Thursday, June 11, 2009

Writing edgy . . . for all the wrong reasons

In the last couple of years I've noticed a trend in Christian fiction. More and more aspiring authors desire to write edgy fiction. And by edgy I mean pushing the envelope of what has generally been considered acceptable in novels regarding violence, sex, language, etc.

Now I'm all for writing real. I want my characters and situations to be true to life. I don't want to write about saints. But somewhere there's a line, and I admit, it's a gray one. Personally, I think it comes down to motives. Why do we want to write edgy? Is it to shock? To do it because we can?

Don't get me wrong. I know full well there are different books to reach different people. Someone who might not be inclined to pick up Beverly Lewis might love Ted Dekker. That's the beauty of this ever increasing market. There's so much great material! Twenty years ago this wasn't the case. I'm very thankful to be writing Christian fiction in today's world.

But in some Christian novels I've read recently I'm hard pressed to find anything (besides a lack of swearing) that sets them apart from their secular counterparts. And again, that may be exactly what the author and publisher want---to write clean fiction. There's nothing wrong with that, but I sometimes wonder if the author shied away from the Christian aspects because he/she didn't want to offend.

A couple years ago I noticed this in my own writing. I kept hearing I wasn't supposed to preach in my fiction. The message needed to come organically from the story. Sounded great in principle, but I found myself (and this is just me) actually shying away ever so slightly from what I most wanted to include in my novels---good news. The gospel. Hope. God's love.

I started evaluating my motives and realized I was indeed acting, in so many words, ashamed of the gospel. Something I never ever wanted to be ashamed of. I looked up the Scripture in Romans 1:16
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.

As I pondered it, something stuck out to me: the gospel is the power of God. And what is the gospel? The good news of Jesus! If I want to write a powerful novel, then I need to include the good news. If I want to reach people for the Lord, I need to share the good news.

Of course, the gospel comes in various forms, and I still don't want to write preachy, but I also don't want to be ashamed.

In my debut novel Thicker than Blood (January 2010, Tyndale House) there's a strong evangelical message. In all my fiction my goal is to show that no one is ever too far gone for God to love. I'm now proud of that.

I'd like to encourage you today not to be ashamed of the gospel. It holds the power of God to transform lives.

Addendum: Now let me just add here that I'm not saying clean, moral fiction (like one of my favorite authors James Scott Bell's Ty Buchanan series) are not valuable. They are very much needed, and I love reading them too. Mainly I'm talking about motives here. You may be called to write moral fiction. We write different books to reach different people. I totally support that. Some won't be ready for my novels, but they may receive from someone else.

So please don't take this post wrong. This is just what I've been thinking about lately in my own personal writing life.

Addendum #2: (I posted this in the comments but want to include it here as well): Great discussion, everyone! Thanks for your comments. And let me just say that many of my characters walk and talk and act like sinners. The main character of Thicker Than Blood is an alcoholic who chain smokes and has lived with her boyfriend. But it's my job to tell her story without dragging my readers through the mud of her life.

There's nothing so beautiful as seeing a sinner come to know forgiveness and love from God. But in order to truly appreciate their redemption, sometimes we need to see some of their sin. That said, I'm always very careful how much I show.

Riven by Jerry B. Jenkins is a great example of an author who skillfully shows us a sinner without dragging us through the sin. There's not one swear word, sex scene, or even much graphic violence. Yet we clearly know all about Brady and his life.

Another example are the films of the Billy Graham evangelistic association (World Wide Pictures). The movie Caught (unfortunately not on DVD that I know of) was about a young man living on the streets of Amsterdam who even has to sell himself to pay off a drug debt.

Telling realistic stories of redemption with restraint can be done. :)

23 comments:

Stacy Duplease said...

How true it is that we tend to water down the gospel and our beliefs. I've been sadly guilty of it in the past. It's difficult to try not to beat people's head with the message, but also stay true to your beliefs as you write.

I cannot wait to read your new novel. Blessings to you and to it.

Stacy Duplease of www.storiesbystacy.blogspot.com/

James Scott Bell said...

Thanks for the nice mention of me in your addendum, CJ. For me, the bottom line is writing the best book I can that I won't be embarrassed to show my children, my wife, my pastor, or my friends. Also, as you added, it's good to have all kinds of moral fiction out there, as viable options for readers. Good thoughts!

Kennisha Hill said...

Hi CJ! Awesome blog and timely post! I heard about this in traditional publishing- that some publishers don't want you to be too preachy. My question has always been how can I hide the gospel?

This is truly a very encouraging post! Keep writing for Jesus!

Blessings,
Kennisha

Laura Frantz said...

Excellent post! And heart-felt congrats on that upcoming debut novel! I'll add it to my list:) We are definitely called to be a light and convey His truth in word and deed. I was afraid in my own upcoming debut novel that the "salvation scene" or evangelical message would be softened, for lack of a better word, or removed altogether. Thankfully that didn't happen. I was a bit confused since the Christian fiction I'd been reading didn't seem to fit the message. Bless you for your thoughts here!

Laura Davis said...

Thank you for this post. This is something that has bothered me for sometime. I have run into "Christian" authors who have no qualms about using swear words or sex scenes in their books that would make your hair stand on end. I don't read secular books because of that and now I find that I have to be wary of some Christian books as well. If we are trying to make our characters too "real" we miss the point of our calling as Christian writers. We do have good news to share and it should be evident throughout our books. If I read a Christian book and afterwards wonder why it was labelled "Christian", then there is a serious problem.

Cindy Swanson said...

Great post, CJ. As an avid reader and promoter of Christian fiction, I couldn't agree more. I've even blogged about this myself in the past.

jason said...

This is basically the same debate you hear all the time in the Christian music industry. How "Christian" do the lyrics have to be in order for it to be a "Christian" song? Remember the beating Amy Grant took when she released Heart In Motion? Scandalous!

The point is that whether you're a writer or a musician or a filmmaker, you're creating art. If you're a secular artist, then you're free to create art for art's sake. But once you take on the label of "Christian artist", then for some reason you're expected to put the ministry aspect above the artistry. That's why unfortunately so much Christian music is really awful, and it's why a lot of Christian fiction is as well.

That said, I don't disagree with you. If I'm buying a "Christian novel", then I would expect that there's some sort of biblical message within the story. But that doesn't take away from other Christian authors who may write more for the artistry than the message.

Karen Wingate said...

I see a watering down of the gospel in other areas of the CBA market as well. A lot of Children's Ministry curriculum will only teach the most shallow of biblical concepts without challenging kids to be holy different. Non-fiction books are marketed as what people want to hear, not what they need. It makes me think of the verse in 2 Timothy 4:3 that talks about "itching ears." As writers, let's not be swaued away from sound doctrine and let us be more dilligent to discharge the duties of the ministry God has given us (2 Timothy 4:5).

Margo Carmichael said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elaine said...

Absolutely. It is a dilemma all Christian writers face: how to share the good news of the gospel without preaching. Most of the old classics that are still read today have a strong gospel message included as the theme. They also have compelling characters and action. When I read fiction without a Christian message (for critiquing, etc.), it just feels flat to me. Why did I waste my eyes and several hours reading something I could not use to help make me a better person? Garbage in; garbage out.

Jeanette Windle said...

I love this, C. J! The grace and power of the Gospel is as palpable running through the jungle or zip-lining from a Huey as in a church pew. I write international suspense, but my conviction that there is a God who passionately loves His creation and makes sense of this messed-up universe spills over so that I couldn't keep it out of my writing if I tried. If my writing is 'edgy', it is because I have lived and moved in the dark places of this planet I describe. But it is the light of Jesus Christ I carry into that darkness, in life and in print.

Margo Carmichael said...

Margo Carmichael said...
LOL It occurs to me that if they want to, readers can skip over salvation scenes the same way they do sex scenes.

I was church librarian for eight years and my favorite two books to recommend got people interested in the Bible because the books showed the power of God. In this world where science rules for so many, it's wonderful to see when the loving Creator of the universe breaks through and shows Himself in the world.

One of the books reads like an exciting novel, although it's the autobiography of Lydia Prince: Appointment in Jerusalem.

It shows God's hand in a mighty way in the lives of the people. And it shows prophecy fulfilled in the '30s and in the back, it lists more.

Thing is--well, two things. First, we're going to meet a lot of authors one day, when we go to heaven. Maybe in a receiving line. Habakkuk and Malachi among others better known, Matthew, Isaiah, etc. When I realized that, I read the whole Bible. How humiliating to shake their hand and say, "So nice to meet you. Duh, I haven't read your book...." Imagine! LOL

Second thing, when I go through that line or whatever, I want to hold a book or many in my hand--my own. And I want to be able to say, "Here's my little contribution to the Kingdom. It's nothing like yours, of course, but it's my best shot."

Whatever *the Lord leads,* didactic or just clean stories, and to some degree, edgy, done the best way we know how, is our best shot.

Main thing--I want to be able to show it to Jesus. As long as I'm not ashamed to hand it to Jesus, it's a good book.

And He sees it, anyway, even now.

Nicole said...

This is specifically a response to Jason's comment. In order for Jason to have meant the last line in his second paragraph, he can't have read much current "Christian fiction" or listened to some of the current bands in "Christian music". As far as both music and writing are concerned, the very same comment can be made for secular music/bands and authors. It's an unnecessary and really not an accurate separation of talent.

Regarding edgy, for all those readers who prefer the gentleness of Prairie Romances or Amish stories for example, some of the current contemporary novels will not suit those tastes. For my own writing, I define "edgy" as confronting and portraying the behavior of the lost without judgment. It's not graphic, but it's not all "off camera". The gospel is always included in the story. Just my take on this topic, CJ. Good post.

Janet said...

About all I can contribute to this discussion is how I'm handling this myself. I'm writing novels, not sermons. (I have nothing whatsoever against sermons; they're just not the same thing as novels.) So my characters behave sinfully. (Try constructing a plot without sin or its effects. Go ahead; I dare you.) Because it's not a sermon, I don't include a parenthesis to say "Don't try this at home." I don't explain to the reader why they shouldn't behave that way, or explain why the character did it. Not all sin has immediate dire effects either.

But I grapple directly with the Bible and its claims where it fits the story. And the spiritual struggles are as much a part of the plot as external events.

Finally, I keep in mind what Jesus said about those who lust after a woman in their hearts. That's sin. So I try to write in such a way that I don't cause the reader to lust after any kind of sin. Witchcraft is integral to my story, but nobody will be able to use the book as a how-to spell-casting manual. I have characters in love. I try to show the sexuality that goes with it only obliquely, so that the readers know that it's happening and why it's happening without getting hot and bothered themselves. No play-by-plays there either.

On the question of the quality of Christian literature, I'm only starting to read it again. What I saw in past years discouraged me too much to try. And judging from the first chapters we see on blog tours, there's still a lot of it that embarrasses me. On the other hand, there's a lot of secular stuff out there that's just plain bad writing too. (What can I say? I'm a snob.) And I'm also starting to see some beautiful writing from Christian authors, and signs of intellectual depth, which encourages me. I think the bar has been raised and that's a good thing.

Sherrie Lord said...

Good points. Good questions.

For me, I know the answer.

the Lord tasked me to write Christian romance that had enough romance in it (sexy heroes, sexual tension, no sex) that Christian women could hand it to their secular friends and colleagues who read secular romance and feel pretty confident they'd like it, that they wouldn't turn up their noses because it was too preachy or sweet. So far, that's exactly what's happened. Glory to God. (novels: Airwaves & Only His Kiss)

C.J. Darlington said...

Great discussion, everyone! Thanks for your comments. And let me just say that many of my characters walk and talk and act like sinners. The main character of Thicker Than Blood is an alcoholic who chain smokes and has lived with her boyfriend. But it's my job to tell her story without dragging my readers through the mud of her life.

There's nothing so beautiful as seeing a sinner come to know forgiveness and love from God. But in order to truly appreciate their redemption, sometimes we need to see some of their sin. That said, I'm always very careful how much I show.

Riven by Jerry B. Jenkins is a great example of an author who skillfully shows us a sinner without dragging us through the sin. There's not one swear word, sex scene, or even much graphic violence. Yet we clearly know all about Brady and his life.

Another example are the films of the Billy Graham evangelistic association (World Wide Pictures). The movie Caught (unfortunately not on DVD that I know of) was about a young man living on the streets of Amsterdam who even has to sell himself to pay off a drug debt.

Telling realistic stories of redemption with restraint can be done. :)

Jennifer Valent said...

I agree with you completely, CJ. I love how you say that we can show the sin without dragging readers through the mud of it. I truly believe facing reality in storytelling can be done without leaving a reader feeling sordid.

To me, quality Christian fiction doesn't have to be more secular to be artistic; it just needs to be centered on the Lord. After all, He's the original Creator. Who better to provide the ultimate in creativity?

Gary said...

I wish every author, photographer, filmmaker, painter - every artist who is a Christian could read the late Hans Rookmaaker's Modern Art & the Death of a Culture (IVP). Particularly Chapter 9, Faith and Art.

Here is a taste:

"Is there such a thing as Christian art? Can art be used for Christian purposes? Here I must say emphatically : art must never be used to show the validity of Christianity. Rather the validity of art should be shown through Christianity." (page 228)

I have been dismayed for years at the terms Christian books and Christian music.

Rookmaaker was a member of L'Abri Fellowship, associated with the late Francis A. Schaeffer

In Christ,

Gary Allen VanRiper

S. J. Deal said...

Great post. I've been I guess you could say, struggling on the preaching aspect. It has only recently occurred to me that there is not a problem with boldly written views, including the gospel, which is perhaps the most shocking thing we'll ever encounter. Of course it depends entirely on what you're writing. If you're writing a world where there is no such thing as Christianity then of course it wouldn't be appropriate to include the Christian gospel, at least not directly.

That said I find myself turned off by preaching in fiction only when it seems that the author is forgetting the story and trying to preach directly to me the reader. It doesn't matter if the preacher is a Christian or an Atheist. I'm just as turned off by either one.

The challenge I suppose is to preach without being preachy. In my own story I see no reason why my characters shouldn't be as "religious" as real people are. A gospel message can be clearly be presented without being preachy, and it can be done with words. Any message, no matter what, is a tricky thing to include in a novel. It's a thin line between including a message and getting preachy, but it's important to take care while doing so.

So what do you do?

I find for myself it is just to try to create characters that are as much like real people as possible. They themselves will take care of messages. That's what the Bible does most of the time. It's written by presenting the lives of real people. Of course there are places where it gets quite doctrinal, it's supposed to. Just like I'd expect an instruction manual to contain instructions, the Bible will contain doctrine. But how are the Gospels, most of the Old Testament history and even prophetic books, Genesis, Revelation, and the book of Acts written? By presenting the lives of living real people, often in something of a story form. The law, Pauline epistles, and some of the poetic books are not as much, they are concerned more with instruction, praise, or doctrine then presenting people's lives.

One of the best written books that very clearly presents the gospel without being preachy is Christopher Hopper's The White Lion Chronicles. Only very rarely does it feel like he's left the story's realm for the message. Really in the first two books I only felt he left it shortly about two or three times. Characters offer praise to God and it feels like it belongs in the story. It doesn't feel like he's trying to hammer in a point. I found his books to be quite transformative as a result.

Rel said...

Great post, CJ - thanks for opening the discussion. Wish I had time to comment more but must get ready for Book Club tonight!

I appreciated reading all the comments, too.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree about the 'edginess' in the books. I don't want to come across as a prude, but I just finished reading a book from a writer I admire that I was embarrassed to read in public. I'd committed to review it, but the cover looked like a popular romance novel and anyone reading over my shoulder would have seen plenty of titillating text to interest most of the secular crowd. It definitely wasn't something I'd want my daughters to read. There was plenty of talk about God helping the characters 'hold themselves back' but lots of struggling going on and all family members, from teens to grandparents who were very sexually active. I'm not sure what the purpose was.

Thanks for your post and the chance to vent!

Lynn Squire said...

I notice that many speak of reading novels that include the Gospel. Yet, I, of recent, have not found too many recently published Christian novels that give a clear presentation of the Gospel - rather a watered down version, no indication of it at all, or a misrepresentation of the true Gospel as found in a literal interpretation of Scripture. Now I am curious - have I been missing these books that do, or is it only perception? Maybe both.

I think I will have to read your book, C.J., to see what you are saying.

Timothy Fish said...

This is a question I really struggled with before I wrote For the Love of a Devil, which is a contemporary retelling of the life of Hosea. I chose the man as my protagonist and he had to be a saint. He had his problems, but I don’t know of a saint who doesn’t. What I struggled with was what to do with the woman. Though I made her a saint, it hardly mattered. It was impossible to tell the story without her leaving her three children and her husband to be with other men. I was at some liberty to gloss over part of that because the man is learning about what is going on through the eyes of others. He can’t see what is going on behind the veil of darkness, but he knows and the reader has to know too, so I had to decide how much I showed. Perhaps by the grace of God, at about that time I happened to purchase a book written by the brother of a friend of mine. I was spending a few days with my parents and having these discussions about what should be and shouldn’t be in a novel when I came upon a scene in his book that was so erotic that I closed the book and could not go on. He had crossed a line that I would not cross. The scene that had the most potential as a sex scene in For the Love of a Devil didn’t get cut, but I chose to show it through the eyes of a private investigator who experiences technical difficulties.

As for preaching in novels, I have written about this, but the essence of my thoughts on the subject is that we need to stick with the theme and not try to tack on the gospel just so it is in there. If you really think every book should have it, tack a page on at the end of the book. But if it is integral to the story, then by all means put it in and do it well. I don’t recall putting it in either of the other two novels, but in How to Become a Bible Character it is so essential to the plot that it shows up multiple times and I tell felt compelled to include a second at the back on how to share the gospel. In my current WIP, one of the major problems going into the story is that the protagonist is lost. He accepts Christ going into the second act and that requires someone to share the gospel with him. There will be other occurrences throughout the book because that is one of the actions required for the plot to take place.