Why I Read and Write Fiction
In the reading circles of the larger Christian community, there are persons who challenge the idea that it is healthy, or even acceptable for Christians to indulge in reading and writing fiction. As the discussion deepens, the line between what is acceptable and what is not is drawn in quite differently for different people.
Some argue that all fiction is bad, but when probed, admit that a well written allegorical tale such as “Pilgrim’s Progress”, by John Bunyan, or “The Screwtape Letters”, by C.S. Lewis, have their place in traditional Christian literature. These writings encourage people to think more deeply about the world, about their place in it and about their lives and how to live them out, but those who attempt to follow Lewis’ example are often met with scorn.
We love the stories Jesus told: the parables. We consider them God-given with special insight and power because they have been recorded in scripture, but they are fiction. Many inspirational non-fiction books about our faith include fictional anecdotes that illustrate the point that is being made, but we accept this fictional intrusion because we recognize the value of its power to influence our thinking about spiritual things.
Others draw the line when the fiction is otherworldly. Perhaps it takes place on another planet, as it did twice in the C.S.Lewis’ space trilogy. This derives from an earth-centric view of the universe, as if the creator of all things could only have done the creation of a planet one time. Lewis argues that it is more likely, as we observe the immense variety of the creation that surrounds us, to think that He only made one planet in the entire universe like ours would be preposterous.
Another might find that historical fiction is acceptable. Books or movies about the lives of those lived in early Rome facing the persecution of Nero or even modern day stories of faith and victory over the world such as “This Present Darkness” by Frank Peretti inspire them. Futuristic novels about the end times (“Left Behind” series by Tim LaHaye) is acceptable, but a futuristic novel about trying to live a Christian life after the world has been overrun by a brutal dictator in 2255, where the bible has been banned and followers of Christ pass on the traditions from memory only is on the edge of too weird.
Why is this so difficult to negotiate? Here are some thoughts I would like to explore.
The Blurred Lines where Good becomes Evil
First, we have to come to grips with how we go about drawing such lines between where something good can become evil. To do this we must recognize that almost everything we face in our Christian walk can be good or bad depending on how we implement it. Here are some examples:
We all need to eat. The food we eat is a blessing from God that most of us acknowledge in some form as we sit down to eat. Food can become sinful if we over-indulge or we are not thankful. It’s called gluttony.
Paul argues to Timothy that a little wine would be good for his frequent ailments, but that is a long way from alcohol abuse and the social ills that follow in its path.
Most of us live in societies where dealing with money is essential for survival. Jesus warns us many times about how money can become a snare. It destroys relationships, hardens the heart and distances people from God. The bible calls a misplaced emphasis on money greed.
Humans are sexual beings. We’re made that way. The sexual relationship of a man and woman in marriage is a beautiful bonding experience that God celebrates. Throughout the Bible we see the condemnation of a misplaced sexual appetite to which we are so prone.
Most of us acknowledge that there is a place in our lives for the righteous use of medicine, yet we abhor the abuse of the same drugs when used for selfish indulgence.
We are taught to acknowledge and respect leadership, both in the church and outside of it. We also know that power and authority have a significant corrupting influence that can cause much harm to individuals as well as our society as a whole.
We have the unique ability to communicate with one another with language. Words can build up and they can tear down. We can speak truth with our words or we can lie out of the same mouth. We can glorify God with our tongues or curse him. Language is not sinful; my misuse of it is the problem.
What does this have to do with reading or writing fiction? Fiction writing and the consumption of it, is neutral in its nature, and is either beneficial or detrimental to our lives depending on our own mindset. Jesus told parables: We love them, and ponder them in the faith that they should affect our lives. By faith we accept this fiction as healthy for our spiritual development. If we accept this, then we are acknowledging that fiction is acceptable. Why would other fiction be off the table? Is the line simply that it is not in the Bible? The arguments above reason that it is more subtle than that. What parameters would justify or nullify the reading or writing of fiction?
Is there a thin bright line?
Thinking through the nature of fiction and where we draw boundaries. There are many good movies about Jesus that we often wish our non-Christian friends would watch. We commend them: “You ought to see ‘____’”. How much fiction is injected into these movies that make them attractive? Let’s examine simply the portrayal of Jesus:
We have no idea what Jesus looked like. None of the Gospel writers give us a description of his wavy dark hair, his brooding brown eyes, his perfectly chiseled nose or that trim beard that is just to die for. In fact (literally fact) the only descriptions we have is that he was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with much grief” and a man “from whom we would turn our face”. We also know that he “learned obedience through what he suffered”. We have no idea whether this applies only to his death or perhaps also to the years leading up to his ministry. What was he really like?
Think about people you have met that you wanted to be sure you did not stare at because to do so would be impolite, but to turn away would be equally offensive. Perhaps Jesus had a hairlip that deformed his mouth into a perpetual sneer. Maybe his two front teeth got knocked out when he was beaten up by local hooligans at age fifteen when he refused to fight with them. As a result he “thpoke with a lithp”. Maybe he had a lazy eye. You were never sure exactly what he was looking at. One side of his face drooped uncomfortably and his nose was hopelessly crooked. Because of his heritage, he had a beard, but it was patchy and uneven and the scar down his left cheek was visible through it. Maybe his fingers had been broken several times in the carpenter shop or from persecution and his hands were hands you really wished would not touch you. One thing for sure is that the fine, coiffured Jesus with gleaming blue eyes and sparkling white, straight teeth and perfect physique is probably pure fiction.
The bible never says that Jesus laughed. It never says he smiled, yet we want Jesus to laugh and joke with his disciples when they are “off-duty” or “off-script” in the biblical sense. An unattractive, dark brooding man whose passion for the lives of others, to whom every effort of life was important to the salvation of the world is hard to accept.
What else was Jesus doing during the three years of his ministry that are not recorded in narrative? The apostle John claims that if we tried to write it all down, it would fill the world with books. Any conjecture about this would have to be confessed as fiction. If done well, it would be fiction that inspires us to want to be like Jesus. It’s fiction that “fleshes out the man” and can make him more real, but if that reality is fiction, what have we got? The same logic has be applied to the apostles, or portrayals of Paul, Peter, Timothy, Herod, Pilate, the roman soldiers or Moses in the Cecil B. DeMille Movie “The Ten Commandments”.
Beyond the Bible
As we move on, we also have to come to grips with other forms of extra-biblical historical fiction. There have been many inspiring works of fiction through the ages that bring us back to the reality of God in a healthy way. There are many stories about the times parallel to of just following the life of Jesus that depict persecution, perseverance, faith and victory during the Roman persecution of the Jews and Christians. In each case, we often embrace this fiction because it serves our need to validated our Christian lives and it is plausible historically. It helps us relate to persons who suffered for their lives in Christ and the victory they felt in doing so. It helps us look at ourselves and examine what we would do in such circumstances.
Third party learning
Jesus taught in parables. When asked why,
He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them.Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah: “ ‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding; you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them.’[But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear.
For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.” (NIV)
Jesus is saying he taught with fiction so that any person hearing him could listen and process it remotely and respond to it without the direct confrontation of a non-fiction directed teaching.
When Samuel had to confront the king (David) on his adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and his killing of Uriah (one of his own mighty men) Samuel did so with a parable about the man with the one little sheep. David, listening to the fictional story, was able to see clearly what was wrong. When his conclusion about the fictional situation was brought home, it changed his life. It’s not clear what would have happened if the prophet had confronted the king with the simple, blunt truth.
I have come to appreciate the power of what I have dubbed “third party learning” - watching as an objective observer on situations that teach me wisdom. What we know about right and wrong from the Bible is because we can observe real situations unfold before us and get a clear impression of what God would rather have it be. I remember very clearly growing up, that I learned many lessons by watching my brothers get in trouble. When I got in trouble, I was too much in the middle of it to learn well, but when they did something stupid, I could watch and say to myself, “well, I’m never going to do that!”
I have seen in my own life, that good fiction helps me stand outside the situation that is being presented to me and evaluate it more critically and honestly. As a well developed character in a story has to learn from his mistakes or has to wrestle with her integrity or values in the face of a challenging situation, I can see the struggle and internalize it and grow. Just because the fiction is not from the Bible, directly, does not mean that I cannot be matured by it.
Surrounded by Fiction.
Most of the popular songs that catch our attention are purely fictional. Very few of the lyrics that we know are based in truth at all. With few exceptions, the movies that capture our imagination are fictional. Even if they are about historical figures, the dialogue, the flow, the events are historical fiction: someone’s imagination of how it might have been. Even a lot of news today is fictional, and very difficult to know its truth. Most of the advertising that invades our lives is fictional: convincing ads with handsome people having all their life’s problems solved by some miracle product. Seriously?
These fictional invasions are inventions of clever minds to sway the way we think: Fake news manipulates society into certain ways of thinking. Advertisements bring in make huge amounts of money for people who put them up. Song lyrics stick in our heads. How many times have you ever had a conversation like this?
“Have you ever seen the movie ‘Chariots of Fire’?”
“Yep, one of my favorites.”
“Do you remember the scene where the main character is contemplating his future plans to embark on his mission to China, and his sister is distressed that he is putting off the mission to run in the Olympics?”
“So he explains to his sister: ‘Jenny, I know that God made me for the mission, but he also made fast. When I run, I feel God’s pleasure.’”
While this movie conversation may have some basis in fact, it is still fiction. But that does not keep me from being inspired. It’s this very conversation that I use to describe how I feel when I am able to teach the Bible to people: ‘I feel God’s pleasure’. I relate to it. It helps others relate to how I feel. It bonds us in a common relatability. If the person has never seen Chariots of Fire, I might say “You need to see that movie .... it’s just sooooo inspiring!”
We cannot ignore the profound influence on us that such fiction has on us. That is why there are advertisements, songs, movies, books and short stories. Everyone around us is trying to impact us. We do have a choice about how we indulge that fiction and how it is allowed to affect us, just as we have a choice about wine, food, sex, medicine, lying and other expressions of what we are thinking.
If we read fiction as an escape from reality, how is that different from the person who drinks or takes drugs in an effort to escape from reality? If we read fiction to find that “mandatory sex scene” in so many books or if we are vicariously incited by the invented, violent evil in a book, then we are little different from the world and need to examine our motives.
In his book “The Celebration of Discipline”, Richard Foster argues that if we sit down in the morning and read the newspaper without the Bible being open beside it, or if we sit down and read the Bible without the newspaper beside it, we are missing an important spiritual application to our life and society. While I do not practice this exactly, it makes an important point: whatever we read, whatever we put into the crucible of the consideration of our lives, needs to relate back to a firm Biblical reality.
This is also true for those of us who write fiction. We are striving to fill the void of solid Christian fiction so that there is good literature that relates directly back to clear spiritual thinking. If we are writing just to get published, to make people squirm, to entice their senses or fulfill a desire for some thrill, we should be very careful. If we are writing to inspire clear, concise mind change that brings people closer to understanding God, then we need to be sure that is the objective of our writing.
Although I do not agree with the basic tenets of her content, I find few authors for whom the purpose of her writing is clearer than Ayn Rand. She is an author that many Christians love to hate. There is reasoning behind this, in that her philosophy of objectivism is deeply misguided from a Christian worldview, but she is a champion of targeted, compelling, objective-focused writing. In her book, “The Art of Fiction: a Guide to Writers and Readers”, she hammers continuously on the need to have a purpose, and that every word, every sentence, every paragraph and every chapter needs to be chosen to fulfill that purpose. She declares in the book that all fiction is propaganda in its purest sense - fiction is meant to change the way people think and we should not waste a comma or quotation mark that does anything else.
Lest we write Ayn Rand off too quickly, we must acknowledge that the force of her writing has deeply affected our whole society. Her attention to detail and the driving power of her books spawned the Libertarian party, the “rugged individualism” and anti-government thinking that has changed our culture profoundly. It was deliberate. It was her purpose in writing and she did it remarkably well. It is alarming to me how much of her thinking has actually been adopted by many Christians without clearly thinking through where it came from. They refuse to read her books, but have bought into the whole philosophy without understanding where they got it.
I write fiction today because of the influence of Ayn Rand. I have read “The Fountainhead” and “We the People” and I have read “Atlas Shrugged” three times. In each reading, I have been astounded with the force of her writing. It convinced me that if people could buy into this philosophy because of her fiction, that I should be able to do so with a Christian worldview. As Christian writers we are in a battle for minds and hearts and our writing needs to have a direct purpose in winning this battle. We should not be afraid to learn how we can become better at our purpose by learning from someone like Ayn Rand.
Christian writing has to strive to change lives. It is likely that Christian authors will never be as well read as their non-Christian counterparts. Christ is controversial. His message is often rejected and so are his messengers. Christian authors need to strive for the highest quality writing possible, but they also have to stay on message and not abandon their goal for the sake of acceptance and popularity.
The Danger of Fiction
Some Christians avoid reading fiction because before becoming a Christian, fiction was an escape or an obsession that consumed their lives in an unhealthy way. To begin reading fiction again might be a snare, similar to a recovering alcoholic who cannot even take a sip of wine for the risk it poses to their life. For those individuals, we need to respect their adamance about their restraint and even applaud their diligence. We need to treat them as Paul describes how to treat those who refrain from eating meat sacrificed to idols in I Cor. 8 and 10 and Romans 12. We have to acknowledge that there are things that are not a snare to us, that are to other persons. However, well-written Christian fiction may differ from their fiction consumption prior to life in Christ. It is also possible that a fiction reader who abandoned worldly fiction to walk with Christ can be strengthened by good Christian fiction.
We have to recognize that, while some fiction in the lives of Christians can be encouraging, reading fiction that serves as an escape from other Christian responsibilities is a problem. We should be concerned about the person who reads their Christian fiction more than they read their Bible. We should be concerned about the person whose ideas about being a Christian are bred in the crucible of pseudo-Christian fiction literature. We should be concerned about the person who reads fiction to the detriment of their job or neglect of their family or serving the needs of the church. “A little wine is good for the stomach” is a long way from hanging out at the bar for the evening.
Others argue that Christian fiction is not of a quality that they would desire to read. There are several issues related to this: Christian fiction is restricted in how graphic, violent, sexual and cultural it can be while still reflecting Christian values. This kind of writing titillates the imagination in ways that are inappropriate to the mind of the Christian but is a huge attractor to worldly readers and sells many books. Writers who desire to make a living writing will sometimes abandon the effort to write fiction for Christians because not enough Christians will read that which is still appropriate for the Christian audience. Many Christians who shun fiction because they think it is too high on inappropriate content will go to very world-centered movies that contain the same content without making the same judgment.
Fiction is not for everyone. A relatively small percentage of the population reads any fiction at all, Christian or not. Those Christians who do read fiction can find it transformative and inspiring, while those who do not read fiction in general have a tendency to become judgmental. Those persons need to guard their hearts against the judgment that reading fiction is a waste of time - that there may be better uses of one’s time. Judgment needs to be tempered by acceptance of this difference.
The same warnings are in order for the Christian fiction writer. Fiction is one of the best vehicles I know for challenging, and ultimately changing the way people think. In fiction we can set up scenarios that draw readers in behind the scenes as a third party observer where they can consider their own reactions and feelings privately and act on them as they process them through their daily lives. We can form images and feelings and inject them directly into the pulse of a person’s life. We can create a safe place to allow growth and thoughtfulness. We can give them words to share concepts that they otherwise would not identify themselves. As a writer, the process of writing fictional stories helps me to identify clearly what and how I want to say something. It concretizes the abstracts of my spiritual life so I understand it better. I can massage and rework it over and over until it rings faithfully to what I really want to express spiritually.
At the same time we can insult readers sensitivities by being overly graphic in areas like sex and violence. Sex and violence are part of the human experience; much of it a direct result of our fallen nature. Human beings can be the cruelest creatures on the planet, to one another and to their environment. In Romans 1, Paul describes the descent of humanity into deep depravity, ending the description by declaring that
“they invent ways of doing evil ... Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
A lot of modern fiction depends on an ever increasing level of invented evil to titillate readers into some false thrill through explicit sex and violence. Acknowledgment that we are sexual and violent beings by nature and addressing this in a meaningful way in our writing is different from using it as a tool to attract readers. The Old Testament is one of history’s best chronicles of human failing, including violence and sexual misconduct. It’s real and raw, and we are appalled by it. At the same time, we are brought to understand that this is clearly not God’s desire and that these episodes were conducted by those who had rejected God’s order of things.
Two things come forth from this: First, if our writing capitalizes on stories like this without the explicit condemnation or implied sense that this is ungodly, then we are not being Biblical. Second, if the graphic description of the event exceeds the kinds of expression we see in the Bible, we are overstepping some boundaries that God has given us. Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. When God lit the altar he had built on fire, and the people praised God, Elijah had them seize the 450 prophets of Baal and take them down into the Kishon valley where they were slaughtered. When Samuel confronted Saul about his disobedience to God by not fully destroying the Amalekites, Samuel takes the captured king Agag and “put him to death before the Lord at Gilgal.” (NIV) Most versions actually say “he hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord.”
Both of these stories, and others like them, express both conditions above. They clearly indicate a deep violation of God’s way and purpose and the description does not need to be much more explicit to be very real and repulsive. When David’s son Amnon raped his half sister Tamar, there is very little said, but it is very clear in the context. We can do this also.
My books are about a small planet on the other side of the galaxy. They are much like us and sin much like us. There is violence and and when necessary, sexual reference, but I write it much the way I described above. There is no need to be more graphic. Everyone knows it’s horrific - I do not need to make it more than that.
Here is my struggle. When this happens and the story threads into areas like this (I often feel like I am telling a story that has happened and I do not have the license to change it), the struggle is to make the impact of the story line real and honest without resorting to graphic content embellishing. I focus on the intent and the resulting emotional pain and trauma, which is much more residual and changes people. This keeps the text honest without explicit violence. The actual act is secondary - the minds of the perpetrator and the violated set up the next actions of their lives.
Let me make an observation about sex: every human is a sexual being. We are made that way. Sex in and of itself is a natural human impulse. In the context of marriage, it is a beautiful gift from God that is to be celebrated. The interesting thing is that, except in rare cases like Absolom making a spectacle of it by having sex on the roof of the palace in Jerusalem, sex is always very private. Even those engaged in various forms of illicit sex do it privately. Prostitution, affairs, marriage, couples who live together, homosexual encounters all seek privacy. A sexual encounter usually involves people removing that last layer of protection (clothing) and joining themselves to another human in a profoundly intimate exposure that everyone senses should be private. It must be built into us somehow.
This private nature of sex should be honored in our writing. In our culture, almost every adult is involved in some kind of private sexual activity, legitimate or otherwise, but it’s very private. I have worked in the same office for thirty-two years. I am guessing that each person in that office is connected to someone sexually, but it is never discussed. I do not believe, as some would argue, that this is cultural. It’s innate in humans.
In the books we write, we can assume that most of our characters must also have sexual lives of some sort, so why do we feel compelled to make more of a spectacle of it than we do in real life? Why would we even think that we need to explicitly expose and discuss this topic to have quality literature any more than we need to discuss it openly to have a quality life? We are writing some incredibly creative stuff. Why can’t we creatively and appropriately address this like we do in real life? This, of course, begs the question of why we need it at all; do we not have something vital enough to say to keep our reader’s attention without adding explicit sexual content?
I had a teacher in high school (1970’s) who wrote a novel about lumberjacking in northern Michigan where he grew up. He had a publisher who was interested but wanted an explicit graphic sex scene injected into the book - somewhere- anywhere. He refused and the publisher refused his book. As a writer, I need to have conviction about staying true to my conviction.
Fiction is deeply embedded in all aspects of our culture. Different persons have different sensitivities to the effect of different kinds of fiction: Lies, Parables, movies, songs, books, articles, news, political statements and other things can all have fictitious elements to them. The presence of fiction is not the issue: How we choose the fiction that we indulge in and allow to affect us is the issue. Like everything else in our walk before God it often comes down to our heart about it.
As consumers (readers) of fiction, we need guidelines, but each of us must take responsibility for those guidelines in our own lives.
As purveyors (writers) of fiction, we also need guidelines, but the guidelines need to take into account our readers, their sensitivities and the sense of rightness before God in our storylines and content.
Good Christian fiction is already available: Check out the resources page on Immerland.com for recommendations and how to get started.
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