“Is he quite safe?”
“Safe? Who said anything about safe? Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
Mr. Beaver’s statement about Aslan in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe upends Lucy’s assumption that danger and goodness are incongruous. By extension, it challenges our perception of God and wise living—including the stories we feel safe writing.
We may not talk about “safe fiction” in Christian writing circles, but we have a similar concept: clean fiction. Many writers struggle to discern what classifies as clean. How far can we go without dirtying our stories? Where should we draw lines, and how can we avoid laying stumbling blocks for readers?
Clean fiction has a purpose, especially if the target audience expects it. Our submission standards here at Story Embers would be considered clean by most people. Yet I’m struck by how cleanness often becomes a moral imperative in the Christian writing field.
If all Christian fiction is clean, I’d contend that we’ve lost something.
What Is a Clean Story?
Before tackling this topic, I need to make sure everyone is on the same page. Unsurprisingly, clean fiction is difficult to define. CleanIndieReads.com mandates “no erotica or sexually explicit content… minimal offensive language… [and] no graphic violence or gore.” Fair enough. ThriftyandThriving.com, however, takes an alternate stance: “books [that] are not filled with swear words or sexual situations.” Some places use a simpler rubric, prohibiting language, pervasive darkness, extreme violence, and sex.
To understand the meaning of this term, however, we need to examine practice as well as theory. Although sites like PluggedIn and VidAngel offer helpful services, they sometimes label bizarre elements as negative. PluggedIn warns moviegoers that characters lie in The Avengers. VidAngel allows parents to bleep nineteen “crude words” in Toy Story (unless you flinch at “stupid,” none of these are actually offensive).
Certain genres also have checkpoints to abide by. Copyeditor Libby Sternberg describes some of the guidelines for inspirational fiction at a major publishing house: “I’ve had to refer to the guidelines to double-check if, say, it’s okay for the hero to say ‘for Pete’s sake’ (nope) or ‘jeez’ (nope) or can he play cards (nope) or drink (of course not)… No reference to Halloween, either.” As Sternberg mentions in her article, Christian fiction in practice often follows the same restrictions.
Clean fiction is hard (impossible?) to define because people interpret cleanness differently. When we assess a book or movie as clean, we’re usually saying we’re comfortable with its content, and everyone has different levels of comfortability. For one person, any language at all is intolerable; for another, mild language is fine but harsher language is not. Hence, VidAngel lists “uncultured swine” as a phrase parents may want to bleep because they’re uncomfortable with their children hearing it.
While individual definitions vary, I would argue that a thread connects them all, and we can discover it by asking, “Clean from what?” Now, hopefully, that similarity becomes obvious:
Clean fiction does not contain acts or words that might bother readers.
Clean by What Standard?
The above definition raises two questions: What acts or words bother readers? And, more importantly, is making readers uncomfortable wrong?
It certainly can be. But look at Scripture. Witches performed necromancy on dead prophets, Babylonian generals boasted that the besieged would drink their own urine, daughters conspired to get impregnated by their fathers, prophets wandered the streets naked—and that doesn’t even touch the last five chapters of Judges, which chronicle some of the darkest situations I’ve encountered in ancient literature, the lives of Roman emperors excepted.
Scripture doesn’t seem to prioritize readers’ comfort, nor are its passages clean by modern Christian criteria. Instead, we often draw stricter lines around what’s acceptable to write about. After all, how many Christians would sanction poetry celebrating erotic love (Song of Solomon)? Or how many Christian writers would unabashedly describe feces spilling out of a dead king’s body (Judges 3)? Scripture contains dozens of scenes that Christians would probably hesitate to approve in another context.
Why do we censor fiction more than Scripture?
Because many of us (myself included) like the idea of a sanitized reality.
We see fiction as an escape and don’t want to show a grisly world in our storytelling. We fear that depicting vileness may imply vileness in ourselves. And we believe that sanitizing our stories helps us maintain purified souls.
But is this the standard Scripture follows? Scripture tells us that the world we live in is corrupt, yet it also states that we can’t remove ourselves from the world. This is no less true in storytelling. We are not to condone or engage in activity that Scripture forbids, but depiction does not equal endorsement. We delude ourselves and readers when we equate cleanness with godliness and offer that as the only option in Christian fiction.
We Can’t Purge Life’s Impurities
In our Christian Storytellers Manifesto, we call Christian writers to affirm that we have the freedom “to portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity.” The general wording of this clause was first proposed by former staff members Sierra, Christi, and MacKenzie at our 2018 summer retreat, and when I heard it, I paused to consider the connotations.
Are writers commissioned to portray the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity? Because that means everything in the real world has a place in fiction. Everything.
I realized I had to agree. As human beings, we need to understand reality’s ugliness and splendor from both a rational perspective (through principle) and an emotional perspective (through story). We don’t get a pass. To deepen our grasp of the full human experience, we need stories that display it.
No topic is therefore outside the bounds of storytelling.
Since parts of the human experience are tainted, some—if not many—stories will need to depict details that are less than clean. We can’t omit facets of reality from Christian fiction if we intend to fulfill our obligation to be truthtellers. Readers need the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
How to Depict Unclean Things
Although we’re free to portray all of reality because readers need authentic stories, we have a responsibility to do so appropriately. The fact that people swear does not license us to pack our books with the worst curse words we can find.
Neither is every storyteller equipped to address tricky subjects. Some authors may be unable to handle certain subjects without falling into sin due to individual weaknesses. Not only that, but one writer can’t encapsulate all of reality in a single book. I’m not insisting that all storytellers depict these subjects, but that we shouldn’t reject them as taboo in Christian storytelling.
When we undertake this charge, though, we may be unsure how to wisely navigate tricky subjects. Romans 14 reminds us not to violate our consciences. But how do we properly calibrate our consciences to begin with?
Talking with other Christian storytellers has been invaluable as I’ve formulated my own views. At the 2018 Story Embers staff retreat, we set aside a whole evening to discuss tricky subjects on a hike. None of us knew each other’s views beforehand, but wrestling through tough issues with other strong, thoughtful Christian writers was immensely helpful and encouraging.
We emerged from the conversation with a desire to provide our audience at Story Embers with the same opportunity.
So, over the next month, we’ll be publishing articles on how to discreetly depict four different tricky subjects in Christian fiction. Many of these articles draw from the conclusions we arrived at during the retreat. A different staff member will write each one, and in a designated section at the end of the posts, other staff members will share their thoughts. We hope these explorations will spark a healthy, vibrant discussion in the comments. Our goal is to give you various perspectives to evaluate alongside Scripture so you can articulate your own position and determine how to approach these topics.
Here are the four upcoming articles:
- October 22: “How Should Christian Authors Depict Darkness?” by Hope Ann
- October 29: “How Should Christian Authors Depict Violence?” by Daeus Lamb
- November 5: “How Should Christian Authors Depict Swearing?” by Sierra Ret
- November 12: “How Should Christian Authors Depict Sex?” by Josiah DeGraaf
Cleanness and Godliness
Cleanness is a complicated concept to define in storytelling. But I don’t believe Christians should focus on writing clean fiction exclusively. As Mr. Beaver pointed out, safety and goodness don’t always go hand in hand. Instead, we should aim to write fiction that showcases the full human experience in an honest yet appropriate fashion.
In Philippians 4:8, Paul exhorts us to meditate on the true, the good, and the beautiful. But we err if we interpret this to mean we should shun the false, the evil, and the hideous. After all, Paul began his epistle to the Romans by explicating man’s monstrosities. Rather, I’d posit that he’s urging us to contemplate the nature of the ideal reality whether we are looking upon beauty or depravity.
As fiction writers, we help readers to meditate on the true, the good, and the beautiful not by avoiding depictions of evil but by crafting our stories so that readers glimpse the beatific reality beyond the shadows.
Fiction writing is a dangerous business. Portraying the full human experience in all its beauty and depravity is no small task. Nor is it necessarily a clean one. But when we use the contrast between light and darkness to reveal people’s need for salvation and God’s goodness in a broken and vicious world, our stories have power.
Tune in next week as Hope tackles writing about darkness. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you feel called to do as a writer, and how do you grapple with cleanness in fiction? Share your perspective in the comments!
Josiah DeGraaf is the summit & marketing director at Story Embers and the program director of The Young Writer. He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations and loves to take normal people, put them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then force them to make difficult choices. Someday he hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, and themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. In the meantime, you can find him teaching young writers at the Young Writer’s Workshop or writing short stories at his website as he works toward achieving these goals.