Random Reality Check

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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.

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11 thoughts on “Random Reality Check”

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head, Mick. The unpopular concept of individual discernment is a big factor.
    What if followers of Jesus return to our roots and value our intellect as well as our emotions? What if we learn and teach discernment the way it used to be taught (from the scriptures, not from today’s best-selling how-to book) to discern what is good for us to read? Why are we treated as children with a special section just for us in a “secular” bookstore? Is it so that we don’t have to research and think about what is good for us to read and what is trash? Let others more learned tell us? Abdicate responsibility to be discerning? But what if the gatekeepers aren’t always right?
    If there were no gatekeepers and we had to think for ourselves, would we grow mature and wise in our faith both in our minds and in our hearts? Would be able to discern for ourselves and be secure in our wisdom and knowledge of what is of God and what is of the world/the flesh/the devil? Or would we all fall apart and become depraved? Well, how big is our God? How deep is our faith? Do we believe in ourselves, or our God?
    Before CBA came along, did wise, mature, discerning Christians need gatekeepers to tell them what they could/should read? I don’t think so. I can’t imagine an adult, mature Christian way back when telling someone they couldn’t read “Les Miserables” because part of it was about a prostitute.I think that they were wise enough to take the novel as a whole and see Truth in it. Discerning enough to recognize redemption, grace, and God’s Truth in literature and all things without giving everything an “evangelical Christian,” or “secular” label.
    Or maybe I am totally wrong about all this and we need to be told what to read and protected from the evil world because our faith and our God surely aren’t enough to protect us…..

  2. I remember when I was a little kid I asked a lot of questions, when I started questioning things that were taught to me in the religious classes, they told me I would go to hell for asking such things. Now that I’m an adult (or pretend to be) people see me as one that would “storm the gates of hell with a squirt gun.”
    Does God have a purpose for people who ask questions and buck the system? Maybe we need to study Jesus and the disciples more.
    Remember in the Old Testament when the people wanted a king so bad? God warned them if they wanted to be like everyone else certain (bad) things would follow?
    Did we put the chains on ourselves by creating the CBA?
    Would the CBA house a “secular” novel section?
    Oh! But we expect the “secular” stores to shelf our Christian novels, eh?
    What is that greek word for “mask-wearer?”

  3. What if the gatekeepers’ job was to feed the children and keep them from running into the street and teach them discernment so they could walk in this world with wisdom? That would seem a worthy endeavor.
    But that’s not primarily what CBA does. Sometimes when I look at CBA (maybe in my more cynical moments), it looks strangely like a preschool surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The people inside seem mostly very happy, but many of the “children” are a bit old for the rocking horse. Every once in a while, someone escapes (often scraping him or herself on the barbed wire) and finds a place in the larger world speaking the truth in love.
    I think I must have run into some of these escapees (in my reading, in my relationships) because I’ve found more real grace outside of the encampment than inside it during this past year.
    Guess I’m having one of those cynical moments.

  4. Careful, Mick. Isaiah asked questions, too, and he was sawed in half.
    I’m also a questioner. The thing is, I’m not so good at the answers. Like the whole CBA thing: are we hiding by making our own publishing houses? Or is it creating otherwise impossible opportunities? Yes, and yes. See, not so good at the answers.
    And if we’re frustrated with both CBA and ABA, can we create a third option? We can call it “emerging fiction.” Whadya think?
    What happens when you’re both an artist and a theologian? More dangerously, what happens when you’re an artist and not a theologian? A Christian who paints something pretty and safe, but perhaps heretical.
    Jumbled thoughts.

  5. Oh Mick! Is it hard to eat on those days when your tongue gets firmly stuck into the side of your cheek?
    Me? I have trouble swallowing like that.
    ;-)

  6. Christian fiction has become an ambiguous term, a war zone, a clique, a source of great joy and as much disappointment. Why? The answers are as diverse as the comments we write, as those not written but thought.
    The simple answer is because humans are involved. The next answer sounds simple but isn’t if you break it down: subjectivity.
    I may have loved F. Scott Fitzgerald, someone else might’ve gagged at his writing. Someone else loves Karen Kingsbury, others wince at her name.
    What happens when there are thousands of Christian writers and a few hundred editors to screen them? What happens when only, say, 8000 of the 10,000 are truly called to write? What if on the committee selecting who wins the prize of being published, there are only 2 of the 5 who are called to be in that position?
    What happens when those who manage publishing are so ravaged by work that they’ve lost their joy for it, get locked into a formula book selection, don’t dare become innovative, and/or rely on their own intense schedules to set the rules for the rest of the reading world?
    What happens when those who wish to leave behind the philosophies of the world to seek solace, entertainment, deep theology, and/or emotional depth in Christian fiction grow weary of formula books and just quit buying them? Will anyone even notice?

  7. I’ve considered the paradox. I am a Christian writer through and through. I have spent a good portion of my adult life penning novels that weave redemption and imperfection, forgiveness and grace. Then when I got to the publishing part of the equation I found myself an odd man out. My novels are too worldly for the Christian market and too Christian for the secular market. I have found the solution. I am going to temporarily abandon my Christian endeavors and write a blood soaked SF novel thick with satire. My planet is populated by aborted fetuses. My setting is a world that disrespects human life and kills off unnecessary entities, sells babies and uses teens for slaves. I’ve decided that I can and will write unsafe. Will it be salable? No. But it will be cathartic. Where could I possibly come up with such atrocious ideas? Look around. There really is a galaxy full of discarded souls. Euthanasia is nipping on our heels. Children are being sold into slavery. Just consider all of these social injustices. I will dare to be a voice. And that voice won’t be thumping her Bible either. Not this time…

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