_____ & VIOLENCE


I'm sitting in my office watching the icicles shiver on this second December in a row of brutal cold. My brain numbed along with the rest of me, I'm dying here attempting to come up with something to write about.

Oh, what the hay, let's talk about sex. Actually, let's talk about the Christian writer's plight of writing about sex. Or the inability to write about it. Or…whatever.

Contemporary Christian fiction, by all accounts, has plumbed every topic, sinful or otherwise, known to man. Adultery, miscarriage, thievery, dementia, fraud, pedophilia, murder, terminal illness, infertility, racism, pornography—you name it and someone's written about it. Gone are the days when most Christian novels dealt with virginal teen schoolteachers coming of age on the windswept Kansas prairies.

In an effort to figure out the inexplicable Christian fiction market, I've read through more Christian novels this year than all previous years combined. I suspect a good thirty novels or so. Bloody KnifeThrough my readings, I've found a curious trend that reveals much about the current mindset of Evangelicalism 2006.

More than anything else, the books I've read showcased violence. Not simple acts of heroism defending a lady's honor with a punch to some malefactor's snoot, but visceral, gory stuff. Bombings, knife fights, kidnapping and subsequent murder, degrading sexual assaults on women, lynchings, impalement—the list goes on and on.

We Christian writers seem to have no limit to how much violence we can pack into a page. Not much is left to the imagination, either. You can almost see, feel, hear, and smell the blood dripping. And the books keep selling.

So the violence portion of the old "sex & violence" mantra is alive and well in today's Christian fiction. We don't appear to have any qualms showing human beings hacking, slashing, crushing, and exploding other human beings.

But sex….

While many Christian novels deal with sexual topics, a quick read through the books themselves shows sex depicted almost as hearsay, as if a fourth-hand rumor that…well, people "do it", ahem…trickled down to the author from the cousin of a friend who knew a guy in college who once talked with someone who touched a naked body. Chastely. Because they were a doctor. 

This is not to say that authors aren't talking about sex, but they seem to be doing it in a way that sounds like what you hear in a fourth grade boys locker room. It's all a little dirty and we can't say too much without snickering or getting embarrassed.

I've noticed this to a great extent in novels written by men, though I can't tell you why. Men may lack the peculiar romantic verbiage so well cultivated by the fairer of the species. Perhaps editors, sensing a particular squirm factor in anything that even remotely smacks of Song of Solomon, ask for sanitizing rewrites that bind the author hand, foot, pen, and keyboard. Whatever the case, it comes off forced.

Curiously, when you look at major political talking points in Evangelicalism, sex appears at the core of almost every ballot initiative, signature collection, and protest. Major hot-buttons like abortion, homosexual marriage, sex education, and abstinence promotion all have sex at the center. Meanwhile, we seem mum on the environment, fighting injustice, advocating for the disadvantaged, and so on.

In the same way that writers can depict the goriest details of violence because it's not on our approved sanitation schedule, we blanch at any honest look at the intimate lives of our characters. We can write about dysfunctions, but we shy away from depicting normal sexual relationships. And even when we write about broken sexuality, we back off in a way that we never do when writing about a villain filling a victim full of lead. We end up capitalizing our violence and slathering whiteout over anything "naughty." 

I don't think I'm arguing to sex up our fiction. We have a tendency to go overboard in Christian circles when we see an imbalance. I simply don't understand our flinching at sex and our wholesale embrace of blood and guts. That dichotomy paints a disturbing picture of modern Evangelicalism.

Or maybe I am arguing to deal more bluntly with sex in our fiction. Porn use among Christians runs rampant. And while that topic's not a new one in Christian fiction, even when it's discussed, you can hear the tap-dancing shoes clicking away. We can't bring ourselves to discuss raw subjects in a way that uses the words of the disease. I recently wrote a short story dealing with the cancer of pornography and its insidious effects. An editor deemed it quite sellable—just not in a Christian market. Too much raw truth too quickly. A group faint by the faithful wouldn't be pretty.

We might well know the dirty details, we just can't bring ourselves to face them without the proper shielding. Recently, Mark Driscoll caught all sorts of flak for saying that perhaps some pastors stray because their wives don't take care of their appearances. Outrageous? Yes, a little. But I can promise you that even as some folks were harumphing over Driscoll's baldfaced commentary, inside they knew better. Outrage is only outrageous when it strikes close to home.

In the end, I don't understand the dichotomy. Why does violence come so easily, yet we tiptoe around honest sexuality? Dismemberment flows unimpeded from our pens, but not a gentle, knowing caress between a married couple. Does that honor the Lord?

The comments section is now open for flaming.  😉

17 thoughts on “_____ & VIOLENCE

  1. Rob

    You should see the videogame market if you think Christian books are the only things that present this issue.

    Games like GTA are fine to be released – but as soon as there’s a hint of a sex game in there (where you had to specifically patch the game to access it) – it gets banned.
    I think Oblivion was re-rated as well after someone realised that they’d build the in-game models with breasts. (basically – they built a doll like a barbie and then added clothes over the top – so it was possible to MOD the game to remove the clothes)

    Violence, killing, explosions, dismembering are all fine.. sex – no no no.

    Second Life would be the exception – From what i’ve read – it’s being used for gratification in sexual ways more than violent ones (I haven’t played). (At the same time – don’t write it off because some people use it in sinful ways – it’s the same as the Internet).

    I think this is society’s issue Dan – Sex Obsessed, but not willing to admit it or face it – it’s all behind closed doors. Terrified of violence, but utterly fascinated by it, bringing it into the open wherever possible.

    • Rob,

      I think we’re talking about two different things, so it’s hard to compare. Most videogames aren’t created by Christians, so I would expect them to have a warped view of everything.

      I just don’t understand how violence in Christian fiction gets preferential treatment over sex. Can we scale back the violence a little? We have no qualms about violence, but we seem afraid of sexuality. Is that healthy?

      • Rob

        From what I can see Dan – that appears to be an American/Western issue – Not just solely a Christian one.. I realise you’re specifically talking about Christian authors, but I think the issue lies deeper in the wider culture – not just in Christian circles. Violence is okay everywhere – movies, tv, etc.
        (Music and music video’s are probably the one exception)

        In addition – any depiction of violence attempts to be more and more gruesome and realistic. Any attempt at showing sex is faked.

        Oh – and there is always the ‘christian’ “Left Behind: The Videogame” – which is also heavy on violence but I’m sure it doesn’t have much sex in it.. 🙂

    • Max,

      My writers group thought the story very powerful. They also liked that it dealt with the issue forthrightly, and that it got to the root of sexual dysfunction in a way you just won’t read anywhere else.

      They also agreed that if I try to sell it, I’ll need to do so under a pseudonym. Not because it’s “dirty,” but because it would be disturbing enough to forever color people’s opinion of any future writing I publish. Unfortunately, that’s the way the market is. I don’t like that idea, but I also don’t like the fact that there’s issues we don’t wish to confront as adults—and as believers.

      Unfortunately, I cannot send it to you for those (and other) reasons. Maybe you’ll stumble across it some day in a secular periodical and you’ll wonder if it’s mine.

  2. I dunno, Dan. I see a lot of Evangelicalism being very warlike and bloody in its eschatology and in the way it uses the violence of the OT to justify war as a way to “spread the gospel” (and oh, sheesh!). Is it any wonder violence isn’t that frowned upon?

    Not only that, I think people aren’t really afraid they’re suddenly going to get out their meat cleaver and go dismember someone. But most of us know that sexual indiscretion is an easy side-step and that better people than us have fallen. (I’m not excusing the violence, I find it abhorrent, just trying to think through with you on this.)

    I know you’ve admitted publicly that most of the CBA fiction you’ve read are written by men. You’ll find more sexual exploration in women’s books. Do we have to “close the door” on describing the actual act of intercourse? Well, yeah, I guess so. But we can talk about the emotion present. I have a book coming out where the wife feels so middle-aged and not what she wants to be anymore, she lays there and just wants to cry the whole time because sex has become a place of embarrassment and failure. Is that the type of stuff you’re talking about that you’d like to see? I’ve also dealt with a man spiritually abusing his wife and their sexuality, which is kinda weird, actually, and very uncomfortable. Or do you want to see sex as nice? In that case, I’ve got a couple of those scenes too. It’s out there. You just have to find the authors who are dealing with it.

    But you’re right, the violence seems to be more palatable. But then, we pick and choose our sins, don’t we? We go over the speed limit, people copy CD’s and DVD’s (we don’t, as a person whose lifework is copyrighted, we’re really sensitive to this), cheat on our income taxes.

    Okay, I just started rambling. Sorry.

    • Lisa,

      A hearty “yes” to everything you said.

      I think the nature of men’s writings go toward action, and men are more comfortable with violence than women. Still, I’m reading a Christian novelist right now whose book is loaded with violent images. It stirred my mind on the issue, especially since the corresponding sexuality in books by male authors I’ve read has been so sparse and…well, juvenile.

      As far as picking and choosing our sins, I ran my short story past an editor familiar with both male and female Christian authors’ work, and he agreed that my short story would cause problems for the CBA. The sexuality in it is as frank as the violence we see everywhere in the CBA, but the CBA’s not ready for that kind of equity.

      Should it ever be? That’s the issue. I fear that we sometimes allow too much in CBA, but then I don’t understand what the standards seem to be for what passes and what gets censored. I certainly don’t want to see the whole shebang wind up in the gutter. So I’m conflicted, too.

      Mick Silva has a blog post talking about “God fiction” rather than “Christian fiction,” and I wonder if that may be the way some of us go. I never intended to write for the CBA, but for ABA markets. I want to see ABA readers struggle with the issues I pose from a Christian perspective. But with the market segregation what it is today, if my work even smacks of being “religious,” I fear it will get shunted to a “faith” imprint and my intended audience will never see it.

      Oh well. Now I’m rambling.

  3. As a 17-year old girl who has never so much as kissed (and who looks away from the screen when characters kiss in a movie, in an attempt to guard her heart) I began to read and then thought, “I’m not sure I want to hear this.”

    But since I’ve been reading your blog for a while, I trusted your writing, and I kept reading.

    You’ve got a good point. I notice that some of Francine River’s novels like “A Voice In the Wind” and “Redeeming Love” are more on the sexually explicit side, and she uses it in a good way, but at the same time I noticed that her works seemed to lead me to impure and inappropriate thoughts. So I do appreciate authors that tread lightly in that area, but I agree that honesty is needed as well.

    I think a lot of it has to do with age and circumstance. For me personally I’ve chosen not to read Francine River’s works until possibly after I get married. =P But I still think it is good that I know all the arguements about abortion, homosexuality, and such. For now I feel it’s more glorifying to God to keep things a bit in the dark in my mind.

    However, when I try and think from a married person’s view, it makes a little more sense. So no flaming here, just a few musings on my decisions and my life. =D

  4. I think Lisa is right, that many of the novel’s written by women that fall under the heading “women’s fiction” would at least have that “knowing caress between a married couple.” So rather than simply repeat what Lisa said, here is a PW review for an upcoming non-fiction release that sure seems to fall into this topic:

    Sex God: Exploring the Endless Connections Between Sexuality and Spirituality by Rob Bell. Zondervan, $19.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-310-26346-8

    Bell raises the bar with this evocative follow-up to last year’s bestseller Velvet Elvis. “Is sex a picture of heaven?” he wonders. It’s all about God and sex and heaven, he says: “…they’re connected. And they can’t be separated. Where the one is you will always find the other.” Bell’s book isn’t a sex manual, an exploration of the differences between men and women or a marriage how-to, though all of that is here. Instead, it’s the story of God becoming human, of humans mirroring God and love made manifest in the messiness of our humanity. Sex God is about relationships revealed in a way that elevates the human condition and offers hope to those whose relationships are wounded. In Bell’s spare, somewhat oblique style, he addresses lust, respect, denial, risk, acceptance and more. His love for God and the Bible is clear, as is his ability to ask probing questions and offer answers that make readers think deeply about their own lives. He does a fine job using the Bible and real life to show that our physical relationships are really about spiritual relationships. This book joyfully ties, and then tightens, the knot between God and humankind. (Mar.)

    • Robin et al.,

      I must admit that I don’t read much in the women’s fiction genre. I just can’t explain all that I’m reading by men, though.

      A friend told me about a pastor who speaks all over the world about his brush with death due to a flubbed surgery. When that pastor speaks in Europe, he has to tone down the medical specifics because European audiences can’t stomach the details. On the other hand, this same friend told me of another pastor he knows who ran a race in Europe and was amazed to see people changing their clothes all along the race course. People appeared to have no qualms being seen stark naked. So in Europe, blood and guts don’t play, but nudity and sex do.

      Go figure.

  5. Anna

    As to the prevelant violence in evangelical type-Christian fiction, I have little explaination other than that is what people will read or watch these days. I am assuming the violence does not have a redemptive purpose in the plot (defending a maiden, as per your example.)

    If it does have some redemptive purpose….an excuse may be “Foxes Book of Martyrs”. Thats quite explicit stuff and it was probably the most common book next to the Bible in protestant homes for a couple centuries.

    Sex? Periennial scandals of prominent leaders in said evangelical circles may be the cause of not having more of it discussed in fiction. Yeah, and you will shock the middle-aged women who tend to buy the most fiction.

    • Anna,

      I think one of the problems we have in Evangelicalism is we’re not encouraging our young people to marry sooner. The way we handle college makes our young adults vulnerable to sexual sin, then we encourage them to pursue a career after that. Meanwhile, they’re spending a decade trying to stifle down their sex drives, often unsuccessfully.

      So yes, part of our head-in-the-sand response to sexuality creates failure. I’ve long encouraged that we start marriage and family prep classes for youth as young as 10-12 yrs.

      • Yes, Dan!! I fully agree with you on that. What if the families of two young people came alongside of them, put them through college as marrieds, helped them, mentored them and supported them emotionally, spiritually and when possible, financially? I think our need to succeed by the world’s standards has made younger people fall prey. God made young bodies to have sex and procreate. It’s our society that’s screwed up the timetable, not our kids. (But that’s off topic and for another post, I’m sure. I just REALLY agree with you on that.)

      • Anna


        Marriage at a young age in Western European cultures is historically a reflection of economic conditions and societal standing. In pre-industrial times, if you were rich/upper class, the sterotypical young woman/older man or both young were common. Marriage, to the elites, was a social compact. The peasants or small holders tended to wait until their trades were established or inherited the farm to marry. The standard marriage ages for men and women were in their mid to late twenties. This acted as a default birth control, if you will, because inheritances (land) can only be divided so much.

        What industrialization did was to flip this trend on its ear. A couple didn’t have to wait to gain their financial independence to marry and procreate. Post-industrialiasm (read- BC) has turned this backwards and inside out. If you want financial prosperity, wait for marriage and don’t procreate as much. Now the tendency is for the lower economic brackets of young people is to procreate a great deal and not marry at all or divorce at will.

        Having dumped a history lesson on you, I will say that I agree about the education-towards and encouragement of- younger marriage is a good thing, generally. If a young man can gain a trade or support during training/higher education, why not? And with the recent surge in family-oriented church/homeschooling trends, I think this will produce a healthly marriage culture.


  6. Jeff

    If that ever changes, I would hope that christian fiction involving such subject matter would come with a warning. Because violence generally isn’t as addicting as pornography, and for someone who has been addicted to pornography, anything that can serve as a reminder of that past is dangerous if they are not prepared to deal with it.

  7. http://www.philly.com/mld/inquirer/news/editorial/16225837.htm

    Read this and question why Christians are more likely to write about violence than sex. A simple reason would be that we write what we know about. Creative Writing 101. Few of us, though, are really personally familiar with the kind of violence that is so creatively invented. We are vicarious imbibers.

    But sex, now. Sex is a moral thing, isn’t it? Most of us have experienced it, but the exectations for what sex is supposed to be are jacked up so high that we tend to come away a little…dissappointed, and who wants to write about that? And more to the point, how does one write, in a Christian way, about something that is still hidden behind layers of stigma? Several years ago one of the girls in a college group I was working with said she never wanted to have sex. She had seen a porn movie, and how sex was presented turned her off to it. But isn’t that the way Satan works? Take what is created by God, warp and twist it and turn it into something else that either turns us off or turns us away.

    Of course, just what is it that makes Christian fiction, well, Christian? Is the writer Christian? Are the characters Christian? Is the moral of the story Christian? It’s like defiining a Christian Nation. If it’s Christian, aren’t there some things that just aren’t done? Is sex one of them? Why should it be? But the writer must be careful to present what God desires, and not the warped image of what God created. That is a challenge indeed. After 13 years of marriage I am beginning, just beginning, to get an idea of the incredible levels of intimacy that sex allows for. Like C.S. Lewis’ onion analogy, each layer is bigger and more detailed than the last. But always over my shoulder is the “shadow of sex” that the world presents: inviting, tempting…shallow, hollow, and empty. Write about that…I challenge you.

  8. Hunter

    There actually is Christian fiction that deals with the porn issue? Wow, I thought that was shied away from in Christian fiction because people don’t want to talk or hear about it. What novels address that issue? I’m working on short stories that address Christians dealing with sexual struggles because it really needs to be talked about and I haven’t seen or heard of any author who has tackled the various sexual sins and the affects they have on Christians.

    From my observations, Christians don’t want to read about sex in a Christian novel because it makes most Christians uncomfortable. It’s barely addressed in church sermons because of the stigma that comes along with it especially when non-Christians hear about the problem Christians have with porn and marital adultery and pre-marital promiscuity.

    I’ve been struggling with how to write my sexual struggle stories because I don’t want to write sex stories, but at least one of them has a sex scene in it but it’s for a purpose. I do believe that showing the realness of sex with a purpose is perfectly fine. Showing sex just because the author can or to shock the readers is wrong, but writing a story that shows the affects of wrong choice or a sexually traumatic experience is necessary to address issues that are not brought up. I see my stories as giving a voice to those who struggle and are afraid to talk about their problem or experience because of what others in the church will say or think of them. I’ve heard stories of some churches judging and condemning people for struggling with porn or other sexual sins. I, at least, want to be their voice.

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