You Don't Have To Be Blatant To Be Powerful

Monday, March 16, 2015

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"Being powerful is like being a lady - if you have to say you are, you aren't." - Margaret Thatcher

I have often thought about why the Christian media market is so...awkward. I never quite hit on it, though I certainly beat around the bush multiple times in discussions, until my father mentioned subtleties - and in particular, how they are ignored.

Most people don't go around telling people they are powerful, but a lot of people say it with their attitude and word choice - more than you would first realise, too. The Christian music and film industry in specific have a core fallout here: they obliterate subtleties. So many songs we hear on Christian radio have taken the heart out of the Gospel; the beautiful structure is placed aside and the substance, like serving a large cut of meat as an appetizer, sits there slapping you in the face with its size and awkwardness. Where, if I may ask, is the beauty in that?

But the same goes for the literature in the Christian market: we have romance that feels the need to dance cult-like around the courtship vs. dating debate, as if the term is such a pressing issue; our Christian fiction, in a failed attempt at emulating Lewis and Tolkien, is spoon-feeding readers supposed "allegories," assuming we don't have enough intellect to understand them on our own.

And we want our writing to be powerful, to spark emotion, and ultimately to bring people to this Gospel we love - yet what are we doing but cheapening it with these clumsy works?

What makes both Lewis' Narnia and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings so powerful are the subtleties. Never once in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader does Lewis say that Reepicheep's visit to Aslan's Country means death; he leaves that for the reader to discover, saying only that he "will never return." Tolkien doesn't tell us Sam is a loyal gardener - he leaves it for us to see through the journey's course. 

I've always thought that the difference between art and artwork is like the difference between designer and high street clothing: it's in the details. When you lay the gospel of your work flat in the foreground, your are inherently thunking the reader's head with your book, shouting "CHRISTIAN! Or else." We have taken away the art of writing in an attempt to ensure Christian readers the comfort of knowing exactly the religious stance of the characters; but by making it so blatant, we leave nothing to the imagination and, in effect, isolate readers.

Just because we are Christian does not mean our art has to be inferior. Do us all a favor and write a book worth reading, whether your readers are Christian or not - and if you are worth your salt, Christ will show through without your yanking him in for a guest appearance.

6 comments

  1. This is such an important topic, Carmel. Especially for Christian authors with tender consciences. They want to take a firm stand for their principles, they don't want to have to compromise on things they are passionate about, and they want to make art that will edify and encourage at the same time that it entertains and enthralls. The question is just how to do that, and it's jolly hard to do.

    As you say, the key is subtlety, but compounding the problem is the fact that subtlety can be highly subjective to the audience. With one story of mine ("The Rakshasa's Bride"), I had one friend who found the allegory overpowering (she also, interestingly, disagreed with its point), a couple who completely missed it, and a majority who thought it was subtle and graceful.

    Personally, standing on my principles is a big part of my raison d'etre as an author. On the other hand, so is high artistic excellence. Harmonising those goals requires wisdom and skill, but it's not impossible, and they aren't necessarily opposed. I do agree that Christ should show through in one's writing without seeming forced, but at the same time, I and many others have no category for books that are worth reading which do not in some fashion show forth Christ. That is, I think, the problem. It is not that we think we should put Christ above artistic worth; we simply have a hard time believing that artistic worth exists apart from Christ. For me, this manifests in believing that if there is any artistic excellence, it is (intentionally or unintentionally) Christ showing through. For example, I've always had a sneaking love for Bollywood movies, not because I just love Hindu culture, but because I love the truth and beauty that can often be found there.

    This comment could be much longer, but at this point I think I might be better off writing that blog post on practical ways of being a *subtle* *Christian* artist, so I will leave it there :D.

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    1. You're right - I think someone once said that all good art points to the greatest Artist, and while I'm not sure how that applies to some (music, namely), I can definitely see it in the greater works of history - including non-Christian authors. They did their work and they did it well - and somehow, without their trying, the God of all Creation shone through the glorious little light-pockets. That's what I attempt to do. :)

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  2. Oh! Thank you so much!

    You are so right. Subtle is key. If the story trumps the message, the message will stay subtle. And a subtle message is the most impacting message you could get. It's beautiful and glorious when the light goes on because it was subtle, instead of having it beaten over your head.

    I notice a lot of Christian art/media, especially literature, is very 'preachy.' Which in turn makes it 1) not art 2) hard to connect with, and 3) ineffective in its preaching. It makes me sad and kind of upset, really. Because the world should look at us Christians and be saying, "Wow, look at those guys! Everything they set their hands to do is excellent. It's the best music/book/movie anybody created. What is it about those guys?" Even if what we do isn't blatantly Christian, even if it can't fit into the Christian box because it doesn't mention God, it still should be outstanding because we're doing it for God's glory. People should be able to tell who we are just by what we do and say, but also by what we produce. And not because it has God's name literally written all over it. But because it is done in the power of and for God's name, therefore our actions, speech, and art should have a better quality.

    On the other hand, it is so hard to be subtle. And I always wonder if I'm too subtle, or not subtle enough. That balance is the most difficult thing to find. Especially when you feel strongly about something and you believe it will help others also. I'm definitely not perfect at it and I think it will take a lifetime to master.

    Thanks again for an awesome post!

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    1. Ashley, so much of what you said are exactly my thoughts! We Christians need to rise up and be excellent in all fields. You put it so well!

      And Carmel--great post! :D Our faith should spring up in our art organically. If the particular piece of writing or art is meant to be consumed by it, or if it's meant to bear only the tiniest hint, then so be it. What's important is that it isn't forced or heavy-handed.

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  3. Amen to this post! I am sick of reading and watching Christian books and movies that try to cram watery gospel down my throat. The result is not that I understand a strong point but rather that I stop the video or novel halfway through.

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  4. Ashley, Kelpie: Agreed & agreed. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but it's comforting to know I'm not the only one with these irritations. May it be that our work succeeds in subtlety - and cheers to art! :)

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