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R. L. Copple's Blog

Think on These Things

As a Christian author and writer, I’ve seen the discussion appear on boards, blogs, and email lists, concerning how far is too far in showing cussing, sex, violence, and other behaviors in ways that most Christians would consider sin. Most authors have their own opinions on where that line is. And it usually revolves around the concern on one hand to present realistic characters and natural reactions, and on the other, to not tantalize or offend readers who find cussing or sex, among other things, to be offensive, uncomfortable, and appear to promote sin.

In my writing, I tend to fall into the group who says avoid those things unless the plot or character calls for it in order to “work.” And then, only “show” what has to be shown to make it work. So, for instance, a married couple will have sex. In most plots, it’s not important to mention that they do. Most will assume they do without even having to allude to it. If one needs to allude to it, because you are showing a scene where it would naturally happen, then there are cut aways before it gets too hot, or simply “told” and not shown so as no need to go into graphic detail. But there can be and are on occasion times I’ll need to go there for the plot to work, and show it for the scene to be believable. That has only happened to me once in my novels.

But, I’m not really wanting to discuss that specifically. Rather, I wanted to address something that many Christian writers who feel we should avoid all such things in any shape or form, tend to put up at some point on discussions like these. They quote the following verse as Biblical evidence that we shouldn’t depict anything of sin in our books:

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honorable, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.
(Php 4:8 ASV)

I wanted to break this down, because I feel this verse is being used out of context when it comes to these discussions, and therefore, uses the Bible in an incorrect manner.

First, let’s look at the context St. Paul said these words. He was writing a letter to the Philippians, and is ending his letter to them. He was promoting an attitude in our spiritual lives where we don’t focus on the negative in ourselves and others, but the positive. We focus on what will unite us, not on what will divide us.

This is St. Paul’s non-fiction spiritual self-help information. Yes, we should think on those things. But note what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say we should never be aware of, acknowledge, or speak on the other things. Rather, think, meditate, set them before you as your goal. It’s like driving a car. Your attention is focused on what’s going on in front of you. But my driving instructor said you should be looking in your rear view mirror about once every few seconds. And we only know the good, the praise worthy, the pure, by understanding what is evil, debased, and impure.

And anyone who reads St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians knows St. Paul himself suggested that those leading them astray should go all the way on doing circumcisions. Ouch! Not exactly a pure and good thought he’s presenting there.

But it isn’t just that aspect that we’re dealing with here. No, this verse isn’t saying never think on the other things at all. It simply means keep your focus on these things. It is a general principle he is giving out here, along with several others. But, one must keep in mind what else this is not saying. He is not saying “apply this to fiction.”

St. Paul wasn’t telling them a story here. He was attempting to give them some principles that would aid them in their spiritual growth. But the converse of that principle isn’t necessarily negated by its positive expression. Fiction isn’t the same thing as non-fiction, or any story really. When an author tells a story, there is by necessity an element of conflict. Without that conflict and its resolution, you have no story. You have a boring tale where nothing really happens of interest.

Stories are about people with problems, moving from getting into those problems, and moving to resolve them, or at least make the attempt. There is no way to have that kind of conflict if you follow the above formula as a straitjacket answer to everything you can possibly think about. All stories would have to go, as all conflict tends to involve someone sinning on some level or another.

Take the children’s book, “Are You My Mother?” Most of us have probably read that tale of a baby bird having fallen out of the nest, walking around trying to find its mother, and not knowing what she looks like, ask everything under the sun, including a tractor. The conflict there is this baby bird is lost and can’t find its mother. Will it find her? Or will the baby be lost, and maybe die?

Some deep stuff for kiddos, when you think about it. But what’s the sin? The mother who isn’t there to protect and take care of her children! Doesn’t this book promote neglectful mothers and fathers? How evil is the action of that mother? Why would we want to think on that impure thought, that a little baby bird is left to wander the countryside searching for his mother because she wasn’t responsible enough to be there for him? Aren’t we by reading that story instilling fears of abandonment into children?

You see, every story has that element in it, even in children’s stories. You can’t get away from it if you’re going to tell a story that people will want to read. Rather, you have to show your character going from point A to point B in growth. The difference between a secular and Christian author is where that point B ends one up. Not on where point A starts. And if the author wants to write a book that will reach gang members, guess what? It will not read realistically to them unless point A represents their life. Any attempt to soft peddle the cussing or the debased lifestyle will lose that audience.

That’s why I always say it goes back to two main things. One, what do you need to make the plot work, and two, who your intended audience is. Use only what you have to, and no more.

But the above verses are not talking about fiction stories. They are talking about real life, and spiritual development. The reader also has some responsibility. If you don’t like cussing, then don’t pick up a book written about gangs. The restrictions placed upon some Christian authors, like some who write for the CBA audience, can only write books targeted for an already Christian audience. Because those are the only people many of those stories (not all, granted) will appeal too, are Christians. If you want to write something that is redemptive, that shows redemption from sin and for it to have an impact upon a reader in that sin, you are going to have to make it real. You will want them to identify with it. Short of that, you’ll have little impact.

Stories are an attempt in most cases, to take someone already not “thinking on these things” and are thinking on the level of cussing, sex, violence, ect., and hopefully moving them to thinking on “these things.” But if we never write it so they can identify with it, they will never read it, and never be redeemed short of God doing a number on them.

Those verses are not meant by St. Paul to mean, “no story or text can ever think on anything else but these things.” St. Paul didn’t have in mind prohibiting good story telling when he pinned those words. If a person doesn’t want to think on those things, they certainly don’t have to. I would suggest never reading any story unless they’ve been given the sanitized stamp of approval. Because nearly every story is going to have some kind of sin going on.

Our problem is we’re often comfortable with certain types of sin in a story, but not others. Like judgmentalism and gossip. You don’t want to think on those things either.

It’s where a story leads you that makes it Christian, not where it starts.

About R. L. Copple
R. L. Copple enjoys a good cup of coffee and a fun story. These two realities and inspiration from the likes of Lester Del Ray, J. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, among others, caused him to write his own science fiction and fantasy stories to increase the fun in the world and to share his fresh perspective.
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4 Responses to Think on These Things

  1. Great Post, Rick!
    I appreciate the distinction between fiction and non-fiction when applying Phil.

    When writing our fiction, it’s also a good guide to remember why Jesus told his parables to the crowds and why certain content –involving mention of sins– was in those parables.

    Loved the last line!

    Under the Mercy,

  2. Eric Grimm says:

    Great post about the use of possibly offensive content in Christian fiction. Just to be clear, CBA is a trade association that neither publishes nor sells books. You are very accurate in describing the typical Christian store customer, though. For Christian-store retailers, thought, the problem for the most part is not about the content but about offending customers who may be surprised by the content. CBA facilitated a new ratings system for Christian film and DVD content in cooperation with The Dove Foundation. The agenda was not to set standards for content but to make customers aware of content to affirm purchasing and use decisions. Many customers find Christian content in stores specifically to reach out to friends and family who might be struggling with life issues. Because stores serve a very helpful role in supporting ministry, they trust the content in the store will have redeeming value while still being relevant to the audience. However, if a customer prefers not to absorb that content she should have a choice by knowing in advance what’s involved. CBA doesn’t give any sanitized stamp of approval, publishers and customers do. A Christian customer wanting to help a gangster nephew or a drug-crazed child has demonstrated a willingness to use relevant materials to reach and redeem a heart. She just needs to know about it before she reads it for personal entertainment or shares it with her family and children.

  3. Rick says:

    Thanks Sherry, for the comments. Good point on the parables.

  4. Rick says:

    Good points, Eric. Yes, CBA doesn’t sell books, and we are talking about the buyers, which is why I said “CBA audience,” IOW, those readers who tend to buy books that follow CBA general guidelines on what can and can’t be shown or said. I know that’s not always 100% solid, and the rules for a particular imprint can be more restrictive than another in that regard, but that is the audience for “CBA books” because that is what that audience will tend to want. One always keeps their audience in mind when writing.

    And giving them guidelines about content is always a good thing. It helps people make choices. If someone doesn’t want to read a story where people cuss, they should know they do or don’t before plunking the money down.

    But there has been plenty of discussion on this particular topic, and my focus was more on the use of those verses to support a certain view. While there is some applicability there, I think people tend to use those verses as an attempt to say the Bible prohibits this in a fiction story, when I don’t think the context supports that interpretation.

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