Tuesday, February 10, 2015

The Black and White of Christian Fiction: Being Integrity in a World of Grays

Sephora's created a cosmetics line to help women to look as "sexy" as the stars of the latest erotic movie.

Tonight I went grocery shopping, passing the magazine aisle where I found a Newsweek special edition on the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Gray.

Newsweek? Once a solid publication, if biased like most news media, sharing the events in the Middle East and ticking off hot stocks in the NASDAQ for the reader's interest, now a hit movie is big ticket enough to warrant a whole issue?

Many popular bloggers have tackled the subject of this novel and its film adaptation.

I'm not going to be tackling that here. I think there are plenty of good reasons why you shouldn't watch the movie or read the book. I'm going to instead tackle something that seems more innocuous to us as Christian authors.

Christian romance, clean books your mother and grandmother would approve of, Wild Western novels. Sweet stories, right?

I'm not telling you to change your career, just providing a bit of food for thought.

I review for a national publication. Since my editor knows my spiritual beliefs she tends to send me fiction with redemption or grace themes. At least that's what the back of this particular book said.

One release is a "hopeful tale of love and redemption" where a "lost soul finds her way." Sounds good, right? Appearances can be deceiving as we all know. In this particular novel, the main character spends a large amount of time talking about the attractive bodies of men who come into her path and peppers the book with four letter words. Redemptive? Hardly! This book was worthy of being tossed across the room.

The Christian market is different, right? Sex is not included, the most passionate part of most books is a kissing scene. I'm not saying kissing scenes are wrong perse.

Men are very visual creatures, we have read many studies about pornography. We all know the harmful effects on the brain's wiring itself. It has destroyed Christian marriages and leads to a lack of contentment in so many areas of life. Some women struggle with pornography, too. However, on the whole men and women are wired differently. We've all read the psychology studies on gender differences.

But women's struggle is primarily in the emotional realm. Reading about a kiss might not have the same effect on a female. So what's so dangerous about Christian romance and why should we be careful?

The early Christian prairie books were sanitized, clean and devoid of even a lingering kiss. Yet there was one thing many of these books had in common.

The perfect hero. He made no decision without praying with his fiancée. He didn't cuss, watch excessive hours of football. He didn't leave the table without complimenting his wife's food and he ALWAYS took out the garbage.

On the prairie, he was chivalrous, fighting off deadly rattle snakes and pounding out forest fires with a sack of flour.

Your husband on the other hand...maybe he struggles with workaholic tendencies. Perhaps he struggles with overeating or a beer habit. Maybe he forgets to say thank you and leaves his wet towels on the bathroom floor after his shower.

He's not perfect. And that's the very danger. You will never find a prairie hero. He doesn't exist. My husband and yours have flaws and part of marriage is learning to be content with a flawed sinner growing in grace. Because...guess what? YOU'RE one, too!

And if you're single? Well, you may have that list written in your Bible. I did and there's nothing wrong with a list or setting high standards. But if you read too many Christian romances you may believe that your perfect knight in shining armor can live up to those heroes. Forgetting that a real hero is an individual who is drawing closer to a perfect Savior. But he will never be perfect this side of heaven, and guess what...if he was, he wouldn't be interested in an imperfect person like YOU!

Have you written a hero that might make other women believe their marriage is lacking by comparison? Beware of creating an ideal that doesn't exist in real life, because maybe for a few minutes in their head a woman might believe that ideal CAN exist and suddenly she finds her own marriage lacking? By the same standard, are we creating a standard that will keep single women waiting for a man that doesn't exist?

You're not perfect. Comparison is a huge struggle for many women. It can manifest in one-upmanship with other women, perfectionism, or even result in women staying in a dating relationship that is harmful.

Then they got saved and lived happily ever after. I used to joke with my husband about the status of Christian fiction (not even just in the romance genre). Trials to keep the plot moving are plentiful, but readers need to see sanctification is a process. When I first became a Christian in the 1990s I read a western series and really struggled with the fact that the heroine didn't sin at all anymore after she became a Christian. Because after all, for me it was a daily struggle and still is though by God's grace I sin LESS...I'm not sinless.

Your marriage isn't perfect. Its just not interesting for characters to fight about who is going to do the dishes or why he blew the money you had earmarked for a new sofa on a jumbo flatscreen. The people in most books don't have to miss date night because their kid puked on mom's shoes five minutes before they headed out the door.

Though books may deal with topics of infidelity, alcoholism, or financial indiscretion on a marriage they don't show its true effects. A novel can only scratch the surface of some wounds so deep. Cancer, divorce, child abuse and other trials don't always play out as neatly as they do on the page, with just the right number of plot twists and a tidy "happily ever after" ending.

A I saying we should never read these books? Never write them? I wouldn't pronounce on someone else's conscience and I'm not saying that's the answer. What I am saying is we need to proceed with caution. Only YOU know what that means for you, as you let the Spirit guide you.

I would not want a book I wrote to incite comparison. I don't want someone to find happiness with my fictional hero for even a few minutes, because that's not a happily ever after. Will my book help them to increase their happiness in their own marriage? If they are single, I don't want my hero and heroine's story to set them up to believe they can have something that only exists on the page.

Because a real happily ever after takes work. It takes cleaning the cat litter and other tireless little tasks that make someone feel appreciated. It takes sharing our hearts in a fresh and vulnerable way, a depth that doesn't exist in characters on a page. It is two sinners coming to the throne of grace and learning to love each other for the rest of their lives. It is both backbreaking hard and breathtaking in its beauty.

And most of all, true love isn't gray. It isn't even black and white. True love is crimson red as the blood Jesus shed for each of us on the Cross. In a world of substandard morality, let's love our neighbor enough to protect their marriages and singleness with the words we write.

Julia enjoys writing women's fiction and inspirational nonfiction from her home in central Virginia whenever she can find a couch cushion without crumbs which can be a challenge as a homeschooling mama of elementary aged kids. She writes and reviews for Library Journal (just up her "alley" as a former librarian) and Wonderfully Woven, a website to encourage women.


Joanne Sher said...

YES! So very true, Julia. THANK you!

kaybee said...

Julia, this is deeeeeeep. Whoa. I never thought of it that way. The hero in the current piece I'm shopping around is physically near-perfect, but self-centered, narcissistic and fairly irresponsible until the Lord begins to work on him. I mean I wouldn't want to be married to this guy, and I'm the one who made him up. I think the solution is giving our heroes flaws and letting them work their issues out under the Cross. I agree with you about secular fiction. I read a lot because, well, I read a lot, and if a book is offensive to me in the first chapter I know it will be offensive through the rest.
What I try to do with my heroes/heroines is to make them not "perfect," far from it, but I make them perfect for each other, two broken pieces fitting together. Which is really what marriage is.
Kathy Bailey

Anonymous said...

Way to hit the nail on the head. I love a romance that makes me love my husband better. More and more, Christian romance is going the distance to show real struggles and the redemption God offers through Jesus Christ in the midst of those struggles.

Unknown said...

Excellent Article, Julia. Brought to my mind several things that I never thought of as a male/husband. It is amazing how after 47 years of being married,my wife and I still battle a lot of those perfection misconceptions, but through the forgiveness of Jesus push ever forward in the beauty of His Love

Jeanne Takenaka said...

GREAT post, Julia. You're so right. Women fall into the comparison trap far too easily. Thank you for the exhortation to be aware of what I write, and how I craft hero, heroine and plot. Such good wisdom here!

Julia M. Reffner said...

@ Joanne, Thanks for stopping by, I always smile when I see you in the comments.

@Kaybee, I think its such an individual and spirit driven issue that each writer has to decide by herself. I guess we expect the world to look like the world, but hopefully as Christian writers we can overcome some of that. So true about marriage being two broken pieces fit together. Well put.

Julia M. Reffner said...

@sondra, I agree that in some ways CBA has grown a lot and my hope is that it will remain distinctive while still witnessing to a broken world.

@ Dave, Amen to that! Thank heavens its a growing process.

@Jeanne, I definitely see its something we fall prey to in so many areas.

Mary Vee Writer said...

This was a good wake-up post. Or could be summed up in one word: reality. You brought some great points that I wish so many others will yet come by and see.
Well, done.