Saturday, March 24, 2007

Christian Influence Writing: Writing for a secular audience without going over to the Dark Side

I've put off writing this one in part because there are many different perspectives on the issues I raise. But I've decided to go with my own convictions, while trying to give a reasonable presentation of opposing view points.

Someone mentioned in a blog response to this topic about "sanitizing" Christian fiction. The implication was that one could not write for a secular audience without using profanity, sexually suggestive or explicit scenes or graphic violence. That may not have been the intent, but I run across that attitude a lot.

The reasoning goes that Christian literature has been too "squeaky clean." People have children, but somehow never have sex. The only problems the kids have are cheating on tests or sassing parents. It's like a flashback to
Leave it to Beaver.

This is a legitimate criticism. Many Christian writers are afraid to tackle the tough issues such as pre-marital sex, adultery, drug abuse, abortion, environmental destruction, criminal activity, corporate or political greed, or corruption in religious organizations. Some are afraid of being politically incorrect within the context of the current evangelical political arena. They are afraid of going against conservative political philosophy, even when such philosophy is not supported one way or another by scripture. The environment being a case in point. I have difficulty understanding how Christians can approve of destroying the world God gave us simply to feed corporate greed. Likewise "liberal" issues such as care for the poor, health care, or compassion for those society has rejected are not liberal or conservative values, they are Biblical ones.

There are many ways, Christian literature has been "sanitized" and has lost its ability to speak to the realities of the real world. However, that does not mean that the Christian influence when writing for a secular audience should stop at the selection of a Christian as a main or supporting character. How we approach ethics, personal behavior and language in writing also matters.

I am sometimes shocked at how some "Christian" characters act in stories by Christian writers. I have read science fiction stories in which members of a persecuted church of the future shoot their way out of trouble with blasters killing everyone in sight without so much as a tear shed for any of the dead. This is hardly in keeping with the example of our founder who went to his death peacefully, healed one of the guards taking him to his trial and eventual death, and forgave those crucifying him. Nor is it in the character of the early church who won over the populace of the ancient world by a peaceful lifestyle and a gentle power in the face of the worst persecution the church ever knew to the current day.

Some Christian writers are so anxious to create Christian action heroes that appeal to a society fed a diet of bloody video games and gory movies that the characters become indistinguishable from the non-Christian characters except in professed religion. These characters bear more resemblance to James Bond than to Jesus Christ. They stand in stark contrast to the quiet courage of the first century martyrs who "turned the world upside down."

Another question, which is maybe harder to deal with is language. Now, Wayfarers Journal has a strict "No profanity" rule. However, the argument can be made that in the real world you hear profanity. This is true. Although, to be honest, that depends heavily on what part of the real world forms your world. As a college professor, I hear very little. The professors are articulate enough to not need to use profanity to be expressive, and the students are more likely to use expletives among themselves than with teachers. I, frankly, hear more profanity on TV than in real life.

However, the point is well taken. Everybody doesn't say, "Ah shucks" when they are disappointed or "fiddlesticks" when they hit their thumbs with a hammer. The question is whether or not one needs to actually use the profanity in their writing for the sake of realism. The arguments in favor are that people are used to reading it in secular literature, that characterization may suffer without using it as part of the dialog, and that it is necessary to be realistic. Some point out that even C.S. Lewis used four-letter words in his writing. (Although, to be honest, you can count on one hand the number of instances, and in a couple of cases, the word "damned" is used in the context of something that is condemned and not as a curse word.)

These are compelling arguments. However, I disagree that one needs to actually print profanity for the sake of realism. All secular literature does not use profanity. I am an avid reader of mystery stories of the "country cozy" variety. Two particular favorites are Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael mysteries and Lillian Jackson Braun's
The Cat Who series. Neither of these series contain a lot of profanity. One could say, legitimately, that one would not expect a 12th century Monk to use profane language, but the story takes the monk out of the monastery into the streets among coarse peasants and into taverns. The Cat Who series follows a hard-bitten investigative reporter relocated to a small town filled with the descendants of miners, fishermen, farmers and bootleggers, yet there is little profanity. Both Peters' and Braun created best selling series. Tolkien created realistic villains without recording every profane word that came out of their mouths. And his Lord of the Rings trilogy is more popular with modern audiences than every before.

So, it is a myth, that everyone is doing it and you have to as well to get a readership. Good writing will draw readers and not just sprinkling your writing with vulgarity. But that's the point, can you develop certain types of characters without some of them using profanity? Certainly, some of your characters might use profanity, but does that mean you have to record it word-for-word? You can write, " One-Eye Louie spat on the ground and said, "Now you @%$#!@'s , I'm gonna *&%$((^&% your (*&^$%$).' Then he hit John across the face with a piece of pipe . " Or you can write. "One-eyed Louie cursed, spat on the ground and hit John across the face with a piece of pipe." The second actually has more economy of language and it gets across the point that the guy is no Sunday school boy.

Truthfully, there is a secular market for clean stories. The success of TV channels like TV Land, Nick at Night and The Hallmark Channel demonstrate this. Just because someone is not a Christian doesn't mean they actually want to read someone where every sentence is profane, and violence is glorified. Christian influence stories can help fill this niche and appeal to both Christians and non-Christians alike.

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