Is Clean Christian Writing a Good Thing?

Lying, murder, torture, assassinations, lust — as Christians called to be a light in the world, should we touch on these darker aspects of life in our writing or should our books be clean and full of light? Should a character swear? Is it wrong to have a character be immoral? What about the sympathetic thieves or the hardened interrogators? As Christians, we want to write inspiring stories. But is an inspiring story the same thing as a squeaky clean story, and what does ‘clean Christian writing’ even mean?

A Christian focus

When you sit down to write, think about it this way. As Christians, what are we trying to focus on and portray? Philippians 4:8 reminds us to think on things that are true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, and are of virtue and praise. This includes what we watch, listen to, read, and, of course, what we write. So, everything should be fuzzy and light and happy and hopeful, right?

Wrong.

The light means nothing if one hasn’t seen the darkness. There is only hope when there is doubt and fear. There can only be salvation when there is something to be saved from. A (what I call) ‘fuzzy clean story’ that doesn’t touch on any of the darker aspects of life will be greatly lacking in power. We live in a dark world, and unless the book we read also touches the darkness, it won’t be able to touch us with its presentation of the light. The question to keep in mind as you write is what is your focus on? Is it on hope or love or courage? Is it on light and the glory of God? Remember your focus, then use both the light and the dark to weave a powerful picture for your readers.

We need to show darkness

Is Clean Christian Writing a Good ThingWhat exactly is darkness? The definition is a bit subjective but, for this article, it includes everything that isn’t good. Sin, the horrors of war, the sorrows of life—they are a part of the world and so they should be a part of our books. Because how is one to show the glorious light if there is no darkness to contrast it with?

The power of light comes because there is darkness. Our writing ought to reflect reality and the reality is that the world is broken and hurting. It’s not ‘clean’ and unless we can portray it correctly, we won’t be able to bring across the glory of the hope that we have.

In stories, as in the world, there are bad people doing bad things, and there’s nothing wrong with showing this darkness. Just make sure evil is clearly shown as evil and is judged accordingly. We may watch through the eyes of a villain as he plans an assassination or a robbery but, as the plots and subplots interweave, don’t leave your final portrayal of evil as enthralling; show what needs to be shown, and show the results.

Our goal isn’t to paint a fuzzy glowing world of ‘could bes’. Nor is it to shift a story as close to the edge of darkness as we can without stepping over the line. The point is to glorify God through our writing. As Christians, we have a duty to not only show the power of the light but to show the power of the darkness and how the light can conquer it. People live in a fallen world. Unless your writing reflects reality in the basic emotions and situations, your theme will lack power. If something is horrible, then show it as horrible, not as glorious or painless.

But there are limits, right? A strong book will not be ‘fuzzy clean’ in the sense that it will touch on evil and darkness, but what about the other (fairly subjective term) of a clean book as one without swearing or sensuality or gore? In this sense, one should try to keep their books clean. So how do we show the evil and the darkness without being crass? Can we show the dirt and still have a clean book?

We don’t need every dark detail

Again, back to the focus. What are you focusing on? Yes, darkness and the dirtiness needs to be shown, be it the sin in the life of a character or the depravity of a society. Every detail, however, does not need to be laid out.

The amount of detail you add into your story will depend on a number of things, including your own convictions and the age and sensibilities of your audience. There are a few basic guidelines on some of the main points you can keep in mind, however.

Take violent scenes. Is the focus on torn bodies and how much blood there is, or is the focus on the scene as a whole and the point of the scene? There may be a situation where your theme or character arc or plot calls for a brutal reveal of some act of violence, but normally the situation will not call for graphic details. We generally don’t need to see vultures tearing at the dead in great detail. Having them flap into the air as the character approaches is generally enough to bring your point across unless there is a reason for you to paint the picture as starkly as possible. A touch of subtle subtext will bring the horror and power of the scene across much better than a blatant description in any case.

Then there is cursing. There has been plenty of debate on this, and maybe one day I’ll write an article on it. In fantasy, or even my futuristic stories, I’ll make up exclamations for some characters to use (if it fit with them and their situation—Haydn in Shadows of the Hersweald, for example; one doesn’t need to add these words just for the sake of it). I do, however, avoid using real life swear words for two reasons. One: the audience I write for would not appreciate it, so I am not going to use it. Two: the more I am in contact with certain words, the more they spring to my mind on their own. So I tend to try to not read or watch things with too much swearing in them, not because it bothers me on a personal level (most of the time) but because I don’t want to be thinking those words.

Then there are sensual scenes. There are parts of life that ought to be portrayed and included, if need be, for the theme of the book—be it showing the horrors of war or depravity of a character or a society so one is better able to mirror the light with the darkness. At the same time, some things don’t need a lot of detail. Even if characters are married, I don’t need details of everything they do beyond a kiss or an embrace (and I don’t need half a page describing a kiss. Please). Implications, yes, but most of the scene is generally best left to the reader’s imagination. Showing a character leaving a bed chamber in the morning, or perhaps slipping into bed at night is as far as I’d probably go.

Finally, something that most Christians would agree black. Witchcraft. There are also ‘dark’ religions in a fantasy world or almost any kind of detailed pagan or unchristian rituals. While a dark or otherwise unchristian religion might be part of a story, and while some scenes might even be shown involving said religion, I don’t think it’s or wise to go into deep details about rituals. This is especially true when you’re writing about something that is real as opposed to a fantasy, and even more when dealing with satanic cults. Researching such things for accuracy will do little to contribute in keeping your mind on that which is pure and holy, and the same applies to those reading the scenes. I’m not saying to gloss over it. You want to show evil in its full darkness, but at the same time, remember your focus in writing. Your focus should be the light. Yes, darkness will be present. But details of gruesome rituals are not necessary, and neither opening one’s self to all the details of spiritual darkness.

Remember your focus

You want to write for the glory of God. This doesn’t mean writing fuzzy clean fiction that never touches on sin or evil. This means portraying the good and the bad for what they are and showing the power of the truth. At the same time, you don’t want a book that is crass and full of filth.

In the end, there really aren’t many hard and fast lines I can draw across every author’s writing about how much of something should be added in a story. Some of it will be a matter of personal conviction, such as my own stand on swearing and dark religions. Some things will depend on circumstances of the book and the age range of the readers.

What there is no question about, is that you do need to show the darkness of the world in your stories if you wish to bring across the light in all its power. Show what evil is, what it does, how it harms others, and how the hope and the light can shine through all the brighter. And above all, as you write, remember where your focus lies.

 

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23 Comments

  1. Hannah Gaudette

    Awesome advice, Hope! You are absolutely right. I’m sure this post is going to be hugely appreciated by the readers.

    God bless!

  2. Excellently said. You know I agree. 😉
    One thing— you said ‘one thing no one would argue is black’. I think you meant ‘isn’t black.’ 😛

  3. This is so very well said Hope. Thank you for writing it.

  4. YESSSS I agree with basically everything you said lol. I did a post about this myself a while back, (I’ll put the link down below) so my thoughts are more clearly written there.

    Anyway, I loved this post! Because yeah, we can’t have light and love come across as something meaningful without showing how different it is than the darkness. It’s definitely hard to know exactly how much you should write about, though. But this is some great advice. Awesome post!

    https://ifyougiveagirlablog.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/light-vs-dark-in-fiction/

  5. Andrea Lundgren

    Great post! It’s funny; I made up my own system of slang for swearing, too, because I knew I had characters who would say such things but didn’t want to have to read, reread, and dwell on real life swear words.

    • Thanks! Yes, making up slang or just exclamations is quite fun. I have different ‘sayings’ in different worlds of mine.

  6. Sarah Addison-Fox

    Wholeheartedly agree. One thing I try to is to portray in my own work is realism. The worst thing we can do as writers is present Christians as flawless or make them out to be perfect. We all sin, we all fall short of the perfection of Christ. To write characters and present them as faultless makes them one dimensional and completely unrelatable. I want to be able to reach out to the world with characters who struggle, not write ‘niceness’ for the already saved.

    • Same here. I want character who are realistic. Characters who fail. Because people fail, and if a character is perfect then they aren’t going to be relateable and are going to greatly lose their power to bring a theme across.

  7. Really great work Hope! I really like how to said that light is meaningless without darkness, but we don’t need to describe all the dark details. Which is totally true. I mean if we are trying to write a story that inspires people who can we do that if there is absolutely nothing causing the struggle. This was a great post and a great reminder as Christians how we should go about writing.

  8. I have had several conversations with Christian authors going to the other extreme – including edgy material to attract worldly readers.

    I appreciate your balanced approach. Good article. 🙂

    • Yes, I think there definitely are limits. Darkness needs to be shown, but it shouldn’t be the focus or the attraction of the piece. It’s there to contrast the light, not draw in people who enjoy gore or other extremes.

  9. Thanks so much for this post, Hope Ann!!
    I definitely have the same thoughts… it was really nice to see that I’m not alone on this… somethings about being an author can make one feel lonely easily.. I have no idea why….
    Thanks so much!! I really needed this!!
    And I love your new website:)
    God bless!!

    • I know. It’s always nice knowing there are others out there who think the same thing (or who are as crazy as you, as the case may be). 😉

  10. Very good!! Writer’s have a gift to change the world – yet how can we inspire anyone if they can’t even relate on a realistic level with our stories? We don’t want to glorify sin, but neither do we want to act like it doesn’t exist.

    keturahskorner.blogspot.com

  11. Great post. These questions are always on my mind as I write. I love your last paragraph and the comment by Keturah above mine. “We don’t want to glorify sin, but neither do we want to act like it doesn’t exist.” And, as you say, what is your focus? I have (non-Christian) writer and author friends who want teens to think that having a “full” and true relationship should be portrayed in their novels since all teens are “doing it anyway”, and I know that as a teen I wasn’t, so I wonder where those teens fit in with mainstream fiction? Their focus is to show teens that it’s okay to live as though they’re married when they’re not. And that drugs and swearing should be included in order for the novel to be realistic. I think clean fiction doesn’t need to ignore realistic situations, but can show teens the light, that there are other choices out there, that they don’t need to feel left out. As for gore and darkness, I’ve read my share of fantasies where they DO go into more depth than I am comfortable with, and I’m glad to hear you say that the way I am (trying to) write my Christian fantasies is the right way (with leaving that side of it out). Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, I agree. And I think there are almost always ways to show darkness without going into great detail on everything. It may be realistic to have a teen who does drugs or swears. That doesn’t mean we have to have details about them doing drugs or hear the swear words in cold English. Subtext and implication can do so much to add realistic actions or lifestyle without filling the story itself with dark details.

  12. Pingback: July 2017 Wrap-Up | If You Give a Girl a Blog

  13. This is a very good post!!

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