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I Am (Not) the Judge

An article that won the Editor's choice award.

Today’s post is an article I wrote which won the Editor’s Choice Award at InScribe’s 2022 Fall Conference. It was entitled “I Am (Not) the Judge” and was published in the August 2022 issue of FellowScript Magazine.

I Am (Not) the Judge! – By Tracy Krauss

Hoo-boy. I am taking a deep breath as I begin to write this article because I suspect–nay, I KNOW—there will readers that won’t agree. That is kind of the point. This issue’s theme dovetails smoothly with the last issue on diversity and unity, so hopefully, you’ll keep those two in mind as you read.

Let’s start with the basics. As a Christian, I want to glorify God in everything I do. As a Christian writer, this desire naturally extends to my writing. Does this mean I must include an evangelical plotline in every story? Well, so far for me, all of my novels and novellas do include this element. It is an important part of the message I want to convey. However, I am not convinced this is necessary or even desirable for every writer. C.S. Lewis has been quoted as saying, “We don’t need more people writing Christian books. We need more Christians writing good books.” As a Christian who writes, this is one of my favourite quotes.

At last year’s fall conference, D.S. Martin very eloquently pointed out, “Writers don’t bring glory to God by writing mediocre books.” Glorifying God is less about content and more about attitude. We glorify God when we give our best to Him, continually examining our own practices to make sure we are always learning and growing. I love this concept.

I think we can all agree on this basic tenant. Christian writers should not feel obligated to include the gospel message, thinly veiled allegory, or Bible verses if that isn’t part of their purpose. (Ack! This is a pet peeve of mine in some Christian fiction. Few people remember the exact reference during a conversation, so please don’t include it in the dialogue!) Every piece of writing does NOT need to include a teachable moment. Feel released to simply entertain if that is your motivation. We need good stories that take us places without making us feel like the author is trying to sneak some preaching in.

Philippians 4: 8 gives us a list of topics to dwell on. Whatever is true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, praiseworthy… If one took this verse literally, we’d all bury our heads in the sand. These are the foundations upon which we should build our lives, but it doesn’t mean we ignore everything else. Artists and writers are often called upon to expose things that might make some people uncomfortable. I understand that we might not want to hang certain art on our living room walls, but there is a place for imagery that makes us uncomfortable or that shines a light on certain topics. In other words, art (and writing) do not need to be beautiful to have value or importance.

What about our choice of entertainment? My husband likes investigative crime shows. I admit I enjoy some of them, too, although they sometimes contain too much gore for my taste. My favourite genre is science fiction, which is often portrayed through a lens coloured by evolutionary theory and anti-God sentiment. As a mature Christian, I can separate the error from the entertainment and still enjoy the story.

In fact, I enjoy a good fantasy, which often includes magic and other fantastical elements, and I also genuinely enjoy the adrenaline rush from some paranormal and supernatural thrillers. (A nice way of saying horror.) Does this mean I believe in these things or am at risk by watching/reading them? I don’t think so. I know the truth and the one who sets me free, so I am not frightened, just entertained. Ted Dekker is a Christian author whose speculative themes are on the cusp of horror at times. Some of his work contains Christian references and some don’t. I don’t care. I love his books. And speaking of greats, who doesn’t love Macbeth? It contains witches, murder, magic, and mayhem—but it is so satisfying!

This is why I hesitate to sweep every form of entertainment (and therefore writing) with the Philippians 4:8 brush. Yes, we want to build our lives on truth, honor, excellence etc., but let’s be honest for a moment. Every story needs a villain! Every story needs darkness so that light can shine through! It is the juxtaposition of the opposite trait that makes the godly trait all the more powerful! Here’s my bottom line when it comes to what I watch and read: Is there HOPE at the end of the piece? Even if “good” doesn’t triumph, there has to be a sense of hope that it still could, if that makes sense.

Here is where things might get dicey. For several years I volunteered as a judge for a Christian book award called the “Grace Awards”. It was totally reader-driven because readers nominated their favourite books and had to explain why the book was worthy to be considered. (Friends couldn’t just nominate each other.) Based on sheer numbers, the top three books were chosen in each of several categories and then a panel of three judges would read, discuss, and eventually name a winner. Every year I got asked to lead the team judging the speculative/horror/paranormal category and I always said yes. I knew the organizer, and I genuinely enjoy these types of books, but we often had trouble finding other judges because this is not everyone’s cup of tea.

During that time, I read books containing vampires, demons, shape-shifters, magic, murder, and even a fair bit of hard-core swearing—all by authors who claimed to be Christians. Some of these authors believed that authenticity in speech required using the actual words. While I don’t necessarily agree, I do realize that there has been a societal shift in recent years where words that were not considered acceptable in any circumstance are now mainstream—even among Christian young people.

Before you get all huffy with me, I’m just pointing out the facts. According to these writers, there is a market and a need for such work. I read one series written by a pastor where the “F-bomb” was quite prevalent. (Yes, he was a pastor.) It was a supernatural thriller where the main character, a backslidden Christian, could see into the supernatural realm. He could hear demonic forces planning an attack and it was up to him to prevent the impending disaster. The character was a mess as a Christian, but the story was actually very powerful in that it showed how God can use unlikely people—even a foul-mouthed backslidden Christian. I actually loved the book and I ended up reading the next two in the series. (I guess my time as a public school teacher made me immune to the swearing!) The author explained his reasoning when I asked. He felt that toned-down language would not ring true to the demons who were often the ones using it. Having read the book, it made sense.

I know that not everyone will agree and I respect that. I am not trying to taint anyone’s mind or persuade people to start reading things they aren’t comfortable with. I do believe in context, though. 1 Corinthians 8, which is too long to go into here, is the passage where Paul talks about eating meat sacrificed to idols. Basically, we need to be sensitive to other people’s comfort levels while not becoming a stumbling block just because we feel we have certain freedoms. Each person needs to be reconciled with God on these matters while respecting each other’s point of view.

Here’s another example. Several years ago I met an author in a group called “Edgy Christian Fiction Lovers.” (Back when Ning networks were still a thing.) As some people feel my work is somewhat edgy, this seemed like a good place to find other like-minded authors. Turns out, my work is pretty mild in comparison to some! How about Christian erotica? Yup. There was a sub-group for that. I must admit, that one had me scratching my head more than foul language or horror!

I didn’t venture into that group, but I did read a rather risqué book about a Christian woman who had an affair. The book then followed her ensuing struggle for reconciliation afterward. I wouldn’t say the book was graphic, but it got pretty “hot” in spots, which I skimmed in embarrassment! However, the book turned out to be a very powerful testimony about God’s forgiveness and contained some very evangelistic content. According to her—and her reviews backed this up—there were people out there who needed to hear that God could forgive them, no matter what.

My own personal baseline for what is acceptable can be summed up in this question: Is it gratuitous? (Whatever “it” might be… gore, violence, sexual imagery, swearing…) In other words, is “it” included just for the shock value, or does it actually enhance the story? In my opinion, it must have a purpose beyond just trying to be trendy or meeting a perceived audience’s desires. Gratuitous elements equal lazy writing, in my view. Writing that has staying power needs more substance than that. Christians need to be about writing well if they truly want to glorify God, no matter the content.

Which is a nice way to circle back to the beginning of this article. What about content? I try not to draw lines when it comes to what Christians are allowed to write. I am not the judge. (Well, I was the judge of the Christian horror category, but you get my meaning!) I like to leave that honor to God and each writer’s own conscience.

Published in FellowScript Magazine, August 2022. 

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