On Writing, Art, and Salvation (part 3)

Now we come to it–the four main content issues that put me at odds with a Christian audience:

    1. It’s fantasy: It would seem that unless a work has been christened with the surname Tolkien or Lewis, fantasy and speculative fiction are automatically suspect. Include magic or spells or some alternative reality in a work of fiction, and a lot of believers get very tense. But my question is, is it all right to create a fictional world, universe, or time in which one could explore biblical principles and universal truths?
    2. It’s violent: Violence is a part of the world. People do not respect that we are made in God’s image. Brutality reigns on this fractured, cursed ground, and we know that humans are murdered, raped, beaten, brutalized, enslaved, and abused in a thousand ways every day. I don’t shy away from those realities, so there are times when my work gets a little dark. But what I think is even harder to show is that sometimes, the perpetrators of violence may actually serve a purpose on the page or do something that leads to a good event or even–dare I say it?–experience some kind of redemption. How far is too far when it comes to violence? And how immediate must the payoff be for the perpetrator? (Darth Vader wasn’t redeemed until the end of The Return of the Jedi.)
    3. It’s occasionally profane: My characters have been known to swear, even occasionally dropping an F-bomb. Now, to put it in perspective, my stories include far less profanity than the average mainstream novel. I’m not talking about hundreds of swear words. I think I counted once, and in one document of about 150,000 words, I had a total of 68 swear words (which included several instances of “bastard” as a descriptive–in other words, a man who was actually illegitimate by birth). In general, I think there are better, more creative ways for people to talk to each other than through a string of profanity. But if the occasional swear word slips in, if it makes sense, if it’s consistent with the character’s voice and personality, is it acceptable? So much of it is cultural, after all. We say “brood of vipers” without hesitation, but surely the Pharisees heard a vulgar insult when Jesus said it.
    4. It occasionally includes sex: This is probably the most difficult challenge I face with my work. I know that God created sex and intended it only for marriage between one man and one woman. But the reality is people engage in sexual activity outside of marriage all the time. Christians don’t seem to mind if extramarital sex is presented in a negative way, but what happens when two characters engage in consensual sexual activity outside of marriage and actually enjoy it? Because, honestly, this happens all the time. Sometimes, we don’t even experience external consequences for such sin–no disease, no pregnancy, no shaming–and internal consequences of this sin are not always immediate. So the question becomes, if it’s important to the story to show two unmarried, adult characters engaging in consensual extramarital sex, is that acceptable? I’m not talking about writing a graphic or erotic sex scene–I’m talking about a man and a woman agreeing to go to bed together and shutting the bedroom door. What’s acceptable? It’s not my intent to titillate or tempt, and I would never show explicit detail. This is a place where it’s really hard to draw a line, because even if I draw a really conservative line for myself, it’s very likely that someone else will think that line goes too far.

These four issues are the biggest reason I get tense, uptight, and even physically anxious about sharing my work again. I want so very much to shun my pride and idolatry, to love the Lord my God with all my heart, mind, soul, and strength. But these four things—these four content issues—are the very things that the Spirit has not mentioned over the last year. As I said, the Spirit has not been shy, and there has been plenty for me to repent. But these four issues? I’ve asked and asked, and I have just not experienced the conviction that these four issues were problems in my work.

And so this is the part that terrifies me. First, I’m terrified that my own conscience won’t convict clearly should I step over a line that I should not step over. I suppose this is where constant prayer comes into play, where I can ask the Spirit for conviction should I cross a line, but I still don’t trust myself to read my work in relation to those lines accurately.

The second thing that terrifies me is that if I do ever share anything again, I’ll be chastised for things that I have already agonized over. I have experienced enough chastisement, both in and out of the church. It is not pleasant, and I’d rather not experience it again.

The third fear—and really, it’s the biggest, even if it isn’t the most important—is that if I have some ability and desire to write, and if I’m not sinning by doing so, then perhaps there’s some inherent obligation to share my work again. This is the God piece. He gives skills and talents and abilities and expects us to use them for His glory, right? So what if I write it prayerfully, carefully, to the absolute best of my ability, seeking excellence in artistic execution and wisdom in content? Am I then obligated to share it? Not obligated to an audience or the body of Christ or even myself, but to the One who gave me the ability and the story?

That is, honestly, the most terrifying thing I can imagine right now.

In my last part of this, I’ll spell out some more specifics about the questions and struggles I have over this stuff.

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2 thoughts on “On Writing, Art, and Salvation (part 3)

  1. Jane Wells (@2jewells)

    Wow.
    You have put a ton of thought into this! I’m probably guilty of not thinking enough.
    This is what I know, though. I deeply appreciate the way you write. Your characters have an internal consistency that echoes what I observe in the real world. If they are not redeemed, they do not acts as if they are – unless their current circumstance calls for acting. They sin. They swear. And they (usually) suffer consequences. Just like “real people”.
    I don’t understand where your critics get their high horses. The sort of story where even the bad guys are good isn’t much of a story at all. Where, then, would you draw the line? Where, then, is the conflict?
    Perhaps your answer is in writing the story and style God has granted to you, but under a pseudonym? The critics will still criticize, but there will be that cushion between you and them.

    1. jmpadoc Post author

      Jane, you know I see things the way you do! I just worry that maybe I’m missing something. It is entirely possible that I’m over-analyzing or looking for reasons (excuses?) to not engage in my writing.

      I do believe in good and evil, but I guess when it comes to characters, the lines are not as well-defined as one might think they should be. The bad guys are sometimes redeemable, and the good guys are never perfect. On the other hand, some modern, mainstream fantasy goes too far, in my opinion, in its attempt to make bad guys good. Personally, I could never write a protagonist who I wouldn’t allow in my home. But that, I suppose, might be mainstream fantasy’s own “high horse”–the idea that moral ambiguity means that protagonist must also be villains.

      And regarding a pseudonym, yes, I think that will be essential if I ever decide to share again. I can never publish under my former name, I’m certain. There’s just too much associated with it.

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