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?