Thursday, November 02, 2006

AD: Bobos in Christian Fictionland

Recently I witnessed an exchange between several published Christian novelists concerning the word, “fart.” Seriously. At first the question was simply whether it would cause an uproar among the core CBA readership (which it might, unfortunately), but as the discussion progressed there was a subtle shift in focus. Some began to wonder if we might need to risk offending the delicate sensitivities of the stereotypical “church lady” in favor of reaching out to a broader audience with more “gritty” fiction that is “edgy” and “pushes the envelope.”

How I wish I was making this stuff up!

It put me in mind of an excellent article by Wilfred McClay in the October 2006 Touchstone about "bobos," an amusing term David Brooks invented for "bourgeois bohemians." You know who they are: the folks who live in 5,000 square foot houses with air conditioned walk-in closets filled with Birkenstocks and sweaters handcrafted by impoverished indigenous people using genuine free-range alpaca wool. Bobos are those bravely counter-cultural martyrs who recycle $50 bottles of wine and pay the price of ten full tanks of gasoline to have their $40,000 hybrid car detailed.

In the piece, McClay writes: "Not so long ago the quest for liberation from social convention carried certain perils. But now we have made that quest into a new social convention in its own right, with its own canons of respectability, such as the routine celebration of books...solely on the grounds that they are "troubling" or "transgressive," qualities now deemed to be peculiarly meritorious in and of themselves, quite apart from their specific content." If I may sum this up in terms a Christian artist should understand: think about starting out to create a “profoundly religious work” and ending up with "Piss Christ."

When I hear Christian novelists and editors talking about using a little profanity here and there in the name of “cultural relevance” I begin to wonder if some of us are suffering from the early stages of this same ridiculous condition. Oh, how brave the vanguard of the march of progress! Let us not allow bourgeois convention to restrain our message! Let us pay the price of relevance and all type “fart” together! Let us all be bobos!


As I’ve written here before, naughty little words in fiction are usually a sign of lazy, superficial writing. Serious authors know that nine times out of ten there is a deeper, more accurate and more compelling way to get the point across. Still, there is always that one time in ten, so in principle I have no problem with using any word for the right reasons. Church ladies notwithstanding, artistic excellence demands we choose the word that's perfect for the work at hand. But it's not art to use naughty little words as a strategy to appeal to a certain kind of reader. It’s propaganda.

And if I may be so bold, it's not even good propaganda. None of the people for whom we wish to become "edgy" give a fart about the word "fart." (You may substitute any other F-word in that sentence and it remains just as true.) Only someone woefully out of touch with the realities of the fallen world would think they were going to gain any points out there that way. If we want to garner respect in the arena of secular fiction and use that respect as a bully pulpit for the Lord, I say it's a wonderful ambition. But we must do it with the undeniable quality of our writing, and for goodness sake we must demonstrate the difference Christ makes in our lives by doing it without superficial descents to the level of the pagan authors everyone outside is already reading.

To those still unconvinced I say take care you do not set out to create novels that are “relevant,” but end up putting images of Jesus into bottles filled with urine. You cannot compete with a pagan when it comes to being "edgy" without ending up looking exactly like a pagan. And what's the point of that?

Athol Dickson, author of River Rising and The Gospel According to Moses


At 12:23 AM, Blogger Kelli Standish said...

Brilliant. Absolutely Brilliant. Thank you for this post!


At 5:42 AM, Blogger Michael Ehret said...

How big of an "Amen" can I lift for that? Thanks.

At 6:50 AM, Blogger Sheryl said...

Athol, thank you for the excellent post and the link to the Touchstone article.

I've always felt that the use of "four-letter" words is often the result of laziness. It's always been a major pet peeve of mine how many comedians get away with making every other word a "F---" word (or the like) and it's called funny. No, it's called lazy.


At 7:07 AM, Blogger matt e. said...

I could not agree more! Bravo and Amen!

At 8:05 AM, Blogger ~michelle pendergrass said...

Wonderful post. Did you know I'm Bohemian? Seriously. I have relatives who came over on "the boat."

So I had to look up a few words, bohemian being one of them to see what other people's definition looks like. I found this: A person with artistic or literary interests who disregards conventional standards of behavior.
Bourgeois is a person belonging to the middle class.

So now, does that make me a pedigree Bobo? I think it does. ;)

I liked this statement you made, "Only someone woefully out of touch with the realities of the fallen world would think they were going to gain any points out there that way." The people we're trying to reach don't even know the real "f" word is a bad word, I'm pretty sure they're not waltzing the aisles of the Christian bookstore looking for the author who dared to say it in a book.

And this: "we must demonstrate the difference Christ makes in our lives by doing it without superficial descents to the level of the pagan authors everyone outside is already reading."

Since I was pagan not too many years ago and still have many pagan friends, they're (we're) not pagan because we say/said the "f" word. Guess what? They think Christians are out of touch.

Go figure.

At 9:16 AM, Blogger Cheryl said...

Outstanding post. Thank you!

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Kristy Dykes said...

I started copying and pasting The Most Brilliant Sections of your post so I could give my comments. Then I realized I'd have to copy and paste your entire post.

Your post struck me in a profound way. I can't even hang words on my feelings. All I can say is, thank you.

At 9:37 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I do like the way you think, Athol. But you already know that! Great post.


At 10:19 AM, Blogger PatriciaW said...

How about two "A" words? Awesome. Amen.

At 11:05 AM, Blogger J. Mark Bertrand said...

Athol, the best description I've ever read of an inveterate cursing sailor is in Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi; it rings with authenticity without being, strictly speaking, authentic. So I agree with the thrust of your argument. Transgressive desires are juvenile and have often reduced art into a kind of offensive stunt. On that point I think you're preaching to the choir and I imagine everyone here would agree with the sentiment (and so far has).

But what I actually find heartening here is your allowance that it's acceptable to use any word for the "right reasons." I would love to hear more about these reasons.

In River Rising, a book I love, you repeatedly use a word that is more offensive in our culture than any f-word. In your post on "Evil in Fiction," you explained: "I used the N-word with deliberate precision in a recent novel because a tiny dose of actual evil at the perfect moment is sometimes just the contrast needed to bring God's love to life." When I first read the book, I'm not sure I took any notice of the usage. (As you say, there's nothing transgressive, in the larger context, about transgression in CBA.) Later, though, thinking about the CBA context, it seemed like a maverick choice. (I also wondered, I'm sorry to say, what it says about the industry that this word could get through while other, milder ones can't.) But I think you made a correct, justified artistic decision.

Isn't it possible that, rather than seeking to pander to an imagined audience through immature acts of transgression, other authors in CBA and on its fringes are seeking to make similar, justified choices? Maybe we've just run across an entirely different set of people, but the authors I've heard making the case for such things (as Eric Wilson did in the comments to your last post) are also pursuing the "right reasons," seeking not so much transgression as verisimilitude -- and trying to achieve it not through excess but by the same suggestive small doses you've employed yourself.

At 11:22 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Any time a Christian thinks he can make a difference to the world by "appearing" like the world, he's lost his focus. Jesus is the Savior, God draws the lost however He chooses by His Holy Spirit. Not by our sneaked in cuss words, or our crude references, or our "friendship with the world which is hatred toward God".
Thank you for explaining this point with excellence. Show the world, don't imitate it. Compassion and mercy don't come in the form of compromise.
Knowing your audience has nothing to do with writing to please them--it has everything to do with being faithful to the story God has given a person to write.
Amen, brother.

At 11:37 AM, Blogger Heather said...

First of all, the bobos description makes me laugh.
I would agree that to use gratuitous language just for the sake of being "relevant" is superficial. What is relevant today is not relevant tomorrow. Doystoyevsky is not relevant, but he is, all at the same time.
However, I would argue that the use of language has everything to do with being true to your character, with telling the truth, even if it is ugly, in our books. Sometimes this means racism and using the "n" word. Sometimes it means writing about rape. Sometimes it means using language that the church ladies would not use.
Besides that, I would ask, what is so wrong about curse words, anyway? Is it not more the attitude behind the word? The temper or the name-calling? So if we want to draw a line to exclude curse words, why not draw the line the exclude the driving force behind the word?

At 5:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, Mark, I love you for loving RIVER RISING! And I think we are in complete agreement on everything you wrote here except perhaps the extent of the problem. You asked, “Isn't it possible that, rather than seeking to pander to an imagined audience through immature acts of transgression, other authors in CBA and on its fringes are seeking to make similar, justified choices?” Of course I strongly agree that it’s possible. It’s more than possible, I know for a fact it’s true in the case of several other authors’ works in progress at this very moment. But apparently we do run in different circles as you said, because I really don’t think I’m preaching to the choir.

I hear a lot of writers saying it ought to be acceptable for characters to curse in Christian fiction because some people really do that in real life, and “honest art” demands we show those people “as they really are.” I know you understand the fallacy in that very well, Mark, but I do hear a lot of complaining from published and aspiring authors who don’t seem to understand the distinction between being “speaking a reader’s language” literally and metaphorically.

In case any of them are reading this, let me set aside for a moment the highly debatable question of whether showing someone cursing reveals very much about who they really are, and get to the question of where these people’s “realism” line of logic ends. Consider: if a character digests food, must we show his every bowel movement?

It just seems to me that’s where such logic leads. It betrays a simplistic understanding of the novelist’s job. One of the beauties of the novel as an art form is the fact that it inspires imagination. We are not photorealists, seeking to duplicate an arbitrary snapshot perfectly in an homage to our own craftsmanship, we are impressionists, digging deep beneath the surface by making telling choices about where the reader stands and what she sees and hears from there.

Back to you, Mark. You said you'd like to hear some more on the "right reasons" to use language that might offend a “church lady.” Okay. I can think of only two. You already mentioned one of them: for shock value as a way of penetrating a reader’s entrenched blindness, apathy or hypocrisy, as I tried to do in RIVER RISING. This is something O’Connor wrote about in one of those MYSTERY AND MANNERS essays we all love. The other good reason is when there is no better way to get deep into the essence of a character or a story. But how many characters or stories can be most accurately defined by their cursing? I can think of fewer such scenarios than I can think of people who seem to want to type naughty little words into their novels, and that is why I felt the need to preach a little. Thanks for putting up with it.

At 1:05 AM, Blogger Malissa said...

Excellent post. This applies to much more than a writer. All Christians in their daily life need to listen to your advice.
Thanks for sharing.

At 9:59 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the great post. Our church just read Bobos in Paradise and i am starting a D.Min. in the Spring focused on the Mainline response to the Urban Bobo's AKA Cultural Creatives, and Creative Class. Good and accessible insights, thanks!

At 4:07 PM, Blogger T. E.George said...

Thank you for your insight on language in Christian fiction. A review at Amazon of a recent release of a very popular Chritian fiction author applauded his use of the word "ass" and "crap". Had they been applauding him for using the word at just the right time (as you indidcate) that would have been one thing. No! This reviewer was just thrilled those words had been used at all in Christian fiction. Their reasoning being it made Christian fiction more appealing to the masses. Oh my.

In relation to River Rising ... I think the single most profound and daring phrase in any fiction in some time was, "Jesus was a nigger." Those words have haunted and fascinated me at the same time. And no one has seemed to more appreciated their power than friends of mine who are African American.


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