/ / Articles

Toward A Better View Of ‘Icky Bits,’ Part 1

Yes, “icky bits” might improve Christian fiction, but not for the reasons some critics might assume.

Do “icky bits” belong in fiction? Maybe, but for different reasons than some Christians would say.

You may be missing an excellent discussion after Rebecca LuElla Miller’s May 12 column about Christian authors versus trends. As I write the talk has turned toward a topic of constant interest on SpecFaith: what freelance writer Amy Davis called “icky bits” in fiction.

Around these parts — I include SpecFaith and a host of like-minded fan sites, writers, and blogs — I think we talk more about Icky Bits in the abstract above actually citing specific examples of Icky Bits. This strikes me as odd, because good fiction is supposed to be more concrete, or to use the rightfully popular Christian buzzword, incarnational. So while you may have a different vague or specific image, here’s an example of what I mean by Icky Bits:

  • “Damn,” uttered Matilda despondently.
  • Sex.
  • Mud pies.
  • Squalor in the gutter.
  • Sex slavery.
  • More sex.

Yes, I’m trying to lighten the mood a bit. It’s a serious topic but still we must show some joy during the debate. Yet my purpose here is no less than a summary “position statement” on Icky Bits. This statement is not on behalf of SpecFaith or any of its writers; SpecFaith is a cooperative ministry and you will find as many perspectives here — if not more — as there are contributors. But I feel it’s a good time for me to step in with some clearer thoughts about how Christians ought to approach the discussion about Icky Bits in all sorts of fiction.

Q: Should we even have the Icky Bits discussions?

A. Yes, definitely, but maybe not for the reasons you believe.

Many of us come from backgrounds of “sentimental” Christian art and storytelling. All the “clean” stuff — if it was allowed at all — was meant to teach Family Values or other moral lessons. Some of us now see what a plain turnoff that is. Worse, it can distract from the true Gospel and the causes of showing a very real, very Hands-in-the-dirt incarnate Savior who doesn’t deny the reality of fallen, horrible human beings or the state of a world without His Kingdom. The best stories often show exactly these truths. So we do need the discussion.

All of that are good and Biblical reasons. But these issues are also subject to very deep, personal emotions — ones that may pit us against other Christians who have different views or different journeys. Such Christians may prefer status-quo (yet often stereotypical) Christian fiction, speculative and otherwise, in which there are not even hints that people utter Bad Words and in which children simply arrive without physical romantic cause. I’m not one of those Christians. But I do not want to begrudge them their view. I want to see where they are coming from and why, and only then to challenge if their beliefs are Biblical.

Thus I don’t desire only to stick it to “fundamentalists” or else bemoan how their legalism (actual or perceived) has solely gotten Christian fiction or all of Christianity itself into the sick state it’s in. Such motives seem reactionary, joyless, and boring. They are also familiar.

Q: Can we keep some of the nasty behaviors we inherited from “cultural fundamentalist”1 Christians and simply switch “sides” to support Icky Bits?

A. No.

Some time ago I woke up and realized that some of the loudest critics of more-conservative Christians sound a lot like their favorite enemies. In the critics’ case it’s not enough to say “‘clean’ conservative standards hurt me” or “those practices may be okay for others, but I believe God has helped me outgrow their excesses.” Instead some imitate the most clichéd counter-cultural responses by thundering from pulpits or blog platforms about how their sins are the worst sins and it’s only this behavior that makes “the world” rightfully despise we Christians — all but consigning more-conservative Christians to the lowest pits of Hell.

It’s wrong to condemn a Christian who prefers fiction with Icky Bits. It’s just as wrong to condemn a Christian who prefers even the most sentimental, escapist “clean” fiction.2

Q: So isn’t this purely an issue of conscience, between myself and Jesus?

A. Yes and no.

Several Scriptural passages address “disputable matters” and I’m among the first to pull them out when I confront (lovingly, I hope) repeated “Harry Potter is evil” criticism or the frequent “you can’t enjoy Story X because other people who do that use it to sin” notions. But I can’t wholeheartedly endorse a “this is between me and the Art and Jesus” response.

1. Scripture does warn us about holiness. Not taking this seriously is at least as bad an error as falling into legalism. Some matters are indeed “disputable.” Others are not.

2. No story is safe. Thanks to our own hearts’ sin-shrapnel, we can abuse anything to sin, even “clean” fiction, good theology, non-sentimental fiction, or arguments for any of these. I’m not safe, you’re not safe, no one is safe. God can use others’ cautions to help us fight sin.

3. It’s not an issue between you and the Art and Jesus. The Jesus Christ I see in Scripture keeps harping on this oft-irritating concept of “the body of Christ,” in which He does His best work when we’re in Kingdom outposts together. Here I recall the limitations of blogs and online discussions — they are not the same as a Biblical local church. Yet SpecFaith and other ministries can help motivate fiction fans to explore and take their fandom into local churches where they can hash out these issues personally among people they trust.

Next: approaching these issues as worshipers over writers, plus more “Chief End” reminders.

  1. I use “cultural fundamentalist” to refer to people who cling to particular manmade cultural or religious traditions for their own sake. Once “fundamentals” was a fine term to describe “mere Christianity,” the tenets of Biblical faith. Now the term “fundamentalist” means different things to different people and most of the meanings are negative.
  2. In fact, you can make a subculture “bubble” that sentimentalizes non-clean art, as noted here.

Join the conversation

62 Comments on "Toward A Better View Of ‘Icky Bits,’ Part 1"

Notify of
avatar
Z. Bartels
Guest

“Damn,” uttered Matilda despondently.

That’s icky for being doubly bad writing.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

But it can’t be bad writing because it has the word “damn,” which makes it realistic and free of any story stigmas enforced by sentimental cleaned-up CBA standards. 🙂

Teddi Deppner
Guest

It’s poor writing because of “uttered” and “despondently”, not because of “damn”. 😉

Jill
Guest

I like those words. When I use those words, my writing is doubly awesome.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

What? Adverbs always add flair and zest to otherwise dull and languid dialogue attributions!

Matthias M. Hoefler
Guest

Thank God somebody else sees that 🙂

 

HG Ferguson
Guest

Only because g-d (Elmore Leonard) said so

Paul Lee
Member

While I appreciate your balanced view and your fairness to all sides, I think you’re a little too naively optimistic.

Many of us come from backgrounds of “sentimental” Christian art and storytelling.

This is different for everyone, but my problem is not so much my background as the fact that nothing I do or experience is authentic. I live in a virtual reality. It’s not my church’s fault, and I don’t think it’s my fault either.

That said, my local church and the Christian culture that my church is a part of only seem to hinder me from finding reality. I don’t want to be proud and narcissistic, but I want to form real beliefs that address the real problems and doubts of real life. I believe that God is the ultimate reality, and I want to experience His sovereignty legitimately, not by theatrical shenanigans or by indiscriminately slapping the label of “God’s will” upon everything in life.

Church should be the most real thing, and I admit that the unity of believers with different viewpoints is about as authentic as anything. But so many church-related things are blatantly unreal and shallow, and the worst thing about them is that we’re not allowed to question them or even to look for a deeper reality within them.

Evangelism may be the worst offender. My church makes no apology for the fact that its primary mission is to spread the Gospel. Sermons regularly emphasize that every Christian has a duty to invite non-Christians to receive Jesus as Savior, and that if we do not regularly perform this duty of “witnessing,” then we are hypocrites who have grown too comfortable in the world. There’s no allowance for the fact that you can put spiritual matters first — rejecting comfort in the world — but still be unable to honestly proselytize unbelievers.

Then there’s Biblical literalism. We just have to believe the Bible, that the Bible’s meaning is plainly understandable, that the Bible can be and should be interpreted literally. This is not necessarily shallow (fundamentalist theologians are intelligent and well-studied), but it is arbitrary and artificial. God is the Prime Axiom, not the Bible and certainly not Biblical literalism. I feel like my church is telling me that the Bible is the only thing that gives God permission to exist, the only thing that gives Jesus power to save. I’m pretty sure the Bible didn’t create the universe, didn’t bleed to pay for my sins. Strict Biblicalism gives me no reason to believe, prevents me from honestly assessing my situation as a human living on Earth.

(And a I know that human reasoning is insufficient, but it is only by human reasoning that literalists can condemn non-literalists for not believing the Bible enough. It’s disingenuous to praise reason and “common sense” (such as “common sense interpretation” of the text) when it confirms what you believe but to reject it when it challenges you.)

Here I recall the limitations of blogs and online discussions — they are not the same as a Biblical local church.

But we only sit in pews together one day a week! We all come to church, bringing our brokenness and our baggage, trying to find Jesus together — and that is beautiful. But we don’t come to talk about Captain America or Doctor Who. We might be brothers and sisters, but we’re not necessarily best friends. When we do spend time together in a slightly less structured environment (perhaps in a Sunday school group, or a prayer group), we often barely tolerate each others’ differing views.

I know for certain that at least several people from my church would not welcome storytelling as an avenue of spiritual truth, at least not without using them as an Evangelistic Tool. (But probably not even then — the guy who teaches my Sunday school group gripes about us millennials leaving the church because we were taught soft “Bible stories” as kids, and he’s determined to teach us some cold hard Biblical literalism to replace our fluffly story nonsense.)

 

Julie D
Guest

A hearty AMEN! to all of the above.

We all come to church, bringing our brokenness and our baggage, trying to find Jesus together — and that is beautiful. But we don’t come to talk about Captain America or Doctor Who. We might be brothers and sisters, but we’re not necessarily best friends. 

Exactly.  I attended a Christian college for three and a half years, and that was a wonderful community. We went to chapel together, had theology classes together, had lit classes together where the professor mentioned Doctor Who while discussing Richard III,  had  rpg games,  and watched sci-fi on our laptops.   It may have been a small, age-restricted community, but I had people I felt comfortable discussing things with.

And now I’m back home, with only two people in my church (that I’m aware of) who watch Agents of Shield: my brother, and the interim youth pastor.  And it’s so awkward to separate my perception of “youth pastor” from “person who is also interested in x.”   I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but it’s really hard to admit an interest in something when you’re not sure how people will perceive it.  Would Firefly be too raunchy? Orphan Black too evolutionary?  Sherlock too focused on crime?

Evangelism may be the worst offender. My church makes no apology for the fact that its primary mission is to spread the Gospel. Sermons regularly emphasize that every Christian has a duty to invite non-Christians to receive Jesus as Savior, and that if we do not regularly perform this duty of “witnessing,” then we are hypocrites who have grown too comfortable in the world.

I’m not sure I’d say the same of mine, but I think this is a general over-emphasis of evangelicals. As an introvert, I find this imperative difficult at best, especially in the ‘cold call’ sense. I enjoy serving in VBS and Awana, or working in the nursery, but I get the impression that those don’t ‘count,’ as such.

the guy who teaches my Sunday school group gripes about us millennials leaving the church because we were taught soft “Bible stories” as kids, and he’s determined to teach us some cold hard Biblical literalism to replace our fluffly story nonsense.)

There are some people at my church who are pushing the term “truth accounts” instead of ‘Bible story.”  First, that just sounds wrong, like a math textbook. Secondly, it’s ignoring the power of stories. And it doesn’t change anything in the material or the teacher’s approach.

Paul Lee
Member

I’m not sure I’d say the same of mine, but I think this is a general over-emphasis of evangelicals. As an introvert, I find this imperative difficult at best, especially in the ‘cold call’ sense.

That is what my church teaches. A number of times, the pastor has said from the pulpit that introverts don’t get a free pass from evangelism. The really problematic thing is that by “evangelism” they always mean direct proselytizing, even though they don’t use that word. Although they have in the past emphasized the importance of the silent witness — faithful service, showing the love of Jesus quietly, etc — they have always taught that behind-the-scenes witness is never acceptable on its own. The church specifically encourages us to start relationships with unbelievers with the explicit purpose of eventually telling them about Jesus.

This seems morally questionable to me, as well as fake and artificial. (I think for a few Christians, it can be genuine to an extent.)

There are some people at my church who are pushing the term “truth accounts” instead of ‘Bible story.”

I’ve heard something very similar at mine. One of the adult Sunday school leaders has expressed criticism of the children’s program’s use of the term “Bible story.” As if it were impossible for a story to be true, as if the narrative framing (which is impossible to avoid) somehow nullifies truth.

Julie D
Guest

Seconded.  I can understand genuine concern for people you already know, or putting yourself in a situation where you can reach more people, but starting a friendship just so you can get to a John 3:16 conversation feels duplicitous.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Bainespal, Julie, and anyone else, you may appreciate this “coincidentally” timed article by Joe Carter at Ligonier Ministries: Not A Sales Pitch.

The term [evangelism] derives from the Greek word evangel: good news. How odd, then, that so much evangelism appears to be about selling Jesus and hoping that you can convince the non- Christian to “buy into” salvation.

Good news doesn’t have to be sold. Bad news has to be sold, but not good news. Growing up, I was taught that above all I needed to close the deal when it came to evangelism. I was taught to get the non-Christian to say the “sinner’s prayer” or “walk the aisle” as soon as possible, by whatever means possible, because tomorrow he may die. That is, I had to make the sale now.

When I began to seriously read the gospels, though, I noticed something strange. People constantly flocked to Jesus despite the fact that he never passed out a single tract. He would walk up to people, say “follow me,” and the next thing you know they’re giving up their lives to follow Him around the countryside. He wasn’t a traveling salesman.

Julie D
Guest

Thank you for the link.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I had a few other thoughts about your comment, Julie.

And now I’m back home, with only two people in my church (that I’m aware of) who watch Agents of Shield: my brother, and the interim youth pastor.  And it’s so awkward to separate my perception of “youth pastor” from “person who is also interested in x.”

This may be based on my own limited experience, but I cannot help but wonder if — again — some of the awkwardness here results from a dichotomy between “worship” and “entertainment.” Lest there be confusion, I don’t believe a Biblical Christian even has the option to enjoy “neutral” entertainment — there is no such thing. There is ultimately no option between proceeding-from-faith worship and sin (Rom. 14:23). But the redeemed saint can in his enjoyments of good stories, and with care to avoid personal sin, enjoy these things as acts of worship to God — worship that is just as genuine as singing in church.

Someone may say, truly, that it’s impossible for us to enjoy a story/nove/thing without some measure of sin. We can’t in this age approach that perfect standard of worship when we do something. I agree. And yet that does not stop us from pursing that “gold standard” of worship by singing in church, hearing God’s Word faithfully preached, and fellowshiping with other believers. We should want to worship without sin and with sincerity in church. So I’m saying: we should do more of the same in our non-church moments, including what we might wrongly describe is our favorite “just entertainment.”

I don’t know if anyone else has this problem, but it’s really hard to admit an interest in something when you’re not sure how people will perceive it.  Would Firefly be too raunchy? Orphan Black too evolutionary?  Sherlock too focused on crime?

I can understand. If church folks already have “worship wars” over music and styles in church, imagine the other-worship conflicts we’d have: STORY WARS.

I’m not sure I’d say the same of mine, but I think this is a general over-emphasis of evangelicals. As an introvert, I find this imperative difficult at best, especially in the ‘cold call’ sense. I enjoy serving in VBS and Awana, or working in the nursery, but I get the impression that those don’t ‘count,’ as such.

They should. Teaching children — whether your own natural children or another’s — is just as much a subset of the Great Commission as going to witness to homeless person under a bridge or an unreached tribe. I am certainly wary of attempts to over-justify “domestic” missions (I witness to my own favorite people and family so why worry about the unreached tribe?) but I’m also wary of attempts to over-justify “foreign” missions (I witness to an unreached people group so why must I live my faith out in front of stubborn cranky Grandma?).

There are some people at my church who are pushing the term “truth accounts” instead of ‘Bible story.”  First, that just sounds wrong, like a math textbook. Secondly, it’s ignoring the power of stories. And it doesn’t change anything in the material or the teacher’s approach.

Yes, this is nonsense. I would even call it un-Biblical nonsense. If you treat the Bible — or have just started treating it — as Life’s Instruction Manual or a systematic theology textbook (though systematic theology is certainly in there!), you’re doing it wrong. It’s not just a matter of hurting people or getting some nonessential detail wrong, but of actual false belief. The Bible is first and foremost a Story, the greatest Story, the Story of what the epic Hero Jesus Christ does to redeem the stories of His enemies to make them into His friends (and side characters). If folks don’t get that then I fear they are going to slide quickly into un-Biblical beliefs and ought to be challenged.

Fortunately I see plenty of help for “regular” Christians from authors and pastors and bloggers who embrace the term “story” for Scripture — offhand I can think of The Gospel Project curriculum from Lifeway, or much of what pastor Tim Keller has written, or even ViewTheStory.com.

merechristian
Member

I would caution just one thing. Yes, all things are worship or not worship to some degree. However, on the one thing, if something really is leading you to sin, at least consider whether you ought to continue it or stop it. The second thing is just this. There are some things that for some folks have some benefit for personal enjoyment, and maybe some good ideas, lessons, so on, that are very bad for others. I don’t think there is some magic formula of good versus bad. I think that some folks can handle some things that others can not.

 

I’m babbling a bit, but overall, I think that, just as the early church knew of paganism, and read it/wrote it (dark ages are a myth, the Church, meaning CHRISTIANS read, enjoyed, and kept stories alive that were not quite friendly to Christ, along with other learnings), even though the level of “good” in it would cause some today to discard it altogether. I guess I’m saying to realize that nothing is wrong with mindless entertainment at times, and that different people have different thresholds for what has value versus no value.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Another thought: I’d be curious to hear from whomever hit the thumbs-down on Julia’s comment. I’m not out for a conflict with the critic(s). 🙂 Mainly I want to know if I missed something disagreeable in what she said, or should consider another angle.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

My first response is a reminder about this excellent article on how to “convert” people toward geeky “religion.” It sounds like that if these well-meaning but somewhat-limited church folks would blanch at that, then you could just say:

  1. “Hey, I’m practicing for all that Evangelism you say we should be doing.”
  2. Or: “Yes, it feels awkward to be Witnessed To. Now you and I can empathize with non-Christians on whom many Christians sometimes, with the best of intentions, practice ineffective or even un-Bblical modes of ‘evangelism.'”

As for the mentions of feeling alone in this enjoyment in one’s local church, I can only say I’m so sorry. I can empathize a little, yet my former church (I only left it to move to another state) was so loving/diverse/Biblical/different from me that I am sure my view has been colored over-optimistic. Bear with me, though. It may help me identify now that I’m visiting a different church with a different flavor!

To you both I can add my pleas: local churches, you are not you more “geeky”?

Here I define Christian “geekiness” as natural “fandom” for the Story we proclaim and live out, and for other amazing stories that reflect to us this Story and its Creator, His beauties and truths, and help us glorify Him better. I am convinced a local church’s non-“geekiness” —  — results from church members who are 1) wrongfully “pragmatic” about the deeds (some of them made up) rather than Biblical creeds, 2) don’t comprehend that some measure of “geekiness” is in fact nonoptional for Christians. Yes, do wonder if a lack of “geekiness” may be sin.

Everyone: Christians believe in a faith that includes supernatural creation, a great rebellion against a good King, ages of empires and hero’s journeys and ancient prophecies and more rebellion and burning cities and cannibalism and royal families and treachery. And then, and then, comes the Hero’s Journey Prime in which the King Himself arrives to slay the dragon and rescue His vile enemies to make them into His friends and declare His story to the ends of the evil empire.

Then someday He will return forever to bury the dragon’s carcass and destroy His enemies and the evil empire. He will remake the evil empire into beautiful restored Kingdom in which all His friends will live forever and work and play and learn and explore and build and sing and create, and all truly live happily ever after.

Such a great fantastic Story does include that part about “declaring His story to the ends of the sinful empire.” But if we emphasize that part above all else, we have our priorities wrong, and we will utterly fail in that Great Commission mission anyway.

Jill
Guest

But isn’t Christian geekiness just another in-group with code words/Shibboleths such as “Dr. Who”? I gave up trying to fit in or be accepted by one of the numerous in-groups of the world about at age 5. The pointlessness of it overwhelmed me.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I certainly hope not. I hope it’s just as open and non-cliqueish and come-one-come-all,-the-more-the-merrier as any group of Christians who are enthralled with sincere, humble, lose-yourself-in-His-truth-based-pleasure worship of the one true Storyteller.

Michelle R. Wood
Member

I’ve never been accused of having too much optimism (often, in fact, the reverse), so I must say I find it odd that anything Steven said could be taken as wearing “rosy eyed glasses.” In fact, I tend to think we swallow a lot of gnats in online discussions that in “real life” just aren’t as important to people. In my view (which comes from a deeply rural, conservative background), people are people. They are people with real problems. I have never known any of these people to be too “good” or “clean.” In fact, believe it or not, they have messy, complicated lives.

I’ve never known a church anywhere that didn’t appreciate a regular attender and servant (nursery, VBS, or otherwise). Perhaps these people don’t have my same love for certain genres, but I have never been belittled for it or made to feel it was outside of a life in God. It’s not because I’m silent: I have been known to discuss how String Theory compliments my Arminian theological views in a Sunday School class where I was the youngest person by at least 15 years. Do these same people have an overwhelming love of my personal knowledge of fandom? No. Do they have their own fandoms? Yes, in abundance. The fact that there’s is different than mine should not be a hindrance toward our sharing together in the union of Christ and the family of saints. If it is, I should examine my attitudes and perhaps not believe that just because I value something, it does not mean everyone else should as well. Also, if one is involved in the Church, one should not only see fellow congrats once at 11:00 every Sunday: one would see them on work days, serving in other aspects, perhaps a small group, or visiting the sick, or any service project that comes up.

Sorry, this comment is beginning to turn rant, and it’s not my intention to do so. I have lived through truly poisonous times as a child of a ministerial couple in some situations where there was real evil to be fought; perhaps that experience makes me less inclined to feel that having different interests in our leisure time is as much a factor in building up the Kingdom as others.

Amy Davis
Guest

Thank you for the nod and the link. I appreciate it.

I’ve had a good night’s sleep and a couple of good Twitter conversations, and I’d like to apologize both for getting a little more ranty than I intended and for steering things off course. When I used to frequent this site, it seemed like more of a writer community than a reader community, so I did come at the post through that lens. And yes, I was hurt by comments here in the past, but that was no excuse for being rude. I’m sorry.

I don’t have anything to change about my opinions, but I did want to mention one more thing . . . The idea in Rebecca’s original post was that maybe Christian fiction is missing out on an opportunity to provoke, persuade, and converse about these bigger agenda items. I think she’s right about that. We are missing opportunities. The secular world is the one having most of the conversations, and we’re shut out of a lot of them.

But I guess where I see a real issue is that if we want to have a voice in those conversations, we either have to 1) write enough like the secular world that the secular world will publish us, put us alongside the other agenda-driven books that our books will sell, and then read us, or 2) lighten up our own CBA standards a bit to allow some edgier material in. Ted Dekker is still shelved in the Christian Fiction section. Doug TenNapel, however, is not. His graphic novels are right there in the secular graphic novel section. TenNapel is a professing believer. He’s a great friend to Stand To Reason, a thriving apologetics ministry in LA. And TenNapel uses bad words and occasional graphic imagery that might not be welcome in the pristine world of the CBA.

I understand the “chief end” argument, too, and yes, I agree with you that the chief end is to glorify God. We just may have different ideas about how best to do that.

We also have to remember that often, in the spec fic world, our story narratives may run the course of several books. In the novel I had self-published, the main character did change (by quite a bit), but he was not neatly and tidily redeemed at the end. His real, complete redemption wouldn’t come until the end of the second book. So it’s tough for me to know that many readers of Christian fiction seem to sort of expect that everything will be resolved and rebirth and conversion will be accomplished by the end of a single book.

There are a lot of Christian writers who feel shut out of the conversation altogether. We might be willing to write some of the well-written agenda fiction, but we feel judged, misunderstood, ignored, shunned by the Christian literary community. And by the Christian reading community, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people encourage me to write my stories, only to have the conversation completely shift once they know that I write magic, or that I put the swear words in on occasion, or that I show that drunkenness, sloth, power, adultery, greed, and idolatry can actually feel very good, at least for a while.

So yes, I was hurt. I’ve been hurt. I’ve been hurt badly enough to remove my voice from the conversation altogether, even though I think I might have some important things to say that both secular and Christian readers could enjoy. But it just becomes too hard, and it’s too painful, and it’s easier to just shut up than to fight and scratch and claw just to say something that will then be met with more criticism. I did, for a long time, believe that I had a calling to write Christian stories for the secular world. Now . . . Yes, I still believe the calling is there, but I don’t think I’m strong enough to bear the cross it will require. (This is where Jesus and I are still in negotiation. He’s telling me one thing, and I’m . . . fighting it. Just keepin’ it real.)

I still feel like there’s no place for me here, either as a reader or a writer, but I do appreciate you giving me a nod. And again, I apologize for my previous anger and rudeness.

Best,

Amy

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

I still feel like there’s no place for me here, either as a reader or a writer, but I do appreciate you giving me a nod.

More than a nod, sister.

I for one appreciate the interaction, your gracious spirit, and challenges.

Often fans of great stories and of the chief end of glorifying God in all that we do may “talk past one another” in our haste to correct Misperceptions On the Other Side as well as the ever-cited Possibility of Going Too Far. For my part, I’m eager mainly to ensure that everyone with redeemed skin in this game feels welcomed and feels part of the conversations and feels allied with spiritual family whose mission is the same.

More comments to follow, both in the comments and perhaps next week!

Amy Davis
Guest

“For my part, I’m eager mainly to ensure that everyone with redeemed skin in this game feels welcomed and feels part of the conversations and feels allied with spiritual family whose mission is the same.”

 

I believe you are eager to do that, Stephen. But sadly, it’s just not the case. I *don’t* feel welcomed or part of the conversation in most of these types of conversations, and I know I’m not the only Christian writer who feels that way. (As a side note, I’m also an outlier in my church, as a rule, so this isn’t really anything new.) And I wonder how many have novels and stories sitting in drawers and on hard drives that the world will never see because our community has silenced the voices before they were even born. Yes, that imagery was intentional.

It’s too late for me. I can’t even think about sharing my work again without a seriously physical anxiety/panic attack. As I said, Jesus and I are working on that, and He continues to thresh and winnow and patch and tape my spirit in His dogged, determined way. It’s taken two years even to get to this point–the point of even daring to enter the conversation again. I can’t see ever daring to put my work on the table for scrutiny again, either in the Christian world or the secular one. But maybe all I can do is help clear the path for other Christian writers to enter the conversation. And maybe that’s enough.

Amy

Leah Burchfiel
Member

If it makes you feel slightly less weird, I’m also one of those outlying quantities in regards to church culture. And there’s also Bainespal. Maybe the best solution is to become more vocal so people are at least aware we exist, as unsatisfying as that often seems.

Paul Lee
Member

Thanks for the mention! It means something to me, really.

But I feel too ashamed to accept an identity as an open church outsider. What about those who suffer in silence, who are too dignified to complain on the Internet?

It feels wrong to wear cynicism as a badge of honor. I vomit all over people’s blogs (including yours ;)), and suddenly I have some kind of identity.

The church people act as if the Questioning Young Adult Thing is an organized apostasy, and they’re wrong. There’s no connection between my disillusionment and anyone else’s. However, there really is at least a sense of a zeitgeist of some kind. And I don’t want to be guilty of earning Social Points for being cynical, when other people who are less cynical go unrecognized.

Paul Lee
Member

And I wonder how many have novels and stories sitting in drawers and on hard drives that the world will never see because our community has silenced the voices before they were even born. Yes, that imagery was intentional.

Cultural abortion. Makes sense to me.

I’ve never been ostracised for what I create — not that I’ve ever written very much, or shown much of what I have created to anyone. But I totally relate both to your anxiety and to the sense of “cultural abortion.”

A couple weeks ago I admitted my inclination toward Inclusivism. Maybe I said it in an arrogant way. Maybe my point didn’t fit the context well enough. I know that I tried hard not to be arrogant, but I don’t know what the Sunday school leader heard.

Because it went pretty badly, and voices were raised, and in the end the Sunday school leader said something like, “And if you don’t understand, than there’s nothing I can do — that’s between you and the Holy Spirit.”

That triggered my emotional hot buttons and made me have a panic attack. I fell out of my chair. I’ve agonized endlessly about the Holy Spirit and about how I can be certain of Evangelical interpretations of Biblical literalism — wondered if I’ve committed the unpardonable sin against the Holy Spirit by doubting too much.

And this is how great stories die. I can’t help but wonder what we could have created together if we decided to do something constructive instead of arguing and taking subtle jabs at each other.

Last year, we did a study on Nehemiah, and the Sunday school leader said that he thought Nehemiah would make a great movie. We analyzed the book as if it were a movie.

And I thought, this is the opportunity to worship through storytelling! Southern megachurch yuppies shouldn’t be the only Christians who get to make movies! I hoped to brush up on screen writing and the economics of indie film production, and to slam down a detailed proposal on how to make either a movie or a series of webisodes in front of the Sunday school leader.

The handful of other people in the “college and career” group have media experience — there was a guy who had just finished a bachelor’s degree in music! A girl who was in a broadcasting program that includes cinematography! I do the generic digital media/publishing stuff! Kickstarter! Let’s go! I didn’t get far in my proposal, but I did spend real time researching.

But now we argued fairly badly, and I crapped all over myself. Now all I can manage is to drag my shameful ass back into church — maybe back into the Sunday school class if I can muster the courage — and sulk. Forget storytelling, forget creativity, forget fellowship.

HG Ferguson
Guest

“There are a lot of Christian writers who feel shut out of the conversation altogether. We might be willing to write some of the well-written agenda fiction, but we feel judged, misunderstood, ignored, shunned by the Christian literary community. And by the Christian reading community, too. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people encourage me to write my stories, only to have the conversation completely shift once they know that I write magic, or that I put the swear words in on occasion, or that I show that drunkenness, sloth, power, adultery, greed, and idolatry can actually feel very good, at least for a while.”

You’re not alone, Sister.  Not alone at all.  My saga mirrors yours in most respects.  I know exactly what you’re speaking of.  My prayers are with you.

 

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Okay, I can’t resist starting a “dirty words” thread about exploring (and pushing) the limits of juuust what an author juust might get away with in a story in the Christian market.

Like, just how explicit can we get before the more sensitive pull out the smelling salts and fainting couches?

I can only presume that the majority here is okay with unmarried couples holding hands and kissing, but could we conceivably put some groping in there? I don’t think it could get too descriptive, but could we theoretically get away with mentioning some groping?

And just how much can we get away with married couples? Mentioning that she has slutwear reserved for funtimes? Lube and sex toys? Safe words? Alluding to, or actually using the term “blowjob”?

Though if somebody gets bent out of shape just by my mentioning the word “blowjob,” that’s certainly a definitive test to the waters.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Interesting questions about specific fiction elements. But I am more interested in asking the broader question behind them: why. Otherwise I can’t help suspecting the motives of some folks who argue for such elements are not mainly to use them to make better or more-realistic stories, but instead to anger or offend a certain subset of imaginary (or real) readers or critics — or at best, to please another set of imaginary (or real) readers or critics.

Either way, that would make such a hypothetical story that includes elements merely agenda fiction of a different sort. And isn’t “agenda fiction” what we dislike?

For my part — and breaking character and speaking As A Writer — I have a WIP in which the hero, an elderly deacon, gets so frustrated in a deacons’ meeting at his cultural-fundamentalist church that he finally votes the way they want, and before storming out he says, “The hell with it.” I’m convinced such “questionable” elements can be included in fiction, but like any story piece there must great reason for them.

Paul Lee
Member

I have a WIP in which the hero, an elderly deacon, gets so frustrated in a deacons’ meeting at his cultural-fundamentalist church that he finally votes the way they want, and before storming out he says, “The hell with it.”

Thanks for sharing. I don’t have optimistic predictions for the well-being of the deacon, especially if the church community was his only support group.

I trust the story is ultimately speculative? It’s okay if it’s not, but if so it does put a damper on your “fundamentalist geek” credentials. 😉

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

The story is an exact hybrid between contemporary and Biblical future-fantasy. Admittedly the concept is an ambitious one: to explore how one very traditional Christian deacon, facing fights in his own family and at his traditional church, would find his conservative life and assumptions challenged by journeys to the afterlife he never dared to dream of. Heaven will change his old Earth forever.

By the way I’m not any kind of cultural fundamentalist, but because of my own background and spiritual experience I recognize I can’t help but sound like one sometimes. 🙂 So I figure I won’t try to beat it; instead I’ll play to that as a strength.

Paul Lee
Member

I meant “fundamentalist geek” as in hardcore purist geek — someone who is fundamentalist about geekdom — not as in a cultural/religious fundamentalist who happens to be a geek. I don’t think you’re a cultural fundamentalist — you’re far too cool for that. I think you might be a theological fundamentalist, and even though I don’t think I’m one anymore, I can accept theological fundamentalism as a reasonable subset of Christian orthodoxy.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Why put them in there? Because I don’t think anything will change unless this envelope is pushed. People won’t believe that icky sex stuff is anything other than dirtyevilunmentionable if we don’t treat it as anything other than (dirtyevil)unmentionable. Or anything other than missionary in the dark under the covers is dirtyevilunmentionable, or that enjoying it is dirtyevilunmentionable, which is pretty ridiculous.

And how ’bout masturbation? There are a lot of shorts in wads over masturbation, and the waddery only has tenuous Biblical support. The Slacktivist had a post somewhere about an alternate interpretation of the Onan story, and it makes more sense to me. Instead of the “every sperm is sacred” junk, Onan was married to his brothers’ widow to make an heir for him/them, right, meaning his share in the inheritance would be smaller if this kidlet was produced. But he didn’t just refuse to sleep with Tamar, he used her to get off but took measures to keep her from getting pregnant (though the pull-out method is flawed at best). And that seems more worthy of smiting.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You don’t need a novel for that, but a sex manual. Christian ones already exist, and they aren’t hyper-pure hysterical things either. You don’t need to be graphic all the time to talk about things like impotence or sexual compatibiliy, and what might seem salacious in a novel is not so much when discussed in non-fiction.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Why put them in there? Because I don’t think anything will change unless this envelope is pushed.

But that only serves to beg the question. I ask: Why change? and the reply can’t only be a question-begging, Because otherwise nothing will change!

People won’t believe that icky sex stuff is anything other than dirtyevilunmentionable if we don’t treat it as anything other than (dirtyevil)unmentionable.

This here may be closer, but it’s still Agenda Fiction. If I need to be told that sex is not “dirtyevilunmentionable” is fiction the best way to do that? Should that be the main job of the fiction author? Or should it be the job of pastors, pundits, sociologists, whatever, or the nonfiction Christian books to which DM Dutcher alluded? Yes, they do exist, and one of the earliest and most famous ones was by none other than pre-Left Behind Tim LaHaye. A lot of these books are quite happy to affirm that mutual, loving, self-sacrificing sex in a covenant relationship is a beautiful thing that honors the Creator. Many books also happily give many “salacious” details. Take my word for it.

Anyway, so, I’m gonna need a better reason why particular Icky Bits belong in fiction besides It’s Necessary to Help Change Society. Pshaw, I’m not often after fiction to Change Society. Anyway, I thought that’s what the absurdly-cleaned-up-G-rated stuff was meant to do. Why advocate more of the same?

Paul Lee
Member

I agree that agenda fiction is undesirable, but I think fiction can push social change and/or social awareness by showing something well in a natural environment. Non-fiction can’t really show the proper context of anything.

I’m pretty sure you would be okay Christian writers deliberately using novels to show indisputably good things in a natural and compelling way — prayer, marriage, masculinity, etc. Hypothetically, if a novel were big enough to affect secular society, it would be a good thing if the depictions of social concerns in the novels “just happened” to fuel positive social change.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Why does it need to change? Because it produces harmful bullpoop, because there’s a lot of it based on Madonna-whore or other various poop.

And as bainespal points out, fiction can do this by making it seem real and contextual and all that good stuff and not just something abstract. Talking about it in couples-specific seminars fences it off and makes it seem like someone else’s problem.

Hannah Williams
Member

Not everyone avoids sex in stories because they think sex is icky or dirtyevilunmentionable, but because it’s PERSONAL. It was created by God to be between a husband and wife, a sacred and beautiful thing.

Describing it in a story isn’t going to help you own personal romance life, but will most likely cause you (as is intended by such scenes) to feel sexual stirrings and lusts that God clearly warns against when he says that to look at someone besides your spouse in lust is to commit adultery.

If people can read sex scenes without falling into sin, good for them. I, on the other hand, cannot, so I will try to avoid sexual elements in books, not because sex is icky, but because its meant to be special and pure.

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

When some folks who want Moar Sex in fiction will just as eagerly make the same arguments about showing more characters going to the bathroom (we all do it!) or picking their noses (we all do it!) then I think this will be more consistent. 🙂 After all, in this culture there has been entirely too much stigmatizing of boogers.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

That’s kinda the problem, that people assume that “Christian genre” and “prudish sensibilities about even mentioning sex” are one and the same. I’m not actually advocating erotica, if that makes you feel better. It’s just that I object to this pearl-clutching-and-fainting-couch mentality that’s still haunting us from the Victorian days. I want sexual expression to be normalized in Christian culture. And I think I need to clarify that that means that it’s normal and okay and not shameful to have sexual feelings, not that it is permissible to sexually harass people of your preferred gender and looks and whatnot. Feelings = okay; acting on feelings = okay depending on circumstances and context and consent and that good stuff.

Just an example off the top of my head, say a married couple has gone missing, and the police are searching the house for clues. They could plausibly run across lingerie or lube and sex toys in the bedroom. It’s not that gratuitous, and it helps break down that bullpoop wall of taboo.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You can do this, but it’s a subject that might overpower the story. Like say they run across those things. You now have to explain how it fits into the couple’s life. Like you find those things in a married Christian couple’s home because the man is undergoing severe stress or physical issues, and can’t perform. Or the wife is turned off by him and is using the toys, creating a situation where in 1 cor 7:5, she’s defrauding him for a bad reason. Then you also need to explain why defrauding each other is bad like that. You wind up making the whole book about sex because it becomes the reason that they are missing. It’s too visible just to be an aside or a subplot.

I think you can do this without offense, or discuss sex in a novel. But it would be hard to do without devoting the novel to it, and you’d have to be careful about what elements you talk about. Like simply because an action is consensual, doesn’t mean it’s not harmful; premarital sex is very much consensual, but is a sin in God’s eyes. Not sure if this can be done easily in a speculative work as opposed to a literary or realistic one though.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

First of all, have you never heard of couples using toys together? Second, 1 Cor 7:5 refers to sexual deprivation between partners vs mutually agreed abstinence, and it’s possible to both masturbate and to sex up your partner within the same time frame (plus, that text has been used to justify marital rape and I find that icky). I categorize toy use as a type of masturbation, and you’d have to find a text other than Onan to convince me that masturbation is evilbad.

And it’s not really normalizing if you pull out a PowerPoint to justify it. My idea was just to mention the sex gear in passing, combined with textual proof elsewhere that this is a good Christian couple. The sex:goodChristiancouple evidence ratio would be a one-to, like, -five+ in my imaginary scenario.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

The point is more than it could work in the context of a mystery by giving realistic reasons why Christians use them. The wife may turn to toys over her husband; it happens more than you think, and that does fall under “defrauding each other.” You then have a reason why talking about sex is organic to the plot.

You can’t just mention it in passing like a detail, because it’s something morally controversial and needs justification why you include it in a Christian book. You can’t just establish they are good Christians, and then suddenly you find that they own sex toys; your audience needs to know why good Christians have them or they’re going to assume the worst or even stop reading the book.

I think the reason why you think this can be done is because they aren’t particularly controversial to you, but you have to think a bit of your audience and the tone including that detail sets.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Ha, now I have this is my head:

“Why do you two have sex toys?”

“Because sex is fun. We can make out and grope right now if you’re worried about our attraction for each other, but sometimes it’s fun to try some kinky sprinkles on top.”

 

Well, certainly the audience has to be considered, but if a passing mention of sex toys puts them completely off the book, they are probably not people who would like the rest of my writing anyway.

And I don’t think it happens very often that women go all the way to replace their husband with toys. There is more than one thing broken if it goes that far, and in that case THERAPY FOR EVERYONE. But you’re treating it as if it’s a spouse vs toys, when it could very well be spouse and toys. From my limited experience to what I hear from other people, it can be nice to have a “relief pitcher” if one partner wants some but the other isn’t feeling up to it. It can be a lot of pressure to be the sole outlet of someone’s sexuality, especially if they have a higher drive than you. And coercing people into sex, by guilt or by other means, is pretty much rape, though this is a huge, awkward gray area because I know people (women) are often expected and often do just put out so their partner shuts up. But I find that creepy, often super creepy.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I had a similar issue come to mind about why I don’t write Christian fiction, and I figure it would be timely to write about it here.

The icky bits thing also has another issue, that of spiritual pride. I don’t write Christian fiction because I think I relate to it in a dangerous way. While I enjoy it as a reader, it’s hard as a writer not to be tempted by the grand idea that I can “fix” Christian fiction by making it edgier, more relevant, and more transgressive. This isn’t a healthy way to write.

There’s a danger that I could “fix” something that isn’t broken. People do like Christian fiction as is; the issue is not that it needs fixing, but that there are other types of readers you can reach out to, ones that like different tropes and attributes to their stories. This is fine, but again, it is not “fixing” to write a harder-edged story any more than it is “fixing” to read one. You can wind up with an odd sense of pride in that you like to wallow in the mud more than those goody-two shoes who like Amish Romance.

The “fixing” idea is present enough in me in that it makes trying to write a Christian story uncomfortable. So I decided to write secular kids fic instead. Sometimes Christianity works into it, but who on earth thinks that they can “fix” the chapter book industry?

But I’d also mention that I think people need to be quiet sometimes and let writers write. There seem to be more issues with them than with preaching, for heaven’s sake.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Amen, DM.

If the fiction is designed primarily to “fix” anything, it’s Agenda Fiction. That doesn’t make it wrong or even bad fiction, but it is Agenda Fiction nonetheless.

And if the fiction is designed primarily to “fix” Agenda Fiction, that’s just ironic. Again, this goal might not result in bad fiction, but it is merely compounding the problematic motive.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

You have a point, and that’s probably why I could never write anything that would end up being published for the Christian market. On the other hand, I feel I have to fight and change things so that 1) fewer people end up harmed from the bullpoop caught in the Christian-sex-conversation (or lack thereof) drain, and 2) I have a strong objection to letting Christianity be defined by things I think are bullpoop without at least a protest. Otherwise, why the hell am I bothering to still identify as Christian?

D. M. Dutcher
Member

You are a Christian because at a very basic level, you believe the things that Jesus said about Himself are true. There’s a lot of disagreement among other things, and even holding outright erroneous beliefs at times. But as long as you hold those basic beliefs, you are one.

You have to be careful that you aren’t saying you’re a Christian when the goal is to make Christianity into the things that you like or the world likes. If your point is to fix Christianity so it’s sex-positive, porn-friendly, or what have you, as opposed to remove barriers to belief in the things that matter-Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, and our salvation, it’s a dangerous road.

Christianity is a balancing act, and there are times that progressives need to criticize things and restore balance to the faith. But that has to be done within the context of a healthy faith already. Too many of them are instead trying to graft the views of their intellectual class onto it, and those values are more important than actual belief.

Not saying you do this or being condemning here. More that when you do need to push back, always examine why you do so.

Leah Burchfiel
Member

I think my motivation of wanting fewer people to be hurt by the sex-related bullpoop propagated by Christian groups is some pretty good justification.

And that’s THE problem, isn’t it, separating the “actual” Christianity from the cultural bullpoop that’s grown on it like fungus. Naturally I don’t believe that “actual” Christianity is harmful, so I’m more than willing to discard all the harmful stuff that is also cultural. Otherwise–if “actual” Christianity is indeed harmful, I’m out. That’s why I object to people equating Christianity with Madonna-whore and suchlike, because that’s harmful.

D. M. Dutcher
Member

Depends honestly what you think that bullpoop is. It’s possible to criticize purity culture, but if you start saying that premarital sex is perfectly okay, or homosexuality is, this has more harmful effects than you think. A lot of modern sexual morality really is against what the Bible says; there are some cultural aspects, but some things we have to accept was Jesus says first.

Please also keep in mind that as Christians, the world will always see us as harmful. There are things we do need to change, but at some point our wisdom is foolishness to them, and they will always see the cross as harm. I do think at times we make the perfect the enemy of the good, and that we need to focus more on expressing sexuality in marriage than repressing it or spiritualizing it. You might have an important role in reminding people of that.

But there’s going to be a time where we do something that the world will think is self-harm. We can’t sleep with a lover because sex outside of marriage is wrong according to the Bible. We can’t be okay with polyamory even if people consent to it; God made marriage between one man and one woman. We can’t marry an unbeliever, because we are warned not to. To the world, that will always be seen as harming ourselves, and that’s not something we can just say is cultural.

I’m not saying this to judge. It’s just at some point we have to bow the knee to Him, not He to us. Or at least be willing to. Not everything is cultural accretions to the Gospel.

Paul Lee
Member

 

Not everything is cultural accretions to the Gospel.

Discussion on this site have made me realize that an entire comment war can be fought over empahsis.

“A lot of conservative moral tropes are just cultural baggage.”

“BUT not everything is cultural.”

“BUT not everything is not cultural.”

“Women in patriarchal fundamentalist communities are abused.”

“BUT most conservative Christian communities don’t have (much) abuse, and it’s better to just fight the secularists anyways.”

“Single men are undervalued and discriminated against in evangelical culture, and the intimidation of feminism only makes it worse.”

“BUT the real issue is women’s rights, and men who feel intimidated by feminism are useless wimps.”

Can we agree that we all have valid points? Our differing priorities will always set us against each other, if we allow them to.

Paul Lee
Member

Okay, first of all, someone please mock my most cherished beliefs mercilessly, in order to help with my penance for my previous comment.

Secondly, disregard that nauseatingly sappy and ridiculously narcissistic paragraph at the end. No one needs a useless, raunchy “call for unity.”

(If only this were a phpbb forum instead of a WordPress blog, so I could delete my garbage.)

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Halfhearted yay for WordPress keeping us humble by never, ever forgetting the crap we say?

D. M. Dutcher
Member

I think I’m going to hire Notleia to hit you over the head with a newspaper each time you apologize for saying something you have no need to apologize for. You’re among friends here. and friends can take disagreement.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Couldn’t have said it better myself, DM.

Amy Davis
Guest

I wasn’t going to comment again, but I feel like I should say that Stephen, I think you’re belittling the debate here a bit with some rather silly examples. It’s not *just* a debate about sex and bad words (as your initial post suggested), and it’s not that we should also be talking about adding more 4th grade level body humor. The questions come down to:

1) What should Christian publishing be selling on its imprints?

2) What should Christians read?

3) What should Christians write?

4) How far is too far?

5) What is the purpose of adding the icky bits?

The point is not to add more stupid, gratuitous content, like your sentence that included “damn” or your suggestion that we write about people picking their noses. The point is that we don’t argue about some of this stuff because few people have an objection to someone picking his/her nose. No one is going to say, “reading about Joe picking his nose caused me to stumble. I can’t believe that was in a Christian book. Now I can’t stop picking my nose. Sometimes, I even eat it!” That’s silly.

My whole position on this is that all content should advance the storyline. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Period. My argument isn’t that we should have Moar Sex, as you say, but that we should be willing to allow objectionable content if it isn’t obviously sinful to write or read it and if it advances the storyline or improves a character or setting.

There’s plenty of gratuitous stuff in all literature. I’ve skipped or skimmed a lot of pages in A Song of Ice and Fire, and at this point, the books are becoming less and less appealing because of GRRM’s obsession with sex and death. I don’t like gratuitous material in anything I read. But sometimes, objectionable content does move the storyline forward or make a character more interesting and believable, and in those cases, I don’t mind it.

My kids read books with bathroom and body humor. I don’t, because I’m a grown-up. We’re talking about grown-up literature here. If you want to make room for all voices in the conversation, please don’t belittle them. That’s beneath you.

 

D. M. Dutcher
Member

He was being a little silly to lighten the mood. I don’t think he meant it as belittling. They’ve had the debate here about those things before.

I don’t think that debate can ever be answered, though. The individual writer, reader, and publisher must follow their own consciences on the matter. Some people may be okay with some sexual content, but may not be able to stand violence. There’s really no “one size fits all” solution, and what the industry needs is more freedom to experiment and make it so people whose consciences align can write, publish, and read books.

 

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

DM has my back, and I hope eventually you will also, sister. My thanks for the challenge. DM is right that my intent was to lighten the mood, but I admit there is risk in such an attempt because it can come across as belittling or minimizing the issue! I’ll offer a few other thoughts, before really organizing things for Thursday.

First, this disclaimer:

I favor “icky bits” in fiction. What I oppose as some shallow defenses of “icky bits” that seem based on secular excuses for Art or spiritual-sounding defenses of better evangelism.

I think these shallow defenses end up repeating the same errors that led to the cleaned-up, “family values”-venerating churchian-publishing barriers.

The shallow defenses seem reactionary in a very familiar way. Behind the cleaned-up cliched CBA-style boundaries lies the assumption, “Look at what we’re not — we’re not like that worldly fiction with all its disturbing sinful content.” But this reaction seems to say, “Look at what we’re not — we’re not like that conservative fiction with all its disturbing sentimentalism.”

Instead oughtn’t we as fans (and authors) to say, “Look at the Source of all truth, beauty, goodness, and joy Whom we want our stories to reflect”?

Mind you, I think this only complicates the discussion. I think if tomorrow all fans of fiction (speculative and otherwise) agreed on this ultimate goal, we’d still have debates over “how much is too much” or whether you can close the door on that couple about to enjoy each other or follow them into the room ten minutes after they start. We’ll still have debates over Bad Words and violence and such.

But at least we would be on the same page about why we even care about all this.

At this point I simply can’t help being not convinced. It sounds like some motives are closer to “let’s impress the world” rather than “let’s glorify God.” So when I’m coming across as challenging the “icky bits” concept altogether, that’s what I’m getting at. And I’m first and foremost trying to preach this to me, because I know when I’m turning into a jerk and just want to stick it to those sentimentality-venerating, true-art-rejecting cultural fundies (believe me, I know!).

I’ll even try to offer brief answers to these excellent questions:

1) What should Christian publishing be selling on its imprints?

We should sell fiction whose authors explicitly want to glorify/worship Him in their storytelling for others’ benefit — the benefit of seeing reflected truth and beauty about God, people, and/or God’s world, all for the purpose of greater joy in Him (and all other agendas and sin-representations are subservient to that goal).

2) What should Christians read?

Anything that motivates our greater worship/enjoyment of Christ through the experience and conversely minimizes the risk of endorsing personal sin. This can include the stuff in no. 1 and 3, and (for purposes of contrast) also the nasty stuff — so long as you’re able to do it out of faith and avoid personal sin (Romans 14).

3) What should Christians write?

The stuff as in no. 1.

4) How far is too far?

I have no Earthly idea. 😀

But we might start addressing the question and getting more Christians to a similar level of spiritual growth by de-stigmatizing some things and re-stigmatizing others. E.g.: I ought not fear going to the pool or beach like I once did because of Those People in Their Skivvies. There should be a way for the more-mature Christian to be in such environments — and the Christians in Europe have even more awkward “natural area” issues to address! — besides the default “conceal, don’t feel.”

5) What is the purpose of adding the icky bits?

To show the beauty, truth, goodness, and joy of God, human beings, and God’s world which must also involve showing the contrast of these things with that which is not beautiful, truthful, good, or joyous.

The point is not to add more stupid, gratuitous content, like your sentence that included “damn” or your suggestion that we write about people picking their noses.

I agree 100 percent. I’m simply not convinced others (or most?) are coming at it from this perspective. I’m suggesting it is not good to request or demand Icky Bits simply because this will Change Things or help people overcome stigmas about a particular sex or violence or whatever issue. A demand for such Change without regarding the ultimate Heart-Changer can be simply legalism of another sort.

My nose-picking example mainly addresses the criticism that stops short as “it’s realistic.” Fine, but in that case why not also follow a character into the bathroom?

The point is that we don’t argue about some of this stuff because few people have an objection to someone picking his/her nose. No one is going to say, “reading about Joe picking his nose caused me to stumble. I can’t believe that was in a Christian book. Now I can’t stop picking my nose. Sometimes, I even eat it!” That’s silly.

Yet a lot of the “icky bits” defenders I’m addressing don’t care to delve into the “this causes people to stumble” issue. They seem to say, “If it offends conservatives, let’s go for it!” And trust me, most conservatives would object to nose-picking scenes in fiction, especially if the fiction were meant for their Impressionable Children. 🙂

My whole position on this is that all content should advance the storyline. If it doesn’t, it shouldn’t be there. Period.

Agreed. This applies as much to Icky Bits as to starting a sentence with “There was” (bad idea) or using the attribution “uttered despondently” (worse idea).

My only addition is this: if the content should advance the story, “what” should the story advance? My argument is that the story should advance the beauty, truth, and goodness of God, human beings, and God’s world, for the purpose of driving the reader toward Him and His joy. And again, I’m not sure other Icky Bits defenders share that goal. So even saying “it must advance the story” would bring my objection is the statement is footnoted with some statement like “in order that the story may advance great Art, or more-effective evangelism, or Realism.”

My argument isn’t that we should have Moar Sex, as you say, but that we should be willing to allow objectionable content if it isn’t obviously sinful to write or read it and if it advances the storyline or improves a character or setting.

Agreed.

There’s plenty of gratuitous stuff in all literature. I’ve skipped or skimmed a lot of pages in A Song of Ice and Fire, and at this point, the books are becoming less and less appealing because of GRRM’s obsession with sex and death.

You may enjoy last month’s discussion: But ‘Game of Thrones’ Still Has Porn In It.

I don’t like gratuitous material in anything I read. But sometimes, objectionable content does move the storyline forward or make a character more interesting and believable, and in those cases, I don’t mind it.

Recently I pondered this relating to the Catching Fire scene, in book and film, in which Joanna Mason steps into the elevator with Haymitch, Katniss, and Peeta, and flagrantly disrobes. In the film it is played for a mild laught yet this is one of the few situations in which a) the scene was handled relatively tastefully, b) it shows you something about her and how she is dealing with these horrible circumstances — exaggerating her sexuality and trying to rattle the competition. Is this “gratuitous”? Could be, especially when you see it in the film. Is it for a purpose that actually supports her place in the story? Yes. What was that purpose? It was to show something true about human beings and our sinful age — that humans will use anything, including our sexuality, to distract ourselves from our pain and try to rattle or control others. And this can ultimately glorify God because it implicitly shows the contrast between twisted and healthy sexuality.

Anyway, all that to try to explain my booger joke and the point behind it — which I hope by now is more evident as a challenge to other Icky Bits defenders, not you.

HG Ferguson
Guest

“My whole position on this is that all content should advance the storyline.” 

Her point is being blunted and obscured in all this discussion (and yes, that’s a deliberate use of the Forbidden Passive Voice), perhaps by design.  What’s “gratuitous” to one person  is realistic to another.  Despite this website’s apparent official position, the Old Testament does not shy away from graphic violence (Samuel hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord, that was a holy act of divine retributory justice, it does not merely “report” that Samuel just killed the evil king) or sexual matters when they indeed advance the Story.  Nor should we as biblical writers, either.

Lisa
Guest

Hmm. Interesting discussion, although, I agree with Amy’s last post, it’s getting a bit sidetracked.

I absolutely agree with her statement that the content should advance the story line/character arc/ etc. Content should not be there just to make a point, either in a preachy sense or in a “Look at me pushing the envelope” sense. I believe intelligent, well-read readers can spot the difference.

One of my favourite films of all time has horrific violence, liberal swearing, and an attempted rape scene. But all of it absolutely necessary to the story, in my opinion, and to leave it out would be to gut the story of much of its impact.

The movie is Schlinder’s List.

On the other hand, there are certainly many movies that absolutely turn me off because the swearing, sex, and violence are absolutely gratuitous, and, in my opinion, get in the way of the story. You can put in  Quentin Torintino’s films in there as an example for me.

The problem is the qualifier, “in my opinion”. Right?

I struggle with this as a writer. I know I don’t want to be a “soapbox” writer, I’ve read too many Christian fiction like that. I want to write a story about real people doing real things, and sometimes those things are not very nice. I want to resist the urge to tie everything up in a neat “salvation” bow at the end. Real life is not like that, either.

Amy, I’m sorry you have been so hurt by the reaction to your story. I don’t know the background to the whole thing, but would love to know more about your book. I have a feeling I might like it!

 

Amy Davis
Guest

Lisa, I’ve been back and forth a hundred times over whether to respond to you, but I finally decided I should, if for no other reason than to applaud your mention of Schindler’s List. Thank you for that. Excellent example.

My book . . . *sigh*

My book was a traditional fantasy about a man who was marked to be an angel of death for God. He refused to submit to his fate, though, and worked as a mercenary to keep the beast sated. He was finally asked to escort a lost heir to a throne to a safe place, and she was everything he hated–pure and dedicated to God. Of course, obviously, they fell in love. Yes, there was a touch of romance to the book, but it wasn’t a romance. There was “elemental” magic, a pagan earth religion more true than untrue, a curse on the earth, a group of soul-sucking demons, and a struggle for a throne. There were six key “good guy” characters in the series, and I had five books planned. The idea was that each book would look at one of the characters more closely than the others, but that all of them would eventually be redeemed (in some fashion) by the end of the series.

The book was problematic. My main character was a womanizer. He drank a lot (though because of his magic blood, it didn’t make him drunk). He fought just to fight sometimes. He swore a fair bit–a few f-bombs here and there, among other things.

I also had one sex scene between two other unmarried characters, though it wasn’t graphic.

There were some fairly violent scenes. There were two disembowelments. There were several necks cut open. There was one very extended beating, and there was an attempted rape.

So, yes, it pushed a lot of buttons.

My agent (a Christian woman, though not repping only Christian books) did suggest that we rework the novel for the Christian market because of some of the strong Christian themes, but she said it would involve removing some of those things that I thought helped develop the characters or move the plot forward. I wasn’t willing to compromise my story. And I wasn’t convinced the book would sell, anyway, since she wasn’t having any luck in the secular market, either. Still, even if I’d thought we had a chance, I wouldn’t have changed it.

I did have several short stories/novellas self-published, too, and I was working on the sequel to the novel when I unpublished everything. I had also had an idea for a series of westerns that involved dragons, witches, and cowboys, but I put all of that on hold too. And that one was really more of just a fun thing, because there wasn’t much religion in it at all. I just was reveling in the story and enjoying creating good art–which, obviously, would put me at odds with some folks, because I really wasn’t thinking “I’m going to glorify God through this.” I was just writing.

Remember that story about Calvin? Or was it someone else? When a shoemaker came to him and asked, “what must I do now that I’m saved?” and he answered, “make good shoes”? That’s always kind of been my philosophy. I guess I’m too simple. I just figured if I was creating excellent stories to the best of my abilities, then I *would* glorify Jesus.

But maybe it’s more complicated than that.

In any case, now you know, Lisa. Thank you for asking.

(Is it worth asking at all whether Christian publishing is chasing Christian writers out of the market? Or is that another can of worms? That wasn’t the only reason I left, but it was a big piece of it.)

 

Leah Burchfiel
Member

Hey, idea! What if we have a short story/short scene contest or non-contest where we all demonstrate our ideas of how to handle icky bits? That might be more helpful in being less abstract (and to reassure people that I’m not actually advocating straight-up erotica in the Christian market).

wpDiscuz