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I Aim To Misbehave

This scene came to mind when I read an article by Sally Apokedak at Novel Rocket that Becky Miller highlighted this weekend. Sally asks if writers should aim to avoid offending publishers. It’s a good question, worthy of discussion.
| Oct 25, 2011 | No comments |

“I aim to misbehave.”

Some of you will probably remember this line from the motion picture, Serenity, capstone of the too-soon-departed western-in-space series, Firefly. Captain Malcolm Reynolds and his crew of misfits and fugitives discover evidence of a horrifying mass-murder perpetrated and covered-up by the Alliance government. There’s an even more horrifying consequence of this atrocity that I won’t mention for the sake of those who haven’t seen the movie.

Anyhow, Mal decides he can’t just walk away and return to his life as a smuggler living on the margins of society. It would be easy—he picked the losing side in a war for independence a long time ago, and on the face of it, going up against the Alliance with his one tiny ship looks even more like suicide. But he knows he won’t be able to live with himself if he lets this stand. He won’t submit to an unjust authority this time. He has to confront the evil and bring it into the light. Mal rallies his crew with an impassioned speech that ends with his homespun version of “Give me liberty, or give me death.” If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.

This scene came to mind when I read an article by Sally Apokedak at Novel Rocket that Becky Miller highlighted this weekend. Sally asks if writers should aim to avoid offending publishers. It’s a good question, worthy of discussion.

From a purely pragmatic point of view, the answer is yes. If you offend the publisher, you won’t get published. Case closed.

Being a community of Christian writers and readers, we can’t help but spiritualize this a bit. We might quote scriptures like Acts 5:29: “We ought to obey God rather than men,” and make the case that Christianity is inherently offensive to a sinful world, so if we dial back the Gospel and write stories that go down easier for secular audiences, we’re not being, well, Christian. After all, Jesus was always going up against the authorities of his day, overturning tables and calling out hypocrisy and talking about whitewashed tombs full of dead men’s bones. His was a call to revolutionary action!

On the other hand, we might take the position that we’re called to communicate the Gospel’s truth through word and example. Jesus taught through parable and storytelling, using plenty of metaphor in a way that was simultaneously accessible to the public and subversive to the conventional wisdom of his day. While he was angry with religious leaders who distorted God’s Word, he showed respect to civil authorities, including the hated Roman rulers of Palestine, and directed his followers to render “to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

Of course, it’s not only secular publishers we have to worry about. Christian publishers have created their own standards of acceptability for Christian fiction, and some observers have argued, here and elsewhere, that the result is a homogenized product that looks Christian on the outside, but doesn’t grapple with the practical realities of living a Christian life in a fallen world. It may contain an unambiguous declaration of Christian faith without engaging the difficult questions of that faith that don’t end at the altar. It often sacrifices quality of craft and content for marketability, perpetuating a culture of feel-good books that don’t offend–or challenge–anybody.

And some might reply, “What’s wrong with feel-good books?” They can provide an oasis of calm in a frantic world, and a picture of life as it should be, lived in submission to a sovereign God. Lots of Christian readers want to read stories like that, and it would be selfish and unloving not to provide them. Christians should give offense to no one. People will be convinced of the Gospel’s truth by our love, how we live in harmony as a community of believers. We’re called to a life of peace and obedience. Why mirror the world’s tactics? We’re supposed to be different, living the principle of turning the other cheek to offense.

So, where does that leave me? I have a passel of contradictory guidance here, and the easiest solution would be to get out of Dodge…er…writing altogether because I just can’t win. No matter what I do, I can’t satisfy everybody, and they’re all making pretty good points.

I couldn’t live with myself if I did that, though, so I think I’ll aim to misbehave. It’s not the same as aiming to offend because the enemy in my sights isn’t a person, it’s a mindset. I don’t want to defy authority, I want to defy expectations. I want to surprise. I want to tell the Old, Old Story in new ways. I want to take approaches that work not just despite conventional wisdom but because conventional wisdom says they shouldn’t. I want to take the formula for “success” and not merely turn it on its head but scramble it up and give it a good shake. I want to tell the truth in a manner that resonates both inside and outside the Christian community.

It’s idealistic, and, most likely, impossible. I’ve probably got less chance of succeeding than Mal and company had going up against the Alliance armada. I don’t have a spaceship–I don’t even have a cool brown coat. As I shoot for the unconventional, I may fall into standard patterns from force of habit. I may confuse. I may even offend.  But I won’t stop trying, however imperfectly, and I think that’s the best I have to offer.

Who’s with me?

Fred was born in Tacoma, Washington, but spent most of his formative years in California, where his parents pastored a couple of small churches. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1983, and spent 24 years in the Air Force as a bomber navigator, flight-test navigator, and military educator. He retired from the Air Force in 2007, and now works as a government contractor in eastern Kansas, providing computer simulation support for Army training.Fred has been married for 25 years to the girl who should have been his high school sweetheart, and has three kids, three dogs, and a mortgage. When he's not writing or reading, he enjoys running, hiking, birdwatching, stargazing, and playing around with computers.Writing has always been a big part of his life, but he kept it mostly private until a few years ago, when it occurred to him that if he was ever going to get published, he needed to get serious about it. Since then, he's written more than twenty short stories that have been published in a variety of print and online magazines, and a novel, The Muse, that debuted in November 2009 from Splashdown Books, which was a finalist for the 2010 American Christian Fiction Writers Carol Award for book of the year in the speculative genre. Speculative fiction is his first love, but he writes the occasional bit of non-fiction or poetry, just to keep things interesting.

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Johne Cook

Fred, you had me at your title. As a Christ-follower, I believe telling the truth is a revolutionary act, the sort of thing the Mal Reynolds type fought for. Great post.

Or, rather, shiny!


I saw that title and immediately had some inkling of where you were going with that. I am a Browncoat as well, second to my Whovian obsession and above my vague interest in Primeval (offtopic: It’s very annoying to be addicted to British/cancelled shows)

I think you hit it head on. Yes, we shouldn’t be in-your-face about things, but there comes a time where we need to say “You know what, I don’t care what anyone  but God thinks of me!”

Anthony Mathenia

Thanks for sharing this. I have saved it for later. 

I write about faith from a Christian perspective, but my novels will never find a home with a “Christian” publisher. Finding the truth sometimes leads us down an ugly path and I feel that honesty requires me to describe it truthfully in my writing.

What I always find it ironic that the Bible that is pretty much worshiped as Holy is filled with explicit sex, gory violence, genocide, infanticide, strong language (for the day), and yet if you write Christian literature you can’t say shit.

E. Stephen Burnett

Hey, Anthony — first comment I’ve seen from you, I think? Thanks for stopping by.

the Bible that is pretty much worshiped as Holy

I can’t think of any wise Christian who actually worships Scripture, though. Maybe you can demonstrate from your background, or some examples you’ve seen. I have seen, though, some Christians wrongly define the very truthful princinple of sola Scriptura as “solo” Scriptura, as if truth isn’t also echoed even by fallen people in a fallen world.

explicit sex

Must disagree with you, friend, unless you define “explicit” as “mentioning that it happened” or have concluded that the Bible actively includes descriptions of what clothing article got ripped off when, positions, practices, etc.

This next — an excerpt from another column here (mine) may apply to your reply. Or to someone else’s thoughts. I include it here, just in case it does relate.

“There’s not enough sex in Christian fiction.” Sigh. I must admit this one results in my nearly audible eye-rolls — and mainly because whenever I’ve read this objection it’s rarely been articulated well. (Maybe someone can do a better job in response to this?) But when I read a derivative of that line, I wonder: what is it you’re really asking for? Maybe more recognition that sexual sin is rampant in the world and even Christians struggle with it? If so, I’d agree, though likely for different reasons: writers must show in all kinds of art that people are far worse, and Christ is even more amazing, than we too often imagine.

If, however, you really mean that a Christian novel needs to follow characters, married or otherwise, into the bedroom, back seat or whatever, and hurl readers’ minds into exactly who kisses what where and what clothing item gets taken off in what order — that’s where I may just go all “Pharisaical” on your butt (or rear end in some Christian publishing-speak). How exactly would all that vivid description help? We have quite enough porn in the world, thank you very much; let us not toss more in and pretend it’s Art or even Edgy™.

Violence and (I would argue) even Bad Words don’t bring temptations to sin nearly as much as repeating descriptions or images of sexual encounters. So my suggestion: yes, let us not pretend that sexual sin isn’t widespread in the world or even in the minds of many struggling Christians. But let’s not make it worse by indulging in the details. That doesn’t honor God.


[The Bible includes] gory violence, genocide, infanticide, strong language (for the day)

Yup, yup, yup, yup, and yup — agreed. (With some qualifiers on the “strong language” part: it would be interesting, perhaps elsewhere, to discuss examples.)

The challenges arise, I think, from the differing motivations for including these things. Does the Bible include them to fight against false, self-righteous “puritanical” standards? Or to show how disgusting people are, apart from God, and what horrible consequences will result when people reject His sovereignty and everlasting joy?

Kessie Carroll
Kessie Carroll

Hailing from the juvie fiction side of things, I just can’t tolerate sex in books. Porn does bad things to my mind, even soft porn with Jesus making it all better at the end.
The Bible doesn’t do that to my mind. Saying, “He lay with her and she concieved and bore a son” just doesn’t have the same impact of two pages of graphic sex. Or, for heaven’s sake, an entire book awash in sexual tension. Arena by Karen Hancock … uuuuggghhh … I felt like I needed a cold shower once I finished. But then, my tolerance for sexual themes is very low.
There’s plenty of other sins that I wish Christian novelists could focus on. Alcoholism? Bitterness? Sloth? Mental illnesses? Things I’ve observed in my extended family. But no, for some reason, all anybody wants to write about is sex. Maybe it’s pressure from the publishers …?

E. Stephen Burnett

Hailing from the juvie fiction side of things, I just can’t tolerate sex in books. Porn does bad things to my mind, even soft porn with Jesus making it all better at the end.

1. I might could put up with reading about a graphic scene, seeing one implied, etc. However, the mind’s eye is very imaginative, especially for a writer. What difference is there between actual porn on-screen, and all the ingredients for it on a page that someone of even average imagination could use for the visual?

2. Scripture doesn’t directly forbid describing a sexual sin in detail. However …

3. Scripture doesn’t say directly not to do it is a flawed justification for a Thing. (Not that I’m saying anyone has specifically claimed this; I just know that assumption can creep in!) Instead of asking, Is the Thing banned by Law, it asks the much more challenging question: Can you do this Thing and honor God? (Actual Biblical references available upon request.)

The Bible doesn’t do that to my mind. Saying, “He lay with her and she concieved and bore a son” just doesn’t have the same impact of two pages of graphic sex.

Amen, from this cyber-corner. And thus my question about what is meant by “explicit” sex. That kind of description is as explicit as the Bible gets. If someone wants to offer Song of Solomon as a contrary example, I will throw a book at you — a book about the subtlety and veiled beauty of poetry. 😛

Or, for heaven’s sake, an entire book awash in sexual tension. Arena by Karen Hancock … uuuuggghhh … I felt like I needed a cold shower once I finished. But then, my tolerance for sexual themes is very low.

This is where men (most men) and women (most women) tend to be different, from what I’ve seen. A man can put up with “sexual tension,” in a story context, more easily — in fact, it may annoy him — whereas a woman may, more likely, find this tempting. And a woman may put up easily with the sight of a naked somebody, of the opposite sex, while even the brief glimpse of a woman’s body that suggests she might, at some time, be without clothing, is enough to provoke even flares of thoughts in a man. For the Christian, they can be headed off as part of the sin-mortifying process of being more like Jesus, but still, it’s tempting.

There’s plenty of other sins that I wish Christian novelists could focus on. Alcoholism? Bitterness? Sloth? Mental illnesses? Things I’ve observed in my extended family. But no, for some reason, all anybody wants to write about is sex. Maybe it’s pressure from the publishers …?

Or from folks who subconsciously accept the myths that if only Christian novels were more Realistic in such-and-such a way, non-Christians would respect us more, or respect and believe in Christ Himself. While I don’t want to deny that Christian fiction is hamstrung and immature in a lot of ways, reaction-based response isn’t the way to combat that. Rather than ask what are we leaving out and how can we better appeal to people, we should ask what notions that replace God and His glory are we buying into, and how can we get rid of them and replace them with motives to glorify and enjoy Him through storytelling?

Kaci Hill

Kessie – I’m kinda weird about sexual overtones, too. Hancock doesn’t really pull punches, but I don’t remember anything grotesque. Half the bit with Arena was how debased the people were becoming, regardless.  I know everyone has their own boundary, but I wouldn’t call her pornographic.  Nor does she write YA.

I really hate bringing the Bible into fiction conversations, but I might also need to add that Judges has this horrific gang rape that ends with the girl’s master cutting her into pieces; and Genesis has Lot offering his daughters up for gang rape to spare his two angelic guests the fate.  Then there’s the incest-rape in II Samuel; and I still maintain Hagar had to think Abram and Sarai rather monstrous.  Then there’s how Xerxes was *really* spending his evenings with all those Susan virgins during the little “beauty contest.’ Sorry, One Night with the King, they weren’t talking about hobbies all night.  And Solomon’s thousand-strong harem…

    I try not to think about any of that in too much detail.   

Just wanted to add that.   I’ll be more substantial later.  

A. T. Ross

In terms of explicit sex, he’s likely referring to the Hebrew of Song of Songs, which is seriously intense and steamy. The english translation seriously glosses over the real translation in a ton of different places. Also the description of the temptation of the Harlot in Proverbs 8 is intended to be very seductive to us so the horror of the truth Solomon exposes in the end is all the more shocking and disquieting. Some what we would term graphic descriptions there as well. Ezekiel too describes Israel in seriously graphic sexual terms, as committing fornication with donkeys and horses.

But I think in some ways the Bible includes this stuff not to “stick it” to the Puritanicals or to show people in their sin (indeed, Song of Songs isn’t about sin at all!), but for the simple reason of . . . that’s the way it happened. And as we can portray anything in creation, and certainly what the Bible portrays, such avenues are open to us. Now, we do need to resist using this tactic all over the place, but if it ultimately serves the story, don’t compromise. The Bible didn’t.

I recall an essay in The Christian Imagination talking about how a lot of evangelicals are proto-gnostics when it comes to the human body portrayed in literature, and he uses the Left Behind novels as an example of a husband and wife coming back together after months apart, and they sit on the bed (not under the covers) and chat about banal things before getting into bed in full-body pajamas. In terms of the story context . . . this isn’t what they’d be doing. :p And you don’t have to make it porn, obviously (please don’t), but make it real.

Great article, Fred!

E. Stephen Burnett

From Fred:

This is the flip side of the battle against mindset I was talking about–sometimes the expectations we’re fighting are our own. We can get so wired into the deficiencies we see in Christian or other fiction that we start writing in a way we think is diametrically opposed to the problems we perceive. We stop writing stories and begin writing agendas. (emphasis added)

Fred, I wish I could hit our own little thumbs-up button more than once. 😀

To what does such a reaction lead? One gets sick of fiction agendas that seem to leave out Real Life, so one makes fighting that an agenda and seeks only stories accordingly. And we become that which we’ve hated. Sounds like an anti-anti-based lifestyle: living for the fight, rather than for the happy ending. …

Melissa Ortega
Melissa Ortega

I say, “some” have made it past Watchful Dragons before, and I aim to do it again. Just because the Dragons have wised up to some of the tactics used in stealing their gold, doesn’t mean they are the most wise. Their wisdom is still foolish.

Morgan Busse

This article went beyond writing to how my husband and I do ministry and live our lives. We are too radical for the church culture and too theologically sound for the radicals. We aim to do everything we can apart from sin to reach each and every person we come in contact with. Unfortunately, many times we find ourselves in the middle getting shot at. But like you said, we couldn’t live with ourselves if we did otherwise. So I guess we will continue to aim to misbehave 🙂

Kerry Nietz

For obvious reasons, I’ll say write the story God gives you. If he wants it read, it will be.


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Jeremy McNabb
Jeremy McNabb

I think the problem with the “Should we offend?” argument is that for decades, Christian leaders judged their Christianity by how offensive they were to the unsaved. How many preachers excused a failing ministry with the phrase, “I could have a larger congregation if I were a people-pleaser.” They blamed their failure to connect with the lost on the fact that the lost found them offensive.

Jesus could be offensive from time to time, but keep in mind two things:

1. He never went out of his way to be offensive without cause. We didn’t see Jesus bringing up Hell and damnation for it’s own sake. When he did it, he did it as an appropriate and inevitable response to a question asked, or an accusation made.  

2. Jesus earned the right to be offensive. He had earned the respect of the righteous as a child, and the respect of the lost as an adult. The people he most often offended were those that knew him and knew what he had done. He didn’t use offensiveness to seek fame or power. Offending people, when he did it, was always a result, not a means.


Morgan Busse

By the way Fred, my husband was so inspired by your post that he quotes a lot of it and compares it to be a Christian leader over on his blog (looks like there is a link to it up above).