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Christian Novelist (and Publisher) Gets Unfairly Skewered at “The Christian Manifesto”

Last week, the popular Christian review site, The Christian Manifesto (TCM), published a book review that generated significant discussion and online chatter. Their fiction editor, Amy Drown, reviewed veteran Christian fiction novelist and Christy award winner Lisa Samson’s latest novel, A Thing of Beauty, concluding that it was worthy of only a half star (out of five). The half star, according to TCM’s own ratings, makes the book a “Waste of Time.” “Swearing and vulgar language” are cited as the primary reason for this downgrade. Amy writes in her review,Lisa-Samson

…as I opened the book and began reading, I instantly liked the author’s spunky, sarcastic writing voice. My hopes were high indeed.

But two pages in, the language began. Talk about jarring. Did a Christian fiction heroine really just say that she would kick someone’s a–??? I brushed it aside and kept reading, trying to get caught up in the story of this grouchy ex-movie star and her OCD hunt for a roommate. But then it happened again—this time someone saying they “didn’t give a d—.” It may have worked for Rhett Butler, but in a contemporary Christian novel?

And sadly, the language continued. I tried to make note in my Goodreads progress updates every time explicit language would jar me out of the story, but in the end, I literally couldn’t keep up with it all. Multiple uses of a–, d—, b—–d, and h—, as well as repeatedly taking the Lord’s name in vain. It reached a point where I seriously questioned whether this book was, in fact, published by Thomas Nelson. Maybe some Harper Collins intern responsible for posting the book on NetGalley and Amazon got the publisher information wrong, and it really is published by a different company in that umbrella organization? (bold mine)

Indeed, “expectations” became the primary theme of Amy’s critique. She concludes,

As a general rule, I hate to post public reviews that are negative. If I can’t honestly endorse a novel and recommend it to my friends, I prefer to say so quietly, directly, to either the publisher or the author. It’s not that I’m a prude or goody-two-shoes. Far from it! I actually enjoy a lot of secular fiction myself, and if this book had been released by a general market publisher to a general market audience, I would be giving it a 3-star review*. The writing was full of sass and attitude perfectly in keeping with its genre and subject matter, and the characters were unusual, if not altogether likable.

But this book wasn’t released in the general market. It is the product of a Christian publisher selling Christian fiction to Christian fans. And as such, knowing how many other Christian fiction fans trust this publisher’s name and reputation and may be tempted to pick up this intriguing-sounding story just as I was, I felt compelled to post a review to warn them as I wish someone had warned me. (bold mine)

Audience expectations are a legitimate thing. Contemporary Christian fiction audiences expect a certain product. This is true of any market. Amy is not wrong for acknowledging this and cautioning her audience. Nevertheless, expectations are where Amy, I, and many of her readers part ways.

I’ve come to believe that some of the expectations that drive and shape the Christian fiction industry are unhealthy, unbiblical, and very un-Christian. In fact, I see the exchange that occurred at TCM and the subsequent response of many authors, readers, and bloggers, as indicative of this growing divide in the Christian fiction reading community and a recognition that the standard we’ve come to judge Christian fiction by is skewed.

After following the discussions on the TCM website, my Facebook page, and several other places, two major questions surfaced about the review:

  1. Did the use of profanity deserve such a severe downgrade of the novel?
  2. Did characters actually say the phrase “God damn”?

In some readers’ minds, the use of profanity in a Christian novel does indeed significantly downgrade a novel.

Commenter Sarah wrote,

“…finding all of that language in a ‘Christian’ novel would definitely be a disappointment for me.”

Then there’s commenter Florence who wrote,

“Thank you for this balanced and honest review! I’ve long believed in the mission of TCM, that you don’t insulate yourselves so that we readers of Christian fiction will be safe from reading books will all that filthy language. You’ve reaffirmed my belief that my own expectations are what determine whether a work has beauty or merit, and I’m so grateful you warned me to stay away from this phony work of supposed Christian fiction. May God bless you for your stand and for your important public service!” (bold mine)

Lynda concluded,

“Some expectations should be a given for the Christian fiction market, and a novel free of language should be one we don’t have to question.”

The concern about including profanity in a book marketed to Christians is legitimate. It’s a debate worth having. But does the inclusion of profanity in a novel marketed to Christians immediately make it a “phony work of supposed Christian fiction”? This type of rhetoric does indeed reveal how central, how essential, the absence of profanity is to contemporary Christian fiction. It was a similar outrage that caused Lifeway to ban “The Blind Side” from their shelves. Even though the movie had a positive depiction of Christians and a redemptive conclusion, some language and a racial slur forced it to be deemed un-Christian. From my perspective, this type of reaction is kneejerk, insufficiently grounded in biblical precedent, and reveals an appalling lack of discernment, nuance, cultural savvy, and wisdom from evangelical consumers.

But that’s my opinion and, as I said, the profanity discussion in Christian fiction is indeed worth having.

The second question turned into the stickiest, and ultimately the reason why I chose to publish this post.

Amy cited the novel as “repeatedly taking the Lord’s name in vain.” So I asked for clarity — “Did characters actually say G-D often?” to which she replied, “Yes, they did. Repeatedly.” However, the author, Lisa Samson, specifically responded to this charge on my FB page saying, “There are unequivocally, absolutely no G-Ds in this book.” So I asked the reviewer again, this time: “Does the phrase “God d–n” appear in this book?” Here’s that exchange, my third comment on the TCM blog, and Amy’s response:



Needless to say, Amy’s response was very disappointing. After pressing the issue, her answer was, basically, that she couldn’t remember and that I should read the novel myself. So after going into detail about the amount of profanity in the book, referencing specific curse words, and emphasizing that by noting that the characters “repeatedly” used the Lord’s name in vain, the reviewer basically says she doesn’t exactly remember.

This was important, in my mind, because Amy’s main charge is the book’s language, capped off by the “repeated” taking of the Lord’s name in vain. As a Christian, the taking of the Lord’s name in vain would indeed be problematic, even shocking, for a Christian publisher to allow… especially regarding a book aimed at Christian audiences. Which makes the seeming obfuscation on Amy’s part concerning. For a reviewer representing a mainstream Christian magazine to claim this, while the author flatly denies it, is troublesome. If Ms. Samson’s novel “repeatedly takes the Lord’s name in vain,” I would share Amy Drown’s concern. But her inability to cite specifics and back up her central claims leads me to wonder if she was intentionally inflating charges and misrepresenting the book (the author and the publisher) to justify her denunciation of the novel.

After the three exchanges with the reviewer on the website, I finally contacted The Christian Manifesto with my concerns. That was Saturday, the 10th. I emailed their site and Messaged them on Facebook. I have not (as of today, the 16th) received any acknowledgement of my letter, my concerns, or return correspondence.

Very disappointing.

Since that dust-up, it has been encouraging to see so many other readers and writers step up to counter the TCM review. Like author Susie Finkbeiner who writes in her post Reading Lisa Samson:

Here’s the thing about this book: it’s very different from what one might expect from the “Christian” publishing world.

The characters in A Thing of Beauty are very human. A few of them are broken and in possession of quite a bit of baggage (literally and figuratively). There is no salvation message. No explicit mention of Christ or Christianity. People, there are CUSS WORDS in this book.

But you know what was there? Redemption. Community. People living selflessly to prop up somebody else. Love (all 4 kinds…if you’re a C.S. Lewis nut like me, you’ll know what they are). There’s a story of healing and forgiveness and reconciliation.

This book really is beautiful.

However, if you read “Christian” fiction as a means of isolating from the world…this isn’t your book. If you’re offended by hard words…move along, little doggy. If you want something fluffy (which is totally fine!)…pick another novel.

In her last paragraph, Susie hits the nail on its head and brings us back to the issue of expectations.

  • If you read Christian fiction as a means of isolating from the world… this isn’t your book.
  • If you’re offended by hard words…move along.
  • If you want something fluffy (which is totally fine!)…pick another novel.

But what you shouldn’t do is distribute ad hoc half-star reviews and inflate charges of profanity in order to make your case. Especially when your Mission statement promises blunt objectivity and cultural savvy tempered by a biblical worldview.

Of course, reading is a subjective experience. People will have wildly different opinions about the same book. Also, bad reviews are par for the course. My guess is that this isn’t the first half-star review Lisa Samson has received. And yes, maybe Thomas Nelson erred in not issuing some disclaimer. That’s a possibility. But even if they did, what won’t go away is the opinion of many Christian readers that the inclusion of profanity in a novel marketed to Christians immediately makes it a “phony work of supposed Christian fiction” and deems it a “Waste of Time.” This, my friends, is a perspective we would do well to continue to challenge.

*In Drown’s original post, she noted that if the book were published in the general market she would give it a “4-star review,” which was later edited (without mention) to “3-star review” after online response began.
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{ 62 comments… add one }
  • Kessie January 16, 2015, 6:52 AM

    Especially since the terrible words used aren’t that bad. I read her complaints thinking, “What, no F-bombs? All this fuss about the PG-rated words? We didn’t even get to the R rated ones!”

    I see worse language on Twitter all the time. :-p

    • Becky Minor January 16, 2015, 7:16 AM

      Hah, Kessie…that was my same thought. I guess there are folks who don’t watch any television or movies, because unless you’re watching stuff geared towards tweens, pretty much all those words will be there.

      When I read the original review, it was the version that had the “four star” assessment, so when Mike mentioned 3 stars, I scratched my head. Covertly editing that star rating down without comment to lessen the gap between the quality-depending-on-market is a sketchy practice, I think. 🙁

  • Randy Streu January 16, 2015, 6:54 AM

    Everything about that review left a bad taste in my mouth. From the blatant disregard for the page’s own mission statement (or whatever you’d call what they put in the “about” section at the bottom of the page) to the straight-up attack on what even the reviewer admits is, actually, a good and worthwhile read, I found it (the review), intellectually dishonest, pandering, and patronizing.

  • Katy McKenna January 16, 2015, 7:13 AM

    I just read your post to my husband, Mike. He said it’s too bad reviews of “Christian” books aren’t based on a bunch of categories. If they were, Amy could have rated Lisa’s book with stars for the overall story, stars for whether or not there was a salvation experience, the “bad” language, whether or not two unmarried characters spent the night in the same building, etc. Then an average of all the starred categories could be figured, and perhaps Lisa’s book might have merited 3.5 stars. Or 4. Instead of giving 1/2 star to a book because of one perceived fault, why not judge it as a whole and then add, for the sake of the reviewer’s readers, a comment that says, “My only complaint about this book is in regards to the swearing. Otherwise, I’d recommend it.” At any rate, I’ve ordered “A Thing of Beauty” and can’t wait to read it and add it to my collection of Lisa’s books. Thank you, Mike.

  • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 8:33 AM

    So…I don’t really have a problem with a review that is balancing expectations with what is delivered, especially if the expectations are clear at the outset. I will just say that the majority of CBA readers are still a conservative group and would be shocked and offended by this language in something marketed by a CBA house (and would probably return the book and/or give low reviews, whether G—D— is used or not). So this Christian Manifesto review is working to push the NON-conservative readers to buy the book, whereas those who would be offended by the language will stay away.

    I think it’s a matter of being sensitive of the CBA readership, many of whom ONLY purchase CBA-published books to avoid language/sexual scenarios. CBA publishers know the importance of meeting readers’ expectations (this is obvious when you submit a book to them) and if they know they are not going to do that, I feel it’s their responsibility to plug that book into a more ABA-oriented line or even use a ratings system.

    I am glad Lisa’s book is now hitting its demographic–largely BECAUSE OF this review. Yes, there are some Christian readers who are looking for realistic and edgy fiction, whether edgy in topic/genre/or language/situations. But those who are looking for edgy topics might not welcome edgy language, and vice versa. Matching a book to its reader demographic is so important and I feel the CM review was trying to do that. And it HAS done that.

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2015, 9:32 AM

      Heather, I don’t get the impression the reviewer’s intention was to “push the NON-conservative readers to buy the book” as much as it was to protect the status quo among traditional readers. Also, portraying the book in such a poor light, especially if the claims are overemphasized, potentially taints readers’ impression of both the author and the publisher. (In fact, I think one commenter on that review even said they would now be avoiding Thomas Nelson altogether.)

      • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 10:10 AM

        I agree that might not have been her intent to push non-conservatives to the book, but at the same time, it WAS obvious the reviewer was attempting to match the book to the right demographic, which I feel Thomas Nelson neglected to do.

        I would just think perhaps you should read the book, Mike, as Cathy West is doing, and honestly ask yourself if the majority of CBA readers would love the language. Again–it’s not an issue of how many G–Ds there are. For many Christians, F-bombs, “damn,” “hell,” and OMG are words they don’t use and don’t want to read in Christian fiction. Much of this might even be an East-coast (Bible belt)/West-coast thing. But I’m just saying to look at it from that point of view before blasting the reviewer for letting readers know what’s in the book. I didn’t feel she was overly harsh. CBA readers DO generally expect a heavy-handed message, as well, and she mentions how that was also not in the book. So for readers looking for more realistic fiction that isn’t preachy but incorporates cursing, they are going to migrate to this book. For those who aren’t looking for that, they won’t.

        I’m just not sure why this is an issue. When I reviewed The Telling (which you know I enjoyed!), I made sure to include that there were scarier elements that might not be for all readers. I have had my own books reviewed harshly due to elements in them that won’t please everyone. I just look at that as a helpful thing that steers the right readers to my book.

        • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 10:36 AM

          I would also add that I just skimmed the sample on Amazon and didn’t see any cursing. So that could be misleading to a buyer if there is such plentiful cursing inside. I will also add that Lisa Samson is a stellar writer and I love her style. 🙂

          • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:21 PM

            Here’s the thing: a novel should be judged as a novel. Did it work as a story for its genre (women’s fiction, romance, fantasy, mystery, literary).

            If it has things readers might be sensitive to, then you give warnings. That means you can give a novel 4 stars for sensitive characterization and good plotting and being a satisfying read, and yet give warnings for: sex scenes, swearing, violence, animal deaths, too much food pron, etc.

            There are all sorts of things that trigger or upset readers, and some of us when we review note it (gore, child abuse, rape scene, etc). But that book about rape or with a foul-mouthed character may be quite skillfully written and engaging.

            To give an audience a heads-up is valid, especially those of us who KNOW the CBA crowd is really narrow in what it accepts. Or we have animal lover friend who won’t read a novel where animal torture or killings or deaths by even accidents ensue. (For real, this has come up.)

            To make it look like a novel is total shit (ie “waste of time”) because it has things some readerships don’t like is unfair to the skill of a fiction author. This is my view, and I’m not God, but fiction should be judged AS FICTION, with appropriate readership warnings. This site is a Christian readership site, so they will point these things out, and justifiably so. But “waste of time” is pretty insulting.

            I suspect that Lisa’s depiction of people is more like the real world and CBA expectations more of a lie–Christians cuss and Christians screw around and Christians steal and Christians watch porn and Christians abuse power and Christians twist Scripture and Christians hate and Christians can be selfish and cruel and mean-spiritied. THAT is truth. And we will have all sorts of mess-ups until the Lord transforms us and the earth and makes his Kingdome finally come. But CBA wants us to think swearing is worse than any crime or sin a character might commit.

            Never mind that the character stole from his boss or lied to his wife or backslid or whatever. That’s find. But God forbid they say hell, damn, or shit. I will never get over how stupid that is. ::shrug:::

            But fighting this is a “waste of time.” Narrow boxes will remain narrow because that’s just how it is and how we are. We’ve decided saying “damn” and having people drink booze are unforgivable fiction sins. Praise be to God he isn’t that close-minded. (Don’t make me trot out the big penis quote from the prophets .:) )

            • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:24 PM

              As usual, I just hit submit and didn’t proof. Consider the typos born of my frantic typing part of my charm, would y’all? 😀

              • Iola January 29, 2015, 7:24 PM

                I’m waiting anxiously for your novel with food pron.

  • Johne Cook January 16, 2015, 8:47 AM

    I read the preview at Amazon – I like the spunky voice of the POV character and the language was ok with me. I rather like a little hard PG language – it feels like the world where I live. Justified is better for the language that it uses, and also better for not being hard R (with F-bombs and worse flying everywhere ala HBO / Showtime).

    The real sin (imo) of “A Thing of Beauty” is the Present Tense POV (but that’s a gripe for another time).

    • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 8:57 AM

      Oh no Johne! Don’t go hatin’ on first person POV! 😉 It’s my fave. But I think that just shows how we all have different tastes. I’m more likely to pick up a book written in 1st than 3rd, and I know for some, it’s totally opposite.

      • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 8:59 AM

        Oops and I can’t edit that extra remark. Regardless, whether 1st or present or both, that’s what I’m drawn to! 🙂

    • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 8:57 AM

      Oh no Johne! Don’t go hatin’ on present POV! 😉 It’s my fave. But I think that just shows how we all have different tastes. I’m more likely to pick up a book written in 1st present but I know for some it’s just the opposite.

      • Johne Cook January 16, 2015, 9:38 AM

        Heh – been there, couldn’t edit that. 😉

        I just think it’s fascinating that I am /far/ more bothered by Present Tense POV than I am that people in books talk the way they talk in life, especially if the salty language is, by all accounts, relatively tame.

        (I realize the hypocrisy of my stand – I accept that language has changed (for better or worse) but can’t accept that tastes have changed from First Person / Third Person to Present Tense POV.)

  • Kat Heckenbach January 16, 2015, 9:44 AM

    I have a problem with a *book* being reviewed when the reviewer actually has issue with the *publisher.* Basically, the reviewer is mad that the book was allowed in the CBA market and is taking it out on the book and the author.

    I once read a book labeled as fantasy, but it read like a long, verbose historical, so I marked it down. Is that the author’s or book’s fault? Yeah, kinda, because it was *boring* and I wanted to warn other fantasy readers that it might not be their thing. But I didn’t mark it way down. In fact, I gave it three stars instead of the two I normally give books I don’t finish because I thought the writing was pretty good and would appeal to historical fiction fans.

    On another note, most Christians consider just about any use of God’s name as “in vain” if it’s not at the beginning of a prayer or referring to Him like, “God did…” or “God is…” In other words, someone in the book maybe said “Oh my God” rather than “God d—.” I have no idea–just mentioning it because the assumption seems to be made that “in vain” must be God d— specifically.

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2015, 9:59 AM

      Kat, great point about the reviewer being mad at the publisher or the author. Amy, the reviewer here, is clear that her concern lies more with the editor (least that’s how I read it). The problem, however, is that she does seem to downgrade the book because of it. And your point about what some consider “taking the Lord’s name in vain” is exactly why I pressed the reviewer and asked twice whether the phrase G-D was actually used.

    • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:26 PM

      Brilliant point. Her expectations were of TN…she should give TN a half-star.

  • Deborah January 16, 2015, 9:51 AM

    I was going to read this book already because I DO love Lisa’s books but honestly anytime the conservative readers get in a hoopla it makes me want to read the book EVEN MORE.

    The funny thing is…I was reading the other day a tamer Christian fiction book and there was the use of the work “jackass” in it. Again published by a traditional Christian publisher. And the word was used as a curse word. But there was not a single mention of it in any of the reviews on Amazon or Goodreads. The Christian manifesto review doesn’t mention it at all. I am not offended by that word but I was just surprised that not a single person other than myself seemed to have picked it up.

    So who knows. Maybe damn is a worse word than calling someone a jackass.

  • Cathy West January 16, 2015, 9:56 AM

    Hey Mike,
    I get it. I’ve argued for the de-sanitization of CBA fiction for quite some time. But I have to say I’m feeling a little torn on this one. Curious bunny that I am, I ordered Lisa’s book as soon as it was available. At first I thought I’d make a note of all the words that caught my attention because you wouldn’t normally see them in Christian fiction. I’m a little over halfway through now, and I’ve given up marking them. There are a lot. The story in and of itself is great so far, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it plays out.
    I think we need to be careful how we argue this. While I’m all for ‘realistic’ writing, I am very aware that as a CBA author, I do feel there is a line, spoken or unspoken, and for most CBA readers, I’d have to say this book jumps way over it. As you say, it’s all about expectations. For myself or for you or some of our mutual friends who advocate for more ‘freedom of expression’ in fiction, if you will, (because I hate the term edgy), I’d call this book ground-breaking. Some will call it earth-shaking and probably want to burn it. So, should there even be a line within CBA? I mean, if we’re going to accept some profanity, why not all of it? Why not write descriptive sex scenes? You see where I’m going, right? It’s potentially a slippery slope. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.
    There will always be that pocket of readers who will look at a book like this and focus only on everything they think shouldn’t be there, ignoring the story itself. I’d go as far as to say some readers will proclaim Ms. Samson needs to have a ‘come to Jesus’ moment. And then they’ll light into the publisher. There aren’t many reviews up yet, but they’re going to be interesting.
    In light of the new authors I’m seeing within CBA of late, authors who tell it like it is and seem to be getting away with it, (shocking, I know), I’m wondering if this isn’t the beginning of a new brand of ‘Christian’ fiction. Reality fiction perhaps? Should it come with a warning? Be on a shelf of its own? There are going to be readers who will want nothing to do with it, and that’s fine. There are plenty of books out there to make them happy. On the other hand, there will be readers who see books like A Thing of Beauty, as a breath of fresh air. And who knows how God is going to work through that?
    I feel almost unable to comment here in the way I’d like because I haven’t finished the book yet, but these are just my thoughts for now, having read all the discussion that took place last week. I want to say why can’t we all just get along…but…I think it’s clear that when it comes to what is considered ‘acceptable’ within the boundaries of CBA, there will always be disagreement. But at the end of the day, every author must answer for themselves, what the purpose of their writing is and who they want to reach with it. Those answers will no doubt be different for each of us. The thing is, we’re all on the same side, at least we should be. Some of us will stay in safe little boxes while some of us will venture forth into previously unexplored territory. We’ll write about God in different ways just as we worship Him in different ways. And I think He’s okay with that. My hope is that there will be room enough for us all, because, in my experience, judgement and criticism and condemnation amongst folks supposedly working to accomplish the same goal do nothing but weaken the impact, if not destroy it entirely.
    Just my thoughts. Thanks for the space and the opportunity to think some more on this.

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2015, 10:15 AM

      Good word, Cathy. I think the debate / discussion about where the lines should be drawn in our art is EXACTLY the discussion we should be having. The problem is that more fundamentalist rules have ruled roost and a new breed of publisher, writer, and reader is toeing the line… if not intentionally crossing it.

      And as for working together and being on the same team… Amen. However, I don’t perceive fellow Christian writers and readers — mainly the ones in the more traditionalist camp — consider me a fellow soldier. I know for a fact that some consider me an enemy of a good cause, namely “clean” fiction.

      • Johne Cook January 16, 2015, 11:35 AM

        I just wish adherents of clean fiction wouldn’t denigrate adherents of edgier fiction. It’s still art for the purpose of telling a story that might change a life.

        • Lauren January 16, 2015, 12:39 PM

          I agree that a rating that low is unnecessarily petty and harsh, but a review is just a personal opinion. Everyone has a right to an opinion. We don’t have to agree (or take offense). A full spectrum of reviews help us make an informed decision based on both the good and the “bad.” Then we can make a call based on our own convictions. I don’t think that’s unfair. Changing the number of stars later, though … yes, unfair.

        • Lauren January 16, 2015, 1:05 PM

          It might change the life of a non-Christian … but they probably won’t be reading Christian books. Edgy is fine and has its readership (and they won’t care about the review in question). I’m just not convinced it has a place in a “Christian” category. It would have more of a chance of being life-changing in a secular category.

          • Cathy West January 16, 2015, 2:48 PM

            Lauren, I’ve thought that too. Which is why I wonder if we aren’t going to see more and more books published with a ‘faith message’ that is not hit-you-over-the-head, but more it’s there, take it or leave it, (which I know some have issue with), become crossover fiction. I hope so! Yes, I agree there are those authors who write for the choir because the choir wants to hear what they have to say, but if nobody ever reaches beyond that…well…that would be sad. And wrong.

        • Cathy West January 16, 2015, 2:39 PM

          Very true, Johne. I think we can have respect for everyone in the industry no matter what we write or read…

    • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:28 PM

      Since Ms. Samson has left writing, the CBA readership can take a relieved breath, I guess. I don’t know if this is the last book slated to be pubbed, but it may be.

      If she returns to fiction, she should go ABA. Skip the CBA altogether. Or self-publish. She simply is not going to toe the “scrub away reality” line that CBA readers expect.

  • Lauren January 16, 2015, 10:35 AM

    Maybe I’m unusual, but realism (or worldly accuracy) isn’t a priority for me when choosing books. I want to be either entertained, edified or educated by my reading material–or even better, all of the above. I get realism everyday. Christian books can be an escape from that. Before I became a Christian, I swore with the worst of them. I did a 180 and prefer not to fill my mind with profanity when I don’t have to. I can overlook them and forgive them when dealing with non-Christian friends, but are they really necessary in a Christian book??? I haven’t read this book. After what I’ve heard here, I have to say I’m not tantalized by the controversy. I’ll probably just pass. I haven’t read a book yet that couldn’t have done without swearing. You can creatively convey snarky without it. Fair or unfair, reviewers should give their honest opinion.

    • Johne Cook January 16, 2015, 11:39 AM

      “Fair or unfair, reviewers should give their honest opinion.”

      I agree that reviewers should give an honest opinion but they must be fair about it to be credible. My problem is with what Mike uncovered, making things up and attributing untruths to the book as part of an argument against buying it. That’s lying pure and simple and Christians must have nothing to do with that.

      • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:29 PM

        If there is no G-D in the book (and if Lisa says so, I’m bound to believe it, since she is the WRITER), then the reviewer lied.



        Sin, right?

        • D.M. Dutcher January 16, 2015, 1:43 PM

          It depends if she reviewed a final copy of the work though. Pre-release copies are not final ones, and to be sure we’d need to get our hands on one. We used to get them frequently when I worked at Borders, and they always would say “this is not the final product.”

          • Mirtika January 20, 2015, 2:01 PM

            Another reader who read it after this article confirms there is no G-D.

            And, actually, so what? I may never, ever utter a G-D, but people do. All the time. Around me. On the street, restaurants, malls. If a character who is not a believer and who would realistically say that says that, that is still not a sin.

            Just as a character stabbing another one is not a sin. It’s fictional. If I stab you, then okay, that’s a sin.

  • E. Stephen Burnett January 16, 2015, 12:07 PM

    From further in the comments by our well-meaning reviewer:

    I think we can all agree CBA is idealistic… but isn’t that why we read it? To read what the world CAN be?

    This part gives away another series of hidden assumptions: that a world without certain words — that is, a world characterized primarily by absence of Something rather than Presence of Someone — is a better/perfect world we ought to be anticipating.

    But that is not a perfect world the Bible promises. Instead Scripture promises a world of adventure where God’s presence is the chiefmost attraction. And until such a world, when we are ministering in this groaning age, it is plainly unhelpful and can even become self-deceptive for us to pretend that a sentimentalized environment is a better world.

    • Mirtika January 16, 2015, 12:30 PM

      The AMEN corner goes wild.

    • R.J. Anderson January 17, 2015, 5:18 PM

      Ah, the Thomas Kinkade school of literature. In which we all gaze mistily at a pink-tinged, lantern-lit cottage of a sort that has never existed in this world.

      • Mirtika January 20, 2015, 2:02 PM

        With hardly any people of color. Cuz that’s an ideal world for some. 😀

  • Iola January 16, 2015, 12:55 PM

    My NetGalley edition of this book has 12 instance of the word d— (well, 8 d– and 4 d–ed). No God d—. Not one. Finding that took less than the time it took me to read the article. Now I’ll look for h— etc while I read the comments .

  • Iola January 16, 2015, 1:16 PM

    H— appears ten times. A– appears five times. B–dy three times.

    God appears 19 times, and none of them are Christian prayers, although a couple could be described as broader prayers. Are they taking the Lord’s name in vain? A couple.

    My opinion is that A Thing of Beauty is excellent. No, it’s not specifically Christian fiction (although one of the characters is clearly meant to be a representation of Jesus, showing God’s love to the main character who has a difficult personal history).

    My personal view is that HarperCollins Christian Publishing has two strong Christian fiction brands (Thomas Nelson and Zondervan). It would be to the benefit of the publisher, authors and readers if they differentiated those brands more, perhaps with Zondervan publishing the “traditional” Christian fiction (with obviously Christian characters and/or a conversion scene), and leaving “edgy” books to Thomas Nelson. That way readers would know what to expect from each brand.

    As it happens, my review of A Thing of Beauty posted today. It’s not that detailed, as to add detail about why Fia is messed up will basically spoil the plot. One thing I will say: there were deeper plot issues that the Christian Manifesto could have remarked on and taken offense at, like Fia’s part-time job.

    For those who want to take a look, it’s here: http://christianreads.blogspot.co.nz/2015/01/review-thing-of-beauty-by-lisa-samson.html

    • Heather Day Gilbert January 16, 2015, 1:36 PM

      Will check your review out, Iola. Always love getting your thoughts on books!

    • Cathy West January 16, 2015, 2:56 PM

      Totally agree, Iola! And maybe that is what will happen, I like the idea of differentiating because readers will then know which books to stay away from. Except there is something sad in that too. But I guess you just can’t please everybody, right? 🙂

    • Rebecca LuElla Miller January 19, 2015, 3:22 PM

      Iola, this is precisely why I think these complaints about language—one way or the other—have become so detrimental to readers. We are spending so much time worried about what we can’t say or what someone did say that we’re not thinking about the story and what that communicates. We’re missing the forest for the trees we are so distracted by.


      • Mirtika January 20, 2015, 2:04 PM

        The preoccupation with this sort of language says something way, way deeper about the state of American Christianity, if you ask me.

  • D.M. Dutcher January 16, 2015, 1:37 PM

    Normally man I agree with you 100% about the Christian market and it’s narrowness, but you’re not quoting the important part of the review imo:

    ” I never liked nor could relate to the heroine, Fiona, and while her character does go through a metamorphosis during the story, it has no spiritual significance whatsoever. Her story goals were little more than to clean her house and tell her mother off once and for all…

    … None of the characters in this book are Christians or believers of any kind; they express no faith in anything but themselves, and look to no one but each other for direction on how to live their lives. The final paragraphs of the book talk about “miracles,” trying to explain why some people might consider Fiona’s new-found happiness to be one (although she doesn’t believe it herself), but apart from that, there is nothing remotely spiritual about this book, let alone overtly Christian.”

    You’re looking at the profanity part, but if this is a reasonable description of the text, this is the real issue. I haven’t read the book nor am I likely to, so I won’t say. However, we just had the issue where the editorial teams of many Christian publishers worked on evangelical, progressive, and non-Christian religion books at all the same time. It wouldn’t really surprise me if they mismarketed it, or failed to get decent enough feedback to realize the issue the reviewer brought up.

    One would also point out that Rachel Held Evans had a similar flap with words and CBA people. It was made out that the inclusion of vagina was why it was not on shelves, but I think one would really point to her bizarre theology instead.

    This is a tough thing. I wish the book was in a genre I cared for, as I’d read it to see.

    • Mirtika January 20, 2015, 2:19 PM

      Yeah, I think if there is no Christian content, then the beef is with the editor, not the author. The author wrote what they wrote and a Christian house chose to buy it and market it to Christians. The issue is the publisher.

      And if one is going to criticize the theology, then get ready for all out war, since we stlil have how many thousands of denominations. A reviewer can judge the theology if the review site has a statement of faith that readers and reviewers adhere to and any book that violates that is not recommended. That makes sense, too (narrow focus). I assume this is to make sure they don’t give their kids something they consider heretical (Mormon, JW, Moonies, etc).

      But as an adult, see, I can read divergent Christian positions and not get my knickers in a twist. I can simply: disagree. 😀 And that does not reflect poor plotting, dialogue, conflict, prose styling, etc. The things that are elements of fiction.

      I can give four stars or five to a book with Mormon theology, and then warn readers in notes: This is a Mormon work. It reflects divergent religious elements from orthodox Christian faith. And there are three gory parts. No character is discernibly mainstream Christian, but there are good moral points made in situations where characters face dilemmas and temptations.

      There, reader is warned without totally minimizing someone’s labors and calling it “a waste of time.”

  • Karen P. January 16, 2015, 2:28 PM

    The film and music industries have rating systems which allow consumers to make a choice based on content. Why can’t Christian fiction? Let’s create a new genre classification for our work to represent a clear and distinct deviation from the usual Christian fare. It needs a catchy name. Suggestions anyone?

    • Karen P. January 21, 2015, 2:33 PM

      Here’s my idea: Let’s call it Christian EDGE
      D-Daring yet

      Now all we need is a logo! :c)

  • Calvin Moore January 16, 2015, 4:54 PM


    I read your piece here. Amy informed me of your back and forth and I was able to see some of it on the website. I never received a letter from you, so I apologize that I was not able to respond to your concerns. I DO know that we will be responding to some of your concerns in our next episode of The Jacob Sessions. However, if you would like to correspond with me offline, I am more than willing to engage your thoughts on the matter.

    I DO want to communicate to you and your readership that my initial concerns with your approach are to discredit the writer and our site rather than engage the content of the book, which is what Ms. Drown did. That is her job as a reviewer and she brings to that review her thoughts, intents, and sensibilities (as well as a format for the review). As an reviewer, writer, and editor, I very rarely engage negative feedback to a review. Reviews are technical and opinion at the same time. “If you love TobyMac, more power to you little kid. I can’t stand his music and here’s all the reasons why based on these basic criteria.” You have to have thick skin if you’re going to negatively review someone’s art. However, we keep our thoughts and opinions to the body of work, not to the person. I feel what you’ve done is attack Amy Drown’s character and ability as a reviewer rather than the content of the book directly. This is what has precipitated my response and believe she is owed an apology.

    As stated above, I’m more than willing to discuss this with you offline. I even think your concerns raised enough thoughts that amy and I have both agreed our next podcast topic needs to discuss it. And she and I don’t necessarily see eye-to-eye on the matter either! But, I wanted to address what I felt was an incorrect manner of engaging someone on something you disagree about.

    Calvin Moore
    Senior Editor
    The Christian Manifesto
    e: thechristianmanifesto@gmail.com

    • Shelley January 16, 2015, 5:38 PM

      I couldn’t agree with you more, Calvin. Whereas Drown’s review was focused on the content of the book being, in her opinion, inappropriate for the Christian market, your post here is little more than libel. Instead of reading the book for yourself and offering your own opinion, you’re just attacking Drown for hers. The TCM website makes it clear their reviews are all personal opinion:

      “In the end, though, whether good or bad, positive or negative, our reviews are personal opinions. A positive review is not an endorsement of a particular theology, nor is a negative review a put-down of an artist’s or author’s ministry.”

      Drown very courageously offered her personal opinion of this book — courageous because many Christian authors and readers do nothing but leave 5-star, lovey-dovey comments — but I can’t help but wonder why you yourself have not read this book and offered your own opinion. Instead, you waste valuable time and energy arguing that Drown’s opinion is somehow wrong. You are also, as another commenter here noted, clearly and intentionally overlooking the many other areas of the book which Drown critiqued in her review.

      Overall, you are entitled to your opinion, and Drown is entitled to hers. Rise above the pettiness represented in this post and agree to disagree.

      (For the record, I have read this book, and Drown’s claims about inappropriate content are, in my opinion, valid.)

      • Mike Duran January 17, 2015, 7:55 AM

        Shelley, I’m not attacking Amy for her opinion. I’m calling her out for not answering my question directly and for covertly changing her star rating. And for TCM not responding privately to my concerns.

        I said I agree with Amy about Thomas Nelson missing the CBA demographic. I said I agree with her that profanity is an issue and worth continued discussion. I said I agree with her that if the phrase “God d–n” appeared in the book, that would be an issue.

        However, after saying that the Lord’s name was taken “repeatedly,” a charge with the author categorically denied, Amy refused to clarify. She also lowered her initial rating from 4 to 3 stars without mentioning that, giving the appearance that her 1/2 rating wasn’t quite as drastic a downgrade.

        If these things aren’t a problem for you, OK. But they are for me.

        Before publishing this, I contacted The Christian Manifesto to seek some resolution or clarity. They returned neither my email or PM at Facebook.

        This is not about people having different opinions about books and/or profanity. It’s about the fiction reviewer of a mainstream Christian publication seemingly inflating charges and dodging clarification of those charges.

        • Christian January 17, 2015, 10:18 PM

          Amen, Mike. Amen!

    • Mike Duran January 16, 2015, 7:51 PM

      Thanks, Calvin. Calling you now.

  • Todd January 17, 2015, 7:13 AM

    This issue is the very reason I no longer desire to be a CBA marketed author and why I read very little Christian fiction now. I remember years ago there was a discussion of Ted Dekker’s novel Showdown and how unrealistic many found it because the bad guy in the book was the evil on steroids type and yet he never used an expletive once. The story was great but, to some readers, in the real world a guy like this simply wouldn’t have spoken as nicely as he did. I also recall a few years ago reading the debut novel by TL Hines and physically applauding when the main character used an expletive. The only one in the entire novel (published by Bethany House BTW). Why that reaction? Because give the same circumstances the character found himsel in I’d have cussed too.

    One commenter mentions the idea of a rating system. I’ve thought of this myself. I plan to self publish and only in ebook formats. Some of my stories will be more Christian themed than others and because of this very sensitivity to certain issues I’ve thought I’d include a rating system similar to the movies in my books.

    Lastly, I’ve gotta say, from this discussion, and others I’ve had, it’s clear to me I have a very different idea of what taking the Lord’s name in vain is than most. I can say that I’ve never read a Christian novel where the Lord’s name was used in vain. At least, in how I see it. Also, I didn’t see it mentioned or alluded to in this post or its comments yet. For me it’s much more serious than is usually implied in these kind of conversations.

  • Sue Jeffrey January 19, 2015, 11:40 PM

    Thanks for sharing this Mike. As Christians we need to a) overcome our small mindedness and b) show integrity in all we do (including reviewing). ‘A Thing Of Beauty’ sounds like just the kind of novel we Christians should be reading – and recommending to our friends – so that redemptive ideas can displace the darkness that’s in this world. About to go and download it NOW.

  • Calvin Moore January 21, 2015, 8:37 PM

    I’ve read a lot of negative thoughts here. As the Senior Editor of The Christian Manifesto, it is nothing I am not accustomed to. I’ve spoken with Mike offline and we have some understandings and some disagreements. This is the nature of the beast. We just recorded a podcast that discusses Christian culture and Christian products and how we view them. A lot has been said here that I think begs the question:

    What expectations do we have of something that is labeled as “Christian?” Someone suggested reviewing based on several layers of criteria. Amy did just that and arrived at her conclusion. Mike thinks it was a dishonest review and planned to get more hits. It was not. Amy would rather forget the episode and move on from in. In fact, she has reviewed many many many books at this point and not a single person in this thread has questioned her ability to fairly review a book based on any of the books she gave middle-of-the-road to high marks to. Regardless, when reviewing a Christian book, there is an added level of expectation not present in a review of an ABA book. So, it is not that this book was not given a fair shake. It was that it did not meet expectations. We even contacted the publisher prior to posting the review, just to make sure there hadn’t been a mistake made in editing and publishing. We received no word from them. Amy asked me whether it was a good thing to post the review of not. I let her know we are a review site, not a recommendation site, meaning we say what we like and do not like, rather than posting only glowing reviews of everything.

    I invite anyone with concerns about our site to contact me directly at thechristianmanifesto@gmail.com. I am open to dialogue, hearing your concerns, answering your questions, etc. We’ve been doing this nearly a decade now and a lot has changed around us. It’s hard to keep up. But, we faithfully write honest reviews and will continue to do so long into the future. It is appreciated by authors, artists, consumers, and advertisers. Still, I am open to anyone helping us make things better.

    Calvin Moore
    Senior Editor
    The Christian Manifesto

    • Mike Duran January 22, 2015, 6:04 AM

      Calvin, it was great talking to you and I appreciate your taking the time to make yourself available to me and others.

      My two main contentions and concerns about Amy’s review remain unaddressed.

      1.) She said the Lord’s name was taken — specifically “God damn” –“repeatedly” in the novel. The author, and other reviewers, have confirmed it was not. I have yet to see a retraction or clarification on this from TCM or the reviewer.

      2.) Amy changed her initial review from 4 to 3 stars AFTER online chatter began. She made no public mention of this and, at this stage, there has been no admission or clarification on this from TCM or the reviewer.

      Also, as I DID make attempts to contact TCM before posting this, some of this controversy may have been quelled had TCM had a better, more efficient contact system. Frankly, I find it somewhat concerning that my Private Message to TCM on your Facebook page was scrubbed and the primary Contact link on your website was incorrect.

      Though I have had no contact with Amy other than my three comments on her post, she has blocked me on Twitter. I also recently received a letter from a concerned author friend saying that Amy has made reference to the controversy on her Goodreads page saying, in part, “I’m personally being attacked by other so-called ‘Christian’ writers for daring to post a negative review of this book.” As Amy’s Goodreads page is private, I have no way of confirming the accuracy or inaccuracy of this comment. Needless to say, this is concerning if such public statements are being made in reference to Christian brothers or sisters.

      For the record, I DO NOT believe that Amy or anyone is less a Christian for eschewing the use of profanity in literature, film, or life. As I’ve said to you and in this post, profanity in Christian fiction is a debate worth having. Also, negative reviews are par for the course and reviewers are entitled to their opinions. Nevertheless, I abide by my initial concerns. As I concluded in my original post: “If Ms. Samson’s novel ‘repeatedly takes the Lord’s name in vain,’ I would share Amy Drown’s concern. But her inability to cite specifics and back up her central claims leads me to wonder if she was intentionally inflating charges and misrepresenting the book (the author and the publisher) to justify her denunciation of the novel.” Until there is a clarification or retraction of this, as well as the admission / explanation of the stealth change of star rating, I will maintain my concerns about this review.

      Once again, Calvin, I appreciate you taking the time to hear my concerns and to comment here. Blessings!

  • Calvin Moore January 22, 2015, 9:11 AM


    I do believe in our conversation I addressed you directly on the confusion of your question. You first asked if the book ever said “G-D.” Amy and I both took this to mean “God,” not “God damn.” This is where she responded in the affirmative. Then you clarified and she challenged you to read the book for yourself. There is no retraction necessary, as what she responded to was not clear. But, if you want further clarification, the book never says “God damn,” but it does take the Lord’s name in vain myriad times. “God damn” is not the only way that someone can take the LORD’s name in vain (in our cultural understanding of what that means). I hope this clarifies for you and your readers. No “god damn,” but plenty of misuses of the LORD’s name being taken in vain.

    Second, I DID address your second concern as well. You are upset about her changing a potential rating for a review that doesn’t even EXIST. She wrote a review with expectations for a book marketed to the CBA, not the ABA. She said she’d rate it differently if it had been written for the ABA. It is my understanding that he changing it from 4 to 3 was her noticing she had mistyped, so she changed it. Even if she HADN’T mistyped, no such review exists. So whether she’d have potentially given it 5 stars or 0 stars is completely meaningless. The fact is, it isn’t an ABA book, wasn’t reviewed as an ABA book, and should not have been reviewed as such.

    We have heard you on contact information and are working to change it accordingly. I have also provided my personal email on your thread and you choose to respond to us on Facebook instead. This is fine as it is a legitimate means of getting a hold of us. As I explained in our conversation, your message was removed accidentally and you and I went back and forth on the line to make sure I could see the message you sent. So, this is a non-issue at this point.

    I’m not sure how much more we can do to satisfy you. I’m not sure what answer we can give will satisfy you. That review has long since left the front page of the website. Many reviews have posted and you have not questioned a single one. We have moved on. You should too. It is your choice to remain questioning whether we meet our mission statement, whether Amy is the right person for the role of Fiction Editor and so on and so forth. I’m not attempting to be flippant and dismissive, but I cannot spend my entire day responding to your concerns, especially when I’ve already addressed them. Whether you ACCEPT my responses is a different issue, but they HAVE been addressed.

    I hope this finds you well.

    Calvin Moore
    Senior Editor
    The Christian Manifesto

    • Mike Duran January 22, 2015, 11:40 AM

      OK. We’ll leave it at that, Calvin. I appreciate the correspondence and pray that this moves us as individuals in our various industries forward. Thanks again!

  • Susie Finkbeiner January 24, 2015, 11:23 AM

    Hi, Mike. I’m glad that I was able to add a little balance to the discussion.

    I do think that the CBA is on a teeter-totter (particularly books releasing from Thomas Nelson/Zondervan). They’re approaching the space that dwells between CBA and ABA. Wouldn’t it be something if we saw some kind of bridge between the two markets. I believe there’s a market for it. Lisa’s novel would fit that need well.

  • Johnny Anonymous January 27, 2015, 8:26 AM

    If profanity makes something un-Christian, then the Bible is un-Christian.

    The Apostle Paul intentionally used swear words for effect:


  • Kiah March 25, 2015, 11:59 PM

    Great article Mike,
    It can be challenging trying to write within the ‘Christian fiction’ boundaries, while still trying to truthfully, and accurately, portray characters. I think Christian EDGE sounds like a good idea 🙂

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