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The Christian And Stories

Should we seek to win the hard drinking and hard swearing jock by writing stories filled with drinking and swearing? Since real people do drink and swear and assault people and have affairs, since real people are prostitutes or frauds or terrorists, shouldn’t our stories show them in all their ugliness and need?
| Jan 21, 2013 | No comments |

painting paletteRealism, truth, beauty, message, God-glorifying, entertaining. Spec Faith has examined and re-examined these various aspects and purposes for writing and reading stories, and yet we are confronted, as we were these past two weeks in our guest posts, by a book like A Throne of Bones by Vox Day and an imprint like Hinterlands by a Christian publisher like Marcher Lord Press, and the old question re-surfaces: what are Christians doing when we read and write stories? What should we be doing?

Unsurprisingly, we are, in part, a product of our culture, so what we understand about story today has been influenced by postmodern thought. Consequently, it’s easy to discount or downplay “message” in a story and to emphasize the need for artistic value–from which a great deal of the push for realism comes.

Art is more important than message because the latter essentially declares that there is an absolute for everyone–something incongruent with postmodern thought. On the other hand, art is about beauty and truth–beauty being in the eye of the beholder and truth, determined by what is true for each individual.

The postmodern view of story, then, seems to downplay the idea that writers can and should communicate what they believe through the intertwining of a plot, characters, and a storyworld. Rather, stories, while being necessarily gritty to show the real world, should at the same time be purposefully ambiguous so readers can reach their own conclusions.

Of course this view of story has merits. Educators tell us that true learning takes place when a student appropriates knowledge for himself instead of simply interacting with facts on an intellectual level. Stories that make a difference, then, would seem to be the ones that do not draw a nice, neat conclusion: therefore, because our hero gave his life to Christ, you also should go and do likewise [overt conclusion]; or even our hero became a Christian and now he’s happier than any time in his life because things are going so well [implied conclusion].

The large elephant postmodernism ignores, however, is Truth–not the relativistic kind that shifts from person to person, but the absolute kind that doesn’t require anyone to believe it because it remains no matter what. The belief in absolute truth, we’re told, is the cause of religious fanaticism and intolerance–and this the postmodern thinker believes absolutely!

The_Good_Samaritan008The fact is, absolute truth supersedes cultures and individuals and theories and philosophies. And guess what. Story does too. Jesus demonstrated this clearly in the parables He told. His stories spoke to first century Jews living in Judea but also to twenty-first century Gentiles living in Taiwan or Kenya or France or Mexico or Australia. His stories resonate with children in Sunday school or adults in Bible study. His stories make people laugh and cry and sit up, amazed, but they also prompt people to go and sin no more.

Consequently, many people have pointed to Jesus’s use of stories as an example for writers today, and I concur. When various people asked Jesus a question (IE, “Who is my neighbor?”) He answered by telling a story. Unlike postmodernism stories, however, His were never pointless nor were they caught up needlessly with gritty details. “A man fell among thieves” did not become a litany of the battering he took or the curses his assailants uttered as they attacked him.

So by looking at Jesus, what can we conclude Christians should be doing in regard to reading and writing stories?

One group advocates the approach of the apostle Paul in Athens, using Greek poetry and their religious system to make a case for Christ. Are we to win some by being all things to all people?

Should we seek to win the hard drinking and hard swearing jock by writing stories filled with drinking and swearing? Since real people do drink and swear and assault people and have affairs, since real people are prostitutes or frauds or terrorists, shouldn’t our stories show them in all their ugliness and need–without, of course, delivering a message of change or redemption since that would be unrealistic and preachy.

Others answer this approach as LukeLC did in a comment to “Marcher Lord Press And The Hinterlands Imprint“:

if the world could be won with the world’s ways, it would have won itself to Christianity long ago. What you win people with is what you win them to. If you attempt to win the unsaved to an appreciation of Christianity because, hey, we have Christian novels with all the same stuff as non-Christian novels…but different, all you’ll end up doing is proving to the unsaved that they’ve got no need for Christianity.

SowerI suggest we Christians have gotten bogged down because we have focused on the meta-story, the overarching story of Mankind’s fall and God’s redemption through the death and resurrection of His Son. It seems as if we all want to be seed sowers when in fact some of us should be soil tillers or weed diggers or scarecrow makers or rock removers. Perhaps, for example, we should tell stories illustrating the existence of absolute truth so that readers will be alert and open to hearing about the One who is Truth. In other words, perhaps we should be more focused on telling micro-stories that address the issues that make belief in the meta-story difficult. This, rather than a focus on “realism,” seems to me to address readers across generations and cultures.

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Michelle
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I have a question. Where in the wide world did the idea that you can save a person by writing a book come from?

  98% of the time people are not drawn to Christ through a fictional  story.

I am exempting, of course, the Bible from this as it’s not fiction, nor was it written by man.

I would really like to know where the idea came from that you can save a soul by  writing a book. 

You can’t. I write. I love books. I read books. I work in the Christian book industry. 

There are maybe twenty books that have changed how I live, and I think possibly three were fiction. No more than five.

People are stubborn, and the  unsaved are unrepentant.  Books are not going to change them.

Every once in a great while, you’ll find someone came to Christ because of fiction. But if you scratch the surface of their testimony,  you’ll find so many other elements at work that it is definitely not the book ALONE that brought them to Him.

I would suggest, with respect, that we Christian writers STOP TRYING TO SHARE THE GOSPEL through the books and just write phenomenally good stories.

If the story needs the violence in there to make it better–put it in there.
If the story needs cursing in there to make it better–put it in there.
If the story needs carnality in there to make the story better–put it in there.

Put in the desperate last hopes
Put in the sacrificial characters
Pour in love

Ground your story in a moral center (like Lewis and Tolkien)
Tell your story and make it the very best you can. And then get an editor to make it even better.

Write a great story.

Good stories will make readers curious about their writer. Great stories will make the curious reader find out everything they can about the writer.  And a writer not the book they’ve created, has a chance, to win a soul.

Paul
Guest
Paul

Agreed, we can only strive to writing an influence among many influences that God can place in people’s lives. People identify with characters with real problems and issues with even a villain that repents. Getting anyone to think about a faith journey is important. I have a friend who converted after many years simply because she saw problems being addressed through faith in my wife and I – not because we were cardboard cut-outs of Christians with all the answers. Why should my writing have all the answer? Instead it should point to THE ANSWER.

Kessie Carroll
Member

I think Diana Wynne Jones touched on this same concept when she talked about a “blueprint”.
 

Fantasy certainly does provide comfort–and who is not entitled to a little comfort if they can get it? For those who need that, it is the mind’s perfect safety valve. But a child reading, say, a fairy story is doing a great deal more. Most fairy stories are practically perfect examples of narratives that fit the pattern of the mind at work. They state a problem as a “what if” from the outside. “What if there were this wicked uncle? That evil stepmother, who is a witch? This loathsome monster?” Stated in this way, the problem (parent? bully?) is posed for the widest number of people, but posed in a way that enables the reader to walk all round it and see the rights and wrongs of it. This uncle, witch or monster is a vile being behaving vilely. As these beings will invariably match with an actual person: parent, sibling, schoolfellow, what a child gains thereby is a sort of blueprint of society. Reading the story, he or she is constructing a mental map–in bold colors or stark black-and-white–of right and wrong and life as it should be. Turning to the actual parent or schoolfellow, where right and wrong are apt to be very blurred, this child will now have a mental map for guidance.

An important part of this mental map is that the story should usually have a happy ending–or at least an ending where justice is seen to be done to villains and heroes alike. This is again part of life as it should be. The mind, as I have said, is programmed to tackle problems, joyfully, with a view to solving them. An ending that suggests–because the writer believes it to be “realistic”–that all you can attain is some lugubrious half measure, means that all children will set out to achieve will be that half measure. And, since you rarely achieve all you aim for, what these children will actually get is an even drearier quarter measure, or less. So it is important that the blueprint instructs them to aim as high as possible. Diana Wynne Jones – Writing for children: a matter of responsibility

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I would suggest, with respect, that we Christian writers STOP TRYING TO SHARE THE GOSPEL through the books and just write phenomenally good stories.

Based on Michelle’s comments, I say this goes back to the prime question:

What is the chief end of story?

But I suggest the chief end of a story is not “to share the Gospel” (in the minimalist way most people understand this to be saying), or simply to be “a really good story.” The best really good stories have something to say, a something beyond themselves.

No, Christians don’t do “art for the sake of art.” We do it for God’s sake.

Ergo: the chief end of story is to glorify God and help us enjoy Him forever.

If people can’t get past understanding that as repeating come-to-salvation tropes, or insist that “glorify God” must mean overt religious language — and so therefore, they insist, we needn’t worry about all that “glorify God” stuff — the issue here is poor theology and a low view of God our self-revealing Creator, the absolute Source of all truth and beauty.

As the hymn “This is My Father’s World” says, “He shines in all that’s fair.”

Kim
Guest

i agree. I just read a child’s fantasy novel written by a 12 year old who published on kindle.  The main plot of the story was following after God or following after flesh?  What a great message!!! We can write novels that portrays God’s grace, strength or even the simple gospel.  I personally think it’s silly to go around and around arguing about whether or not we reach the lost.  I write what God tells me to write and He does the rest.  If it touches a heart, then so be it.  If someone finds it entertaining, then so be it.  It’s in His hands and His hands only.  

Paul Lee
Member

The belief in absolute truth, we’re told, is the cause of religious fanaticism and intolerance–and this the postmodern thinker believes absolutely!

Did you have any definition in mind for “postmodern thinker”?  Are you specifically referring to postermodern schools of formal philosophy, so that a “postmodern thinker” is a scholar or at least a quasi-educated layman deliberately trying to subvert traditional Western thought?  Or are you simply referring to anyone whose thinking is influenced by the postmodern culture?  I think this is a very important distinction.
 
C.S. Lewis wrote as if his own modernist culture was already anti-Christian.  He was an apostle to his culture because he was able to speak in modernist terms.
 

The fact is, absolute truth supersedes cultures and individuals and theories and philosophies. And guess what. Story does too.

Excellent.  There is another one of the great and meaningful statements I’ve come across on this website.

Michelle
Guest

As it has been said before  “Fiction is  a lie through which we tell the truth.”

The truth is, no one in our world is perfect.  No, not one.  And while Chesterton hit the nail on the head “You may have a story of a boy among dragons, but not one of dragons among dragons” he also wrote exceedingly well, and not just for the lost or for the saved but for everyone.  He saw no difference between a Christian reader and Non-Christian reader. He saw intelligent interested people who longed to read great stories.

Christians used to write classics. Tolstoy, Stevenson, Bronte. What has happened that we don’t write classics any more? 

Christians have bought into the idea that you can write Gospel stories  and people will be saved.  And our storytelling has suffered.

I work as a reviewer for an independent site, and I am now moving from the Christian fiction to Secular fiction because I can not stomach the banality of Christian writing any more. 

If you want to be taken seriously, if you want to transmit ideas, you have got to write well. You can do that with moral themes and Christian characters if you like, but write also well rounded non-Christian characters that love and hate and sacrifice. 

I’m so fed up with  Christian writers clawing and gnashing and slashing at one another.

If you want to write stories that have moral themes in them with violence and loss and sex an language then DO so, but do so for the greater glory of God. He’s no stranger to any of those things. He abhors sin,  but He doesn’t hide it. We have no lily white heroes in the Bible save One. 

If you want to write stories that have the Gospel blatantly marching through it then do so but spin a tale of sacrifice and life and loss and sin and wrong too. Do not keep churning out these  stomach sickening  watered down buckets of tripe that are not worth the paper they’re printed on. That does not honor Christ. They make Him an anemic Savior of a too-good people.

If some want to go as Peter to the Believers to edify and build up their faith through stories–then go. But stop slashing and hacking and deriding and vilifying those that go as Paul to the Greeks.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Christians have bought into the idea that you can write Gospel stories  and people will be saved.  And our storytelling has suffered.

Along with missions altogether. People forget that God, not people, saves people. He uses means. Against that many Christians, with good intentions, have substituted a kind of pyramid-scheme. Let’s save people so we can save people, and so on, down the multilevel megachurch marketing complex. We forget that people are saved for a purpose beyond simply more faith-sharing evangelism. It’s to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. This includes evangelism, but also everything we do.

But I must oppose efforts and slogans (though I haven’t seen them here) that say or imply that Christian novels should be something less than evangelism. Wrong. They should be more than evangelism. That means all the things Becky mentioned.

I work as a reviewer for an independent site, and I am now moving from the Christian fiction to Secular fiction because I can not stomach the banality of Christian writing any more.

Michelle, even then I’m sure you’ll find banal writing — but perhaps less of it simply because there is more “secular” fiction available. That increases the odds of good authors being discovered and promoted. In this I don’t mean, however, to denigrate the issues of bad theology leading to bad Christian writing. (One of those examples is some Christian authors’ and novels’ overt exaltation of naive, “blind faith” baby-Christian characters,  as if they are the pinnacle of spiritual achievement.)

I’m so fed up with  Christian writers clawing and gnashing and slashing at one another

Which we try not to do here, first because of our emphasis on readers, second because we want to emphasize Biblical truth rather than merely “a pox on all those legalistic publishers and Christian-bookstore patrons.” There’s no joy in that.

Furthermore, Biblical truth stresses peacemaking, even against the Shallow Ones.

If you want to write stories that have moral themes in them with violence and loss and sex an language then DO so, but do so for the greater glory of God. He’s no stranger to any of those things. He abhors sin,  but He doesn’t hide it. We have no lily white heroes in the Bible save One.

I appreciate this better argument for including more of such material. Lately the loudest arguments are of the “let’s impress pagan readers” and “let’s be just like them” and “let’s stick it to those legalists” variety. There’s no joy in those either.

Do not keep churning out these  stomach sickening  watered down buckets of tripe that are not worth the paper they’re printed on. That does not honor Christ. They make Him an anemic Savior of a too-good people.

Another way to say it is how I finally managed to condense it for a Tweet: the greatest risk of banning Bad Words [or violence or other representations of sin] from fiction is that it implies the Gospel only works in a pre-cleaned world. That makes it a Biblical/Gospel issue, not an impress-pagans/”art” issue.

If some want to go as Peter to the Believers to edify and build up their faith through stories–then go. But stop slashing and hacking and deriding and vilifying those that go as Paul to the Greeks.

We need a good speculative-readers-mindful exposition of Acts 17, likely for a feature around here. I’ve been considering such a feature for some time. There are un-Biblical myths about it, but also plenty of things Christians often ignore.

R. L. Copple
Member

I would agree that if we are being “gritty” and “realistic” for the sake of saying, “Look at us, we have the same thing, only Christian!” would be a wrong reason and a wrong message to send. And undoubtedly, some have done just that by including such “realism” merely for the sake of being realistic, but not needed for the story.
 
But I also consider that different than what St. Paul did at Athens. He started where they were at, but *moved* the *message* toward God. He didn’t leave them with the impression that Christianity endorsed idol worship. Quite the opposite, in fact. He clearly proclaimed the Gospel. So much so, that he lost most of his audience when he came to the point of Jesus rising from the dead.
 
Starting with where people are at and being realistic enough that they can identify with the characters and not break the suspension of disbelief, but moving them to transform their situation through vicariously living it through another character can be both transformative for the individual and glorifying God, and not the sin. As I’ve said before, what makes a story Christian isn’t where it starts, but where it ends up at.
 
But I agree, putting in cussing and other sin into your story merely to be read and accepted by the “unsaved” crowd as if that was all fine and dandy, we can be friends, is the wrong message to send. If it is to counteract Truth, then it isn’t Christian. You quoted the verse by St. Paul, “Be all things to all people…” but many forget why that is done, in order that, “…by all means we might save some.” Not to be accepted.
 
But I think some, not being discerning, think anyone who includes cussing or the fact that someone is having sex is always doing the wrong motive, and the other outcome is never considered to be valid that could not only be used to glorify God’s and His grace, but move someone closer to God. And as you know, I agree with the idea that every story shouldn’t try to do everything. Sometimes you need stories that plow the ground to move someone closer to God.  And plowing sometimes means stabbing it into the hard ground and applying pressure.
 

Steve Rzasa
Editor

I think what’s being left out in this discussion about realism in Christian fiction is that, while we do have a need to show realism in aspects of life such as violence, profanity and the like, we also have to show realism when it comes to Christians. In real life, Christian believers pray, sing hymns, go to church, and talk about Christ and the Gospel — out loud. So if I read a Christian novel in which no one talks about Christ or salvation, I’m left scratching my head and saying, “What makes it Christian?” Themes of sacrifice and repentence are all well and good, but if the reader doesn’t know that the reason that character is giving his life to protect others is because he believes in Christ, then why bother calling it Christianity? You could just call it I’m-A-Good-Person-Who-Will-Die-To-Rescue-Another-ianity.

Paul Lee
Member

For my part, I decided a long time ago that as much as I can help it, I never want to speak in “Evangelicalese” again.  Can someone be a real Christian without casually talking about “saved”?  We do so much injustice to the truths of Scripture by using Christian terminology as casual jargon.  Jargon inevitably makes a shallow straw-men out of the true meaning behind the ideas contained in the words.  Many Evangelicals are quick to point out the legalistic dogma in Catholicism and the like but fail to realize that Evangelical clichés have also become dogma.  I prefer “born again” to “saved,” but that term has been abused too.  It is Christ who saves, not semantics.
 
I love my church, even though they talk about being “saved” and “witnessing” and all the other jargon.  I don’t have a grudge against any Christian leaders or groups.  I blame my years of struggling over the conception of salvation only on Evangelicalism as a loosely-defined concept.  As a Christian, I am offended by Evangelical jargon and clichés.  I can imagine how much more unbelievers and people who have really been hurt by hypocritical believers must hate “Evangelicalese”!

Timothy Stone
Member

I think that if the reason is to win others by being “gritty”, that as wrong. However, I also think that much of Christian fiction really is just “preaching to the choir” if you will. We present people as either too nice to an unrealistic level, having all things work out too well, or we are quite ridiculous in our presentations of evil. You could seriously have (I’ve read them) stories where the Big Bad runs an international sex slavery ring, but is a gentleman language-wise, who never swears. Um, what?!
 
I’ll be honest in saying that I have sniggered at times in how unrealistic some authors are, and I agree with their viewpoints, I can clearly see how those who don’t agree probably will just chuck the book. Also, while I agree that we should just focus on telling good stories, we also can not change the fact that stories are written by people with viewpoints that inevitably seep into the tale. Being sure those viewpoints come out right is a concern. I mean, how do you explain that unintended, but still obvious, Christian concepts in the Star Wars films?
 
My final point is that I think we worry too much about swearing, sex, and violence (too much because these are concerns if taken too far) than we do about the moral code we teach in our tales. We seem to think that as long as we have no swearing, sex, and very little violence, we are fine, even if the characters’ ethics are such that in real life they’d be rather horrifying. Oh sure, watch them laugh in delight while they chop the bad guy’s head off, they did it for God, so such blood-thirsty conduct and sadism is not at all bad. Right? Really, we pay far too much attention to superficial problems and ignore the actual beliefs and morals we teach. This is a problem for me.

akmeek
Member
akmeek

I enjoyed reading your comment on this topic. You seem to express concern over where the “keep it clean” line of Christian writing ends and where the “gritty” line of secular writing begins. I have been back and forth on the issue, and have rejected some novels because a character uses the Lord’s name in vain. Some may think that’s ridiculous (or legalistic), but I prefer to read stories (secular or Christian) when an author doesn’t feel that is needed to advance a story. 

You stated that we are worrying too much about swearing, sex, and violence rather than the moral code we teach. My argument is that the swearing, sex, and violence make up the moral code; there is no separation.

I continue having this discussion with myself as I edit my novel. 🙂

R. L. Copple
Member

Ak, I too don’t care to read stories with a lot of cussing. I can handle  one here and there, but all the time turns me off. I think that is in part because in my life, I don’t hear people talking that way much. Sure, I’ve run into people who do use a cuss word in every sentence, but those have been far and few between, and when I do run across them, they sound unreal. So does any character in a book or movie who cusses up a storm.
 
Part of the issue with cussing, is not everyone agrees which words are morally wrong and which aren’t. Some, like taking God’s name in vain (no, you are not wrong for rejecting that story) are obvious sins. Others, I classify as degrading what God created to be good, the best example being the cuss word for having sex (and we wonder why people grow up thinking sex is dirty). Others are just vulgar, but not immoral.
 
And then there is the issue of if a character uses it, does that necessarily mean the author agrees it is not morally wrong. If so, then authors must agree murder isn’t wrong since so many of our novels have such things in them. Then it comes down more to which sins are we allowed to show when necessary, and which ones are totally banned even when the plot or character calls for them to be used?
 
But you are right, people shouldn’t use it without purpose, just to be gritty. I think of it more in terms of market audience.  But I have my own lines I won’t cross.
 
On the morality thing, I think its not that some cussing isn’t immoral, but that we make such a big deal in Christian fiction about something that in the grand scheme of things is minor, while we have no problem promoting pride or killing or gossiping, etc. as if God approves of it. There are things some people will have problems with in my stories, but miss the overall bigger picture it affirms, because they major on the minors.
 

Kessie Carroll
Member

Drinking, swearing and sex doesn’t attract readers (unless it’s the erotica crowd). Good stories attract readers. Different audiences have expectations about what will be in their books. Spy thrillers? Bond will bed the hot chick at least once. Paranormal romance? Same deal. David Balducci? Graphic death. Stephen King? Icky nasty Mcnasty. Ted Dekker? Blood metaphors and the death of anyone remotely resembling a Christ-figure.
 
The Christian fiction crowd expects G to PG ratings because that’s how cloistered the church is. It’s not really a big deal, market-wise. If you want to write for Christians, write for that market. If you want to write the secular stuff, write for those markets.
 
*whispers* Christians often read secular books. I know Christians who have read Twilight!
 
The point is, it’d better be a good story first. The amounts of sex and gore should vary according to the genre.
 
Dangerous theological ideas … now that’s a different discussion altogether.

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