Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Wrong Question by Terry Burns

I just watched a really interesting discussion on the American Christian Fiction Writers loop. The topic was “how much Christian content must be in a Christian book?” The comments were varied and as I said, quite interesting.

I just contributed once, I said to me it depended on the publisher. Some want very strong faith content, want it right from the start of the book, others not so much. And I said if there was no overt faith message that we need good clean books for the whole family too.

I can go with that comment, but is it the wrong question? Shouldn’t we be talking about how much questionable content can go in a book and still be a Christian book? How much profanity or sexual situations or the like? My answer would basically be the same. Some publishers have zero tolerance of these items while others will allow some if it is not pronounced. And in the mainstream market . . . it often seems to be pervasive.

But how about the author? Where should we come down on this? How much of this content are we willing to incorporate into our writing and why?

It’s often intentional in the movies to get the right rating. The rating the producers think will draw the biggest crowd. Never mind that the highest grossing movies of all time are Disney and other family movies. Movies were all family fare for a long time then Rhett Butler let loose with one single curse-word in Gone With the Wind and now a majority of the movies are so laden with language and content that my wife and I won’t watch them.

How does that happen? How does our society reach a point where not only our standards are under attack but Christianity itself? It’s because Satan’s strongest attribute is his patience. We’d never stand still for much of what we are faced with now if it had just been sprung on us all at once. But it came slowly, like water dripping, or like the proverbial frog sitting in that warm pan of water with the temperature going up so slowly that he never jumps out and is boiled to death.

Rhett Butler’s use of profanity condoned further use and the ensuing further use was oh so gradual. Now it is commonplace and we are told that we can’t achieve realism without it. Drip… drip… drip. It’s the same way in our society and our laws, and the same in our books. For me it’s not about what I consider to be appropriate but what I am willing to add my name to the list of those who condone it by my writing… or by what I choose to represent.

I don’t think it is such a sacrifice holding the line. I know b ad men use bad language and bad situations occur in real life, but I believe a good writer can show what they want whether it be someone cursing or other non-family-friendly content without actually using the words or showing the action in a graphic manner. And if done well I don’t believe it dilutes the power of the scene. But it does take better writing skills.

Never mind what the publisher will or won’t accept, what are we willing to attach our name to? Because when Satan lures us over that line, just a tiny bit, we become one who is condoning it.


Sandra Ardoin said...

Great point, Terry. I especially liked the line about Satan's knack for patience. We're seeing this same "drip...drip...drip" in all parts of society, and it has not been for our good.

Linda Glaz said...

I agree with Sandra. It's his patience. He just sits back and knows we will eventually come around to his thinking. It's sad but true. We see that in every aspect of our lives. And I love the drip, drip, example. It's like water that can carve rock by the tiny, continual drip over time. And Satan carves us as well. Carves us into tiny pieces until there's nothing left to recognize as a Christian man or woman.

Nancy said...

Good post, Terry. I think the question I must answer for my own writing is this: how much of my faith should inform my writing? And the answer is easier said than done. I want my life, my writing, everything about me to point people to my gracious and loving God . . . however that happens. It could be a kind word at Walmart; it could be discussing a passage of Scripture with my trainer at the gym (yes, we do that); it could be extending grace to the grace-less. Bottom line: I want to be fully Christian, not simply enough for here or there.

Adam Blumer said...

So true, Terry. Amen and amen. I'm in total agreement. Thanks for articulating this. I'm also weary of these talks about how close to the world we authors can get and still keep our novels "Christian." We're missing the point. What pleases God should be first in our thoughts, and He's already told us what pleases Him. Maybe it's time for many to get back to the Good Book and review what God expects from His ambassadors to this world. We're supposed to be showing a striking contrast only a true gospel transformation can bring. If we're just like the world, why should they care? We're just the same ol' thing. If interested, I've been writing a series of articles defending clean speech in Christian fiction based on biblical absolutes. These go right along with your post. Check out the first of seven articles (so far) here:

Rory C. keel said...

"I don;t think it is a sacrifice holding the line." excellent words!
It is our faith that should keep us writing in a godly way, showing the light through words and not conforming to the darkness of the world.

KatieC said...

I couldn't agree more!

Terry Burns said...

Thanks for the comments - and does that mean I don't try to work in the mainstream market? Not at all, but I don't park my convictions at the door to do it. As I said we need good family fiction whether there is any faith content in it or not. I like to place books on the other side of the fence but I won't accept content I don't approve of in order to do it. Am I giving up some good book deals that way? Absolutely, but if I lend my name to something by representing it I am condoning the content in the book. Nuff said?

Jennifer said...

That's the point I had to come to in my writing. What did I want to attach my name to? Though I never wanted to add cursing or "scenes", I sometimes encounter people who imply that writing without a strong faith message isn't right. I enjoy writing good family stories and faith-filled stories, and I believe I can do both...thanks for your insight!

Mishael Austin Witty said...

What are we willing to attach our name to? ...

I love this question--oh, how I love this question! But I'm not liking my answer to it much. :-(

If you click on the link I've attached to this comment, you'll be taken to the "About Me" section of my website, where it states (somewhat proudly, I'm ashamed to say) that I've even edited an LGBT romance (which made me INTENSELY uncomfortable, all the way through it)...all for the sake of "improving the written word" and, of course, conveniently making a buck.

Wow...Just, wow! Am I really that willing to compromise my right relationship with God just to make a few dollars? Really? Starting to rethink my career trajectory here. Thanks, Terry, for this incredibly convicting, challenging post!

Terry Burns said...

As a writer (who favors westerns) I have people cursing in my books, bad men do that. But I don't use the words, I show them doing it, sometimes just imply that they are doing it very well or very forcefully. But people know the words, I don't have to remind them what they are, and if they DON'T know the words I sure don't want to be the one to teach them.

Janet K. Brown said...

Words of wisdom, Terry. Writers need to determine what they stand for and keep their words within that perimeter. We may be in the day where standing for what we believe may be more important than ever, but even harder. Thanks for the post

Anonymous said...

It is a test of a writer's skill, that's all. Bad guys can curse, spit, spew invective (for those literary among us :) ), slice, dice, slash, murder, and more...all without shoving it in the reader's face.

And, what's more, I believe it's usually much more effective that way.

This post is also a conviction about what we read or watch on TV and in movies. I'm going to start a conversation by having my daughter read it!

Voni Harris

Caroline said...

I loved your post, Terry. So true. Really appreciated all the comments too; right on target.

Jennifer Major said...

Some people say "well, we need to use language the world relates to". Uh huh. Why? Why do WE have to dumb it down to the level of profanity the world dictates that it is comfortable with?
My kids hear foul language at school all day, and in their locker rooms with their hockey teams. I doubt that I need to use it at home, to make them more comfortable!! So why do that with my writing??
My marker for the language I use is this? if I can read the book to my mom, Jesus and my kids, and not have any shame, then I'm good.

Diana said...

So many quotable lines here Terry.
Satan is patient, a drip can as Linda said, carve a rock and asking the right questions leads to the truth.
Great post! I am with you: does that mean I don't try to work in the mainstream market? Not at all, but I don't park my convictions at the door to do it.

I like standing by your side. Count it a privilege. :-)

Heather Day Gilbert said...

You make me proud to be an author with Hartline, Terry (among other reasons)! I'm so thrilled there's still a Christian agency willing to err on the side of caution, versus erring on the side of "How low can we possibly go?"

And I've been following Adam Blumer's In Defense of Clean Fiction series on his blog and it has some EXCELLENT reasons for committing to writing clean fiction.

Amber said...

Thank you for insightful post. As Christians, we are instructed to be separate from the ways of the world, and to be a light in the darkness. We are also told not to let any foul language proceed from our mouths and to keep our thoughts pure. I think this includes our writing too. If we are willing to compromise our principles and values in order to please the world, then doesn't that make us "lukewarm" Christians?

I am currently working on my 2nd book (my 1st was non-fiction Christian). My current work isn't in a Christian category, but nonetheless, I cannot cave in to the pressures to "spice it up" with any profane or obscene language, or any inferences that would condone ungodly behaviors.

While it's true that my unwillingness to compromise my values may lessen my target audience, that's a personal choice I'm willing to make. It's more important to me to hear the words "well done" on my judgment day, than to see my name on a best-sellers list for a book that Jesus would frown on.

Terry, I appreciate your honesty in bringing this subject to light. It's something we all need to think on for our own sakes.

Blessings to you all! Amber

Jeanette Levellie said...

Thanks for taking a stand on this, Terry. Wise words, all.

Carole Lehr Johnson said...

Well said, Mr. Burns. While I do read some secular books, I make sure they don't have any offensive content. My two favorite secular authors get the point across without going into the gory details. Talented writers know how to do this well.

Sylvia A. Nash said...

Thanks, Terry, for helping us not to forget this part of the conversation. As most everyone said, you can "get the point across without going into the gory details" (thanks, Carole, for that line. And I so agree with you, Terry, on the idea that "if they DON'T know the words I sure don't want to be the one to teach them." Once the words or the ideas are in our heads, they can never be completely removed.

Chana Keefer said...

Perhaps the question needs to be "What does our audience want?" And if we're writing for an audience of ONE--meaning the One who wants desperately to reach the unreached with love and salvation--then our aim to write what He wants will result in piercing hearts in the most effective manner possible.
And, after all, He's the master storyteller :)

Gina Welborn said...

I don't like bad language in a book, but I am not offended by it. :-)

I don't like gory details in a book, but I am not offended by it. :-)

I actually love sexual tension in romances, but I *am* offended when a Christian hero reasons his feelings for the non-believing heroine as being okay to pursue because "his feelings for her were so strong that he knew {heroine} would eventually turn her life over to Jesus." Really? In real life does it happen that way? Would you want your child to use that a dateing standard?

I like heroes being sexually attracted to heroines, but I don't like Christian heroes imagining what the heroine looks like in her undergarments and the editor justifying it to me as "realistic male behavior." *sigh* It may be realistic behavior, but at some point I'd like to see the hero admit his lusting was wrong and him stop. (He didn't.) Instead, he buys the heroine what equates to underwear then asks her if she's wearing it. Are you okay with the guy your daughter is dating going to Victoria's Secret and buying underwear for her because "he noticed hers were threadbare"? Are you okay with him imagining what your daughter looks like in the underwear?

Whether it's cussing or lusting or whatever, the question authors should be asking is, "When someone reads my novel, will they be led to believe I am endorsing this behavior or not?"

I think it's perfectly possible to show gore or include bad language or lust in a CBA novel and not glorify the behavior.

I know for sure I would never want my name attached to a book that implied to young women that it's okay for the guy they are dating to give them underwear. Especially not Christian women.

Instead of asking "how much world are we willing to put in our stories," we should be asking "what messages do our stories give, and what behaviors do our stories endorse?"

I know I'd rather my 15-yr-old daughter watch Easy A (with all its foul language and in which a girl lies about having sex) than Twilight that says a girl's value is only found in having a soul mate. My daughter has heard more than one lecture on the stupidity and unscripturalness of the soul mate concept.

Terry Burns said...

I understand and respect your opinion, Gina, but obviously do not agree at all. Any time our name is on a book (or attached to that book by representing it) we are condoning what is in that book. If we are saying "a little bit is acceptable as long as we are getting a positive overall message" that is exactly what I'm talking about. Drip... drip... drip. But each of us as an author have to decide how much we are willing to condone for ourselves.

Gina Welborn said...

My issue is that some Christian authors take violent stand against bad language or gore, yet there are all sorts of other sins that they can look past.

If we're going to take a stand on one, take a stand against all. Including "Christian" denominations that advocate legalistic behavior such as the Amish.

But the deeper issue really is what you said in the last sentence: "But each of us as an author have to decide how much we are willing to condone for ourselves."


Yet how often do we take our standards for ourselves and apply them to others? And then look down on those others who don't fall in live with our standards?

We wouldn't want to associate with thieves and prostitutes, druggies, and demon possessed because their lifestyle may drip...drip...drip into our life. Soon our homosexual friends' views cause us to believe homosexuality isn't sinful. So really what we need to do is totally separate ourselves from anything that could possibly drip...drip...drip sin into our lives.

So as writers, we shouldn't have characters who ever sin or who ever breaks law going over the speed limit because even a little white lie is a drip...drip...drip into us condoning that behavior.

It's quite easy to take a stance against bad language and gore. (I don't like either.) But then if we apply the same standard to anything ungodly, then we're in a predicament.

***How can we craft realistic characters when none of them can do anything ungodly or else we will be condoning that behavior?***

So we reason it's okay to have a heroine tell a white lie or dishonor her parents or think lustfully of the hero or break a speed-limit law because we show that behavior isn't godly. She repents. She gets a speeding ticket. And as long as I'm not drip...drip...dripping foul language or gore into my writing, then I'm a good Christian author who isn't condoning evil. Well, two types of evil.

Terry Burns said...

Christian fiction used to be squeaky clean stories and there were so many topics which simply weren't addressed. Today little is off the table as far as edgy topics but what is a problem is the way such topics are addressed and presented. You make a very thoughtful case about being able to step across the line without getting the hem of your robe soiled, but I still maintain that if we have to stoop to presenting it the way the secular books do it, then we weaken our witness. So I guess you have to put me down for taking that "easy road" of drawing a firm line. I actually don't find it that easy, but it is what I believe is right. Where others choose to draw that line is up to them.

Jennifer Major said...

Mr Burns, one issue that I never ever see addressed in the CBA is inter-racial marriage. Mind you, it isn't as hot a topic as profanity to most, but for some Christians, it may actually be worse. I grew up in a mixed-race family, and I can tell you, I've heard some incredibly offensive things. Toss in what race my adopted father is, and I've had arguments of Biblical proportions regarding the ability of people in my (adopted) dad's culture even being Christians!!

As with swearing and sexual content, with racism and the fall-out of prejudice, if we don't tackle the issues facing the modern world with a Biblical viewpoint, then why bother telling stories?

Terry Burns said...

I don't see why that would be something that couldn't be addressed. Like I say, many subjects that used to not be addressed in Christian books are now accepted there. It just depends on HOW they are addressed. Of course with any subject the willingness of a publisher to address them could vary from publisher to publisher.

Jennifer Major said...

Thank you. Mr Burns. I can assure you, sir, that this is a subject very close to my heart. I hope to be bold enough in my approach that the issue is brought to the forefront, and subtle enough that it stays there without any tug or pull, but just settles in like a warm sun.

Penny Zeller said...

Great article, Terry! One of the things I admire most about you is your integrity.

I also agree Terry, with you, Linda, and Sandra about the "drip, drip, drip" that continues to seep into our culture on a daily basis.

We, as authors, have such a privilege to be able to use our gift of writing to touch lives for the better and in a way that glorifies God.