“Edgy” Christian fiction is becoming an increasingly hot topic among authors and readers. Those for it contend that stories need to be realistic for people living in the real world with bigger problems than the color of the church carpet. Opponents say that Christian fiction, of all places, should be a safe haven from objectionable elements in literature.
I think, as do many I know, that we should take our cues from this as well as every facet of life from the Bible. Yes, the Bible is different from a novel, but even in our novels we can operate within its parameters.
There are certainly edgy people in the Bible: harlots, polygamists, thieves, liars, evil kings, adulterers, murderers, zealots, and so on. And edgy situations abound: a man rapes his half-sister and in return is murdered by his brother; a man cuts up his murdered and abused concubine in pieces and sends her out to the various tribes of Israel to drum up support for revenge; a woman seduces a young, naive man; a king sees a woman bathing and takes her to himself though they are both married, then arranges to have her husband killed in battle; a woman has been married five times and is living with a sixth man.
But nowhere in the Bible are any of these situations written in a way to entice people to sinful thoughts in the reading of them. Profane men are shown to be such without spewing profanity. Sexual sin is portrayed in ways to show how it came about and how the people were tempted, but not in enough detail to cause arousal in the reader. Violent scenes are not written with gratuitous detail.
I’ve mentioned before that I grew up in an unsaved family with a father who used bad words (in three different languages! It was humiliating and embarrassing as a child when I said something at a Hispanic neighbor’s house only to find out it was an offensive word. Thankfully I don’t remember what it was.) So it doesn’t necessarily shock me when I hear people say those words. But when I read them, they float around in my head, and I don’t want them there.
Novels will by their nature share more descriptive detail than a Biblical narrative. Good authors know how to draw a reader into a scene and make them feel and experience what the characters do. But that is the very reason Christian authors need to be so careful with sexual or violent scenes. We need to take responsibility for the fact that we’re putting thoughts, images, and ideas in people’s minds and make sure they’re not the kind that lead the reader into a lustful or lurid state.
I don’t object to edgy people or situations in books, depending on how they are handled. I can understand a person is foul-mouthed without hearing the words. I can understand a person succumbing to sexual temptation without details of bodily form and feeling. I can appreciate a violent scene, such as a murder in a crime drama or a battle scene, without descriptors like eyes bugging out, blood spattering, etc.
In addition to how such scenes and people are described and what images those descriptions put in our heads, another factor is how the situation is treated in the novel. For instance, in searching for something in my blog recently I came across a forgotten book review for a story that included a suicide. That happens, so it’s not in itself an objectionable situation in a Christian book. But in this particular novel, it was treated as the only thing the character could do, and more than that, right and sacrificial and even heroic, when Biblically it is never regarded that way. “Thou shalt not kill” certainly applies to one’s own life as well as others. There is a difference between taking a bullet for someone and aiming that bullet at yourself. Suicide is the ultimate taking of your own life into your own hands and the ultimate lack of faith in God to handle one’s life circumstances as He sees fit. There were Bible people who wanted to die, but they left the actual process to the Lord. Suicide is a tragedy, and I can understand its happening in a story, but I think it’s wrong for a Christian book to condone it or present it as a good thing. Similarly, the tone, consequences, and character responses to profanity, sexual sin, and violence can convey that those things are not right without devolving into preachiness and judgmentalism.
I think it actually takes a great deal more talent to portray certain scenes without going into unnecessary specifics. One of the most violent scenes I ever witnessed on film just showed the victim’s feet, kicking at first and then lying still. No blood, no gore, but the effect was chilling. “Less is more” applies in a number of these areas.
I do want to encourage Christian authors that readers don’t want insipid, plain vanilla plots and we do want authentic, full-bodied, real characters and believable circumstances. I know it’s hard sometimes to know where the line is, but it’s possible to write great and realistic Christian fiction without crossing it. I know; I’ve read it. And I’d love to read more.
Why Read? Why Read Fiction? Why Read Christian Fiction?
The Language of Christians
Sexuality in Christian Fiction
The Gospel and Christian Fiction
(Linking with Thought-provoking Thursday) and Literary Musing Monday)
Great article! I like reading well-written novels, whether “Christian” or not; what I don’t like about some Christian novels I’ve read is that the author uses the platform to be “preachy”; rather than it being something organic to the character development or plot, they shove the Bible down the reader’s throat any chance they get. As you’ve said, it’s a fine line between making the characters, their desires, actions and relationships with others realistic, yet not too graphic. For those authors who try to “avoid all appearance of evil” to that proverbial church carpet degree, they tend to come off as just plain boring.
I’ve published four novels so far; while they are not overtly Christian, they have Christian values at their core; there are no curse words, graphic violence or graphic sex; they are historical fiction, as well as science-fiction/fantasy, yet even my non-human characters have an understanding and belief in their Creator.
What books have you read that haven’t crossed “that” line? I’d be interested in finding more!
Off the top of my head, I don’t think anything I have ever read from Terri Blackstock or Dee Henderson has crossed those lines, that I can remember. I know Adam Blumer’s books do not: they’re great, suspenseful stories that portray Christian characters and themes without getting into the preachiness you mention. I know there have been more – I’ll have to think about this one a while. 🙂
Thanks! I’ll check out those authors!
Just thought of a few more: Jan Karon, Davis Bunn, Sharon Hinck, Beverly Lewis, Elizabeth Musser, Sarah Sundin. I haven’t read all of Bunn’s or Musser’s, but what I have read has been great.
I’ve been reading Valerie Comer’s series recently; I know I’m “safe” reading her books; even though her characters deal with some tough topics, she makes it organic to their arcs.
Me too! I love good, clean fiction!
Excellent article. As an avid reader of Christian fiction, I have been literally grieved lately by the Christian fiction authors who are openly proud that they are making their books more edgy. Also, the other Christian fiction authors who support these authors’ choice to move their books closer to the world and farther away from biblical admonitions. I have begun reading book reviews more closely before buying any Christian fiction. Sadly, it is a brave few who give an honest review of content and a large number of reviewers who still give five stars with no mention of edgy content. Bless you for expressing your heart so well.
That’s something that bothers me, too – when I read a book review or recommendation that doesn’t mention those things. It makes me mistrust the reviewer or recommender.
I agree there are some pretty gritty stories in the Bible. If I read fiction, I like light hearted stuff; something that leaves me with a good feeling in the end so I’m pretty choosey about what I read. I’m glad for reviewers like you who warn me of stuff I don’t want to read about!
Thank you for linking up at Literacy Musing Mondays. Definitely a difficult topic for sure! I love reading fiction and don’t always read Christian fiction exclusively. Two things I definitely stay away from are sexual content and graphic language. It can be difficult to find books 100% free of those things, though. The violence one is a bit more sketchy for me.. Of course, I don’t want to read about violence just for the sake of gory details, but I don’t necessarily feel enticed to sin if I read a violent scene that gives some detail. My dream is to one day bring the stories in my head and notebooks to life as novels (favorite genre is fantasy), and I will definitely have to think on this more then!!
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