Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain, and Christian Books

I should start off by saying this post isn’t meant to stir up a theological debate or to prove which belief is the “right” one on this topic. Rather, this post is a call for Christian Fiction readers to consider how we regard and talk about an author when their thinking may differ from ours.

It seems many Christian readers frown if, in Christian Fiction or in fiction written by Christians, they see characters use “Oh my G…” or “Oh L…” as casual interjections. I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Christians to frown or cringe at that when they’ve been taught not to take the Lord’s name in vain.

However, it does concern me when ChristFic readers begin to criticize an author’s Christian standards or speculate on the author’s spiritual condition because their fictional characters use those interjections.

It’s no secret that Christians the world over interpret biblical teachings differently and have different doctrinal views. That’s nothing new. So it’s important to realize that not every Christian has the same belief about what “taking the Lord’s name in vain” actually means.

Consider this fact about me: I am my mother’s daughter. She’ll often identify me as such to people who don’t know me (“This is my daughter”), or she’ll sometimes address me as such as a term of endearment. “Hello, daughter!”

Even so, though I am her daughter, “daughter” isn’t my name. Not even if you were to spell it with a capital D. My name is Nadine.

Some Christians don’t consider saying “Oh my G…” to be taking the Lord’s name in vain because they don’t consider His name to be “God.” We commonly use that more generic word as a reference to Him or as an alternative to His name, whether out of habit, for convenience, by tradition, out of respect, or whatever the case.

But when Moses inquired after the Lord’s name in the book of Exodus, did the Lord answer, “My name is God, with a capital G”?

Not exactly.

He answered Moses by saying, “I AM THAT [or WHO] I AM. Tell the Israelites, ‘I AM’ has sent me to you.” The “I AM” phrase there relates to the name Yahweh, sometimes shortened as Yah or Jah. The name is where we get the phrase “praise Jah,” or as we better know it, “Hallelujah.” (Hallelu-Jah! Not so much “halleu-god.”)

Moreover, to the Hebrews who received that commandment about the Lord’s name (and to many people today, especially in certain cultures), one’s name isn’t merely a sound you make or letters or symbols you write down to refer to someone, like “Joe” or “Jane.” Rather, one’s name is a declaration about who a person is, their character and reputation.

It’s where we get an expression like “So-and-So has a good name in the community.” The point isn’t that So-and-So is called Joe or Jane, or to say “Joe” or “Jane” is a nice name to have. What the person is literally called, for practical language/communication purposes, is beside the point. The point of the expression is to refer to that person’s character and reputation.

Even if Joe were called Bill, and if Jane were called Beth, it wouldn’t change who they are as people. And there may be other Joes and Janes out there, called by those same literal names, but that’s not the point, either. It’s the speaker’s meaning and intent behind the word “Joe” or “Jane” that gives significance to the expression, “Joe/Jane has a good name in the community.”

Taking on the name of the Lord is to take on His character, His reputation. Not just what we verbally call Him for the sake of limited, earthly communication, but Who He is. And no matter what limited, earthly language we speak, it’s the meaning and intent behind what we call Him that’s of paramount significance, not the earthly word itself. Earthly words can only go so far to represent or explain what is not of this earth.

There are Christians who believe the commandment about not taking the Lord’s name in vain doesn’t have to do with saying, “Oh my G…” or what have you. It’s about claiming the name—the character, the reputation—of the Lord in vain, to no avail. Claiming Him, saying you’re a believer in Him, but then not behaving like it.

In that sense, the commandment not to take the Lord’s name in vain isn’t a rule about cussing. It’s a commandment about how you live. As if to say, “Thou shalt not claim connection to the LORD thy God while living a lie.”

It’s like if you get married to someone, you claim connection to their name or take their name as your own, but then you go around having romantic flings with other people. You’re living a lie, behaving as if you aren’t married to your spouse, whose name you now share. That would mean you’ve taken your spouse’s name in vain.

When people have a different belief concerning the Lord’s name, “Oh my G…” may just be a colloquial phrase to them, an interjection having nothing to do with the meaning and intent behind the name Yahweh. Having nothing to do with the sacredness of declaring or taking on Yahweh’s character and reputation.

Now, in case you’re wondering about this particular author’s writing: if a character in one of my books says, “Oh, God,” it’s not a mere interjection. It’s a prayer. Still, I’m well aware that not every Christian has the same beliefs about what it means to take the Lord’s name in vain.

And whatever your belief is on the matter, or any number of other matters, I trust it’s best not to jump to conclusions about an author’s Christianity or personal standards because of something one of their fictional characters did or said.

On a related note, we live in an era of author websites, social media, email, and such. Though it isn’t possible to do so in every case, the best way to get a clearer understanding of an author’s heart or intent on a matter may be to go ahead and contact them about your concerns regarding their book. To ask the author questions and to consider their answers. Not to merely prejudge or speculate about the author. 🙂

 

Dreaming Up Books

Authors get ideas for their books in all kinds of ways. I myself get story ideas from a lovely combo of imagination, life experiences, personal convictions and passion, and, yep–sometimes my story ideas come from dreams.

I don’t just mean dreams as in wishes or aspirations, but the actual dreams I have when I go to sleep. Sometimes they’re nighttime mini-sagas that I find so entertaining or moving, I have to write ’em out!

Come to Yourself, Mr. Jones is heavily based on one such saga where the leading man was originally a music artist, movie star, and professional athlete all rolled into one. It made natural sense in the dream, but I had to iron it out in my mind once I decided to develop the dream into something readable for the public.

So, then. What’s the hero’s career in the story I wrote? I know what it is, and readers may or may not piece it together. But I purposely left it a little ambiguous because the hero’s career is rather beside the point. It’s his status, not his specific job, that matters to the plot. Besides, sometimes it’s fun to leave things up to a little interpretation.

Eminence is based on one of my dreams set in historical Japan, somewhere between the seventeenth and early nineteenth centuries. There are things I’ve found fascinating about samurai culture over the years, but when I decided to develop my samurai era mini-saga for readers, I didn’t want to tie down or confine its themes about personal identity and the value of humanity to a particular culture.

So, I worked the dreams’ themes and its major scenes into an unidentified (made-up) country with fictional customs during an unspecified historical era, with characters of no specified race(s). I even took the characters’ names from a hodgepodge of origins and incorporated a few different languages into the dialogue and narration, to keep the basis diverse. (Albeit I bent some language rules here and there, since the characters’ language is also unspecified.) It’s humanity, period, not certain races or nationalities, that Eminence means to represent.

And then there’s Love Unfeigned. I gathered key scenes from about twelve dreams and wove them together for this one, with pieces of my own life sprinkled in. Yeah, I know such a mishmash could have the potential to turn into a disjointed mess, but even I marveled at the way the scenes began flowing together, once I realized who the heroine, hero, and villain would be.

It’s like characters lead the way in these matters at times. “You–with the pen. Here’s what we’re gonna do, here. Write it down for us.”

I’ve got several more mini-sagas and saga scenes stashed away that I’ve not developed into publishable material. I keep ’em around just in case a writing project arises to which I can say, “Hey! I’ve got just the dream for that!”

Think about it. Has anything awesome ever come out of one of your dreams?

“Political Correctness” in Fiction

It happened again. My comments on someone else’s blog post prompted me to write a post of my own. This time, the discussion was at the Sweet Americana Sweethearts blog, where author Heather Blanton addresses the practice of sanitizing historical fiction to make it polite, palatable, and politically correct for twenty-first century readers.

Without rehashing that whole post, I’ll note that I agree with Heather. Trying to clean up history to make ourselves comfortable is indeed dangerous. The more inaccurate we are about the past, then the more we misremember it, and as the saying goes, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

With that said, when it comes to race, culture, and history, it can be easy sometimes to paint over everything, or everyone, with too broad a brush. We can think to ourselves, “Well, yeah, people were prejudiced or just said ignorant things back then, but they couldn’t really help it. Where they came from, that’s just how it was.” So it’s good to keep in mind that while there may be a mainstream idea or habit within a society, there also tend to be people who don’t conform to the mainstream of their time. In the past (as it still happens in the present), not every person thought or behaved the same way as “everybody else.” Light and truth are constants, even in a period or place when light isn’t prevalent or the truth isn’t popular.

Nonetheless, when it comes to various areas of life, including writing about the past, there’s a difference between being politically correct and being culturally competent or sensitive. As an author, when it’s time to write about unsavory parts of history, and you don’t want to offend readers, it’s a great idea to check your motives. Are you trying not to be offensive because you genuinely care about the people concerned, or do you just want to prevent negative reactions from coming in your direction?

In his book, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, author Ken Wytsma highlights some good stuff about following the silver rule versus following the golden one. The main principle there can apply to political correctness and writing.

Political correctness can oftentimes adhere to the silver rule: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want them to do unto you.” It can focus on trying not to do something, being polite at all costs in an attempt not to offend anyone. Being polite so as to avoid the trouble of backlash, whether or not the actual human beings you might hurt are your real or main concern.

In contrast, cultural competence applies the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Imagine yourself in the place of the person or culture you’re writing about, even if it’s only a minor character or a small aspect of the plot. Imagine yourself in the place of readers who are a part of that culture. Consider their triumphs and their plight, past and present. Consider how you’d feel if the people in your book weren’t “other people” but they were your own friends, your own family. Consider how you’d feel if the person in your book was you. What, then, would be your attitude as you approach telling that person’s story or depicting aspects of that person’s culture or lot in life?

Political correctness often comes from a place of fear, while cultural competence comes from a place of love.

Being a culturally competent author doesn’t mean you have to whitewash, misrepresent, or try to erase history. One of my all-time favorite examples of cultural competence in entertainment is a television show, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. In ways big and small, the show is historically accurate. It doesn’t shy away from depicting racism, injustice, and ignorance. It illustrates complex scenarios, brings substantive characters with room to grow or shift, and it relates powerful, relevant messages about love, acceptance, and justice without trying to ignore or erase the facts of the past.

When you’re a culturally competent author, it doesn’t mean you gloss over, sugarcoat, or tiptoe around uncomfortable social elements because you’re terrified of stepping on anyone’s toes. Rather, it means you’re active about finding ways to show love through your writing; to show that while ignorance did and does exist, it doesn’t mean it was or is okay, and that it’s possible and necessary for us to do better. There are different ways authors can convey this, whether they weave it into a plot, reflect it through a character, infuse it into a story’s overall tone, include a thoughtful word directly to readers before or after the story, or what have you.

On a related note, for authors who do or want to write competently about people of different races or cultures than their own, it’s smart to have a diverse circle. If everyone in your critiquing or publishing circle, or in your life, is pretty much the same as you are, then you may need to widen your circle. But that’s another topic to unpack.

Anyhow. A little consideration and/or creativity can go a long way in getting a message of light across in fiction, even when depicting flawed characters or regrettable portions of history.

You don’t have to write from a place of fear when you can write from a place of love.

 

Christian Fiction That Doesn’t Mention Christ?

It’s something I’ve been pondering for years.

There seems to be a good number of readers who don’t consider a book to be Christian Fiction unless they see something explicitly Christian in it. Characters praying, studying their Bibles, learning from sermons in church, talking about God or coming to Jesus, etc. The basic idea is that if there’s no mention of Christ, then the book may tell a nice story, but it isn’t Christian.

I get it. And a lot of Christian novels that gave this (relatively young) genre its foundation were pretty overt about, well, preaching Jesus through fiction. Hence, I get it even more.

The way we’ve seen things done before frames our thinking about how things should be done. If we’ve seen Christ or Christian lifestyles represented in a certain way in ChristFic, and we approve of what we’ve seen, then we feel assured that that’s the way it “works.” So if we read a piece of fiction and don’t personally see “how it works” as a Christian book, we might feel iffy about it. That’s natural.

Yet, it’s no secret that the biblical book of Esther doesn’t mention God. (Notwithstanding the beautiful book cover here, I’m not referring to novels about Queen Esther but just the biblical book itself.) I’ve never heard a Christian say that Esther shouldn’t be in the Bible, or that the book isn’t reflective of the God Christians worship. Instead, I hear readers make comments to the effect of: “No, Esther doesn’t explicitly mention God, but we see evidence of Him in the book.”

Ah! Now we’re getting somewhere.

Yes, Christ preached sermons and such, but not every message of His came in the same form. Among other things, Christ was a storyteller, sometimes using fictional stories—parables—to convey truth, without explicitly mentioning God in the stories.

And I’ll bet some people felt iffy about His storytelling. “Um…nice little tale You told us, there. But we don’t see how it ‘works.’ ” Nonetheless, I’ve yet to hear a Christian say that Christ’s stories weren’t reflective of Him, that they didn’t represent God, or that His storytelling was to no avail just because not everyone picked up on the underlying points His stories made.

A story may not work for every single person, or it may not work for everyone in the same way, but that doesn’t mean the story doesn’t work.

I think an author’s intended audience matters. But even within that audience, different readers differ, or they may need different things from ChristFic at different times. For instance, I don’t want to feel as if every Christian novel I read is trying to “get me saved.” It might’ve been something I liked seeing in books more, back when I was younger, but that’s not where I am anymore. So ChristFic readers are fortunate that authors can write various kinds of Christian books for different purposes. Not all Christian Fiction may “work” in the same way, and yet it can all still be Christian Fiction.

Besides, no one book has to fulfill all the purposes of ChristFic by itself, if that would even be possible. Books in the genre work together to meet the different needs of readers. It’s like the biblical principle of how one plants, another waters, and God gives the increase. One book may simply plant a seed, another might just add some water, but both books help lead to an increase, if you will.

Now, I’ll admit I don’t always agree with every publisher’s choices about what they label or market as Christian Fiction. Moreover, sometimes retailers make technical mistakes and put certain books into the wrong categories or on the wrong bookshelves.

Still, if an author has deliberately chosen to call their work Christian Fiction, they’ve done so for a reason. If you say the genre is only for stories that quote scriptures or explicitly talk about coming to Jesus, going to church, etc., then you’re also saying there’s no place in the genre for stories like the ones Christ Himself told. Even if an author’s book may not “work” for one reader, it may be working just the way it’s supposed to for other people.

And there very well may be underlying evidence of God in the book for those who are meant to pick up on it.