Friday, February 03, 2006

DL: The Problem of Evil

I am a metaphysician working on the concrete. I try to make the Catholic universe of evil perceptible, tangible, odorous. The theologians give us an abstract idea of the sinner. I give him flesh and blood.
—French Catholic novelist François Mauriac

Someone asked me once who my favorite Christian songwriter was. “Paul Simon,” I said.
“Paul Simon? He’s a Christian?” my questioner asked, wide-eyed.
“Not as far as I know,” I said.
“Then how can you call him a Christian songwriter?”
“Many of his songs so perfectly describe the futility and anguish of life apart from God,” I said. “They’re like the musical equivalent of Romans chapter seven, or Romans 3:23. But not many Christian songwriters echo those verses with any power. I wonder—do they just think that part of the gospel sounds too negative?”
Many years ago, my friend Carol was signed by a Christian publishing house to “write” the story of her life. I put the word write in quotes because, like many people whose life is worth reading about, Carol was not a writer. So the publisher chose a writer to work alongside Carol, translating her memories into autobiography.

And what horrible memories she had. Carol had been five when her mother ran out on her family—and Carol’s father installed her in his bed to satisfy his sexual longings. A Fagin-like figure, he established a ring of boys in his neighborhood to steal for him—and he offered them Carol as inducement and payment. He rented her as well to his adult friends. When she was fourteen, she bore her father’s child. He was arrested after that, convicted, and sent to prison.
But that’s a very ugly story for a Christian publisher to publish. Afraid of a harsh reaction from readers if they told that story in its horrendous completeness—and afraid, frankly, that no one would believe it—the publisher urged the writer to keep the details implicit and to keep the evil off the page. And she did. So completely, in fact, that more than one reader of the book approached Carol afterward and said, “I don’t understand—why did your father go to prison?”

He went to prison because he was an evil man who not only broke laws but also inflicted unimaginable evil on his own daughter. And as truth-tellers, we should not be afraid to say so. It is, after all, part of the gospel message to say that we live in a grossly fallen world. But that’s a problem, isn’t it, if we publish with Christian publishing houses. There are undeniable market constraints. Editors are under pressure to eliminate anything that might result in getting the book “banned.” Bookstore managers are protective of the conservative tastes of their customers. No one wants to write or publish a book that lasts only a week on the bookstore shelf before it’s pulled and shredded.

All true. And yet, as writers of fiction, we need to be able to name the evil. Like Mauriac, in the quote that began this essay, we need to make the universe of evil “perceptible, tangible, odorous.” That doesn’t mean that we need to pepper our stories with four-letter words or names of body parts, or to slather blood and gore on the walls. But it does mean that our descriptions of evil should leave no doubt that this is why the world is without hope of redemption apart from Christ.

Perhaps this is why many Christian novelists I know seem to feel such affinity with writers of secular horror stories—Stephen King, Dean Koontz—or writers of fantasy—J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling: Those writers are free to name the evil—to show it, rather than simply tell it. Always a difficult task for writers who oppose evil and have no wish to glorify it. But then—those are the people I would most trust with the task.

I’m sure I’m not the only writer who, careful of words, sometimes pauses in choosing them—for instance, do I say, “Have a good day,” or “Have a nice day”? But I’m rarely puzzled, these days, over which of those two words to use; I see them as very different. There’s nothing wrong, necessarily, with being nice. But neither is it enough. Good is much larger, and much more powerful. Good is what opposes evil. And sometimes, to be good, you have to discard niceness. I try to be nice—when I can. But, in writing fiction and in life, there is a time to forget niceness and become a warrior for good—a warrior who has no time for distinctions about nice.

Evil exists. And I mean true evil—not simply lack of niceness, but the true absence of goodness. It exists in hell, on the face of the earth, and in the human heart. Would God have subjected Jesus to the suffering of the cross if our worst sins were that we were rude to each other and cheated on our taxes?

In our own stories, let us leave no doubt why Carol’s father went to prison. Let us make sure our readers feel the horror of it in their bones. Let our stories be good—even when the truth they speak is not nice.

Dave Lambert is a novelist, an editor, and author of the fiction curriculum for the Christian Writer's Guild.


At 2:11 AM, Blogger lisa said...

Well spoken, Dave. Just had to eliminate a "murder/suicide" and a couple of rides on the "all the night Grayhound" and I feel all the sadder for it, truth be told.

At 7:29 AM, Blogger S. A. Miller said...

"...there is a time to forget niceness..." I could almost see Aragorn strapping on his gloves. A good man, yes, but not very nice with a sword.

I wonder sometimes if I can be a good fiction writer. I've been a Christian all my life, have had a good life, and not much acquainted with evil. But I struggle with being nice. Maybe I'll make it after all.

At 11:28 AM, Anonymous Vasthi said...

I think we do have Chritian novelists who paint evil just as it is- gruesome. Ted Dekker, Frank Peretti, and Nancy Rue's book Antonia's Choice deals with child molestation within the family. These and many other authors have dealt with difficult, ugly, evil topics yet each one has made God's redeeming light shine all the more brighter because of the darkness present.

At 12:00 PM, Blogger ~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Great post, Dave. We Christian novelists do constantly walk that balance beam of how much evil to portray.

But it's changing, perhaps especially for us suspense authors. (Seems to me this genre has changed more rapidly than just about any other in Christian fiction.) When I wrote Dead of Night two years ago, I turned it in thinking, "Oh, man, I have gone over the edge here. They're gonna bean me for sure." Yet I ended up changing very little of the ranting serial killer's POV. Now, just two years later, I wouldn't even balk at writing that character. Two books later I wrote Violet Dawn (not released yet.) I was halfway through the story before I released it had just about everything in it--drug use, child neglect, child abuse, murder, rape. Sheesh. On the surface, it sounds like a secular novel. But the trick is how these things are handled. There's a way to portray them, with all their evil, without leaving your reader in the mud.

I am sorry to see (from her comment) that some of Lisa's stuff was edited out. Lisa's work is so respected. I wonder if it's simply the difference in genre. ?? Lisa, come on over to the dark side. You can kill all the people you want. :)

At 9:44 PM, Anonymous Kiwi said...

Fantastic post, Dave.

There have been many topics on how evil should be depicted over on Ted Dekker's forum recently.

This thread sums up most of what has been discussed:

At 9:45 PM, Anonymous Kiwi said...

We'll try that again:

At 3:32 PM, Anonymous Kritsy Dykes said...

I'm late commenting. Thanks for the great post, Dave. I applaud those who feel called to write The Dark and Evil (I'm assuming that's why they do it). I enjoy promoting all genres of Christian fiction and buy and give away copies when I discover people's reading tastes, even The Dark and Evil.

But here's another side of the coin. I don't read or write The Dark and Evil. I guess I'm like Norman Rockwell who said, "I just painted life the way I would like it to be. Maybe I unconciously decided that, even if it wasn't an ideal world, it should be." An editor once rejected one of my Yet to Be Published Novels by saying, "This reminds me too much of Cinderella or Pretty Woman" (The All is Roses Ending, I think she was referring to)." Well, hello? Those two stories were PRETTY popular. Thank you, ma'am, for the compliment.

As a mother and grandmother and Christian All Her Days (got saved in the womb), and as a Pastor's Wife Concerned for the Souls of People, let me implore you Dark and Evil Writers to be led by the Lord in every sentence, scene, sequel, chapter, and book you write. Envision readers Out There, and how your writing will affect them. If you're writing a certain scene just to push the envelope or titillate, please resist the urge (in my opinion).

In your post, you talked about showing and telling. I think that's the KEY to writing The Dark and Evil, only in this order: TELL NOT SHOW (in some parts, I'm meaning). Yes, the Bible says David committed adultery with Bathsheba, but the Bible doesn't take us into the bedchamber. Yes, it says David cut off Goliath's head, but IT SAYS DAVID CUT OFF GOLIATH'S HEAD. It doesn't show us the severed carotid arteries (like CSI does).

Keep thinking TELL NOT SHOW in certain scenes. When I was an impressionable teenager, my mother put Catherine Marshall's Christy in my hands. (I've adored it ever since.) One day I said to my mother, "This girl in the book got raped, and a preacher raped her, and she got pregnant, and she had a baby out of wedlock," and my sweet, saved, spirit-filled mother just about had a heart attack. "What?" she exclaimed. "This wonderful, wholesome, Christian story by Catherine Marshall, the epitome of saved, spirit-filled authors, would have something like THAT in her book? I TRUSTED the most important thing in life to me (me, her daughter), to Catherine Marshall." Of course when my mother read the portion of Christy I was talking about, there was no problem. I, personally, am thankful Catherine made that a telling scene instead of a showing one.

Back to The Dark and Evil. To each his own, as they say. Different strokes for different folks. All writers are different. But as writers in our market (CBA Fiction Market, or Christian Fiction Market, or Fiction from a Christian Worldview Market, or Fiction That'll We Hope Will Cross Over and Make Us Some Big Bucks, or Fiction that Doesn't Fit Neatly into CBA Fiction Standards but It's Still Published By "Christian" [Whatever That Means, Anybody Know What That Means?] Publishers--however you want to slice it and dice it and dissect it and label it or refuse to label it, Dave Long :) [my Bravery Quotient is high this morning]), I feel (again, just my opinion) that we have a greater responsibility to readers than say, a Stephen King. We've experienced The Light (hopefully). We are called to a higher purpose. We will stand before God one day and give account as to our part in causing "little ones to stumble." Let us keep that uppermost in our minds as we write, no matter what our chosen genre.

Just some food for thought. God bless you each and everyone, as little crippled Tim said.

Posted by Kristy Dykes to Charis Connection at 2/04/2006 08:44:32 AM


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