Culture Shifts And The Christian Writer
In the aftermath of the US Supreme Court ruling on marriage, the moderator of a Facebook group for Christian writers asked, “How do we as Christian writers show our support for true marriage, educate readers, and also show compassion towards people experiencing same-sex attraction?” The question got me thinking.
I suppose first I’m wondering, can fiction show support for true marriage without becoming “an issue” book or one that is preachy? Will a subtle approach sufficiently offer the Biblical alternative to gay pride? Can we show compassion in fiction toward people experiencing same-sex attraction without condoning homosexual behavior?
Following those thoughts, came the realization that fiction, despite what people may think, is about showing truth. So what truth should we as Christian writers show? Are we to write to the cultural issues of our day and place? I mean gay marriage is not an issue in Muslim countries and it has been a settled issue in places like Sweden for several decades. Wouldn’t writing to an issue that one country is currently dealing with, restrict the story to a narrow audience?
But should Christians ignore the issues of the day? Writers like Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver’s Travels, intentionally wrote to expose foibles of his society. So did the muckrakers in America like Frank Norris (The Octopus) and Upton Sinclair (The Jungle) who challenged the practices of Big Business. George Orwell wrote Animal Farm as an allegory to expose the dangers of Communism. Then there was Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom’s Cabin) who wrote an impassioned story to raise the awareness of the evils of slavery.
Without a doubt, the most important works of literature say something meaningful. And the more universal the truth, it would seem, the more significant the work.
Does writing to a limited subject like the meaning of marriage disqualify a work from being “universal” in its depiction of truth? Actually, no. Marriage and sexuality happen to be the bedrock of society, whether we like it or not. So writing to those points seems eminently significant.
I remember several episodes from the TV show Star Trek: Next Generation, which ran from 1987-1994, and Deep Space Nine, which ran from 1993-1999, that were actually “about” gay rights. One show featured a genderless society and the “sin” in their eyes of assigning gender to a particular individual. Another dealt with a symbiont named Dax whose host had once been a man, but whose current host was a woman, still attracted to a woman she had known when she was a he.
Sounds very current, but twenty years ago these issues were not topics on the nightly news. Rather, they were imbedded in stories that had an impact on the belief system of countless viewers.
The question today, however, is this: now that gender identity and marriage definition are front and center in the consciousness of a portion of western society, can Christian writers still address these topics in fiction with the necessary subtlety to make the point without burying them so deeply they won’t register with readers?
And should we try?
Is it more important to write about sin and redemption than about marriage and gender identity?
I guess the more fundamental question comes down to this: what impact on society should the Christian novelist have? Granted, we can’t lump all of us together. Some are writing to Christians. Others are writing to the general market reader. But to what end are we writing?
Is it OK for us to write to either group “purely for entertainment”? Or should we aim to make an eternal difference through what we write?
When we write for Christians, should we purpose to edify the body of Christ or is it OK to write a self-validation story that confirms what we already believe? Would the latter serve as encouragement, a sort of keep-on-keeping-on reminder that what we believe is true? Is that a worthwhile goal for an author to undertake?
And for the general market, what should we aim to accomplish? What are the truth claims that we ought to concern ourselves with? What are the issues of our day which we should be addressing? Ought we to be reacting to what is, or looking ahead and determining what the next great societal challenge might be?
I think I’ve been clear about my position in the past: the sub-genres of speculative fiction are the best means by which a writer can convey relevant truth without being preachy. Perhaps there is no more significant time for us as speculative writers to step up and address matters that matter.
Writing is so personal and deeply heartfelt for most writers. The books I like the most AND am entertained by the most are the ones that have meaning, whether it be Christian or not, I like to get something out of what I read. I personally write to glorify God because He is the one who has given me the dream to write, but I believe this can be done in many ways. Writers can hit the nail on the head directly or covertly.
To reach unbelievers writers can use many tactics and the underlying story still be faith filled. Most important thing is to do everything in God’s love.
Thank you so much for this blog, it really got me thinking!
I’m like you, Mandy. When a book says something significant, I care about it a lot more and am therefore entertained by it to a greater degree. And I also think books don’t have be overt to be meaningful.
But here’s what I realized as I wrote the article: those Star Trek episodes would not have been considered overt in their support of gay rights when they aired. Today, however, with the issue so front and center in our society, I think many would consider them preachy. I mean, when you’re thinking “gay rights” it’s hard to miss a story that has a theme of gay rights, no matter how obliquely it’s handled.
I think that might be one of the things Christians are up against. At the first mention of God or Christian, faith or church, readers are apt to think they know what the story is saying. They’re apt to think it’s surreptitious proselytizing.
In fantasy, I think it might have gone so far as the mention of a king or ruler. 😆
All that to say, I wonder if we need to change the import of our stories. People generally know what Christians think about God, but do they know what we think about the nature of Truth or humankind or morality? Who decides what is right and what is wrong? That might be a great question for a story to explore!
Thanks for helping me to think beyond the article. 😉
As a Christian who has been struggling with SSA for my entire adult life, even before, this whole thing has been exceptionally difficult for me. On the one hand, there’s the clear biblical teaching on the subject, but on the other is every news outlet in the country celebrating, encouraging and praising something that I’ve been trying to stay away from for the better part of 20 years.
Re: fiction, I’ve recently come to the realization that truly great fiction (Gatsby, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, etc) deals with the essence of human nature, what it means to be human. As much as I enjoy stories about aliens and orcs getting blown up or hacked apart under the hero’s sword, many of them will simply not stand the test of time. In light of that, I would suggest that we can’t afford NOT to address these issues in our writing, even if (like mine) no one else will ever read it.
If you want to write to entertain, that’s fine. I won’t tell you not to, but for me writing is an expression of who I am and many of the things I struggle with come out in my stories (usually as Gothic Horror when dealing with my SSA. =P). This is something I can’t not write about in some form or another.
Phoenix, thanks for your input and for the cliff-notes version of your struggle.
I should have given attribution of the quote from the FB group: Nissa, who founded and moderates it, added a biographical note. “I personally have experienced same-sex attraction and, now that I’m Christian, am living a happy & celibate life with God’s help.” Her purpose for adding that information was so that others wouldn’t presume she was “anit-gay.”
I suspect she’d agree with you, Phoenix, that this is a topic that must come out in writing.
I can only believe that others who share similar struggles need to hear a counter voice to the one that is loudly proclaiming the victory over God’s plan for men and women.
Phoenix, I have prayed for you just now. I cannot imagine going through that kind of difficulty, especially now when everyone is partying all around you. Folks who experience OS temptations (lust, etc.) surely can’t know the struggle. (I hesitated even writing this comment because I fear anything I say minimizes the challenges.)
I do know that God will kill that attraction forever and you will emerge, blazing with Spirit fire, to take off into the skies of His new creation. I’m also quite sure I’ll be stuck running on the ground after you, blessed and content with lesser rewards.
For a while I have had my own story idea in mind that explicitly yet naturally explores the different ways Christians have engaged their culture, including the poor, the underprivileged, and those who have various sexual temptations and lifestyles. If I might, I would ask more about your experience and how you have responded to Christians who believe the only response to people with LGBT temptations is to embrace them and say God approves these practices.
I appreciate that. I know that God can, if He so chooses, take this away from me, but I don’t believe that he’s going to. I’ve come to the conclusion that this issue is just my thorn in the flesh that He’s going to use to drive me closer to Him and keep me from being too puffed up which, when I stop to reflect calmly on it, is something to be thankful for.
As for those who are pushing the church to embrace the LGBT movement, the first reaction I usually have is outrage. I don’t really want to start an argument about a proper exegesis of Romans 1, but from what I see the biblical teaching is clear and to argue that Paul wasn’t REALLY talking about this or that serves to do nothing more than undermine the bible and anyone that does that on any issue, be it sexuality, the Trinity, or any number of other topics, drives me up the wall. Particularly when someone like Rob Bell calls it just “some letters from 2,000 years ago”.
However, I do have to give some credit where credit is due. These are issues that the church has not been handling well for a long time and too many Christians have seen those dealing with SSA or similar struggles as broken, irredeemable or abhorrently evil which is downright sinful. While I disagree with their approach and their conclusions, people like Matthew Vines are doing the church a favor in bringing these issues to light and making us realize how badly we’ve been handling them. Many churches have great prison ministries, homeless outreaches, addiction counseling, etc., but no outreach or safe place for those questioning their sexuality to come and work through their struggles in a loving, biblical, God-honoring environment. Even if they go directly to a pastor for private counseling, many pastors just don’t know how to approach it. We need to treat people dealing with SSA or other issues the same way we treat someone trying to get out of alcoholism or work through a marriage that’s falling apart. With prayer, compassion and good, solid biblical teaching.
Great perspective, Phoenix. I agree with what you said too about letting the Bible say what it says and not trying to explain away its clear teaching, on this topic or any other topic.
One reason I love the Bible so much is that it is authoritative and timeless. We don’t have to wonder about God’s standards.
Even as a LGTBQ ally, I’m not going to try to convince you of anything, because at the end of the day, you’re the one who has to live with yourself. And that’s a liberation and a responsibility and a threat and a cruel joke all at the same time.
It sounds like you’ve got a lot of material for existential-type horror (which, if I had to claim a favorite type of horror, I would pick). Do you always do Gothic horror? Because I think you could do something sci-fi and go balls to the wall with the uncanny valley effect.
I do Gothic Horror primarily because it’s my favorite type of horror – I’ve always been a fan of Lovecraft and Poe – but also because the themes of encroaching darkness and looming insanity within tend to work well.
I haven’t tried sci-fi yet, but I can see how the uncanny valley effect would make for an interesting parallel, particularly from the other side of the argument. The first reaction people would often have to someone of an alternate lifestyle when I was in junior high or high school (15 or so years ago) was one of revulsion. The idea that you look human and act human but there’s something off about you was just enough to be repellent.
Writing about controversial issues can be tricky. Whoever doesn’t agree with your take will feel “hit over the head” with preachiness. The more controversial the subject, the more that tends to happen. Then, 50 years down the road, or 100, usually one viewpoint will have prevailed. If it is the viewpoint of your story, it will be held as a classic with deep meaning. If not, it may be banned by libraries and bookstores, or held up as an example of wrong thinking.
Take the issue of slavery as an example. Few people in our society would advocate or condone owning a slave as an ethical or moral practice. Any book from back in the early 1800s that might have presented slavery as normal, acceptable, or even good would be roundly criticized today. At the time of the Civil War, it had become a controversial issue. Either viewpoint would have generated “preachy” feelings on the other side. Now, only those novels and stories that were on the winning side are seen as classics or meaningful works. The others are labeled bigoted justifications of what is indefensible.
So if today I wrote a book that portrayed the evils of slavery, not too many people would find it preachy. Instead, praiseworthy. It wouldn’t have been taken that way during the Civil War.
Of course, that isn’t a reason to not write a meaningful story that deals with current day issues. I remember those episodes of Star Trek you mentioned, and when I first saw them they immediately felt preachy to me because it was addressing the issue in an obvious way, softening it with circumstances that don’t exist in our world. Dax’s same-sex attraction made perfect sense due to she formerly being a he and attracted to her.
I guess what I’m saying is do write with meaning, but be prepared to be on the “wrong side of history” down the road. A lot of Christian authors have been in retrospect. I think for that reason we tend to avoid the controversial issues in our story, to be safe in that regard. It takes a little guts to risk being the future whipping boy for future readers, assuming one gets read enough to make a blip on the radar at all.
Maybe the issue we should be talking about is bandwagoning.
Star Trek: TNG & DS9 could get away with pretty dang obvious allegories/plot points because LGTBQ and gender issues were not yet a Thing with a capital T. At this point, it would be beating a rotting horse corpse.
I think we should write the passion in our hearts and try to be really entertaining. But good literature, IMHO, does not seek to convert or even persuade, but to present honestly and deeply and look at things from more than one angle. If we do not demonize the “other” but allow them to be human, made in the image of God and yet a marred image, while also presenting the “like us” as made in the image of God and yet a marred image, we will write something that will ultimately be more persuasive. Propaganda disguised as story is annoying, precisely because it’s so two-dimensional. I’m not saying that I do a perfect job at any of this, but that’s what I’m aiming for – to be true to my own convictions, but also to the complexity of people and situations.
Janet, I agree that good literature “does not seek to convert or even persuade,” but those are not the same as expressing an opinion. I think good literature takes a stand, gives a perspective on life, presents a truth. It doesn’t vacillate (unless the perspective is that vacillating is a good way to live) or say, Whatever (unless the perspective the writer takes is that Whatever is the right way to approach life). I’ve seen too often that the Christian writer, in reaction to the criticism of preachiness, over corrects and goes the way of “just entertainment,” or “theme is bad.”
Yes, stories should entertain, but they should also generate something more–personal reflection, perhaps, or enlightenment about the way of other cultures or of God or of humankind. Literature should say something important. Which the reader can agree with or disagree with. But one way or the other, they’ve been provoked to think about the issue. That, I think, is what we writers should hope for.
I’m afraid that in the modern world the Christian is going to be pressured, when writing for the secular audience, to include showing support for same-sex relationships and same-sex faux marriage to prove they are properly ‘non-hateful’. Look at how the world reacts to LDS writer Orson Scott Card, who supports traditional man-woman marriage. When a movie of his book ‘Ender’s Game’ came out, there were demands to boycott the movie for being based on a book by a ‘hateful’ author. And yet Card wrote a very beautiful story that included a gay man as a character.
Stories don’t have to be ‘preachy’ or hard-sell to include a moment, however slight, that touches on a Biblical view of marriage. And as for the flak we might get over it— we’ll probably soon get the same just for not celebrating gay marriage.
Sad to say, but I agree, Nissa. I think we are going to be pressured. Your example of the treatment of the Ender’s Game movie is a perfect example.
I hadn’t thought about the hostility we might face for not celebrating gay marriage. Great point, and also very likely true.
Generally I would fall under the camp of, “write the story. Forget about the ‘issue’.” I get quite tired of books that were written to make a point, and generally it is pretty obvious what that point is. This can happen in “Christian” or “non-Christian” books. I think if you are writing a book to “convince people same sex marriage is okay/not okay”, “show people that God loves them”, “present the Gospel”, etc you are starting at the wrong point. The story should come first, and we shouldn’t be afraid of showing truth in our story. I’m not sure I am explaining this properly. I guess our model is Jesus, who told many, many stories about ordinary things and events and people that everyone was familiar with. He talked about farmers planting seeds, people on dangerous journeys, sons who resented their fathers. And note that he didn’t explain the “point” of the story to most people. They were left to figure it out themselves. I’m sure there are lots of stories to be told about this issue, but let’s dig deep into the well and come out with stories about real people and real struggles and real pain. And let’s not be afraid of the truth in those stories, that it might take us somewhere uncomfortable. Ultimately the truth will set us free, right?
Lisa, from my perspective it seems as if there are two things at issue rather than one. First is the content and second is the execution. It sounds to me as if you are tired of poor execution. I am too. I don’t want the point of the story explained, nor do I like it when it is so obvious it hits you over the head without you having to mull it over at least a little bit.
But the problem is there that the author hasn’t handled his work with any kind of finesse or subtlety. That he has something to say is not the problem. It’s how he executed what he had to say.
I actually believe, though I’ve done no studies to prove it, that when an author doesn’t have a clear something to say, that’s when the work is shallow. It’s hard to put in something deep and complex if it’s not fully integrated into the story. It’s pretty hard to fully integrate something into the story if it’s something that crops up as if by accident.
Of course story needs to be natural and the theme needs to arise from the struggles of the characters, but to do so well—to weave the theme into the story with proper foreshadowing and just the right amount of dialogue or internal monologue—doesn’t just happen. It takes planning, either pre-planning or planned revision to strengthen ideas where necessary.
I think your example of Jesus’s parables is spot on—but Jesus knew exactly what His point was in each of the stories. Some, His audience didn’t get. Others, His listeners understood so clearly they took offense because they saw themselves in the stories. The point isn’t how the audience reacted. The point is what Jesus was doing in the stories. Each one carried a truth He wanted to put before His audience, and that’s precisely what we as writers should be doing too. With proper execution. 😉
Phoenix and Nissa, I would be curious about your recommendations about what to do (if anything) in response to this comment from a professing Christian (shared below at the risk of giving him/her undue attention, or else spreading the false notion). This comment was also written elsewhere, in response to Phoenix’s remarks above.
This makes me sad. I think it’s awesome to hear of a Christian committed to obeying Christ, no matter the cost. Jesus said we are to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily, and follow Him. I think it’s a great testimony to others to say, I believe God and want to obey Him, so I’m living His way, not my own way.
I wonder if the individual above would say to an abuser the same thing he said to/about Phoenix—you don’t really have to struggle against your nature; just do what you’d like to do in the moment. This kind of skewed morality is a sign of the age, I think.
Sorry for the slow response, I haven’t been watching.
I had to go back and read what I posted earlier, but I still don’t see what could be construed as “falsely tormenting” myself. I have struggles and things that I need to deal with, but so does every other Christian aiming to be more like Jesus day by day. Some people have SSA, some have anger issues, some struggle with gossip or idolatry or any number of things.
He/she is right, “tormenting” yourself is the wrong way to go about it. The other wrong way is to dive head first into something the bible explicitly condemns. The right way is to understand that the sin is not in the desire or temptation, but in acting upon it and then lean into the God who knows our thoughts and struggles and loves us in spite of them.
I know that this person is suggesting that I should just “embrace what I am” or however they want to word it. Been there. Done that. Bought the shirt. I was miserable.
Phoenix, I would also suggest, in conjunction with what you said about all of us faced with sin-struggles, that the culture isn’t likely to give the “embrace what you are” line to behaviors agreed upon as despicable. Who says to a serial murderer, “Just embrace who you are”? Or to a pedophile or to a liar or a gossip or a glutton? We really don’t condone behaviors we think are sinful. Rather, the culture no longer agrees with God’s word about homosexuality, and consequently the “sin” tag is being/has been removed.
We in the Church who believe Gods word to be authoritative and true need to hold the line, as you clearly are, and lean into God (love that phrase!) for the strength to turn from our natural proclivities, not embrace them.
In response to the question of how we might address this issue in stories without being preachy … perhaps rather than poking at homosexuality directly, it would be more effective to write stories that explore and challenge some of the big assumptions that underlie the acceptance of homosexuality. These could include the following:
*It’s okay to do whatever you want if your actions don’t have an obvious victim.
*Love for another person justifies anything.
*Love for someone can only be fully culminated in a romantic and/or sexual relationship.
A story whose themes examine these ideas and show their downsides would not automatically be placed in the “anti-love” ghetto, because the concepts are broad enough that it would not be a direct attack on same-sex relationships. However, any sufficiently thoughtful person should be able to see how the concepts apply to same-sex relationships. Obscure allegory whose point might be completely missed would not be required.
What an excellent comment, WOM. I think you’re right on. We don’t have to, and probably shouldn’t (because it would be too on point and therefore perceived as preachy) put marriage front and center in our stories. I do agree with some that showing healthy marriages, without commentary, is possible and even desirable. But you’ve shown how we can write with greater depth—we don’t focus on the external behavior but the internal attitudes which lend support to the lifestyle.
I also really like the three that you suggested as examples. So important that Christians, armed with the Truth, don’t let those lies stand in our culture. They will have a snowball effect that will lead us farther away from God than even same-sex marriage.
I think that even if an author’s works may only help a certain demographic, we should still write because only reaching a few people is better than reaching none.
The way I have been trying to approach stories is to just follow the character’s lives, and their lives illustrate not only why a certain thing may be right, but to also illustrate the pros and cons on each side. I think a story is a little stronger when it can acknowledge weaknesses of the author’s ideal and address them. One of my main projects could be taken as pro life and addressing some possible issues with science, but the story will probably not directly talk about these things. Instead there is a mother and daughter family unit fracturing, and the mother wondering why she risked everything to bear and protect a child that endangered her and angered her much of the time. I don’t plan on making that too easy or simple a question, because I want to show some aspects of why someone shouldn’t kill their unborn child simply because the child will end up being trouble or an inconvenience. Here, the weakness/con being shown would be that letting an unborn child live may cause a lot of inconvenience and turmoil, and without showing that a story can’t be a good exploration of why a child’s life is worth acknowledging regardless.
Another thing authors should consider may be character diversity and depth. Sometimes authors only go into depth with characters that share the author’s beliefs, perhaps even depicting most of their characters with opposite beliefs as evil or stupid. Someone might, for instance, show an abortion doctor as a sadistic mad scientist and not have any other pro choice chars. I think it is better for an author to paint a full spectrum of characters with as much depth and understanding as possible, that way people will have a harder time claiming the author is ignorant and that way the author can use the character’s circumstances to show the merits of the belief system they hold to.
I think, in many ways at least, it’s more important than ever to address homosexuality either directly or indirectly through fiction. There are so many more issues to figure out, like how we should all live and handle the intricacies this new law brings up, and showing people that disagreeing wih homosexuality doesn’t automatically make someone evil, hateful or ignorant.
I think what you’re seeing here may be more a Protestant problem, than a specifically Christian problem (speaking as someone who supports gay rights, but is rather disinterested in this whole cultural battle at the current moment). I’ve seen plenty of Catholic novels over the years that have critiqued homosexuality in either negative or ambivalent terms and yet have been impressive works of art. My guess is the same is true for the Orthodox Church and possibly for Anglicans as well (the one Protestant exception). I think its entirely theoretically possible to write a novel that is opposed to gay rights and yet is well written. I think the problem a lot of secular readers have with evangelical fiction in this regard is simply the whole question of the suspension of disbelief. LGBT characters seldom have rational motivations in evangelical novels, whether portrayed positively or negatively. Also, they tend to fall in a number of cliched gay character stereotypes, which I’m not saying is or is not morally objectionable, but is certainly problematic in terms of constructing believable LGBT characters. I think there’s a huge contrast here with Catholic fiction, where I usually find gay characters’ motivations to be more understandable and not so distant from the LGBT people I’ve actually met in real life. I don’t know that this is even entirely evangelical writers’ fault. I think the evangelical fiction market has always demanded that gay characters act in certain prescribed ways. A good example of this, if getting a bit old now, is Spenser Hughes’s Lambda Conspiracy. Shaunti Feldhahn’s fiction tends to stray into bizarro territory when it comes to depiction of gay men and women as well.
It’ll be interesting to see, too, how Christian sci-fi in the future will handle scientific “debates” concerning homosexuality. Personally, if I was writing from a position opposed to gay rights, I think I would present the “cures” offered in such novels in either totally spiritualistic or pastoral counseling terms. The old reparative therapy standby has been so roundly debunked (yes, I know about the Yarhouse study, but since it took the APA less than a paragraph to point out the 10 significant flaws with that study, I just don’t think its worth time arguing about) that it just isn’t of much value preserving in my opinion. By contrast, I think evangelical authors would probably be better served looking at the “curative” parts of these novels in terms of pastoral counseling, which cannot be debunked, because it cannot be meaningfully scientifically tested in the first place (I don’t exactly mean that as high praise).
Again, don’t mean offense here to either evangelicals or LGBT people. I’m just trying to offer a hopefully detached viewpoint about how gay characters could be more plausibly portrayed in evangelical fiction, regardless of authors’ political leanings.