Friday, November 13, 2009

Why I Write About Evil

I thought I would take a moment and respond to a thoughtful comment / question from the previous post. The reader asked about the spiritual content of my novels, wondering if a Christian would enjoy reading them.

I often get asked if my books are “Christian” or not and I’m not always sure how to respond. If you are looking for a narrativized sermon, then I would suggest you bypass my fiction.

When I write my novels, I don’t do so from an answer, such as “It’s good to have faith in God,” or “We should all tell the truth.” Stories are built on tension, not resolution, so trying to tell a story simply to make a point would result in something that isn’t really a story at all, but a lesson dressed up as one.

It’s actually very sad to me that the most virulent and hateful comments I get about my books come from Christians who do not like the violence the novels contain. (Go to Amazon and check out the reviews for The Pawn. It’s informative.) Non-Christians seem to rate the books more on the quality of the writing, the plot, the artistic excellence. I genuinely respect and appreciate that.

Some people whom I’ve met seem to believe that a story needs to talk about God or have a conversion scene if it is to be considered a “Christian” story, but I was speaking with a pastor one time and he pointed out to me that there are no conversion scenes in any of the stories of Jesus. Also there is no mention of God in the book of Esther in the Bible. So, is Esther a “Christian” book?

Other people consider a book "Christian" if there is no sex, violence, nudity, offensive language, and so on. Considering the content of the Bible, that seems like an odd and arbitrary criterion list to me.

We live in a violent and fallen world. Rather than shy away from difficult and painful topics, the Old Testament includes frightening and vivid descriptions of murder, beheadings, cannibalism, sorcery, dismemberment, torture, rape, gore, blasphemy, idolatry, erotic sex and animal sacrifice. In the stories of Jesus, people are beaten, killed (Matthew 21:35), tortured (Matthew 18:34), dismembered (Matthew 24:51), and allowed to suffer forever in the fires of hell.

I believe that the Bible includes such graphic material to show how far we as a race can fall, and how far God came to rescue us from ourselves. That's what I hope to do in my novels as well.

So, what would make a book unChristian?

I believe an unChristian book (or movie or painting, etc...) would be one that celebrates the things God abhors, or promotes an agenda that he detests.

In my books I never glamorize violence or make evil look attractive. However, I believe that including graphic material within the broader context of a redemptive story, just as the Bible does, is appropriate when trying to reveal the truth about human nature and our relationship with the Divine. For the record, when I write my novels I strive to

(1) uphold the dignity and worth of human life,
(2) as much as possible avoid showing violence on the page (most of it occurs off the page, in the minds of the reader),
(3) show that ultimately, hope does not come from inside ourselves, but from God,
(4) honestly portray the universality of evil,
(5) celebrate life, love, imagination, beauty and family,
(6) validate the purpose and meaning of life within the context of the broader scope of God's story,
(7) tell the truth about the world--exposing the grief and horror as well as championing the hope and joy.

If you’re looking for inspirational books, or more theological offerings, please check out my books "A Heart Exposed," "Story," or “Sailing Between the Stars.”

Stay open to joy.

25 comments:

Janet said...

Steven,

You've expressed this eloquently and well, and I think you've revealed a truth: that there shouldn't be a restrictive rule about what defines a Christian novel. I get what you're saying, especially what you wrote in another blog entry about the early Christians who were simply Jews having to meet and share all they had with one another because they were a tight-knit family striving for unity against a common enemy. They didn't set about creating a list of rules and dos and don'ts, and building structures to meet in.

I think many Christians are afraid to read a novel (or any book, for that matter) that "colors outside the lines" so to speak, because they have been indoctrinated all their lives to adhere to strict rules and guidelines of what it means to be a Christian. For instance, those same types would be shocked -- nay, horrified! -- that you have awesome quotes on the right-hand sidebar of your blog by great thinkers, philosophers, mystics -- people who don't fit the mold of being an "old time religion" Baptist Bible thumper.

The Christians who complain about your novels are probably the same ones who think it is wrong to quote any source other than Bible verses, preachers, Bible teachers with multi-volume tape sets, and so on.

They're also the kind of people who, when their kid says they want to take karate, will be thrilled to find that there's an actual "Christian Karate"
studio (with that as the name on the sign) in one of the malls in Asheville (is it just me, or does anyone else think that seems a bit silly?!)-- and will pay "good money" to let their kid take karate lessons only because it says Christian on the sign.

Keep following truth, joy, intelligence, and seeking purity in all the ways God reveals himself to us in the world, such as the wonders of nature in the lovely mountains we both call home.

I could tell when I sat in on some of your sessions at the novelists' retreat at Ridgecrest that you have a very clear soul and an untainted pure spirit, childlike almost, and that's a beautiful thing, especially because it's entwined with such brilliant intelligence and razor-sharp wit!

Now if only I could get those first 25-50 pages of a blisteringly good novel written so I could have a worthy, valid excuse to attend your intensive novel writers' retreat in your part of the Blue Ridge!

Janet :-)

Dina Sleiman said...

Oh no, the five hallmarks of Christian fiction seem to have morphed here. Someone might have a breakdown ;)

Tara O said...

I've read all three of these books, practically devoured them. I will admit to having to put down the books in a few intense scenes, but as you said most of the violence takes place OFF the pages!!

I love reading how Bower relates to his "step" daughter....I love how he makes her feel human and supports her "creative style". How he loves her anyway...if that isn't a true testament of the love of Christ...

Thank you for writing these books. Looking forward to the next one!

karla said...

I always shy away from "Christian fiction" because I feel that I am reading an agenda rather than a story--and I LOVE a story. Interesting comment about Esther--I always thought that Mordecai spoke of God raising help for the Jews from another place if Esther did not help (in chapter 4)and was surprised that God is not mentioned. Thanks for the enlightenment and for sharing your gifts. Esther was the first "story" that I remember my mother telling me...

Ruth Axtell Morren said...

I compare all the criticisms against certain inspirational (for lack of better term) fiction like the recent fight for/against gay marriage in the State of Maine.
Although I consider myself an evangelical Christian (sorry to have to throw out these terms), I was saddened by the fight Christian churches put up against allowing homosexuals to marry civilly (the amendment clearly stated that no church was compelled to marry them).
When the Christians and conservatives won by a 53-47% margin, I thought to myself, they've won the battle but lost the war.
I heard a pastor on the local radio preach that the Christians shouldn't be celebrating their victory too loudly; it is primarily a generational divide,and the numbers will inevitably soon be reversed.
Every time I passed a church with a "Vote Yes" (to defeat the gay marriage amendment), I thought to myself, any homosexual person passing by here will conclude that they are not welcome in this sanctuary.
As I said, Christians may have won the battle, but they've lost the war.

Niki Turner said...

Excellent post Steven, one I'll be saving for future reference!

Leslie said...

This is my first post here....I found out about you and your books from the Suspense Zone. I bought "The Pawn" and my goodness! I can't put it down. I had nightmares last night! LOL! That's a good thing! Can't wait to move onto the next....

Fred said...

Steven,
Only recently have I learned about your books. It has been exciting to visit your website and see the resources that are available there.
I appreciate your willingness to be a bit "edgy" within the context of "Christian fiction".
I don't know if this is a question, a comment, or merely an observation, but I've noticed more and more lately that the protaganist in many novels is widowed, as is Patrick Bowers. Is this a convenient way to create empathy and at the same time allow him to be open for adventure or is there some other thought process involved?
I think the reason this catches my attention is because I am widowed, having lost my wife to cancer at age 49 (another story). The letter that Christie wrote for Patrick in The Pawn moved me as my wife spoke of writing letters to her loved ones but never had the oppurtunity.
Anyway . . .keep up the good work for God's Kingdom. You are touching lives.
Fred

Steven James said...

Fred, Thank you for your comment. My condolences on the loss of your wife at such a young age.
Good question about the widowers. I'm not sure what other authors are doing in this regard, but I chose to have him be a widower because I wanted him in the first book to be dealing with depression and grief, to have a daughter he needed to learn how to love, and to give him the opportunity for new romance throughout the series. Hope this answers your question.
Take care, Steven James

Anonymous said...

Wow! Somehow...I downloaded "The Rook" onto my Kindle which led to the greedy consumpution of the other two Bowers' series. (Dinvine intervention?) Anyhoos...excellent holiday reading for this busy mom. The bonus; the opportunity to read about an endearing author not afraid to share his faith. Thank you for your honesty in sharing the gospel in your own unique way. Keep up the great work and awesome creativity.

Darn, now I've got to wait until August? PUH-leaze!!!

:)

Carole T.- Colorado

Robert Treskillard said...

Steven,

This is an excellent stance, and I really like your "7 Strivings", especially #1.

This reminds me of an article I wrote for a friend's website, entitled "What is Christian Fantasy? A Definition and a Challenge". Even though it deals with "fantasy" novels, it could just as well apply to thrillers.

If you have the time, I'd love to get your feedback.

http://www.holyworlds.org/blog/?page_id=283

Thanks!

-Robert

Bronx Air Conditioners said...

Christian fiction is an excellent edition, from where evil comes? yes, from your thoughts. I think "Hate the sin, but love the sinner" in this world.

Michelle said...

I just finished The Pawn and LOVED it. Great story. Can't wait to start the next one.

Mark said...

Just ran on your post, and found it interesting and informative. I love your books - am a big fan, but I admit that I am always a bit bothered when a Christian fiction book doesn't have God in it, and I am not a wack job as some of the commenters on here would paint someone like me - I even use all versions of the Bible.

I do appreciate the fact that you keep curse words out of your books - the use of them in so-called Christian books bother me more than the lack of Christian element.

Esther has been used to defend Christian fiction not having a Christian element, but even though God is not mentioned, His hand is clearly seen throughout the book - the fasting is obviously done to get God to move - so no offense to that argument, but it isn't the same.

I guess my biggest question - and I don't mean this to be offensive - I truly enjoy your books - just read The Bishop today in one afternoon and will be posting a review of it - positive - for Revell - but why does a Christian write a book that is classified as Christian, and not have a Christian element in it? If being a Christian is all life is about, serving Christ and pointing others to Him.... then why leave Him out of the story?

I honestly am not trying to be judegmental or nit picky, but when you disagree with people, they usually will throw those labels at you - not saying you will, but other commenters on this post - I feel it is a worthy question to be answered.

Anyway, I have enjoyed the series, and am now in the depths of despair that I must wait a whole year to read the next novel. Sigh. And yes, I will continute to read your books and continue to be bothered a bit that there isn't more of a Christian element - but hey, it is a free country :-) God bless, and keep writing, but faster.

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

steven - just finished your latest for the baker blog tour in august. WOW. i disagree that i'd have to pick up one of your other books to get a "more theological" read. The Bishop was actually quite philosophical, and reading it as a Christian therapist, it definitely makes the top 10 books of this year for me. i thought none of the violence was gratuitous or beyond what one would expect in a fallen world. incredible page-turner. thanks for sharing your gift.

looking forward to The Queen,
jeannie
the character therapist

Fred St Laurent said...

Steven,
We will always have "keepers of the law" with us in the church.
I went a read some of the Amazon posts and.... well was no surprised. Lawyers want to protect everyone from ourselves.

Personally I am a big fan and just finsihed the Bishop. Love your style, story and the way I care about the characters. Also appreciate your indepth theological discusssion from all points of view.
Keep up the good work and please consider joining us on www.bookfun.org

SuperMom said...

Bravo!!

I think that you have hit the nail on the head with your explanation. Thanks for sharing your heart.

The one thing that I PERSONALLY have felt God tell me not to read is romance novels that contain sex scenes and encourage cheating, etc.
I know that my {female} mind does not need this kind of thoughts floating around in it, so I avoid them.

So, since feeling God tell me that, I have searched many bookstore and library shelves for "Christian" books, and in doing so have found many "Christian" authors' color outside of the lines' (as Janet said in a comment above) and I'm all for reading a well-written and captivating novel that doesn't use foul language or float my mind with
junk contrary to God's word. Not every "Christian" novel needs to scream Jesus on every page or in every chapter.

Look at the book of Esther in the Bible- not a mention of God... yet does that mean it shouldn't be in the Bible, that God didn't inspire its writing? =)

In the same sense: For some Christians, there is a big deal about what makes music Christian or not... as a former Youth Leader, I used this explanation with the parents of the teens I worked with: What is wrong with some good clean fun!?!? Not every "chrisitan" band needs to sing "JESUS" in every song, what's wrong witht he kids having some clean music that is just fun and like what the world listens to--- just without the explicit words, violence and sex?

Blessings,
SuperMom

Alex Beardmore said...

Steven, I am a Christian and I love your books! The Bible isn't all about love and peace, there is violence in it all. I think your right on the dot.

Scott S. said...

Steven,
First off I want to say thank you for the first two books of this so far great series. I first found out about it when Barnes and Noble offered The Pawn as the free Nook book for Friday a couple of weeks ago. Since I live in Spartanburg, SC and work in Hendersonville, NC it was nice to find a book that dealt with areas that I have known all my life. I was also secretly hoping when I dove into the novel that Spartanburg would be one of the places mentioned (not that I'm cheering violence but it is always a thrill to know that your hometown IS known about from time to time).

Since I received The Pawn for free, I now feel obligated to find a purchase a real copy of it so you receive you just compensation for such fine work.

Unlike several others who have left comments on this post, I am an atheist, so I'm looking at this from a slightly different view than some of your other readers. I really don't understand why you would get negative comments from the Christian community. My best guess is because you don't have some big preachy scene in each book, at least not in the Bible thumping tradition. What you do have is a great message about people trying to find their way through terrible things in life, and as the books progress, the Characters are learning to let pain go and find their trust in God the farther they travel. No, your books aren't preachy, but then, some of the most effective things i've ever read or heard weren't preachy things, they were just simple every day acts of human kindness. And that kindness is there in your writing. Not to forget that all of the characters are very real, at least to me. At some point in my life I've been all of them I think. We all have.

Anyway, again, thanks for the great reads. I have to go dive into The Knight now. Take care and best wishes to you and all of your family and friends. Oh... and uptight, upset Christians, don't be so rough on the guy, he is slowly presenting his case for God and how Evil can be allowed to work in thw world, and it really is a FUN ride getting there.

Steven James said...

Scott,
Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts! I really appreciate your interest in the series and your insight and thoughtful comment. I'm always encouraged to find people from a variety of different backgrounds engaging with the questions of morality that I enjoy exploring in my books. Be well.

Anonymous said...

Yes, evil is real and a big part of this world. Yet, God does not give us a spirit of fear which I have gotten from reading a couple of your books. I also find that much more negative thoughts jump in my mind since reading them ( theBowers Files). Yes I am a Christian and yes, you are a good author. Yet, because of your detailed/gross descriptions of murder, I will not read another one. I am not a 'high and almighty and better than you' Christian. I also love mysteries and have read a good many by Christian authors and those books did not necessarily have a chapter preaching the Gospel. Yes, evil is very real and ugly. But good grief, you don't really have to go into such gory detail. Believe me, your books will still sell. Perhaps, even more.

ryan said...

Thank you Steven. I am a pastor and I never really enjoyed fiction books. I have always thought them useless and menial. Someone handed me "The Knight" and I think I am born again. These books have far more in them than some of my seminary books. I highly enjoyed the theme in the bishop how we are constantly moving back and forth between white and black. Yet, there was, and is, and is to come one who never touched the black squares. If your ever back in Asheville, I'd love to meet ya.

-Ryan Thompson (Slim)

T Wolfe said...

Steven,

For what it's worth, I thought I'd share with you my perspective. First my background: I'm a devout, conservative Christian, married with a 5-yr old son. I absolutely enjoy the Patrick Bowers series.

In reading them, I find Bowers as almost resistant to the idea of an all powerful, loving God. While I appreciate how you write about Christianity in your other books and keep them "separate" from this series, I was just wondering why you have chosen to do so. I probably wouldn't enjoy a thriller as much if it preached to me.

Thanks for your great works,
TW

Steven James said...

In the Bowers series I try to explore moral dilemmas within the context of an engaging story. I don't really like reading any novels that are message-driven; whether that means sharing a Christian message, a Buddhist one, an atheist one, pro-death penalty, anti-death penalty, etc... When I'm reading a book and I start to feel that the author's agenda is more to convince me of something than to tell me a good story, I get turned off.

Steven James said...

Slim,

I'm thrilled that you enjoy the series. I love the comment about seminary books! Asheville is a great city. I'll have to plan a trip back there sometime. Take care.