Reality Check #5: “Safe” Books Are Not

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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.

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18 thoughts on “Reality Check #5: “Safe” Books Are Not”

  1. Wow, that’s good stuff, Mick.
    Especially…”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.”
    May not be for everybody, but that’s how we do it in our house.

  2. Excellent post. However, although my writing deals with the world as it truly is–I ought to know because I spent 30 years in it before meeting Jesus–some will view your column as a reason or an excuse to write in a way that will insult the generous Spirit of Christ’s love. I’ve noticed that some writers are looking for an opportunity to write as the world writes, and by that I don’t mean skillfully. It seems they want to be the shock jocks of the Christian author’s world. Writing is both a gift and a talent, and however the Lord directs its use will determine the great writers of our genre regardless of what we call it.

  3. Amen, Mick, Amen. I’ve been coming up against the importance of honesty in our Christian lives — I think this desire to be safe, to isolate ourselves from the culture, only feeds our desire to appear perfect to those around us. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but too often it goes hand in hand with a less than authentic approach to faith. We say everything’s fine when we’re hurting inside. We don’t really listen when our brothers and sisters ask hard questions about God and how he works in the world. And some of those brothers and sisters are turning away from a religion that seems only for people who have it all together.
    When we start writing from our hearts — no, writing from God’s heart — I don’t think we will be in a safe place, but it will be a true place.

  4. Mick,
    This topic comes up all the time and, unfortunately, framing it within its extremes is the best way to illustrate its fallacy.
    I’ll stick with my favorite whipping boy here: erotica.
    We all know that Song of Solomon borders on being erotica. Metaphorical, yes, but many metaphors for sex and sexual situations exist. SoS plumbs many of them.
    So who out there’s brave enough to write erotica “for God”? I think anyone reading this will blanch at the thought of “Christian erotica,” but if we’re going to pull out all the stops as you say, why then can’t I write the best erotica for God that I can for “secular” markets? If I fully use the gifts God’s given me, why can’t I write great erotica that fully utilizes those gifts?
    See the problem with your argument?
    At some point, the point you make has to have a limit. It simply must. Does the world need for me to write a story about a sexual sadist who discovers the errors of his ways and turns to God? I don’t think so, especially if the details of his sadism find their way into my manuscript.
    A line exists. Daring people to cross it brings division. That’s how wars start. We don’t need any more schism in the Church.
    Sometimes we must consider the weaker brother.

  5. love, love, love this line:
    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.
    heard a stand up comic say once, momma put the tv on a tv tray and would slap us if we made it fall on us. (which is my kind of warped humor), but i’m tired of lions who have no claws at all or are muzzled.
    i’m beginning to read from other religious schools of thought simply because the party line is so reprehensible.
    i love the riff raff. but maybe that is part of the problem. sloppy agape, some would call it. i’d like to think it is just kindness. can’t we just be kind? even if recipients of said kindness cannot provide satisfactory theological arguments. that they cannot assuage my doubts about where their eternal soul will go. last time i grilled someone about whether or not they were getting in (or i was grilled, to be more accurate), the conversation ended promptly after i passed the test. this is no kindness. i was a hunk of meat examined only for the grade a stamp of approval. when it was found, the next slab of quivering flesh was taken in hand to inspect. (i kind of like that image.)
    though listening to a liberal station today i was pretty shocked at some of the things they call conservatives. it goes both ways really. i try to remind myself of that often, and the only way i can is to surround myself with people whose opinions vastly differ from mine.
    that, and a steady diet of grace. and mercy.
    peace my friend. your baby is gorgeous!
    suz.

  6. Hmmm…. If I spent as much time in isolation in prayer and in fellowship with learners as Jesus did, and was totally anointed with the Spirit as Jesus was, I’d do all right among the riff-raff occasionally as He occasionally did.
    Failing that, I recall that He said I still have to let my light shine.
    I balance that with Paul’s saying we are a royal priesthood, *holy*, and even so, he said not to hang out with unbelievers. Don’t even eat with immoral believers. Because their leavening would affect us and bring us down. Whoa.
    So, while we may want to include some unsafe and worldly things in our stories, so that the world can relate, we also have to be careful not to make them attractive to the world. Or we will be serving them leavening that could bring them down.
    In that regard, our books, our readers must be safe, or we’re bound for the millstone around the neck gig.
    So, when my heroine dabbles in bad things, she starts getting headaches that grow worse and worse–making the dabbling very unattractive all along the way– before she discovers just how real and bad and unsafe it all is.
    Our enemy is only too real and too ready. Not too safe. : )

  7. (…Which isn’t to say I’m totally isolated from unbelievers. They need our loving witness, obviously. I just don’t make them my first choice to hang out with anymore. Having been warned, I *try* to comply.)

  8. The Bible says to safeguard your heart. I guess God likes the word “safe.”
    I think your comparisons aren’t apples to apples.
    You said, “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..”
    K: Like beastiality? Pedophilia? My husband Milton always gets a chuckle out of people who deplore “censorship,” which, in this blog post is kinda’ what you’re deploring. IMHO. He says, “Society has a responsibility and right to make moral judgements and censure, from simple things like red lights, to polygamy, to incest, etc.” In the same way, I feel IRCS fiction has the right to make moral judgements and censure regarding what they will and will not publish.
    You also talked about safe equates to poor quality. Hmmm. Was Christy poor quality?
    Sorry, but this is a hot button for me.
    However, thanks for a thought-provoking post. I wish you God’s best.
    Oh, Milton just said, “He’s being too absolute (when I described your blog post to him). Sooner or later, something is not tolerable,” he said.

  9. Man, Mick. This comes close to the stickiest wicket we can deal with. Or the gooiest can of worms. Or…make up your own metaphor. I can see both sides of the argument. Truly, I can. And yet…and yet…I have to examine my own works. My Joe Box series, for instance. Joe’s a kick to write about, because, as a new Christian, he’s discovering for himself the problem of reconciling his new walk of faith with his own hot temper and wise-acre mouth.
    Much like me.
    Is there an answer to our CBA conundrum? DOES “safety” equal “timidness”? Or God forbid, “blandness”? I dunno. All I know is, with each succeeding book I write, I push the edge of that wicked old envelope a wee bit further out.
    The result of that remains to be seen.

  10. Quick! Everyone, go hide your Bibles! We can’t let our kids read unsafe material! We must keep our hearts safe!
    Anyone care to talk about the content of the Bible? Let’s see, we’ve got human dismemberment by prophets, rape and betrayal by family in David’s story, mass murder – doesn’t sound very safe to me.
    Oh, but now we’re in a dispensation of grace, right? We can just ignore all those parts of the Bible.
    We can ignore how God instructed Israel to kill entire nations, women and children included, and how that one lady lured an enemy general into her tent with the promise of sex and then put a hatchet in his head. And what about those guys that offered their daughters to the homosexual guys who wanted to “lie” with the new meat in town? Yeah, that was metaphorical, right?
    What about that David kid? Didn’t he cut off a guy’s head? When he was trying to earn the king’s respect so he could get a wife, didn’t he go out and kill 200 guys and then cut off their *foreskins* to bring them to the king? He only needed a hundred. Talk about overkill!
    (Please don’t make me define foreskin- it wouldn’t be safe for the whole family)
    That was a guy after God’s own heart. Man, that crazy God. Doesn’t He know that death and disfigurement isn’t socially acceptable?
    Oh, and about the Big J- didn’t He make a whip out of three cords and wap a bunch of guys when He was angry? And didn’t He call a bunch of guys a “brood of Vipers” and “white-washed tombs” and several other choice words? Jesus needs to watch His mouth!
    Yes, let’s make everything safe, starting with the Bible. Everyone, get out your scissors and bottles of white-out, because it’s Bible-whittlin’ time!
    Let’s start with these “metaphorical” passages from SoS:
    5 Your two breasts are like two fawns,like twin fawns of a gazelle that browse among the lilies.
    5 I arose to open for my lover,
    and my hands dripped with myrrh,
    my fingers with flowing myrrh,
    on the handles of the lock.
    7Your stature is like a palm tree,
    and your breasts are like its clusters.
    8I say I will climb the palm tree
    and lay hold of its fruit.
    Oh may your breasts be like clusters of the vine,
    and the scent of your breath like apples,
    9and your mouth like the best wine.
    It seems to me that God let a lot of “unsafe” material into His Book. We need to fix that right now! Come on everyone, let’s make our *Holy* Bibles safe for the whole family!
    Props to you, Mick. You’ve got a place at my table any day of the week.

  11. You know, I’m reading this comment trail and I just don’t see too much ‘getting it’ going on. What’s so very difficult to understand that there are relevant issues that desperately need addressed that are taboo in the CBA?
    I’m not talking about incest or the vast array of grossly imaginative things that I’ve just been subjected to.
    Mick isn’t talking about god-awful sick and morbid issues. He’s talking about everyday things that affect most all of us. (IMMHO)
    Who is ministering hope to the homeless? Who is offering a place to belong to the unwed mother? Where does the alcoholic go when he’s brash and abusive? What about the backslidden person that is only reacting to hurt and devastation the only way that they know how, but rebelling against God? What about the reformed homosexual who needs to know that the church of the living God accepts them? What about the adult that can’t come into a right relationship with God because of having been abused by a member of the clergy? How about the gal that aborted her baby, or the one that is considering it? Is abortion truly murder? Where is the voice of the unborn?
    All of the above are not safe things to talk about. When I first started writing my first novel I used to tell people that there isn’t anyone that I won’t offend. Maybe it wasn’t too smart, but it was intentional. I’ve gotten out my shovel and I’ve dug up the church: Now to sell it.
    I market love. The packaging is a plain brown bag full of ordinary people.
    I honestly believe that the world wants to hear what I have to say through my characters in my not so safe, but reverent novels.
    I also honestly believe that the Christian publishing industry is going to have to dare to take a chance at offending ‘everyone’ if they are going to be the balm that binds up the broken and the brokenhearted.
    Where is this Christian writer to go? As I see it, self-publishing would be self-defeating when credibility means everything. There is a lost and dying world out there, and many of the lost and dying call themselves Christian.
    They shall know us by our love. Love is patient and kind, not perfect, that is unless you are God.

  12. It’s time to tell our bookstore owners that love is more important than safety.
    Milk, I feel you, but your reality check goes so much further than bookstore owners and authors. What I see is that Christian counterculture needs to address some serious wrongs in our midst.
    One. Our need to parallel with society. Our pastors right just as many self help books as the panelists on the Oprah Winfrey Show. And the ministers who do write about Christ and his teachings don’t receive great attention in their own publishing houses pr, marketing and sales departments. why? Because we’re looking for a Christian version of Deepak Chopra or Fifty Cents.
    Two our insistence on separation instead of unity.
    I’m African American and I can count the number of African American authors writing for christian publishers. I can count how many books reaching the AA market are sitting on bookstore shelves, featured in Christian bookstore chain catalogs, and reviewed in Christianity Today and on most christian review sites/blogs. They only seem to stand out around the month of February.
    Where are the korean christians, the nigerian, the latino? It’s absurd. We do spend a lot of money on stuff, so there’s not real reason behind the lack of representation in a christian bookstore or in a publishing house in this day.
    Three. We don’t support great story tellers. We could host an author in our town. We could introduce them to our friends, our church, our local paper. We could buy their books.
    When Christ and his disciples came to town there was a provision plan for him. Do we have that for our artists?
    If we want to encourage christian publishers to take a chance on novels that they continue to reject, then we must do it with our pocketbooks. And if you’re an editor, fight for the books, prepare for the editorial meeting, be able to counter every objection that marketing and sales throw. And if you’re an author, stop living in a hippy bubble, and invest some time in the business of publishing books. Write relevant works, write so that more than two people can relate to what you’re righting and give the editors some help with pitching this book to editorial meetings. We all need to do better, including myself.
    And that’s not a safe thing to do.

  13. An interesting thought, Lisa.
    What does a less-safe life look like? I imagine it really is all about trust. How close to the infinite abyss am I willing to step, knowing God has called me there, knowing He has promised to go with me?
    It is a dangerous thing to trust God at the edges. So many questions appear. What if I hear Him wrong? What if He asks me to jump? What if He asks me to sit still? What if I suffer great loss? What if I fall? What if I fail? What if I sin?
    There is great risk at the edges, is there greater reward? (Think about the art that’s moved you most. From whence did it spring?)
    It’s more than art that springs from our lives. It’s God himself, right? Truth. Love. Hope. Redemption. Seems to me those things ought to be extraordinarily beautiful. Wonderfully rich. Surprising. Stunning. Breathtaking.
    Does this describe many of the books we’re publishing in the CBA? Some, perhaps. But enough?
    Yeah, interesting thought, Lisa.

  14. My wife and I have raised our kids with the concept of preparing them, not just protecting them. We were both PKs (pastor’s kids); we both went to Christian schools for part of our education; and we both served in overseas missions. Mick has nailed it on the head, pointing out the folly of this short-sighted “safe” approach. Can we put parameters on “safety”? Can we define what is “safe” and what is not for the Christian market? As soon as we attempt to qualify such things (aside from obvious violations of God’s Word), we turn down the road of the good-intentioned Pharisees. And no, the comparison is not an accident. I see in myself this Pharisee seed–to fit things into boxes, to keep others in line for their own good, to present an appearance that will be a good example and witness (while smacking of pride).

  15. Hey Mick, I’m on the Carnival for Christian Writers ride, and stopped here first.
    While something exciting sprang up in me at your post, I’ve also got some of the same reservations as the above commentors. I’m tending to agree with the one that said you’re not arguing on the side of the really really nasty, but on the issues that so many deal with on all sides.
    I’m really interested in these “rules” of the CBA that I’m always hearing about. In light of them, my second WIP is going to fall flat as it has one too many bar scenes, some alcoholism and flirts with promiscuity. But then I see some authors getting away with it…not easily (ie: Francine Rivers and Redeeming Love) and I wonder, what are the rules anyway? I guess I need to find them, lol!
    I think I agree with the spirit of your post, b/c if all Christian fiction is just fluffy stuff then isn’t it just another way to waste people’s time? When I read, I want to come out at the other end inspired. I love learning from a book…how to minister to the ones who’ve been sexually abused (Karen Kingsbury’s Divine did this), or who’ve survived an affair and want to make their marriage work.
    Sooner or later the “rules” are going to have to bend, and when they do, I only hope it’s for the greater good. I have a feeling however, in this world, that it could quickly go askew.
    Thanks for the thought-provoking!

  16. Wow–stopped here from Carnival of CW. I love the same quotes that others picked out–the rusty hobby horse (fortunately my kids get to play on the rusty-springed horse that was their dad’s when they go to my inlaws’ house), and the part about liking explaining things to my kids.
    But back to books, and media–I do try to safeguard my heart and mind, as one commenter mentioned, but there are times that my mind needs a dose of the reality of this world. It’s often sad to me, or offensive, but it does give me a context for my society as a whole.
    I think that there are books that are not written by Christians and not written from a Christian worldview that I can read, and still be safe and uncompromised. Do I wish that the CBA produced more of them? Maybe. But if the Christian retailers and publishers aren’t giving me what I need, am I okay going to the secular world to get it? Indeed.

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