Last time we tackled the issue of "sensitivity readers" being hired to screen manuscripts for big publishing houses. It should raise valid concerns about censorship. As I've always said, you cannot make the kind of world-changing art people love with a checklist of dos and don'ts. However, they aren't the only ones restricting artistic freedom.
Today, we look at the other side: the checklist of Christian fiction.
Before we get started, we have to define terms. What is Christian fiction? You could go all the way back to stories like The Divine Comedy and Pilgrim's Progress. To make this easier, we're going to stick with the modern publishing trend, which seems to have emerged around thirty to forty years ago. Sometimes a friend or relative will ask "Have you every considered writing Christian fiction?" Yes, I have, but it's fraught with the problems, in a similar vein as angelic fiction.
One topic that's been on my mind for some time is the legalization of gay marriage nation-wide. My generation was raised in a very black and white home. Sin (in all manifestations) is bad and you shouldn't do it. By the time I grew up and got into the world, the world had changed in such a way that I didn't know how to engage. I started meeting gay people online through common interests of writing and typewriter collecting. The question popped into my mind "How can one with absolute religious beliefs reconcile with the laws of the land where they live? How does one walk that line between Jesus' love and God's sense of justice and righteousness?" I believe it's a topic that demands a Steinbeckian treatment.
Maybe I'll write that book someday, maybe not. Still very unsure of myself. Regardless, I started looking into the Christian market to see if such a story might be received. What I found was a bit...disappointing. A lot of people had a lot to say about it.
And even this girl.
There were several others, but the consensus was the same: Christian fiction today just isn't good.
That puzzled me. How could an entire slice of fiction be that bad? Even if you apply Sturgeon's Law (the idea that 90% of everything/anything is subpar), there's got to be some good stuff out there, right?
I'll leave that one up to you, since we're dealing with censorship. The articles that I found the most helpful were "Sex, Death, and Christian Fiction" by Simon Morden and "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" by Mike Duran.
In his essay, Morden delves into the background of the biggest Christian publishers operating today and the aims of their work, namely to entertain and inspire whilst providing a safe alternative to secular fiction. All well and good. You can teach kids how to treat others with kindness by showing them Zootopia rather than Twelve Years a Slave. They aren't ready for the heavy stuff.
But that nobility starts to break down when you look at the submission criteria these companies allegedly use: the protagonist must be a Christian or become one by the end of the book, no cursing, no depictions of drinking, smoking, sex, drugs, and almost no violence.
Half of my library falls well outside of those guidelines. As Morden points out, such rules would easily disqualify most works of the best-known Christian writers of the past: Tolkien, Lewis, Tolstoy, Sayers, Dostoyevsky, and Chesterton.
And here's where we come to the defining break: the works of the above-mentioned were more Christian-inspired than overt vehicles for evangelizing that you see in bookstores today (despite the obvious moral messages in some of the former). And when you get to that point, you'll lose the reader.
John Steinbeck was one of America's greatest. His books dealt with very flawed people battling to retain their dignity whilst suffering inhumane conditions. Read about the Dust Bowl. Read about how cruel Americans were to each other. Under those circumstances, anyone's faith in a loving god would start to crack. In his novel East of Eden, two of the characters are discussing different translations of the Bible, specifically the story of Cain and Able. The Chinese manservant called Lee has found that the King James version records Genesis 4:7 "And if thou doest well, shalt not thou be accepted? And if thou doest not well, sin lieth at the door. And unto thee shall be his desire, and thou shalt rule over him." As Lee points out, this is and order. But the Hebrew word in this same verse is timshel, "thou mayest rule over him." Lee declares this "may be the most important word in the world." Man has the power to rule over sin, if he chooses. But as Faulkner said, the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. Some people choose not to rule over sin.
Isn't that what the whole Christian faith is about? Making that choice to rule over our impulses? It's brilliant but also a sobering thought, one that fits well with the events of the novel. When Adam Trask finally confronts his ex-wife Cathy (who runs a sadistic brothel and has files to use as blackmail), she's struck by the realization that she cannot corrupt him like her clients.
I can tell you that East of Eden spoke to me as a believer in a very powerful way.
There's another powerful moment in Shogun by James Clavell, which is based on the true story of this guy. As the protagonist, an English Protestant, rises in power and favor with the Japanese, he is granted the status of hatamoto, or "land-owner." He carries the two swords of a samurai. He has life-or-death say over his subjects. Keep in mind, this guy lived around 1600 and is initially repulsed by the Japanese with their liberal attitude on sex. He has a maid, a female interpreter, and has slept with a professional, high-class courtesan (a favor from his lord, that lady was worth a small fortune). One night, as he contemplates his life, he admits: I love each one of them. But how can that be?
That's a great conflict!
So why can't those kinds of books succeed in a so-called Christian market?
Enter Mike Duran's essay. In "Why Christians Can't Agree About Christian Fiction" he outlines the battle: the holiness camp versus the honesty camp. The first group emphasizes the law that Christians are supposed to live by, which governs our conduct. The latter emphasizes the fact that we're flawed, fallen creatures who are always struggling with the command to "be in the world but not of the world."
The main issue seems to be what kind of content is acceptable and does the author sin by writing such things? That's outside the scope of this article, and I don't want to comment on the potential sinfulness of such without using the Bible.
So let's move on with the idea that, no, you can't be overt about it. How do you write meaningful stories with God at the heart? I have always believed that you cannot dissuade people from a life of sin unless you show them what sin looks like. There's a big difference between saying "don't fornicate" and showing what casual sex with multiple partners might lead to (besides the obvious STDs). There's a huge different between saying "don't drink" and showing what Charles Jackson did with The Lost Weekend (the protagonist ends up in an asylum after being arrested for theft to feed his addiction; one patient pees on himself and another is having violent hallucinations).
And there are some classic examples of how to do this in film.
It's a Wonderful Life. Story of a selfish man who berates his uncle for a clerical slip, walks out on his family, goes on a drinking binge, then contemplates suicide before an angel intervenes.
War Room. Story about a man who neglects his daughter, steals from his employer, and almost cheats on his wife with a younger woman.
Chariots of Fire. Story about a man who wants to serve God but is also tempted by the chance to gain worldly recognition as a champion runner.
These films do not shy away from the harsh reality that good people do bad things. The Bible is loaded with that kind of stuff! David was an adulterer. Abraham lied. Moses disobeyed. Eli failed to teach his sons. Esther was hesitant to act on behalf of her people until prodded by Mordecai.
Unfortunately, for every film like the ones above, we get the campy feel-good stuff like Facing the Giants and Flywheel which convey the message of "100% pure prayer! Works in five minutes, guaranteed!" I was saddened to hear critics saying the same things about The Shack. That one had potential, at least in the premise. How to grapple with the unsolved murder of your child is a great question.
I've met a lot of Christians, some who were so sheltered I felt pity. One young lady planned on heading to Egypt (pre-revolution) as soon as she got out of school to evangelize. Without speaking the language. Without a guide. By herself. I hope someone talked her out of it.
The recent controversy over Beauty and the Beast is another good example. It makes sense that there would be gay people in France at the time depicted in the film, just like it makes sense for them to show racial integration. Having seen the film...I still can't figure out which "gay moment" supposedly got everyone up in arms. If I hadn't been told otherwise, I wouldn't have suspected a thing. Way to go, people.
Why do I not write/read about Christians, for the most part? Because I'm interested in other kinds of people, and want to explore how people without my faith get through A, B, and C.
But these other believers want to be in the world without acknowledging anything about the world. Not only are they denying a fascinating aspect of the human experience (an understanding which Paul conveyed in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23), they're also, it seems, reading a lot of boring books.
And that, dear reader, is why you just cannot make art with a checklist. You'll make a mediocre product that no one can relate to.
I hope this mini-series was enlightening and helpful. I enjoyed writing them.
Power to the pen.
And remember, thou mayest.