Friday, August 17, 2012

Examining the Elephant: Why I Won't Label My Writing Christian

You remember the old parable of the blind men and the elephant? They gather around the elephant to learn what it is like. They can't see it or experience it fully because of their blindness. All they can do is touch the part of the elephant nearest to them, and as a result, they all feel something unique. One touches the hard, slick tusk. Another feels the long trunk. Yet others touch the thick and unmovable leg, or the thin, flimsy tail.  Not a one of them is experiencing the exact same thing as any of the others.

Keep this story in mind, because it's going to mean something for your writing and reading in a moment, if you'll bear with me.

For the past few weeks, we've taken a look at different aspects of how to use (and how not to use) our personal religious and spiritual beliefs, doubts, and past experiences in our writing, as well as ways we might incorporate religion as a pillar of the worlds we create for our fantasy and science fiction stories. Thanks to guest bloggers Scott Roche, M.E. Anders, and Bryan Thomas Schmidt for being brave enough to share their thoughts on this hot-potato topic.

Now, I'm going to weigh in with some thoughts of my own. And I hope what I share here, along with what my guest bloggers had to say, will spark you to give some thought to how this area of your life may impact your writing.

First of all, some disclosure: Although I'm a Christian, I'm not tackling this topic out of my own concerns about fitting religion and spirituality into what I write. I'm tackling it because of what other people at church often say when I admit (like a confessing sinner) that I'm writing a fantasy novel. They ask immediately, "What audience are you writing for? Is this for the Christian shelves?" It is literally the first question on so many people's lips that I've come to realize this is a major issue for a lot of people.

As you can guess, the question they're asking makes me immediately defensive. I want to say, "And what if I want to put my book on the non-Christian, secular shelves where all kinds of Buddhists and atheists and scientologists and UFO fanatics and vegetarians...might come across it and enjoy it? Because odds are, they're not stopping by the Christian section, because your us-versus-them mentality is already scaring them off. And who can blame them?"

Now, it's not a bad question in general to ask ourselves who our ideal reader is. As writers, when we know our ideal reader, we can market our books more effectively. And we can write more appropriately. (I mean, I suppose you could write a sex scene into a book for ten-year-olds, but what self-respecting publisher is going to print it, and what self-respecting parent is going to buy it? That's the stuff for adults, not kids. And so on. And so on.)

But the obsessive nature with which some Christians feel a need to define where my book is going to be shelved is maddening. Is there some secret judgment going on? (She's not writing a "Christian" book? How evil!) Or perhaps these people are trying to decide whether they can read my book without knowing anything about it. (Well, if it's not officially "Christian," then it could be dangerous to read it.)

Is it bad to admit that I hope it is dangerous for fellow Christians to read what I write? That I hope to provoke them, to make them uncomfortable enough to perhaps grow beyond where they are?

Well, that's my issue. But this blog isn't just for me. It's for fellow writers, and to you I say that my attitude toward incorporating spirituality, religion, or any other beliefs and values into your writing is simply this:

It's going to happen, whether you like it or not. You won't be able to help putting what you believe and value into what you write.

So, you better be aware of what you believe and value. And if you're smart, you'll harness it like a team of oxen and make it plow ground for you to grow something that'll feed you and others.

I'm convinced that who we are and how we think is destined to end up in our creative works, because creativity is born out of our deep selves to begin with, and for writing in particular, we end up writing what we know. You've probably heard of that piece of well-worn advice by now anyway: Write what you know. And I've never thought that meant writing only what you've directly experienced, or there'd be no fantasy, no science fiction.

No, writing what you know means, to me, writing what's in your heart, what you know is true, what you feel is important, what you believe deep down is the way to live and to evaluate the world. If we believe in some form of God, we somehow write that into our stories in the form of hope, forgiveness, and what is right and wrong, much like we see in The Lord of the Rings. If we believe in the power of honesty, then it should be no surprise if our characters are noticeably honest or dishonest, and if the power of words and truth is a major part of our story, which we see in The Sword of Shannara. If we know that love and intimacy and perseverance in the face of brutal difficulties can bring about redemption, then we end up with a beautiful story like the manga Fruits Basket.

In other words, it's not going to matter where my novel ends up on the shelves, because ultimately when someone reads it, it's going to have the things I believe in it. And it'll address the things I'm concerned with. Things like... what it means to be a hero, the importance of refusing to give up, the gift of finding humor even in hard circumstances, love's power to redeem people and situations, and the absolute necessity of hope, without which there's no point in living, it seems to me. A life without hope is no life at all. Oh, and yes, there will always be issues of right and wrong in my fiction, and the value of choosing right no matter the price. Because that matters to me. So I can't help writing about it. In fact, why would I want to do otherwise? If I don't write about the things that I'm passionate about, then what's the point?

These things I've mentioned above are important to me partly because I'm a Christian, but also because I've been a fantasy reader since childhood, long before I practiced any religion with deliberation. And most fantasy novels talk about these themes, and they resonate with me. I personally believe that by knowing this about myself and mastering it, I can make my writing work for my readers better than I could if I pretend I'm going to be objective. I'm not. I have a subjective view of the world, just like every other human being does. But my passionate beliefs can have an outlet in my fiction and be worth it to others, even those who may differ in their beliefs and values, if I honor and respect that not everyone thinks like me and so I write accordingly.

For that reason, I feel it's imperative not to write just for the Christian shelves, any more than I want the Buddhists and atheists and scientologists and UFO fanatics and vegetarians to write for only their shelves and not include me. We have to talk with each other, share with each other, and challenge each other to see the parts of the elephant that we're not normally seeing from our point of view. To do otherwise diminishes our art in some ways. Or at least narrows it to speaking only to those who want to agree with us. I'll never stop you from doing that if you want to, but I hope you'll be aware of the choice you're making. Make it a conscious choice, at least.

That's what I'm doing. I'm making a conscious choice not to fit only among Christians. I'd rather be able to talk to a larger group, and let the chips fall where they may. There's a big, wide world out there, and I kind of like it. I kind of like that people think differently than I do. It makes me more conscious of why I choose to place value where I choose to place it. And maybe my stories can help others consider their whys too. Call me an idealist if you want, a romantic, a Pollyanna. But I prefer to call myself a writer. A fantasy writer. And I'll leave the Christian label for other places.

What about you? Where would you prefer to shelve your books, and why? What do you think of the whole topic of spirituality, beliefs, and fiction?

For other entries in this series:
Use with Care: Religion in Worldbuilding by Bryan Thomas Schmidt
How to Fuel Compelling Plots from Past Religious Experiences by M.E. Anders
Shoehorning God by Scott Roche

Copyright (c) 2012 by M.A. Chiappetta. All rights reserved.


  1. This was a great post, and something I have struggled with, too. I write contemporary romance/romantic suspense. I say that at church, and I am usually asked if I am writing an inspirational romance. When I say no, I have been asked how I can write "smut" as a Christian. I will say that my books are very tame and leave a lot to the imagination; my writing reflects the ideals of my beliefs, even if I am not writing only for other Christians. I tend to leave a scene open ended in a did they/didn't they--up to the interpretation of the reader, and their beliefs. :-)

    1. Glad you stopped by, Susi! So sorry that some people are defining your stuff as smut just because it's not labeled "inspirational." I have a friend who has received a similar reaction to her story, which is about a woman's growth over the years. The character is married three times. Big deal, right? It happens. Personally, I think you have every right to pursue what's in your heart. Me too. Who cares about labels! :)

  2. Wise words. I always say that the way you write should be the way you choose collectibles or antiques you want to buy--choose what you love. That way you always get the best out of it, no matter how much you sell, and your "best" will shine from it. All kinds of media are crossover hits nowadays--your books shouldn't be pigeonholed either.


    1. I'm way behind at responding this week. Sorry! But you say it well, Joanie. Writing is a lot like any other passion we have. We should pursue it that way. :)

  3. Hi, Michele. I told ya I'd get here. :)
    Seriously, this is a subject that is near and dear to me, as they say.
    My first series is a vampire series. I went for a crossover due to the fact that everyone and their mother was writing vampires. ;) That was the niche I aimed for. I have tried to take the best of horror which is "sitting at the edge of our seats" with the good vs evil that has it's home in Christianity. The hope is to aim for the center and provide a tale that is suitable for all at a PG-13 rating. We'll see what happens. Just like you said. Why aim for one shelf only?
    Take care, my friend. And thanks for sharing.


    1. Thanks, Jimmy. I think that horror and spirituality mix well. And so do SFF/fantasy and good vs. evil themes. Best wishes on your series and sales.


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