On the offensive
The Writers' View, a listserve for Christian's serious about seeking publication, had a discussion last week about edgy writing and controversy.
Several posts picked up a thread on whether writers were more concerned about offending believers or non-believers in CBA, and it seemed more people thought offending believers was the quickest way to get your press run stopped and any printed books shipped back to the publisher. In other words, fear of offending believers seemed to be perceived as the biggest problem.
So, let's talk about what's offensive, and when it's okay to be offensive (and to whom) and when it's just, well, offensive.
I go to a nice gym in a fancy four-star hotel, and several times I've had to tell them to please change the music, because rapper 50 cent (my girlfriend says it's pronounced "fiddy sen") is droning on and on about the candy store and I am entirely grossed out. And I'm someone who has been known to watch the Sopranos, and thus not prissy and prone to be grossed out easily.
A friend of mine went into the local library and saw a free tabloid put out by the local gay community with the headline "Safe Slut" on the cover, with a head shot of a young man. She told the librarian she thought the headline was offensive and that the tabloid should be put under the counter. She was asked to talk to the head librarian, who told her the word "slut" could mean anything, even a bad housekeeper and who was my friend to say people couldn't read that. I guess the mutable definition of slut is the extension of Bill Clinton's "it depends on what the definition of is is."
Television is even worse. I was flipping channels the other night and came across a documentary that contained footage of actual, not simulated, sex acts on the lower cable tier that includes CNN and A&E. Needless to say I remain appalled, but I'm told this is nothing. It's exploded everywhere.
When I open the newspaper each morning, I am slimed with TMI (that's too much information) about the latest incest case or sexual assualt trial with details that previously would only have ever made it into a brownwrapped porn novel.
I get emails with headings that are so disgusting that I shudder. I have had to block certain words, but the weasels get around blocks by mispelling their obscenities and bodily parts. And that's to say nothing about the Viagra and Cialis ads I get.
So, as a writer, I do not want to contribute to this ethos, because it demeans us all. One of the reasons I decided to write for the CBA market was that I was having a hard time finding a novel for vacation reading that wasn't full of obscenities and gratuitous sex and violence. (Of course my main reason was wanting to make a million bucks writing a bestseller--[cue the laugh track].)
I think in some ways the whole smut issue and the never-ending debates about "bad words" or graphic descriptions should appear in a Christian novel are a bit of a distraction to something else that's happening in our society that is far, far more dangerous. We have to be careful we as Christians don't become part of it, because we will end up bearing the brunt of it.
What I'm talking about is the tendency for laws to protect people from being offended, that involve an increasingly subjective view of what's offensive, i.e. you don't have to show me objectively why what I've written or said is offensive, it's how offended you feel that's the measurement.
Some countries like the United Kingdom are looking at developing laws to protect against offending religious groups. Christians might want to jump on this bandwagon because so often the group that gets treated in a highly offensive manner is Christian. In fact, I'd say most of the time it is. And I am offended by things I've seen like a cartoon that showed the new Pope giving a statue of Mary the Heil Hitler salute, or pro-lifers being compared with Nazis and described as anti-women and anti-child.
However, when a U.K. municipality tells a woman to remove her window display of porcelain pigs because they might be offensive to Muslims, and a school board starts removing Winnie the Pooh and Charlotte's Web from its library for the same reason, then many Christians begin to worry that maybe other faiths will be protected by these laws to the point of absurdity, but the Christian faith will not.
The day is coming I believe when any public statement about the exclusive claims about Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior of the world will be deemed offensive, even in North America. Any public defense of the Christian faith that looks critically at any other faith could be deemed hate. And while you as a Christian face real persecution for your faith, your innocently-consumed bacon and tomato sandwich could get you fired.
In Canada, and in other countries, there are hate laws that prevent criticism of gays and lesbians. We have a Catholic bishop facing a human rights complaint for a pastoral letter outlining his Church's teachings on marriage prior to a vote legalizing same-sex marriage, though one of two complaints has since been dropped.
While it may be tempting for Christians to try to use those same laws to protect us from the vitriol and distortions that often appear in the mainstream media, I would caution against seeking government censorship that is more than likely to boomerang and be used against us. Instead, I urge the use of censure, boycotts, speaking up about what offends you, rather than try to get the levers of the state to clamp down.
On the other hand, I wish that Christians would be careful of using their censure-power against other Christians. That's why there is such a fear of offending believers. Boy oh boy are we good at protesting against our own for the use of a word like "naked" in a book.
I had a phone conversation with a scholar recently who told me that freedom of speech and academic freedom were supposed to be inextricably linked to the service of truth. They were not ends in themselves. When they become ends in themselves we see a society deluged with the garbage spewed by the "50 cents" of this world and lies of academics who use their freedom to undermine not only Christianity but the very foundations of our civilization.
The truth is offensive to those who think they can go on offending against it. We have been told in Scripture the truth is a stumbling block, and the stench of death to those who are perishing. I fear that so many of us are worrying about offending other Christians that we're self-censoring. We're worried we won't be perceived as nice enough, or we worry about being accused of being too doctrinaire or confrontational.
Which is not to say I'm giving everyone reading this a license to be a jerk and browbeat people with the four spiritual laws and the Roman Road. Puhleeze!
No. I'm asking you to think about pleasing God and not men, and listening carefully to what He wants you to say and write, with a wholehearted commitment to holiness and obedience.
What offends you? What's the best way to go on the offensive against what offends you? How much does fear of being offensive--to believers or nonbelievers--force you to self-censor? How dangerous do you think all this is?