“Just in time for Christmas! Clean, powerful, fun.” An author friend of mine wrote these words to potential buyers of his several published books. That, along with several similar ads by other Christian authors, got me thinking: What does “clean” mean to readers of Christian fiction?
At first blush, the answer seems self-evident. We all know what “dirty” means, as in dirty jokes or dirty movies. It refers to indecent, obscene, or grotesque material, especially as it relates to sexual content. So “clean” must refer to any material that does not contain such objectionable things, right? Most Christian readers would define clean this way, and might also expand their idea of clean to include a longer list of prohibited items. For example, one major Christian publisher has posted its editorial standards for authors on its website. Among other things, these standards expressly prohibit:
• Acts of violence against any institution or person
• Gratuitously violent or sexual content, including non consensual sex
• Descriptions of the sexual act; double entendres; sex outside the biblical definition of marriage
The publisher will reject any manuscript that violates these guidelines. I understand. They want to publish clean material, and they are defining clean as the absence of the things they have listed.
Now imagine an author submits a manuscript with the following plot points: A young married couple is staying as overnight guests in someone’s house. Suddenly the house is surrounded by a gang of perverts who demand that the husband be sent out to them for group sex. The master of the house refuses, since he has obligations of hospitality to the man. But the husband inexplicably sends out his wife instead. She is brutally assaulted all night, and is discovered dead on the front steps in the morning. Upon finding her body covered with marks of torture and abuse, the husband dismembers her corpse and ships a piece of it into every legal jurisdiction in the country as evidence of the crime committed. The outraged citizenry rises up and demands that the perpetrators of the crime be handed over for punishment. The locals refuse the request, and the resulting civil unrest kills thousands.
Would anyone publish such a lurid tale? Before you say no, consider that this is the tale of The Levite’s Concubine — a Bible story from the nineteenth chapter of Judges. Nor is that story a solitary aberration among Bible narratives. For graphic violence, refer to the prophet Samuel’s treatment of a prisoner of war; 1 Samuel 15:33 records that he “hacked Agag in pieces.” Or there is the assassination of King Eglon of Moab. Judges chapter three tells us in graphic detail how this fat king was killed by a two-edged dagger, around eighteen inches in length; the assassin stabbed him with such force that the whole dagger, handle and all, went into his body, and he was disemboweled.
In other places there are frank descriptions of the sexual act (Genesis 38:9), double entendres (Song of Solomon, 8:9), descriptions of drunkenness, rape, murder, incest, prostitution, STDs, bodily functions and any number of other things that wouldn’t pass muster with a publisher’s list of prohibited items. I’m sure many Christians squirm a little when reading these parts of scripture. Many no doubt skip them entirely, trying to pick and choose the verses they find uplifting. But the presence of these things in no way renders scripture unclean!
God’s word is pure (Psalm 12:6). And I don’t just mean on balance, as if it matters that inspirational verses like “Love never fails” or “The Lord is my shepherd” far outnumber those verses that we find embarrassing. No, scripture is clean in its entirety; so clean that it is able to cleanse the hearts and minds of those that immerse themselves in it (Psalm 119:9, John 15:3). In fact, the nature of God’s word goes beyond “clean” all the way to “holy.” (Romans 1:2; 2 Timothy 3:15). So how does scripture manage to be clean and holy while relating so many stories of shocking violence and human depravity?
Perhaps some readers are thinking that a different set of rules should apply to historical narrative than to fiction. After all, the Bible is just reporting the facts of what happened, however unpleasant they may be. But it must surely be wrong to include such content in a creative work. Shouldn’t the product of our imaginations contain only wholesome words and images?
Actually, Christ Jesus answered that question for us. He was perhaps the first to demonstrate the aphorism that fiction tells the truth. He taught using parables, which were short fictional stories with a moral point. And He peopled His fictional stories with managers who stole from their employers; tenants who murdered their landlord’s representatives; and a prodigal son who was into riotous living and consorting with prostitutes.
So again I ask: How is it that the scripture is pure, clean, and holy, when it contains so many narratives that run counter to our instinctive definition of clean? And how might understanding this impact modern Christian fiction? That’s next in part two.