Toward A Better View Of ‘Icky Bits,’ Part 2

Aim for God’s glory and you will also get better art and maybe even “icky bits” in fiction.
on May 29, 2014 · 10 comments


About “Icky Bits” — sometimes-controversial story elements such as violence, swear words or sex that are usually foreign to Christian fiction — I could say plenty more.

Last week I said that icky-bits defenders can have shallow reasons for their defenses, or that they can react in cultural “fundamentalist” fashion in favor of Icky Bits, and that they can simplify the issue to “it’s between me and Jesus” while leaving out crucial truths such as the value of personal holiness and worship with other believers in Christ.

This week I could go on and argue further about how some defenses of Icky Bits are shallow, careless, or un-Biblical. Instead I think I’ll start with another angle:

Q: Let’s put Icky Bits into fiction and really stick it to the sentimentalist CBA types!

A. Let’s not be nearly so boring.

Seriously, I almost want to avoid this entire topic because so much cyber-ink has been shed about Icky Bits and the cyber-pens have become dull. The best “argument” for Icky Bits is to show how they are done in a fantastic, well-made story and to be kind to critics while doing it. A story made for that motive is interesting. A story made as reaction to a conservative Faction is dull. Besides, don’t we want to avoid endorsing “agenda fiction”?

Q: Yes! We need to talk about how We As Writers approach Icky Bits!

A. Let’s talk first about how we approach Icky Bits as readers.

If we skip to looking at the Icky Bits issues from the perspective of authors, we miss a step. I want to emphasize this mainly because I fight the impulse in myself — the impulse to try to be a Big Spiritual Fiction Leader and consider myself Arrived, having transcended the level of the proletariat reader who simply seeks great stories. We can’t assume we already mastered this basic reader-level stuff and have leveled up to debate it as master Jedi.

How have youas a reader come to appreciate Icky Bits? If you felt differently before, what Biblical arguments and support from stories changed your mind? I do believe it should be those two things that have primarily changed our minds on Icky Bits, rather than anger against a particular conservative Faction — anger that can lead to embracing the dark side.

Q: Fine then, let’s talk about how Icky Bits will help us share better stories with non-Christian readers!

A. This would also start the conversation much too late.

It’s actually a rather evangelical impulse to want to “use” fiction primarily for the cause of evangelism. If someone says they want ickier-bittier fiction to help non-Christian readers, I suggest they’re accepting this evangelical impulse and simply want to do it better. But does that not treat fiction primarily as a vehicle and not as “an end in itself”?1

Q: Okay, but I’m not worried about writing or evangelism; instead I simply want to share better Art by Christians with the world.

A. This is simply secularized “evangelism” without John 3:16.

Before you can be a writer, an evangelist, or an art enjoyer/sharer, what are you?

A human being.

A human being who loves stories.

A human being who was created to consciously worship and glorify God in all things.

Let’s avoid thinking about fiction and Icky Bits as writers, evangelists, art lovers, or leaders of any kind. First let’s decide the purpose of fiction as simple humans, or even as children.

I want to keep this viewpoint in the background of every discussion I have about fiction:

Q. What is man’s chief end?

A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

Q. So what is our chief end for enjoying fiction?

A. Fiction’s chief end is to help us glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

So if Icky Bits in fiction help us enjoy God better — “enjoying God” being defined the way God’s revealed Word to His people defines it — then great. That’s a far better path to Art.

And if Icky Bits in fiction also helps fiction take us on a journey and provoke thought about how reality truly is, about how lies may compare with truth or how ugliness compares with beauty, then great. This accomplishes evangelism but doesn’t treat fiction as a mere vehicle.

And if Icky Bits in fiction liberates aspiring authors to glorify God in an approaching-sinless way, which will in turn better “simulate” truth and beauty to readers, that’s also fantastic.

See — all along I have hoped not to avoid exploring Icky Bits as authors or evangelists or art-lovers, but simply to re-approach those secondary aims after a significant detour.

And I am afraid I will keep the detour open and keep waving my signs. As long as Christians are confused about this “chief end” of fiction, I feel I must always emphasize this basic truth here on SpecFaith and anywhere else. We can’t pretend we already agree on what fiction is meant to do and then talk about advanced stuff. We must first agree on that chief end.

Finally, my intent is not to levy guilt for supposed sin: You haven’t been discussing the “chief end of fiction” as much as I have. Instead I hope to ensure that, whatever we decide about Icky Bits, we seek to use them first for God’s glory and not for lesser goals such as writing or evangelism or Art. Yes, all those other goals are very good goals. But if readers, fans, or writers make those goals into their Chief Ends, I say they may be leaning toward idolatry — and they also cannot reach those lesser goals.

Aim for God’s glory and you will get great art, evangelism, and storytelling thrown in.

Aim for those lesser goals and you will get none.

  1. I use the phrase with a hidden meaning: “an end in itself” means that the action is sufficiently pleasurable to be righteous before the Lord without it needing to be a mere tool for some other function.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Matthias M. Hoefler says:

    I’m not so sure reactionary fiction is Automatically Bad. I’m sure it can be done poorly, but many of Paul’s letters are reacting to heresy of his day. You wouldn’t say his letters are bad letters because of this, would you?

    But I think I get what you’re saying. Too much reaction and you’ve got writing that reads like rebellion for rebellion’s sake.

    I’m coming into this discussion halfway, so I need your help. Please point me to some sort of summary statement most of us agree is foundational: If we want to say ‘enjoying God’ is “defined the way God’s revealed Word to His people defines it,” I need this question answered: What do we mean by that?

    • Thanks much, Mathias! I hope you were also able to read part 1 of this miniseries.

      If we want to say ‘enjoying God’ is “defined the way God’s revealed Word to His people defines it,” I need this question answered: What do we mean by that?

      Whew, that’s big.

      Among other articles here on SpecFaith, I try to explore the question here:

      The Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, Fiction Universes, and Everything

      Apart from that, I’ve found it very helpful to explore the issue as Desiring God Ministries often does, using the provocative but ultimately Biblical term “Christian hedonism.” Unlike John Piper and Co., though — they explore the question most often with a view toward church polity and overt missions efforts — I tend to apply the theme more specifically to questions of popular culture and fiction.

    • I’m not so sure reactionary fiction is Automatically Bad. I’m sure it can be done poorly, but many of Paul’s letters are reacting to heresy of his day. You wouldn’t say his letters are bad letters because of this, would you?

      I once started a long story on, mainly in response to a trend I’d seen and thought I could write better. I shamelessly asked someone I thought of as a great writer on the site to review; she told me she believed every story started as an argument. I’d never heard it articulated that way, but it made a lot of sense.

      Here’s the caveat to that statement: great stories start with an argument, but move beyond that to become true visions in their own right. For my particular story (which, to stop being cryptic and follow the rules of engagement as Stephen advocated, can be found at this link), I started out just trying to explore a story idea I’d seen a lot of other people use but never felt was done well. However, as I delved into it and really tried to do the premise justice, it opened my eyes to many more issues than I’d originally considered. Suddenly the story wasn’t merely “What if X had happened?’ but “How will Y gain greater self understanding?” and “How will Z approach this situation while remaining true to his character?’ and “Could gracious, I never realized those characters could be so important.”

      Starting with an argument is fine; it’s moving beyond that separates concepts from stories. Otherwise we’re going into the world of parody (which has its own rules, and if done well can be great fun, and when done poorly can be awful).

  2. Personally, I’m most susceptible to the approach represented by Question Four. I tend to focus, both in my own writing and in my reading decisions, much more on the artistic quality of what’s in front of me than on whether I’m consciously glorifying God by either writing or reading it (there are, of course, some glaring exceptions to this general rule — such as my desire to avoid both the fabrication of egregious misrepresentations about God and the ingestion of “icky bits” which I know will exacerbate my sinful proclivities). But while I agree that such an approach has the potential to turn Art into an idol, I also think it can be totally legit. My reasoning goes like this.

    In a world (our world) where truth, goodness, and beauty comprise the means of God-glorification through the creation and enjoyment of Art, not all people are able to express each element equally. Truth is easy to communicate. All you need to do is learn your facts from systematic theology textbooks, then regurgitate them into a fantastical (or sci-fi, or steampunk, or whatever) setting. There, done! Truthful speculative fiction. Ain’t it awesome?

    Well, no. Not really. Because if the truth you’ve chosen to represent is the depravity of man, then your story’s devoid of goodness. “Okay, okay — so we’ll make the protag a good guy, make him nuanced and empathetic and show him grappling with moral quandaries and weave in some thematic purpose behind it all. That’ll do the trick! Now we’ve got truthfully good speculative fiction. Ain’t it a beautiful thing?”

    Well … no. Not yet. And here’s where we separate the men from the boys (and the women from the girls). For while truth is easy — and goodness slightly less easy — to communicate in fiction, beauty is dang hard. That’s because it’s experienced in the heart, not the head. It can’t be taught or told. While I can say to someone that “This is true,” or “This is good,” I cannot convincingly claim that “This is beautiful.” They must feel the beauty themselves. It must sneak up on them at unawares, circumnavigate their cynicism, and surprise them with joy. This is no easy feat, yet it’s essential to any story. I refuse to read anything I don’t find beautiful.

    And that’s why I think it’s legit to focus more on “better Art” than on all the other stuff. Because it’s harder than the other stuff. Because, if not prioritized, it won’t happen at all.

    • As a friend suggested to me on FB, is there anything wrong with saying or believing “art for art’s sake”? Here’s a version of what I wrote over there.

      I think we agree and are simply phrasing it differently (which is why I hit Like).

      My only issue with the phrase “art for art’s sake” is that it can, and has, been used to promote a very secular view of Art. It divorces the beauty and truth of great Art from the original beauties and truths of the greatest Artist. It’s evident when a cyber-acquaintance of mine writes on The Gospel Coalition about “Godzilla” and God and gets all kinds of snarky comments asking, “What hath Godzilla to do with Christ?” For example, one commentator snarked:

      I’m waiting for all the comedians to come out and start doing bits/parodies on the ridiculousness of Christians wasting their (obvious too much) time bringing out the gospel parallels of EVERY movie—Frozen, Hunger Games, Godzilla….Lego Movie next?? Come on! Just go enjoy the flippin movie! Blog about something else or better yet nothing else. Tired.

      I’m sympathetic to condemnations of how Christians get over-excited about “finding Gospel parallels” in everything — not because they don’t exist but because it’s like going to the quarry to count gravel. But this response’s false secular/sacred approach — “just go enjoy the flippin’ movie!” — is nonsensical for the Christian if the Christian believes this is God’s world and we’re all just living in it.

      But if by “art for art’s sake” we simply mean that art is good and doesn’t need to “be explained” beyond the fact that it exists — with the implicit assumption that the art-partaker knows the purpose of art is to draw him nearer to intrinsic beauty/truth/goodness and the invisible Greatest Artist — then I have no objection to “art for art’s sake.” I would simply suggest it’s clearer if we say “Art for God’s sake,” and then clarify that we do not mean art should drive you consciously to some religious activiity or even direct thoughts of Christ to be worth our time and enjoyment.

  3. notleia says:

    I’ve lost your point in your verbiage. Is incorporating icky bits in hopes of making better story a good thing or a supposed concession to the world or what?

    • bainespal says:

      You mean, you’re not enough of a relativistic postmodern to accept that there might not be any clear answers, or that the competing claims can’t all be true in some way?

      • notleia says:

        I am enough of one, but Burnett doesn’t seem to be enough of one to be comfortable outright saying so. He’s flopping around it like one of those “walking” catfish.

  4. Julie D says:

    Precisely what “icky bits” are being portrayed in this picture?

  5. dmdutcher says:

    Thing is, most people who are writing Christian spec fic are already doing it for God. It’s not like they are doing it for the money or the fame, or even as a part-time source of income or a hobby. It’s a  lot easier to just write secular stuff if that’s the issue. So you’re reminding them to do what they are already doing, in a way.

    I’m sure there’s a need to talk about the healthy balance of self and God in doing such. God doesn’t dictate creative works to us first hand, but neither is it entirely all us. I don’t think that this can be distilled into a one size fits all rule, but is something each writer finds the balance by themselves. You’re being too general I think, when it’s a specific topic.

What do you think?