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:
The Grand Canyon of Crossover Writing – 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
Damon J. Gray
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.
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.
What she said. Good point, Rebekah!
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!
Linda K. Rodante
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?”
Excellent. Very well said.
I agree, Linda. I personally do not use curse words or vulgar language. I don’t like to be around those who do. I read some fiction that straddles the line a bit, but if I get a chapter or two into it and I can tell such language or overt sex will be pervasive, I discard the book. When I choose to read something labeled “Christian” fiction, I make the assumption that there will be nothing in it that will not be God-pleasing. That does not mean it will be preachy, just that it won’t be offensive.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I agree with you. Hacksaw Ridge was an incredible movie and appealed to both sides of the Christian fence.
‘Hacksaw Ridge’ sure did appeal on both sides…I heard from friends who were not Christians, but were sure glad Desmond Doss was!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Eva Marie Everson
The Book of Eli will leave you breathless . . . in a good way.
Thanks for the insightful article, Steve!
The technical legal term is spelled Blood spatter. Thanks again.
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.
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.
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.
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. ?
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)
Susan E. Richardson
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.
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.
Kristen Joy Wilks
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.
Janet Ann Collins
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.
Robin E. Mason
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.
Peggy Rychwa/Sheryl Marcoux
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.
Don’t forget Andrew Greeley.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 🙂
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.
I do not need to read an edge,
and will no longer pay
to look across a bloody hedge;
it’s where I live each day.
Give me froth and bright balloons,
give me cheerful living
with perhaps, talking baboons
caught in the act of giving
sugar-lumps to unicorns
while in the background plays
Foden’s band with brassy horns
to banish rainy days,
and make gay the sleepless nights
when reality truly bites.
I don’t have a problem with adultery or premarital sex being part of a plot; they are even in the Bible. But there are acceptable and unacceptable ways for those elements to be portrayed. If fiction writers create scenes where the readers feel like they are right there in the action–well, that’s a problem for a Christian reader. Those elements can be part of a plot without actually showing the steamy details. I don’t believe sex is a spectator sport.
For me, one dividing line is whether an author can lead a reader to sin by reading: planting a physical sex scene or bad words in the mind.
I grew up in an unsaved family, so I know bad language is a part of real life. But I don’t want my reading material to bring those words back to the forefront of my mind: I want those words diminished in my thinking, not reinforced. Bad language can be shown in imaginative ways, like the example Steve mentioned, without subjecting the readers to the specifics.
Violence is a little harder to deal with. War and crime are violent. But there’s a difference between real and gratuitous violence.
We have to remember, too, the world isn’t just going after realism in media. It’s titillating on purpose.
These standards apply to nonfiction as well as fiction. Once in a Christian bookstore I picked up a nonfiction book aimed at teen boys about avoiding sexual temptation. Since I had teen boys, I picked up the book and read through the first several pages. I put it back down. The writing was so graphic that if a reader didn’t have problems with impure thoughts before he started the book, he would after reading it.
I don’t have this problem at present, writing as I do Kentucky coal mine ghost stories, circa WWII, when sex, cussin’, and to a degree, violence were somewhat in check. The problem Christians may have are with ghosts even though the disciples, the Pharisees, and even Christ discusses them freely, or they are at least acknowleged with no polemics. Chritians shy away without knowing the subject matter well (celtic influences, etc.) but this may help to explain the evangical trigger finger. We really don’t have a chance, given the fact that Chritians, as a whole, read secular thrillers, horror, ghost stories, romance novels, etc. (Please, no protestations) This is our readership, and we must water down, perform grammatical gymmastics, or leave.
One more thought. I believe excellence in writing can be a great witness. When readers learn that Tolkien was instrumental in bringing C.S. Lewis to the Lord, it casts a different light on TLOTR (with ghostie and lots of violence!) not to mention Roman Catholics. Interesting how you will see Tolkien’s works in Chritian book stores.
This discussion is interesting and, in the case of many of the comments, helpful. I know that my mind is easily led by words and the thoughts I have are not always easily put aside. I could never be a movie, play, or book critic and expose myself to all that is made available for consumption. There are many topics and situations that can be and should be addressed, but the methods should glorify God. If the words I choose would lead me to sin, then I assume they would lead others to sin. I choose my words accordingly.
When it comes to sexual content, it seems to me there is a great deal of hypocrisy in so-called Christian Fiction. Some of the most popular writers of books classified as Christian mystery/suspense/romance have mastered the art of allowing readers to feel good about reading titillating content, simply because no sexual acts are described and the characters periodically pronounce their faith in God. If it were only the bare-chested men on the covers, that would be one thing. But in many of these books, almost every appearance of the male characters emphasizes their sexual attractiveness. One mention would be perfectly fine; but when their “smoldering” appeal and the “dangerous” thoughts the female character entertains are constantly referred to–well, that’s just porn by another name. But it’s okay to indulge in such books, because, hey, they’re “Christian fiction.”
Ask yourself what would happen if a male writer wrote such books about female characters, added in some speeches about trusting in God, and called it “Christian fiction”?
I’m all for writers writing whatever they want, and readers enjoying themselves. But it’s sad to me that, when I inquired on a very popular Christian fiction FB page whether readers would entertain a book that explored Christians trying to reconcile their faith with same-sex relationships, and in which a devout follower of Christ is involved in such a relationship, the post was almost immediately taken down by the admins. I’m quite sure The Brothers Karamazov wouldn’t be regarded today as “Christian fiction”–but as long as you tow the line of Evangelical orthodoxy, you can tease readers all you want with suggestive content. Just sad!
The CF label seems to mean no explicit sex, keep the violence from being too bloody, don’t use cuss words, and don’t raise any challenging ideas.
The opinions from 2011 and 2017 are interesting because in them I sense a subtle shift from more “cozy” views of what makes a book Christian to less “cosy,” but at the same time, the opinions from 2022 don’t mirror the sea-change that has been coming for years and is now on us with a vengeance. The church is under attack. Christianity itself is in a decline in the US, at least, and more people flounder around without direction. Or hope. Public language is rougher than at any time since the 18th century (which made an art form out of invective).
Forget 11 years ago, or 5 years ago. What should be the role of Christian fiction in 2022? People are frightened, and everything that we/they took for granted is shaken up.
It seems to me that “cosy” Christian novels don’t give people a way out of the dread they’re experiencing. These books just provide a way to hide from it.
True, at times we all need relief from current events, and the constant stream of bad news, but how can Christian writers give people insight to realize that God really is in charge during this time of testing if they don’t portray the reality of life in this era?
We have f-bombs used by Senators on Twitter, rampant lawlessness that has risen even to robbing trains, and the sensible thing to do, it seems to many is to buy a gun and learn how to use it.
Carol, I agree with you, up to a point.
I come to the discussion from cancer, and I’m going downhill far too quickly now… what I need is not so much reality, but a place where I can see what life might be like, and something to which I can perhaps contribute through my own writing. It may be a longing for coziness, or it may be a wistful feeling for what’s been stripped away… but I think there’s a definite place for books that tell of what the world may yet become, if we look to the good and decent…and cozy.
Also, I spend much of my ‘quality time’ working with weapons, that my wife will have the most effective tool-kit when I’m dead, and it does beg the question…is this in God’s plan?
The time is coming to sell the cloak and buy a sword, yes, but I think that we have to look past the necessity of the day, and keep mercy to the fore, and this has to be the hallmark of what we read and write, for without it, I fear we may be lost.
I may be completely wrong here, and very far behind the times…Barb says that I’m one of the finest minds of the fifteenth century… but I thought I would say this, and I would be delighted to hear your thoughts.
Sharon K Connell
Like Christian writer Douglas Wilson, I like to “use “language” without using it” as you described, Steve. It was genius how he wrote that scene. In my books, I write things like, “a string of expletives burst from his mouth.” I’ll have to remember the part about him kicking them around the floor for a while or something like that for my current WIP. LOL That was good.
In scenes where undesired advances are made toward a woman, I do the same thing. I skirt the issue with descriptions of clothing instead of physical contact. We all know what it means. There’s no reason why an author has to spell it out for anyone. My readers have made countless comments to me about how they appreciate the way I lead up to things but don’t go too far.
The world is filled with literature of a graphic nature with explicit details on everything. I feel If you’ve written the scene properly, the reader knows what you are getting at without you drawing a picture of every movement. It’s like some who wear clothing that leaves nothing to the imagination. Mystery is much more desirable.
At one time, C.S. Lewis may have been accused of writing edgy Christian fiction. The imagination is an awesome gift, and in his case, it guided him to departure from atheism and to salvation through faith in Jesus. Personally I do not like to read (or watch/listen to) curse words, sexual scenes, or anything that pulls me away from a walk with a holy God. Christians have the Holy Spirit to guide in all things, including writing and reading. Listening to the One who guides in all things and obeying His voice is a sure-fire way to please Him. In addition, there is an abundance of quality literature available; why settle for less? You may enjoy STORIES THAT (REALLY) MATTER: BIBLICAL REFLECTIONS, by Effie-Alean Gross.
I have one part of my book that presents this dilemma for me. I’m quoting an email section from a fellow employee who was known for vulgar language on the job. In the email’s first line, she uses a milder version of her typical language, but it could still be offensive to some, and I don’t want it in my book. So, I will probably deal it with by writing, “She opens her email with a coarse phrase to express her anger.”
“…with it…” .Where’s the edit button? 🙂
I think expletives, violence and sex are cheap ploys to solicit attention and entertainment to the reader But especially for movies. You just say a swearword all of a sudden you’re cool. Some people need to get a vocabulary and get better imaginations.
A wise agent told me to not preach to the choir. I was still able to share the Gospel in layman’s terms without overdoing it. I veer away from lectures, sermons, Christianese books that have no edge.
Let me ‘splain. Cussing = he swore under his breath. Sex = none. Violence = not gratuitous but if part of the story, then it’s there. For example, someone trying to take revenge, and stopped by conscience or another person; war = realism but I tell ya, the action has to overcome any foul language and yet I know that most soldiers do battle that, even Christians. But, I keep that out.
When I pick up a book published by Tyndale or Zondervan, I actually expect something Christian. When there is (in the entire novel) one mention of ‘a Bible was on the table’ or ‘they stood in line in church,’ and that’s it, identified as a Christian novel, I am rather shocked. Sure it’s a best seller. Because all that these big names want seems to me anyway, mo’ money.
I consider those books clean fiction but not in vaguely Christian. IDK am I correct? No?
Eva Marie Everson
As a writer, I feel compelled to write what God places on my heart . . . whether I reach the swamp masses or only the pew-sitting church is up to Him.
As a Christian and ministry leader, I know that Satan only has a few tricks in his bag, but he knows how to use them well. Sex is one of his bigger tricks. It is also the last gift to be opened by the Bride & Groom . . . the final gift from their heavenly Father . . . this is why Satan uses it so often and it has become such a part of our books, movies, songs . . . lives!
My novel DUST, which came out last year, featured two couples. One waited until marriage. They still had problems but they got through them. The other was involved in an affair. Everything they touched was destroyed. Relationships, etc. Most of my reviews (on Amazon, etc.) reflected that the readers “got it.” Some did not. Some threw little hissy fits about s*x being mentioned (never shown . . . mentioned). As a theology grad, I wanted to scream. Gracious people, we can hardly get through Genesis without enough sex and sexuality to keep a boat afloat, starting with Adam knowing his wife . . . to the sons of God with the daughters of men . . . Lot sleeping and procreating with his daughters . . . Abraham married to his half-sister . . . seed spilled on the ground . . . Judah sleeping with his daughter in law (Jesus comes from this line) . . . Rueben sleeping with his father’s concubine . . . Leah and Rachel “buying” a night with Jacob . . . Joseph being attacked by Potiphar’s wife . . . shall I go on? Look at the five women in the genealogy of Jesus . . . there is a sexual element to each of their stories. What really stunned me were the one or two remarks that my novel had “sex on every page.” Really? The book is 370 pages. I’m not sure I can even imagine that much sex. (Rant over.)
As a reader, I’m a big girl now. In fact, I could co-star on The Golden Girls, I’m so old. I can tell you what I *can* read and what I will not and defend both of those positions. There are some areas I just cannot allow my mind to go to. Other things I can read and say, “Well that was a little much . . .” but then never think of it again.
My thoughts are this: we need to stop criticizing those who are not where we are yet (defined: where we think they OUGHT to be) or who have found their own place beyond us. I write what I write. I read what I read . . . both in the Bible and outside of it. I would never be ashamed of either as Jesus peers over my shoulder.
Rant over (again).
I left a comment this morning but don’t see it–maybe it hasn’t been approved yet (in that case, feel free to delete this one).
I think one key to whether certain scenes or words have gone too far is what they’ll do in the mind of the reader. I grew up in an unsaved family where bad words flowed. But I don’t want to encounter those words in my reading or viewing because I’d like for them to stay in the background of my mind and not the forefront. There are creative ways to share that a character cursed, as Steve mentioned, without subjecting the reader to those words.
Similarly, we don’t really need steamy scenes to get the idea when characters sin in that way. The Bible tells us about people’s sexual sin without being gratuitous. Therefore, I don’t have a problem if a story contains those elements, because people do sin in those ways and need redemption. But we don’t need pictures implanted in our minds by too-detailed descriptions.
We have to remember, too, that many non-Christian writers aren’t going for just realism. They’re trying to be provocative on purpose. We don’t need to tempt people with wrong words or images in the name of realism.
I think all of this applies to nonfiction as well as fiction. Once I picked up a book in a Christian bookstore aimed at teen boys. I had teen boys, so I looked through the book to determine if I thought it would be useful to them. Though the book was designed to help boys fight temptation, it described the problem too graphically. I felt that if a boy didn’t have a problem with his thought life before reading the book, he would afterward just from the descriptions in the book.
I’m in the middle of studying Judges. The darkest of all the books. Makes me rethink my previous view.
I cannot get too far into this discussion without sounding hypocritical since I cuss, and under a pen name I write mainstream fiction that gives a whole new definition to “edgy.” But I did want to share this:
When I first started writing for Love Inspired Suspense (2005), we were NOT allowed to use skips and dodges such as “when he stubbed his toe, an expletive echoed around the room.” The reasoning was that readers still knew the character had cussed, spouting a profanity, and would not accept it in an LIS book. Not even our filthiest villain could hint at cussing. So some readers will not find the dodges amusing. Along that line…
…TODAY I got my copy edits on a book coming out from a Christian publisher, and I was asked to change a line from my (quite nasty) villain. He used the word “whelped” in a 5-word phrase meant to be snapped, but the note is that word is too over-the-top. So I get to tone that down, but I’m struggling to come up with something similar that will have the same spitting and punishing impact.
All that said, to return to the original topic (and as some have pointed out), “edgy” to me is not about individual elements in a book (sex, violence, language) but theme and syntax. My Christian books are clean of sex & language, but the last two were considered edgy by some because I tackled some unexpected topics (racism, family trauma, corruption), and my prose can be a little intense at times. Of course, I write murder/suspense stories, so some violence is a given.
I’m also just old school enough to think we should focus first on what we feel called to write, then on the reader we are meant to reach. After that, look at the market and start tailoring in the editorial process. I found out the hard way if I focus too much on the market requirements, I’ll be crippled by my own second-guessing. This is one reason I cannot write for LIS anymore. I LOVED writing for them, but trying to shoehorn my voice into what they need brought me to a screeching halt. It was great while it lasted, but I had to move on.
Darlene N. Böcek
I agree with Claire O’Sullivan that it’s just as offensive to have the Christian label and to misrepresent Christianity as not relating to how we think and breathe and talk. The passion of loving Jesus missing, but they pray for a meal–that is stripping Christianity of its essence.
Over the years, faith-based movies have been like this. Sorry, but Love Come Softly series did not make the cut. Finally our family gave up the breadth of faith-based movies in exchange for vetted producers who produce authentic faith-based movies: God’s Not Dead franchise, the Kendrick brothers, most of Kirk Cameron’s films. For books, finding authors that have authenticity of faith is just as essential.
As in Francine Rivers. So the blurred edge in her movie–which I’ve waited for for 10 years–is disappointing.
I recently found out that a pastor we recently met, and his family, swear regularly, f-bombs included. I cannot reconcile this in my head. It’s the same with a book. Books become our friends–we spend extended time with them, hopefully repeated visits.
The tension of a book about “real things” like death or loss or deep personal issues can be built with careful crafting of words. It can be a very compelling, relatable novel without swearing. In fact, we can say really mean things without swearing. Words carry that long term impact, and good books show us what happens when we do things wrong, and how to make it right.
Audience is the main question. Many authors who answered above mention their desire to be cross-over. You know, I don’t recall many swear words (if any) in Hunger Games. Or in Harry Potter. Or in Gone With the Wind. Or The Outsiders. You can write compelling lasting fiction where the wickedness of men is clear and consequential, without graphic sex, violence, or foul-language. It can be done. Even faith-based fiction can be lasting, as we’ve seen in Redeeming Love.
Thanks, Steve, for bringing up this topic again. Here’s to all of us writing compelling fiction in a redemptive way that brings glory to God.
I shared an Alisa Childers video about Redeeming Love in my Facebook Discussion group. Childers explained that the story is supposed to be based on the theme of Hosea but badly misrepresents the story b/c Gomer represented unfaithful, rebellious Israel, not a victim of sex trafficking. Childers also mentioned the soft porn sex scenes being inappropriate. I have a great discussion group and when there’s disagreement it’s always been handled graciously, but I had to block one woman who disagreed with Childers because she loved the movie and starting saying rude things about people in the group who disagreed with her. She wasn’t able to simply state her opinion. I’ve only had to block a person once before it my group and it was someone defending the TV series Game of Thrones. They also got very rude. And on my blog, some of the most hateful comments I’ve ever gotten were from people defending The Shack. I find it very interesting that entertainment that misrepresents God inspires such passion from some Christians.
Sex, language, violence … all typical “edgy” things in Christian fiction, yes, but I’m a children’s book author, and what bothers me even more than SLV are all the books for little ones about transgender and homosexuality, etc, being taught as normal. And how middle schoolers are being taught masturbation and other than normal sex techniques.
I think we should be more worried about what our children are reading. As an adult, I can choose what I want to read or not. But our kids are being read books in school. They don’t have a choice.
And, unfortunately, SLV is too much a part of many people’s lives. They don’t have to read it to get it. And it spills over onto their children. 🙁
Thanks, Steve, for reviewing this issue. If you remember Dick Francis’ books, there was one where he said a character just kept swearing (in his mind) but Dick didn’t use the words. Instead, he said, “Swear, swear swear.” (I think that’s the word he used.) But not only did I get a clear picture of the character, I laughed.
I’ve been reliving traumatic events from my life, while sorting documents today, and I grappled with the question, as a writer, “How much is too much?” I think for memoirists, because our stories are true, we have an even higher challenge than novelists to tell our stories without traumatizing readers. Graphic details of violence can trigger traumatic memories, as readers experience the events with us. And I remembered Corrie ten Boom’s The Hiding Place, about the Holocaust. In the death camps, surely the guards who raped and beat the prisoners were using foul words to berate and tear them down. Yet, Corrie ten Boom, and her co-authors, John and Elizabeth Sherrill, did not include any foul language, nor convey graphic details of the rapes or beatings. The Hiding Place has sold millions of copies and has stood the test of time, because it tells a story that shines God’s light amid horrific darkness, in a way that conveys the truth without offending the reader. Can we do as well? That’s the challenge for me.
Sorry for those of you whose comments did not show up in a timely manner. Didn’t remember that we have a very high “word” filter for our comments to prevent unfriendly players from posting things on the site.
We have had problems in the past with trolls posting nasty and inappropriate stuff here so had to get draconian… Hope you all understand.
But isn’t that a bit of a metaphor for this entire discussion? I’ll leave it to you all to decide.