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The Real Divide in the Christian Fiction Debate

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:

  1. “God doesn’t want us using foul language in our writing”
  2. Our writing must “show us to be Christians”
  3. 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

  1. a preconception of what a Christian should be (e.g. one who doesn’t cuss), and
  2. 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.

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{ 10 comments… add one }
  • Rachelle June 4, 2008, 4:55 PM

    Couldn’t have said it better myself, Mike. I try to refrain from being too philosophical on my blog since it’s supposed to be mostly about how all this applies to “business.” But I’m in the same camp as you (okay, can’t stand Guiness but gotta have me a nice glass of merlot on a regular basis). I’ve never defined witness in terms of things like drinking or smoking. Looking into getting a tattoo also (so there). In any case, as it applies to the fiction I try to sell into CBA, I always have to be aware of both camps and try to provide reading material for everyone. Even if I don’t love it, I can see the value for some people.

  • Mike Duran June 4, 2008, 5:14 PM

    Rachelle, thanks so much for visiting! If agents are the “gatekeepers,” then it’s good to know that, at least one of them, drinks Merlot and sports a tattoo… unless Chip has one he ain’t telling us about.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 4, 2008, 7:04 PM

    Mike, an interesting discussion. I didn’t read any of the comments on the second day, and refrained from commenting the first day because I take issue with the idea that “safe” is avoiding four letter words but doesn’t put up any red flags for greed or selfishness or pride. I wanted to reference a particular YA book I just read a review about, one marketed as the Christian version of the Gossip Girls.

    Now there’s a discussion. Are we supposed to be producing cultural imitations?

    I could be wrong about this, but I think your idea that the CBA is a denomination is missing the point. If you’ve been in a CBA store recently, you’d have seen books with a good variety of denominational backing. Some, to me, are out right heresy. But here’s what they have in common. The book store buyers think they will sell in their stores.

    The worst of it is that these book stores are more and more large chains with no real idea of the differences in regions. Using my own genre as an example, I knew for some time that fantasy would sell well here in SoCal. It’s a region that doesn’t have a lot of knee-jerk reaction to dragons and other imaginative creatures.

    In addition, when I taught junior high, I knew how hungry parents were for good fiction for their teens, fiction that wouldn’t undermine the values they taught but fiction the kids would actually read!

    For years upon years, CBA claimed that fantasy wouldn’t sell and there was no market for YA. But suddenly there is. Now big name houses are signing up fantasy authors and starting YA lines. Why? Because the CBA “denomination” has changed? No, the execs who make the decisions now realize the people who frequent their stores won’t walk out. And in fact are looking for and asking about these books. In other words, it’s profitable.

    In my opinion, the biggest factor in the improvement in Christian fiction in the last five years is that publishers now have more outlets. They can get their books on the shelves of Borders and Walmart, so they don’t have to be as worried about what CBA stores say.

    But I’ll tell you, I think both positions you’ve portrayed are missing it. Honest is good. Holiness is good. After all, God is honest and He is holy. The problem is in not measuring those terms with Him but with some other standard.

    Becky

  • Heather June 4, 2008, 10:41 PM

    I didn’t leave a comment at Rachelle’s blog b/c, like you said, a huge debate was going on, and what’s another voice?
    But, like you, the interpretation of Eph. 4 bothered me. Ephesians 4 is about what builds the Church (and the people of) v. what cuts them down. Within this, “bless his heart” is more of a curse word.
    Cursing bothers some, and I understand that. For some, it bothers them b/c they’re trying to overcome a habit of cursing too much, so they have to be more legalistic at it (like creating any new habit needs some legalism to push through). For some, it sounds harsh. Both of these are legitimate. If you don’t want to read curse words, then don’t. Let’s continue to write books that fit these people.
    But to say that no CBA book will have a curse word b/c a certain group doesn’t want it seems ridiculous to me. Why can’t we sell both and let the buyer’s decide.
    Granted b/c of how CBA’s been defined, getting the group who’d appreciate the honest approach of a curse word on a navy ship into LifeWay may prove to be difficult. Reputations take a long time to achieve and a longer time to change (unless you’ve got some good gossip undergirding it), but considering how many people buy books via Amazon and B&N by word of mouth rather than Mardel’s displays, maybe it’s worth it.
    Stretching doesn’t mean abandoning one group. It means being able to serve more groups.

  • Mike Duran June 5, 2008, 2:53 AM

    Hey, Becky! Great comments, as usual. I agree that the notion of “safe” is skewed in our minds, which is why I said at Rachelle’s site that the concept needs defining in order for a level playing field. Part of the tension is that “safe” means different things to different people. I tend to interpret Christian writing in terms of intent rather than content. In other words, as long as I get the sense that the author is moving me toward the Truth, I’m not sidetracked by cursing, sex scenes, or pot smoking. But I think I’m in the minority.

    Perhaps a better way for me to phrase the “denomination” comment would be that the CBA is denomination-like. It’s a group united around specific beliefs and aims — in this case, morally conservative, evangelically-aimed. It may not have a headquarters or a figurehead, but it does have a clear agenda and values that its adherents share.

  • Kaci June 5, 2008, 7:51 PM

    I’m gonna say I mostly agree, Mike. Then I’ll add this: While I get your point, I wouldn’t use The Law when referring to smoking, drinking, and swearing — none of which are explicitly mentioned in the first five books of the OT we call the Law. I think we’d agree those things are additions to the Law, not the Law itself. And that Law and Grace are not at total odds with one another.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 5, 2008, 8:01 PM

    Perhaps a better way for me to phrase the “denomination” comment would be that the CBA is denomination-like. It’s a group united around specific beliefs and aims — in this case, morally conservative, evangelically-aimed. It may not have a headquarters or a figurehead, but it does have a clear agenda and values that its adherents share.

    Mike, people use CBA and ECPA interchangeably and I think there are more and more distinctions. The bookstores, as I see it, are willing to sell whatever they think their customers will buy. They are very protective of those customers, but besides books and junk targeting Evangelicals or conservatives, I’ve seen the Catholic shelf. And I mentioned that some of the books absolutely clash with middle of the road Evangelical doctrine. Are they courting a broader customer base? Possibly.

    ECPA houses, on the other hand, may have more or less restriction, depending on who owns them. For some, they have a mission statement that ties them to a purpose to serve Christ or the Evangelical Christian community. They won’t be publishing Catholic books. Others owned by bigger companies may. Orthodox? Or Universalist? Health and wealth? Sure, if it sells.

    But what about fiction? The stories that meet the mission statement requirements are changing. And “meeting the mission statement requirements” is often defined by the acquiring editors and those on the pub board. Who are also changing.

    Anyone who reads much Christian fiction—and I think you’ve said you don’t, Mike, and Rachelle sounds like she doesn’t read much beyond her clients’ work—knows that there isn’t a neat little pigeonhole as there once was.

    Perhaps this is why there were two camps you discerned from those comments. My concern is, in the process of change, are we moving in the direction of redemption and grace or in imitation, for the sake of sales?

    Becky

  • Mike Duran June 6, 2008, 12:34 AM

    Thanks for your comments, Kaci! I think you’re right that “Law and Grace are not at total odds with one another.” In the New Testament, Law operates, much as it did in the Old Testament, to point us to our need for a gracious Savior. But, even under Grace, there are still “laws” which we should apply. So there is a balance. But at the point “laws” become Law, and the basis for our standing with God becomes our own righteousness conduct, we veer away from N.T. Christianity. While the prohibition of cussing, drinking, smoking, dancing, etc, may not be O.T. Law, by emphasizing them as I think some do in the “safe v. edgy” debate, we make them into a law and potentially become legalistic in their enforcement. And, in that way, I happen to believe a certain degree of religious legalism is fueling this debate.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller June 6, 2008, 7:10 PM

    Don’t get me started on “edgy”! 🙂

    Becky

  • Rev Tony Breeden June 2, 2010, 7:49 AM

    Wow, am I in trouble!

    The sci-fi book I’m working on has characters smoking, cussing and wearing Goth gear. One of them sports long hair and wears heavy metal T-shirts. Come to think of it, some of them blow up stuff, kill people and steal. Oh, and a lot of them lie.

    Point being, if we’re describing sin, why are we so selective about it?

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