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.

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