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Safe Fiction – Discernment, Tim Downs, And First The Dead

What I’m wondering … really, what I’m doubting … is if one person can make a determination for another that a particular work is “safe.”
| May 19, 2014 | 30 comments | Series:

First the Dead coverA radio program I occasionally listen to, Family Life Today, ran a series of broadcasts discussing fiction with author Tim Downs, winner of the 2007 Christy Award for best suspense novel of the year for PlagueMaker. Downs’s next novel, First the Dead, features protagonist Nick Polchak, a forensic scientist (an entomologist, to be exact). I haven’t read the book, but from the radio discussion, I gleaned that these “bug book” stories could be considered a Christian version of CSI.

At the end of the first day of discussion, the radio host began his wrap with something like, These books by Tim Downs are safe and entertaining, with a subtle message embedded.

Safe? I’d already been thinking about this topic as the men discussed the research Downs did to understand what a crime scene entomologist would have to do, and how Downs tried to steer into the waters of reality without swamping the expectations of bookstore owners and vigilant, pietistic readers.

It was clear the radio host had read the book. In fact, he mentioned receiving a pre-release copy, but what he didn’t know was what each of the listeners and potential readers were dealing with in their lives.

Is the book “safe” for someone who can’t watch CSI because of the gore? Is the book “safe” for someone who has experienced the ordeal of a murder in their family? Is the book “safe” for a five year old? a ten year old? a fifteen year old?

filmratingSThose questions may stretch the point, but here’s what I’m getting at: in declaring a book “safe,” it seems to me, the radio host was giving a “G” rating, a blanket endorsement. Such seals of approval, in my view, may snag an unsuspecting reader.

Mind you, I know nothing about Downs’s First the Dead. Possibly, it is truly a book for all ages and stages, that no reader would have difficulty with any aspect of the story or the writing. That idea then prompts me to wonder if the “Christian” story isn’t a moralistic whitewashing of reality?

I suspect, instead, that there are hard looks at death between the covers of this novel. Downs indicated that one thing he wants to do with his fiction is “cross over,” to write a book that non-Christians might read, and leave them with questions to ask about … life, I suppose, or maybe after life.

What I’m wondering … really, what I’m doubting … is if one person can make a determination for another that a particular work is “safe.” Especially if that statement is aimed at millions of unknown listeners who tuned in to the radio on a particular morning.

As clarification, I’m a big fan of this program and the men behind the mic day in and day out. I think their stamp of approval, this declaration that Downs’s book is “safe,” was given with the best of intention. The host liked the book, liked Downs, and wanted to plug First the Dead with his audience, even though some of them might be the vigilant, pietistic readers who would squirm if a book in their local store contained cussing or sex or gratuitous violence.

It doesn’t have any of those, the radio host seemed to be saying, so come on in, the water’s fine.

What happens, then, to the discernment of individual readers? If a reader relies on the “expert” who judges a work to be “safe,” is that any better than relying on where the reader bought the book or what publisher’s imprint is on the spine? In all these cases, the reader is relying on someone else to do his thinking. And frankly, I don’t find that safe at all.

This article, not specifically about Christian speculative fiction but applicable to it, first appeared, minus some editorial changes, at A Christian Worldview of Fiction in June 2008.

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Kristen Stieffel
Guest

I agree that “safe” is an inexact word for a complex set of variables. And you are right that a reader shouldn’t rely on any one person’s opinion. We need to collect multiple data points about every book to prioritize our reading lists.

There are only two ways to discern whether a book will disturb you or not. One is to read it, and the other is to gather information from those who have. So unless every one of us is going to read every single book (don’t you wish we had time to do so?), we must rely on the discernment of those who have read the books we have not. Isn’t that what all the book reviews in the SpecFaith library are for?

Adam Graham
Member

I much prefer the work of  the Dove Foundation and Plugged In which provides specifics. Dove provides a recommendation based on whether it’s okay for 12 or above or whether its just okay, and Plugged in does age-based Green, Yellow, or Red. Unfortunately, neither does many book reviews.

I’m not really sure what the point of complaining about people recommending books and saying that readers rely on their own discernment. Should we pray over each book for twenty minutes before deciding whether to buy it? Or should we use our discernment when actually reading the book by which time we’ve already spent the money to buy it and may be tempted to finish it just because we want to know how it turns out? Or should we only buy the book once we’ve read all the reviews online in which case we’re merely shifting from relying on one opinion to relying on several? Or should we just get what we think might be interesting and only not do it if we feel a “check” from the Holy Spirit?

What are you practically saying readers should do?  Using your own discernment is a spiritual/metaphysical concept. How practically are readers to do what you’re asking?

 

 

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I’m not really sure what the point of complaining about people recommending books and saying that readers rely on their own discernment.

From what I read, Becky’s objection was more about someone declaring that a book was “safe” as if that blanket approval applied to all readers. A more-careful wording would have been more like, “I personally had no issues with it and loved it.” (And then it would an improvement over entertainment- or “values”-based pragmatism to say how the story reflected truth and beauty about God/man/the world contrasted with lies and ugliness, but then again, I would say that …)

Should we pray over each book for twenty minutes before deciding whether to buy it?

Don’t think that’s how Scripture defines discernment (or the purpose of prayer).

Or should we use our discernment when actually reading the book by which time we’ve already spent the money to buy it and may be tempted to finish it just because we want to know how it turns out? Or should we only buy the book once we’ve read all the reviews online in which case we’re merely shifting from relying on one opinion to relying on several?

  1. Merely to “guard” my time I much prefer someone else to have been the guinea pig, or to rely on my own “testimony” as previous text subject of the author’s previous work. 🙂
  2. In a “perfect world” we would have thriving local-church reading groups in which people of various fiction tastes and organic, firsthand knowledge of what we enjoy (or what would tempt us) would help us figure out the best novels and other fiction to enjoy.
  3. In a “perfect world” we would also have better theology taught about sin and temptation and how we strive for holiness to mortify the flesh, combined with more-Biblical views of Art and All That. Et cetera.

Or should we just get what we think might be interesting and only not do it if we feel a “check” from the Holy Spirit?

I don’t see “checks” in the Bible, though we feel them often in our experiences — unfortunately though such “checks” are often attributed to personal revulsion or pleasure and have little to do with the Spirit’s leading. I get a “check” all the time about Twilight but it doesn’t tell me a thing about whether that series would actually be worth my time. The Spirit’s prime leading in discernment = Bible.

What are you practically saying readers should do?  Using your own discernment is a spiritual/metaphysical concept. How practically are readers to do what you’re asking?

It starts to sound like “discernment” must be first defined and explored. As I’ve already alluded I would suggest these few definition tenets:

  1. Discernment is based foremost on God’s clearly revealed written Word.
  2. Discernment is not based foremost on feelings, “nudges,” or “checks.”
  3. Discernment is a community project, as are all attempts to grow in Christ (e.g. not me in a closed circle with the Holy Spirit trying to sort things out). Sites like SpecFaith or reviewers can help, but oh, that more folks in local churches would see that these are issues of worship and act accordingly!
  4. Discernment is often about things God straight-up endorses or forbids (e.g. extramarital sex is not good, prayer is not only good but required). But it’s also about things that differ from individual to individual — which is why it’s just simplistic to say “this story is safe” about any story. #NoStoryIsSafe. It’s worth spending a little more time to discuss who the story would be “safer” for — but it’s even more effective to discuss and/or debunk exactly what we expect stories to do for us in the first place, or why, as Becky has written elsewhere, “safe” fiction often isn’t safe at all (especially if it’s anti-Biblical).
E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

(Stands up and offers a slow, ponderous clap)

Now I wish I had seen this piece the first time.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Nope, my slow clap is in response to this very article.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

If the reader is so fragile that he might be offended by a mystery that won a prize for specifically Christian books, he should probably not read at all or stick to non-fiction. At some point we need to tell the weaker brother to grow up and stop being such a scaredy-cat.

merechristian
Member
merechristian

dm, I can’t agree with you there. Some folks DO have stuff in their pasts. I can handle some violence, but if it gets too gory, and especially women and children are involved, I truly CAN’T handle it. It is literally a trigger for me. Because of this, I asked, and was discouraged from reading the Hunger Games books. I didn’t check my head, and used discernment. I asked for specifics and folks gave it to me who knew my problems.

Others have their own issues of things. I have psychiatric problems like PTSD from Iraq, others have issues from past traums, such as some women and children subjected to rape or abuse. Others really are sensitive. We are all different and shouldn’t be mocked for it.

I think that some should rate books like I do IN PART. I don’t want myself looked to as an example as I’d probably wilt if I was held to be an example. 😉 I give enough details to know if something is too much for different age groups or those who have issues with things.

At the same time, I oppose the bean counters in the folks who say “x number of curse words, sex crap, nudity crap, etc.”. One CAN give details in vague without being graphic and missing the point of the book as the bean counters do. I try to do so, and my aforementioned friends who responded to my query of the Hunger Games (or Attack on Titan for that matter) also did so. Summations of content without the bean-counting.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You’re talking about extreme cases which cannot deal with things due to legitimate psychological trauma in the past, to the point where flashbacks can be induced from fictional material. I don’t think this applies to the general point, or is what I mean when I say “weaker brother.” This would be similar to the “don’t play games if you have a history of epilepsy” warning on video games, or even dealing with colorblindness in gaming; there’s only a limited amount that can be done when a person has physical reactions to something. They can’t make games that will always not trigger epilepsy in someone predisposed to it.

Most arguments about safety in fiction are more about moral as opposed to physical reactions. I’m a little annoyed (sorry Rebecca) that we have to screen a work like the above for moral safety for Christians. I’m really okay with the point generally, but if we can’t relax around a Christy winner, I think it’s fair to start asking about at what point the desire for safety is becoming toxic.

Also much prayers for you, man.

Julie D
Guest

From the other side,  (when I’ve tried to suggest material), there’s the fear of people coming back to you and going  ‘i didn’t expect x, y, z, why did you suggest this?’ It’s never happened to me, but even with fanfic recommendations, I feel the need to clarify that it may have content some people may be uncomfortable with.

R. L. Copple
Member

I think Becky’s point is spot on. Quite aside from the issue of whether we should be trying to determine how safe a novel is, in general, because a trusted individual says it is doesn’t mean you should check your brain in before opening up the book.

 

Same goes for listening to your preacher at church. Singing songs at church. Listening to Christian music. Chatting with your best friend. Chatting with Franklin Graham. Reading the hottest selling non-fiction author. Or reading a Christi winner.

 

But that’s what some people do. They see “Christian” before the media or hear a respected person praise it, and the discernment sensor we might use in reading a general market book gets shut down for the “approved” book. No matter the reason, that is dangerous because none of us are infallible.

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Not long ago I started calling this “outsourcing discernment.”

Other Christians’ experiences and views are helpful for our Biblical discernment. Such discernment is indeed a community project in the body of Christ with all its uniquely gifted members. But they are no replacement for personal evaluation of a Thing.

The point is especially sound when it goes both ways: we should not outsource our discernment to any other Christian either to approve or condemn any story or Thing.

Lelia Rose Foreman (@LeliaForeman)
Guest

I know that you are not talking about this specific Tim Downs book, but rather using the book as an example. Still, I would like to say I LOVE Tim Downs’ Bugman series. Yet I was surprised to hear this book was given a general SAFE pass. His descriptions of the results of violence and subsequent decay are extremely graphic, appalling in some ways, and delightful in others. I would NOT give the Bugman books to preteens. I would not give the books to people with delicate stomachs. Yet I was delighted to pass on the novels to friends.

Amy Davis
Guest

“Aslan is a lion- the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh” said Susan. “I’d thought he was a man. Is he-quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion”…
“Safe?” said Mr Beaver …”Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

*deep breath*

I’m always the odd one in these discussions, but . . . I don’t think *any* of our fiction should be “safe.” It should challenge us on multiple levels. There’s nothing “safe” about the Bible, either, except for the security offered through Christ’s sacrifice.

Here’s the definition of “safe”:

1. Secure from liability to harm, injury, danger, or risk;

2. Free from hurt, injury, danger, or risk;

3. Involving little or no danger of mishap, error, etc.;

4. Dependable or trustworthy;

5. Careful to avoid danger or controversy.

I would say that a Christy Award-winner probably falls under #3 above because the Christy Awards fall under #4 above. So yeah, they’re safe for most people, and therefore, you can say they’re generally safe. For the small part of the population the book *isn’t* safe for, there’s probably no amount or type of warning or guideline that’s going to help.

And maybe it’s my GenX leanings, but I just kind of resist any effort to put warnings on anything. I remember reading Stephen Donaldson years ago, and when the main character raped a girl and showed zero remorse, I threw the book away and swore to never touch that author again. That was my choice. I didn’t need a trigger warning to tell me it was in there. And honestly, I think I’m stronger for making that choice myself when I came across the scene rather than being warned away from it before I even cracked the book open.

But that’s me. I’m a little too libertarian for most Evangelical circles. And I probably shouldn’t be here, anyway. I say I’m not going to comment, then I read something and think of something to say, argue with myself about whether to post it, lather, rinse, repeat . . . Feel free to block me anytime.

(All this said, yes, I do use parent guides to evaluate movies, and no, I don’t go strictly by rating systems or reviews. For us, when evaluating what we let our teens/tweens watch, we generally don’t mind too much swearing or violence. We just want to know if we should fast-forward any sex scenes. And yes, our guidelines are more lax on books than they are on movies. We just have a lot of talks about discernment.)

 

Paul Lee
Member

I say I’m not going to comment, then I read something and think of something to say, argue with myself about whether to post it, lather, rinse, repeat . . . Feel free to block me anytime.

I know that feeling. It’s not healthy to have a compulsive need to comment, to express your own cynicism all the time in your favorite Internet circles — but it’s so hard to stop. I usually hate myself a little more after every comment, worrying that I’ve hurt the discussion or the greater community, that I might have made someone’s day and/or life a little darker. So, if there’s a ban-wagon departing anytime soon, the admins can throw me on it, too. 🙂

R. L. Copple
Member

I’ve not seen anything ban-worthy from either of you. My rule is as long as people are respectful of one another, you can disagree all day long. Depending on particulars, that is generally healthy. Iron sharpens iron, and all that good stuff.

 

Now if I were infallible, I’d have a different opinion. 😉