The Debate on PG-13 Content in Christian Fiction

There’s a heated debate going on in the CBA book blogging world about adult content in Christian fiction, particularly language. People have been blogging about this for a while, but the spotlight on this issue brightened considerably with the publication of Becky Wade’s My Stubborn Heart in May. I haven’t read the book, but reportedly it pushes the boundaries of what is considered acceptable language in Christian fiction. It contains words such as “crap,” “pissed,” “boobs,” and “balls” (referring to male anatomy). One reviewer also complained about instances of playing poker for money, designer name-dropping, Halloween observation, and characters practicing yoga. (I guess she would also be be scandalized if she saw me pulling out my yoga mat or distributing tootsie roll pops to mini Darth Vaders on Halloween…)

Shortly after the book’s release, popular blogger and Christian fiction author Mike Duran published a blog post applauding publisher Bethany House for “going against the grain of conventionality” and said he hopes “other Christian publishers will eventually follow suit.” Of course, there was bound to be a major rebuttal, and it came from Mark at Thoughts of a Sojourner in late June. Mark stated that he is “disturbed by this trend, and disturbed by those who defend it.” He went on to lament the direction Christian fiction is heading, saying, “If there is cursing in Christian fiction, and God forbid, sex scenes, which will be next–then why have Christian fiction at all?”

I am not offended by cursing in fiction–or any other type of media for that matter–as long as it’s true to the characters, does not disrespect the Lord’s name, and is not held up as a positive thing if it’s being used to degrade a human being. I think Sally Apokedak, commenting on Mike Duran’s post, said it best:

I have nothing against cursing, actually, if it’s not used to demean others. I would never want my children to say, “You’re an a-hole” but I wouldn’t want them to say, “You’re stupid” either. If they say, “I’m sorry I was such an a-hole,” that is perfectly acceptable to me. So it’s not the words I object to, it’s the way we treat others.

It doesn’t really matter to me what the character does. The thing I want to ask myself with every page I write is: Will my readers think this is sinful or fine for a Christian? Am I encouraging my reader to sin? Am I edifying or tearing down?

I think this cuts to the core of the issue, and it also indirectly addresses other types of adult content in Christian fiction, such as sex and violence, neither of which I have a problem with, as long as it’s not overtly gratuitous or presented in such a way that it encourages readers to sin.

The bottom line is that someone is always going to have a problem with the content of Christian fiction. For Mark, it’s salty language. Christian bookstores readily sell books that contain such language, but reject books that contain direct references to female anatomy (a double standard since male anatomy does not receive the same treatment). Then there are people like Russell Moore who take it ten steps further and actually try to compare Christian romance novels with pornography. I don’t think it’s worth getting all worked up over. If you are offended by a book than contains PG-13 content, then put it down and pick up something else.

What do you think about adult content in Christian fiction? Where do you draw the line between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable?

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  1. Kirstin says

    I think that Francine Rivers handled adult content beautifully in “Redeeming Love.” This issue seems to fall in the category of “disputable matters” (see Romans 14). I really don’t understand mocking others’ positions or sensitivities.

  2. says

    As a reader who actively avoids Christian fiction for a variety of reasons, it is interesting to read the differing viewpoints. Personally I have a high tolerance for swear words because as I have told my children, they are only words and as long as they are not being used to denigrate others, they only have the power with which we freight them. Honestly, using them constantly takes away their power, minimizes it really and so I try not to sweat it much. And really, the real world and the real people in it are not perfect, many of them curse, and yet as I understand it, our very imperfection is what brings to to need and search for Jesus. Keeping the imperfections out of Christian fiction is unrealistic and makes for a false portrayal of the world.

  3. Darar says

    You people have just made up my mind for me. I was going to aim my books at a Christian market to reach people where they are, but not anymore. If I can’t write realistically I want no part of it.

  4. says

    The Bible is quite clear as to what language is to be used or not. Some people who want to defend their expletives often point to Christ calling the Pharasees a brood of vipers, but that is clearly a category error.

  5. says

    The problem is at its root two-fold.

    First a lot of people pick up Christian fiction for what they won’t find in the book. They want a “clean, safe” reading experience and trust the author and publisher to give them just that.

    Second, it often leaves us with fiction that lacks a certain element of realism. No, let’s not jump to gratuitous sex and cursing, but how about dealing with things in a more realistic manner? I had the word “passion” edited out of my first book even though the context was “Her passion was God.” Aaargh!

    Do we need a rating system within Christian fiction? Is it the faith arc that makes it “Christian” or the omission of those naughty words?

    No easy answers :)

  6. says

    I read Becky Wades book and thought it was really great, it was a tad cheesy and seriously was so wholesome….I get so irritated when people get worked up about stupid stuff, saying balls is not saying the FBomb. Do you know whats the NYT best selling book right now? 50 Shades of Grey, I myself will not read it, but do you know how many women I know in my own church who have read it? TONS…….Sad but true……I think the CBA would do well to let authors have more freedom to make characters more relatable. Im not asking for graphic sex scenes, or a Christian 50, but “real” as in what everyday Christians, people are going through would be amazing to see. Ive actually backed off on Inspy fiction for this very reason, the preaching, the ridiculous unrelatable characters who speak scripture throughout the entire story….that just isn’t what I want to read about in my free time.

  7. says

    This is definitely a topic that has been getting a lot of talk lately! I personally have been raised in a Christian home and have from an early age been taught that if a book has morally wrong content you get rid of it. That being said, I agree with what Jen said about showing how the love of Christ covers a multitude of sins. I think the tactful way to do this is to not actually have the scenes or words in the book but rather allude to them. Such as mentioning that a person cursed but not actually writing the words out or mentioning that a couple had been intimate without giving details. The Bible clearly states that we should not do as the world does: “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” Rom 12:2 “14 I have given them Your word; and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 15 I do not pray that You should take them out of the world, but that You should keep them from the evil one. 16 They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. 17 Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth. ” John 17:13-17 It’s slightly cliche, but true: We are to be in the world but not of the world.

  8. says

    i have to agree totally with what Jennifer said, and some of the others, too. i don’t like reading some ‘non-family value’ based fiction because the sex is to explicit, but then, i also didn’t read Lisa T. Bergren’s River of Time because i don’t like that genre. i would be disappointed if the big name publishers decided to publish novels with crude or explicit sex in them.

  9. says

    This has been on my mind a lot lately. I think it is really important for CF to be REAL. In order for people to come to know the love of Christ, I think it is important to have flawed characters who may curse, have premarital sex, use drugs, or whatever – because that’s LIFE! It needs to be relatable. How else are people going to understand that they are loved and accepted for who they are and what they’ve done? But that they can be forgiven and accepted no matter what because of the grace of our great and amazing God. As long as the characters are portrayed as real and the scenes aren’t just tacked on for shock value, I am whole-heartedly in support of it. I may not win people over with that viewpoint, but I strongly believe it. I mean, Jesus always went to those who needed him (i.e. the woman caught in adultery), so shouldn’t our literature be written toward those who need Jesus, as well?

  10. says

    In many ways I think this is a market decision. There should be some that is very clean because that is what some people want. There should be some that is PG-13, (and some that is rated R) because that is what people want to read.

    What is more important is whether or not the writers are creating art or not. You don’t need bad language or sex to create bad art. But you do need characters to be appropriate to the work.

    I am not completely comfortable with this being a complete market decision. I think publishers can and should have lines that they hold. But I do think that market forces should have some influence.

    • says

      Excellent point about creating art. And I agree that there should be some stuff out there that is clean (particularly for kids), but authors who don’t want there work to be stuffed in that category should still be published by CBA publishers.

  11. says

    It’s a very interesting discussion and I’m inclined to think it comes down to the individual’s discretion/opinion. For me it always depends on context. Often swearing defines a character and the author can use that to help the reader understand the character. I’m not saying it is preferable or necessary, but it works. I’ve read Christian fiction where physical romance seemed to be an every-four-chapters-throw-in-a-make-out-scene sort of decision, but I’ve also read Christian fiction that went so far as to allude to premarital sex, but all in order to tell a beautiful, grace-filled story. Unfortunately its hard to determine what you are going to get before you dive in. But if I feel it crosses the line I stop reading, or if I’m reviewing the book I explore my feelings in my review.

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