What Goes Into a Mind

Sharing is nice

I know what it looks like. I have to accept this alter-ego of a whiny contrarian whose always moaning about the books and the state of Christian publishing. And for all of you who get it and know I’m really not so cranky as all this makes me seem, there are a dozen more who think I’ve got real mental problems for sticking around if I hate it so much. I wish I could tell them how I really feel, the excitement and inspiration I feel in getting to influence the shelves from the inside, the honor and respect I have for my coworkers and the industry in general. CBA does do a lot of good, and I’m appreciative of all the positive things it’s made possible, all the good it’s done in people’s lives. As a capitalist corporation, it’s one of the most benign organizations around and I’d like to dispel the misconception that I’m anti-CBA in any way. I personally know many people who work for CBA and I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with Christian retail and marketing Jesus, as it were. These are desperate times and we need more Christ-centered resources, not less.

But from my perspective, an association representing Christian retailers and suppliers could do much better than their current slogan suggests, introduced in 1999 after significant research and market testing: "What goes into a mind, comes out in a life." What no one seems to want to acknowledge is that there’s a sad reality behind that sentiment when faced with the evidence of what isn’t available on Christian bookshelves. Inaccurate, ignorant philosophies of watered-down truth do not make for a healthy mind, or a healthy life. Let’s set aside the quality question for a moment and simply look at the limited offerings available. What can we assume about the "brain food" that’s going into our Christian minds? What sort of nutrition do you think it might be missing? Are we not able to confront the fact that we are accepting a self-imposed ignorance, isolation, and resulting defensiveness from the parameters we’ve put around Christian books and resources? Can anyone deny the obvious dearth of variety in our stores? Whose fault is this? Is it the bookstores’ fault? The publishers? The writers? The store buyers? The readers?

When I was a freshman in high school, a lady came over to our house with her husband to talk to my parents for their monthly church update. She was a family friend, active in the church, but not known as the most tactful woman on matters of Christian love and grace. She walked in to where my brothers and I were watching some G or PG-rated movie–the only kind allowed in our house–took one glance at the screen and said, "Garbage in, garbage out, boys." I don’t even remember what the movie was or what the offensive scene might have been, but I’ve never forgotten the feeling of abject condemnation and scorn. That kind of thing is what later caused me to run so far afield from all things Christian as a college student and recent grad.

Later, while working with the youth culture department at Focus on the Family, I ran into the well-worn illustration of the father who serves a plate of chocolate cookies to his kids with a tiny bit of dog poo mixed in. "It’s just a little bit of dog poo," he says, as if somehow this makes a better point than the "one-rotten-apple" illustration when talking to teens about their entertainment choices.

It’s a good thought, and certainly accurate when applied to the more disgusting evils available in modern entertainment. But the problem with their philosophy here is that dog poo is just untransformed chocolate. And not just in Christian stories either. If we take out all the dog poo, we’re taking out all the chocolate. And then what do you have? Well, plain cookies, but really, you’ve got nothing because everything that exists is either dog poo or chocolate on some level. What’s grace without sin? What’s beauty without ugly? What’s redemption without something to be redeemed?

If "what goes into a mind comes out in a life," then it’s more than safe, clean, approved Christian products that will fit the bill here. We also need real honesty, truthful messages, and redemptive grace. A quick scan of the shelves will show we aren’t there yet. One place to start is in God-honoring fiction where dog poo gets transformed into chocolate and where we get past our parochial mindsets and easily-offended sensibilities for the sake of the greater good. I believe God is waiting to work if we’ll let him. There’s so much more to be done and so little time to get this right.

Sharing is nice

19 thoughts on “What Goes Into a Mind”

  1. I’m reasonably new here, so forgive me if I’m mistaking anything in the posts. From the sound of your rhetoric, it would seem you’re striving for quality and realism in the literature you receive, so I can’t help but wonder what kind of writing is being submitted to you?
    It doesn’t sound like you want people to “push the envelope” but rather to portray the struggles, traumas, failures, successes, etc. that both the world and Christians face in this life in a creative, hard-hitting, meaningful, impactful way.
    For me, it seems like all I see on the shelves is historical fiction–I don’t read it. Yes, I’ve read some, but outside of Redeeming Love I don’t care for it.
    Am I right that it’s not the subject matter so much as the benign stories and tepid portrayals in some novels that are unrealistic and boring to you?
    I’ve written five (almost six) novels. There are some Christians I would prefer not to read my work. It’s too real, confronts sexual issues with realism, compassion, and forgiveness, and there are a lot of unsaved characters. Some get saved and some do not. They wouldn’t appreciate the accurate portrayals.
    CBA literature has confronted a lot of topics–has anyone read Dead Air?
    There is garbage in this world, and, yes, sometimes we take it in and sometimes we spew it out, but we better be able to discern the garbage and handle ourselves in the midst of it because guess what? We’re surrounded. Those who read to escape to utopia can find an ample menu, but let’s not forget those who need more, different, imagination, excitement, thrills, and real solutions such as provided by the death and resurrection of the Savior Jesus Christ.
    Write to honor God and write what He has given you. Give Him your best.

  2. What went into my mind for 44 years: Good, friendly, “safe” things according to the CBA world. What came out in my life in year 45: Rather poor life choices and a realization that the “garbage in, garbage out” philosophy of living misses one salient point–you don’t get rid of sin by putting only “good, friendly, ‘safe’ things” in. Life is messy. The world is broken. And just who is this arbiter of what is “good” and why is he/she so hell-bent on twisting reality into something it isn’t?
    Maybe I’ve become cynical in my (old) age, but I think CBA is unlikely to change its way of thinking anytime soon. When you peddle the promise of a golden life, one where all your troubles are solved (or have the promise of a solution) by page 276, people are going to buy. Many want to believe life is easier than it really is. And that’s not so wrong, really, if you call it what it is: fantasy.
    The CBA books that do allow some of the harder truths of this imperfect life onto the table still feel incomplete to me. They usually present hope as if it’s an inevitable ending place, something God will bring (often with blessings tied up in pretty bows, but don’t get me started on that) once the storms have been weathered. I’m all for finding hope (more than you know), but what happens when we don’t find it? When the ending isn’t the least bit hopeful? Does that mean God isn’t in the story? I am finding that God is doing some of his most intimate work in the uncertain stories, the hopeless stories, the broken-with-no-promise-of-healing stories.
    Don’t get me wrong, I think there’s plenty of room for novels that cheer us up or send us to the tissue box to daub tears of joy over the healed heart or the return of the prodigal son. But so much of CBA looks just like the self-help section at Borders. (Here’s your “obvious dearth of variety.”) And I’m including fiction here, too. Paint-by-numbers theology, whether presented in non-fiction or fiction, just never quite looks organic to me. And it rarely matches my story. How about yours?
    The “What goes into a mind…” slogan has a nice rhythm to it. It’s clever. And, like so much of what passes for Christian truth these days, it skims right across the surface of the deep, difficult realities of what it means to try and live Christ-like lives when we’re navigating with world-wearied souls.
    I’m not sure simply expanding the definition of what we ought to allow “into a mind” solves the problem. The slogan sort of breaks down when you expand the front end of the rather narrow funnel.
    It will take brave souls to change this. I don’t think CBA is run by brave souls. Of course, if they suddenly change their slogan to something like, “What goes on in the mind and heart…well, let’s explore that why don’t we?” and then back that up with sweeping industry changes, I’ll gladly eat my proverbial hat.
    Until then…I’m going to spend most of my time listening to God speak through the words of ABA authors who aren’t restricted to speaking a foreign language that leaves out some of our most demonstrative adjectives. Who aren’t forced to paint sexuality with just two colors (black and white) instead of the myriad shades God uses. Who aren’t afraid of unresolved chords.
    Or maybe I just need to start taking Prozac again.

  3. Amen Steve…
    I am finishing up my first novel and I don’t understand what would prompt me to conform to CBA’s rigid standards when I could easily market to the ABA and have none of it, yet still write a spiritually satisfying and meaningful piece of literary fiction.
    Let’s remember that the world easily accepts spirituality and even spiritual language. It’s the Christians who institute the double standard and refuse to accept the very world that they were born into, because they are afraid they’ll get dog poo on them (or in them).
    Why can’t we just call a spade a spade and let the Christian market provide its capitalistic niche to those who buy its books faithfully and don’t really want any sweeping changes.
    I’m not trying to suggest a cop out, but it occurs to me that if the underlying theme of our walk is supposed to be love, then I don’t want to beat my brothers over the head with my “non religiousness” if they aren’t ready for it any more than I like to be told what I can and can’t write, regardless of what I feel God leading me to do.

  4. I would agree the world accepts “spirituality and even spiritual language” provided it has a new age twist to it and requires nothing of them. This double standard you refer to for Christians is simply the reality that without Jesus, you spend another reality in hell. We’re born into dog poo, guys. It’s called sin, and, yeah, it’s a fact that it can be luscious and inviting and “hard as hell” to resist, but succumbing to it produces its own set of unique consequences for each one of us.
    “I could easily market to the ABA . . . ” Wow. I didn’t think it was easy to market a book to either. If that’s where the Lord is taking you, be obedient to Him.
    You know, there might not be a particular healing here on earth, but if you know the message in the Word is truth, then you know eventually healing comes.
    Outside of losing some loved ones, most of the suffering in my life was self-induced by poor or idiotic choices. Just because I’ve failed doesn’t dim the message or change its truth. It shows me my inherent weaknesses, stupidity even, and points me right back to the Savior for restitution and hope. The hope that even a wretch like me can be saved, forgiven, and loved.
    “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”

  5. Bad Theology/no theology in=the current “Christian” culture out. The state of the “Christian” churches today reflects the state of CBA/Christian culture today.

  6. Great writing, Mick. Wow! And I mostly agree with you. I do want to remind all of us (including me) who get a little tired of CBA that there are quite a few great Christian books out there right now. Believe it or not. I’m reading Unveiled Faces by Keith Drury right now, for instance. Good stuff, I tell you. And that is just one example. It may take a bit of work to sift through the quantity to find the quality, but there are prophets even today who speak the truth to us through books.

  7. Mick, you’re nailing the same thoughts I’ve been having re: CBA fiction. I wondered if maybe it was just me, that I was the oddball. Well, maybe I am, but it’s nice to know I’m in good company.
    Now for the plug (those of you who are plug-intolerant, avert your eyes): even though he’s CBA published, my own Joe Box stuff doesn’t seem to fit neatly into a category. This includes my latest, To Skin a Cat. Joe’s a Christian, yes, but he’s having hell’s own time trying to make it work in his life. IMHO, it’s that tension that makes the guy so fascinating, always surprising me. Those souls game enough to take a chance on reading him tend to agree.
    We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog, already in progress.

  8. I love this blog!
    As an aspiring novelist who is also a Christian, I struggle with the CBA standards. I have one novel completed, which has a scene that I’ve written and rewritten and still don’t think it’d fly with the CBA. I have another one in progress that the CBA would never touch because of some of the subject matter. Never mind that it has a very solid Christian message. An another project I’ve been working on, I just wrote a scene the other night that I just don’t know how to clean up for the CBA. And here I thought this one was going to be a no-brainer.
    Boy was I wrong.
    Todd Greene
    Straitjacket Chillers:
    Get Strapped In . . .
    http://www.toddmichaelgreene.com
    http://anewnovelistsjourney.blogspot.com
    http://messagesfromtheasylum.blogspot.com

  9. >>What no one seems to want to acknowledge is that there’s a sad reality … when faced with the evidence of what isn’t available on Christian bookshelves. Inaccurate, ignorant philosophies of watered-down truth do not make for a healthy mind, or a healthy life.<< You got that right. One would think we were livin' in Laodicea (Revelation 3) and think we're so rich when really, we're poor, wretched, blind and Jesus would like to spit us out for our lukewarmness. Too blind to see our blindness. Supposed to be taught to do *all* things He taught the apostles do! (Matthew 28, Matthew 10...) I'm not seeing it. Maybe we *are* blind Laodiceans and too blind to see it. Maybe I'm as blind as the next one. Wouldn't be surprised. But _Lost Shepherd_ and _Appointment in Jerusalem_ are two of my favorites. A little eyesalve there, anyway. : )

  10. “We also need real honesty, truthful messages, and redemptive grace. A quick scan of the shelves will show we aren’t there yet. One place to start is in God-honoring fiction where dog poo gets transformed into chocolate and where we get past our parochial mindsets and easily-offended sensibilities for the sake of the greater good. I believe God is waiting to work if we’ll let him. There’s so much more to be done and so little time to get this right.”
    Amen to this. If I’m going to write about transformation and restoration, I’ve got to write about the pooh or it just doesn’t work. And I want to be able to write about the pooh as authentically as I can, or the words I write don’t ring true to those like myself who’ve had (or do have more specifically) a lot of pooh.

  11. I for one am a bit displaced. I’ve stalled on my writing of my ongoing novel because of the perplexities. I have no one to market my work to. I’m sitting here reading a very high standing entity in the publishing industry and I’m listening to him cry out for more substance and quality of work, and yet the Christian market won’t support the demand and thus the Christian writing community won’t supply the needed material.
    I just read a post of a person who is weighing her scenes in her works in progress for salability.
    It makes me want to choke. (I could have said puke, but will try and be still for the sensibilities of the powers that be.)
    I’m not busy editing scenes. I’ve completely stopped the book. Who wants to hear about my two teens that have spent the summer trying to figure out how to be alone so that they could consummate their relationship? Who cares one of them is a Pastor’s son? Who cares that God’s grace is greater than their sinfulness? Who cares? Why should I bother to write?
    It all reminds me of when I was a teen myself. Married mind you, but young and pregnant. Some wise*** says to me in my passing – “She’s been f*****.” No duh.
    Why all the pretences that we live in a holy, God fearing society? Why not put the pulp on the plate and try to make a difference?

  12. I’ve been around the block a time or two, and remember when the fiction sold in CBA stores was tepid pablum, suited to Sunday school classes and little else. Compare current CBA content to that marker and you can see how far it has come toward true, literary content. Some argue that it hasn’t arrived as yet. But I’ve read some really great stuff of late, and have no problem at all finding more like it at Ye Olde Christian Book Store.

  13. I’d have to agree with Jim here. Few subjects are left untouched now. I repeat the question: has anyone read Dead Air? Talk about pushing the envelope. And Miss Audrey, do NOT stop writing. We need your perspective. The language can be alluded to–everyone knows the words.
    My first book was about horse racing, and, believe me, as I said in my previous post, there are some Christians I don’t want reading it because some of the characters are “too real” for their consumption even though they’re composites of real people I’ve known, and unfortunately down the road I went a few times.
    Just write God’s best, and He will find a place for your work. This is what I have to tell myself. It’s ultimately up to Him what happens with our work. God Bless your efforts on His behalf.

  14. I’ll happily grant that CBA fiction has come a long way from the days of Olde. (And this admittance comes without the benefit of Prozac.) Indeed there are few subjects left untouched and some really good writers are publishing some really good things under the CBA banner.
    The disappointment that prompted my earlier response remains, however, because even though this narrow band of “acceptability” may be a little less narrow, it is still a constricting band.
    What message do we give to non-believers (and believers, too) when we strip away the raw, realness of life in order to present the truth of a redeemed life…when the redemption that they’re looking for begins right there in the raw, and the real?
    We are still catering to the Christian middle. Though we may be teasing at the edges of that here and there, God is somehow made smaller when we are forced down a road that restricts us to pointing over the hedge at the dog poo or talking about it, instead of admitting that we live in it and that God isn’t afraid of meeting us there.
    I know the CBA gatekeepers mean well, and there are probably some very good reasons to plant hedges around the books they publish. I guess I’m just acknowledging my frustration at what amounts to a wasted opportunity. I hate that word “evangelical” for all the baggage it’s been saddled with…but if we truly want to evangelize with our words, let us be allowed to speak in the language of the people we’re reaching out to—people who live broken lives in a broken world, who are often selfish, sometimes bitter, frequently lost. People who desperately need a Savior.
    People like us, I suppose.

  15. I understand your point, Steve. Believe it or not, I do. I used to use the language of the world and do the dance of the world. It was ugly for awhile.
    Enter Jesus Christ, the Word. Yes, I still had the baggage and slowly learned how it was traded in at salvation.
    However, the clarity of instruction in the Word tells us over and over to come out, be separate, in the world not of the world, no coarse language, avoid the appearance of evil, be holy–you know the drill.
    Somehow, that has to translate to our writing. I think it requires MORE skill, not less.
    The people who desperately need a Savior like we once did in our sinful state (I know we ALWAYS need Him) will not be drawn by our similarity to them but by our empathy for where they are. They will be drawn by the Holy Spirit, not how well we display the reality of worldly ways. What God chooses to use to “appeal” to an individual who is lost is always fascinating and often unpredictable. And I don’t think you can make any writer, editor, or publisher responsible for something only God can do.
    Our personal witness says as much or as little for how much Jesus loves and cares about their broken lives as whatever or whoever He used in our lives to help us find Him.

  16. Points taken. Thanks for those thoughts.
    I think I may have left an incomplete thought on the table in my post though, because I’m not advocating that we become less than we are in Christ when writing. When I say “speak in the language of the people” I mean us. We are people, redeemed people, but people nonetheless. We are separate by the nature of that redemption, and hopefully also because of our new life in Christ and the choices that leads us to make.
    But we also know, distinctly know, what it’s like to be in the muck and in need of that redemption. I guess that was my intended point.
    Additionally, I would suggest that because the muck persists, an acknowledgment of that in our writing (not just looking over at it from a place of spiritual understanding, but feeling it between our toes as we still do) can help us reach those who tend to see only the “separateness” and not the “sameness” that would help them know God cares equally about their lives as ours.
    Not sure if that helps to clarify or if it just muddies the waters. Maybe I’ve got too much muck between my toes today to present a clear thought?

  17. I think you said it well, and I agree. Our imperfections better not be complicated and more mucked up with hypocrisy. Yeah, we feel it alright, but we strive to resist it.
    The enemy loves to condemn us and lie to us and drag us down, knowing our obvious weaknesses so well. But: Romans 7:14-25. And greater is He that is in you than he that is in the world.

  18. hey my friend, long time. i’ve got lots of reading to catch up on, which is good.
    i was in denver while everyone in the known world (sort of) was at acfw, there, we probably had some of the same discussions you guys were having.
    one frightening thing i realized, which how i never noticed this before but not only is the church way backwards and easily offended (and i lump cba in that statement), but it is on guard against anything that might blow up the skirt of God (remind me to show you that poem mick). i got the urge to pray (we were in an early morning prayer thang when i got slammed with this reality) and realized i need to start praying for the hoseas and noahs of today. those who hear the voice of God. the actual voice of God. and are building, redeeming according to His will. regardless of what the church thinks.
    i am praying those folks will be as damned determined as the men of God of old to do what God has called them to do with or without the approval of the church.
    sigh.

Discuss...