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Sunday, November 21, 2010

New Review of Transforming Realities

Steve Wilson has recently put up a review on my book, Transforming Realities. And he has rated it excellent! He wrote a really nice piece. Click here to read it and leave a comment. Thanks to Steve for reviewing it.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stumbling Fears

When I was a Nazarene minister, my friend and I had a little joke about our up and coming ordination reviews. One of the stories we'd heard is that some applicants had been questioned about wearing wedding rings. You have to know the history of the Nazarene Church in that regard. In the "early days" holiness was evidenced by following several rules, both dos and don'ts. One "rule" was wearing no jewelry, and that included wedding rings. (You'll rarely find this sentiment today in the Nazarene Church, and I did pass my ordination, ring and all.)

My friend and I would joke that if we were asked about our wedding rings in the ordination meeting, we'd tell them, "Well, I think it is all right to wear one, but if me wearing this will make you stumble, I'll take it off." Like, I'm sure that would have gone over like a lead balloon.

Well, that verse is used in lots of situations. Most recently I've heard it used in relation to how much sin we depict in our stories as Christian authors. Since I just broke down one verse along these lines, why not this one too? Here's the specific verses:
But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak. For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.
(1Co 8:9-13 ASV)

The concern is that by depicting a sin as enticing, or even a possibility to do, that we could cause someone to plunge into that sin who is weak.

First, I will acknowledge that there is a line we shouldn't cross. In my understanding, it is when we show sin as enticing, but also without the negative consequences it can have. That could potentially send a message to a brother or sister who is weak to stumble. I would suggest that depicting a sin, even if done in a "this is normal" way, if it shows the negative consequences, or that it was wrong, it should provide support for the weaker brother or sister to avoid such things, not a cause for them to stumble.

And as mentioned last time, we have a responsibility as Christian writers to only show what needs to be shown to make the story and characters work, not merely for shock value, or trying to be "edgy." If we do the later, we are unnecessarily throwing out enticement without intending to show any consequences, which can be just as bad as showing positive consequences to sin.

All that as a given, there is still one area where I feel some go too far with this verse. First, let's take a look at the context of what St. Paul was talking about here.

There was an apparent debate in Corinth over whether it was okay to eat meat offered to idols. Those who had come out of that religion, who had participated in those rituals, or felt strongly that eating such meat was the same as worshiping that idol, naturally felt that no Christian should eat such meat. Likewise, there were those who saw it as nothing more than meat. They couldn't care less about where it was before. It was just meat to eat, and they didn't feel they worshiped any idol by eating it. It was food, nothing more, nothing less.

St. Paul diplomatically agrees with both. Yes, it is only meat, but your brother over there feels strongly the other way, and for good reasons. So don't eat meat offered to idols when you know it has been, so as not to put your brother into a situation where he either has to say "no" and make a scene, or eat it out of hospitality and then feel he's sinned. But to those who go to a brother's house and meat is placed before them, St. Paul tells them not to ask where it came from, but just eat it. Sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Note what this is talking about. It is talking about one's direct influence on a specific brother. They are in your house. You're serving them meat, or you're with them at another's house and they mention that the meat before you was offered to an idol. What do you do? That's the context of what St. Paul is answering here.

If we want to put this in modern terms, what St. Paul is talking about here is disillusionment. Same thing as when some big celebrity we idolize ends up sinning, or a pastor ends up running away with another woman, or embezzling from the church. They can cause a lot of people to stumble. This verse speaks of those who you have direct influence over. They look up to you as an example to follow. So when you blow it, and at some point you will, they will potentially stumble. But if you intentionally do something you know will cause them to stumble, then you have some culpability for their sinning on that point.

But we can take this too far. Yes, I could write something that causes someone to stumble. As a matter of fact, given the number of people out there, the wide views on many topics, and interpretations of things, I think it will be very hard for any author, Christian or not, to avoid causing someone to stumble. If we wrote to avoid that possibility, then we wouldn't be writing.

And another point goes back to the previous discussion. Some people out there will associate my values with my character's values. Because I have a character that blows someone's head off doesn't mean I personally approve of that action. Yet, some readers will make the assumption that I do. On that specific instance, they may not because of the sin. But let me have a character cussing up a storm, and many a reader will think I must cuss a lot and approve of it.

But the fact that this is a fictional character isn't even in the same realm as me personally have influence over someone. That's true to a degree. If we've built our character up as a model of virtue, then some could stumble over that character approving of something they have believed is sinful. But most people are savvy enough to know that because my character drinks, doesn't mean they should too, especially if they know they have a tendency towards alcoholism. It's simply not on the same level as what St. Paul was talking about, with real people in real life with real influence.

But this is also true: someone who stumbles can't blame anyone but themselves, in most cases. To point the finger and say, "Rick's book made me do this sin," is akin to saying "The Devil made me do it." We can't make excuses for our sins by pointing the finger. God requires us to confess, repent, humble ourselves, and seek His face. Not point fingers like Adam did and say, "That woman you gave me, she caused me to sin!"

That's right. If we take these verses literally, God is the biggest offender because He gave Adam Eve, and she caused him to stumble by sticking the fruit in his hands. But Adam was wrong to use that as an excuse for his sin.

But to get back to the verse, a lot of this revolves around what we approve. So we return to what I said at the beginning. If we show sin, do we show it as something good, something to be desired, that has no negative consequences even if enticing at first? In other words, when your story is taken as a whole, does it show an approval of a sin? That's where we have to focus to apply the above verses. For if our story doesn't in the final analysis show it as a positive or neutral, then we haven't shown that we approve of the sin. Writing about it, even if in graphic detail (if the story requires it), doesn't mean the story approves of it if the proper negative outcome is shown. Consequently, we haven't violated the above verses which first requires that we show that we approve of the activity in question.

In the end, while I share a responsibility to those I have direct influence over to not show approval over something that could cause someone else to stumble, even if I believe and have reason to support that it isn't a sin, I can't be responsible for all the ways a reader might interpret what I write and commit some sin because of it. I believe using these verses to over generalize their application is to take them out of their proper context. There is a big difference between causing someone to stumble, and offending someone. As a matter of fact, if something you've written offends someone, then it didn't cause them to stumble. Otherwise, they'd not be offended.

As I said last time, it isn't where a story starts that makes it Christian, it's where it ends.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Think on These Things

As a Christian author and writer, I've seen the discussion appear on boards, blogs, and email lists, concerning how far is too far in showing cussing, sex, violence, and other behaviors in ways that most Christians would consider sin. Most authors have their own opinions on where that line is. And it usually revolves around the concern on one hand to present realistic characters and natural reactions, and on the other, to not tantalize or offend readers who find cussing or sex, among other things, to be offensive, uncomfortable, and appear to promote sin.

In my writing, I tend to fall into the group who says avoid those things unless the plot or character calls for it in order to "work." And then, only "show" what has to be shown to make it work. So, for instance, a married couple will have sex. In most plots, it's not important to mention that they do. Most will assume they do without even having to allude to it. If one needs to allude to it, because you are showing a scene where it would naturally happen, then there are cut aways before it gets too hot, or simply "told" and not shown so as no need to go into graphic detail. But there can be and are on occasion times I'll need to go there for the plot to work, and show it for the scene to be believable. That has only happened to me once in my novels.

But, I'm not really wanting to discuss that specifically. Rather, I wanted to address something that many Christian writers who feel we should avoid all such things in any shape or form, tend to put up at some point on discussions like these. They quote the following verse as Biblical evidence that we shouldn't depict anything of sin in our books:
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
(Php 4:8 ASV)

I wanted to break this down, because I feel this verse is being used out of context when it comes to these discussions, and therefore, uses the Bible in an incorrect manner.

First, let's look at the context St. Paul said these words. He was writing a letter to the Philippians, and is ending his letter to them. He was promoting an attitude in our spiritual lives where we don't focus on the negative in ourselves and others, but the positive. We focus on what will unite us, not on what will divide us.

This is St. Paul's non-fiction spiritual self-help information. Yes, we should think on those things. But note what it doesn't say. It doesn't say we should never be aware of, acknowledge, or speak on the other things. Rather, think, meditate, set them before you as your goal. It's like driving a car. Your attention is focused on what's going on in front of you. But my driving instructor said you should be looking in your rear view mirror about once every few seconds. And we only know the good, the praise worthy, the pure, by understanding what is evil, debased, and impure.

And anyone who reads St. Paul's letter to the Galatians knows St. Paul himself suggested that those leading them astray should go all the way on doing circumcisions. Ouch! Not exactly a pure and good thought he's presenting there.

But it isn't just that aspect that we're dealing with here. No, this verse isn't saying never think on the other things at all. It simply means keep your focus on these things. It is a general principle he is giving out here, along with several others. But, one must keep in mind what else this is not saying. He is not saying "apply this to fiction."

St. Paul wasn't telling them a story here. He was attempting to give them some principles that would aid them in their spiritual growth. But the converse of that principle isn't necessarily negated by its positive expression. Fiction isn't the same thing as non-fiction, or any story really. When an author tells a story, there is by necessity an element of conflict. Without that conflict and its resolution, you have no story. You have a boring tale where nothing really happens of interest.

Stories are about people with problems, moving from getting into those problems, and moving to resolve them, or at least make the attempt. There is no way to have that kind of conflict if you follow the above formula as a straitjacket answer to everything you can possibly think about. All stories would have to go, as all conflict tends to involve someone sinning on some level or another.

Take the children's book, "Are You My Mother?" Most of us have probably read that tale of a baby bird having fallen out of the nest, walking around trying to find its mother, and not knowing what she looks like, ask everything under the sun, including a tractor. The conflict there is this baby bird is lost and can't find its mother. Will it find her? Or will the baby be lost, and maybe die?

Some deep stuff for kiddos, when you think about it. But what's the sin? The mother who isn't there to protect and take care of her children! Doesn't this book promote neglectful mothers and fathers? How evil is the action of that mother? Why would we want to think on that impure thought, that a little baby bird is left to wander the countryside searching for his mother because she wasn't responsible enough to be there for him? Aren't we by reading that story instilling fears of abandonment into children?

You see, every story has that element in it, even in children's stories. You can't get away from it if you're going to tell a story that people will want to read. Rather, you have to show your character going from point A to point B in growth. The difference between a secular and Christian author is where that point B ends one up. Not on where point A starts. And if the author wants to write a book that will reach gang members, guess what? It will not read realistically to them unless point A represents their life. Any attempt to soft peddle the cussing or the debased lifestyle will lose that audience.

That's why I always say it goes back to two main things. One, what do you need to make the plot work, and two, who your intended audience is. Use only what you have to, and no more.

But the above verses are not talking about fiction stories. They are talking about real life, and spiritual development. The reader also has some responsibility. If you don't like cussing, then don't pick up a book written about gangs. The restrictions placed upon some Christian authors, like some who write for the CBA audience, can only write books targeted for an already Christian audience. Because those are the only people many of those stories (not all, granted) will appeal too, are Christians. If you want to write something that is redemptive, that shows redemption from sin and for it to have an impact upon a reader in that sin, you are going to have to make it real. You will want them to identify with it. Short of that, you'll have little impact.

Stories are an attempt in most cases, to take someone already not "thinking on these things" and are thinking on the level of cussing, sex, violence, ect., and hopefully moving them to thinking on "these things." But if we never write it so they can identify with it, they will never read it, and never be redeemed short of God doing a number on them.

Those verses are not meant by St. Paul to mean, "no story or text can ever think on anything else but these things." St. Paul didn't have in mind prohibiting good story telling when he pinned those words. If a person doesn't want to think on those things, they certainly don't have to. I would suggest never reading any story unless they've been given the sanitized stamp of approval. Because nearly every story is going to have some kind of sin going on.

Our problem is we're often comfortable with certain types of sin in a story, but not others. Like judgmentalism and gossip. You don't want to think on those things either.

It's where a story leads you that makes it Christian, not where it starts.