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Friday, April 11, 2014

The Stories God Loves Most

by Allen Arnold

Imagine you are invited to a dinner party where the host is known for telling great stories. You can learn a lot about a host by the stories he chooses to tell around the table. Does he enjoy stories that make everyone laugh? Do his stories call out a sense of nobility or make the room blush? Do they stir up a spirit of hope or more a sense of dread and fear?

One day, we will be gathered at the most amazing banquet feast ever. The book of Revelation calls it the Wedding Feast of the Lamb. And you can be sure that there will be endless stories shared by the King.
 What kind of stories do you think he will tell first?

What kind of stories do you think he loves most?

Just as the host of a dinner party has his favorite stories, do you think God loves certain types of stories more than others?

I believe he does.

In Philippians 4:8 – 9 (The Message), Paul offers amazing clarity on this issue: “Summing it all up, friends, I’d say you’ll do your best by filling your minds and meditating (I invite you to add “creating” here too) on things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse. Put into practice what you learned from me, what you heard and saw and realized. Do that, and God who makes everything work together, will work you into his most excellent harmonies.”

I believe this contains the DNA of what God loves for us to focus on in our lives and in our stories.

We are told pretty clearly to meditate on the good, the beautiful, and things to praise. And we’re told to avoid the worst, the ugly, and things to curse.

But how can you tell a story with no conflict, no villain, no danger?

Our world is filled with both.

Our life is filled with both.

God isn’t asking us to ignore the fallen world we live in. His stories in the Bible certainly don’t. They are gritty, real, and raw. Even so – notice how these Bible stories show reality without glorifying gratuitous sex or violence. Notice how good is clearly good and evil is clearly evil. We aren’t thrust inside the head of a serial killer to better understand his motive. God doesn’t describe Eve in the garden without clothes in a provocative manner so we can more fully appreciate her beauty.

I’m convinced that we’ve become a more voyeuristic culture who expects to see almost anything in the name of entertainment. Many Christians now believe a well-told story trumps the ingredients of the story. Not only have we grown more comfortable with darker entertainment in the past decade, we now embrace it on the bases of the nuanced plots and characters. In other words, a well-told story trumps what’s actually in the story.

In the name of realism (voyeurism) – movies and many television shows keep the camera on when a couple (almost never married) is engaged in sexual situations. Beyond that being something we simply don’t need to do we rationalize actors filming semi-nude sex scenes with other actors for our visual entertainment? Would we feel comfortable watching the same scene we watch on our home screens if they were acted out in a local play where our neighbors recreated these intimate moments on a stage a few feet from us with other neighbors who weren’t their spouses? If not – why are we ok watching it at all?

We have become numb by watching shows and listening to music that has grown increasingly crass, violent and sexualized. How is it edifying to watch zombies mutilate and slaughter humans? Why does almost every detective show now feature a serial killer or rapist or torture scene? We cannot put these images in our mind, call it entertainment and not think it will infect our creativity.

We hear artists praise edgy stories and lift up “pushing the envelope” as authentic. But what are we pushing towards? What are we riding on the edge of? And why does this almost always lead to darker, more graphic content?  Proverbs 11:27 states “The one who seeks good finds delight. The student of evil becomes evil.”

Most writers are convinced that villains are more fun to write (or to play as an actor) than heroes. In a recent cover story in Entertainment Weekly, a producer of the upcoming Spiderman movie remarked: “Great villains are the characters you remember. There’s a lot of us in those people...Hey, it’s hard to identify with people who are good all the time.”

I get what he is saying. In superhero movies, you certainly need a worthy villain. But what we need even more are heroes who are genuinely good and far from boring. Heroes who aren’t riddled with doubt but who stand for “things true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious”.  What does it say about us that our fascination goes more towards what makes a person bad than what makes a soul good? We have to be careful here, because our enemy is fallen and he loves fallen stories where hope is gone and there are no true heroes.  He’s consumed with himself and convinced he is more interesting than God.

Do we really need more dark, horror or suspense novels written by Christians to remind us that we live in an evil world? That’s a bit like saying we need pornographic novels with graphic sex scenes to remind us (by novel’s end) of God’s call to sexual purity. I think we all pretty much get that we live in a fallen world. Filling our minds with hundreds of pages of graphic violence, torture, and evil simply to end with the truth that God wins is like taking a bath in a tub of excrement just to shower at the end so we remember what clean feels like. I’d rather stay clean to begin with. We don’t need Christians creating art that is meant – by design – to cause us to mediate on death, fear and darkness. That doesn’t seem life-giving to readers...or to those who spin these tales in their heads.

It’s your job to make an audience as excited and fascinated about a subject as you are.” says Actor and Comedian Ricky Gervais. Let’s make sure the subjects that fascinate us are also fascinating to God.

It’s good to ask yourself if the stories you watch and the stories you write align with the Philippians 4:8 – 9 model. Is there a major theme of hope that permeates these stories? When readers look into the mirror of your books – what do they see?

As I said, you learn a lot about a dinner host by the stories he chooses to tell around the table.

The same holds true for authors.


  1. Allen,

    Really loved this. Very timely word and graciously said. Although, I'm sure not every one will be a fan. It does seem like we've crossed some invisible line in the past few years. I've been pretty surprised at the kinds of TV shows and movies many Christians are willing to watch nowadays.

    Especially the younger generation. Things we would've considered far too extreme and dark to even consider when I was their age. For all the reasons you said.

    The Bible says "God has called us out of darkness into his marvelous light," not to hang about in the middling shadows. Once in the shadows, as our eyes get more adjusted to the dimmer light, we're not too far away from becoming totally comfortable with the darkness.

    This drift doesn't happen overnight. The pace is often so slow those adrift hardly take notice of the distance they've covered. I was thinking about a Lot, Abraham's nephew. When he and Abraham part, Abraham lets him choose where he wants to go. Lot chooses to "pitch his tents toward Sodom." But where do we see him next time? He's smack dab in the middle of Sodom, his soul in serious moral decline.

    Thanks for pointing us toward the top of the hill. That's where the light shines brightest.

    1. Fixing a little typo the paragraph I mentioned Lot, I said "a Lot." LOL. Oh well...

    2. Hi Dan - thanks for the excellent thoughts and scriptures. I appreciate how your novels don't shy away from themes of good and evil. You deal with the harsh realities of life…but always in a way where the major themes point readers to what is "true, noble, reputable, authentic, compelling, gracious – the best, not the worst; the beautiful, not the ugly; things to praise, not things to curse." - Allen

  2. As Dan mentioned above, I am not a fan of this post with the qualifier that I am a fan of Phil. 4:8-9. However, with the mindset that everyone can only love and obey this scripture and all others by writing one basic way, you've just shot down the likes of Steven James, Robert Liparulo, even Brandilyn Collins to name a very few. Meditation on this scripture and the entire Word is what we need to survive and cleanse our minds from the filth of this world. We now have legal marriage between two men and two women, babies carved out the womb and stabbed in the brain at birth and left to die in butcheries known as Planned Parenthood clinics - and people in the highest offices in the land saying yes, these are perfectly acceptable. These are not fiction, but they are real life examples of demonic influence and activities.

    Some people should definitely not read some fiction that takes a hard look at evil, but classifying all those authors who write redemptive fiction which includes some bona fide evil as being in opposition to this and other scriptures is like taking a hammer to fine china because it's called "bone" china.

    This typifies the over-reaching commentary on "clean and chaste" Christian fiction being the only "biblically" acceptable kind of fiction. "Escape from this world" reading and opting for the sweet and lovable is fine, but it doesn't work for everyone. I totally disagree with this premise that in order to believe in this often-used scripture to point to the evils of supposedly edgy Christian writing, an author must write a certain way. And lest you think I support graphic sex in novels or on screen, all graphic violence, etc., I don't. But I do support the authors who do their best to portray evil in all of its forms to give the reader a true contrast in the purity and beauty of redemption through Jesus Christ.

    1. Hi Nicole - I really appreciate your thoughtful response. I am friends with many of the authors you reference and highly respect them. I'm just raising the issue that extreme gore and violence in some Christian Fiction seems to align more with the darker popular entertainment trends than what Scripture encourages us to meditate on. I think discussing issues like this can lead to "iron sharpening iron" and help us wrestle through tough topics that impact the reader and the writer.

      I agree with you that there isn't (and shouldn't be) one basic way to write. While publisher of Thomas Nelson Fiction, I oversaw more than 500 novels that covered the waterfront in terms of diverse plots and genres. There are endless ways stories can address the realities of our world and the struggle between good and evil without resorting to either gratuitous violence and gore or sweet saccharine stories. That's why in my post I say: "God isn’t asking us to ignore the fallen world we live in. His stories in the Bible certainly don’t. They are gritty, real, and raw. Even so – notice how these Bible stories show reality without glorifying gratuitous sex or violence. Notice how good is clearly good and evil is clearly evil. We aren’t thrust inside the head of a serial killer to better understand his motive. God doesn’t describe Eve in the garden without clothes in a provocative manner so we can more fully appreciate her beauty."

      As our world's entertainment culture gets darker, we need to offer higher, better stories where the light shines brighter. The sky is the limit on ways to do that. But the light can get pretty dim in novels that spend far more pages with "evil in all its forms" than the good Scripture tells us to meditate on and grow in. It is a slippery slope where being edgy (on the edge) isn't always the place to be.

      I don't think we're in total disagreement - but t's ok if we agree to disagree on some aspects. I appreciate your thoughts and the chance to have conversations like this on Novel Rocket. I wish you the best in your writing!

      - Allen

    2. Nicole, I'm not sure what I'm about to say will help clarify or muddy the waters further. I would agree with you that confronting the kind of evil we see in the news today should not be considered taboo, or off-limits for Christian fiction writers. I believe it's entirely possible that God would call certain people to address such things head-on.

      The Bible says there is "nothing new under the sun." I think this includes the depths of evil we're beginning to see more and more in modern society. It's shocking and new to those of us raised in the "Leave It to Beaver Years," but not new to history, or even biblical history.

      For example, I remember reading about how some of the nations Israel faced in the OT had a practice of burning their babies alive in the presence of (and to satisfy) their false god. That's pretty sick.

      I think what Allen's talking about is not taking an either/or approach. It's more a question of degrees. How far do we have to go in our writing (read: how graphic do we need to be) to portray evil in our stories? How much time and effort and energy do we need to apply to the dark side, to the villains, to be credible? How far is too far (and for some there such a thing as too far)?

      On the other side of the scale, do we spend as much time portraying and defining the "narrow road that leads to life" in our story? In other words, crafting the hope and redemption side of the equation.

      I've noticed a growing trend in modern movies, especially those made by younger directors, to really play up evil and the dark side of things, and the story ends pretty much in that vein. I've had lively discussions with some millennial's about this, because they seem to have no problem with it. The goal is no longer for good to conquer evil, because they don't see that happening in the real world anymore. A happy ending, even a hopeful one, to them is unrealistic.

      But to me, if Christian writers follow that trend in an effort to connect with the culture more effectively, aren't we missing the point? Missing the opportunity to redirect people's attention to the narrow way out of this mess?

      Just some thoughts.

    3. Dan, I agree with your perspective. However, my point isn't addressed to those whose focus is to "connect with the culture more effectively". My point is to challenge the premise that God loves the stories which substantially "bypass" evil in favor of noble, etc. I think, as I stated in reply to Allen's comment, God loves the stories He tells a writer to write. Contrast is essential to genuine redemption. I'm a bit (probably more than a bit, sigh) older than you and grew up in not only the Leave It to Beaver era, and who didn't hate Eddie Haskell (sp.?), but the "drugs, sex, rock 'n' roll" era as well. Evil had a rejuvenation period in that era, and I didn't know Jesus yet. (I wrote a recent blog post about it if you're remotely interested.) Because of the obvious growing decay in our world, authors can be charged with portraying evil in specific ways. CBA publishers don't have to "like" how its done, but let's face it here: Steven James, Robert Liparulo, Brandilyn Collins, etc., sell books so they sort of put their nicey-nice pulpit commentary on hold to publish those novels with some graphic violence in them because they recognize some readers enjoy redemptive messages in messy packaging. (And, yes, I'm one of them.)

      I'm not advocating readers who can't abide by these stories to read them, but I'm certainly not going to say they aren't written in obedience to the Lord. And, while I know Allen isn't advocating for cliché, so many of CBA novels in recent times have become that way. Predictable and formulaic, "safe" is their favorite word. And if that's what pleases anyone as a reader, I'm all for those books being available. But to presume that all readers should - and God Himself - prefer those novels over any others? No.

  3. I wrote a long post, but it somehow disappeared, so I'll take it as a sign that a short comment is better. ;-) I don't really agree or disagree with this article, I just have some thoughts.

    If we are Christians, we are inspired by God, right? By its very definition, inspirational fiction has hope as one of its themes. I can't remember any Christian fic novel I've read in the last couple of years that did not have threads of hope, whether they were sweet romances or suspense or spec fic. I can't remember the last Christian fic novel that was filled with hundreds of pages of gratuitous violence or sex. I don't think I've ever read many that come close. Perhaps one. Nobody forced me to read it.

    Since the salvation experience - the "who a person is before Christ and who they are after" is different with each person, then why should we be troubled when some stories are darker than others? Indeed, some of us came from dark places before Christ redeemed us.

    Hundreds of pages of gratuitous violence and graphic sex, imo, is lazy writing. If a writer needs to resort to that, then they might want to sharpen their skills. So I agree, that style of writing is not necessary to tell a good story - in any type of fiction.

    Redemption is an incredibly complex, intense, dramatic story. To inspire means: "to affect, guide, or arouse by divine influence."

    I have to trust that Christian fiction writers are divinely influenced and inspired to write what they write. If some stories are too intense and graphic then a gentle reader might want to avoid reading them.

    Isn't our writing divinely inspired and our Christian worldview so ingrained in us that we cannot help but show it on the page?

    Why suggest an author write to a standard that you or I decide is God's favorite way of telling a story? Doesn't the author get to decide that - through prayer and seeking God's will for his/her writing?

  4. Amen, Suzan.

    My question, Allen, is those authors I mentioned who are your friends write some graphic violence. Steven James has several demonic villains, probably as dark as any you'll read in secular fiction. One of his objectives is to show these dark places can exist in any of us so how do we escape them in ourselves. His work is much too scary for the sweet little romance crowd. And the sweet little romance readers are generally not men. And I don't want to hear how most men don't read fiction. All the Type A men I know read fiction when they have time to read at all. Robert Liparulo's novels often give pictures of violence and evil villains, usually sociopaths or psychopaths. Brandilyn Collins sometimes writes through (as does Steven James) the eyes of her villains. So how do you reconcile these examples to your premise title when these authors are writing the stories God has for them to tell - as Suzan suggested?

    And how about Bathsheba bathing on the roof when David liked what he saw and sent for her to fulfill his lustful leanings. Not graphic but sensual and sexual. How about when a female was chopped up and body parts were sent to certain people to deliver a message? And Tamar's rape?

    We are told to meditate on the good and noble to remind ourselves that the world has always been dirty, evil, violent, and perverted from the moment of the Fall. But God has always been Holy, Truth, Life, and Love. The extreme contrast is a story worth telling.

    And what about the self-righteous readers who ignore the redemptive message and beautiful Christian story because of a couple of words and one reference they didn't "approve" of? Their vocal and written outrage shows up in publishers' emails and on Amazon 1-star reviews.

    I think "the stories God loves the most" are those written in obedience to Him, and whatever those stories include might surprise all of us. I don't think it's our job to determine (judge) what those stories are. As writers and readers, it's our job to write what He has for us and to read what He has for us. As Suzan said, nobody forces us to read any of the books we choose.

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my passionate reply to your post. This really is a sore subject for me - and actually many other Christian writers.

  5. I guess it all depends on whether you are inspired to portray the world as it is in all its depravity and ugliness, and how the Christian life is different, or if you are inspired to write a sanitized version of the world, perhaps leave the ugliness of the world out altogether, and how the Christian life can be even better with Jesus.

    And who gets to decide how much ugly to depict? Is it the reader who leaves a poor review because an author used a word like "whore?" Or is it a reader who thinks there should be more words like whore? I think that the writer gets to decide what to write, because God speaks to their heart. Somewhere, somehow, there may be someone out there who is leading a depraved, horrible life and can relate. - Suzan

    1. Sorry, didn't finish my thought or edit. There may be someone out there who is or was leading a depraved, horrible life, and can relate to who they were before and who they are now in Christ, or who they want to be in Christ.

  6. I thnk the writer of the post nails this issue on the head. It seems to me that Christians rolling around in a pig sty to illustrate that pigs are filthy seems pretty self-defeating. We live in an age of increasing evil, and we want to explore that evil - in minute detail? When do Christians cross the line? Ancient Israel had people with one foot in the worldview of the Bible, and one in the worldview of their pagan neighbors - and God swept them away for their sin. Shouldn't we try avoiding a similar fate?

  7. Anonymous, you insinuate that portraying sin as sin (without the emphasis on graphics) is sin. Can't agree. Contrast speaks volumes. And, frankly, it isn't for you or anyone else to determine for an author what "crossing the line" is in fiction. Sin speaks for itself and when written well without glorification doesn't mean the author or the reader is "rolling around in a pig sty". This assumption that an author has one foot in the world or is straddling the fence with sin when portraying some of the harsher realities of life in story is so far off the mark, it borders on self-righteousness.


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