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Christian Fiction and “The New Edgy”

So a while back, I joined a group for lovers of “edgy Christian fiction.” But I was disappointed. You see, unless you were a nun, a schoolmarm, or Mrs. Grundythe group really wasn’t very edgy.

That’s when it hit me: The term “edgy” means different things for different people.

Take last month’s “conversation” regarding author Eric Wilson’s challenge to readers and writers of Christian fiction. My post at Novel Journey garnered not a few comments, one of which was from literary agent Chip MacGregor. For the record, I enjoy Chip’s blog and appreciate his candor. Nevertheless, I was underwhelmed by his comments regarding that post and replied:

“…as one who reads both CBA and general market books, I just haven’t found these ‘edgy’ CBA books people keep talking about. (And if someone cites Francine Rivers again in this regard, I’m gonna kick my dog.) You say, ‘The fact is, the market calls for both edgy AND safe books. CBA provides both.’ I dunno. These books might be ‘edgy’ in relation to CBA standards, but as someone who works in the construction field and reads pretty widely, they really aren’t. “

Chip responded:

“Francine – edgy? Ha! I love Francine, but she’s not what I’d consider edgy. A selection: Read Lisa Samson, Charles Martin, Gina Holmes, Claudia Mair Burney, Stephen James, Mary DeMuth, Mark Bertrand’s “Back on Murder.” That should get you started.”

Uh, well… I have read some of those authors, and know others who’ve read the rest. The consensus? NOT EDGY.  Don’t misunderstand me. This is not meant to suggest that those novelists aren’t excellent writers. They are! But if those authors are representative of the best in “edgy” Christian fiction, then my contention stands. When Christians talk about “edgy” fiction, they mean two different things.

Which is why my “edgy” is your “obscene.”

To be “edgy,” there must be an “edge,” a “boundary,” a “demarcation.” In that sense, the term “edgy Christian fiction” reaffirms our “boundaries.” But in order to really be “edgy,” a Christian novel must push — even cross — those boundaries. Problem is, they don’t.

The Christian books that deal with “edgy” topics — rape, incest, adultery, addiction, lust, etc. — do so behind a scrim of safety. In other words, you can write a book about rape. You just can’t be explicit. You can write a book about a foul-mouthed racist. You just can’t actually show him being a foul-mouthed racist. You can write a book about a conflicted porn star. Just spare us the specifics.

We are taught as writers to SHOW not TELL. But if you’re a Christian author, that doesn’t always apply. You see, SHOWING certain things can get you into trouble. We don’t need to know what specific female body part your antagonist is staring at. We don’t need to hear the epithets being hurled at the black boy. We don’t need to see the drunken father actually touching his daughter in the tool shed. Apparently, TELLING has its advantages. In this way, “Edgy” Christian fiction has come to mean writing ABOUT difficult subjects, without actually going into detail.

That’s the “new edgy.”

Hey, everyone has to draw a line somewhere. Some people just draw the line at different places. The Christian publishing industry happens to draw the line more conservatively than my tastes. Heck, a lot of people do.

But as someone who spent 11 years in the ministry, I think our PG worldview is flat outta touch.  For instance, once I counseled a man who had committed bestiality. How does one approach a situation like that? Or do we just never talk about it? Another man was addicted to masturbation, to the point where he bloodied himself. Then there was a woman who performed weird sexual rituals for her husband. She was a new Christian and he threatened to shoot her if she stopped. Along the way, there were drug addicts, self-mutilators, incest victims, and serial adulterers. And the list goes on. The funny thing is, the average church-goer had no idea.  And would rather keep it that way.

Which is probably why the “new edgy” just seems so… tame.

To my wife, a steak with any trace of pink in it is “raw.” To me, the bloodier the better. Likewise, to some readers of Christian fiction, any trace of language or sex is “edgy.” But to me, if it’s not “raw,” it’s over-cooked.

* * *

So do you think some Christian fiction is genuinely “edgy”? Do you agree that the term is relative? Do you think Christian fiction can get any “edgier” and still remain “Christian”? And do you think it’s possible to remain true to a story without sometimes showing explicit elements?

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{ 90 comments… add one }
  • Kathleen Valentine April 20, 2011, 6:56 AM

    This is a very interesting discussion — I’m sorry I did not discover this site sooner. Ever since I published my novel, “Each Angel Burns” I have been wondering whether it is “Christian” or not. I’ve been pleased by some of the reviews I’ve gotten from people who say that they are not Christian (in my case Catholic) and felt the novel opened their eyes to aspects of our Faith they didn’t know about. So I’m a little curious as to what actually constitutes”Christian” fiction — does the book have to adhere to certain standards (like all contemporary romance novels MUST have an HEA – happily ever after – ending). Can some of the characters use foul language and behave in highly un-Christian ways?

    I was impressed by the list of things you dealt with as a counselor — any one of those could be the basis of a fascinating book. As a fiction writer my primary interest has always been writing about a good person caught in a bad situation — that dynamic interests me more than anything. But is it Christian? I don’t know.

  • V August 10, 2011, 10:26 AM

    I found this article after searching for “Christion fiction that doesn’t suck” on Google. I am so tired of Christian fiction – it’s so tame, lame, and boring. I will read through the comments to see if anyone has any good suggestions. I like a good story (“edgy” – whatever). It’s not like I love blood and guts and sex and rock n roll (even though, I do) – but to me, Christian fiction is just bland; it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • Stu Jones December 25, 2011, 4:23 PM

      V – It cracks me up that you really searched for “Christian fiction that doesn’t suck” – I feel your pain. It’s also the reason I published a work that I spent the last few years hammering out.

      This is a book that definitely gravitates to the “grittier” side of things. It now resides in a strange unmarketable state because of it’s duality. On one hand it has strong Christian themes of faith, purpose, and redemption and on the other there is graphic violence, some profanity and an implied rape(it is post-apocalyptic action adventure afterall).

      For me the desire to include this difficult material is due to one of the hats that I wear: my “real” job as a police officer. Unfortunately I have been subjected to an overdose of the worst that humanity(and life) has to offer, so for me to only see the sunny side of things is unrealistic.

      That being said my preference is to see the realism of the situation – the way I see it everyday – not sugar coated and turned into something less tangible. Unfortunately this is what I feel that many Christian writers do. Sugar coat. The subsequent triumph of the protagonist(and ultimately the Cross) becomes terribly muted due to the watering down of sin, evil, and conflict.

      To each his own, and I respect each believer’s right to guard their hearts how they choose. Its just my preference because its what I know. It seems to me that it takes experiencing that true darkness and the sinfulness of human nature for the triumph of the light to have the impact that it should.

      If you’re interested – my book is Through the Fury to the Dawn and it’s everything you want in a “Christian book”. No Fluff. Seriously. And the best part – its only 99. cents for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, ect…

      http://www.amazon.com/Through-Fury-Dawn-ebook/dp/B005ZJJP20/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1324854885&sr=8-2

      http://www.actionofpurpose.com

      @ Mike – Thanks for getting this started. It’s definitely a topic that needs to be talked about.

      Cheers!

  • Pola Muzyka March 26, 2012, 8:00 AM

    This is amazingly right on.

    The world may be surprised to read edgy books that refer to Christ as deliverer. However, they won’t even read Christian books because we have a reputation of writing vanilla–writing for a righteous Christian audience with vanilla problems. We ignore what the world is going through, their fears, anguishes, and lusts. The righteous don’t need entertainment. They need to get a jolt and realize what’s going on before their descendents completely turn from Christ.

    Christians may be shocked to read the truth. But we can’t remain silent any longer. The only way Jesus and his disciples got through to some of his listeners is by straight speaking about murder, demons, incest, and other subjects Christians of today won’t even acknowledge. But Jesus and his disciples were blunt. They spoke of perpetual murder, sexual sins, witchcraft and the like to turn hearts from sin.

    Instead we just go along with everything and turn it into vanilla. We need to speak boldly to the world. We need to touch them at the root of their sins.

    So Mike, Any recommendation for getting a good audience for the real edge in Christian fiction?

    Keep on keeping truth alive.
    Pola

  • Beth Steury March 26, 2012, 1:46 PM

    What publishers are more likely to consider subject matter and writing that pushes and possibly steps over the line of more traditional Christian? I know many are veering into the paranormal, a genre some readers/authors consider far from Christian. But what about other issues? I’m writing very candidly about abstinence–or rather the lack of it–and ‘second chance virginity’ among Christian teenagers in long-term relationships. And as it does in real life, abortion, birth control and STDs show up as well. Well-received by beta readers and critiques by Christian authors doesn’t mean a publisher will take a chance. Please don’t tell me self-publishing is the only chance! Okay, if that’s what you think, you can tell me…

  • J.Z. Howard October 14, 2014, 7:52 PM

    Hey Mike,

    When it comes to edgy, you have a clone — me. Both as a reader and as a writer, I agree that the traditional Christian PG worldview “is flat outta touch.” You nailed it when you pointed out “you can write a book ABOUT rape. You just can’t be explicit. You can write a book ABOUT a conflicted porn star. Just spare us the specifics.” So totally true.

    I’m going to look more closely thru your body of work and pick one of your novels that speaks to me. Myself? After spending five years writing my “M. Duran-edgy” Christian novel, All of Me Wants All of You, I’ve just discovered the specific genre I was aiming for the whole time — and a soul mate to boot. Your sensibilities ring true, man.

    Thanks for having the balls to put it so clearly into words.

  • Nickolaus Pacione August 7, 2015, 12:27 PM

    It’s not strong horror without the profanity; you have to let them see the f**king bullethole and the dead with their eyes open gazing into the abyss. I wonder what the faith community would make of my guys over the year or even me for that matter because I was doing uncensored since 1997; the very first adult horror story I did at 19 I was addressing church burnings. When I was 23 I was addressing mental illness and eventually wrote about my nightmares and what not.

  • Nickolaus Pacione August 7, 2015, 12:28 PM

    It’s not strong horror without the profanity; you have to let them see the fucking bullethole and the dead with their eyes open gazing into the abyss. I wonder what the faith community would make of my guys over the year or even me for that matter because I was doing uncensored since 1997; the very first adult horror story I did at 19 I was addressing church burnings. When I was 23 I was addressing mental illness and eventually wrote about my nightmares and what not.

  • Kris August 13, 2015, 1:40 PM

    Try the new 2015 edgy!
    Edgychristianfiction.com
    Or check out my cussing, drinking, Sex and the City meets God novel, Big Toe People on Amazon by Kristine Kohut.

  • Mi November 5, 2015, 1:54 AM

    Let me ask you this…why are you asking us to verify you’re obvious obsession with the profane? Have you become so flooded with the negative aspects of people’s lives in your ministry that you wish you could live like them? Why?
    Isn’t your life that you have been blessed with good enough? Does thou covet thy neighbor’s suffering as some kind of self punishment? What have you done wrong? Would you want someone to write all those details out about you, or if your kids or spouse went through a horrible experience…would you want some fetish author describing it so detailed and crude? ….Jesus said “Speak the Truth Always, but speak it with love”
    I don’t think over intense or overly detailed is loving towards the victim at all.

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