R are acceptable. Bedroom scenes, body part descriptions, etc. are all fair game.

For some readers any sort of coarse language is off limits. But for others they say that the lack of coarse language is unrealistic and therefore it should be used all the time. But that begs the question of what constitutes “coarse”? (In movie ratings, 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.)

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 mystery” where you don’t see the dead body?

I love how one Christian writer uses “language” without using it. In his recent novel Flags Out Front , Douglas Wilson has 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. And the description of the tirade is funny but still gets the point across without diving into the cesspool of offensive language.

There is a market for clean fiction. There is no disputing that.
The problem is defining “clean.”

I’ll let you draw your own conclusions from my thoughts. Feel free to discuss below.

Please read some of our other posts on the topic:

Real Life is Edgy – Dan Balow

Eat, Drink, and be Merry – Tamela Hancock Murray

What Makes a Christian Book Christian – Part 1 – Karen Ball

What Makes a Christian Book Christian – Part 2 – Karen Ball

What Makes a Christian Book Christian – Part 3 – Karen Ball

40 Responses to Edgy Christian Fiction

  1. Avatar
    Rebekah Dorris June 5, 2017 at 5:26 am #

    I think most people have a mental standard for what constitutes “Christian.” At least in the past, “Christian” things were clean things. That’s a very good thing.

    There has to be some clean place in this ever-darkening world. Light covered in smut dims the brightness.

    I loved your example of showing versus telling a cussing tantrum. So perfect.

    God bless!

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    Damon J. Gray June 5, 2017 at 5:37 am #

    I catch myself releasing heavy sighs with discussions like this, because it drags us down that road of “drawing lines.” I recall a discussion I had years ago with a university student wherein she was defending a movie that I believed was gratuitous and inappropriate, with highly suggestive sexual content. Her firm position was, “Well, you couldn’t SEE anything!” Really? That’s the “line” we draw on this.

    For her, the standard of righteousness was tied to what was or was not visible to her eyes rather than what was being drilled into her heart and soul. So I despise the drawing of legal lines of righteousness that allow us to pollute our hearts and minds while offering us a false sense of well-being, because, though we toed the line, we did not cross it … at lease not literally, though our mind was six miles on the other side.

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      Rebekah Dorris June 5, 2017 at 5:52 am #

      That’s a very good point, Mr. Gray. I agree with you. Maybe a good plumbline for what’s Christian would be, does this attract readers toward Christ or away from Him? Seems that would be more effective than focusing on how close to the line we can get.

      God bless!

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      Tiffani July 31, 2019 at 7:18 pm #

      Great point.

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    Cordially Barbara June 5, 2017 at 5:54 am #

    Thank you for sharing the great example of using cuss words without actually spelling them out. I think that type of reality is perfect for a fiction world. After all, we suspend some of our reality to enter into a story!

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    Linda K. Rodante June 5, 2017 at 6:21 am #

    I love fiction that deals with real life situations, but I love Christian fiction and read it almost exclusively because it is clean. I am not looking for fiction that sounds like the world, that offends me with strong language, violence or tantalizes with explicit sex. I love the description you included–how you can show that someone is cursing without using the actual words. The same is true with violence and sex. Explicit descriptions are not necessary. The thing most important, I think, is to ask ourselves–“Does this passage honor God? Is this what He wants me to write or am I giving in to my own desires?”

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      Tiffani July 31, 2019 at 7:17 pm #

      Excellent. Very well said.

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    Mary-Anne Crooks June 5, 2017 at 6:34 am #

    Hi Steve,

    I initially wrote Dear George, a story about a seventeen year old that finds out she has cancer and then sleeps with her best friend at her prom.

    I sent it out to various agents and they all had a problem with it being ‘too’ Christian. I did send it to Karen and she suggested changes, and books to read on writing. That was two years ago, but I have gone on as many courses as possible and gleaned all I possibly can from Internet.

    I have taken a large percentage of the Christianity out and as the teenager goes through hell she starts to reach out to God. I ended it on a spiritual note.

    My reasoning is how am I going to reach the lost if I am not writing a novel they are not reaching for on the shelves.

    Just my opinion although I believe there is a market for both – the Christians that want a good novel to read or non-fiction so as to be spiritually fed and for the non-Christian’s to find out, that if they suddenly find themselves in a situation they cannot handle, and they will, there is great Father out there they can reach to.

    • Avatar
      Chris August 26, 2018 at 12:05 pm #

      This was good, and nailed exactly how I feel in my writing. There is a fine line to tow, no question about it, but I’m on your side of it.

      How can you reach people who don’t have any relationship whatsoever with Christ, if all you write are characters who know him, love him, and are—in the end—just having a bad day.

      You have to show the people you want to reach that even they—non believers, ignorant, etc.—can find Him at any age and any time period of their life.

  6. Avatar
    Katie Powner June 5, 2017 at 7:07 am #

    Interesting post, Steve. I always thought of edgy Christian fiction as fiction that pushes the boundaries of what is safe to discuss. To me, sex, language, and violence is more an issue of what is or isn’t appropriate, not what is or isn’t edgy. I believe a book can be edgy without a single cuss word, instance of sensuality, or gaping wound.

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    Frenchy Dennis June 5, 2017 at 7:08 am #

    Thanks, Steve. Love the quote. Secular writer Dick Frances used a similar method of getting the “language usage” across. I don’t want those words in my mind, so appreciate the effort to define them creatively without using them.

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    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 5, 2017 at 7:14 am #

    Great post, Steve, and a really vital question. My feeling is that we have to draw a distinction between writing for cultural Christianity, and theological Christianity. Both are important, and both should be written with respect and love.

    Cultural Christian writing emphasizes the ‘clean living’ aspect of living the faith walk, and the benefits of a life in pursuit of holiness, in the Christian community. It’s not ‘cozy’, because the issues are real, but they are part of a life in the existing milieu; loss of faith, dealing with death and heartache, and the function of the Christian community as a support (and, sometimes, as a hindrance). The films made by the Kendrick brothers, such as ‘Courageous’ and ‘War Room’, are a terrific and accessible example.

    Cultural Christian media ministers to Paul’s church, as it were; theological Christian writing and film speak to those who stop to listen to Jesus’ message, such as Matthew and Zaccheus…and Judas Iscariot.

    Theological Christian media has to present the case for faith, and has to do it against the background of temptation and despair. William Barrett’s “The Left Hand Of God” was edgy for its day, dealing with an American missionary impersonating a dead priest in pre-revolutionary China, and it described the faith arc of a man whose original beliefs had been wreck by war as he had to come to believe in a Power greater than his own.

    Modern-day film examples are ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ and ‘Fury’. Both would make much of the Christian community uncomfortable in the viewing, but those elements which cause discomfort are exactly those which make the journey to and validation of faith believable. It’s chiaroscuro; darkness being used to define light.

    • Avatar
      M.Crooks June 5, 2017 at 7:37 am #

      I agree with you. Hacksaw Ridge was an incredible movie and appealed to both sides of the Christian fence.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 5, 2017 at 11:35 am #

        ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ sure did appeal on both sides…I heard from friends who were not Christians, but were sure glad Desmond Doss was!

    • Avatar
      Nicola June 5, 2017 at 7:38 am #

      Andrew, I have never heard of this subcatagorisation of Christian approach. It is helpful, though the Christian culture in the USA is significantly different from that in Africa, which again is different in Asia.

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 5, 2017 at 11:39 am #

        Nicola, I sort of invented this on the fly, according to my reading (and viewing)1

        You’re right that Christian culture is very different in different parts of the world, and in Africa and Central/South America there is much less of a division between the ‘cultural’ and ‘theological’ wings. In Asia, it depends where you are – being a Christian in a Muslim-majority (or Communist) Asian country is being on the front-lines, in every sense of the term.

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      Pamela Black June 5, 2017 at 10:09 am #

      What a great perspective! Thanks for writing and sharing your insight.
      I’m going to check out the movie “Fury” now.
      I have the Hacksaw Ridge book, but I can’t watch the movie as I can’t watch graphic gore without having spiritual upset.
      What are your thoughts on the movie “The Book of Eli?”
      I thought it was profound and I liked it, however the graphic violence was extremely disturbing. Yet when my daughter went to college at a major Christian university I was told they had shown it to the entire student body as a group.
      I’m unsure how I feel about that.
      Your thoughts?

      • Avatar
        Andrew Budek-Schmeisser June 5, 2017 at 11:33 am #

        Pamela, I haven’t seen “The Book Of Eli” yet. it is on my list.

        On the subject of graphic violence, I’ll probably come across as a bit divided when I say that realistic violence has a place, but gratuitous violence does not.

        The ‘Omaha Beach Landing’ scene in ‘Saving Private Ryan’ is if anything understated, but is vital in setting up the moral conflict and question – is saving a last surviving brother worth risking the lives of others?

        In ‘Hacksaw Ridge’, the violence and trauma that we witness along with Desmond Doss is likewise vital in setting the stage for his epiphany of heroism – the doubting question, and the answer.

        And ‘Fury’ is built around Isaiah 6; the violence in the film sets a dark backdrop against which the wholly unexpected brilliance of faith shines so brightly.

        If these were toned-down, their messages would have been diluted to the point of banality.

        The violence to which I strongly object is that which is included for either shock or titillation. I won’t watch TV crime drama for that reason; solving a whodunit is not sufficient reason to see a bloodied corpse, or witness a murder.

        I don’t know how I feel about showing a violent movie to a whole student body, either. On the one hand, college kids have reached the age of majority, but forcing an acceptance of “what’s OK to see”…I don’t know if I hold with that. On the whole, I think not; it should have been an optional exercise, or ‘suggested viewing’.

        To me, violence is really the ultimate obscenity (and I am very well-trained in its application). It profanes everything we hold dear, however necessary it might be.

        In contrast, sex in literature or film is merely an invasion of privacy, and use of coarse language is bad manners, and unimaginative.

  9. Avatar
    Edward Lane June 5, 2017 at 7:19 am #

    Thanks for the insightful article, Steve!

    The technical legal term is spelled Blood spatter. Thanks again.

  10. Avatar
    Carol Ashby June 5, 2017 at 7:26 am #

    I don’t want to write “edgy” fiction that I would be embarrassed to have my millennial daughter or pastor’s wife read, but I don’t want to write something all soft and fuzzy where the problems aren’t real and the choices aren’t hard. That can be done writing “clean” when the plot flows logically and the characters feel like real people as they wrestle with choices that could change their entire future.

    I think that style of story can be enjoyed by a reader whether they follow Jesus or not. My own prayer as I watch sales come in is that each buyer’s faith will be strengthened if they already believe and that their curiosity about following Jesus will be piqued if they don’t.

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      Katie Powner June 5, 2017 at 8:14 am #

      It’s a good point, Carol, to think about whether you would be embarrassed if your daughter or your pastor’s wife read your book. I wouldn’t want to be embarrassed by (or about) what I’ve written.

      I try to remember, though, that I could easily write a book my pastor’s wife would not enjoy, without being embarrassed about it.

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    Jeanne Takenaka June 5, 2017 at 7:53 am #

    Interesting post, Steve. After reading a couple of the comments, I had a question pop into my mind. Maybe we need to define what our intended purpose is for writing the books we write and who we hope to reach. This may help define what we choose to add or omit from our stories. If I’m writing with the intention to uplift my readers, to encourage them to look toward God as they walk through the messy stuff of life, the content in my story may be different than if I want to reach those who don’t know Jesus yet. If I am writing a story with the hope that it will touch and reach those who don’t yet believe, there may be “edgier” content in the story because that’s what they relate to or expect in a novel.

    For me personally, I want to write stories that will challenge people to look to God when the hard things of life hit. To see that He is real and He does love them. Including the “edgy” elements in a graphic way will probably not be a good way to do this. Yes, ugly things happen and are spoken in life, but there are ways to refer to them (as your client did) that will not leave a reader cringing.

    Ultimately, I want my stories to glorify God. Including vivid descriptions that leave a stain on a reader’s mind will probably detract from that overall goal.

    Okay, sorry for the rambling. You got me thinking about this topic.

  12. Avatar
    Pamela Black June 5, 2017 at 8:05 am #

    Personally, I don’t like to read any profanity in a book. Mild curse words might be acceptable if extremely pertinent to the character building.
    However, the F-bomb is a no, no way, never go for me. If I’m reading a book and that comes up, I usually put it down.
    The one instance I can think where I made an exception was The Art of Racing In the Rain. It was deep into the story and a moment of severe loss and emotion for the main character. It was only used the one time. Honestly though I think the story would have stood without that word.
    Unfortunately, now it’s one of my favorite books, but I don’t always recommend it unless I know the reader will be comfortable with that language or without the caveat that the word is there.
    I think what I find more shocking than the use of foul language in fiction is the choice of some Christian writers to toss it around in blogs/FB/non-fiction writing.
    I follow a traditionally published (multiple books) author on FB who the other day posted that, in his opinion, Jesus is someone who might “come over to his house, sit and his couch, have a few beers while watching House of Cards, and who might drop the F-bomb when he gets mad.”
    …….I am still shocked speechless on this quote……
    So, yes, obviously there’s a disconnect between believers about the use of profanity.
    Sometimes it is a puddle, sometimes it is an ocean. ?

    • Avatar
      Erendira Ramirez-Ortega July 6, 2017 at 8:40 pm #

      I am always vexed when I read or hear a professing Christian shape God into their own image. I usually respond with a verse or passage from the Bible that speaks to their misguided and erroneous interpretations of the Lord. There is so much out there that the Holy Spirit would have nothing to do with, yet people claim He is in it, for it, and leads it. It really goes to show that they do not know God. Jesus would not curse. Why is that even a question to some people? “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.” (Mt 7:21)

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    Susan E. Richardson June 5, 2017 at 8:21 am #

    We all have a carnal side, even after we come to Christ. Those who aren’t Christians do have the seed God planted in each of us to respond to Him. In the end, I think the question comes down to asking, “which side does it feed?” Do the descriptions appeal to the carnal side and lead the reader to lust? Or do we understand the context without being encouraged to let the flesh be satisfied with what it receives? I think profanity feeds the carnal side. Wallowing in blood and gore can do the same.

    This doesn’t mean we can’t be realistic and deal with hard questions and issues. We should be tackling the tough questions and offering real answers, not clichés. But we can do it without feeding the carnal nature.

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    Christa MacDonald June 5, 2017 at 8:26 am #

    Thanks for posting this! There definitely needs to be more ‘real’ Christian fiction in my opinion, but I can’t see the purpose in adding sex and violence to make it ‘real’. I think it’s real when it accurately depicts people as they are and the world as it is rather than a rose-tinted version.

    I write both Christian and mainstream fiction. For the Christian market my target audience is anyone who is within the Christian culture, but I don’t make the assumption that they are all saved. I make sure those books are ‘clean’, yes, but I pack them with theology to reach those with their feet wet, but not in the pool so to speak. I’ve had people of other faiths read my book and they said they enjoyed it and didn’t feel ‘preached at’ so I hope I’ve struck the right tone.

    When I write mainstream fiction the audience I’m writing for is typically a mix of Christians and those familiar with Christianity, but not saved or even those familiar and hostile to it. I try to present the gospel as part of the story in broad rather than direct terms. I use modern vernacular, but I have not nor will I ever use an actual profanity (defined by the use of God’s name in vain). Vulgar terms and expressions are just that, vulgar, not truly profane so I use them if I think the scene requires it. My church pastor has said the line to draw when it comes to sexuality is does it seem that scene is written specifically to ‘titillate’ the reader. If so, you’ve gone too far. We have to be careful not to lead anyone astray.

    I’ll also add that in Christian fiction I don’t write conversion scenes. I feel like that moment is too sacred for fiction. Epiphanies? sure, but not that moment of a decision for Christ. I don’t feel adequate to the task of depicting it.

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    Kristen Joy Wilks June 5, 2017 at 8:37 am #

    The discussion on alcohol in Christian fiction is very interesting. I was writing Biblical/historical fiction set in 763 BC in Assyria and was fascinated to find out that everyone pretty much only drank beer, all the time. The water was dangerous and so beer it was. The wealthy even had golden beer drinking straws to prevent barley kernels from being slurped up and special drinking horns, but the poor drank beer as well. There was no age limit for alcohol consumption either as far as archaeologists could tell. So what does one do with that? I learned some very fascinating things about the culture, though which is always worthwhile, whether the book sells or not.

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    Janet Ann Collins June 5, 2017 at 9:15 am #

    I’ve always found it amusing that certain words are considered offensive while others with the same literal meanings are not. For example, I once laughed out loud after hearing a man curse at another in words that literally meant the man’s mother was a female dog and he was offering to mate with him. But if we replaced obscenities with literal synonyms it would change violent scenes to comedy.

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    Robin E. Mason June 5, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    I don’t market as CF for this reason – I guess my “line” is just a little further back than some peeps are comfortable with. I’ve said i have “PG-13” words, but no F-bombs. in fact, i got creative in my first one because that’s what the guy surely would have said – i settled for filthy whore (both Biblical terms.) I don’t write much violence but i do use some descriptive with body parts – muscles and curves, etc. Neither do i have graphic sex scenes, but neither are they bland: “They went in the room and closed the door.” *yawn LOL
    It’s a find balance and one I’ve struggled with, but my market is not the narrow CF reader, and that works for me.

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    Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux June 5, 2017 at 12:58 pm #

    Two authors who did “edgy” successfully are Francine Rivers and Frank Peretti.

    Christian authors must always put “Christian” before “author.” If we secularize Christian fiction, we imply that what we’ve compromised is okay to do.

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    Emilie June 5, 2017 at 6:40 pm #

    Great post Steve! I find it’s always hard to determine how real or accurate to make my characters who wouldn’t claim to be Christain but to do so without making it obvious I “edited” them. I love the example you gave endeavor to be as creative as that!

  20. Avatar
    Steve Laube June 5, 2017 at 6:46 pm #

    Everyone’s comments are great! My hope is to get everyone thinking when this topic comes up. And it will.

    I believe that the medium of film is so very different than novels. They almost cannot be used in the same conversation when discussing the craft of fiction. Of course there are writing techniques that cross-pollinate (we have an upcoming blog that will discuss that), but when discussing “edgy” Christian fiction it comes back to the writer, not the cinematography.

    I appreciate our commenting community for the respect shown to each other. Thank you.

  21. Avatar
    KD Fleming June 6, 2017 at 5:28 am #

    Great article, as always. For me as an inspirational author, Christian fiction is a clean story with a clear faith thread.

    A clean story is one my early teen niece and my friends’ younger daughters, even older their teenagers and grandmothers, can read without me feeling I should block out certain words or scenes.

    I use my stories to show that people can express frustration, danger, even physical attraction, in a positive, natural way that wouldn’t cause their mothers to wash their mouths out with soap.

    As a writer, I take writing clean as a challenge. Anyone can use an expletive to express something without much effort. Try having an argument or sending a character on a rant without needing to “bleep” out a word.

    Your example by Mr. Wilson paints a strong image of his anger while entertaining us, but allows us to exercise our minds as readers, as to what he might have said.

    Readers don’t need you to fully paint the whole picture (with bad language, overt sexual tension or acts, and gory violence) for them to “get” what the character experiences. In a way, it could be considered insulting to the reader in that, the author doesn’t think they are “smart enough” to understand the situation. And that’s wrong. People have vivid imaginations. Fiction is proof of that.

    Readers, especially, have great imaginations. Setting up the scene well without spelling out every detail let’s them put themselves within the situation as far as what they imagine was said or how they would act as the character.

    It’s all about engaging the reader’s imagination so the book helps them escape the real world, as I believe all fiction should do.

    Readers experience “not PG” versions of life day and night in the real world. Clean stories offer a tiny glimpse of a not so perfect Utopian version of life here on Earth.

    If I’ve given my reader hope that they can overcome life’s trials without compromising their morals or faith, I’m happy and I think they are too.

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    Laurel June 6, 2017 at 12:09 pm #

    When I’m writing, I find the bigger challenge is writing about the opposite “end” of the story. Not: “how can I express violence, strong language and sexuality.” That’s an interesting question and a popular one. But the far more compelling question to me is “how can I express transcendence, faith, and the mysterious workings of the Holy Spirit in language that is clear, honest, and real?” Many readers are put off by the common phrases and words that are “taboo” in a completely different sense. Lief Enger’s Peace Like a River did this well, I think.

  23. Avatar
    Ron Andrea June 6, 2017 at 12:23 pm #

    Edge, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder. I admit to being put off easily by “edge,” but it’s hard to get away from it in general market works. And Christian works often seem artificially sanitized. The example Steve gave–and I read similar–is a good compromise.

    (Love the Illustration.)

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    Victoria Bylin June 7, 2017 at 3:52 am #

    I think about this topic a lot. My goal is to be honest, realistic, hopeful, and respectful. If I do that, the stories will find their way to the page. Distribution and sales are out of my hands, except to be diligent with whatever tools are available.

    The pastor at a church my husband and I attended for 13 years said this about Christian liberty: “Where the Bible is clear, we must be emphatic. Where the Bible is not clear, we must be tolerant.” He gave this comparison: A person raised in a small town in a conservative denomination will draw lines in a different place than a person raised in Los Angeles who attends UC Berkeley and comes to Christ after some life experience–and because of those experiences.

    I’m the LA/Berkeley person–literally. And those were the actual words from the pastor’s lips. I took it as a sign to write for people who have walked a path like mine.

    Thanks for the post. It’s a good way to start the day 🙂

    • Avatar
      Christa MacDonald June 7, 2017 at 6:30 am #

      That’s a great way to put it, Victoria. I’m born and raised in the Northeast and have found that my lines are different than someone from the Midwest or South. I think if we all stick to keeping it ‘real’ so to speak without compromising where the bible is clear then we’ve done our best.

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