Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Christian Writer's Dilemma

The author of this week's guest post is John Ehrett, a long-time devotee of the written word who is currently majoring in International Politics and Policy at Patrick Henry College. His favorite books include Les Miserables, Atlas Shrugged, The Odyssey, and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. To read more of his writing on modern literature and culture, you can visit his personal blog, Literary Analysis.

Any Christian who wants to write realistically will eventually face one question: how do we deal with the dark stuff? It doesn’t take much to recognize that the world is a pretty grim, sordid place sometimes…is there a way Christians can address it honestly?

When it comes to Christians writing about the unsavory parts of life, there are a lot of different opinions. Some take a very conservative approach, censoring anything that even hints of sexuality, strong violence, or profanity (most Christian fantasy novels fall into this category). Others have a no-holds-barred approach to writing, incorporating dark content as part of a deeply redemptive story (Ted Dekker is particularly known for this). What’s a Christian writer to do?

The following is my view. I don’t profess to speak for all Christians, but simply offer the way I’ve sought to resolve this dilemma. The Bible doesn’t directly address this question, but it does so obliquely: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak….When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.” 1 Corinthians 8:9, 12-13 (NIV). The appropriate question to ask is not “can I put this in my story?” but “will this be a stumbling block to someone?”

This raises two important issues: style and context. Although it’s subtle, there’s a difference between describing an act in clinical terms and describing it in gratuitous detail. In a film like The Passion of the Christ, the focus is not on the violent acts themselves: it is on the crucified Savior and His sacrifice for us. In many modern movies (particularly the works of Quentin Tarantino), violence is portrayed as a sort of exploitative art form, appealing to an individual’s basest instincts. The same principle holds true in writing. For the sake of authenticity, a realistic story about warfare may require the inclusion of some traditionally “problematic” material. This material, however, need not be described in pornographic detail. There may be a place for stark realism, but this is by no means a license to exploit.

This also raises the issue of context. What may be inappropriate in a particular work may be integral to another, depending on both the story and the audience. Most Christian fiction is written to edify existing believers, not win new converts. As a result, the writers of Christian fiction must keep this end of “edification” in mind when writing. This rules out including content that does not serve this end. For example, an individual looking for spiritual nourishment may be horrified by the description of a gangland shootout in a “Christian” work…though such a scene may be justified in a work targeting a secular audience.

In works written by Christians for secular audiences, a subtler apologetic tone is required. Far too much Christian fiction takes a ham-fisted approach to evangelism, which severely undermines its effectiveness in reaching the lost. Some of the finest literature of our time -- The Brothers Karamazov, Les Miserables, Moby-Dick, and The Road, among others -- deal with deeply spiritual material, yet never take a blindly didactic approach. Sometimes, as in the aforementioned works, there may be a place for merciless imagery as the most powerful foil of all to the saving Light of the Gospel.

That Light doesn’t always need to be communicated explicitly. It can come through an act of compassion, an undeserved sacrifice, or a whispered prayer in the midst of deep darkness. Flannery O’Connor was a master of this, communicating powerful themes of grace and hope against a backdrop of the macabre. In the end, the motivations of individual Christian writers are between themselves and God. Perhaps, however, considering the style and context will offer a reasonable solution to questions of content.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Stories to Tell

Today's guest post is written by Alison O'Leary, a junior Literature major at Patrick Henry College. I thought this post was a fitting inspiration to kick off our series of guest posts this year, on topics from story theory to excellent literature to writing's nuts and bolts. I hope this post inspires you to find and write the story only you can tell.
“Whenever you are fed up with life, start writing: ink is the great cure for all human ills, as I have found out long ago."– C. S. Lewis
My Dad called them “marshmallow books.” My Mom was always trying to get me to read biographies instead. So how did their daughter end up studying literature and desiring to write fiction for a living? I’m not sure…but I think God enjoys paradoxes.

I once heard someone tell me you know you’ve found your vocation when you would do it even if no one paid you. That’s how writing is for me. The stories in my brain are just itching to get onto paper. If I didn’t write them down, I’d probably go crazy.

This got me thinking…why do we like to write stories? What makes us want to sit down and start scratching out characters that are a bit, just a bit, like someone we know and plot lines that suddenly form holes without warning us in advance? I think it’s because we all have stories to tell, but we like to tell them in different ways.

My parents' lives have been full of one amazing adventure after another, yet neither of them write fiction. They would rather tell their stories face to face and read stories of people who really lived.
I also love telling stories. But I like to use characters to convey things I’ve experienced without having to be utterly personal about them. (I also like to write about things I’ve never done. Please do let me know if you happen to see a dragon one day; I should very much like to meet one.)

Maybe that’s why authors started writing fiction. They had problems, they saw problems, they were problems, and they wanted to fix problems. And maybe, just like me, they didn’t prefer to say, “And (insert name here) went and bludgeoned poor Lizaveta to death.” Okay, so Dostoevsky didn’t kill anyone, but he recognized the twisted sin nature in himself and others, the desire to have power over people. The best way he could capture what he was thinking was to write about a murderer-- a story which became Crime and Punishment.

In a similar way, I had a difficult time talking about some familial issues that rocked my world two years ago. I couldn’t write the pain I felt, but I could write about two brothers who had difficulty reconciling after one went away to war. So I did. Sure, I’ve never been deployed or had anyone close to me go away to fight, but I could imagine the hurt and pain they felt was similar to mine. And it helped my own heart recover.

 "I’ve been there,” characters tell us. Suddenly, we know we’re not alone because someone out there gets it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be so drawn to fictional characters. They speak to us because, in their own made-up world, they wrestle with the same real issues of love, despair, anger, and joy. If we convey those universal emotions in a compelling story, we can hope someone will read our words and find hope. I make a point of reading one of my favorite books, The Outsiders, at least once every year and I think the author, S.E. Hinton, captures what I’m trying to say.
I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better. I could see boys going down under street lights because they’re mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn’t believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing.
It isn’t just a personal thing. People are aching all around the world. As writers, we have the opportunity to reach them and say, “I understand.” As Christians, we have a message of genuine hope.

But first we have to understand the problems. Sometimes there aren’t easy answers. Sometimes you get hurt and there’s no pat way to fix it. We can’t just slap a story around the Christian Gospel. Everyone can see what you’re trying to do and that’s poor craftsmanship.

Instead, find a story close to your heart. Something you want to say. Maybe everything doesn’t get neatly tied up in the end, but that’s all right. Our own story hasn’t been neatly tied up yet. Offer hope. Let people know you understand, but there’s more to this world than pain. For, as Tolkien would say, “Oft hope is born when all is forlorn.”

Author Bio: Ali was born not too long along and will probably die sometime... most likely by lightening. In her brief span of life, she hopes to write some stories that may or may not be good, make lots of friends, and "seize the adventure" that God has sent her.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Announcing: A Call to Pens 2011!

{Photo Credit: sxc.hu}

Pick up your pens, grab your laptops, sharpen your number two pencils and start your coffee grinders.
I'm very excited to announce the fourth annual Patrick Henry College "A Call to Pens" short story competition!

I hope this year's themes will inspire you to strive for literary excellence. The themes are:

The First Division
Theme: An Unexpected Adventure
Age group: 12-15
Word limit: 1,500

The Second Division
Theme: Redemption
Age group: 16-18
Word limit: 2,500

Contest deadline is February 1, 2012.
For more information, contest entry rules, entry forms, etc., please visit the PHC Call to Pens page.

About the blog: Like last year, this blog will continue to be a repository of information on the Christian writer's calling, literary excellence, good books on writing, and tips from the pros (PHC professors and some of our most exceptional student writers). I hope this blog will generate some discussion as we encourage each other in our writing endeavors.

A little about me: My name is Alicia Constant. I'm a junior Classical Liberal Arts Journalism major at Patrick Henry College, and I will be coordinating the contest this year. When I served as a judge last year, I enjoyed reading your works of fiction so much that I decided to get more involved this year.
I'm a journalist at heart-- which means that I mostly deal in non-fiction these days-- but I'm also a poet, a voracious reader, a puttering librarian, and a some-time scribbler. I believe that good stories, whether fiction or non-fiction, communicate truth by challenging and delighting the soul.

I hope this blog is not only your chance to hear from me but also to learn from the colleagues and mentors that have taught me many things about the literary craft. Please leave comments with your suggestions for topics you'd like to see on the blog.

Also, you can contact me at shortstory@phc.edu with any questions about the blog or the competition.

In Christ,

Alicia Constant
2011 Call to Pens Contest Coordinator