How do We Create Mature Art as Christians?

June 13, 2012 — 16 Comments

 

I am a Christian. I am a writer. I’m writing a novel, but it’s not a Christian novel.

writing 1024x692 How do We Create Mature Art as Christians?

Yes, there are certainly Christian themes woven into it. Yes, my Christian faith influences why I am telling this particular story. But I’m not writing a Christian novel.

There is death, murder, dishonesty, unfaithfulness, and swearing in my novel.

For some reason, I’ve never had any qualms about including these things in a work of fiction. Except swearing.

I don’t swear in 99% of my life. Scripture vividly illustrates the destructive power of an untamed tongue in James 3 while Ephesians 4:29  encourages us to let no unwholesome talk come out of our mouths. I try to live by this standard.

This became complicated when I began developing the characters in my story. I write about people who aren’t Christians. Many of them would have no problem with swearing. In fact, the situations I’ve placed them in would almost guarantee fowl language.  In an effort to write about characters who express real emotion, I’ve written some swear words into their dialogue.

But I’ve deliberated over this for quite some time. For some reason, I feel like including foul language seals my fate as a “secular author” and closes opportunities for Christian marketing. In addition, it feels like I’m not being faithful to God’s standards for us because I am “letting unwholesome talk come out of my mouth” (keyboard, really), and I am also placing a vile thing before the eyes of others, drawing from the language of Psalm 101:3.

I can see why a Christian publishing company wouldn’t want to publish material with bad language in it. After all, we are called to keep our speech pure.

But am I saying the words or is it my characters? If I write about somebody taking an innocent life, it is not as if I am taking an innocent life. I’m describing the fallen nature of a fictional character to create a compelling story.

So why is it all right for me to describe some sinful behavior of fictional characters like dishonesty, theft, and violence, but then not other activities like swearing? What is it about swearing that sets it apart from other sins in fiction? Why do I feel more secular for including swearwords in my fiction when I’m already telling a story about a people group who feels no guilt in torturing others and murdering people for the sake of scientific study?

Part of the issue lies with our conflation of family-friendly art and faith-based art. I believe we have inaccurately equated these two things. We somehow have come to think that anything from a Christian worldview must be kid-friendly and devoid of dark, difficult, or morally ambiguous situations.

Yet Scripture isn’t always family-friendly. There are some passages that I do not plan to read to Lylah when she is young. Many stories from Judges come to mind. Ezekiel 16 and 23 are more examples. These passages mention obese people getting stabbed to death, child sacrifice, rape, murder, prostitution, and the male anatomy.

What’s interesting is that these passages still communicate a profound sense of God’s sovereign love for us. We learn more about our relationship with God through these passages, in spite of, and maybe even because of their mature themes.

Ezekiel 16 is a perfect example of this. The passage vividly describes Israel’s unfaithfulness to God in a metaphor where Israel has been like an unfaithful wife, prostituting herself to anybody who will have her. The stark detail seems like overkill, almost non-Christian in its tone and explicit nature. But it is a beautiful, heart-wrenching passage of how deeply God loves us and how deeply our sins grieve him.

I’m encouraged by this.  Seeing the way that God uses mature content to speak powerful messages of love to us gives me hope. Maybe God could want me to develop characters who don’t embody ideal lifestyles so that we can learn more about the life God has for us.

How do you navigate these sorts of challenges? Have you found any helpful perspectives as you discern how God calls you to be creative while maintaining your Christian faith? Let me know what has or hasn’t worked for you.

 

Austin

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I'm a pastor, writer, speaker, husband, father, and follower of Christ, to name a few titles. You can find my contact information in my About page.
  • Dave

    f’in great post!

  • Chelsea Dawn

    check out the classic short essays by Francis Schaeffer called “ART & the BIBLE” 

    • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

       Thanks for the suggestion, Chelsea. Just got them for my iPad. Looking forward to checking them out.

  • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

    Thanks for the suggestion, Chelsea. I’ll definitely Google them.

  • Sheldon Dance

    You are right: being “family friendly” is misconstrued to mean “Christian,” and this has led to all sorts of problems, including many Christian missing out on some really moving art because it might contain some violence,sex,nudity or cursing (Scorsese films are a prime example).

     The Old Testament contains some of the most R-rated content of any world literature, ancient or modern (Lot’s daughters’ incestuous scheming,the rape of Dinah and the subsequent masacre, the dismembering of the prostitute in Judges, the explicitly sexual metaphor of Israel’s unfaithfulness. I could go on…) And Paul himself famously uses a profanity: “for His sake I have lost everything and consider it all to be mere rubbish.” “Rubbish” is more accurately translated “shit” or “crap.”

    In terms of art, to really explore “Christian themes” (forgiveness, redemption, grace, sacrifice) with any sort of honesty, depth or insight, venturing into the darker side of humanity is necessary. I would encourage you to be true to your characters.

    • Sheldon Dance

      P.S. “fowl” language is probably not offensive to any Christians. Maybe to vegans, though.

      • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

         Haha. Great catch! Getting corrected now.

    • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

      Thanks for the encouragement, Sheldon! It is pretty crazy to think about how R-rated so much of Scripture really is. I don’t remember reading about those stories in my Beginner’s Bible! The passage where Paul talks about rubbish is a great example. I almost wonder if it would be better for us to actually translate it as a swear word instead of sterilizing it. Surely it would help us engage art more thoughtfully.

  • Davidlobban

    I fully agree! Don’t let popular Chritstian thought discourage you. In Dallas, where I live, there is a “Christan” radio station that has, for years, used the phrase “Safe For The Whole Family” as their marketing tool. Every time I see their ad something inside me turns and I get really frustrated. Much of the Bible is not “safe for the whole family”, in fact, many sections are R-rated and even some NC-17 probably.

    • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

      David, it’s funny because I’ve heard that same marketing on other Christian radio stations in other parts of the country like Seattle. It’s almost as if Christian art is viewed as a safe haven from the rest of the world. Yet art that embodies the message of Christ should take us out of our comfort zones, like like Jesus’ call for radical commitment to himself.

  • Thedavro

    Austin, I think you’ve hit on something very important in the muddled standard of acceptable “Christian” language versus “Christian” themes (I put those in quotes because Christian makes a horrible adjective in general). I think absolutely there will be conservative or pop culture Christians who are much more offended by your use of naughty words than by the death, murder, and abuse. And to some degree it’s probably because language is a focal issue in their personal faith in a way that murder is not. The self-appointed guardians of morality tend to take issue with sensuality in fiction as well. Most of us can disassociate ourselves from fictional depictions of things we would never do anyway, but swears and temptation are everywhere.

    Of course, I’d say there’s no issue with having your characters speak realistically. I’d say your book will be better for the authenticity. I’d even say that if you can’t get Christians to publish it because of that, you’re on the right track. Honestly, has anything truly powerful or moving come out of the Christian culture ghetto in our lifetime?

    • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

      I agree. “Christian” makes a lousy adjective. You also make an interesting point that many people have language as a focal point of their faith more than murder or other sins.
      I would say, though, that some powerful stuff has come out of the Christian ghetto in our generation. I’m not sure how much of it was fiction, though. Blue Like Jazz comes to my mind as a book that defined a generation, reinvented the Christian Living genre, and invited many disenfranchised people to reconsider their faith.

      • Thedavro

        Blue Like Jazz was something I almost mentioned as an example of good, soulful, faith-oriented writing that didn’t pull punches and was better for it. And I know a lot of people didn’t get to see the movie, but it was awesome. And it had swears.

        • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

          I’m glad to hear that. I had heard mixed reviews about it and it never played anywhere near here. It will certainly be a renter. It was actually an interview with one of the makes, Steven Taylor, that motivated to write part of this post.

  • scrhill

    Could one problem be that most people who say that they’re Christian have never read the whole Bible and so get easily offended with language or one other hot button issue? Thedavro made a great point about choosing focal points.

    • http://austindhill.com/ Austin Hill

      That is so true about the absence of Biblical knowledge! Judges is not the most popular bedtime reading. Neither is Ezekiel, for that matter.