If the recent discussion about “safe” vs. “edgy” Christian fiction at literary agent Rachelle Gardner‘s blog is any indication, the controversy is far from over. At this writing, her original post has received 32 comments, and the follow-up, 20-something. For the record, Rachelle is a straight shooter and I like her perspective on lotsa things. Nevertheless, the same ground tends be covered when this topic is broached and that particular discussion was no different.
Within Christian writers’ circles, the topic of “safe v. edgy” has a long, bloody history. I’ve launched my share of scuds and have the enemies to prove it. But nowadays I don’t expend too much energy in the debate, as it seems opinions have crystallized. In fact, the more I followed the thread at Rachelle’s site, the more I got the sense I was seeing the emergence of two camps. I’ll call them The Holiness Camp and The Honesty Camp.
- The Holiness Camp — These writers emphasize our separation from the world; we are saints and our conduct, values and entertainment should be categorically different from secular society. Law is their driving principle.
- The Honesty Camp — These writers emphasize our association with the world; we are sinners and sin takes on monstrous forms — even in believers! — which we must look at with unflinching candor and deep empathy. Grace is their driving principle.
It’s a simplistic division, granted. And, of course, it’s not to suggest that writers who emphasize holiness avoid honesty, or that those who value honesty are somehow unholy. But I think that classification accurately captures a polarization occurring within Christian publishing. There is a clear divide in how Christians see themselves and Christian Fiction.
Take for instance, the following comment which was left at Rachelle’s site:
The language we use matters to God and the simple explanation of Ephesians 5:4 is that God doesn’t want us using foul language in our writing. In pointing out the dangers of sin, we may end up covering some topics that parents will feel are above their children’s maturity level, but we should cover them in a safe way, showing that the sin is bad and restraining the use of our language (and our character’s language) to that which is shows us to be Christians.
The above sentiments are, I think, representative of many Christian authors. But I believe that last sentence is the most telling. The commenter suggests that we should cover potentially edgy topics “in a safe way, showing that the sin is bad and restraining the use of our language (and our character’s language) to that which shows us to be Christians” (emphasis mine).
There are some crucial assumptions in this man’s point, which I’ve taken the liberty to sum up thus:
- “God doesn’t want us using foul language in our writing”
- Our writing must “show us to be Christians”
- Therefore, writing that uses foul language does not show us to be Christians
As someone in the Other Camp, I see several flaws in this reasoning. First, to suggest that Ephesians 5:4 can be interpreted to mean “God doesn’t want us using foul language in our fiction writing” is a stretch. But even more critical is the assumption that our writing must “show us to be Christians.” Packaged in this suggestive premise is
- a preconception of what a Christian should be (e.g. one who doesn’t cuss), and
- a conviction that our writing is a tool for witnessing.
The points of contention in the “safe v. edgy” discussion are rarely about the quality of the craft. They’re about cultural preferences and codes of conduct (i.e. cussing, smoking, drinking, sex, etc.), and expectations about what Christian art should accomplish (i.e. glorify God, offer hope, offer an alternative, condemn sin, illustrate Scripture, etc.). The two camps hold fundamentally different views regarding what a Christian is and what their art should accomplish.
As someone who enjoys a good beer (Guinness, preferably), watches R-rated movies, thinks sex is a gift from God (for married couples, of course), is not bothered by tattoos, tongue studs or mohawks, occasionally utters an expletive, and worships God, the vigorous defense of “safe” fiction appears, at times, puritanical. The Holiness Camp, as I see it, is potentially cloistered in their own Geneva, drifting further from the world we’re called to influence, hedged in by their own “thou-shalt-nots.” Conversely, people in the Honesty Camp (like me) can be viewed as worldly, compromised, sellouts. Our liberalism regarding Christian Fiction is proportional to our moral laxness. We are so busy trying to engage the world that we have become like them. And thus, the standoff.
Though many suggest a balance between “safe” and “edgy” Christian Fiction, what’s at odds is our theology. The two camps hold fundamentally different conceptions about God, the world, and our relationship with it. It’s the same reason we have different Christian denominations.
And perhaps that’s the best way to see the CBA — as a denomination.
As long as we Christians define our witness in terms of Law — no cussing, smoking, drinking, dancing, or Goth gear — and see our fiction as a tool to perpetuate those values, we are destined for tension. Go ahead, call me carnal, worldy. But after all is said and done, the debate about Christian Fiction is not about writing at all — it’s about the nature of Christian witness.
Tags: Christian Fiction