A grisly death occurs near the end of my first novel The Resurrection which leaves a bad guy a bubbling heap of intestinal lard. During the final edits, feeling relatively self-conscious about this over-the-top retribution, I suggested to my editor that I tone that scene down, make it less gruesome. She replied, “I’d leave it like that. He deserved it.”
Interestingly enough, I almost pleaded with the same publisher to allow one of my characters to say “go to hell.” To a demon. They refused, saying that that phrase was unacceptable. My publisher refused to allow a character to say “go to hell,” while applauding another being melted into a mass of organs.
Yesterday over at Speculative Faith, Austin Gunderson reviewed a book entitled “The Apocalypse Door.” He concluded: “The Apocalypse Door flings open a rousing-yet-religiously-grounded entryway to the spiritual-thriller subgenre.” What I was not clear of was where this book stood in relation to Christian fiction. So I asked Austin on Facebook and he replied:
Theologically, the novel operates under a Catholic paradigm, so while *I* don’t consider it theologically sound, a Catholic reader likely would (the author, at least, has declared it to be doctrinally accurate, and I have no reason to doubt that it is, at least from his perspective). While I interpreted its thematic gist to be overt (at least by the end), the novel *does* contain a heck of a lot more ambiguity than I’m used to in “Christian” fiction, and it’s possible to view the protagonist’s interpretive conclusion as just that: his interpretation.
As for objectionable content, the novel contains graphic violence, mild language throughout (and a smattering of stronger language), and a scene of non-graphic sex (along with pervasive humorous innuendoes). So in that sense, it’d probably fit at the “edgy” extreme of the “Christian” fiction cleanliness spectrum.
I found it rather interesting that Austin used that phrase — “the ‘edgy’ extreme of the ‘Christian’ fiction cleanliness spectrum.” *Not commenting on whether “edgy extreme” is redundant. ) For a “cleanliness spectrum” does indeed exist in the Christian publishing world.
One of the questions I had is why Catholic theology is less conservative regarding the “cleanliness spectrum” than evangelicals.
A while back, one of my posts got linked by a Catholic writers group. My post was about “clean fiction” and how that’s a defining factor of today’s Christian fiction. Anyway, I lurked the conversation and was a little embarrassed for us evangelicals. You see, the consensus among these Catholic authors was that
The issue of “clean fiction” is a uniquely Evangelical concern.
Then they proceeded to rattle off names like Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Graham Greene as examples of how Catholic novelists managed to write “spiritual classics” without having to niggle over the issue of “clean fiction.”
A while back, in a discussion about Christian speculative fiction and where it’s heading, I suggested that “‘bad theology’ has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.” Or as Tony Woodlief puts it his article Bad Christian Art, “poor Christianity” inevitably “yields bad Christian art”:
I’m convinced that bad art derives, like bad literary theory, from bad theology. To know God falsely is to write and paint and sculpt and cook and dance Him falsely. Perhaps it’s not poor artistic skill that yields bad Christian art, in other words, but poor Christianity.
After almost a decade of involvement in the Christian fiction industry — reading Christian novels, writing Christian novels, interacting with industry reps, authors, and readers, attending Christian conferences, and blogging — I’ve concluded that a larger set of presumed “biblical tenets,” a religious worldview, aggressively shapes mainstream consumers’ understanding of Christian art.
The Evangelical art industry, as it exists today, is reflective of bad theology.
One reflection of that “bad theology” is our tolerance for violence, but intolerance of profanity. Or in regards to the book Austin reviewed above, the language and sexual innuendo would disqualify the book from the “Christian fiction” ranks long before the “graphic violence.”
If you’re an author aiming for the Christian market, it is far easier to write about one character shooting another than cussing them out. Rather a quart of blood than a cup of expletives. Just peruse the Christian fiction section of your favorite bookseller and you will find your share of serial killers, hit men, assassins, abusers, and wannabe anti-christs plying their trades. But I dare you to find one character who ever says “shit.”
So why is this? Why does it seem Christian readers are more tolerant of violence than profanity?
Now, by being “tolerant” of violence, I am in no way suggesting that there is a glorification of violence or an excessive amount of it. Indeed, in relation to the general market, violence and gore in Christian fiction is minuscule. Cursing, on the other hand, is non-existent. So while there has been much discussion about violence and profanity in Christian fiction, somehow, somewhere along the way, a concession was made for violence and against profanity.
I have two theories about why, in Christian fiction, violence is more tolerable than cussing.
First, the presence of violence and bloodshed in the Bible allows us to condone the presence of violence and bloodshed in our stories. The typical argument is that the world is a violent place. Christians aren’t immune to death, disaster, and criminal behavior. So why should we scrub our stories of it? Likewise, Scripture tells of wars, dismemberment, torment, and grisly crimes. Of course, the Bible does not go into graphic detail. We are told that David removed Goliath’s head, without a play-by-play of the hewing. Either way, it happened and our minds are left to fill in the gory blanks.
Furthermore, the Christian life is often viewed as a fight. We are described in militaristic terms, as soldiers and warriors; our lives are a real — sometimes viscous — struggle against forces bent on our destruction. The inclusion of violence in our fiction is an expression of our often hellish struggle to follow Christ in a dark, evil, world.
So my first guess is that Christian readers tolerate violence because the Bible contains bloodshed and violence, the Christian life is a battle, and Christian aren’t immune to the evils of our fallen world.
But why is there a more liberal approach to violence than profanity? Why show a hit man stalking his prey, a serial killer fulfilling his sadistic urges, without so much as a single expletive? I’m sure there’s several possibilities, but the one I keep returning to touches on theology, namely the “cleanliness spectrum.”
Contemporary Evangelical fiction is tethered to Fundamentalist roots. Much of the Christian art industry — Christian film / fiction / music — is a reaction against secularism. This posture can be traced back to early Fundamentalism’s withdraw from many American institutions like politics and entertainment. Holiness, for Fundamentalists, came to be defined in terms of “negatives” — no smoking, no drinking, no movies, no makeup, no dancing, etc., etc. Much of the evangelical counter culture was rooted in this cultural separation. Christian art became an alternative to “worldly” fare. As such, it was defined as much by what it didn’t have, as what it did. I think that’s still true today.
In this Fundamentalist “cleanliness spectrum,” some sins are just worse than others. Homosexuality is worse than gluttony. Smoking is worse than envy. Drinking is worse than gossip. And dancing? Let’s not go there. Consumers of Christian fiction appear to employ this “cleanliness spectrum.”
On the Evangelical “cleanliness spectrum,” profanity in our fiction ranks worse than violence.
In the same way that we inflate certain sins like homosexuality or smoking, we have inflated certain words. The flip-side, however, is that by cultivating this “cleanliness spectrum” we inevitably “deflate” or “diminish” other evils. Like violence.
Either way, we have come to believe that it’s worse to read a single expletive, than to read about murder or abuse. That’s why, for the Christian author, it is much easier to portray a drowning, a strangling, an electrocution, an assassination, or a mafia-style execution, than to simply have a character cuss. It is much easier to liquify your bad guy than to have him say “shit” as he’s melting.