Write...or Die Trying

I used to work in a factory. Now I work in an office. Either way, my writing was dying. So now I must: Write...or Die Trying.


Carnal Knowledge of Your Spouse in Christian Fiction

Posted this morning to a Christian writer's mailing list:

[WHILE THERE ARE ABSOLUTELY ZERO "INAPPROPRIATE" WORDS IN THIS POST, the topic of sexuality is so fraught with controversy that the de facto reaction to discussion of said topic is often considered "inappropriate." That's why I've chosen to use what you might consider archaic expressions. I'm sure you'll get my drift, though.]

I know my position on this matter is going to be misunderstood--and maybe angrily disagreed with--no matter what I do. I can't help that. I've also been a member of this list for some time and know that this topic, or variations of it, come up "ever so off'n," as we say 'round these parts. Despite that, I'm bringing this up again for three reasons: I feel strongly about it; I can assure you with something just short of a guarantee (would that be considered a "lawyerspeak" or something similar to a "manufacturer's warrantee"?) that I'm approaching this topic from a different angle than what I've seen discussed so far; and it's been "laying heavily on my heart," to use the requisite christianese phraseology.

The topic of sexuality in "Christian fiction" (for the purposes of this discussion, assume I mean fiction either distributed through CBA member stores or written by acknowledged, practicing believers of Jesus Christ, Lord and Savior, and assume that, for sexuality, I mean. . .if you need that explained, well. . .) is nigh on taboo. Unfortunately, considering that my calling is to write fiction, that could mean I might get passed over by, say, Bethany House (I adore Bethany House, by the way; I actually review manuscripts for them; I'm just using them as an admittedly inexact example of the CBA stereotype that comes to mind for most people) because I might have a [pipe dream] novel published by Knopf [end pipe dream] that shows the reader how intense a bond can be formed, for better or worse, between two sexually active people. Does that mean I endorse scenes designed to stimulate the reader for no reason than that stimulation is marketable and "rebellious"? Of course not. Some will read this essay and think otherwise but if I'm referencing Solomon in this exposition of my passionately held ideas, then please don't psychoanalyze what I'm saying here and go to *my* bibliographic source: the Old Testament.

I hope this doesn't create a firestorm of emails and get me banned from CF2, but I have been thinking critically (in the academic sense, not the obnoxiously pessimistic sense) about the pseudo-puritanical aversion that most CBA readers seem to share regarding discussions of intimate sexuality--even when it's set in the frame that God designed for it: a man and woman becoming one in marriage. I know, I know. I've heard all the arguments (unless there are new ones--there's probably always new ones) why the CBA will currently accept only pseudo-Jane Austen and not Balzac in their fiction.

They do it because their readers demand it, they want to do what they feel is best (well, the ones that aren't puppeteered by decidedly unchristian, mutli-billion dollar, multi-cultural, multi-national conglomerates anyway,) and because they affix the moniker "Christian" to their business. But I also wonder if the muckety-mucks--a term I learned in the military, bestowed primarily on paper-pushing, sometimes incompetent, questionably qualified command-level officers--have had a pow-wow and determined that discussions of sexuality should be obtuse, "as pure as the wind-driven snow"--to use a cliche--and steer comfortably (comfortable for whom I'm not entirely sure) away from the quicksand of denominational dogma and anything resembling a "gray area," which would demand a spiritual judgement call on behalf of the reader. I know that these content restrictions are primarily driven by market conditions and the fear of grass-roots boycotts, a la the Walt Disney company.

The biggest argument against passionate intimacy in "CBA fiction" is the same one used in this country for decades: we might be construed as condoning immorality by talking about sexuality (at least in any way that is less than sanitized enough to eat off of) in our fiction. Despite what you might think, I actually AM sympathetic to that. I WOULD NEVER suggest that a Christian write a purely titillating account of an unmarried couple "having a good time" in Cancun, or explicitly describe the escapades of homosexual twosome (I'm sorry: I just can't bring myself to use the term "couple" there) in the cabin next to the aforementioned boyfriend/girlfriend--who will probably (eventually) marry have a child then divorce, all within seven years.

But showing how inferior and empty that kind of soul-sucking flash-in-the-pan straw dog can be? Showing the fleeting nature of those relationships, which are apparitions almost on the edge of your peripheral vision; kaleidoscopic rainbows refracted through a spiritual prism--pretty to look at, but akin to the guy decided to build his house himself, on (or "upon," for the King James fans) the sand, and not the guy that wisely contracted the thing out so it was done right: foundation on the r-o-c-k rock.

Solomon had the chutzpa to get "jiggy" in his po-ems. I take that back: he was down right suggestive. That beloved schizophrenic (hey, *God* loved him--of course God loves *anyone* :-) gave us his drippingly romantic--some would say. . .okay *I* would say, being an unfeeling and unromantic alpha male--sentimental reflections on the passionate act (the whole 5 minutes or so) he enjoyed with his wife [Begin completely unrelated tangent: whom most scholars believe was the Queen of Sheba. Also, Solomon's stable of, well, more wives than you can shake a stick at (or keep happy and still maintain any semblance of sanity,) were probably women holding a title that means something quite different than those who resided in an Arabian Sultan's harem. Concubines, you ask? I don't know. Times were, shall we say, quite different from today. End completely unrelated tangent.] But you get the idea that he really enjoyed "becoming one" with his Queen.

So what's the bottom line? (That's not a rhetorical question, by the way.) Are we afraid we might inadvertently glorify immorality by frankly discussing sexuality in our fiction? Are we afraid that, by arousing the most universal and undeniably powerful (put there by God himself, I might throw in) human emotion we might awaken a sort of "Dracula" from his slumber, bent on pillaging the countryside and spreading his plague of evil? [I'm being incredibly obtuse here to illustrate a point. *Please* don't read into that analogy any more than you can help.] That's an important consideration for any author or publisher wanting to publicly identify themselves as "Christian."

But why can't we communicate to our readers how healing and essential, or manipulative and harmful--depending on how you choose to approach the situation--it can be to share an active and intense two-in-one communion with someone? What about letting others know how beneficial, healing, and essential such a communion can be? Are we just afraid of the "gray area" surrounding this topic? IN NO WAY AM I TRYING TO BE ANTAGONISTIC HERE, but do some authors even know what it's like to be completely one with your spouse--like it's mentioned in Genesis 2:24, but primarly quoted from Ephesians 5:31, about the two becoming one [Recited at almost every protestant wedding. I haven't been to too many--okay one--Catholic weddings, so I can't speak for that ceremony]? Is it that, for some folks, the most intimate part of our marital relationship is so strained, uncomfortable to think about, or even shriveled and dormant, that it can't even be talked about with an intimate friend, let alone in slicing open open the chest and displaying the heart for public inspection and possibly ridicule (or encouragement, if you're a "glass half full" kind of person)?

There are no easy answers to the discussion of sexuality and it's role in fiction labeled as overtly "Christian." Kevin Lehman's book, while non-fiction, is shunned by some because it is so frank, but adored by others for the same reason. It sold quite well and continues to do so, leaving the impression that it's still a topic of almost embarrassing interest to today's Christians. The LaHaye's have written on the husband-wife bedroom relationship issue as well. Neither Lehman nor the LeHaye's focused (or even geared) their discussion toward authors, stories, or fiction. But both books were quite successful and prove that Christians want to hear from other people (whether that's good or bad is a topic for another, probably lengthy discussion,) if they are permitted to discuss their passions and desires in Sunday School or around Christian friends. I'm fortunate enough to be involved in a church where I can discuss sexuality and even the act of love-making openly (in private, of course,) and in Christian love. I know many don't have that same confidence and suffer silently with the feeling that such matters are not appropriate for a "good christian" to discuss.

On an anthropological note, maybe one reason the so-called "sexual revolution" accumulated so much momentum and created a puritanical aversion to all things sexual--in no less than three generations--was that Christians were so ambivalent (and in many cases unjustifiably dogmatic, to be brutally objective) that they threw away a lucrative opportunity to minister to millions of impressionable young people that were agonizingly, analytically, and passionately searching--begging, even--for meaning and some form of spirituality. In our silence or judgementalism, the Christian family squandered an opportunity to provide them an alternative to the eventually irresistible temptation--having been given no adequately articulated alternative--of Humanism, Mysticism, carnal immorality, and astounding volumes of mind-numbing chemicals. I realize that a brave regiment here and there gave it their best effort at charging the bulwark. But, unfortunately their numbers and capability to mount a large-scale, organized campaign were simply not sufficient to rebuff the persistent attacks of emotional decision-making, disguised as "evolved" logic championed by the likes of Ginsberg, Kesey, Lenon, Vonnegut and their saints: Huxley, Hesse, Whitman, and Wordsworth--to name a scant few.

I wouldn't begin to suggest that I have a clue how to knock down these sticky wickets. I'm utterly ignorant and completely unskilled at cricket, so others will have to do the "real work." I just hope that this extraordinarily long essay can in some way resonate with anyone. I pray that it does for a selfish reason: I'd hate to think I spent five hours on an essay. . .and it be entirely bunk.


At 8/22/2005 12:40:00 AM, Blogger Sean Slagle said...

My comments to your essay became so lengthy that I made it my blog entry as well. Since it was so long, I thought I would just post the link, but then I thought that looked self-serving. So, here is my long response:

I can't see how discussion of intimate sexuality is appropriate in Christian fiction, even when it's set in the frame that God designed for it: a man and woman becoming one in marriage. I believe the aspects of good "marital relations" can be depicted in fiction without a discussion of intimate sexuality. The essay asks, "But why can't we communicate to our readers how healing and essential, or manipulative and harmful--depending on how you choose to approach the situation--it can be to share an active and intense two-in-one communion with someone? What about letting others know how beneficial, healing, and essential such a communion can be?" Can't those things be shown without getting into the intimate details? As a reader, I can know a married couple made love without going into positions, and talk, and breathing, and even foreplay.

Look at this issue from a writer's point of view. If a writer wants to discuss the intimate sexuality in h/her marriage, then that writer needs to write a non-fiction book on that subject and hope h/she has the credentials to back it up. As a fiction writer, it's quite a different story. A writer is a voyeur, in that, h/she is watching these lives and is dictating what is happening. If two of the characters (even married) are having sex, the writer is looking in on the two of them. That's why the light should go off and the writer doesn’t see any more. If the lights stay on, then the writer is watching (fantasizing, picturing, day-dreaming) these two people having sex. Is it the writer and h/her spouse? No. It's two other people. She has a different hair color, a different body, and a different reaction to the touches of her husband, who is skinnier and more muscular. And the writer (and eventually reader) is watching them in their most intimate moment. And for what purpose? What could the writer bring out in the characters that would justify being a peeping Tom? What would be shown in these intimate moments that couldn't be shown anywhere else?

In Matthew 5:28 in the Sermon on the Mound, Jesus says, "But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart" (NIV). One may say, "Well, I can write this and not lust." Christians are only sinners saved by grace. How can they read intimate details of sexual activity between two people and not lust? How much more so the writer who is watching and detailing the action? The synonyms for lust are: yearn, desire, long for, hanker after, hunger for, ache for, desire, and envy. By writing these details, the writer is playing with fire and inviting the reader to sin, to break the tenth commandment.

Paul warns, “So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble” (1 Corinthians 10:31-32). Can the intimate details of a sexual relationship give glory to God? Perhaps in a non-fiction book written for married couples. In fiction I see Satan stepping in the door and leading the mind in his direction. What about causing someone to stumble? A non-fiction book is saying do this and do that to your wife. A fiction book is showing what this other man is doing to his wife, therefore I shouldn’t be watching (reading). It’s wrong for me to be watching. It’s immoral.

1 Thessalonians says, “It is God’s will that you should be holy; that you should avoid sexual immorality; that each of you should learn to control his own body in a way that is holy and honorable, not in passionate lust like the heathen, who do not know God” (4:3-5). If I am going to put Christian in front of my fiction and say that it’s Christ-like fiction, that it’s holy, then I’m not going into the intimate sexual details of the characters in the story. The world may need their stories filled with intimate detailed sex, whether from a married couple or others, but there should be no place in Christian fiction for such details.


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