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Pushing (Your) Boundaries

Edginess in art is a matter of pushing boundaries, and consequently is relative to what, and whose, boundaries.
| Sep 28, 2016 | 5 comments |

I recently discovered that I wanted more edginess in Christian fiction. It came as a surprise. I’d always been so uninvolved in that particular argument before.

It hasn’t escaped any of you that the world of Christian writers and readers, especially in the speculative fiction genre, has been engaged in a long-standing controversy over “edginess.” Edginess in art is a matter of pushing boundaries, and boundariesconsequently is relative to what, and whose, boundaries. The boundaries, in this case, are those traditionally upheld in Christian publishing, limiting the treatment of violence and sex and often (not always) eliminating use of bad language, alcohol, and cigarettes.

I have decided to add to this controversy, though what I have to contribute is more a thought than an opinion, and more a question than an answer. But before I offer them up, some background.

What first got me thinking was Tamela Hancock Murray’s post “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry?”, addressing the subject of alcohol in Christian fiction. At the end, she asked, “Would you like to see Christian literature become even more edgy?”

And I thought: No, not really. But I would like to see Christian fiction become more accepting of alcohol use, including by heroes. This is not edgy to me; I’m a teetotaler in practice but not in principle, and I’ve never regarded alcohol as inherently wrong. And though I’ve had plenty of contact with Christians who rejected alcohol totally, that wasn’t the culture I was raised in. A hero sipping wine isn’t pushing my boundaries.

But it is pushing someone’s, and moreover boundaries still held in some sectors of Christian publishing. So maybe I would like to see Christian literature become more edgy. Who knew?

I wonder how much of the edginess controversy comes down to this. What makes the difference between the two sides may not be any grand question of art. It may simply be what each of us is, by theology, temperament, or experience, already prepared to accept. In other words, maybe the debate is not about whether boundaries in general should be pushed but whether certain boundaries should be pushed, and where we come down on the question will largely depend on whether or not they’re our boundaries.

lineinsandI would not criticize this. It’s only sensible. Some boundaries should exist and some should not, and if we thought any boundary was right it would, of course, be ours. Naturally we oppose those boundaries we think are wrong, and if that’s called “edginess,” well, go for it.

In a curious way, however, this would also undermine some of the rhetoric used by people who advocate edginess. To be edgy, I have heard, is to get out of the safety zone. But if the boundaries aren’t yours, can the safety zone be yours? Doesn’t this really mean taking other people out of their safety zones? There’s no larger principle about not being “safe” if it’s somebody else’s safety you want disrupted, just as there’s no larger principle about pushing boundaries if it’s always other people’s boundaries.

So here’s the thought: Maybe “edginess” is nothing more or less than opposing other people’s boundaries. And here’s the question: Does that matter? What do you think?

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Paul Lee

I think your thoughts on the matter are lucid and accurate. I also think that if you’re holding a list of boundaries in your head when you create, you may not be able to escape feeling transgressive. It is sometimes relevant to hold ourselves accountable for other Christians’ sensitivities, but in general I think there are no specific boundaries. After all, I highly doubt the reason you personally don’t want to write some horrific violent sex scene isn’t because that scene would push boundaries, but because you both believe and deeply feel that such a scene is inherently revolting.

E. Stephen Burnett

For my part, if the boundaries are unbiblical — if they are a statement or implication that “thus saith the Lord” when the Lord hath not said it — then opposing these boundaries becomes an issue of faithfulness of Scripture. At the same time, people can oppose these boundaries for worse reasons, such as simply wanting to scandalize their parents or other older people.

It’s funny you bring this up, because just last night I was thinking about the potential issue of wine, or other beverages, in my science-fiction project.

R. J. Anderson

Maybe it’s terribly Canadian of me or maybe I just grew up reading too many British children’s books. But even as someone brought up in a non-drinking Christian home, it never occurred to me to doubt whether I should allow my fictional characters to drink wine. Wine as a beverage is so ubiquitous in fantasy, and its role as a communion symbol so well established in the church, it didn’t even cross my mind to worry that my Christian readers might be offended by the idea of “good” characters having a decorous glass of wine over dinner or what-have-you (provided as they aren’t getting plastered, or at least that it’s not treated as a-OK if they do).

Is this really a big controversy in Christian publishing? Or was it just more something you were wondering about how to handle in your story?

Jessi L. Roberts

This is an interesting one because I’m pretty sure my space opera novella pushed some boundaries for people. My MC, who is sixteen, went out drinking with her associates. Since it’s in another world, there’s no laws against underage drinking. Her father has taught her drinking is fine, but don’t get drunk. She stays sober while those with her get drunk, hinting that she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd, not because they drink, but because they get drunk enough to endanger themselves.
I think that with sci-fi and fantasy, it’s important to remember that no all characters are going to hold the exact same beliefs as we, or the readers, hold, but that doesn’t mean they’re evil.

Teddi Deppner

Love your thoughts, Shannon, and the fact that you’re thinking them. In a lot of ways, I’m more passionate about wanting Christians to think and examine their own faith and their reasons for doing things than I am about some hard-and-fast lines of doctrine. I’ve been around long enough to see that there are thoroughly researched (for decades or centuries) scriptural reasons for many totally opposite stances on many things.

When it comes to your question at the end, however, I think it comes down to intention. Not all “edginess” is about the author trying to push someone else’s boundaries or push someone else out of their safety zone. Most of the authors I know just wrote the story as they saw it and then found out later that it violated some boundaries they didn’t know existed.

Then again, let’s say that someone really is trying to push someone else out of their safety zone. Or maybe they’re really trying to push them out of a COMFORT zone. Most of the folks I know who are interested in the Church relaxing its fictional boundaries are driven by the notion that it’s for the Church’s own health and for the sake of reaching the lost.

My personal philosophy is that you should be true to what you know, to the conviction you feel in your heart (informed by study of the scriptures). God holds us accountable for what we know and for what our conscience tells us. Just because your Christian neighbor puts wine and drunkenness and profanity in his story doesn’t mean you can do so with a clean conscience.

Secondarily, just because your conscience is clear doesn’t mean including certain elements is acceptable to your audience. If you’re writing for a wider Christian (CBA) audience, then you ought to accept the rules of playing within that sphere.