December 7, 2008

SLICE OF PIE: WHAT YOU BELIEVE vs. WHAT YOU WRITE

What if my worst nightmare came true and a novel I’d written and gotten published inspired my church to excommunicate me – and excommunicate my wife because her sin was implicated by marriage?

This is exactly as terrifying as it sounds, though it happened to someone else. The entire incident made me look at my own writing more closely – as well as the state of the church and the publishing world…far more than I can cover in a simple SLICE OF PIE. So I’ll stick with one bit…

Several years ago, a short story of mine was published in a major children’s magazine and it included some strong language. The character was a high school kid who had no real contact with church. He used the language of the kids in the high school I teach in. Some friends of mine wondered about the use of the language and after I was done being defensive, I had to think about what I as a Christian, planned to do when I wrote about characters who were emphatically NOT. If I’m writing about high school students, do I have them use the language of high school students or do I edit it down?

In VICTORY OF FISTS, a novel I just finished writing, I have my high school characters use all “the words” except one. (I just couldn’t bring myself to have them say it so I’d have to write it.) My daughter, who writes and draws manga in which characters use strong language and commit violent acts, and I have talked about this. Neither one of us is aiming our work at the “Christian” market. In fact, both of us feel called to share the love of Christ with people who are not Christians. “Jesus talk” doesn’t work with them because it’s not a language they understand.

I am NOT bashing the Christian market! I love the work of Jan Karon, Randy Ingermanson, Bill Myers and Frank Peretti. It’s just not the market I’m called to reach. I have made a conscious decision to have my characters speak in ways that non-Christians speak and I make no apology for it. I don’t use strong language myself, but I know Christians who do. I don’t believe using strong language, have characters commit violence, writing about vampires, demons or aliens are SALVATION issues.

Paul is clear on this: “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, ‘This has been offered in sacrifice,’ then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake – the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God — even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.” I Corinthians 10:27-33 (emphasis mine)

4 comments:

William said...

For any fictional dialog, you always "edit it down," deciding what to leave out. That is, like, you don't, um, you know, include every word that--well, like real people talk when they're--you know--talking. That applies to the "naughty words" too. Ride the #5 bus (Minneapolis) regularly, and you'll quickly learn how mindlessly boring four-letter words can be. New writers often learn this the hard way. Once they discover they can write the forbidden words with impunity, they grossly overdo it until peers rein them in.
But the question for Christian writers and "forbidden" language and topics is more complex. The usual writing advice of "write what you feel" and "be authentic" is . . . not so much wrong as inadequate. All artists, writers included, have an obligation to tell the truth (at least as they see it). And sometimes that means writing about nasty things and using "impolite" words. Does that mean you must relate the entire truth, in every ugly and tedious detail, on every occasion? The question becomes not only "what should I leave out?" but "what must I leave in?" An example of misjudged politeness--one Christian historical novel I read was quite good, but at one point a pool of cynical, worldly reporters gets the news that Hitler has been appeased yet again. "Oh, for goodness sake!" one hardbitten jouranlist exclaims in disgust. Maybe that was the editor's fault, substituting a prissy oath for a real one, but it completely undermined the dramatic mood (I laughed).
Writers in both the Classical and explicitly Christian tradition have both seen writers/artists as having a high calling, an obligation to elevate (though there may be depression), to show beauty (though there may be extreme ugliness), to provide resolution and "catharsis." Christian artists look beyond catharsis (the classic Greek tragedy concept of purging or releasing emotions) towards edification--though they disagree on how this should be done. Today's audience is quickly repelled by any perceived "preachiness." (Possible point of argument--does today's SF tolerate atheist or pantheist preachiness better than it accepts overt Christianity?)The numerous postings on Tobias Buckell’s blog show divided opinion).
I do think Christian writers and artists face some problems from within the church. Here's a conversation I've had several times:
(Fellow Christian, puzzled) "So, this book you're writing--is it a Christian novel?"
(Me--fight down urge to answer "Not the way you mean it, no," in W.C. Fields voice) "Well, not exactly. It's more--that is--[taking coward's way out] it's written from a Christian perspective."
(Fellow Christian, doubtful) "Oh. I see."
There is a tendency to want (as C.S. Lewis put it) "more good little Christian books" rather than more good books by Christians. How to write the latter and not just the former is something I'm still puzzling out. There don't seem to be any easy, one-size-fits-all answers.
If you haven't read it, SHAM PEALS FOR REAL SWINE by Franky Schaeffer (son of Francis Schaeffer) is an extended "Irritating Essay" on what he calls the struggle between Truth and Pietism (not to be confused with actual piety) in Christianity. I disagree with some of his points, escpecially his over-emphasis on "Art for art's
sake," but he rasies many uncomfortable questions about what it means to be a "Christian artist." The book is out of print, so used book dealers or Amazon are the best bet for locating it. My promise: "Try it--you won't like it!"

DISCOVER CHURCH/GuyStewart said...

I gave up reading Frankie after reading his first book after his dad died.

As to the rest -- GOOD COMMENTS, ALL!

~brb said...

What if my worst nightmare came true and a novel I’d written and gotten published inspired my church to excommunicate me...?

Then you could become an Episcopalian. They'll accept *anybody*!

DISCOVER CHURCH/GuyStewart said...

*hee hee hee*...Now THAT made me giggle and evil giggle!