This weekend, Chip MacGregor decided to take on Ted Dekker. For me to say anything at all is about like trying to speak when two giants are shouting at each other. In Christian publishing, Chip is widely recognized as a literary agent and Ted is a best selling author. Me, I’m a nobody. Before I get started, let me just say that you can read the two components of this argument at http://www.teddekker.com/2009/11/07/whats-wrong-with-this-picture/ and http://chipmacgregor.typepad.com/main/2009/11/the-good-the-bad-and-the-faux-deep.html. I don’t want to be accused of putting words in people’s mouths.
Both of these guys make some good points, but I somewhat disagree with both or I wouldn’t bother writing about it. Ted’s point seems to be that the Love Inspired Guidelines are much like what the Pharasees were doing, in that it attempts to define a law by which a book can be classified as righteous. Chip’s claim is that Ted is arrogant and fails to realize that the readers of Love Inspired books want these guidelines because they want to read clean books. The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in the middle.
When we look at the Love Inspired Guidelines, I’ve got to admit, I find them quite restrictive and they aren’t just about producing clean books. As I say that, I must be careful because that implies that I can judge the intent of those who created the Love Inspired Guidelines. I cannot. Unless they tell us their intentions, only God knows, but consider some of the words and phrases they chose to leave out of their books. A Love Inspired author can’t refer to a religious official as Father or use the word Priest. Of course, there is a biblical reason for leaving out Father, since Jesus said to “call no man Father upon the earth” (Matthew 23:9). But to leave out the word Priest discourages writers from having extensively Catholic books. Oddly enough, the word Nun is okay and I suppose the word Bishop is okay. Can’t use the word Whore. Oops. I guess For the Love of a Devil won’t be making it on the Love Inspired list. For that matter, the title would get me. Devil is one of those words that can’t be used. So, to some extent, I do have to agree with Ted.
Now, Chip’s claim is that the readers of Love Inspired books want the writers to follow these guidelines because they want clean books. If that’s what they want, then that’s what we should give them. Yeah, I agree. I may not agree completely with the guidelines Love Inspired provides, but if I were to write for them I would scrutinize my work carefully to make sure I didn’t include the rejected words. I wouldn’t be that hard. My books are clean, but I venture over into some subjects where it is appropriate to use a few of these words. A lot of these words are Bible words. When you talk about biblical themes, you run into situations where you need some of these words. My characters don’t go around using them as bywords or swear words (Swear is another rejected word), but it is ridiculous to try to talk about the sin described by some of these words and pussyfoot around it by not using the word. But Love Inspired books don’t cover those themes and that’s part of Chip’s point. Love Inspired books are written for readers who want to read about a man and a woman falling in love. They’re a lot more rose petals and morning dew than the stuff Ted Dekker writes. Chip says that if that’s what readers want, then that what readers should get.
I somewhat disagree with Chip because just because readers want books written a certain way doesn’t mean they should always get what they want. Most of the time, it really doesn’t hurt anything, but there’s a line somewhere at which writers must take a stand on moral principles and say, “I’m giving you something other than what you asked for because I believe you need to hear it.” Publishing is about making money; writing is about communication. As writers, we want to persuade people to our point of view. If we can do that through a medium in which the words we can use it limited, then by all means, we should, but if the limitations prevent us from getting our message across, the message must take priority.
But I also disagree with Ted. Ted frames his argument by asking what Jesus would do. While I think it is helpful to consider what Jesus would do, we must realize that what Jesus would do isn’t always what we should do. Also, what he did in the past may not be what he would do in the present. Ted compares the Love Inspired Guidelines to the rules the Pharisees followed. He mentions that Jesus called them a bunch of vipers because they followed the rules, but their hearts were in the wrong place. That was scandalous in that day. Ted’s claim is that if Jesus were writing today, he would be just as scandalous as then and he would use some of these words. Would he? I’m not so sure.
We might ask ourselves whether the message Jesus has for this generation is the same as it was for that generation. In some ways, yes. The message is still that all have sinned and God wants them to be saved, but when we consider the best way to present that message, I’m not so sure. That generation was sinning behind a veil of righteousness. Our generation is sinning openly and calling it righteousness. Granted, we find Christians who put on their Sunday best and pretend to be better than they are when they spent the night before with someone other than their wife. We may need to talk about that in fiction, but if our goal is to be scandalous in this society, we aren’t going to do it by acting they they do. You want to be scandalous? Live a righteous life. Write in such a way that people never accuse you of being a hypocrite. No, I don’t think that means you have to follow the Love Inspired Guidelines to the letter of the law, but shock people with genuine goodness that makes people see that what they are doing is wrong. That’s what Jesus did and would do today. He didn’t just tell the Pharisees they were living in sin, he proved that his righteousness exceeded theirs.
Ted also talks about Love, saying that there is ugliness in the face of love and we should write about it. Yeah, I agree, but Love Inspired books aren’t about love; they are about romance. Romance is about courting. Yeah, there could be love involved, but the primary focus is about a man and a woman who don’t think they need each other coming to the point where they see their need for each other and have a desire to spend their lives together. We can afford to put a few butterflies and daisies in a story like that. But if you want a love story, go read For the Love of a Devil. It is about love for the unlovable.
Then Ted talks about what got Jesus killed, saying that the disparity of his approach with that of the Pharisees is part of what got him killed. Can we honestly say that the Pharisees would have been concerned about an ordinary carpenter hanging out with a bunch of sinners? No, but first we must realize that what got Jesus killed is that he turned his face toward the cross and said that was where he was going. As for the Pharisees’ part in it, I think they were more concerned because the publicans and sinners Jesus was hanging out with were becoming more righteous than they were. So maybe they forgot to wash their hands before supper, but contrast what Zacchaeus did by restoring what he had taken wrongly fourfold and giving half his goods to the poor with the Pharisees' practice of promising their money to God so they wouldn’t have to use it to take care of their mothers.
So, here’s where I stand. I think it’s okay to use many of the words rejected by the Love Inspired Guidelines, if they are used in the right context. I have to agree with Ted that we may be preventing ourselves from saying what needs to be said if we reject too many words. I also agree with Chip in that it’s okay to write books that cater to the desires of readers. But more important than anything those two men have said, our primary goal must be to present the message that God has for readers in a way that causes them to take notice. Throwing a few curse words in so that our characters are more “real” isn’t going to help anything. Instead, we need to write about real topics. A writer should point out sin and call it wrong; a writer should point out righteousness and call it good and he should do it in such a way that when people read his work they say, “he has been with Jesus.”