26 Comments

Christian Writers Must Deal With Real-Life Issues

Guest Blogger: Laura VanArendonk Baugh

 

We are failing as Christians.

I recently attended a new writers’ conference, my first which focused specifically on the Christian market. I am a Christian author who writes almost exclusively for the general market, so I knew this conference was not going to be for me the way other conferences are, and I was (and am) fine with that. I attended primarily to support a local conference, to accompany and support a first-time attendee and new writer, and to network.

But I had not quite realized the width and depth of the gap that would exist.

They Will Know You Are My Disciples By Your Love (Of Your Own Genre, Market, and Imaginary Perfect Demographic)

I’ve attended over a dozen writers’ conferences in the last few years, separated by thousands of miles and ranging from helping novices get started to advanced material for career writers. I was frankly surprised at how alienated I felt at this one. I feel much more welcome as a Christian writer at a general market conference than I did as a non-CBA author at this Christian market conference. This is a problem in itself; are we not to be known by our love? How do we justify a secular gathering being more welcoming than a Christian one?

Part of that was outside the conference organizers’ control. Apparently a focus specifically on the Christian market tends to draw attendees who eschew both the general market and those associated with it. I listened to a woman explain that she had quit working with a particular company because they also handled “gross secular stuff,” like—stay with me—like fantasy and all of its gross and sinful elements. And she just couldn’t associate with that sort, not even professionally.

(It was probably good that I had a younger woman beside me and felt compelled to set a good example, instead of jumping in with something like, “Ooh, yes, I know exactly what you mean, like what I write.” Sometimes God gives us leashes to save us from ourselves.)

By the time the short writing contest typical for conferences came around, I’d heard similarly genre- and market-disparaging remarks from faculty. (In fairness, the conference did offer a session on Christian fantasy, though that instructor was not invited to participate in panels or speak on the main stage.) I decided to riff on the iconic (and awful) line from Love Story and turned in something close to the following:

Love doesn’t mean not having to say you’re sorry. Love actually means saying I’m sorry for putting Jello in your pillow when you called my YA reads satanic.

Let me be the first to point out this is a spectacularly mediocre specimen of writing. I had no notion of winning anything; it was an exercise for myself in that moment, and just possibly a signal for anyone who might pick up on the whole people-calling-books-evil thing. But if it somehow should fall into the hands of literary analysts, perhaps in a Mechanics of Mediocrity class, students would notice several points:

  1. The speaker was upset by what had been said.
  2. The speaker was apologizing for hurting the criticizing partner, rather than justifying the hurt because the speaker had been hurt first.
  3. There was a tone of humor, thanks to the Jello, rather than of anger.
  4. The speaker was emphasizing love despite differences.

So I felt like I was trying, at least.

A few hours later, the organizer sat with her judges immediately beside where I was already seated, so without intention I observed the judging process. She read each entry aloud—some serious, some silly, some on topic, some off—and they sorted them into piles. Until she got to mine. “Well, somebody’s got baggage,” she declared, as she crumpled my card and winged it to the side.

Welp, so much for love.

But that’s just me getting my toes stepped on, right? It’s not serious, it doesn’t have far-reaching effects, right? Right?

Wrong. So very wrong.

“Perfect” Means “No Real People Allowed”

It started in an early session on the first day as an editor talked about “edgy fiction” as a guy and girl having to be careful not to be seen holding hands because socially they’re not supposed to be together.

Guys. I’m not a fan of the phrase “edgy fiction,” but I can tell you that’s not edgy. That’s Romeo and Juliet.

In a later panel a kid lit editor spoke about querying appropriate markets with an example of a submitted story about dealing with alcoholism “and we would never touch that story” because “our kids come from very conservative homes.” A few minutes later, someone asked about millennials leaving the church and YA fiction. And this is where I believe the rubber should have hit the road and instead just blew off the rims.

The first blow was the statement, “No one knows why millennials are leaving the church.” (I struggled to keep my poker face instead of dropping my jaw.) The panel explained that Christian YA fiction suffered because Christian teens didn’t go to Christian bookstores (I could almost see the cliché headline “Millennials are killing Christian bookstores”), and then there was a gaping hole in the question of why millennials are leaving in droves and whether fiction could have any effect in reaching people.

I was aghast. There is indeed an arterial bleed-out of young people from the church, with statistics reported as high as 80 percent, and we should absolutely be asking why and what to do about it.

I was sitting beside a millennial who could answer that question. A millennial with a still-healing cross-and-semicolon tattoo, a symbol I bet most of these clean-fiction pontificators would not recognize. A millennial who went off her medication because her spiritual authorities (and her instructors in a Christian counseling program) told her that her anxiety was a sin—immediately following her brother’s suicide. A millennial with whom I immediately after had a long and intense debriefing about how Christian writers can honestly address mental illness, anxiety, suicide, addiction, etc. despite everything she’d just heard.

“I am sick and tired of Christians pretending that real life doesn’t happen…. It’s like Christians are all perfect little cookie cutter shapes, all alike and fitting in, and I’m the burnt cookie that gets tossed to the dog.”

OUCH. That’s on us. That’s on us.

So we talked, and we decided that all Christians are burnt cookies, who just get dunked in the milk of Jesus. 🙂 And she is now even more motivated to write—“I bet when they told us to write they didn’t think they’d motivate me to write this!”—about the real needs of her peers and how the church can actually help.

But what if she had been there by herself, and heard only that Christians can’t talk about, much less offer help with, substance abuse or any other serious struggle?

A couple of weeks ago I heard youth pastor and YA author Mary Weber talk about how this-fiction-is-not-clean-enough critical reviews actually undermine her youth ministry. When a representative of the Christian establishment writes that “we can’t root for” a teen character who says “pissed,” it sends a clear message that the church will not support a teen who is struggling with something more significant than minor profanity (if that even registers as profanity on a typical modern teen’s radar). And that means a teen or young adult who is struggling with anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, gender or identity issues, abuse (emotional/verbal/physical/sexual), substance abuse, sex addition, or any other “edgy” issue is not going to approach anyone associated with that church for help.

And anyone who says substance abuse or any other issue is never going to affect someone in a “conservative home” is sorely disconnected from the real and fallen world we live in.

While the attendees and panel may have missed it, it’s been well-explained by people heading out the door that disillusionment and a lack of authenticity are primary reasons millennials leave the church.

“Our generation has been advertised at our whole life…. Consequently, when a company isn’t being authentic with their story we can easily see through this. If the church isn’t giving you the whole story, if it’s sugarcoated and they’re trying to put on an act on stage, people in their twenties will see through this. This causes us to leave. We’re good at seeing when people are lying to us.” —Taylor Snodgrass

Many pastors and congregations today haven’t figured out that there’s a difference between acknowledging sin and encouraging sin. The idea seems to be that if we offer support for someone dealing with temptation or the consequences of sin, that’s tantamount to encouraging others to make the same mistake. Thus not only do we blithely pretend there is no sin in our churches despite the obvious truth (only 1 percent fewer Christian men watch porn regularly than non-Christian men—and that’s just those who admit it), but we make it nearly impossible for those struggling to ask for help and break the unspoken but very real code of silence. This reeks of falsehood, and people tired of marketing, lies, and fakery cannot then accept much else we say as truth.

Blaming Christian teens and young adults for not wanting happy-place fiction instead of stories acknowledging depression, anxiety, suicide, eating disorders, sex addiction, gender issues, and other real-life topics is not going to keep them with us. Nor is adding to the existing stigma (“we would never talk about that!”) going to make them more comfortable asking for help.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Kids from Christian homes cut.
Kids from Christian homes commit suicide, or lose friends who do.
Kids from Christian homes struggle with anxiety and depression.
Kids from Christian homes have eating disorders (just a couple of days ago a friend experienced a death in her church from this cause).
Kids from Christian homes struggle with sex—sexual temptation, sexual identity, sex addiction, sexual abuse.
Kids from Christian homes deal with every single issue that kids from non-Christian homes do. If we won’t meet their needs or take them seriously, we have absolutely no footing to be surprised or to complain when they turn to those who will.

So am I calling for us all to give up our usual writing and focus on dark and gritty YA with the most shocking content we can conjure? Of course not. I am calling for authenticity.

Write the story you need to write, but write it with real people. Instead of perfect caricatures who never experience serious temptation or doubt, write people who suffer all the slings and arrows of life and respond with the full range of human emotion. Show characters struggling with real life issues, show them angry at God or doubting, show them struggling to cope. Show that life doesn’t suddenly become automagically perfect after reading through the Romans Road. I’m not saying to check off the whole list in every story, but make sure someone reading your book could say, Yeah, that’s me, I can relate.

“But I just want to write clean fiction that encourages people!”

Great. Encourages them through what, exactly? Because people who have their lives all in a tidy box don’t need encouragement.

I’m not against clean fiction, and I’m not against feel-good fiction which doesn’t tackle any serious issues. Sometimes we just need some brain candy to help us relax, and that’s fine! There is a place for that.

But a store which sells only candy is not going to meet the needs of a starving world.

You have probably experienced that moment when you invite a friend to church and he or she hesitates and then asks, “Will they be okay with me?” And you know that’s a heart-breaking moment, because it highlights clearly that our public image is one of judgment and maintaining outward appearances rather than of accepting the broken, the screwed-up, the sinner who needs help to Jesus. Let’s not let our writing contribute to that bad publicity.

 

Award-winning author Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes captivating epic and urban fantasy, historical fiction, and mystery, as well as non-fiction on animal training & behavior. Many people known to have exceptional taste think it’s pretty cool stuff.

 

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26 comments on “Christian Writers Must Deal With Real-Life Issues

  1. Excellently put. Another thought on the “our kids come from very conservative homes” way of thinking: some kids may truly come from those types of homes. But they don’t live in an perfect world. Sooner or later something is going to creep into and disrupt their idyllic lives. And they can either be prepared for it and equipped to handle the struggles or they can be caught with their heads in the sand, buried by their parents who are so focused on protecting them from the world that they never taught them how to live in it.

    I came from one of those picture-perfect conservative homes. I went to a Christian college and for the first time met someone from a broken home – that’s how idyllic my upbringing had been. But I also made friends with Christians brought up in the foster system who had suffered abuse at their birth-parent’s hands that I’d never even dreamed of. Students who had struggled with or been touched by alcoholism, drugs, porn, rape and more. The blinders came off but it took me a while to find my footing. We do those perfect, clean families a disservice when we sanitize to the point that they don’t know how to deal with dirt. Especially when it finally comes knocking on their own door and rips their faith out from under their feet.

  2. Would have loved to see this in Leadership or Christianity Today

  3. Ouch! Speaking as one of the broken who’s floundered around for the past eight years looking for a church that will embrace me as a sister in Christ–and not finding one (yet)–I’m going to be sharing this.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you for posting this, Laura.
    As a girl who’s grown up in a conservative Christian home (on the mission field, no less), I’ve had to deal with that stigma– “Christian fantasy won’t fit our circles” and “Independent Fundamental Baptists consider your stuff Satanic”.
    Thank you.
    I’m learning to open my eyes to the real world and be cool with it. I don’t write fiction to draw a Christian Independent Fundamental Baptist audience.
    I write fiction to nab an audience in the real world, because that’s the audience that really wants it and needs it.

    Thank you for sharing, seriously. This is precisely what I needed today.

  5. Thank you.
    Thank you for standing for the broken, the outcast, the freaks, the real hurting people.
    Thank you for taking care of that little sister when she needed you most.
    Thank you for being authentic and not backing down.
    Thank you, from the heart of a broken, screwed-up, PK who went to a Christian college, freak, author, and sinner who fights this backward, close-gated community thinking every day.

  6. Well said, Laura. You’ve further confirmed why I’m not in CBA. And I don’t mean that as a shake-my-fist statement at CBA or those who are members. I attended a national CBA event years ago, not as an author but as a project manager for a Nashville-based company, and I left with many of the same conclusions & insights you had. It’s just not a fit for who I am, how I write, and the audience I want to reach.

    • ** And I don’t mean that as a shake-my-fist statement at CBA or those who are members. …. It’s just not a fit for who I am, how I write, and the audience I want to reach. **

      Exactly. I don’t have anything against those who write in the CBA. I only caution against getting so tied up with artificial and arbitrary standards that we miss the actual point of what we’re trying to do.

  7. This is a great post, Laura. I have writer friends who are targeting the “clean read” audience. They know my dislike of the very term. We love and support one another as believers, but in this area, and it’s a big one, we all know there’s very little common ground.

  8. I think this post deserves a bit of countering. Your tone strikes me as presuming to understand the vast majority of the people in the room with you at that conference, why they were there–and in order to judge others is one of the primary reasons you believe they attended. That’s what I would gather from reading what you wrote.

    That isn’t very kind of you–perhaps there are other and legitimate reasons for people to attend that conference. Perhaps you don’t actually know all the reasons involved.

    And while Millennials are leaving churches, I don’t think anyone knows 100 percent all the reasons why. The idea that Christians are fake and younger people don’t like that is a legitimate one–but it’s also legitimate to note that younger people are exposed to more Internet than most parents know and thus, more violence, more sex, more doubt (in terms of deliberate challenges to Christianity by atheists and others), and feel their parent’s perspective is wrong because they spend a lot of time exposed to other perspectives that are not necessarily true, whether their parents know it or not.

    Note how starkly different the second thing I just said is to the first (the first being Christians being fake). To give a specific example, it’s legitimate to propose that young people (some of them) are judging what is “real” not only by cynicism created by advertising (please note their parents were exposed to advertising their entire lives as well) but because they have seen shows like Game of Thrones without their parents knowing it and believe GoT is gritty reality and their folks live in a fantasy land.

    By the way, does GoT represent gritty reality? Actually, not so much. While the general vying for power is true enough (sadly), many aspects of the show are glamorized and idealized and not all that realistic, including the way the show portrays violence (the real thing would look different than the clips I’ve seen of people getting offed–honest). Yet for many Millennials, this faux-reality IS reality.

    Parents are not in touch, but the kids are at least sometimes not in touch either, believing a bunch of things repeated among their peers that are not in any way actually TRUE. But they think these things are true–example, far more Millennials than other generations, even church goers, believe your gender is whatever you feel it is as opposed to equipment and genetics you were born with. They don’t believe that because it’s true, but because that’s a message they receive via the Internet and repeat among themselves.

    While I completely and wholeheartedly agree that Christians need to stop dodging tough issues, I think there are multiple possible ways to deal with the problems people face and no one person has mastered any kind of perfect formula. In other words, demonizing the CBA is probably not a helpful approach, even if it clearly isn’t for you.

    Please note I grew up with an alcoholic father, promiscuous mother, sisters who eventually became neo-Pagans–in part I would say due to ideas and people they knew because of exposure to fantasy fiction, whereas I nearly became an atheist because of my hero-worship of unbeliever sci-fi writers like Isaac Asimov and Robert A. Heinlein. I had lots of exposure to real violence, real hardship and suffering growing up. I did not come from the Christian cocoon and see what you are saying as the clarion call voice of liberty–I come from the outside world and have been through the wringer. I understand the desire to shield and protect young people from harm–and I have met many nice young Christian people who have absolutely no idea what it is like to see the things I did growing up–and I think that’s more good than bad.

    By the way, do I support the CBA? Not really, I don’t attend any CBA conferences and I don’t write for the CBA deliberately, even though I write clean fiction. But I do know some CBA authors and they seem to have good motives to me–at least some of them seem that way.

    So while you make some great points, let’s please rein back some on judging those you see as judgmental. Let’s perceive there are different reasons for people to take a separatist stance as it were and somebody might have a good reason to do so. Let’s also acknowledge what’s going on with Millennials is a complex phenomenon with them “seeing through fake” as only part of the issue–how much a part, I don’t think anybody can really know for certain, even if you and I may have strong opinions based on things we have seen and heard.

    • >> in order to judge others is one of the primary reasons you believe they attended <> Let’s also acknowledge what’s going on with Millennials is a complex phenomenon with them “seeing through fake” as only part of the issue– <> I have met many nice young Christian people who have absolutely no idea what it is like to see the things I did growing up–and I think that’s more good than bad. <> demonizing the CBA is probably not a helpful approach, even if it clearly isn’t for you. <<

      I've said repeatedly I am not against the CBA, and certainly my goal isn't to demonize it. I also should note that I'm a member in a big "clean reads" group (though their guidelines are somewhat different than CBA's) and that I'm not criticizing anyone who doesn't include or enjoy gratuitous "mature content." (Though I'd say that if the content is relevant to the work and essential for the character's arc and redemption, then it isn't gratuitous. It's difficult to talk about the change in John Newton or the Apostle Paul without also talking about the decidedly-ugly before pictures.)

      But as I said in a comment above, I think it's possible to get so entangled in artificial rules that the original purpose of the work gets lost. Most of us would say that our writing has a message. Is that (explicit or implicit) message "Everything's fine"? Or is it "God loves you and will make a way"?

      I hope that clarifies!

      • Drat, after getting it right above, I promptly forgot WordPress.com devours angle-bracket quotes and everything around them. Let me try again.

        **in order to judge others is one of the primary reasons you believe they attended **

        What did I say that gave you that impression?

        I don’t remotely think anyone went there because they were jonesing for a hit of holier-than-thou. I think they went for the same reasons I go to a writers’ conference: to talk shop, to learn, to network. That talking shop slipped into tribalism is not an indication that judgment was their primary (or any) goal.

        I’m willing to be called judgmental — I used that word for myself when I was reporting live, if you remember — but only for what I actually said. 🙂

        Moving on…. Sure, advertising isn’t new, but it’s changed significantly. Compare a typical 1950s television commercial with a 2010s specimen and you’ll see a significantly different sell. Advertising has gotten slicker, more covert, more emotional, and consumers have gotten more skeptical.

        But like you, I don’t think that’s the hinge pin.

        ** Let’s also acknowledge what’s going on with Millennials is a complex phenomenon with them “seeing through fake” as only part of the issue– **

        Of course it is! I don’t pretend to have 100% of the answer. What I can say is that “no one has any idea why millennials are leaving” is 100% wrong. We do have plenty of frustrated statements about inauthenticity. The probable existence of more than one leak is no reason to ignore the leaks we know about.

        Throwing up our hands and saying “but teens don’t go to Christian bookstores” is not a proper answer to the question. It’s an evasion of the question.

        I guess I give young people more credit. I don’t think they believe Game of Thrones is real. I think on average they’re more detached than the average older viewer, which is why the sex, violence, etc. are cranked up to keep their attention. I think they value human connection above all else, which is why they’ll listen to their friends for philosophy and ethics above an (often faceless) entity.

        ** I have met many nice young Christian people who have absolutely no idea what it is like to see the things I did growing up–and I think that’s more good than bad. **

        I hope you don’t expect me to disagree with you. 🙂 I certainly don’t want more people to struggle or suffer. I just want us to be accessible to those who do struggle or suffer.

        ** demonizing the CBA is probably not a helpful approach, even if it clearly isn’t for you **

        I’ve said repeatedly I am not against the CBA, and certainly my goal isn’t to demonize it. I also should note that I’m a member in a big “clean reads” group (though their guidelines are somewhat different than CBA’s) and that I’m not criticizing anyone who doesn’t include or enjoy gratuitous “mature content.” (Though I’d say that if the content is relevant to the work and essential for the character’s arc and redemption, then it isn’t gratuitous. It’s difficult to talk about the change in John Newton or the Apostle Paul without also talking about the decidedly-ugly before pictures.)

        But as I said in a comment above, I think it’s possible to get so entangled in artificial rules that the original purpose of the work gets lost. Most of us would say that our writing has a message. Is that (explicit or implicit) message “Everything’s fine”? Or is it “God loves you and will make a way”?

        I think that’s most of what I had written before, or at least the key bits. And now I hope that really does clarify!

  9. I write women’s fiction. I’m a Christian struggling with my place in the church both personally and theologically. I’m currently writing the third book of a trilogy about Christians who struggle with real problems. They work in Hollywood, they use the f word, sometimes drink too much, struggle with sex addiction, pride, family problems, etc. Right now I’m approaching a scene when my main character will inadvertently expose the porn addiction of a mega-church pastor because his young son assaulted her daughter at the Christian school they both attend. Sometimes I think the situations I come up with are over the top, but then something happens in the world that tells me no, not really. Unfortunately. My writing isn’t “edgy” in this series. It’s fallen off the edge as defined by Christians. As imperfect as the execution of my story is, I feel called to write that God’s grace is for everyone and no one is beyond redemption.

    When I was the librarian at my then church, I quit reading Christian fiction. The Left Behind series did it for me–such bad writing! Even the “gritty” stories were sugar coated. They were also shallow and formulaic, as is so much of Christian art in our culture.

    I would love to find others who write like I do. I feel alone. I’ve been working on this series, as well as other novels for nine years during which my personal faith has changed, grown, expanded. I believe in the story and that it can be a vessel God can use to reach others who would never pick up a work of regular Christian fiction.

  10. Thanks for the clarifications. One thing I particularly wish I hadn’t said was “demonizing the CBA”–you didn’t do that. So that was not fair of me to say. But you did let a particular writing conference (which particular one was unnamed) have a very critical piece of your mind, to the degree that “demonizing” it qualifies as hyperbole, but only a bit.

    Yes, you acknowledged that you have no quarrel with clean reading, but I did not say you did. I really was talking about how rough you were on a particular writing conference and some broad conclusions you drew about how to reach the younger generation.

    And also it seemed to me (maybe my impression was wrong, since you did clarify you don’t claim to know 100 percent) that you thought knowing what was real and what was fake was a special millennial trait and the fake stuff promoted at that conference (which happened to be CBA stuff) would let young people down because it didn’t address their real issues and also seemed fake. I shouldn’t have to quote you on why I got that impression. But I can if you prefer.

    By the way, I insist that you are mistaken about GoT, it isn’t a matter of giving credit, it’s a matter of reporting what I have seen–I had Spanish students when I taught (it was only about a year and half ago I left) who thought it was real (I mean the violence and sex parts, not the magic, which they knew was not real). Now, how typical was my non-scientific sample of students? I don’t know. But I know at least some are utterly clueless about such things–and really, WHY would they know what is real? They have not only been advertised to all their lives, they have also been given fake “true” information all their lives.

    Including the millennials, some of whom I’ve met on line, who totally believe what I consider to be transgender nonsense. What I mean by bringing this up is to say that younger people don’t necessarily have a direct line to the truth that older people are letting them down by not grasping. What they have a direct line to for sure is the info going around the Internet, which may or may not be true. Or at least most of them do.

    In other words, some evidence does exist that they are under the influence of a lot of things they find a lot more powerful than what their parents are trying to promote. Which could be an argument for more effective parenting–not that parents are inherently wrong in trying to protect their kids, but they are doing it in the wrong way.

    I agree, by the way, that being more real in general is good–but I also support the idea of parents figuring this sort of thing out for themselves. And they may not be wrong if they choose to do things differently than I would.

    I hope that makes sense.

    • **But you did let a particular writing conference (which particular one was unnamed) have a very critical piece of your mind,**

      I did not name the conference because I actually don’t think it’s their problem. I think it’s a much larger, more pervasive view, and this was just where I happened to run into it most recently and dramatically.

      Whether I have been too critical is certainly up for interpretation.

      ** you thought knowing what was real and what was fake was a special millennial trait and the fake stuff promoted at that conference (which happened to be CBA stuff) would let young people down because it didn’t address their real issues and also seemed fake **

      I never credited millennials with a special trait of discerning truth. I said they are very good at detecting inauthenticity. I maintain that is true.

      I’m not a millennial by half a decade or so, but due to my peculiar lifestyle (read, I haven’t reproduced, so I’m excused from most friendships my own age, and I move in interest circles full of people younger than me), the vast majority of my friends are. Nearly all the people I meet up with regularly are 5-20 years younger than me. Yes, this makes for a lot of jokes and mockery 🙂 but it also means that I’m not just quoting a line from an article I read somewhere, I’m speaking from immersion.

      As to whether I thought that “stuff” would let young people down because it didn’t address their issues and seemed fake: Yes, but it wasn’t just my personal thought, it was observation from a live subject sitting beside me.

      And not just her, and not just now. Let me jump back a comment:

      ** I had lots of exposure to real violence, real hardship and suffering growing up. I did not come from the Christian cocoon and see what you are saying as the clarion call voice of liberty–I come from the outside world and have been through the wringer. I understand the desire to shield and protect young people from harm **

      No one is arguing against protecting young people from harm. Maybe the problem is that I don’t think admitting that struggles exist is harmful.

      But those of us from inside the Christian cocoon aren’t issuing that call for liberty just to be libertine. I was one of those who grew up in a squeaky-clean Christian home, and I had (have) GREAT Christian parents who today admit they generally erred on the side of over-protection. Nonetheless, Real Life Issues (TM) touched my pristine and cocooned upbringing. I was 12 when I was groped at school. I was 13 when a friend shot herself in the head. I was 14 when I learned my Sunday School classmate had been raped — learned from the stylist cutting my hair, because no one at church was talking about it. (I never told about the groping until 30 years later.) I was 15 when a family member killed himself. Two of my teachers — one a favorite — were arrested for molesting students.

      I was in a Christian bookstore 2-3 times a month, and there was nothing which remotely touched on those topics. I read and enjoyed my clean historicals, they were interesting and happy, but they were not relevant to anything I was facing in school or life. There was no book to explore what I felt about those events, no safe filter of fiction for handling big topics a step away from me.

      Fast-forward to today, with gender identity issues and mental illness and so many more conversations much more prevalent and accessible than then (which isn’t always a bad thing), and it just seems logical to me that we should be there when people need something to grab on to.

      ** I insist that you are mistaken about GoT, it isn’t a matter of giving credit, it’s a matter of reporting what I have seen–I had Spanish students when I taught (it was only about a year and half ago I left) who thought it was real (I mean the violence and sex parts, not the magic, which they knew was not real) **

      Twenty years or so, I had friends working in a former Communist bloc country where, they described, imagination and fiction had been severely squelched. They showed the film The Matrix one night to jump-start a discussion about post-modernism, only they reported that it actually started something of a panic, because the audience could not grasp allegory and suspension of disbelief. So yes, that’s possible, though it wasn’t what I was talking about.

      But I think I must have mistaken your original meaning. I don’t now see the point of whether or not a student can recognize an actual de-spleening from a Hollywood one. That’s not the kind of authenticity I’m talking about.

      ** Including the millennials, some of whom I’ve met on line, who totally believe what I consider to be transgender nonsense. **

      I don’t understand your inclusion of transgender issues, which seems actually to support my point. If we refuse even to mention it, how can we complain when they go to other sources for input?

      ** What I mean by bringing this up is to say that younger people don’t necessarily have a direct line to the truth that older people are letting them down by not grasping. **

      Well, of course they don’t. None of us are born with a direct line to the truth. If they had such a thing, they certainly wouldn’t need anyone to be relevant and authentic to help guide them to the truth! 🙂

      But taking a “kids these days with their GoT and their transgender nonsense” attitude doesn’t help them toward that truth. They need authenticity.

      ** I also support the idea of parents figuring this sort of thing out for themselves. And they may not be wrong if they choose to do things differently than I would. **

      I haven’t said a thing about parenting, so I’m not sure why you seem to think I’m criticizing parents. Frankly that horse is out of the millennial barn. Even the youngest millennials are in their upper teens, so they should be mostly weaned off from the heavy-duty parenting.

      But since it’s come up, I absolutely support the idea of parents figuring this out and making their own decisions on what information and material to give kids! Only right now they don’t have much of a choice. If there’s little or no faith-based content about tough issues, a parent can’t decide to provide it.

      I’m not in favor of abdicating actual parenting to purchased materials — the just-leave-a-sex-ed-book-lying-around-the-house approach is rarely the ideal one 🙂 — but just as parents often provide books to small children about sharing or telling the truth, parents can provide books to older kids about working through or overcoming serious issues. Or they can let teens discover them for themselves and test out theories and ideas.

      Or, since we’re talking specifically about millennials, and most 20-30-year-olds are doing their own shopping, new adults who are now away from parents could choose to explore ideas and evaluate what they believe with more content options than just Tumblr.

      This exploration process is going to happen anyway; as you say, they have the whole internet available. It seems silly to push them there instead of meeting their questions and needs within the church.

      You’re of course welcome to reply! but I’m going to have to bow out of this conversation, because I’m going to be off the computer for the next 5 days, just checking my phone briefly for text messages and occasional hits of social media. I don’t want you to think, if I don’t respond, that I’d rage-quit or anything. 🙂 Thanks for discussing!

      • Hi Laura. Note that it’s PARENTS who support CBA strictures. Yeah, it’s also adults thinking they are protecting kids like publishers and authors (I’m talking CBA MG and YA lit here, not stuff intended to be for adults), but it’s parents who decide to buy or not to buy.

        So when you say WE NEED TO BE AUTHENTIC, as you have said in a rather forceful tone, you are criticizing people who believe some things ought to be left out of literature. Some of those people have their heads in the sand, but others I imagine are addressing these issues in many ways other than in what their kids read–and many of these people are parents.

        You know, the image of the judging eyes and the two bears which were added to this post are what come across as especially biting and sarcastic. You could have said the same thing without in effect belittling people who are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

        You wanna be authentic, good for you. I say that genuinely, no sarcasm in the slightest (pointing this out because you’ve read me as sarcastic at least once when I was not). I also want to be authentic, though I don’t think I have exactly the same definition as you do when I say that (my definition includes being authentic about violence because violence is not something people should have delusions about–GoT fails my realism test, reveling in dramatic and sensational faux gore).

        It’s OK to write literature which tackles tough issues. It’s OK to say you think everybody should do that. Not OK for you to mock those who don’t agree with you–who are, mostly, PARENTS.

        Hope I have finally managed to reach the level of crystal clear. Not any bit of this is personal, by the way. God bless you.

        • I had to get on to answer some work email, so I grabbed a couple of minutes of Facebook and checked in here. 🙂

          ** Note that it’s PARENTS who support CBA strictures. Yeah, it’s also adults thinking they are protecting kids like publishers and authors (I’m talking CBA MG and YA lit here, not stuff intended to be for adults), but it’s parents who decide to buy or not to buy. **

          I gently submit that if a millennial’s books are being purchased or policed by parents, then their problems are well beyond mere books. 😉 The median millennial is somewhere in their mid-to-late 20s, depending on which research bracket we’re using, and should be adult enough to be buying their own books. I have not been advocating for an MG book addressing cutting; I hadn’t been talking about children’s books at all, until you brought up parenting.

          I did mention teens, as did the panelist — but his complaint was still that the teens weren’t buying CBA books, not that their parents weren’t. Teens often buy their own books, frequently on their own devices, and don’t need (or want, I suspect) parental gatekeepers.

          Saying that a parent should be involved in a child’s reading matter is 100% accurate and I agree with you, but it’s somewhat off-topic regarding books for millennials.

          ** You know, the image of the judging eyes and the two bears which were added to this post are what come across as especially biting and sarcastic. You could have said the same thing without in effect belittling people who are your brothers and sisters in Christ. **

          Interestingly, I included those images specifically to break up text and to add levity, and I vetted them with someone else before submitting. Another reader specifically mentioned to me that she liked them. So I’m sorry they didn’t work for you, but understand that they weren’t included to be especially biting.

          ** Not any bit of this is personal, by the way. **

          I know. 🙂 One thing I particularly like about you is that even when we disagree, I always come away feeling as if you still respect me as a person and we’re merely disagreeing. Thanks for that!

  11. My comment isn’t showing up and I didn’t get a notice that it had to be approved, so I’ll paste again… ignore me if this shows up twice! 🙂

    Laura, this was a great post, and sums up so much of what I’ve seen and heard in this industry. I know you’re not exaggerating, and it’s something that needs to be addressed. I didn’t see your post as being judgmental, but more simply calling out what you saw. Most of the people you described mean well and their hearts are in the right place, but people let down their guard in a setting like that and revert to cliche terminology and it’s easy for it to come across as us vs them.

    I am a Christian writer, and yet I cringe sometimes to be identified as such—for many of the reasons above. I will say, though, that the very first magazine editor who read my work (from a large and traditional Christian publication) said this about something I wrote: “This is great, but where are the struggles? Nobody will relate to your perfect moments with God. We relate to the messy.” That changed my whole approach to writing—and shows that there ARE some out there who think that way. What she said helped me clarify my own goals: to be real, to admit what I don’t understand, and to address what seem to be contradictions and hypocrisy.

    There are many others who think the way you do, and I do, and it feels like it’s time for our voices to be heard. I think people need to hear what doubt-filled faith looks like, full of questions and struggles and stumbles. They need to know that having doubts does not cancel out your faith.

    My personal struggle is trying to figure out where I fit in. Marketing is challenging, because where does one go to find others who hover somewhere between CBA and the “secular” world? Because the people I’m talking to are most definitely in the latter, but that industry is pretty guarded against anyone with a Christian message (probably, again, for all the reasons you mentioned above), and yet my message doesn’t always fit in the “raising my praise hands in the air with you, girlfriend” genre.

    BTW, there’s an interesting book by Tyndale (my publisher) on why people are walking away from church (https://www.tyndale.com/p/churchless/9781496411464). I agree—it’s largely because they need authenticity and aren’t finding it. Of course there are other reasons, too, but it’s full of facts and info that I found enlightening.

    Anyway, I have no great conclusions, except to say YES, I agree there are problems, and I don’t know the answers, but I hope more and more people will speak up like this and that we will find ways to have real conversations about real issues that affect real people. Thanks for writing this.

    • Sorry for the delay — apparently my notifications for comments was somehow turned off.

      Thanks for this comment, both the support and the reassurance that there are editors who want the messy. We don’t relate to perfect and fearless heroes like Heracles — we want the heroes who doubt and fear and keep on anyway, like Frodo. 🙂 You are exactly right in that those doubts and fears do not cancel out faith. They highlight it.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  12. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, I’m fortunate enough to agree with the one you are expressing in this article. Being afraid to address, or projecting a sense of fear in addressing, issues of sin has always been an obstacle in my world; I can’t speak for others.

    While I didn’t grow up in a “perfect” home, I did grow up in a healthy one where my mom wasn’t afraid to talk about sin to her children. Unfortunately, when my sister and I stepped out of our home and went into the world, we were oddballs. Non-Christians couldn’t understand our way of life and either feared or hated other Christians, and all the “church kids” we met had no understanding of humanity. They weren’t being taught forgiveness for sins, they were being taught judgment. They were being taught to stay away from anyone who wasn’t like “church folk” and to not do anything that could possibly lead to sin, and of course, there was a long list of things not to do. But that was my experience, not anyone else’s, and later in life, we found a church community that better suited us.

    I’m aware that this is not exactly what you are expressing in this article, but this is what reading your words pulled out of me.

    On a side note, as a writer, I haven’t found an audience for my fiction because non-Christian shy away from anything associated with Christianity and most Christian communities don’t think my work is appropriate or “Christian enough”. I’ve been blessed to have a supportive Christian family who tells me otherwise, plus I know my work has a good message even if it’s not in the “right” packaging for some people.

    • Toi, I have had a similar problem, being too religious for the general market and too radical for the religious market. I did finally find a publisher who understands. I trust you will, too. Persevere!

    • Thanks for commenting!

      **I haven’t found an audience for my fiction because non-Christian shy away from anything associated with Christianity and most Christian communities don’t think my work is appropriate or “Christian enough” **

      Actually, I think that’s not strictly true, and it’s more accurate to say that non-Christians often shy away from anything which is overtly preachy — in exactly the same way Christians complain about “agenda books.” 🙂 It’s all about how it’s done. Jim Butcher’s Dresden books sell millions in hardback before we even count paperbacks and ebooks, and they include a very strong Christian character who talks a lot about faith. He doesn’t always say what I would and I wouldn’t pretend it’s a font of theological truth, but it’s thoughtful and upfront, and it’s certainly not turning off the readers.

      As Kristen says, don’t get discouraged!

  13. Wow, what a great article and I say this as someone who, as a teenager mumble mumble years ago (more than three decades) fell out of love with Christianity. Not with the humanity at the core of Christianity (and every other major religion), but with exactly what this article addresses.

    My fantasy is fantasy, but I feel strongly I promote the values that matter to me, including tolerance and healing after hardship. I deal with real problems and it’s not always easy but that same basic humanity that I do hold on to is at the core.

    Not apologizing for my apostasy, mind you, or criticizing your Christianity. In fact, I wanted to make it clear that this article can speak to those of us who don’t count ourselves Christian and isn’t that what you want to be able to do?

    • I’m sorry for the delay — apparently I somehow turned off my notifications.

      And even more, I’m so sorry that was your experience years ago. My whole point is that Christianity is not about appearances, that it was first embraced and spread by the disenfranchised, the marginalized, and the broken, that it’s about redemptive love for the irredeemable, and we can do so much better than to pretend it’s about social perfection.

      I believe that all truth is truth, and that the humanity and healing you write about is a reflection of God’s love. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment here!

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