At the risk of hitting a dead horse, once again, I’m going to respond to something I’ve heard recently. I’ve heard it before, and I’ve responded to it before, but I don’t think I have on this blog…until now! What did I hear? In fear of Christian fiction devoid of bad words and violence, etc., someone inevitably brings up the line, “But the Bible is full of horrible violence and rough characters,” or its cousin, “The Bible is R-rated.”
First, I want to acknowledge where that point is correct. There is Christian fiction that reflects an unrealistic, idealistic life that few actually live. The Bible is full of stories about some very bad people doing some very bad things to other people. Even the “good guys” like King David committed horrible sins. It shouldn’t be taboo, as long as we are not in the end promoting sin, to show our characters committing sins as well. Perfect characters are not as easily relate-able to the reader as one who messes up. We inherently know this because we all know just how imperfect each of us is, even if we want to hide that from everyone else.
Consequently, any fiction that only wants to show the ideal instead of reality will be hard for most people to relate to. Heroes should have flaws. Though I will add, sometimes it is good to have the one person who can be the example, but they are usually secondary characters in a good story, not the main character. Like Faramir was with Frodo in Lord of the Rings (the book, not the movie).
And the Bible adequately reflects that reality. All through it we see flawed heroes, not perfect characters. And that fact gives hope to all of us. If God can do something great with that person, then maybe I’m not too far gone.
With that understanding as a given, sometimes I get the feeling that people use that line to give themselves permission to make something as foul-language ridden and graphically violent as they dare, and then use it as a stick to beat anyone over the head with who disagrees with their approach, who says they don’t want to read something with that kind of language in it. These are the folks likely to say that the Bible is R-rated, so why can’t their own stories be?
Problem is, the Bible is far from R-rated. It isn’t what happens that makes a film R-rated, but in how it is shown. A great example are the Lord of the Ring’s movies. They are rated PG-13, even though they have a lot of violence in them. Even though you see a head get cut off. What is missing? Blood spewing out when that happens. Even the battle field where they orcs are killed by the good guys isn’t blood stained as one might expect after killing a whole pile of orc bodies with swords and arrows.
The Bible doesn’t describe in detail all these bad things, it merely relates them to us. It does what we as fiction writers are instructed to avoid: it tells rather than shows. For instance, take a look at the following Bible verse, clearly one of the more “graphic” in there:
Jdg 5:26 ASV She put her hand to the tent-pin, And her right hand to the workmen’s hammer; And with the hammer she smote Sisera, she smote through his head; Yea, she pierced and struck through his temples.
That is PG-13 rated at best. It simply tell you what she did, with no “showing.” If we were to write this as fiction authors, we’d have something along the lines of:
She placed the tent-pin against his head. The hammer shook in her right hand so much she feared if she missed, it would crush his head. She only wanted to pierce it, to kill him, to end this nightmare. She breathed deep. Get it over with, before he awakes! She drew the hammer back and without giving it another thought, before she threw it aside and ran, she plunged the mallet onto the tent peg as hard as she could muster. The head jerked as the pin pierced his skull and warm blood shot over her hand. His eyes flung wide and a gasp escaped his lips as his head sank back to the ground, blood draining from his wound, pooling below him. His eyes acknowledged the fact that she had killed him, and there was nothing he could do about it. Air stopped gurgling from his mouth. She threw the hammer down only to discover his red liquid on her hands, staining them with the murder. She heard herself screaming, even though she didn’t will it.
So, what do you think? Should God have contracted me to write the Bible? (grin) But you see the difference. That would be R-rated, the former is not. The Bible has a lot of nasty stuff in it, very true. But it doesn’t show it, it tells it. And that is why it is not R-rated, nor can it be used as an excuse to make one’s book R-rated. If you want to make an R-rated book, that is fine. Go for it. But don’t say that God made you do it because the Bible is that way. That’s simply not true.
Make the stories real, but make them graphic at your own risk of losing readers. Sometimes it is a fine line to walk, and not everyone will hit it all the time, nor will a particular author always avoid it, if only because everyone’s line is drawn in a different place. But the Bible is not R-rated, nor the fact that it does relate some bad events mean the extreme is fair game because of it. If you want to follow the Bible in that regard, you’ll never show, only tell. And I don’t think most authors want to go there on a regular basis.
Where’s your line between “real” and “extreme”?