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Dear Christian Novelists: Cleanness Is Not Next to Godliness

October 15, 2018

“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 items as negative elements. 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. [Editor’s Note: Josiah originally cited another quote here, but we became aware that it was outdated hearsay and have removed it from the post.]

 

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 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:

 

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!

90 Comments

  1. Micah Beideman

    I’m not a writter, but as someone who often questions what books are appropriate for me to read, I’m interested to see what you have to say on these topics.

    Reply
  2. Tony

    Great post. I write a raw supernatural thriller series with strong spiritual undertones (one of the main characters is an angel). Imagine Frank Peretti meets Stephen King…in a dark alley. I have REALLY struggled with how to depict real-life detectives (language), a journey to hell and back (biblical latitude) a serial killer rapist (violence/sexual assault) and the many good characters that rise up to make a stand amidst it all…without totally upsetting believers or abandoning my own Christian beliefs. A number of folks at my church have read the first trilogy in the series and as one might expect, the more fundamentalist readers had a harder time with them than their contemporary counterparts, many of whom loved them. It’s frustrating because there’s an entire Christian market that I completely avoid advertising to for fear of upsetting them and/or suffering their wrath with a bunch of bad reviews. As a result, my audience is mostly secular. I very much look forward to reading the upcoming posts on this subject. THANKS!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Tony! That does sound like a challenge to navigate. The practical realities of publishing today make it difficult to tackle these subjects since Christian audiences don’t always want some of the stories I think we should be publishing as Christian writers. :/ There are unfortunately few easy fixes to that problem as we need a bit of a societal shift on that front.

  3. Jenna Terese

    I am very much looking forward to reading all these posts; I’m hoping to clear up some questions and confusions of my own. 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Jen! I’m glad to hear it. 🙂

  4. Jessica White

    This is a subject the Lord and I talk about often. The series I’m writing is very much depicting Christians in the real world. I want readers to be empowered to actually live out their faith in the world. To be like Bonhoeffer and many others and walk with Christ in all their weakness and sinfulness and give up the idea of comfort and happiness as the ultimate goals of life, and instead show unmerited grace and unconditional love to one another and to a dying world.

    The premise of my latest series is “We’re all gods of our own worlds until we meet the Living God.” In the age of selfies and social media where it’s all about us, it’s easy to tune out God. But when you really encounter Him, really sit at His feet and listen, that’s when change happens. I use the Greek gods and goddesses as bases for my characters, taking all their foibles and sins and struggles and then forcing them to encounter God. How would their stories have been different? Would Zeus have come to understand unconditional love and stopped seeking it through extramarital affairs? Would Artemis have used her skills as a huntress and passion for young women to start a home for runaway girls? Would Athena have sought a higher wisdom? Would Aphrodite have seen that beauty was more than skin-deep?

    You can’t answer those questions in a real way without being willing to delve deep into the reality of our sin nature, spiritual warfare, and the tactics of the enemy in the world today. You can’t gloss over issues like self-harm, human trafficking, adultery, narcissism. Like scripture we have to face them head on and show how God prevails but not through just making them disappear, but by fighting the good fight, getting dirty, beaten, mocked, scorned, and sometimes killed. But death isn’t the ultimate enemy, lack of relationship with Christ is. And that’s what I desire to show, that no matter where you are in your faith journey God can use you. No matter how bad you’ve messed up (and often when humanity is at its worst) God inserts himself and makes himself known, and offers grace, forgiveness, and unconditional love.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Interesting story premise! I teach a lot of Roman & Greek mythology in my day job as an English teacher at a classical charter school, so that concept intrigues me. The Greek gods were definitely messed up, and I agree that you can’t gloss over the tough issues if you want to address them. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  5. Rachel

    I really enjoyed this article! I’ve read (or started reading) so many YA books that promote an immoral lifestyle and leave me (the reader) feeling empty. That’s a big part of why I write, so I can create books that show the fallible nature of humans, but show characters that believe in honestly, value life and find strength in God. And hope, I think there should always be hope. When writing for teenagers I know its important to confront touchy subjects because that’s what teens are being faced with maybe not in their own lives but definitely in all the media around them.
    I really look forward to reading the coming articles, especially your one on sex. I have noticed how prevalent intimacy (be be it kissing or whatever) is described between unmarried couples, even if their not having sex, I think such behaviour shouldn’t be encouraged, or at least not described in detail. And as for married couples, well we can safely assume that they do have intercourse and we don’t need any details or playful remarks.
    Thankyou for opening up this topic😊

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Rachel! I’m glad we’ve been able to open up this topic for our readers here. I appreciate hearing your thoughts about this issue! YA is a really important genre that can be hard to navigate on this front because of the age of the readers, but it’s critical to wrestle over and consider what this looks like for that genre.

  6. Andrew Schmidt

    Oh, this’s a good article! I try not to make my stories that dark, but sometimes I may have a violent death or something. (and also, I try not to get to creative with deaths, but sometimes I just do.) Thanks for the article. Can’t wait for the rest!

    Reply
    • Andrew Schmidt

      Oh, but just so you know, I don’t always just focus on parts like that. The ‘violent deaths’ are just a small part of the story, even if a couple of them happen to be a little graphic.
      I don’t kill characters nearly as much anymore, but I still do sometime. After all, I can’t really wright an action adventure story or something without having one of them die.
      But again, good article!

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Andrew! Glad you enjoyed it. I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on this when we publish our article on violence. 🙂

  7. Melissa Wardwell

    Thank you for this article. Being a Christian who writes, I have become irritated and frustrated with having to put labels on my books. there is an element of faith through them, but the real plots involve difficult subjects that just tick off the strick Christian police. It’s like we can’t talk about single motherhood, addiction amongst leaders, and the varying list of taboo topics. yes, we as a body are called to strive for a Christ-like life, but we fail frequently.
    I look forward to the following articles. ( I tried to apply to receive notifications, but there was an error.)

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hm–that’s problematic. Thanks for letting me know about that notification issue. I’ve fixed the popup so it should be working now, but I’m not sure if it will pop up again for you. If you register elsewhere on the site, like on our resources page (https://storyembers.org/resources/), we’ll be sending out an email to our general mailing list so you could get it that way. Or it will be here next Monday as well.

      Yeah; those are really important topics to handle. Timely topics as well. I’d love to see more books addressing both of those issues!

  8. Sarah Baran

    I’ll be honest: I’m not a massive fan of this article.

    I agree with the spirit of what you’re saying — we shouldn’t shy away from messy issues just because they’re messy, and as Christians, we’re doubly responsible for tackling them since we have the Bible to guide us through the darkness. We need challenging stories that take on gritty subjects such as war, suicide, abortion, human trafficking, rape, infidelity, etc., subjects that will make some Christians squirm and others reject the book entirely.

    But at the same time, I don’t believe we should write darkness simply because it exists.

    This article talks a lot about accurately depicting the full human experience. The Bible tells us that we should be in the world but not of it — and no, I don’t think this means we’re not allowed to talk about unclean things, or that we should entirely separate ourselves from the truth of our reality. But as Christians, we’re BEYOND the darkness. When we address it, we shouldn’t be afraid of getting down in the dirt, but not for the sake of realness or showing truth. We should present darkness in all its grittiness in the knowledge that Christ’s reality eclipses whatever morbid truth this world has to offer. Not exploring the darkness to present the full human experience, but to present the full CHRIST experience: There is holiness beyond the depravity.

    I think this is the crux of what you were getting at, but the whole “truth in depravity” aspect seemed to get a little bit in the way of focusing on God’s truth. Writing realistic fiction to better point people to Jesus, as opposed to writing realistic fiction because we can.

    Reply
    • Daeus Lamb

      This is one of those moments when I should probably just be patient and wait for Josiah to answer, but I was so interested by your comment!

      It’s actually a very good point and one I suspect everyone at the staff agrees with.

      We DON’T just want to share human experience because we can…because human experience really stinks honestly. Human experience is the catalyst for exploring how truth applies to everyday life.

      I think this is what Josiah intended when he said: “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.”

      So now I’m curious — what do you think lent to you interpreting the article as being about human experience more than truth?

    • Sarah Baran

      You know, I think it’s a clarity issue. Trust me, I KNOW you guys believe this. But I’m worried that young writers (myself included) have a tendency to be more fascinated by the darkness in our stories than the light, and I think that makes me slightly more sensitive to this subject and how exactly it’s being portrayed. I’m NOT saying we need to tout Jesus every seven words, but we need to be undeniably clear about the fact that the ONLY reason we should descend into messier things is to bring His light to those subjects. And I just… wasn’t getting that from this article, except for the very last paragraph. Despite the fact that all of us know this is what you believe, it still bothers me a bit.

      I think the further articles will help clarify things for me. I’m super excited to see what you guys come up with.

    • Daeus Lamb

      Ah, okay. Thanks. I do think the next few articles will help clear this up some.

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Hey Sarah! Thanks for sharing your feedback on this. I appreciate your perspective and willingness to share this–and as Daeus suggested, I think I agree with pretty much everything you have to say here!

      One nuance I may make personally, though, since I don’t think all stories need to show the light of Christ in the same way, is that I think there’s value in depicting darkness for realism /if/ we’re seeking to portray it as actual darkness and as something we should be driven away from, not as something that attracts us. I agree that darkness can easily tempt readers down the wrong path and we should avoid doing that. However, I also think that /truly/ honest depictions of darkness should turn readers away from that darkness since the fascination darkness promises is all really a facade.

      Anyways, I definitely appreciate you sharing your thoughts and concerns with this article. As Daeus said, our future articles (particularly Hope’s next week) should be dealing with some of these concerns you raised, and I’d love to hear your further thoughts on our future articles!

  9. Ariel Ashira

    I am really excited to read this and the upcoming articles! I have been trying to figure out how far I can take dark things in my stories, and already this is very helpful. Thank you for addressing these things that are easy to shy away from. A good way to follow up the Manifesto!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Ariel! I’m glad to hear you found this helpful and are looking forward to our future articles in this series!

  10. Lauretta L. Kehoe

    It is a timely and interesting article. My book is dark and edgy yet has a Christian message. One church even told us that they don’t want us as members because of it. Yet most Christians who read it love it because even as dark as it gets, it has a light at the end.

    Ted Dekker in his class “The Creative Way” talks about writing dark. We need to get the darkness out or it will come out in other ways. But always use it to show the light. We need to not be afraid of what we are writing if it is true to our passion. And I have found in my online author community, many Christians, that there are a lot of us who write dark. There is a real market for this type of book.

    Yes there is a line for each one of us. And it may push our books out of the CBA and into the general market. But as you said Josiah, how else will you see light if it is not contrasted by the dark?

    Thanks

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Lauretta! I think that light at the end of the darkness is really important, along with the lines we need to set for ourselves to make sure the manner in which we’re depicting darkness is appropriate and wise. Passion can also be a helpful way to determine what sides of reality we feel called to depict in our stories. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  11. NicoleG

    I’m very excited for this series! This is so timely. I’ve been thinking about the same topic for a long time. I’ve been wondering how much “uncleanness” would be okay to write about without tarnishing or triggering the readers’ thoughts. In my case, I’ve been wanting to write a love story depicting how a person can delineate between “true love” and “lust”. And the part about depicting lust without it compromising the reader, while still keeping it real, is something I’ve been mulling over.

    Another thing is, what about the other readers I want to reach out to? Others would pick a book cause of the “lust” that it portrays or the “darkness” it emphasizes. I’ve been thinking of how much I should also allow the stories to portray the same things in order to be “palatable” to these readers. The question of compromising my own art to make it more relevant for them is something I’ve been asking wisdom for.

    Really proud of the amazing articles you guys keep putting up. They’re like coals keeping the writing flame alive… Keep up the good work 🙂

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Nicole! Those are really important questions. Writing a lustful character without dragging readers into their sinful patterns along with them is tough and a good portion of our article on sex is addressing that specific question. I’m glad to hear that this is coming at an opportune time for you. 🙂

  12. JL Cordell

    Insightful and well-written, and I am eager for the rest of the series. My WIP involves some subjects that I believe will cause me to be shot at by all sides of every debate they may raise, because how I handle them will be too gritty for a lot of Christian readers but too morally conservative for many nonchristian readers. But my main concern is handling those subjects as God would have me handle them. I’m looking forward to more well-thought-out-and-supported views and suggestions to consider.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks JL! I’m glad to hear this is a relevant issue for you and would love to hear your further thoughts on this as we continue on in the series.

  13. Eden Anderson

    The whole time I was reading this article my mind kept going back to a quote I had read by Jonathan Auxier. “…Darkness is essential in storytelling. The only way you can really put true light and true joy and a true path for living in a story is if…characters…are being faced with actual threats and actual danger.” He was talking about children’s books in particular, but I think it applies to all of writing.

    Basically anything I could say here has already been said 😀, so I’m just gonna say great article, Josiah, and can’t wait to read the rest in this series!
    And also, to the whole Story Embers staff, thank you all so much for being open minded, and willing to talk about tough subjects. I really appreciate and admire that. Thanks.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      That’s a great quote, Eden. Thanks for sharing! And you’re welcome. These are important questions to consider and it’s so much easier to think through them when we’re able to do it with others!

  14. English Lady

    I sort of understand ‘clean’ to mean no sex, but I understand some people have far higher standards. Standards which I do not always agree with. For example, some ‘crude’ words are cultural.
    British people like me don’t consider the ‘b’ word (the one that rhymes with ‘study’) to be especially offensive, and yet I understand it would not make it into most Christian Fiction without complaint.

    As someone who flirts with the idea of writing Medieval Fiction, I do wonder about self-censorship. For example, there is another ‘B’ word meaning a person born outside wedlock, which was actually applied to certain historical figures. Would that be considered a cuss word that had to be edited out?

    Or what about the fact that many people before the modern period drank ale instead of water because it was safer ? That is a historical fact, but if I included that in a novel aimed at the Christian market, would it be considered promoting alcoholism?

    I do think that the expectations for ‘cleanness’ go a little too far at times, and even on occasion make Christian Fiction look a bit silly.
    For example, I’ve read a few novels in which beer and wine are referred to as ‘strong spirits’. No, ‘spirits’ refers to distilled alcoholic drinks, and those are not distilled. It does not just mean any alcohol.

    Reply
  15. Sarah Inkdragon

    This is a great post, Josiah! As a person that likes reading darker fiction(Peretti, Sanderson, some of Jill Williamson’s books, etc…) it’s a hard topic to define exactly. My parents raised me as a Christian, but they never tried to put a “bubble” around me. Sure, I’m not allowed to watch certain movies, do certain things, wear certain clothes, but they’ve never tried to, say, not allow me to watch movies with magic in it because real-world magic is evil. They’ve never tried to hide the truth from me, and that I appreciate immensely.
    So in retrospect, while I agree that swearing, unnecessary violence, and sex are definitely things that are unclean, I don’t necessarily shy away from watching/reading something that might have swearing, or gore, or implications of intimacy.
    I guess what I’m trying to say is that while darkness should be shown, I think it should be handled in a way that makes sure the readers understand that this is BAD, not good, or morally gray, or anything like that. Murder is murder, whether the murderer does it avenge his family or not. It’s still the same thing, and readers need to know that.
    At the same time, I think we should be sure to not let what we want the world to be confuse us with what it is. From my own experience with Christian, home-schooled friends… we can be pretty naive sometimes when it comes to the way things work and the kind of things that actually do happen right under our noses. Maybe it’s just because we’re young, maybe it’s because we like to think that the world is better than it truly is.
    But regardless, the true nature of the world is sin. So sin happens. Horribly, disgusting sins happen. And just because they exist doesn’t mean in anyway that we should all write about them–but we should know that they happen and not try and fool ourselves into thinking that everything will be fine as long as don’t think about it. Because that never got anyone anywhere, and it’s certainly not going to help any of those sinners change their ways and stop sinning.
    In short, I think darkness is something that needs to be realized as reality in fiction, but not as certainty. Things are dark, sure, but they can be better if we try. The only problem is at the moment the world is so focused on accepting sinners that they accept the sin as well. That should not be how it is in our stories–we should show what is BAD, and what is GOOD. No in-between, no justified sin, no avenger’s quota. Yes, no person is fully good or fully bad–we’re all a bit gray. But that’s US, not the actually definitions of right and wrong. Because while we can be gray, God cannot. So despite the fact that we are gray, you must still depict light and darkness as just that–black and white.
    And so ends my rant. *disappears into mysterious fog*

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Sarah! I enjoyed hearing your perspective on this, and I think you’ll appreciate reading our upcoming article since Hope’s tackling a number of the things you mentioned there. 🙂 In many ways, I think we’re called to depict evil actions as evil not just because that’s the moral way to do so, but also because it’s the realistic way to do so. It isn’t realistic to paint actions to be something that they’re not.

    • Sarah Inkdragon

      No problem! I agree with everything you said up there. I am really looking forward to Hope’s article, and all the rest to come. Now if only they could be posted faster so I can read them sooner….. 😉
      I like your reasoning that we should depict evil as evil not only for moral reasons, but because it’s realistic. I think our culture today has a fixation on trying to accept people, that it’s going way to far. Sure, it’s not right to bully someone just because, say, they aren’t white. But it’s also not okay to accept someone’s undeniably wrong actions just because society says we should be nice and love everybody–because there is a difference between being nice and loving everyone and being ignorant and accepting everything anyone does because it’s “what a good person would do, because good people don’t hate anything.” *eye roll*
      We try to push past our former racial, social, and personal grudges, and only end up twisting the world more by forgoing moral codes and our own conscious for someone else’s comfort. No offense to anyone, but if one of my friends is doing something wrong, I’m not going to accept it for their comfort. I’m going to get in their face and say, “You need to stop that.” Because wrong is wrong, and right is right. You can’t forgo the God’s laws(or just a normal personal conscience) just for your own personal comfort.
      I guess what I’m trying to say is that I agree with you. 😉 It just took me a while to get there.

  16. Bill Giovannetti

    Wonderful post on an important topic. The question of clean writing, and edgy fiction, has always intrigued me. As a pastor, author, and professor, I’m always trying to walk that razor’s edge.
    A related, and probably more practical, question, is about what is actually publishable in today’s market. If an author wants to be published by a particular publisher, they must abide by the guidelines, like it or not. We can theorize all day long, but at the end of the day, publishers have to sell books, and that means particular (sometimes fussy) Christian readers have to buy them.
    Looking forward to the rest of the series. Thanks for tackling this.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks Bill! That sounds like a really interesting set of vocations that you pursue!

      Yeah. This series is considering the “what can you write morally” question more than the “what should you write practically if you want to get published” question, but the latter is a significant factor for authors to consider. Really, I think we need shifts in what readers look for in the Christian genre and shifts in what writers produce for the Christian genre. Unfortunately it’s hard to make those shifts sync up, leading to either readers leaving the genre or writers not finding publication. :/ I don’t have easy answers for that problem.

  17. English Lady

    Very good and useful article. I also don’t think we can escape the darkness of the world and there are times when Christian Fiction seems too sanitized. Some people think that the International Christian/Inspy market is too Liberal/Lax in its standards for allowing things like milder cuss words.
    There are some words that just aren’t that offensive, or maybe I don’t know, its a cultural thing. Some words are considered rude in some countries but not others.

    I mean I’ve noticed how even in Biblical Fiction every distance is measured in blocks. I’m always left thinking ‘Did they really talk about ‘ten blocks away’ in ancient Rome, or 4th Century BC Israel’? I doubt it. I understand its been modified to make it more understandable for a principally American audience, and I wonder if that’s the same for standards of ‘clean’ fiction as well. Are we preaching to the converted and just targeting the same audience over and over- American Evangelicals?

    As someone who has flirted with the idea of writing historical/Medieval Fiction, one thing I’ve thought if is that would depicting the way that people in the past used to drink ale or beer on a daily basis because it was considered safer that water be acceptable? Or would that be considered promoting alcoholism? The former is historically accurate, but would it be been as contravening the standards of ‘clean’ fiction.

    Just one of a few issues I suppose.

    Reply
  18. Benjamin Hackett

    Well written, Josiah! Given the stirility that “clean” writing has taken up, I agree that “clean” writing has gone too far. I have a few thoughts on the matter:

    Cleanliness may be measured against a comfort standard, but it ought to be based on the Bible’s teaching. I.e. we know a word or subject is not clean if it is, or embraces, a sin. I do think clean writing in *that* regard has its place, of course. Sometimes people want to sit down and forget the troubles they face everyday. That’s not such a bad thing as long as that doesn’t turn into running away from reality.

    More importantly though, little children really should be exposed mostly to clean (in the true sense) fiction. They learn best by imitation, so give them something you actually want them to imitate. VeggieTales, Toy Story (yes, without bleeping “stupid”), Boxcar Children, etc. The range is diverse, but not crude kids shows that teaches them to imitate crudity and certainly not R-rated movies.

    Teenagers in today’s society get the privilege of having the movie rating PG-13 named after them. Why? Because they have reached puberty and now they can watch as much crudity and vulgarity as they want? No! That’s the world’s standards. As a Christian I see exposure to “not-clean” things like this: kids are going to be exposed to the world at some point. Would you rather them be exposed to it by the world, or with caution? Expose older kids to dark, violent, or mildly vulgar subjects as they become old enough to learn from it to stay away, not imitate it.

    Moving away from exposure for the younger audience, we do well to consider what benefit those subjects have for adult fiction. You already spoke on it, so I will simply add that to an adult, darkness and violence are not unclean subjects; we know full well not to imitate them. Swearing and sex are much more touchy, and it will be interesting to see how you touch them. I would argue that a censored inclusion of these two subjects in fiction is as far as Christians ought to go, and with all of these subjects the benefit derives from the purpose of inclusion. Inclusion simply to add spice to a plot is Christian naivity. Inclusion to illustrate a broken setting (which will not be glorified) is the beginning of literary gold.

    My favorite book is Les Miserables. It has A LOT of brokenness in it. A TON. Darkness. Violence. Theiving. Scandalism. However, it is all for good reason, and I highly recommend it to all my Christian and non-Christian friends.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ben! I really appreciate hearing your perspective and agree a lot with you on your point about inclusion and also how children should be introduced to these subjects. If they’re going to hear them either way, they may as well hear them from the right point-of-view.

  19. Buddy J.

    “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.”

    Ooooh, yeah. That mammothity of this task. I SO much appreciate your acknowledgment of such a truth. The danger, the study of darkness is such a way. That paragraph is a beautiful reminder of what this task is, that it’s a task indeed, and our struggle does not mean our failure. It is merely testimony to the great mountain we’re trying to clime.

    Thank you.

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      You’re welcome, Buddy. 🙂 I’m glad that paragraph resonated with you!

  20. Ryana Lynn

    This is a very touchy topic for me personally. I think some Christian authors go way to far trying to add darkness to their books. My rule of thumb is this: would you be embarrassed for Jesus to read your writing? There is sin in the world, yes. And it can be written about in a way that wouldn’t make you blush before the Savior. I mean, sin is talked about in the Bible. But sadly, most authors don’t follow this line of thought when they right, including Christians. I don’t care what the world considers okay; I want God’s approval, not their’s.

    Reply
    • Ryana Lynn

      *write (anybody else swap right for write and vice versa? XD)

    • Josiah DeGraaf

      I would agree with your rule of thumb there, provided it’s in the context of Christ also being the one who inspired some pretty dark parts of Scripture, such as the conclusion of Judges. Ultimately, we ought to write to glorify God, not man, and I also agree that some Christian authors go too far on that front. I just read a submission a couple weeks back that was rather disturbing because of that. :/ I don’t know how similarly or differently the two of us may draw those lines in that practice, but I’m definitely with you on those principles!

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