On Offending Christian Readers

One of the most common arguments for “clean fiction” — i.e., fiction that is not offensive,
contains no morally objectionable elements, and is safe for the entire
family — is that it doesn’t offend “weaker brothers.” That phrase, and
the concept we import to this argument, is taken from several important
sections of Scripture.

Jesus warned about putting “stumbling blocks” before the “little
ones”  (Luke 17:1-2 NASV) and the apostle Paul cautioned, in two
different places

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. (I Cor. 8:9 NIV)

and

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one
another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or
obstacle in your brother’s way. (Romans 14:13 NIV)

When discussing Christian fiction, the argument for keeping it clean,
profanity free, graphically innocuous, and family friendly, often comes
back to the “stumbling block” concept.

Sex,
language, and violence potentially offends “weaker brothers and
sisters.” Therefore, Christian literature should avoid such elements so
as to not stumble brethren of another persuasion.

That argument, I assert, is skewed on two different counts — one theological and the other aesthetic.

First, the above Scriptures are not sufficient impetus to make “clean fiction” normative for all Christian literature.

In a fine essay entitled The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother, the author exegetes Romans 14 and concludes that the apostle Paul’s concern is to

“…protect Christian liberty in both directions,
liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. This protects the stronger
brother from the tyranny of the weaker, and as well diligently warns the
stronger brother not to ignore the weakness of the weaker brother and
draw him into behavior that is contrary to his conscience.”

Rather than “protect Christian liberty in both directions,”
the Christian fiction industry appears to have caved to “the tyranny of
the weaker brother.”
For the moment we say “this will offend
them” or “that will stumble them” and adjust our fiction accordingly, we
normalize a specific cultural preference or moral sensibility.
Christian liberty must exist in both directions, not just toward those
who advocate “clean fiction.” 

The second problem with “the stumbling block argument” and how it’s employed is that it potentially “incapacitates” creativity. The Christian artist who submits to “the tyranny of the weaker brother” is creatively hamstrung.

Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, once gave a lecture on Flannery O’Connor’s work

Some of her most pungent observations are to do with assumptions about ‘Catholic art’ which insist that such art should be edifying and moral; this, she argues, plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer. (emphasis mine)

It’s safe to say that similar “assumptions” are embodied in today’s
“Christian art” debate. An entire industry has formed around the notion
that Christian art “should be edifying and moral.”  But like O’Connor’s
age, this camp “plays straight into the hands of critics of the Church
who hold that dogmatic belief incapacitates a creative writer.” How can a
Christian writer really explore the horror and angst and emptiness and
transcendence of life while fearful of offending someone along the way?

Rather than restrict themselves to only what is “edifying and moral,” Williams contends the Christian artist

…is precisely someone who cannot rule out any
subject matter. ‘The Catholic fiction writer is entirely free to
observe. He feels no call to take on the duties of God or to create a
new universe…He feels no need to apologise for the ways of God to man or
to avoid looking at the ways of man to God’. This imposes on the
Catholic writer a dangerous task, since she has to deal with matters
that may indeed be ‘occasions of sin’, subjects that expose the worst in
humanity. And while ‘to look at the worst will be for [the writer] no
more than an act of trust in God’, it may be a source of danger for the
reader.

Belief in God, rather than inhibit the writer, forces her to not look away, and makes her “entirely free to observe.” Thus, the Christian artist is “someone who cannot rule out any subject matter.”
How contrary to today’s Inspirational market! Rather than crafting
stories that may be “a source of danger for the reader” (as in
potentially “offending the weaker brother”), we rule out subject matter
and insist that “art should be edifying and moral.”

All on the grounds that we might “stumble” someone.

The “stumbling block argument” has been misused far too long in
Christian writer’s circles. Of course, the more mature should, on
occasion, defer to the weaker brother. I must be careful about my words
and conduct in certain situations. However, Christian liberty should
exist in both directions — liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. Yet when it comes to Christian fiction, sadly, liberty only extends one way.

* * *

 
Mike Duran writes supernatural thrillers. He is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike’s novels include The TellingThe Resurrection, an ebook novella, Winterland, and his newly released short story anthology Subterranea  You can visit his website at www.mikeduran.com.