Category Archives: Some writing reality checks

Reality Check #8: Truth Isn’t Always Beautiful

"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things," Philippians 4:8, NIV.

How many times have you heard that verse? How many times have you heard it used as a reason not to think "ugly" thoughts? Personally, I’ve heard it a lot and it always makes me wonder how many times the phrase "pretty thoughts" is being transposed onto Paul’s meaning here.

But I’ll get back to that in a sec. First, Mark Moring, Online Managing Editor of Music & Film for Christianity Today wrote about the new film, Little Children (adapted by Tom Perrota from his book) for the Film Forum newsletter today. In prepping readers for Jeffrey Overstreet’s review, he speaks of the higher purposes of facing evil in film. I thought his comments had some relevance for us here.

Little Children is a movie about adults acting like, well, little children—acting on their selfish desires, lusts, and impulses, with little regard for what’s right and what’s wrong. The film clearly and explicitly depicts various sins being acted out. The R rating—for strong sexuality and nudity, language and some disturbing content—is more than warranted. It is definitely not a film for everyone, and I would argue that it’s not even a film for many. But it depicts not just sin itself, but the wages of sin—and that’s where many other films fall short. Little Children is a well-made film that will certainly be on the Oscar table at Academy Awards time. Some Christian media types might simply write off the film as ‘abhorrent’ and barely give it a thought, blind to any truth that it might depict—even if that truth is difficult to watch. Such observers are right to urge extreme caution and discernment for viewers—and indeed, we do just that in our review—but not to dismiss the film outright merely because of its graphic depiction of sin. If we ignored all films that depicted sin in all of its awful ugliness, we wouldn’t have even seen the horrifically violent Passion of The Christ, because the violence inflicted upon our Savior was certainly sin of the utmost degree. Part of God’s perfect plan, yes, but the scourging and crucifixion were as sinful as it gets.”

Mark goes on to say that in no way is this film (one of the better made of the year so far) being endorsed or recommended. It’s far too explicit and potentially tempting. Still, it can’t be dismissed either. It’s important, even if ugly, though he recognizes many will not approve.

Back to Paul’s letter to the Philippians. He begins with an exhortation to humility and the "whatever-is-true" verse falls within the context of how to live in peace. "Practice forebearance and be patient," he says in this book. "Consider what you know to be true. This is the way to be at peace."

So the words he uses to describe the good things we’re to think on were specifically chosen.

Start with things that are "true." Now biblical truth, as we all know, is a bit dicey. Interpretations are necessary, as Rob Bell says in Velvet Elvis. What follows is mine.

"Honorable" Another way of saying this is respect-worthy. In our modern lingo, we might say, "stop thinking of ways to slander people and show some respect." Think respectfully.

"Right": i.e. not wrong. i.e. not sinful. That is, when you encounter sin, don’t dwell on it and risk sinning yourself. Think about what’s right about the nature of sin. And when in doubt, refer to the first word in the verse–"true."

"Pure." Ironically, this word gets sullied with people’s connotations. But it’s really another way of saying what is honorable, right, true, and good. Purity is untarnished by evil. Can writers write about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. Because there’s a bigger goal. Can readers read about evil without getting tarnished? Yes. They can think about the bigger goal. What is true, right, honorable, and pure about an encounter with evil?

"Lovely." My Ryrie commentary says lovely = winsome. Isn’t that great? For writers to be winsome, we have to be good at what we do. We have to stay above the trees to see the forest, and not get dragged down into the emotions or grimy details of the moment. Though good books  require attention to detail, being winsome is about being above our own uncooperative natures when we encounter something we don’t like–such as sin. We put ourselves in the background to serve the larger goal of affecting and engaging the reader.

"Good repute." i.e. other right-thinking people think highly of it.

"Excellence." There’s the pesky word. Paul’s follow up here is "and worthy of praise." Unless things are excellent as well as pure, we’re not to think of them. So what is excellent? Excellence is things that are true, respect-worthy, right, pure, winsome, and praise-worthy. Yet it’s also being humble and seeking after righteousness. It’s being "right minded," filled with the spirit, and at peace with yourself, God, and others. A book is excellent when it’s created to serve these purposes.

As close as I can figure, a biblical definition of high quality may be "whatever serves the purposes of God over self and others." And my contention in this series here has been that in CBA, we have too many books that serve the writers and that serve others, their tastes, their expectations, their whims. If we’re to have high quality books, we have to start serving readers by serving God first. And not in a heavy-handed way, or a "secularized" way, but in a way that’s winsome and lovely. These are books worth dwelling on. These are books worth writing, books worth reading.

Beauty and truth in CBA will not always go hand in hand. But if we can find a better balance of the two, maybe we can start to influence what’s produced in a way others have been reticent to do. And much like the famous Chesterton quote about Christianity being found difficult and remaining untried, we’ll discover that change in our subculture may be difficult, but it must not remain untried.

Random Reality Check

Man, this thing on Sesame Street going all over the world is fascinating. Talk about a vision for excellence. I wish people would leave Phil Vischer alone for his “equivocation” on Veggie Tales.

Anyway, Billy Graham recently spoke with Christianity Today, making a particularly interesting comment:

“Evangelicals have not tried to capture the intellectual initiative as much as we should. We haven’t challenged and developed the minds of our generation. Though there are many exceptions, generally we evangelicals have failed to present to the world great thinkers, theologians, artists, scientists, and so forth.”

I knew he’d been reading the blog…

But really, evangelicals as artists? What’s he talking about? Shouldn’t we all be evangelists? I mean, art requires independence, solidarity of vision and all that stuff. And we all know books in our industry are a collaborative effort, definitely even more so than in the larger market. Christian books are not a single artist’s vision; they require many. There’s a rulebook to follow and everyone has some different rules to apply before release. And while some say we’re following the letter of the law rather than the spirit of it, what can really be done? The truth may be that “the spirit of the Law transcends the letter of the Law, and that those who enforce it to the letter don’t understand the need for the care of men.” But applying that is just not practical when it comes to particular books coming down the pipe.

Evangelical artists? It’s just not feasible, is it?

I mean, sure, no writers write in a vacuum. Writers are not fighters who do their thing in their corner and then come out when the bell rings and start swinging. The myth is perpetuated by ignorance, and the truth shows a different picture. There’s a team of people crafting Christian works behind the scenes in order to fit the standard, the expectations. This is just a fact, and a necessary one.

And sure, there may be real watchdogs on every level who restrict the work in specific ways, many in unhealthy ways. And maybe we’ve even seen it ourselves and know the frustration of the writers and editors who work on the books and believe in their freedom and ability to influence minds. Maybe we all know authors who have encountered this, and still others who are offended by even the suggestion. But if the books are being censored because of some delicate, albeit well-meaning, folks, what’s there to talk about? It’s a business and business is business. You can’t change it. The battles will be fought whether we talk about it or not, on high-quality and low-quality books alike. The restrictions will either cause writers to work harder or not; they’ll either be more effective or less, either more balanced or less. And if some are paying slavish devotion to the letter of the law rather than spirit in order to get their metered truth through the narrow gate, so be it. What’s it to us?

I mean we’re crazy to think the restrictions on art are going to change. It will not change until the current audience relents. And in the current system, books are rewarded for not achieving balance. Books are awarded for selling out to the lowest common denominator. Some books are given superior status for their lesser messages. What can we possibly do to change it?

And then there’s the issue of airing all this dirty stuff which makes it easy to cast us as extremists. Sure, the label is sticky: Calling someone an extremist may say more about the one using the term than about the subject, reducing communication and shutting down debate. In extremism, everything becomes either all black or all white. It’s much harder to accept shades of gray and admit uncertainty, a reason for others’ points of view. Those arguing for acceptance of “grittier,” “edgier,” “truer” fiction have been cast as extremists–and many even do it to themselves.

All of this is true. I can’t argue. I just have some thoughts about it all. Like this supposed extremism in calling for balance on the shelves. What’s more extreme? Supporting a fuller acceptance of creation and grace, or opposing its influence? Who are the extremists? Those who can’t accept reality, difficult topics, challenging ideas on grown-up’s bookshelves? Who’s fringe? And no, I don’t think “judge not, lest you be judged” is a warning to others. It’s to us. Look in the mirror and let’s make double sure we’re not doubling the evil by judging our judges. But let’s try to see things as they really are, however dimly.

No one should be trying to offend anyone. People may choose to be offended by the idea that God is diminished by this systematic erosion of reality that’s allowed in our industry. That’s their business. And they have a valid point too. Ugliness and evil are deceptive and dangerous. And while the removal of all ugliness and evil may shift, weaken, or reduce truth, it’s certainly safer. A sanitized world still has lots of problems to redeem.

Separating from the world, disengaging, may not be a biblical instruction. But the children must be protected and we can’t always be around to teach them discernment. And who knows who might see our books and not wind up more godly or mature if we didn’t include redemption and solutions? But then again, maybe if they’re old enough to read it, they’re old enough to be taught discernment and the book itself should be allowed to lead in this work without extra interpretations. Or further, maybe we should allow for multiple interpretations. Maybe God intended us to. Maybe that’s why faith is so important.

Can we allow stories to be used the way they were intended to be used, as Jesus used them, as messy and interpretive? Open-ended? Confusing? Unresolved? Might Jesus have intentionally led some Pharisees down the wrong path with his stories? What a scandal that would be. Imagine the opportunity to show them their supposed God redeeming even the worst of darkness. Do you think he backed down and softened it for them? Maybe. I don’t know. But they were offended, and some may even have been “led to sin” because of it. But these are the scandalous purposes of art: To reveal the world as it is, unqualified. To evoke a change in the viewer. To shine light on darkness and call meaning from the void.

How long can you ignore the world before you start seeing it differently? How many years have people been asking these questions and found no answers? Where will answers come from? These are difficult questions. And yes, artists have high purposes, but they’re accountable and they need to realize it. Publishers are not on their side. Editors are required to be double-minded about all this. But we all decide how we will use our time and talents. I don’t have answers, but I know–I believe through faith–that asking the questions is right.

Reality Check #7: Silence Isn’t Golden

Let’s face it. Some publishing realities contribute to low quality books too.

Start with money. We’ve got to sell books. But that creates a conflict of interest for Christians; the goals of business are diametrically opposed to God’s. No mission statements say “show us the money.” It’s just implied. Which means we’ll publish books we may not fully agree with in order to “give them what they want.” Some think it’s just the way it is.

Following the “give them what they want” philosophy is an obvious question. What books are those, exactly? Some say low quality, controversial books with familiar ideas in them. They certainly don’t want to read classics. They don’t want books that require a lot of effort, even if they might like them more if they gave them a try. No. Fluffy books, tune-out books, reads as disposable as candy wrappers.

Which brings us to the nutrition-to-candy ratio. With disposable books, surely nutrition and excellence are low on the list. If it’s for CBA, slip some God in there and we’re good. We don’t need artsy-fartsy stuff gumming up the works.

Maybe this blog is a complete waste of bytes.

The problem with all this is that books aren’t candy. Of course, we want them to be as popular as Pop Rocks, but what’s the cost to the reader? Quality does matter. In fact, it matters at least as much as message. Maybe more. When it comes to our creations representing the Creator, what carries the message to the reader? The vehicle of our craft? What if the Bible wasn’t excellent? What if God didn’t care? What if we didn’t build our church well and it came crashing down on our heads? If God doesn’t care, maybe we’re wasting our time here.

Why would I trade my good reputation to discuss these problems in CBA? I don’t want to be known as the guy who hates CBA. Talking about this on a public blog isn’t my idea of fun. It doesn’t facilitate working in the industry. Silently contributing to the mountain of books makes a whole lot more sense. But I think our books need to better reflect our master. Whether or not “literary” books sell, we need books that don’t contribute to the idea that faith is like a candy wrapper we can use whenever and however we like. I’m so happy there are editors and authors doing good work out there. But there’s still a lot of padding on the shelves, shoddy product produced too quickly without respect of our task and its eternal significance. And yes, it’s worse in the general market, but that’s not the point.

Can I suggest why this matters? Silence about the problems pays implicit concessions to them. Professional distance shouldn’t excuse us from bowing to market pressures. Christian publishers are cashing in on successes so regularly it’s become expected. We don’t even question anymore. Sales assumptions about nutrition-to-candy ratio dictate what books get published. There are accepted business practices that propagate a low standard. And we all are complicit in our silence.

Confession: I’m guilty too. I’ve compromised. I’m not clean and tidy either. I’m not sure if anyone in my shoes can be completely. And that’s a topic for another post. But we don’t need an overhaul of CBA. All I’m asking for is some dialogue, an open discussion to try to balance some of these realities. Let’s stand together and have some accountability. Let’s discuss the problems and not hide behind false decency or prissy professionalism. Maybe I don’t get to be thought of as classy for saying this, but I can’t worry about that. Let’s deal with our book-buying and publishing decisions and not take the bait of publishers hoping we’ll buy the next installment of candy. The silence contributes more to less-than-excellent books than anything. There are some closed doors that need opening. We should probably let them stay closed, but doggone it, you just can’t stop progress.

Okay, so that little term “nutrition-to-candy ratio” needs some unpacking. Come on back.

Reality Check #6: Your Art Is Love

There are certainly some interesting reasons we don’t see higher quality writing from Christian writers.

We tend to be fairly separate–exclusive in our lingo, churches, and bookstores. We say we’re meant to be set apart, and that makes us inbred. No wonder so many our of books seem to have snaggle teeth and play the banjo.

We tend to harbor the suspicion that we shouldn’t associate with “outsiders” or be taught by teachers without a Christian worldview, as though excellence were a spiritual virtue, as though truth were relative. We hold prejudices about science and learning in general, and we prefer our disciplines all relate to the spiritual aspect. We have a hard time accepting arts from those who don’t profess our beliefs.

We don’t push toward excellence with the same do-or-die dedication since deep inside we know God accepts us anyway. We are never alone in the universe with only this creation to show we existed, never alone without God to fall back on. We place too high a value on family and others over our “personal” achievements with the talents God’s bestowed and we care too little about the establishment of a great work. We are (rightly) not as irrationally driven to prove our own worth and purpose through our creations. Our higher value is love, not art.

But what are the costs of such a literalist view of this higher value? Does it make us accept less than perfection when it comes to expressing the divine force we represent? Why are Christians not achieving the greatest works of literature today? How many times do we have to hear that we have a direct line to the greatest inspiration available before it actually makes us not only more creative, but more efficient, less literally minded, and more committed to following through on our artistic impulses, in answer to all our high ideals? Isn’t worshiping through art reason enough to deny your self, your duties, your family, and your supposed responsibilities? If it isn’t, maybe you need to reevaluate your commitment.

Maybe it’s because of love that we should give ourselves more fully to the creative impulse. If we, as Christian artists, would simply learn to love through our art, we might realize our greatest task.

Dedication is the key, and yes, this commitment requires sacrifice. We all have to consider whether God would have us take time from our families to dedicate to our art. Should we choose teachers of excellence over Christian teachers of lesser pedigree? Should we pull away from more direct expressions of love like missions and church work to dedicate to more indirect practice that leaves a hole in the church’s outreach team?

These are difficult questions and ones we must answer according to our own consciences. Certainly there is no one right answer for everyone. Yes, some will choose wrong. The only appropriate answer is to prayerfully seek God’s instruction for your life in the people, personality, events, and talents he’s provided. We need diversity in our approaches to showing love. We need a spectrum of believers making different decisions with their lives. What we don’t need is more pat answers and assumptions about what God does and does not expect.

Don’t judge unless you’d like to be judged. Yet furthermore, don’t mislead unless you’d like to be misled. While I no longer say that all lightweight writing is misleading—I’ve seen people find God through it—there are many misleading things being written in CBA. And there’s no measuring how many fat Christian babies fed on this junk food have missed out on the more nutritious and glorious bounty by reading beneath them. Think of the eternal damage you will have wrought as a writer of Christian junk food. Packages of frosted dirt may contain some nutrition (“A fat-free food!”), but it doesn’t mean it’s healthy.

And lest you think I’m only talking about the theology of our books, remember you bear the original creativity of the gift-giver; his glory is now reflected in you. We who are able to invest all our talents and not simply bury them out of convenience, we must choose our more refined tools to encourage others to consider the world they’re inhabiting, and turn their minds toward the inspiration. We as God-worshipers, if we want to have an impact for the truth of the God we claim to serve, we must reveal such beauty through a full Christian vision. We must be willing to see what God wants to show us through the well-told metaphor of a story, or our children may believe it doesn’t matter. Does God care about our depth of insight, our striving toward superior creations? He does. Look around you. How can he not? Is anyone able to create anything that rivals even the smallest production of “mindless nature?”

To this God, a thousand years are like a day, and a day is like a thousand years. Does anything in your experience compare to that? Explore it, get to know that (if you like, I’ll lend you my screaming baby at 3 am), and then share it with us so that we might know him better too. I have to believe that’s worth it. That’s truly greater than anything we might otherwise write.

This isn’t a question of intelligence or preference. This is a question of being awake.

We can change the current realities one reader at a time, but we must do it together, aware of the responsibilities, the painful sacrifices, and the harsh judgment we will face at the hands of our own brothers and sisters. We must not let ourselves fall to the temptation of self-pity or equating our plight with that of Christ’s. We are but representatives, and poor ones, of the beauty we bear witness to.

Call forth the beauty from the void. Make the commitment and don’t look back. Our world can not wait.

Reality Check #5: “Safe” Books Are Not

I’m placing this post in the mission statement category because it’s one that doesn’t come along every day. Maybe it’s Glenn Gould’s piano playing in the background. Maybe it’s the frustrating day I had. Maybe it’s the setting sun, the passing summer, the culminating of all this thinking I’ve been doing in regards to the clash of the real and the ideal in CBA. But whatever. I have a theory. It’s one I’ve studied a fair amount, primarily as it relates to the Christian subculture. It is that safety often equates shoddy.

Sure, there’s the caveat: It’s not always the case. Making things “safe” does not necessarily mean they’ll be low in quality. But usually. When you make safety a primary requirement in the creation of anything, that product is going to pay a concession either in usefulness or appeal, or both.

Take cars. Where have all the bumpers gone? Our cars are actually less safe than they used to be without those bulky bumpers. But aren’t they more aesthetically pleasing? Or take kids’ toys. The old ones have all kinds of dangerous qualities. They’re heavy, have sharp edges, metal pieces, long cords, all kinds of choking hazards. Compare them to the plastic, uniform-sized, rounded, spongy things on the shelves today. It’s nearly impossible not to feel a little sorry for kids who won’t ever damage their innocent dignity on a rusty old hobbyhorse. Nature isn’t safe, but a misty sunset over a jagged shark tooth mountain can make you cry with its beauty.

The things we make safe often presume a consideration of children. A famous Christian radio station slogan is “safe for the whole family”—assumedly because I don’t want to have to explain anything to my kids. But what they don’t know is that I like explaining things to my kids. I like them learning things, expanding their view, opening the windows on their isolated little shelter.

I’ve actually looked up several definitions of “safe.” Some of my favs:
1. unlikely to cause or result in harm, injury, or damage
2. in a position or situation that offers protection, so that harm, damage, loss, or unwanted tampering is unlikely
3. certain to be successful or profitable, and not at risk of failure or loss
4. unlikely to cause trouble or controversy
5. cautious with regard to risks or unforeseen problems, conservative with regard to estimates, or unadventurous with regard to choices and decisions

Anybody familiar with a subculture that resembles that? I’ve heard it said that if Christian culture isn’t pretty, at least it’s not going to hurt anybody. Unfortunately, that’s not true. In attempting to forego offense, the Christian subculture often becomes one of the most offensive bunkers around. Sound ironic? Paradoxical? That’s because it’s true. Kind of like losing your life to save it. Or how eschewing safety reveals the safest place you can find.

I’ve proposed renaming “Christian fiction” “God’s fiction,” but I think I’ve got a better idea. Since it’s never going to happen anyway, I think we should call it “fiction for God” just amongst ourselves, just to avoid any possible confusion. It might really confuse some people if the industry just changed the term.

“Fiction for God? How is that different from Christian fiction?”

And people would have to ask. Much of what passes for saleable in Christian bookstores is determined by the types who refuse to see anything unbiblical about the protected environment we’ve created. Their ideal is a clean, conservative, tame pond pooled from the raging ocean of God’s full creation. And their Christianity is an adjective, an added thing, a term to keep us distinct from those unsafe gutter-dwellers.

But it’s difficult for me not to wish they could spend some quality time with those unsafe gutter-dwellers they’re so offended by. I might even claim that God probably wishes the same, at least for the reason of uniting us as fellow seekers. If they were able to get past their delusions of safety maybe they wouldn’t be so ineffectual at influencing the world.

But I’m not being winsome here, and that’s wrong. In fact, the people I’m talking about don’t deserve to be marginalized. They are just like you and me—passionate, eager, full of faith. They just happen to believe in a different view of Christianity. I don’t want to send anyone running to a safe haven, but I want to tell those who crave safety that Jesus is constantly being judged for the riff-raff he hangs out with. And he isn’t all that clean. He has a pretty rough reputation at the temple, and given the choice, he takes the gutter dwellers over the well-dressed church folks every time.

So don’t be fooled in your vigor to honor God. He doesn’t ask us to radiate a loud holiness. In fact, it’s much the opposite. He asks us to keep quiet about our personal commitment levels and not alienate those who haven’t caught the bug yet. I won’t expect you to accept the full creative palate of contrasting colors if you don’t expect them to clean up their act before welcoming them into our bookstores.

It’s time to tell our bookstore owners that love is more important than safety. If our reading material offends Christians, let them be offended and welcome in the riff-raff. Tell them that you reject the idea of insulating ourselves for narrow-minded customers. Challenge them to consider more books that could bring in some of those people Jesus is most wanting to reach, the neighbors he calls us to love. What if every Christian bookstore became a bookstore for God?

What if we loved others more than safe books? Maybe it’s time we started to hear the pleas of the one we claim to serve and unbar the door to the crying need of the world around us. Why can’t we feel that? What is wrong with our hearts?

Finally, in this push toward more freedom in our books, we must give equal measure to the quest for excellence. Quality before safety is the only way to ensure our fiction for God will both illuminate and honor our inspiration.