This Summer, I’ll be teaching a workshop at Realm Makers entitled The Crossover Christian Novelist (you can find their Session Descriptions HERE). As part of my preparation, I asked a number of “crossover” Christian novelists several questions about writing for a general audience rather than a Christian audience. I’ll be sharing many of their responses during my workshop. Here’s a sampling of how some of the authors answered this question:

How do you navigate being a Christian, having a “biblical” worldview, and obeying the call to “let your light shine,” while writing fiction for a general market audience?

Raven-by-Pauline-Creeden

PAULINE CREEDEN: “Even while the world is inundated with “sex sells” and an exploding erotica market, there are still many who are looking for family friendly fiction that is clean and not full of the dirt and grime in the world. These readers are not even necessarily Christian. As a dark fantasy author, dirt and grime still make their way into my fiction, but there’s always a light shining at the end of the darkness. It is horror with hope. And that is what the world needs. Hope. And isn’t that what we’re supposed to point to, the hope and the light?”

TOM PAWLIK: “When Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan, he was answering the question: “Who is my neighbor?” The story doesn’t mention God, and the only religious people in it are portrayed in a negative light. And with a Samaritan as the one who rescues the protagonist, it was likely very offensive to most of those listening. Jesus wasn’t giving a gospel message, even though we can see it in the story. There is nothing directly spiritual in the story yet it has become so iconic. Christian authors don’t necessarily have to write about God to show Him in our plotlines or through the actions of our characters. Each author needs to wrestle with the specifics of their genre and Knife-RJ-Andersonsubject matter, but I believe it’s possible to write about ghosts or aliens (things that don’t fit neatly in a biblical worldview) and yet still tell a story that upholds Christian virtues.

It seems as if Christians want to rely on novels, movies or music to share the gospel with our unsaved friends, but we should be doing that in our everyday lives through our words and actions. Christian authors let their light shine by always striving for excellence in storytelling, not writing glorified gospel tracts.”

R.J. ANDERSON: “I don’t consider it my mission as an author to save people’s souls. I don’t believe I could do that even if I tried. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, and He uses any number of people, situations, and influences to accomplish His purpose. My mission is to be a committed Christian writing the best fantasy stories I can write, out of the heart and spirit and wisdom that God has given me, and trust that somewhere along the way, He can and will use my writing—even if it’s just one book, or even one line—for His glory. And that’s why I write for the general market.”

JONATHAN RYAN: “One of the reasons I love the Bible is that it presents the world as it really is, not what we wish it to be. Sometimes, it gives us very ugly truths. People who get offended by Christian writers who show the world this way are saying more about themselves and their refusal to see the Bible’s portrayal of humanity. As long as a writer doesn’t glorify Ryan-Dark-Brideevil, then no topic is off limits.”

JOY DEKOK: “It’s hard, but in staying true to the story, I’m also able to stay true to my faith via minor characters who shine brightly although my main character may or may not come to belief in Christ – the reason? Not everyone does. It’s a funny thing – the comments about the book that have come to me privately talk about the way my faith shines through even in the life of my not so likable main character.”

KEVIN LUCIA: “I guess it depends largely on your perspective. Are you planning Sunday School lessons for those in the church to learn from, or creating art for all mankind to appreciate and enjoy? In my opinion, art (and even that’s so subjective a field), has a much stronger impact when it works through subtleties and thematic treatments. At the end of the day, people are probably going to easily guess my worldview and beliefs, based on the subject matter I choose to write about. There may not be anything inherently “Christian” about any of my stories, there may not even be any Christians in the story, and the stories may also be pretty dark and damn depressing, but they dwell Lucia-Devourer-of-Soulsconsistently on topics of faith, belief in a higher power or the existence of a higher power, good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, or the inherent flaws that humanity – humanity on its own  – suffers from: pride, anger, jealousy, vice, bigotry, hatred. To me, even if I use profane language or drug use or violence or even things of sexual nature to build characterization, if I’m highlighting humanity’s strengths – found in faith, belief, love, endurance, courage and bravery – or shining an uncompromising light on our weaknesses, I’m remaining true to my faith and my worldview.”

 * * *

I received lots of great feedback and wisdom from these and other authors about writing for the general market. Really, some terrific stuff. This is a small sampling of some of the material and ideas I’ll be discussing in my workshop this Summer. You can find out more about Realm Makers, its faculty and schedule, HERE. Hope to see some of you there!

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David with the head of Goliath, by Caravaggio

David with the head of Goliath, by Caravaggio

I’ve encountered many Christians who argue that certain depictions of evil, violence, sex, or the occult should not be fleshed out in fiction. So while writers are commonly taught to “SHOW not TELL,” Christian writers are sometimes taught to “TELL not SHOW.” This advice is based on a uniquely Fundamentalist view of culture, one that attaches a sort of magical power to images and words, thus prescribing a “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21 NIV) approach to art. In this way, certain words, depictions, scenes, content is viewed as automatically verboten.

So writing,

The shepherd boy removed the giant’s head

is OK. But writing,

The shepherd boy took the giant’s sword in one hand and with the other, yanked the head back, hacking at the throat until the head snapped from the Philistine’s body

is NOT OK.

Does the second depiction mischaracterize the first? Not at all. Does the second depiction exaggerate or embellish the first? Not really. Does the second depiction accurately reflect what probably happened in real-time? Pretty much.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many evangelical writers and readers have deemed certain things un-watchable, un-hearable, and un-readable. Just hearing a certain word, defiles us. Just reading the description of evil, befouls us. So…

  • Reading that David cut off the giant’s head is fine. Any more detail is not.
  • Reading that Samson was allured by Delilah is all right (barely). Describing the process of seduction is not.
  • Reading that Noah got drunk and lay naked is tolerable. Glimpsing his bare bum is not.
  • Reading that Peter cursed when he denied Christ is legit. Actually citing a specific word is forbidden.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Or in this case, “Do not watch! Do not read! Do not listen!”

A few days ago I linked to an article on Facebook about Christians and the horror genre. The author argues that horror is a valid genre for Christians to traffic in. Writer friend Becky Miller countered. One of her objections had to do with intentionally evoking fear or terror in our audience and that visual or fictive descriptions of evil could have damaging effects on certain people. While I agreed that people will have a whole range of responses, I suggested that such an approach can lead to insulation. One of my arguments was that Scripture contains lots of potentially scary, dark, and violent images and content. Becky responded with this:

The Bible is not graphic in any of its depiction of mankind’s sin. I find it an unhelpful comparison when people equate, say, David’s adultery with Bathsheba to fiction today showing graphic sex. It’s not anywhere near the same. So too with passages that allude to Satan, demon possession, hell. Case in point since you mentioned it: I have never read the passage in Matthew about Jesus freeing the possessed man from the Legion and felt oppressed and . . . not sure what the right word is–polluted, maybe. I have felt that from reading some Christian horror.

This is a very common argument, but one that I believe is deeply flawed. The problem with this approach, as I attempted to illustrate above, is that it applies the same standard to two very different mediums.

Film and fiction are very different mediums than Scripture. The “rules” for directing a movie or writing a fictional story are entirely different than the purpose of Scripture, much of which is simply chronicling history. We approach the Bible not get a detailed, play-by-play of the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah’s three-day hiatus inside the great fish, or Paul’s rapture into the third heaven. We don’t approach the Bible in the same way we approach film or fiction, and it’s a mistake to do so.

This is actually why Historical Fiction and Biblical Fiction are currently very popular. We want to experience, see, and feel what the story might have really been like. We want flesh on the biblical / historical bones.

Movies and novels are intended to take their audience where textbooks, epistles, journals, and historical accounts cannot. To evoke emotions, recreate events. This is one reason why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was so powerful and effective — it SHOWED the Crucifixion. It helped its audience visualize what the Bible describes. But it’s also why the movie was rated R.

It is often suggested that if Scripture were made into a movie, it would probably be rated-R for sex, nudity, and graphic violence. Indeed, the list of horrific scenes and events is quite long: The drowning of almost all human and animal life (Noah’s flood). The first Passover’s death angel killing all of Egypt’s firstborn (Ex. 11-12). Jael killing Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his temple (Judg. 4:21). Prophets being sawn in two (Heb. 11:7). Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16). John the Baptist’s head being brought on a platter (Mk. 6:14-29). The Gaderene demoniac running naked through the tombs (Lk. 8:26-39). Herod Agrippa being eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Stephen being executed by stoning (Acts 7:54-60). Judas hanging himself, falling forward, and his innards spilling out (Acts 1:18). Then there are the historic accounts of Christians being fed to the lions and used as pitch to ignite the torches in Nero’s palace, as well as the church traditions suggesting that the apostle Peter was crucified upside down and the apostle John survived being boiled in oil. While the Bible may not be “graphic in any of its depiction of mankind’s sin,” let us not mistake that for the fact that these sins WERE graphic.

As usual, the question comes back to How far should Christian readers / writers go in depicting real evil?

In my book Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, in the chapter Objections to Christian Horror, I addressed this issue:

If [Akira] Kurosawa was right when he said, “The role of the artist is to not look away,” then looking upon the unpleasant and terrible could be the right thing to do. The Christian’s eyes should be wide open. This doesn’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness, but that our perspective of the world and the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute.

Our world is full of real-life horrors which we should not look away from. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, most of the American media refused to show the true extent of the carnage. Survivors and first responders watched in horror as blood and body parts rained down, and as victims jumped to gruesome deaths. The media censored such optics under the auspice of inappropriate content. While discretion is obviously needed, seeing the visceral horror of such events is often a necessary step to processing and addressing these evils. By closing our eyes to the awful truth we can short-circuit the necessary response of outrage. The aftermath of a tsunami, the innocent victims of a gang shooting, photos from the crematorium at Buchenwald, the psychological scars of abuse victims—these are horrors that Christians should not turn their eyes from. In this way, refusal to look upon and think about evil may itself be evil.

Of course, there should be a limit to how far artists go in depicting evil. As it was famously said, we don’t need to climb into a sewer to know it stinks. On the other hand, being unwilling to climb into the sewer (whether via book or movie) — especially if is to escape or rescue someone — is its own type of evil. Arguing that the Bible does not contain graphic depictions of evil assumes that graphic depictions of evil are therefore wrong or unnecessary. But was the intent of the biblical authors to go into detailed description about human depravity and darkness? This also judges Scripture in the same medium as film and fiction, which it was never intended to be interpreted as.

The bottom line result is that we send Christian authors and readers mixed signals. On the one hand, they must SHOW not TELL. Regarding evil, however, they must TELL not SHOW.

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"Christ and the Rich Young Ruler" by Heinrich Hofmann

“Christ and the Rich Young Ruler” by Heinrich Hofmann

It’s been said, “The problem with Christians nowadays is that nobody wants to stone them anymore.”

There’s much truth to that.

I engaged in an online discussion this weekend about the Church’s treatment of outsiders, namely those in the LGBT community. There’s an assumption in such conversations that if the Gospel was REALLY preached and if Christians were REALLY loving, then outsiders just couldn’t help but be wooed to Christ and embrace the Gospel. Translation: If Christians were more loving, LGBT folks wouldn’t be offended so much and leaving the Church

I just don’t think this is true.

Sure, Christians can be jerks. People sometimes leave churches because a church is joyless, unloving, legalistic, wishy-washy, phony, or irrelevant. Chesterton suggested that what many people reject is not Christ, but a false caricature. Likewise, if a church is portraying a “false caricature” of Christ or Christianity, it should be left. However, Scripture is pretty clear that not all “leavers” do so because a false Gospel is being preached or a “false Christ” is being portrayed.

Some people leave the Church because they have rightly heard the Gospel and its implications.

It’s fallacious to assume that if people reject our message, either our presentation is wrong or our message needs modified. If someone is offended by the Gospel, we say, either we’re not sharing the REAL Gospel or we’re not presenting it in a loving manner.  However, when truth is lovingly spoken it can potentially hurt people’s feelings. And when people’s feelings are hurt, the messenger can be accused of being an unChrist-like meanie. Which many accuse Christians of being.

But if feelings are so sacred, I’m not sure Jesus got the message. Yes, He is meek and lowly of heart (Matt. 11:29). He is a friend of sinners (Matt. 11:19). He knows us intimately and loves us deeply. I am incredibly thankful for these things! But He also came to bring a sword and divide households (Matt. 10:34). He came to call sinners to repentance (Lk. 5:32). And He will return to judge the world.

These things definitely grate.

Not offending people or not hurting their feelings, wooing everyone to Himself, did not seem high on Jesus’ list of priorities.

  • Jesus didn’t seem to care about the rich young ruler’s feelings when he told him to sell everything and give it to the poor.
  • Jesus didn’t seem to worry about offending the adulteress when he told her to go and sin no more.
  • Jesus didn’t seem concerned about the Pharisee’s feelings when He called them a brood of vipers.
  • Jesus didn’t give Nicodemus other options to being born again.
  • Jesus wasn’t worried about driving away the multitudes when He commanded them to eat His flesh and drink His blood.
  • Jesus seemed unconcerned about the invalid’s feelings when he told him to stop sinning lest something worse come upon him.
  • Jesus probably offended the moneychangers when He drove them out of the temple.
  • Jesus didn’t care about Peter’s feelings when He called him “Satan” and told him to split.
  • Jesus wasn’t concerned if people liked the Gospel when He told potential disciples that they couldn’t be followers unless they denied themselves and took up their crosses.

He was Jesus, so of course He cared about their feelings! He loved each one of them — including those blasted Pharisees. Their pain. Their brokenness. Their existential wanderings. Their rigid intolerance. Their genetic predispositions. Their squandered talents. How could He not care about them and their feelings?

But His love for them didn’t stop Him from speaking the truth.

Jesus loves you so much that He will risk offending you.

No, He probably won’t be mean, rude, pushy, or condemning. But He will tell you the truth. And whenever you tell the truth, you run the risk of offending someone. And being accused of being “mean, rude, pushy, or condemning.” Which is probably why Jesus offended so many people.

Sometimes offending people is evidence that we’re preaching a false Gospel. Sometimes offending people is evidence that we’re preaching the true Gospel.

In fact, the Apostle Paul said that “we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (I Cor. 1:23 NIV). In this sense, one way to know if you’re accurately preaching Christ is if some are offended and others call you a fool.

Just because LGBT people are leaving the Church or offended by Christians is not necessarily evidence that a church is not preaching the Gospel or that Christians are unloving.

Ultimately, if a Christian’s goal is to not be offensive, then they will either modify the Gospel or marginalize its message. Sadly, many Christians appear guilty of this. While some appear to strip the Gospel of its demands for moral change (repent and believe), others elevate love and social justice above the truth of Scripture. Either way, if we have to minimize or tinker with the Gospel to make it more palatable, then it’s not the Gospel we’re preaching.

Of course, the Church’s treatment of outsiders is really important. Indeed, some have left the Church and bailed on Christianity because of a poor caricature. We must take heed when this applies. However, let us not assume that if the Gospel is REALLY preached and if Christians are REALLY loving, then outsiders will come running to our churches. Yes, some people, upon hearing the Gospel, will turn to Christ. Others, will call you an unloving, insensitive, person. But if my theory is correct, you should rejoice in such renunciation. Because if you’re not offending someone, you’re not preaching the Gospel.

If some people don’t want to stone you, you might be doing something wrong.

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museum-of-biblical-artThe Museum of Biblical Art recently announced that it would be closing. MoBA’s mission was to examine Western art through the lens of the Bible and its influence in Christian and Jewish tradition. Many have noted the cultural significance of the museum’s closing, as well as what it may signal for Christianity and the arts in Western culture. In Has the Bible gone from hot to not in the art world? The Guardian laments,

The reasons for the closure include a need to move to a new building, which the short-lived institution has discovered it cannot afford. But clearly, there’s something about a museum of biblical art that has failed to attract wealthy donors and the kind of cultural credibility that brings in sponsorship.

It sounds more Bible belt than Manhattan – for surely only fundamentalists and religious conservatives are interested in seeing art through a biblical lens. Right?

That is a terrible misunderstanding, and this museum’s closure a great shame.

This idea that one reason for MoBA’s closing is due to “a terrible misunderstanding” about the role of the arts in culture from a religious perspective is quite fascinating. Are “fundamentalists and religious conservatives” the only ones interested in “seeing art through a biblical lens”? And what sort of “art” do such believers want? Whatever the case, one writer at Catholic Culture.org simply described this as A failure of American faith:

MOBIA, in exploring Western art with a Biblical focus, made it its mission to “argue from a secular perspective that the Bible is a culturally foundational text, which has greatly influenced artists historically and continues to inspire the creation of countless important works of art today.” Yet this apparently was confusing not just to a secularist culture, but to religious believers who have an impoverished vision of both art and faith.

In a depressing illustration of the politicization of faith and culture, a former MOBIA publicist noted: “Just having the word ‘Bible’ in the name says to so many people that we’re a conservative, right-wing group, and that could not be further from the case.”

What the museum’s director, Richard P. Townsend, describes in neutral terms as “brand confusion” may have been its downfall: according to the NYT story, “the museum fell into a fund-raising gap too wide to overcome, between secular art patrons, some of whom felt the museum was too restricted in its biblical focus, and religious givers, who felt the museum was not focused enough on the Bible as a religious text.”

On the surface, one could conclude that MoBA’s closing is evidence of increasing secularization of Western culture. This is, no doubt, a legitimate factor. But at a deeper level, the museum was caught between a rather “confusing” cultural perspective of biblical art in general. On the one side is a “secular culture” that instinctively cringes at anything with reference to the Bible. Yet on the other side are “religious believers who have an impoverished vision of both art and faith.” These are the aforementioned “fundamentalists and religious conservatives” who often define “Christian art” in terms of its explicitly evangelistic nature or inspirational quotient. Either way, MoBA appears to have been a casualty, in part, of “the politicization of faith and culture.”

It is indeed a tragedy if we can’t acknowledge the Bible and its influence as one of the great sources of modern Western art and culture. Yes, there are many other potential factors involved in the museum’s failure. Still, it’s worth asking if the closing of MoBA is concrete evidence that we have “freed” ourselves of the moral and intellectual moorings that framed western civilization? Is the intersection of Western art and the Bible becoming irrelevant to modern man? And, if so, is the correct response to cultural secularization to strip all religious terminology and imagery from our vocabulary (or, in the case of MoBA, remove the word “Bible” from your name for fear of misinterpretation)?

In another sense, the museum’s closure forces us to ask whether the mainstream evangelical perspective of art has created an impassable breach. The debate among evangelical writers about what makes a story “Christian” is an extension of our narrowing view of art. Which is why “Christian art” is now more defined by Thomas Kincaid and Precious Moments than Michelangelo or Bosch. It’s kitsch over classics. No doubt this “impoverished vision of both art and faith” plays a part in the secular tide.

Ruth Graham put it well in her column:

It’s a shame that in order to survive, a museum like MOBIA apparently has to become either overtly “faith-based,” or not frighten anyone by even including the word “Biblical” in its title.

Either way, the closing of the Museum of Biblical Art is a sobering loss that should be of concern to all Christian artists.

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Christian-Horror-cover-2Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre” released this week. This is my first official non-fiction release. It’s a subject that’s been stewing for a while. My first two novels were released in the Christian market. One of the objections or concerns I repeatedly ran into among readers was, what they assumed, the antithetical nature of horror to the Christian message. Those concerns usually fell into one of three categories:

  1. Depictions of and references to Satanic and occult elements can be an outlet for the demonic.
  2. Contemplating darkness and evil pollutes our mind and imagination, and violates the command to think pure thoughts (Col. 3:1, Phil. 4:8).
  3. With so much clean, inspirational, family-friendly, alternative fare available, there’s no need to consume dark, worldly, secular stuff.

In Christian Horror I set out to answer these objections, not to argue for a new sub-genre, but to lay out a case for the compatibility between a biblical worldview and the horror genre. My thesis throughout the book is that that “horror is an eminently biblical genre and that Christian artists should be at the forefront of reclaiming it.” In this work, I explore some of the Judeo-Christian roots of contemporary horror, the religious themes that frame much of the horror art, and how evangelical culture has come to distance itself from such a potentially rich and powerful medium. Along the way, I take a look at Christian artists and authors whose works employ the macabre and grotesque. From surrealist Hieronymus Bosch to Southern Gothicist Flannery O’Connor to film director Scott Derrickson to the master of horror Stephen King, we can trace a distinctly biblical worldview that frames their visions of terror. My goal is to develop something of an “apologetic” for the Christian artist employs horror and the grotesque as a vehicle in their art.

Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre” is now available for Kindle.

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Realm Makers 2015 is Open for Registration!

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Realm Makers (RM) opened for registration this weekend. Described as a “symposium for people of faith who love science fiction and fantasy,” RM seeks to fill the noticeable void between the contemporary evangelical fiction market and speculative titles. The faculty is quite good and the prices are very reasonable (you can find out more details […]

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What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By the Church — A Response

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I read with interest a post in Relevant magazine that made the rounds yesterday. What Not to Say to Someone Who Has Been Hurt By the Church covers what the author suggests are “6 misguided responses to spiritual abuse.” Jonathan Hollingsworth admits to having suffered spiritual abuse. As a result, he’s seen victims addressed in […]

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Writing Update

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Things have been busy on the writing front. Glynn Young reviewed my short story anthology Subterranea at his Faith, Fiction, Friends blog saying, “What Duran plumbs here is the ‘subterranea’ of the human mind and heart. ” Reviews are slowly coming in for The Ghost Box. Austin Gunderson wrote a nice piece over at the […]

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The Dangers of Micromanaging Your Teenager

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Perhaps the hardest thing about raising children is letting them go. I don’t mean this to sound ominous or indifferent. Regarding marriage, Scripture says in several places that “a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Eph. 5:31). This idea of an […]

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Just Because My Characters Cuss Doesn’t Mean I Do

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Former Chairman and CEO of Thomas Nelson Publishers, Michael Hyatt, recently wrote a popular article that made the social media rounds. In How Much Business is Your Profanity Costing You, Hyatt argues that though profanity has become trendy in some circles, it can ultimately cost content providers a wider audience. A majority of people swear […]

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How “Christian” Is Amish Fiction?

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Theology is a defining characteristic of much Christian fiction. Which is why the proliferation of Amish fiction has always puzzled me. In The Thrill of the Chaste: The Allure of Amish Romance Novels, Valerie Weaver-Zercher notes that “The triumvirate of top Amish romance novelists–Beverly Lewis, Wanda Brunstetter, and Cindy Woodsmall–have sold a combined total of […]

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The Grotesque and Horrific in Religious Art

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Many Christians object to the horror genre on religious grounds. Horror is incompatible with faith, hope, and love, they say. Why focus on hell, the devilish, and the unredeemed when the Bible tells us to think about the good, true, pure, and noble (Phil. 4:8)? In his essay An Apologetic of Horror , novelist and […]

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