Friday, October 26, 2012

Fighting for Christ-Centered Christian Fiction

(A note to the reader, whether a writer or no: this post is something that's been on my heart for a long time, so I'd appreciate if you read it, and I'd love hearing your thoughts. I may be repeating myself in many ways, but I think it's a message worth repeating.)

I have been struggling with something for a quite a while. For a long time, I've been resolved to present Christian fiction that is clean, and leaves you feeling clean. In many ways, I feel that this resolution is contrary to other Christian fiction books out there. Ted Dekker comes to mind, and Travis Thrasher. As I've said many times (and I'm likely to say it many times more), fiction that is too dark leaves the reader feeling as if they've waded through muck, and it'll take a long scrubbing to get them clean again. Thus, I want to write something that cleans the reader instead of dirtying them.

I've resolved that for myself, yes. But the question is, where is the uncrossable line for any Christian writer? I believe there is one, a line that Christian writers sometimes cross in portraying depravity as too depraved, and failing to equally portray goodness. But many Christian fiction writers seem to think that there is a relativism in reading novels; if a book is “too much” for you it simply means that it's your own tastes that's the problem. Some people can handle more than the others; it's the “weaker faith” thing. What was clean and unclean food in New Testament times is the equivalent of clean and unclean books in modern day....right?

Some time ago I read a book called Avalon Falls by L. B. Graham, who wrote the excellent Christian fantasy saga The Binding of the Blade. I had read the sample (which was compelling) and convinced my sister to buy the Kindle edition, which was only $2.99.

That book once more brought these questions to my mind, not because of how good it was, but because I was surprised at how bad it was. Not in plot or character or anything, no. Stylistically it was fine, even great in spots, and certainly the first ten percent was good enough to get us to buy it.

But the content in the book, and the way it was portrayed, was almost shocking, especially after reading Graham's squeaky-clean Binding of the Blade series. There was cursing, sexual content (albeit addressed from afar, not in POV, and tactfully brief), and the scenes of two gruesome murders that could have used a lot less description. The main character was a non-Christian and the Christian themes of the book were kept at an arm's length.

In short, Graham did what I earlier described as “portraying depravity as too depraved”. In doing this, he also failed to balance it out. The rather poetic theme of the book (Avalon Falls; that is, even holy isles like the mythical Avalon have fallen) was far overshadowed by the grim mountain of human sin that had been built before it.

As I finished the book, I felt that I had wasted my time and sullied my mind. Such content from non-Christians I might have expected; but from a Christian author?

There are many times where I feel like giving up, but what carries me through is the fact that, even though mankind seems hopelessly fallen and that sometimes there doesn't seem to be a single honest person in this entire country, Christ can break through the darkness. Our depravity is expected, because mankind has fallen. But when I find this darkness in a Christian book, what am I supposed to think?

Doubtless it will be said that Avalon Falls, and books like it, are meant for non-Christian audiences. I'm sure the theme of the book may be somewhat evangelistic in that sense. But nevertheless, you do not feed a poisoned man poison. How will someone want the light if all you keep giving them is the assurance of their own darkness?

The weight of Avalon Falls has been weighing on my mind all night long. I deeply respect L. B. Graham for his dedication to his craft and to Christ, and I hope that the two-dollar royalty that he gained from our purchase of his book goes to a good purpose. But nevertheless, I feel that Avalon Falls, and books like it, have missed the mark. Christ has called us to something more.

Like I've said, after reading Avalon Falls, I felt down, almost depressed. As I'm wont to do when I have something on my mind, I wandered around and did nothing in particular for some time. Eventually my wandering led me to my Bible, and as soon as I started reading I felt as if a cloud had lifted from my mind. Here's what I read:

“May our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and by His grace gave us eternal encouragement and good hope, encourage your hearts and strengthen you in every good deed and word.” (2 Thessalonians 2:16)

Even if the Bible never outright says not to write fiction that is too “dark”, and even seems to support the fiction relativists at times, I believe that the more we read the Bible, the brighter the light will shine in our writing. How can we think such thoughts, after all, if we believe that Christ himself will encourage our hearts and strengthen us in every good deed and even in our writing – our words?

Is there to be only light in fiction, then? By no means! Darkness can make the light brighter; but our job is to use that darkness only to enhance the light, not to let it “overwhelm” the light. My own novel deals with difficult subjects, but the difference is that the darkness only exists to glorify the light, just as it does in real life. In books like Avalon Falls, the author made the mistake of letting their own light go dim.

So what are we to do? We need to fight for Christ-centered Christian fiction – and better yet, write it.

The path of the New Testament is not to expose all of the bad deeds of humanity so that we all know how depraved we really are, but to let the light shine so blindingly bright that it not only burns out the bad deeds but allows the good deeds to grow. Christ has given us a righteousness from God, and He has paid with His blood; let us not waste it! May our light shine before men, so that their evil deeds look like straw before the everlasting glory of Christ!

Let it be an example to us, then. We cannot fight fire with fire. Fire consumes, but water may put out the fire, and feed the green things that grow. Words are powerful and precious; we cannot waste them!

Will we allow our words to describe the things that tarnish the mind and weigh down the heart, or will we use them to spur other Christians on toward love and good deeds? Will we not use them to put forth the gift of God – a righteousness apart from the law – to those who desperately need it?

As Christians, we are called to think about all of the things that are good – to hate what is evil, cling to what is good! We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Our minds have been renewed in Christ; our spirits are alive in Him – so why would we even think for a moment to write something that lets the darkness be greater than the light?

I charge you, Christian writer: do not waste your words. We have only a short time on this earth, and then we will give an account before God on what we have done on this earth. May we answer well on that day! May we say that we were not ashamed of the Gospel – and that we have done what He has called us to: to glorify His name. Whatever we do, we do it in the name of Christ: let us not dishonor that name above all names!

May glory be to God alone, and may Christ encourage your hearts and strengthen you as you act and as you write!


Varon said...

And once again, I'm your opposite. When I find Christian books that are darker or edgier like that, I'm relived. I find to many Christian books that are squeaky clean, and it conflicts with what I know reality is like. I'll read it, but it doesn't have quite the power of one that honestly portrays life.

Storyteller SilverLoom said...

Amen, Jake! I think it is true that writers have to be careful to be realistic, like Varon just said, but I share your frustration with Christian fiction. For me, it comes down to this: I want to read fiction that encourages me to be more like Jesus.

Of course, I have personal preferences about what is clean or unclean for me, but I think every Christian writer should look at their book and ask, "Does it glorify God?" If it doesn't, then it's not worth anything.

Jake said...

An honest portrayal of life is that Christ is going to conquer the evil, and that we as Christians are called to do the same. I've heard people say that dark Christian novels are "realistic", but according to the world, living a righteous life and loving your enemies and transforming lives isn't "realistic". As I've said, "Darkness can make the light brighter; but our job is to use that darkness only to enhance the light, not to let it “overwhelm” the light."

I have zero problems with books that are dark but still have a strong theme. What I have a problem with is books where the primary element is evil, darkness, etc.

To illuminate what is wrong and bad in society and then leave it unanswered is just as bad as a pessimist-atheist sci-fi novel (of which I have a cordial dislike). And I find that the closer I grow to Christ, the less I like the "dark" Christian fiction rampant with cursing, sexual content, and lack of spiritual life. Whether Christians like it or not, we are called to think about whatever is good, praiseworthy, etc.; and to read something is to think something. To read is to imagine, and there are some scenes in Christian fiction that I would rather leave unimagined...and unthought.

Abbey said...

I really like how you described the light of Christ. It does blindingly shine!
This little light of mine... I'm gonna let it shine!

Writer4Christ said...

I agree with you too, Jake!
The Bible is so refreshing in this age. If only Christians would show that same refreshment and hope and not fake squeaky clean writing just to be clean if their mind is filled with unclean things.
I myself am writing an allegory of the two very different worlds: God's Kingdom, and Man's Kingdom (which is dark and looks like nineteenth century London). I decided not to show too much of the dirtiness of the world, but just enough to show the contrast between Love and everything opposite. But I am also going to show the relationship between us and Him, who is so gentle and gentlemanly and yet fierce against evil. I hope many more devout Christians will write fiction, for the light within them will shine through.

Hannah Joy said...

Hm. This is a really deep subject, and I think one that I have struggled with.

Obviously, you cannot shy away from the dark and evil in this world. There is darkness because of the fall of man. There is darkness because the shadow of Satan fell over this world like a storm.

But there is also light--the extravagant light of Christ--that writers are to portray through their writing.

Christians are not going be uplifted by a novel that shows them perfection, because perfection is unreachable. Readers want heroes that they can look up to--that are good enough to look up to--but are also flawed and more reachable than Christ. Obviously, I'm not saying that we shouldn't strive to be like Christ in everything we do, but I also think that sometimes it gets to a point where it is discouraging to see such a high bar to try to reach up to. And when that happens, it is oftentimes that I find Jesus gives me heroes--flawed ones--that I can start with.

What I'm saying is, I often find when I read a really "squeaky-clean" book, I am left empty. The characters that are perfect throughout (or very, very close) are not relatable, do not seem real, and in the end do not make an impact on the reader. What does make an impact on the reader is characters that do wallow through the muck of the world, that push through flaws and imperfections to the end. Why? Because that is what we are fighting through, as Christians.

However, at the same time, we are striving to be good--and when there are characters that are too bad to relate to--we fall in the same rut. I don't believe in really dark Christian literature. Darkness without light at the end. But there is a point where we cannot ignore the darkness, or the reader will feel...misunderstood, perhaps? They will come out of the novel feeling empty because there was not something worth fighting for.

In the Bible it says, "This present darkness will fade..." Yes. What we are fighting for is the fading of the darkness. But in this present time there is darkness. And that is what we must fight THROUGH. (I don't mean to yell, I just can't figure out how to do italics on this thing, and I want to emphasize that.)

But I definitely agree with you that there is a point where there is too much darkness. We are not to fill ourselves with sin just because that is reality. There definitely IS a line, I think, but I also think it could be different for every reader--AND every writer.

Good post, Jake. Got me thinking. As usual. :-D

Hannah Joy said...

On another note, a few authors made this point, that I recently watched in a video of them talking about C.S. Lewis: That darkness is just plain more interesting than light. Evil is more interesting than Good simply because we can understand Evil, but we cannot fathom Good. Like, real Good. We can't understand that because we are imperfect. So it is a great challenge for us to write and read true Good, simply because we do not understand it and will not fully understand until we stand before THE Goodness in Jesus Christ.

This is not saying that we should only write about Evil. It is just a point I found really interesting because they went on to say (which I totally agree with) that C.S. Lewis tried to write Good. They were talking about, in particular, Ransom in That Hideous Strength (one of my favorite books). He was a Good character in many ways, so good that it was really hard to fathom his character. But at the same time, the character of Ransom was paired with the really imperfect characters of Jane and Mark. Anyway, just a thought. :-)

Charlotte / Starsinger said...

I think there is a fine line, I also feel empty after a "squeaky clean" book, but then I've read books by Christian authors which are dark, and no really good theme, but just a thin sugar-coating of Christianity to ofset the bitter, even sour, taste of the rest of the book.

But I also think that it is a difference of personalities, I feel satisfied when I can relate with a character, which generally happens with slightly darker books (which still have good themes and morals). But I also know people who end up more satisfied from the "squeaky clean" books.

I myself find it easier to write slightly darker characters, I can't write the ones that are cheerful and happy, but I also know people who can't write anything but happy and cheerful characters.

For me, I find that, like my cooking stlye of doing things to taste and ignoring the recipe, with my writing, I have trouble getting it clean, but not "squeaky clean" or "wishy-washy" as my mum would put it, but yet not too dark. Like me cooking, I have to experiment and taste with my writing, and like people have different senses of taste, some will like something and be satisfied, while others won't, I guess books are like that.

I'd better stop using food as an example, I'm making myself hungry :D Good post, it definately made me think quite a bit.

Child of God said...

Hi Jake,
I don't comment here often but this post speaks volumes and I do have something to say.

There are very few clean Christian writers and with your heart and love for God I know you can write some amazing Christian fiction that does not leave a person feeling tainted.

It is always wise to follow the Bible and to see how God tells His amazing story with excitement and yet no gore. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien are fantastic story tellers that get get depth and excitement without crossing the line into making evil look good. I am referring to the books not the movies as I think the movies portray evil as enticing.

This line must be broad and deep because there is no fine line between good and evil. It is either for God 100% or not.

Keep up the amazing work in the Kingdom of God. You are a gifted writer and your heart is in the right place. Honour God always and you cannot go wrong.