Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Do We Write (and Read) What's Good? Or What's Safe? - Gyapong

Over the holidays, I read two books by Frank Schaeffer, the son of Francis and Edith Schaeffer, who were important evangelical leaders in the 1970s and 80s. They founded L'Abri, a retreat centre in Switzerland where many young pilgrims from around the world found their lives profoundly changed. Frank Schaeffer was a gifted Christian apologist, and his wife was also a gifted speaker and writer.

Their son's books---his memoir Crazy for God: How I grew up one of the elect, helped found the Religious Right, and lived to take it all (or almost all) of it back, and his semi-autobiographical novel Portofino, are anything but hagiography. They are "warts and all" portraits of his famous parents. Yet at the same time, genuine grace and love pours through. I am more interested in reading his parents now.

Frank recounts how his non-religious publisher sent boxes of Portofino (published in the 90s) to Christian bookstores, expecting the novel would sell like hotcakes because of the Christian celebrity of his parents. Instead, boxes were shipped back because of the sexual content and sometimes unflattering portrayal of evangelicals.

I write at more length about Frank's memoir over at The Master's Artist. I highly recommend both these books, even though they are not "safe" according to the conventions of so-called Christian publishing. They are, however, good. They are well-written, they reveal real people, trying to lead godly lives and often making a mess of it. Sounds like most Christians I know!

So much of what I have found wrong with much of so-called "Christian" publishing is the stress on the safe rather than good. We find the safety requirements in the written and unwritten rules against certain words and content, even a tacit agreement to put Christian characters in their best light once they have accepted Christ.

Even portrayals of sinful characters have lacked the punch, especially in fiction, though much has improved over the last decade.

I confess, I would rather watch the Sopranos, with all its awful language and envelope pushing sex scenes than read a safe Christian romance that lulls me to sleep with its sweetness and light. I may be unusual, but I don't read to escape reality, I want an intense experience that makes me gain new insight into it. If you've ever watched the Sopranos, you'll see excellent character development, real people, real conflict and tackling of spiritual and psychological truths that ring true.

I suppose it is possible to be good and safe, good and unsafe, bad and safe, and bad and unsafe. Either category of good is fine with me. The world is awash in the latter two categories.

I personally don't think that God is "safe" in our conventional understanding of safety. He can turn our world upside down and change us in ways that feel anything but safe. But when we look back at how we've grown, some of us even find ourselves thankful for the suffering that forced us to wake up.

A really good book should challenge our safety bubble and make us hungry for a true encounter with God.

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