The S Word

I’m excited but not surprised at the lively discussion that’s been taking place in response to yesterday’s Q4U. Anytime we bring up the issue of “safe” in Christian writing and publishing, opinions abound. I’m impressed with the thoughts you’ve expressed here and I don’t have much to add that’s any different from what you’ve already said.

To me, the issue of “safe” is okay for a radio station because I listen in my car and my kitchen, where the kids are, and I like feeling comfortable that anything they hear is going to be appropriate for them. But I think the question of safe is different in publishing. We need both safe and unsafe books. It’s not about being kid-friendly.

Some Christian books are wonderfully written, totally edifying and/or inspiring, and also safe. They don’t necessarily challenge the reader to change in any way. Other books are “unsafe” in that they challenge a reader to go deeper, to think harder, to take a different look at their life in Christ. They shake people out of their comfort zones and leave them feeling unsettled rather than inspired or comforted. These are great books too.

Everyone has a different view of what “safe” means. What did Lewis mean by saying that Aslan wasn’t safe but he was good? I think it meant that Aslan (Christ) was a threat to people’s very lives… as they knew them. That he threatened their sense of security and comfort in the world. That he would force them out of their conformity and into a new understanding of what life was all about. It feels very dangerous. But it’s good.

In Christian publishing… I disagree with those who say “unsafe” is the only way we should be writing. People need that, yes. We all need to be confronted, shaken up, kept off balance, in order to keep our relationship with Christ alive and real. So books that do that are valuable. But we also sometimes just need to learn. Or to be entertained. Or to be inspired, encouraged, or uplifted. And all of these goals can be reached in books that are basically safe. They might not shake you out of your comfort zone, but they serve a purpose.

So I never decide whether to read a book, or whether to acquire or represent a book, based on its relative safety. I read and enjoy both kinds of books.

That’s my view. By all means, continue the conversation if you have more to say.

Rachelle Gardner

Literary agent at Gardner Literary. Coffee & wine enthusiast (not at the same time) and dark chocolate connoisseur. I've worked in publishing since 1995 and I love talking about books!


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  5. Anonymous on June 1, 2008 at 9:55 PM

    >In the Christian World of Publishing my take is, it’s not what you say, but how you say it. Almost anything can be said safe.

  6. Anne L.B. on June 1, 2008 at 7:48 PM

    >r.e. – Thanks for the review link for The Shack. It was most enlightening.

    Rachell’s “What I’m Looking For” post (link at right in Quick Links) mentioned that she’s not interested in representing books that contradict a Christian worldview. Her 13Dec comment provided an excellent definition, including the phrase, “a Christian worldview is a way of looking at the world filtered through the truths taught in the Bible.”

    There’s plenty of reasons for a Christian to read a book that contradicts a Christian worldview. But one definition of “safe” for what any Christian (or CBA) publishes might be material that in all ways promotes a Christian worldview — whatever route it takes, either overtly or with subtlety, whether through light or dark topics.

  7. Yvonne on June 1, 2008 at 7:38 PM

    >As a mother and teacher, I searched for wholesome books for my kids. There are not too many being published today. Most include magic, fantasy, foul language, sex, or violence.

    Young people will eventually encounter wickedness in this world, we as writers shouldn’t be the one who show it to them.

    I don’t think there is ever a time when “cuss” words are acceptable. As Christians, we should be sure all our words are “honest…pure… of a good report”

    I want my writing to bring glory and honor to the Lord.

  8. R.E. on June 1, 2008 at 6:52 PM

    >Here–tape this review to the inside cover of _The Shack_ when you donate it.


    It’s an objective, expert dissection of the theological problems with the book.

  9. R.E. on June 1, 2008 at 6:19 PM

    >Timothy –

    Here’s a different take on donating to the church library. Go ahead and donate _The Shack_, but inscribe an opinion or cautionary word on the flyleaf.

    This may surprise you: I donated the _Golden Compass_ trilogy to our church library after skimming through it myself. Despite the fact that none of it is good, and the third novel is vehemently anti-Christian and blasphemous, I feel it’s important for Christians to actually read objectionable works so they can discuss them in an informed way.

    With that in mind, it’s beneficial to donate an objectionable work to your church library. That way, anyone who wants to read it can do so without lining the pockets of an author like Philip Pullman.

  10. Timothy Fish on June 1, 2008 at 1:18 PM

    >I did finish read The Shack. With the many definitions of “safe,” I’m not sure whether it is safe or not. What I can say is that I wouldn’t hand it to one of my nephews or to any of the kids at church. Also, I won’t be donating a copy to the church library.

  11. Rachelle on June 1, 2008 at 11:02 AM

    I decline to comment more on The Shack. And to the question of safe or unsafe… not qualified to answer since I didn’t finish the book. But largely I don’t care about whether anyone would consider it safe or unsafe. I like books that compel me with good writing, but beyond that, there are many different reasons I enjoy books. Some challenge me and make me think. Some take me to a new place emotionally. Some sweep me along in the romance or adventure. Whether it’s safe or not never enters my head.

    I know, I’m the one who brought up the “safe” topic in the first place. Interesting discussion, but doesn’t impact my choices either in reading or in making business decisions.

  12. Rachelle on June 1, 2008 at 10:12 AM

    Hmmm… I suppose you could worry about it if you want. And maybe some writers do. But I actually don’t think anyone here is saying that. I know I’m not. The point of my post was, “we need both safe and unsafe” and everyone has a different definition of it anyway. So write what you write, and don’t worry about definitions and categorizations.

    That’s my take on it anyway.

  13. Inspire on June 1, 2008 at 8:28 AM

    >Sigh. Another thing to worry about as a writer. Is my novel ‘safe’ or is it ‘unsafe’?

  14. Gordon Carroll on June 1, 2008 at 7:07 AM

    >I agree, Rachelle. Just as there are many ways to reach the lost; through confrontation, or the way we live, or gentle persuasion, books should be able to reach and teach Christians and non-believers from many different angles.

  15. Megan DiMaria on May 31, 2008 at 8:43 PM

    >Marcie G. made a good point about CBA readers wanting to learn and be entertained.

    And apparently “safe” is subjective and means different things to different readers.

    I thought my book was safe until I came across some blog comments that concluded that my novel wasn’t fit for Christian teen girls. (They aren’t even the target audience, but I digress.) The reason it’s unsuitable? Because my adult, married character anticipates, enjoys and thinks about s-e-x with her husband. Tyndale even let me use that three-letter word. I think I depicted married life with reality, but not in a worldly manner. Of course when the action starts, the door closes. ☺ Some things are still better left to the imagination.

  16. canvaschild on May 31, 2008 at 7:59 PM

    >Hi Rachelle,
    I am curious about your opinion on The Shack (which you said you bought but didn’t finish). I too picked it up at the recommendation of many people whom I respect and am struggling to finish it; what is your reason? Was it merely time, or disappointment in the book itself? As well, would you consider something like The Shack to be safe or unsafe? Emily.

  17. Katy McKenna on May 31, 2008 at 5:44 PM

    >Hey, Cathy! It’s safe (and dangerous…) to read Lisa Samson’s Quaker Summer! I promise it’s no Amish Paradise… 😉 I believe God has REALLY used this book to get so many believers more focused on social justice, serving the poor, etc.

    Katy McKenna

  18. Anonymous on May 31, 2008 at 5:13 PM

    >Rather than attempt any of my own analysis, I’ll just add this longish Lewis quote from The Four Loves to the comment collection. It speaks directly to the “safety” of love, but I suspect there are indirect applications to the safety of words, too. Read, think, discuss, etc.

    “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket — safe, dark, motionless, airless — it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside of Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”

  19. Marcie Gribbin on May 31, 2008 at 4:40 PM

    >Okay, of course I meant “deep, emotional issues,” not “deep, emotional, issues.”


    (That was my “safe” way of writing my frustration.)


  20. Marcie Gribbin on May 31, 2008 at 4:36 PM

    >Actually, Catherine, Lisa Samson is a good example.

    Is her writing safe? Yes. She writes from a Christian worldview about deep, emotional, issues.

    Is her writing unsafe? Yes! I dare anyone to read her books and not be changed in some small -or huge- way.

    Is her writing pleasing to God? Well, ultimately, only God can answer that about any of our works, but, I’d venture to humbly guess, YES.

    Is her writing worldly? NO! (at least not what I’ve read so far). She writes ABOUT dark things of this world, but sheds the light of Christ to dispel the darkness.

    The way she is able to accomplish all this at once is by the way she uses her “voice”. But that’s a whole other topic. Or is it?

  21. Catherine West on May 31, 2008 at 4:04 PM

    >I think that CBA does and will continue to offer readers a choice in the kind of story the wish to pick up and read. Personally, I’d take Lisa Samson over Beverly Lewis any day, but that’s me. If Lisa Samson wrote an Amish book, I probably wouldn’t read it. Come to think of it, I haven’t read Quaker Summer yet, but I digress.
    There are many readers who would be offended by some of the stories Christian authors are writing. A few probably would not want to read my story because it deals with the Vietnam war. But I don’t think we as writers should shy away from those ‘sticky’ topics just because we think some people won’t like them.
    It definitely is about being IN the world, not OF it. If you can capture the reality of life taking place outside your front door, make us feel and breathe it, and care about it, then you’ve done your job well. If you can make me care about a field of cows…
    Okay, never mind.
    The key is, write the story of your heart and check in with God to see if it’s what He wants you to write, If it is, go for it.
    Safe is a non-issue for me. I think there has been too much made of the whole edgy vs safe issue.
    If you’re writing to honor God, then don’t worry about it. Just my few dimes.

  22. Marcie Gribbin on May 31, 2008 at 3:29 PM

    >This is such a great discussion! It is really making me stop and think hard about the purpose of seeking to be published (notice I did not say the purpose of writing; writing has many purposes). But, if I’m seeking to publish a book, then I’m most likely seeking to make a statement of some sort to be viewed and purchased by people who want to hear what I have to say. So, if I am labeling my work as CBA, then the responsibility is HUGE- even if I’m writing a cozy mystery, a sweet romance, sci-fi, literary novel or whatever- to say things in a manner pleasing to God.

    Camille said: If our focus is ultimitely unsafe, shake em up out of their comfort zones literature, where does that leave all those looking to Christian fiction as an uplifting, clean alternative to general market fiction?

    Camille asks a good question here. But I think we are mixing up “worldly” with “unsafe.” The very first thing we should be seeking to do is please the Lord with our offering. That doesn’t mean ignoring real issues or even speech patterns, but it does mean searching our hearts and Scripture and asking ourselves if the way we are portraying our “scene” is pleasing to God. As artists, we have the privilege of forming prose in new and thought-provoking ways without being vulgar or worldly, and yet still getting the point across that those actions are vulgar or worldly. And that is the whole point of writing with a Christian worldview, to show the vast difference between the things of this world and the things of God.

    Readers DO pick up a CBA book, not to find out if it is safe or unsafe, but to learn or be entertained by it, knowing they already have a safety net in the Christian publishing world.

    The great mystery, then, is:
    How can we learn to write “reality” without being “worldly”?

    Many CBA writers have this art mastered.

    Hmm, I’d like to take that class. Anyone want to teach it?

  23. Anne L.B. on May 31, 2008 at 3:14 PM

    >Camille mentions the responsiblity of the Christian publishing market to meet readers’ expectations that material be free of the profane, and not causing a brother to stumble. Yet especially in Christian publishing, we need room to present sometimes dark themes in the light of Christ.

    I’m wondering . . . how do others feel about a CBA rating system? Or is there another way to identify mature material within Christian publishing, to allow broader choices that are still safe?

  24. Camille Cannon (Eide) on May 31, 2008 at 1:51 PM

    >What about commercial market considerations?

    If our focus is ultimitely unsafe, shake em up out of their comfort zones literature, where does that leave all those looking to Christian fiction as an uplifting, clean alternative to general market fiction? I’ve heard that Christian bookstores are ultimately responsible for the restricted word & topic taboos publishers enforce, based on reader/buyer feedback. I’ve heard readers will return books to a store & tell store managers they expected a Christian bookstore to be a “safe” place where they would not expect to find profanity or certain words or topics that they deem offensive. (Is it our job to redefine what ought to and ought not to offend Christians? Or do we keep Paul’s words in mind and take care not to cause another brother to stumble?)

    What’s an artist, a preacher, an evangelist, even a hillside preaching Messiah to do? We wouldn’t dream of altering the message of a painting or a poem or a sermon in order to avoid offending the audience. How far do we go to make our work or our message palatable? As artists, how does being commercially responsible affect our art, where on our list of priorities does “pleasing the buyer” rate?

  25. Timothy Fish on May 31, 2008 at 1:14 PM

    >In the context of the book, C. S. Lewis appears to have been talking about the same concept as the Bible covers when it refers to fear of God. For Aslan to be “safe” would imply that he allowed people to get by with sin. Santa Claus is safe. Sure, he might give someone a lump of coal, but there he doesn’t actually punish sin. God, however, is not safe, “for the wages of sin is death.”