Blogger: Mary Keeley
Unless you’re an ostrich or a hermit it’s been impossible to ignore the plethora of cultural differences being expressed this year. Opposing worldviews are at the root of the divergence. Michael Boyle, Associate Professor of Pastoral Studies at Moody Theological Seminary (Moody Bible Institute), gave our Sunday school class eight charges on how Christians should engage with today’s culture. He was gracious to grant me permission to share them with you because the applications for Christian writers are important.
We shouldn’t be shocked that Christians are now a minority group in our once Judeo-Christian country. The Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Timothy 4:3–4 are more current today than ever before: “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
Paul prefaced his warning in verses 1–2: “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
The implication for Christian writers today is to engage with the culture in ways that draw readers toward Christ rather than giving them a reason to accuse us of being hypocrites, intolerant, and judgmental. It’s the highest goal for writers, and all of us who work in Christian publishing.
But the methods of a generation ago don’t work for today’s culture. I’m going to divide Professor Boyle’s direction into two blog posts so as not to overwhelm our processing and discussion of each one. Here now are the first four.
- Our battle isn’t against people but the spiritual forces of wickedness (from Ephesians 6:12). Are you like me in that often when faced with rival perspectives my human inclination is to respond defensively? As if God needs defending. For writers this might mean simply presenting truth as truth, whether in a self-help or Christian living book or through a characters’ reflection of character and behavior in your novel. No need for supporting explanations, which can come across as preachy to readers.
- When we suffer for our beliefs, we stand firm with gentleness and respect (from the Book of Daniel). Daniel gives us a vivid example during his captivity and service to Nebuchadnezzar. Always looking out for the king’s best interest, he quietly refrained from the lures of the Babylonian culture surrounding him, which brought glory to God. Daniel provides a measuring stick for Christian writers. Assess your work. If possible, ask a non-Christian friend if your book sounds preachy or if at least one of your novel’s characters reflects the qualities Daniel exhibited.
- Make the most of every opportunity by speaking with grace and that which is appropriate for that person (from Colossians 4). How well do you know your audience? Effective reflection of truth will be different for Millennials and Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. Study your reader demographic to understand their priorities and concerns.
- We are to do good to ALL (from Galatians 6:10). How many times have you unwittingly said something that could be perceived as offensive or hurtful? I need to think back only a couple of weeks myself. We’re all works in progress in this area. This isn’t a reference to the ridiculous extreme of political correctness we deal with today, but rather to kindness and sensitivity. Next time you read through your draft, look for places one of your characters has an opportunity to reflect this better without messing with your plot.
What are your thoughts when considering these first four points? As I listened to Professor Boyle encourage us in each of these areas, my sense of purpose was renewed and I just knew I have to share them with you. What is your reaction? Do these first four items renew your special purpose as a writer?
Engaging with readers is different for Christian writers than it was a generation ago. Click to Tweet.
Wow, Mary, what a topic! But it’s perfect for the Advent season.
* I have something of an advantage here; I was spiritually rescued from a dreadful childhood (my parents hobnobbed with satanists) by an Orthodox Jewish family, and I became and remain a practicing Soto Zen Buddhist (which is not inconsistent with Christianity, as Buddhism is a ‘life practice’; it’s not in itself a religion, at least in the intention of Gautama Buddha). My viewpoint is pretty broadminded…though, not, I hope so broadminded that my brains fall out. (The imagery comes from Norman Vincent Peale.)
* To address the points…
1) I think that sometimes we do have to fight against people, especially those that have established a cult of character, such as Stephen Hawking. His dismissal of the ‘God Hypothesis’ is simply silly, and as a physicist pretending to be a philosopher he’s a dead loss. Calling him out means having to assail his qualifications in the sphere of philosophy and theology, and I’m more than happy to do so. To quote F. Gump, “Stupid is as stupid does”, and for all his cosmological acumen Hawking really blew it.
2) It’s good to aim at the Daniel Demeanour, but it is also worth bearing in mind that WWJD includes breaking up furniture and chasing people around with a whip. When I was teaching, I found I lived in a world in which tolerance was seen as agreement, and kindness as support of practices I loathed. I took to wearing a large crucifix around my neck, which irritated the Powers That Be no end but delighted the majority of my students. They wanted strength and defiance as their example.
3) I completely agree that we should understand and address the faith paradigms our audiences embrace, without crossing our own boundaries. We can do that without being confrontational; I mean, if a subject’s liable to cause a violent disagreement with our audience, we aren’t required to write it.
4) I’ll have to think about this one; my characters are all in some way a reflection of me (hard to make it otherwise) and I am perhaps the least politically correct person you’d ever hope to meet. I let them speak their minds on the assumption that it’s at least a simulacrum of reality. But I can see that while I might attract some, I might also be driving others away. This needs thought and prayer.
* Great post, Mary! I will be looking forward to reading the other comments.
“But I can see that while I might attract some, I might also be driving others away.” Bingo! That is the starting point for our individual assessments, Andrew. Some will reject any reference to biblical truth or reflection of Christ’s character. They have made their choice. But we don’t want to drive away anyone who has ears to hear. That is the motivation behind Professor Boyle’s guidance for reaching those readers in today’s culture.
I agree that kindness, sensitivity, and respect should characterize what we write and what we say. But if we are speaking or writing truth, it is inevitable that someone who doesn’t want to believe that truth will find it offensive.
*”Reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”
*It seems to me that all three verbs are inherently “preachy.” I’ve been in lots of conversations with nonbelievers, and it’s the supporting explanations that some might call “preachy” that are most helpful in carrying the conversation forward to increased understanding of each other.
*Of course, in conversation you can read the body language of the person and finetune how you say something in response. That’s difficult to impossible when writing without the real-time feedback from the reader. But for nonfiction, can’t avoiding the explanations to not sound “preachy” lead to writing that is theologically shallow and sometimes misleading? What about fiction where characters are having spiritual discussions, just like real people do, or where a character is wrestling with a spiritual decision?
To avoid sounding like I’m preaching, one method I’ve used is not to quote Scripture as proof. To the agnostic or atheist, proo-by-Holy-Writ is a circular argument that completely undermines my position, and renders anything further moot.
* There is a tremendously shrewd ambience in Scripture, and if we absorb it we can say, for example, WHY adultery and fornication are wrong. People haven’t changed all that much in a coupe of millenia, and showing folks that they really aren’t that far removed in heart and soul from the days of the House Of David can be a real eye-opener.
Janet Ann Collins
Andrew, that reminds me of a tract I was once handed that said, in essence, you have to believe the Bible is true because in these verses (listed) the Bible says it’s true. How likely was that to convert anyone?
Jan, you’re so right…and this sort of thing can affect practicing Christians, as well. I’ve been told that my illness is due to a lack of faith, with Scriptural citations to show me the error of my ways.
Janet Ann Collins
I had some friends who were into the health and wealth movement back when that was popular. They developed economic problems and completely lost their faith. Christians aren’r supposed to have trouble=free lives, at least not according to the Bible. And it would be boring if we did. If there’s no conflict, there’s no plot.
“Reprove, rebuke, and exhort…” I was wondering if anyone would point out these words. I’m glad you did, Carol, because they had different connotations in Paul’s day. It serves as a parallel example of how drastically our culture has changed, and so must our methods. But truth remains the same.
As for avoiding lengthy explanations that may come across as preachy, your examples of characters having spiritual discussions or a character grappling with a spiritual decision can indeed be palatable alternatives to a lengthy explanation if done well.
Interesting topic, Mary. I struggle with this with the blog more than the book. I want my readers to think, not go away mad. I don’t want to be politically correct, but I don’t want to deliberately offend. I recognize that my readers are most likely Christians, and I hope to challenge them to live like Christ in a worldly culture.
*I echo Andrew’s comment about tolerating behavior I loathe. I had the good fortune to be raised in a loving supportive home, and I was unprepared when we started working with kids who had been neglected and abused. After adopting a child who carried physical scars from a beating with an electric cord and emotional scars from sexual abuse, I lost all tolerance for those who pretend there is no evil and for those who claim that an occasional well-deserved spanking is child abuse (“Abuse!” I rail. “Let me tell you about abuse . . . “).
*I want to call ’em as God sees ’em. That takes sensitivity to the Spirit. And the more sensitive I am to the issue, the easier it is to listen to my emotions instead of God.
So true for most of us, Shirlee: “That takes sensitivity to the Spirit,” and “the more sensitive I am to the issue, the easier it is to listen to my emotions instead of God”.
I love your words and your heart here, Shirlee.
My bible study is reading Tim Keller’s Reason for God. It’s a book/DVD combo where Keller models having deep spiritual discussions about Christianity with people who are both curious about Christianity and hostile towards it.
*I doubt I have any readers who are hostile towards my faith, but I have many who have no faith of their own. I write about living through challenging seasons of life with courage and as I help people live bravely, I hope they realize that hope is real and seek the source of hope.
Becky, do you have any valuable tips to share from Tim Keller’s book and/or from your own practical experience?
I feel like Keller’s book is the first apologetics book I’ve read that is engaging in true dialogue with non-believers and not just intellectual argument. He encourages his non-believing readers to realize that they have a belief system of some kind even if it doesn’t involve any type of god or religion.
*Where I feel my writing and Keller’s book overlap the most is that he gives non-believers room to air their grievances against God. He agrees that suffering and evil are a problem and that pain is real. He chooses to listen and validate the very real struggles people experience and not minimize them with the typical Christianese phrases like “your pain has a greater purpose” or “everything happens for a reason.”
*As I have been vulnerable with my questions, hurts, and insecurities, my readers have been more vulnerable as well and I hope they are getting a real picture of what it means to live a Christian life and not a white-washed, picture perfect but incredibly fake life that many Christians choose to show.
Thanks for this wonderful post (I envy you your wonderful Sunday School – wait, I am not supposed to envy, am I?)
Anyway I plan to go back to this when my day slows down and ponder each point. Very helpful thoughts!
I’m so glad it’s helpful to you, Sheila.
Mary, I’ll be thinking on this all day. It’s hard to understand different generations. I can’t even keep up with every generation label. We’ve been watching Survivor … and I think it’s the Gen-Xers vs. the Millennials. The words just won’t stick in my mind. I have to look up the definitions each time … can’t even remember what my label is. But in watching the show … in spite of the differences in style, work ethic, ability, etc … some things never change–the need for gentleness, grace, and goodness. Your words said it all.
Shelli, I am with you. It’s tricky to keep up with different labels for the generations. If I am not mistaken, you and I are Gen-Xer’s. 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
Let’s hear it for Team EBS.
Early Bird Special.
Hey, an early dinner helps the digestion for when Wheel is on, right before bed.
Jeanne, I’ll have to ask you again tomorrow. And how on earth are you typing? 🙂 You are amazing.
Jennifer Major, you know that went right over my head. Lol. 🙂
Jennifer Zarifeh Major
I grew up in a home where one’s faith was also a survival issue. Some of my family had to escape Dodge, shall we say, because their beliefs made them a literal target. Thus, I learned to listen for what wasn’t said when the past was brought up.
That ability has made my writing a little more daring. I truly do not aspire to preach to the choir, because the choir stayed behind the barricades.
In fact, I was recently asked “Why fiction? What makes it so special?”
You folks think an agent or editor pitch meeting is rough? THAT conversation was brutal. And it forced me to prepare, and react, in a way that left a Christian readership entirely out of the equation. Thankfully, God already laid the ground work. My beta team consists of several non-Christians who have carte blanche to say what they think.
The thing is, grace is not just a Christian concept. We do not own forgiveness, either. The challenge is writing those in such a manner that zero preaching is involved, while still making sure the reader knows that there is hope beyond their darkness.
We need to act, speak, and react in such a manner that we stand out for our integrity. In a world in which some Christians have ruined things for the rest of us, we need to stand out for being the authentic ones.
Without sounding all special and pious, I’ve had people say to me “You’re the only Christian I trust, because you’re real…” and then ask my opinion on something. I’m sorta proud of standing out as a table flipper.
Jennifer, I love your exhortation to be authentic, a person of integrity. It seems like most often, our lives speak of Jesus more clearly than any amount of words we can share.
Yes, the Lord is so attractive. If we can just shine a fraction of Him … and you do. I once had a family member say … I don’t want to hear “God is good” … she went on to tell me how I was the only Christian she knew who was genuine … and then I spilled all my awful to her … and she still loves me. Maybe she sees me as a little more genuine. I can only hope.
Oh yes, Jennifer. Being authentic in that we Christians are real and not better, just saved by God’s grace with our eternity secure.
Janet Ann Collins
Back when I was young most people went to church and said they were Christians, but I’m not sure there were a lot more real Christians than there are today. They went to church because that’s what everyone did and said they believed what they were supposed to, but a lot of their beliefs were only theoretical. I’d been a Christian (I thought) for a long time before I experienced what really letting Christ be the Lord (or Boss) of my life meant. Maybe having our culture challenge our faith isn’t a bad thing.
Great point, Janet. And perhaps those who were pretending or deceived into thinking that practicing the form of religion did anything for them were worse off than those boldly rejecting truth today. At least these people are being honest. I’m with you that a cultural challenge to our faith might be good for us. Just look at the great discussion going on here. It gets us all to self-assess and then correct our attitudes and behavior.
Well, that’s a bummer. I actually commented at about 6:45 this morning, and I’m certain it was profound (wink), but I stop back on a break to visit, and my comment didn’t make it through. Chalk it up to a faulty modem I guess.
*Anyway, I loved this post, Mary. I’m looking forward to the other half of it next week. As a believer, the thread I see weaving through your post is giving grace/being gracious in word and action especially when others come against us or our beliefs. When we know what we believe, we don’t have to reconsider whether or not what we believe is right. We should share and act in the manner which Jesus did—honestly and graciously, not defensively.
*As a Christian writer, your third point struck home with me. Knowing the interests of my target readers can be very helpful in forming my stories. The way I share truth with a Milennial will have a slightly different focus than how I share it with a Gen X’er or a Baby Boomer. Such a good reminder. Thanks for sharing all of this, Mary!
Yes, immulate Jesus … and He’s such a gentleman.
Jeanne, you nailed the thread weaving through Professor Boyle’s guidance. I couldn’t have said it better. Yours is a great summary of his first four pointers.
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Timely and relevant topic, Mary. Thanks.
You’re welcome, Becky.
A bit late for this conversation, but I just read of a Texas teenager who was bullied into suicide for her weight. Her name was Brandy, and she had blue eyes.
* I’m not really interested in engaging the bullies. I don’t want to understand the inner demons that drive them. They need to meet Jesus, yes. Face-to-face.
* We need to meet unbelievers with grace, yes…most of them. But for those who sow the wind, we should be very clear that the whirlwind awaits. Colour me Jesuit, but there is a need for Soldiers of God, especially now.
* To read about Brandy Vela, and to remember that we are truly strangers in an evil land, check the link below. But get some Kleenex first.
Janet Ann Collins
Andrew, bullies are people who have to make other people feel bad in order to feel good about themselves. I’m a fan of Bullies2Buddies.com. The person who runs it is Jewish, but bases his methods on what Jesus said about turning the other cheek and I’ve seen the method work. Of course in extreme cases, like the one you mention, authorities should be contacted.
Jan, I will check that out – thanks.
* One of the things that the ‘outside culture’ has lost is a sense of accountability, and it seems to me that Christian authors are well-placed to re-introduce it. This country sure needs it.