Controversial Issues: Engage or Avoid?

Mary Keeley

Blogger: Mary Keeley

Most writers and bloggers are averse to broaching controversial issues. We would prefer to avoid polarizing subjects because we want to be popular, and writers surely don’t want to lose followers, especially readers. But the truth is people love controversy. We only have to recall the newsy items our eyes were drawn to on our browser this morning for confirmation. This topic came to my attention from several different directions this week, prompting me to bring it up with you for discussion today.

Sooner or later you will face conflicting views in comments on your blog or among your social media followers. Maybe in reviews of your books too. Youcontroversial-topic might be challenged to defend your faith and the Christian worldview you weave into your books. Is avoiding polarizing issues altogether the best course of action? If so, your book might be received as a pleasant respite from all the real-time wrangling. On the other hand, avoidance of contentious issues of the day in both historical and contemporary fiction or in your nonfiction book may render your book irrelevant. A book that doesn’t relate accurately to the world your readers live in or want to learn about may have a short lifespan.

God gives us direction in the fifth chapter of the Book of Matthew. Since he never does anything without purpose, it is noteworthy that Jesus follows his teaching on the Beatitudes with verses declaring we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He admonishes us to not lose our saltiness or hide our light under a bushel.

In other words, we are to engage rather than avoid. Embracing tough issues may actually enrich your book and enlighten readers. A successful example is Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol. Using his own demeaning experiences as a child and his compassion for the poor, Dickens wanted this story to illuminate their plight. He found a perfect way to accomplish this: contrast the devastation of poverty and injustice on children with the happy traditions surrounding Christmas. That heartwarming season in Old England provided a plausible opportunity for a redemptive conclusion. This little, emotion-packed story not only influenced social reforms, but the book has never been out of print. Proof that, if done well, books that engage with controversial issues can have long-term success.

“If done well” is the tricky qualifier. Here are some tips on how Christian writers can be salt and light as you engage in controversial subjects, without offense to other viewpoints on an issue.

  • Use a journalistic approach in your nonfiction book. Ease into your discussion by presenting all sides of the conflict evenly and without bias. Your readers will sense you are fair and trustworthy.
  • Offer thought-provoking insight. Approach the topic from a different angle or by using anecdotal or personal experience on the subject to prompt readers to view the controversy from a perspective they might not have thought of before. Charles Dickens did this brilliantly in The Christmas Carol.
  • Create characters on all sides of the controversy that readers can sympathize with. It shows you are respectful of others’ views. Readers will want to continue reading to learn and understand. Be salt and light, but in humility and kindness.
  • Be the voice of reason. Adopt a peacemaker approach.
  • Humor eases tension. A witty comment that pokes harmless fun at the whole topic often serves to reduce the stress of the moment. But be sure the object of your fun relates to the topic and not those holding the opposing view.

If you have found yourself in the middle of a discussion on a controversial topic, what did you do? Do you have any tips to add to the list? Name a literary classic or a more contemporary book that deals with a controversial topic. How well do you think the author handled it?

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