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“Riotous Living” in Christian Fiction

Parental GuidanceAs a writer of Christian fiction aimed squarely at the Christian reader, I find myself performing something of a balancing act with regard to what I include in my stories. The way I see it, there are two broad aspects to every Christian novel: Christian content and worldly content.

By Christian content, I mean all those things that a reader can identify as being overtly “Christian”. This ranges from someone saying grace before a meal, all the way to a full-blown conversion scene during Armageddon. Somewhere within this range will be anything that suggests to the reader that the writer’s world-view is Christian or, at the very least, sympathetic towards Christianity.

By worldly content, I am talking about sex, violence, bad language, and drug use. At the lower end of the scale we might have a kiss on the cheek, a slap across the face, a “heck”, and a cigarette. At the top of the scale is pornography, gore, gratuitous swearing, and the depiction of hard drug abuse. This content is the aspect of the story that defines it’s suitability for various age groups, as seen in film classification.

There seems to be a general lack of agreement amongst Christians in both of these categories. One camp believes that Christian stories should contain little or no Christian content, as long as the story is clean. Another camp doesn’t mind a large dose of worldly content, jut so long as it is obvious that the protagonist is a Bible-believing, church-going, saint. In between is every mix imaginable. The only point of agreement seems to be that the extremes of worldly content are taboo. The exact boundary, however, is unclear. Nobody seems able to agree upon where exactly to draw the line.

For me, the question of Christian content is less contentious and is a matter of taste. A Christian reader may get irritated if a novel contains too many religious clichés. Perhaps they have read through one too many conversions, or feel that a church scene has been crow-barred in with no regard for plot or timing. Perhaps they see a protagonist’s journey from “sinner to saved” as an obvious attempt at preaching, but they would hardly be offended by it. Irritation and offence are not the same thing and I would suggest that any Christian who feels offended by too much Christian content should re-evaluate his world view. Christian content comes down to taste and I don’t lose much sleep over this one. Some people like a lot of syrup on their pancakes while others only want a hint. You can’t please everyone so I don’t even try.

The real issue that seems to divide Christian writers is the one of worldly content. Is it all right for a Christian novelist (or the novelist who happens to be a Christian) to depict sex, violence and bad language in their stories, or should a Christian novel avoid these things? To be honest, I am torn on this matter, and here is why.

Life itself is full of worldly content. Just step outside and you’re bound to come into contact with sexual images, violence, and bad language. The world is saturated with content and, unless you live in a bubble, you will not be able to avoid bumping into it. The problem for a writer is just how much of the world we should include in our stories. Do we aim for realism and, if so, how much? Do we depict the world the way it is, or the way we want it to be? Do we show the worst of the world, or the best? For me, this is a real issue. I want to make my stories gritty while keeping them safe.

The problem is complicated by the fact that different people seem to have varying standards with regard to each of sex, violence, language, and drug usage. Some are fine with blood splashing across the pages but scowl at any hint of sexuality. Others bristle at violence but have no problem with liberal use of the F-bomb. The Bible has a lot to say about both sex and violence, so I don’t think such disparities can be based on the Scriptures. I suspect it comes down to what a person can “handle” without being offended. For example, I find I can switch off when I hear swear words. They don’t bother me. My wife, on the other hand, finds herself deeply affected by foul language. I think I can cope better because I have worked in offices for twenty years, and people working in offices swear. Personally, I find sexual content uncomfortable. A kiss lasting longer than two or three seconds has me reaching for the remote. The potential offence for me comes not from not liking sexual content, but more from the spectre of temptation. I know my own weaknesses and have to be careful. To get around this, our house abides by the “weakest brother” principle when it comes to choosing entertainment, thereby reducing the risk of causing offence.

So what to do with the question of worldly content in Christian writing? I want my stories to be realistic, but not offensive. I want them to be believable without raising a blush of embarrassment. The solution, I believe, is in the Scriptures—in particular, the parables of the Prodigal Son and of the Wicked Husbandmen.

If you read these parables, you can see a precedent for all Christian story-telling. The tale of the Prodigal Son depicts a realistic series of events, describing a foolish son’s fall from wealthy heir to desperate scavenger. It tells us that he spent his money on “riotous living” and almost ended up eating the food meant for the pigs he was tending. The parable of the Wicked Husbandmen, on the other hand, is about as gritty as a story can get. Here, a group of men hired to protect a vineyard inflict beatings and commit mass murder, eventually killing the son of their boss in the hope of stealing his inheritance. Hardly a children’s bed-time story.

Although these parables contain suggestions of all sorts of worldly content, they stop short of actually going into detail. The protagonists are not perfect and their lives are far from ideal. We can identify with them and get what they are experiencing. We can imagine what they went through without it being described to us in gory detail. There is certainly sex and violence, and probably even foul language and drug abuse, but it is left off the page as it is not necessary for the plot. The whole point of the Prodigal Son is that the father ran to welcome him back. The riotous living is secondary.

The Bible describes us as being in the world but not of it. So how do we go about writing a novel without becoming too of the world. I think Jesus showed us how. When he wanted to get a principle across to his listeners with an interesting story, he focused on plot without resorting to graphic descriptions. He brushed over the worldly content, only alluding to it. I know you can’t really compare a short parable to a full-length novel, but perhaps this is the standard towards which we should be aiming. Perhaps we should concentrate on the plot and leave the “riotous living” off the page. I know that I often find the things not said in a story to be the more powerful for not being said.

Of course, not every story can achieve such an ideal. A novel dealing with gangs or drug addiction will almost certainly have to contain fairly graphic depictions of violence and drug abuse. For a reader to fully understand the hell of addiction, the writer would need to delve pretty deeply into the darker aspects of such a life. A story set in a post-apocalyptic world inhabited by motorcycle gangs would struggle to avoid violence because of the every nature of the world being described. I think that the rule in such cases should be to avoid being gratuitous. In “The Book of Eli”, for example, there is a fair amount of worldy content and yet it never feels over the top (at least, not to me). There are a number of deaths, but minimal gore. Rape is suggested but not shown. The only scene I would say is perhaps too much is when the thug loses his hand. And yet even this scene is kept in the shadows.

And, if I’m honest, I respect a storyteller more if he can evoke an emotion in me without being gratuitous. The best example for me is “Remains of The Day”. There is a powerful scene in which two people meet after years of avoiding their feelings for each other. They spend a day together, still skirting what it is they both want to say. As they part for the very last time, their hands clasp until the final moment. That single action speaks volumes in spite of having nothing offensive. This, to me, is master storytelling and definitely a goal worth striving towards.

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About P.A.Baines

P.A.Baines writes computer programs for a living but would much rather be writing Christian speculative fiction, which he does whenever he gets the opportunity. Educated in Africa, he is studying towards a degree in Creative Writing through Buckinghamshire New University in England. He enjoys asking "what if?" but is tired of how speculative fiction deals with religion in general and the God of the Bible in particular. His stories are for Christians who enjoy science fiction but who normally avoid the genre because of its tendency towards an atheistic world-view. His aim is to write entertaining and thought-provoking stories that stretch the imagination, but which keep God in His rightful place as Lord over all creation. P.A.Baines is British but currently lives in a small corner of the Netherlands with his wife and two children and various wildlife. He spends what little spare time he has keeping fit, watching films, and playing computer games with his children. He does most of his reading via audio books, which he listens to while commuting to and from work on his trusty bicycle. He speaks reasonable Dutch and is in the process of learning French.

2 comments on ““Riotous Living” in Christian Fiction

  1. Yeah, I think by chafing at the restrictions of Christian fictions, Christian writers are showing that they’re ready to leave the “nest” and spread their wings in the deeper waters of the secular market. Wow, I flubbed that metaphor.

    The trouble is, the secular world has much higher standards for good writing than Christians do. Reviewing agents’ guidelines, I’m always amazed at their standards. They only want the good stuff. So much Christian fiction totally wouldn’t measure up, just by the poor writing, the stereotype characters, and the deus ex machina called “God” or “Jesus”.

    Writing for the Christian market is fine, if that’s what you want to write. But challenging the market’s guidelines are a sign that it’s time to try a different market.

    • Your point about secular standards is interesting. I only have limited experience submitting to Christian publishers but it seems to me they are more concerned with content while the secular publishers (I have plenty of experience here) are more interested in the quality of the writing and “voice”. Having said that, recent mega-successes in the secular market of works of questionable quality has to make you wonder if that is still true. There are some very angry writers out there who have spent years collecting reams of rejection letters, only to witness the phenomenal success of stories that, according to secular standards of quality, would never have made it beyond the slush pile.

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