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Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Writing for the "Weaker Brother"

One of the tightropes Christian writers must walk is whether or not to add in such things as cussing, sexual situations, or violence into their fiction stories. And one argument of why this should be avoided is the "weaker brother" argument found in Romans 14. As evident in the comments when Mike Duran posted about this issue on his blog, Answering the "Weaker Brother" Defense, this can be a touchy subject with a lot of opinions. Which only goes to show how hard it is for the Christian writer to always remain true to his story while taking into account the audience. How does one do this?

The argument is mostly taken from the second half of the Romans 14, where St. Paul discusses that even though he believes all meat is clean, he will refrain from eating such meat considered unclean if he fears it will cause someone weak in the faith to stumble. So, it goes, authors should refrain from mentioning sexual situations in their books or cussing because it could cause someone to stumble in the faith by thinking someone they look up to has said, "It is okay," yet they don't feel believe it is.

And while there is that danger and possibility, there are several factors that mitigate against that when it comes to fiction stories. Let's consider some of these.

One, St. Paul is talking about things that would cause people to lose their faith, to sin. It is very doubtful that someone who believes cussing to be a sin, because they read a Christian book with cussing in it, is going to decide to cuss themselves. Maybe a possibility for children. One day when our oldest was in first grade, we were riding in the car, and from the back seat she said, "Hell." Both my wife and I were shocked, wondering where that came from, as we didn't cuss like that. When asked, she said, "Captain Picard says it." I watched a lot of Star Trek the Next Generation back in the 80s.

But that's just it. My daughter decided the word wasn't bad because she'd heard someone else use it and thought it was okay. She didn't sin against her conscious. And if someone is convinced that cussing is sinful, they are not likely to start cussing because they read a book by a Christian where characters cussed.

Two, St. Paul, to keep this in context, is referencing a personal discipleship level. He wasn't writing fiction. Rather, he had disciples, people that looked up to him, who had come out of pagan worship where meat offered to idols was bad. Likewise, in every church there was a certain Jewish faction, and they considered certain meats unclean. St. Paul decided that he didn't want to eat meat in front of them that they considered sinful to eat, even though he didn't, because he didn't want them to lose their salvation over it. As their spiritual leader, what he approved of could lead some to violate their own conscience.

Fiction authors are not in a discipleship relationship with their readers. If people are getting their theology and morals from any Christian fiction, they are in sad shape. Mainly because while truth can be conveyed through fiction, that is not its main purpose. Its main purpose is to entertain you. Certainly we'd hope that a Christian author would write stories in sync with their own faith, but there is no guarantee of that, and there are so many views on what is correct theology that no one will please everyone. Writers are, after all, human. Therefore not infallible or infinite in wisdom like God. Any truth picked up from a piece of fiction should be tested with the Spirit and the Word like anything else, including your pastor's sermon.

Three, St. Paul doesn't put the responsibility of not offending the weaker brother upon the producer of the meat, but upon the leader who by his support of eating meat, could persuade a brother to go against his conscious and eat when he feels it to be a sin. St. Paul's conclusion wasn't, "Because of my weaker brother, we need to burn down all the idol temples where such meat is offered." He didn't say, "Let's kill all pigs, because they are unclean and we can't eat them. So no one can."

Writers of fiction are sources of entertainment. This is something one can partake of or not as they deem fit. The "weaker brother" argument isn't directed toward the provider of the meat, but toward the one who has influence over another's life. A comparable situation to St. Paul's example as a writer would be if I wrote a book containing explicit sexual detail, but an overall plot that required it and showed the sin to be sinful and harmful in the end. A youth minister might find it a great tool to help teens who are faced with sexual sins of the same kind, but some of those teens would end up participating in sinful activities because they weren't astute enough to pick up that message, and believed the leader was endorsing such behavior by recommending the book. Assuming the leader didn't clarify what it was about that book that impressed him, and use it as a teaching tool, he could be guilty of allowing a "weaker brother" to fall into sin by recommending my book.

But, it would be upon this leader for allowing that, not the fact the author wrote it. Because that book could also save a lot of lives as well. The author may have some influence over their readers, but unless they've set themselves up in the position to be seen as disciplers, they are providing a story to the public that may help some of them. If you don't like that type of story, if it will offend you, don't read it, no matter who suggest to you that you should.

Four, and this really shouldn't have to be said, but we have to cover the bases, because an author has a fictional character in their novel sin, doesn't mean the author is approving of that sin or thinks others should go out and do the same thing. The reality is, real people sin, no matter their moral compass and beliefs. King David committed adultery and murder. Saul didn't trust in God and used sorcery to bring Samuel from the grave. King Solomon committed sexual sins and in the end, despite being one of the wiser men in the world, fell into immorality. St. Peter denied Christ. St. Paul aided in the murder of Christians purely because they were Christians. The Bible is filled with such sins.

For instance, in my most recently released book, my protagonist gets drunk at one point in the story. Am I saying that I think getting drunk is a good thing, a honorable goal, or that everyone should do it, because my character does? Of course not. I would disagree with such an interpretation or that my character getting drunk means I'm endorsing it.

Fiction writers have a duty to depict reality to a degree, to make the story real enough that people are drawn into it. But just because I have a character that commits a sin doesn't mean that I don't think it is a sin, anymore than the fact I've committed sins means I think everyone else should follow in my shoes. Bottom line, having a character sin is not an endorsement of that sin to the reader. And anyone who interprets it that way is in the wrong, not the author.

Five, St. Paul also gives the following notice at the top of this chapter: "Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him." (Rom 14:3 EMTV) That's right. St. Paul calls the weaker brother not to judge the stronger one. It is one thing for the stronger brother to blatantly approve of something he or she knows the weaker brother may be encouraged to do against their conscience. It is another for the weaker brother to judge the stronger brother in what they approve. It is wrong for me to suggest you read a book I know is full of cussing if I know you are sensitive to that and might adopt that language because you respect me. It is another for the reader to judge the author as not a Christian because one or more of their characters cuss.

With those understandings in place, we can now address how to write for the weaker brother.

One, determine who your audience is. Once you've nailed that down, you can determine the freedom you have to write your story. Each demographic will have certain expectations, and everyone has things that will "offend" them. If you're audience is the typical CBA middle-class white woman, you're going to want to avoid all cussing and descriptions of sex. Not because such is likely to cause them to sin. But because if that is your market, you'll need to conform to their expectations if you want them to buy your book and recommend it to their friends. And that isn't going to happen if it is filled with cussing. So this point has little to do with the weaker brother, and everything to do with marketing.

Two, ensure that any cussing, sex, and violence, has a very good reason for being there. If it appears at all gratuitous, it will be rejected. If it appears necessary to the plot or character, then the reader is more likely to give it to you than not. I'll usually work to figure out a good alternate route around a bad word or situation that my first draft has introduced, and only if I can't find a good and natural alternative will I leave it in.

Three, don't beat readers over the head with it. It is enough, for example, to have the character cuss here and there, but to have it in every sentence, paragraph, or even page, will be the equivalent of taking a two-by-four to their heads. And they won't put up with that for very long. Even a cussing character can be shown to be such by only showing a smattering of cuss words, and the rest alluded to. Because lots of cuss words are going to sound gratuitous to most reader's ears, and/or sound like the author is too weak to avoid using them to prop up their "evil" character.

Four, when your story has elements that you know will offend some people, make sure the blurb makes that clear. For instance, my recent book, Reality's Fire, has some more adult themed subject matter in it. I debated about how to handle it, especially since the first two books had been read by younger readers, I wanted to make sure parents had a heads up so they could read it ahead of time to determine if it is appropriate for their child. The solution was to include in the blurb an indication that it contained more mature subject matter. See if you can spot the line that gives that away:
The Day shall declare the reality revealed by fire...

Destinies are forged in the dark night of the soul. Kaylee and Nathan pursue a zombified Crystal to rescue her soul if they can. A vision of death propels their mother, Gabrielle, to chase them in order to prevent its fulfillment. Her wizard friend, Josh, accompanies her to keep his promise to protect her. A mysterious religious leader wants to seduce Kaylee to violate her morals. And a demonic being seeks to bury the reality of the ring through temptation and deceit. Through their twisting journeys, each encounters their destiny. Including the ring.

...Reality's Fire is revealed, and no soul can hide from its judgment.

You've probably noticed the sentence that gives this fact away. Granted, I had you looking for it. Others may either skim over it and not get it, or not read the blurb at all. While true, they should be reading the blurb, and that should give people a heads up that if someone is tempted to violate their morals, then there is a good chance this will contain some more adult subject matter.

I feel this is better than popping a rating on it, because that can mean many things to many people. And you have opportunity to word it in a way that says, "this book is for this type of reader..." So, if my blurb included, "...and John has to deal with his rebel sister, lost in a world of bikers and immoral living," you can expect the subject matter to be on the more raunchy level, and to likely read some cussing if the author stays true to those characters. At least they can't say they weren't warned. Oh yes, they'll likely say that anyway, but it won't be true. They only have themselves to blame if they didn't want to read such a book.

Four, ensure that sin isn't glorified. Sin can be shown to result in negative consequences, and even be neutral about it. But if the sin is shown to be okay, or even in some cases, good or excused because of circumstances, then you'll have more of a problem. Because by glorifying it, you are, as a writer, falling into promoting that sin to someone rather than just showing it as part of life, bad as it might be. In other words, when you take the novel as a whole, could one suggest that one of its themes is that getting drunk is okay, not sinful, and even desirable? I don't think my book, for example, does, even though my protagonist does get drunk. Afterward, she admits it was stupid. I never gloried it as a good thing.

As an author, you'll offend people. But St. Paul didn't write those words to prevent you from offending people. Sure, we don't want to needlessly offend people. On the other hand, neither does God expect us to write for only one audience, the weaker brother. Otherwise, those others may never experience the truth through our stories, and be left hungering and thirsting for righteousness. Whole groups of people will never be reached. And St. Paul says the weaker brother cannot judge us. They are to tend to themselves, and not be looking to who will offend them next. That tasks falls to the one who has influence in their lives, who disciples them in the faith. Not the writer. That said, the above steps can limit needless offense when your plot and characters do call for potentially offensive subject matter or actions by your characters.

Where do you draw the line for the weaker brother?

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