Ten years ago this summer Bethany House Publishers released my first novel Arena into a literary world of petticoats, bonnets and buggies. This explains its original pink and purple cover, an attempt perhaps to mitigate the fact that it was a significant departure from the usual run of Christian fiction. While Arena does include an element of romance, at heart it is an allegorical adventure with sometimes dark and violent scenes.
I’ve received a full spectrum of responses to it, from, “Fabulous!” “Best book I’ve ever read!” “Changed my relationship with God,” to the inevitable “This book is neither good nor Christian…” and “…contains much graphic horror and implied sexual abuses… not recommended as a positive experience for anyone seeking to grow closer to God.”
I understand that some readers are made very uncomfortable reading “graphic horror and implied sexual abuse,” but does that mean neither can ever be acceptable elements in Christian fiction, regardless of the purpose they might serve in that fiction? Should Christian authors of speculative fiction – or any fiction – refrain from putting “dark and violent things” into their novels as a matter of principle, out of consideration for these “weaker brothers?”
I say no. For one thing, no one can force someone to read a book. If you don’t like what you’re reading, stop reading it. If you don’t like what a particular author did, don’t read any more of that author’s books. It’s as simple as that.
Perhaps this sounds unkind, but in my view the purpose of writing fiction is to shed light on the human condition, with emphasis on how Christianity affects that condition. This won’t happen if we bar ourselves from actually presenting the human condition as it is.
We live in a fallen world, with fallen people and even as Christians saved by grace, we retain that old sinful flesh which sets itself against the Spirit and on occasion gets the better of us. A single moment under fleshly influence can turn a good man into a murderer, and a good woman into an adulteress. I can’t imagine why we should not write of such things, if only to warn others of how easily we all can be pulled down.
This is so, not merely because of our own weaknesses, but because we have enemies: unseen spiritual beings dedicated to blinding the minds of the unsaved and getting the saved distracted, confused, entangled, indifferent and defeated. All of us, whether we know it or not, are engaged in an ongoing battle that won’t end until we die.
It is this battle I have been called to write about in allegorical form, and so, for me, portraying violence in my stories, sometimes graphically, goes with the territory. My allegories come in the form of action adventure, action that often involves violence.
Though some may object to this, I stand on the Bible’s teaching that violence is not wrong in and of itself. That, in fact, the use of righteous violence is necessary for the protection of our freedom from those who would take it through the use of evil violence.
Our unseen enemies, the fallen angelic host, have throughout history provoked the leaders of pagan nations to amass great armies in an attempt to invade and conquer first the nation of Israel, and later the succession of predominantly Christian nations that have arisen since the coming of Christ. Without a military force to stand against these invading armies, no one would be free to believe in Christ, to gather in worship, or to evangelize.
Crime, the domestic side of evil violence, has a similar effect if uncontrolled, thus, both hostile foreign nations and home grown criminals threaten the freedom of a country’s citizens. Which is why I thank God for the soldiers and police officers who are even now defending our freedom to worship; and I’m grateful I live in a country where if it came down to it I would have the right to defend my own life with violence if need be.
Because ultimately the only way the evil violence in this world can be stopped or held at bay is through the use of a corresponding righteous violence. I greatly enjoy stories of courageous men and women who are called to this sort of action.
A second area of prohibition in fiction concerns sexual sins. Is it really okay to have one’s characters sin in this area? Why not? People are sinners. Sinners sin. Why should sins of guilt, worry, judging, criticizing, arguing, arrogance, and whining and moaning about one’s lot in life be acceptable, but sexual sins out of bounds? To me it’s how the incident is handled, and what this particular sin’s purpose and place in the story is. Does the plot or the character’s spiritual growth (or backsliding) hinge on this failing? Will it ultimately serve to illuminate God’s grace? If it does, then it belongs in the story.
In the case of my second novel The Light of Eidon, that was very much the situation. My protagonist, who had formerly been an acolyte in a false religion, had to break every vow he’d made by the time he met up with the one true god Eidon. He had to have nothing left with which to win Eidon’s approval. I didn’t realize this at the first, however. And when I wrote the sequence of events leading up to the moment of sexual temptation, I fully intended for him to abstain.
But then as we got to the middle of it, knowing who he was – still an unbeliever at the time — and what he faced, I realized there was no way he’d choose abstinence. I also began to see just how many elements not only led into this action but away from it and in the end I knew I had to let him do it.
Even so I kept asking the Lord for another path; there would be readers who wouldn’t like what I’d done. He only made it clearer this was the way. So that’s how I wrote it and hindsight has only confirmed the rightness of my decision.
Finally, what about those nebulous “dark events?” Well, if you’re writing a book about battling evil, where you must define it and in fact translate the invisible to a visible representation for the sake of a story, you’re going to have dark events. The cool thing about darkness is that it’s the place where we can best see the light.
When we’re in a pit of despair, or fear, or hatred, or disaster… and God comes into these things with His light, His forgiveness, His power … we sit up and take notice. Sin and dark situations illuminate the need for God’s grace and power, and the fact He’s got both. We see it. We remember it. We learn from it in a deeply personal way.
We can also learn by reading about the experiences of others, even if those others are only make-believe. Sometimes the darker the journey, the brighter the resolution and the more powerful the lesson.
Now should young children read books with all or even some of these potentially objectionable elements in them? Probably not. Most young children have no frame of reference for such things, particularly in the area of sexuality – in which case the first line of defense and information is the responsibility of the parent.
But when they do have the essential frame of reference and are old enough to understand what’s going on, why wouldn’t you want to reinforce the matter in fictional form? What a fantastic opportunity to discuss what was done, why the character chose to do it, why it was wrong, what the consequences were in the story itself, and finally, to remind them of the ever available grace of God, no matter what the failing.
There is, then, a proper way of viewing and handling all three areas of potentially objectionable content – sex, violence and the so-called “dark events.” I am convinced they have their place in speculative stories in particular, and can be used to great advantage to illuminate truth and teach it. They can also be used for the wrong reasons and serve the side of darkness; it depends on the message. But they are not by any means something that should never appear in Christian fiction.
I would submit that they are in essence essential to my own interpretation of speculative fiction and my storytelling passion. For in the end, God uses the wrath and failure of man to praise Him. Sin, evil violence and darkness will not stand before His everlasting grace and righteousness and glory. In the end, they will all pass away, the final battle won, and we who have believed will live in the Light forever.
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Karen Hancock writes Christian fantasy and science fiction. Her first novel, Arena has just been repackaged and re-released in paperback by Bethany House. She is currently working on her seventh novel, a science fantasy set on a distant planet whose underground civilization embodies the kingdoms of light and darkness as they vie for the allegiance of its citizens.
She has won Christy Awards for each of her first four novels–Arena and the first three books in the Legends of the Guardian-King series, The Light of Eidon, The Shadow Within, and Shadow over Kiriath.
Karen graduated from the University of Arizona with bachelor’s degrees in biology and wildlife biology. She enjoys sketching, blogging, reading, playing with her dog and making greeting cards. She and her husband reside in Arizona.