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Sunday, November 25, 2012

On Offending Christian Readers

One of the most common arguments for “clean fiction” — i.e., fiction that is not offensive, contains no morally objectionable elements, and is safe for the entire family — is that it doesn’t offend “weaker brothers.” That phrase, and the concept we import to this argument, is taken from several important sections of Scripture.

Jesus warned about putting “stumbling blocks” before the “little ones”  (Luke 17:1-2 NASV) and the apostle Paul cautioned, in two different places
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (I Cor. 8:9 NIV)
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. (Romans 14:13 NIV)
When discussing Christian fiction, the argument for keeping it clean, profanity free, graphically innocuous, and family friendly, often comes back to the “stumbling block” concept.

Sex, language, and violence potentially offends “weaker brothers and sisters.” Therefore, Christian literature should avoid such elements so as to not stumble brethren of another persuasion.

That argument, I assert, is skewed on two different counts — one theological and the other aesthetic.

First, the above Scriptures are not sufficient impetus to make “clean fiction” normative for all Christian literature.

In a fine essay entitled The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother, the author exegetes Romans 14 and concludes that the apostle Paul’s concern is to
“…protect Christian liberty in both directions, liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. This protects the stronger brother from the tyranny of the weaker, and as well diligently warns the stronger brother not to ignore the weakness of the weaker brother and draw him into behavior that is contrary to his conscience.”
Rather than “protect Christian liberty in both directions,” the Christian fiction industry appears to have caved to “the tyranny of the weaker brother.” For the moment we say “this will offend them” or “that will stumble them” and adjust our fiction accordingly, we normalize a specific cultural preference or moral sensibility. Christian liberty must exist in both directions, not just toward those who advocate “clean fiction.” 

The second problem with “the stumbling block argument” and how it’s employed is that it potentially “incapacitates” creativity. The Christian artist who submits to “the tyranny of the weaker brother” is creatively hamstrung.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, once gave a lecture on Flannery O’Connor’s work
Some of her most pungent observations are to do with assumptions about ‘Catholic art’ which insist that such art should be edifying and moral; this, she argues, plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer. (emphasis mine)
It’s safe to say that similar “assumptions” are embodied in today’s “Christian art” debate. An entire industry has formed around the notion that Christian art “should be edifying and moral.”  But like O’Connor’s age, this camp “plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer.” How can a Christian writer really explore the horror and angst and emptiness and transcendence of life while fearful of offending someone along the way?

Rather than restrict themselves to only what is “edifying and moral,” Williams contends the Christian artist
…is precisely someone who cannot rule out any subject matter. ‘The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a new universe…He feels no need to apologise for the ways of God to man or to avoid looking at the ways of man to God’. This imposes on the Catholic writer a dangerous task, since she has to deal with matters that may indeed be ‘occasions of sin’, subjects that expose the worst in humanity. And while ‘to look at the worst will be for [the writer] no more than an act of trust in God’, it may be a source of danger for the reader.
Belief in God, rather than inhibit the writer, forces her to not look away, and makes her “entirely free to observe.” Thus, the Christian artist is “someone who cannot rule out any subject matter.” How contrary to today’s Inspirational market! Rather than crafting stories that may be “a source of danger for the reader” (as in potentially “offending the weaker brother”), we rule out subject matter and insist that “art should be edifying and moral.”

All on the grounds that we might “stumble” someone.

The “stumbling block argument” has been misused far too long in Christian writer’s circles. Of course, the more mature should, on occasion, defer to the weaker brother. I must be careful about my words and conduct in certain situations. However, Christian liberty should exist in both directions — liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. Yet when it comes to Christian fiction, sadly, liberty only extends one way.

* * *
Mike Duran writes supernatural thrillers. He is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin' Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike's novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea  You can visit his website at


  1. Good stuff, Mike.

    And good timing too. I began rereading O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge over the weekend. She was a trues artist, both aesthetically AND theologically sound.

    Nothing wrong with entertainment or escape. But I do wish the CBA would publish titles with a bit more artistic merit.

  2. My feelings exactly. Not everyone writes or reads Amish. Does the CBA realize their future readers...h.s. and college kids... see this all too clearly....and consider most of the writing "cheesy"? The message won't resonate unless the story has raw and real components.

    1. Susan, I have argued similarly that the Christian fiction market is becoming a generational cul-de-sac. While everyone on our "street" is happy, we've not done much to win a new generation of readers. Thanks for commenting!

  3. This also stems from the mistaken notion that Christian fiction writing is somehow a "ministry," resulting in books that are little more than not-very-well disguised tracts. If all you want to do is preach to your own little corner of the choir, go ahead and let yourself be creatively hamstrung. The rest of the world will laugh at you, not because they laugh at Him, but because you misunderstand and box Him up so unnecessarily. :-)

  4. Thought provoking post. Much appreciated - thank you.

  5. Well said.

  6. To use the weaker brother argument also hamstrings the weaker brother. The weaker brother must grow up in the faith, must take responsibility for his actions just like the stronger brother. Making excuses for the weaker brother does nothing to further his growth. Directing the weaker brother to whatever strengthens him in the Lord is not an author's job. Even the weaker brother can determine whether a book of fiction might make him stumble.

    CBA publishers insist they don't want preachy fiction yet they produce it in droves. Some CBA readers complain because a story is preachy, yet some attack those novels that dare to challenge readers with real situations that aren't squeaky clean and easily solved with simple salvation.

    "Clean" fiction is just another excuse to group all tastes into one blanket-type story and to apply the "This is what Christian readers should be reading" label.

  7. Well written article. Many of us have struggled with our natural creative tendencies and having them conform to a certain impression of what Christian fiction should look like. As a younger writer, my hope is that CBA will be a market that speaks to people of my generation, not just through "edgy" plots, but in diversity and acceptance of cultural differences. I'm going to share this on Facebook.

  8. Thank you for saying this! I grew up reading Christian fiction and I'm TIRED of seeing the same heroes/heroines and the same stories with very little realism--another criticism of Christian fiction. Life is tough; people deal with all sorts of issues, complications, and temptations. And like Brandi said above, the church is a diverse body of races and cultures on top of the issues we face as humans. Christian fiction can appeal to many more people, races(even within the Church), and cultures than just its loyal (Christian) following. And if it is a ministry (as many authors claim), then we are only edifying the church.


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