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:
- The speaker was upset by what had been said.
- The speaker was apologizing for hurting the criticizing partner, rather than justifying the hurt because the speaker had been hurt first.
- There was a tone of humor, thanks to the Jello, rather than of anger.
- 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 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.