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Nine Marks Of Widescreen Stories, Part 7

Last week I viewed probably one of the best Christian films produced in a while — and by Christian, I mean specifically Christian, with representations of real-world Christians and real-world church and society situations. It wasn’t widescreen fiction; it wasn’t […]
| Dec 13, 2006 | No comments |

Last week I viewed probably one of the best Christian films produced in a while — and by Christian, I mean specifically Christian, with representations of real-world Christians and real-world church and society situations.

It wasn’t widescreen fiction; it wasn’t speculative as in fantasy / sci-fi speculative. And yet I still think the film has much from which Christ-honoring storytellers can learn.

7. Carefully written, realistic representations of life

The film was The Second Chance, a somewhat vaguely titled release starring singer/songwriter Michael W. Smith and directed by Steve Taylor — the ‘80s provocative Christian-rock musician, who among other things, wrote the song “I Manipulate,” mocking legalist leaders, and “I Blew Up the Clinic Real Good,” scathing abortion-clinic bombers.

That somewhat abrasive style makes its way into Chance, whose story asks how Christians confront problems such as inner-city poverty and violence in our own cities. Do we withdraw into our own churchy comfort zones and toss money into others’ ministries from a distance? Or do we head into the fray ourselves, bringing some element of risk and discomfort in order to be “doers of the Word and not hearers only”?

Previous columns in this Nine Marks of Widescreen Fiction series, including last week’s sixth installment about love and romantic elements, have included this suggestion: that maybe our stories should be less “comfortable” and slightly more risky, sweat-intensive, even adrenaline-inducing.

The speculative genre often covers that territory automatically — and, I submit, that could mean some “undesirable” story elements may also seem necessary.

A realistic picture worth some four-letter words?

Some readers will think me a heretic in a moment.

While viewing the Second Chance and its rather gritty portrayals of inner-city life and ministry, I kept thinking (… three … two … one …) Hey. They have cursing in this movie. Cool.

Maybe it’s my overexposure to “fundamentalist” Christian factions that makes me want to head the other way. Maybe it’s a realization that not taking the Lord’s Name in vain is one of the Ten Commandments and swearing is only condemned by Christ later — yet some Christian authors, even Frank Peretti, have dared to let their characters misuse the term “God” but oddly still avoid “swear words.” Maybe I’m considering C.S. Lewis and other less-scrupulous types, who let Bad Words into their stories and they never seem frivolous — instead, often humorous.

Or maybe it’s a subplot from the movie, in which Tony, one of the church volunteers who’s somewhat slow of speech, had changed his mind on the issue. A youth, trying to help another young man escape a gang, had been beaten horribly for his efforts, and the older man asked him, “Doing okay?” (possible paraphrase) The youth responded, “It hurts like Hell” — to which Tony innocently informed him that people shouldn’t swear. But later Tony is in tears, telling the younger man, “I was more worried about you sayin’ Hell than how you felt.”

During my own writing, I’ve often come across several places in story-time in which I know a character swore — directly, in-print, and not a “he swore” swear, but an actual word right there. That’s certainly what you would do, anyway, if you’re already a temper-intensive type of person who is trapped in a 2121-era cathedral with your fellow believers and surrounded by armed men who give absolutely no indication of why they’ve just taken you hostage.

I think I gave in at that point. The man thought, but didn’t say aloud, a bad word. It slipped into print. It may have to slip back out, of course.

But already I’ve found that loophole for sci-fi anyway. Many bad words are different, newer, and nastier by then, and have no negative connotation whatsoever now. There’s the rub: these terms are in no way evil of themselves, but they represent evil thoughts, visualizations, desires. And those elements are already in Christian speculative fiction anyway.

Should we then not, somewhat inconsistently, shy away from bad words as well? and perhaps use them in small doses?

That might depend on the reader, most of all. Some people are prone to swearing, and including the words won’t help them break the habit at all. And yet others are prone to violence, or so we hear from those commissioned studies about video games — and that doesn’t result in a Christian genre that’s free of shots, knife-slicing and things like that.

V is for violence

Author Penelope Stokes in Writing and Selling the Christian Novel wonders in chapter 15 why editors and readers aren’t more bothered about violence in fiction.

I agree with her that no reason exists to detail graphic interactions as if we’re Mel Gibson outlining just exactly what bodily substance or organ spills where for his latest uber-slasher flick. However, at this point we are somewhat trapped in a disgusting world too.

If all Christians tried to avoid violence, we’d have no inner-city pastors, no soldiers, no police officers; no Christian wardens, Secret Service members, SWAT teams or even politicians. Similarly, in our workplaces, in public, and in many of the movies most of it like, we have Bad Words aplenty. We can’t avoid that — though some Christians have tried and as a result withdraw from the very world that needs their presence.

Does that mean we should keep including violence in our speculative, sci-fi and suspense novels? I would maintain the answer as yes, a bit more strongly than I would the notion that some more bad words might help present a more realistic picture of our flawed human characters.

Violence-aversion seems a thing of the past for Christian thriller novelists anyway. Peretti, Dekker and the rest actually do sometimes detail graphic interactions. And Stephen Lawhead’s portrayal of a demonic horde in The Paradise War is one of the most disgusting and cringe-inducing descriptions you could ever see for a gaggle of bad guys. Lawhead has bad words, too — and in these books, in a Christian bookstore, just a letter away from those of Karen Kingsbury.

Exceptions and conclusions

Even if most readers may be able to tolerate in-print inclusions of swearing, beheading and the like, I may speak frankly, at least for the honest guys here, about what the TV ratings system abbreviates SC — sexual content.

Perhaps someday I’ll encounter people who sincerely claim opposite, but thus far I can insist that if you as a guy claim the SC doesn’t bother you even a little then you’re either lying or, shall we say, wired a bit different.

Ergo, I see no reason to lower the current seeming censorship of disgusting SC in Christ-honoring stories. Meanwhile, Stokes maintains probably the best way to handle legitimate SC in a Christ-honoring story:

[W]hereas “good Christian characters” don’t (or perhaps shouldn’t) swear, good Christian characters do have legitimate sexual desires and acceptable ways to fulfill those desires. The key for the Christian writer is to allow characters to be human without demeaning or exploiting the holiness of sexual union.

That sounds slightly difficult — hinting toward those elements without exploiting anything. But perhaps it can be done. Consider this: the Christian moviemakers have an even tougher job with this one. Not once in The Second Chance did Smith’s character and his fiancée kiss or hold hands, and despite all the inner-city ugliness, you barely saw any SC. Only that seemed a bit unrealistic for the movie.

Yes, Christian storytelling is a form of escape. But that depends on what the reader hopes to escape from. Is it the nastiness of everyday life, or the artificial comfort-zone and even monotony Christians often undergo? A place exists for both types of escapists on our shelves. And well-written realism in speculative fiction can only continue to help monotony “escapists” enjoy their time spent in the fortress of imagination — and then inspire them to get back out there and fight in the real-world war.

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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