“We can present beauty without being trivial, evil without being gratuitous, and redemption without being hokey.”
— John Stonestreet, Breakpoint
I have been on a quest of late.
After months of insisting that I could not, would not go back to writing fiction, the gentle encouragement of friends and my husband has begun to break down my self-imposed barriers. I feel, once again, the draw of the Muse, and I long to let the words pour out through my own chipped and battered soul and onto the page, where perhaps some semblance of sense can be made of this world and its fallen nature.
But I have remained hesitant to actually indulge much more than just a cursory re-read or edit of old works. I have been living in fear, terrified of falling too far into my imaginary worlds, petrified by the thought of trying to please an audience again.
When I had my self-published works live and available for sale, I attempted to reach a secular audience. I assumed that most Christian readers would not want to read my version of reality. Aside from the fact that my characters swear and curse, occasionally drink to drunkenness, struggle with temptations of a sexual nature (and yes, occasionally give into those temptations), pursue power, worship idols, and reject the call of a loving God, I also commit another cardinal sin of the artist: I do not accurately represent reality.
You see, I write speculative fiction–more specifically, fantasy. There is a vocal segment of the Christian book-reading population that firmly espouses a belief that anything even remotely touching on “magic” is satanic. (I have still not figured out how that segment justifies reading The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.)
My quest began because I started to re-evaluate the criticism I had received about my self-published works. It’s interesting that I did not typically receive criticism about quality of work; indeed, most people complimented my craft, accuracy, attention to detail, and overall quality. No, the most biting criticism I received was that my work was “too traditional.” Themes of social justice bothered some; they believed that my treatment of slavery, human trafficking, and forced prostitution was “cliche” and “old-fashioned.” They believed that my characters were too clean, pure, and noble. And they thought I relied too much on “old-fashioned” fantasy devices.
Well, perhaps some of those criticisms are accurate. The one that I received most often–that I lacked finesse in building my worlds–was one that, while painful to hear, I could at least understand. I admit that’s my weak spot.
But oddly, those things mainstream secular readers complained about would quite possibly appeal to Christian readers. I think most of my Christian friends love a good, old-fashioned, good vs. evil hero story. Those stories are falling out of favor with mainstream fantasy readers.
The problem is . . .
I have long said that the Christian entertainment industry is more concerned with cleanliness than truth. Many Evangelicals will happily accept watery, shallow, or just plain wrong doctrine as long as there are no curse words and no sex.
My worlds are not very clean, but the truths in my worlds are absolute. I do my best to ensure that even when the worlds I create do not comport with reality, they at least comport with biblical truth. Sometimes, revealing that truth takes a long while. Sometimes, revealing those truths is messy and ugly.
It was during my “quest” and over several e-mail exchanges that my friend Laurel suggested that I read Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers. And while the majority of on-screen sexual activity is between a married couple (and it’s veiled, at that), and while there is no cursing (that I recall), I could see why my friend suggested the book. Rivers had no qualms about telling a story that involved child rape, forced prostitution, adultery, even forced marriage. The purpose?
To tell a story about how God woos those who are called to be His own.
The story of Redeeming Love, in my opinion, is not so much about Michael and Angel as it is about the love story between God and Angel. Perhaps this is why I enjoyed it so much. While I love a good love story, I am not typically drawn to the romance genre because I find romance for the sake of the romance rather tedious. But Redeeming Love is about so much more than just Michael and Angel’s romance; it’s about God’s relentless pursuit of Angel to the very gates of Hell, all for the purpose of winning her to Himself.
And so, my quest continued. What responsibility does the artist have, I asked myself, to portray reality? To offer a salvation message? To point directly to God? To do all of those things cleanly, neatly, with nary a hair out of place on any character except the villain, who is permitted to say “hell” and “damn” in only certain cases?
It was at this point that I read this post on Think Christianity, which led me to this John Stonestreet post at Breakpoint and finally to this fantastic post by Philip Ryken at The Gospel Coalition. All of these posts are so very worth reading, but let me just quote one paragraph about how the church discourages artists as summed up by Stonestreet:
First, they said, treat the arts as window dressing for the truth rather than the window into reality it’s intended to be. Second, embrace bad art just because it’s “Christian.” Third, value artists only for their artistic gifts, but not for the other contributions they can make as thinkers and servants with a unique perspective. Fourth, demand that artists only give answers in their work, but never raise questions. Fifth, never pay artists for their work—take advantage of them in ways we would never do with plumbers or accountants. And finally, only validate art that has a direct salvation application.
Can I get an “amen?”
(Also, as an aside, why do so few articles and posts about the arts neglect writers? With the occasional exception of poetry, I have not read much about the arts and Christianity that acknowledges that writing–especially writing fiction–is also an art. Could it be, perhaps, that it’s because those writing the articles are also writers? Do they not see the value and artistic application of their own talent and skill? It must be said, too, that I have read non-fiction works by Lewis, Sproul, Willard, and others that were so beautifully evocative and descriptive that there was no way they could not be considered “art.”)
And so, I come at last to my epiphany. My stories are my art. There is no getting around this. I have resisted this truth for years, but I cannot ignore it any longer. God infected me with these stories for a reason. He must intend for me to tell them. Whether I ever share them with anyone again is up for debate at some future point in time. I think I have to at least write them.
I have said many times that I am not a believer who gets messages by “burning bush.” I don’t have a conversational relationship with God. I don’t know if I ever will. But if this is the talent and the means and the process and the product that He gave me to communicate His truths to the best of my ability, then I must have some obligation to follow that path, mustn’t I?
So why was I hesitant? I think it’s because this was an act of obedience. I was obedient when I put everything aside. I believe that. I believe that I had to recenter myself on what was important. I absolutely had to rebalance my life.
But now, I come to the even greater act of obedience: returning to this thing–gift, calling, what-have-you–through which I can attempt to communicate themes of sin, redemption, forgiveness, love, victory, hope, faith, perseverance, goodness, and all the rest.
I can no longer be bound by worry about what secular readers think of my work. The really hard part is to refuse to be bound by what Christian readers think of my work. I think that, perhaps, I have come to the place where I should have started.
I must write, but I must write for an Audience of One.
Till next we meet . . .