>What’s in a Word?

>By: Stephanie S. Smith, staff writer for Moody Fiction Blog

Here is something that has been knocking around in my head lately: How can a Christian writer be authentic while not appearing sanitized?

Christian writers, publishers, and readers alike all run into this dilemma at some point or another: the balance between gritty, real-to-the-raw literature and clean, family-friendly reading.  It goes without saying that while the redemption in Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair may be profound, it would never be read in a children’s classroom because of its adult themes.  On the other hand, some Christian novels go to the extreme to be “above reproach”, yet the story falls flat because it does not resonate with the tragedies and bitterness of our real life experiences.

There are some issues we experience in life that are very real to us, but they may or may not make their way into a Christian novel.  This is not to say that Christians are not writing about these topics, but usually they are more implied than depicted. I find two things typically at the top of this list: sexuality and profanity. Is the depiction of these things in literature desecration or authentication?

I’d like to take a look at the stewardship of language in Christian fiction.  The Incarnation of our Lord in the Word made flesh sets the paradigm for all Christian writers: we must understand that words have the power to grow into action, and as such we have a weight of responsibility with our work.  We want to be true to the story, the reality of human nature, yet our words have the power to uplift or make others stumble.  It’s a fine line to tread.

There are various approaches.  One thing I admire about Moody Publishers is their policy to always capitolize the name of God in their books, including personal pronouns such as “He” or “His.”  This carries a reverence, I think, to the readers and demonstrates an understanding of the weight of language for better or for worse.

Some other examples: Anne Lammott, in her memoir Traveling Mercies, colors her salvation prayer with the “f” word, while some publishers substitute dashes for letters in swear words or omit them altogether.  Christa Parish, in her novel Home Another Way, makes sexual promiscuity central to her main character’s story, though there is never an objectionable scene in the book.  Devoted Catholic Mary Karr peppers her prose in The Liars’ Club with expletives, and author Ted Dekker sparks controversy in the Christian realm over his dark thrillers.

I’d love to hear your thoughts! What do you think: is redemption in fiction more real or felt when the author openly addresses some of life’s more difficult issues or does this taint the novel with questionable content? Where do we, as Christians, draw the line?

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  1. >I think it's best handled the way the Bible handles it. In David's sin with Bathesheba, for instance, we're told exactly what happened and the consequences, but we're not given a scene that incites arousal or lust in the reader.

  2. >Barbara hit the nail on the head. We do not need to know the specifics to titillate. As for swear words, if the scene is naturally one where such words are used, the less the better, and not spelled out. Preferably none.

  3. >Very good question! I have to agree with the others. Discretion and wisdom are the key.

  4. >Barbara, that's a great thought. I've heard authors talk about the value of "nuance" versus detailing out an immoral/disturbing scene. I agree discretion is needed…and prayer!

  5. >I believe there is a delicate balance between presenting reality and crossing over into too much detail, sex and profanity, which can destroy the message of the story. I enjoy fiction that gives us the truth inspired by scriptures, like Cheryl Dellasega's fantasy novel, "The Testings of Devotion," about God's angels as warriors.

  6. >I appreciate Barbara's comments too. I also think that an author should pay attention to what is being glorified in each instance. The Bible tells us we should boast in the Lord, but at times, both in fiction and in sharing real-life stories, it's easy to boast in sin and somehow glorify it instead of the Lord.

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