Friday, February 27, 2015

Our Stories Matter: Proceed with Caution

Those of us who regularly advocate for women' issues have been waiting, not with anticipation. We knew it was coming. 

A week after 50 Shades of Grey hit screens, someone in Chicago used it as his excuse to tie up and rape a young woman. Not surprisingly, opinion writers and Facebook ranters pounced on the news. Also not surprisingly, they continued to have radically differeent opinions.

People are responsible for their own actions. No one can blame a movie or a book for being dumb.

If violent sexual behavior sells, we should not be surprised when men follow through.

I have my opinions. I've voiced them—numerous times. (Here, herehere, and here, for instance.) But the controversy made me think about my own writing. As a writer myself, it matters to me whether what I say effects what someone else does. As a Christian, I have to take the question a step farther and ask, “What is my responsibility for what I write, teach, and communicate?” How far ahead do I have to think about words I put on paper or speak from a pulpit to see the possible ramifications? How much should I gauge what I say accordingly?

Is “the movie made me do it” ever a tenable defense? What does that mean for those of us who put words in public? What kind of power do we have to change people?

More than we know.

Studies in neuroscience prove that what we read not only informs and entertain us, it changes us.

“A team of researchers from Emory University reported that when subjects in their laboratory read a metaphor involving texture, the sensory cortex, responsible for perceiving texture through touch, became active. Metaphors like 'The singer had a velvet voice' and 'He had leathery hands' roused the sensory cortex, while phrases matched for meaning, like 'The singer had a pleasing voice' and 'He had strong hands,' did not. The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life.” (NYT, Annie Paul)

So while a lot of people are arguing that a story is just a story, and fiction is not intended to be taken seriously, biology disagrees. Though we have read or seen something not real, our minds and bodies have experienced something very real.

This has no lasting effect if we read about the smells of grandma's kitchen and then want to go eat snickerdoodles. But there are more serious sensory descriptions going on in literature and cinema than cookies. We need to carefully consider what we're creating.

“Dear brothers and sisters, not many of you should become teachers in the church, for we who teach will be judged more strictly. Indeed, we all make many mistakes." (James 3.1-2)

I know a great deal about that “making many mistakes” part. Nevertheless, those who choose to teach the word of God, which includes Christian communicators of all kinds, need to heed James carefully. We will be held to a higher standard. Why? Because words are powerful, and they shape peoples' hearts. And, we are not employing simple words as Christians. We are teaching God's words. That is a whole different level of words. Everyday words are dynamite, and we are working with atomic bombs by comparison. We need to watch what buttons we choose to push.

This applies to every area of our communications. I am assuming Christian communicators are not out there planning to emulate E. L. James. But we do permeate our writing with our worldview. If we write nonfiction, we propagate opinions and choose our facts based on our own biases. Are those biases rooted in Scripture and eternal truth? Or are they the product of our own culture and preferences?

As fiction writers, we create worlds and scenarios. Are those worlds challenging Christian to think about issues close to God's heart, or are they forwarding our own agendas? It matters, if stories change hearts and actions. Fiction, in fact, appears to have more of an impact on our thought patterns, and behaviors, than nonfiction.

Research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape.”
 (Jonathan Gottschall, Boston Globe, April 29, 2012.)

All communicators want to convey a message. If we didn't, we would get a job at Target and take up knitting. Stories teach. They always have. Jesus knew it when he used parables to convey his point. He chose his words carefully, because he, the living Word, understood their power.

Books have a long history of impact. Charles Dickens led the way toward child labor reform. Upton Sinclair forced food industry change. (Though that was not his intention.) A number of dystopian works (1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451) caused people to evaluate the future and what they did or did not want in it. Uncle Tom's Cabin gave a face to slavery and helped usher Lincoln into the presidency. That's a lot of power for simple stories.

“And you yourself must be an example to them by doing good works of every kind. Let everything you do reflect the integrity and seriousness of your teaching. Teach the truth so that your teaching can’t be criticized.”
 (Titus 2.7-8)

Am I suggesting Christian writing that's all sunshine and unicorns? Hardly. None of the above examples are works of perfect heroes and happy endings. Considering the Psalms, Lamentations, and the most graphic book of Scripture, Judges, no one can argue that the Bible shies away from tough plot lines. In fact, I would argue that Christians need to embrace the tough things in their writing a lot more often than we do.

But we need to do it with care. A teacher is responsible for his or her teaching. There is no “it was just a story” defense. Nothing is just a story. No communication enters a black hole. That applies whether we're writing a novel or an op ed about issues of the day. Our words have a heavy weight. Choose them with love, grace, and honesty. Choose them with care. 


  1. This is fantastic. In my opinion, this is the most important piece you have written, and really needs a broad audience. Thought provoking, well argued and supported, and fresh. I'll do my best to help with that through our normal channels, but with a bit more of the same. Well done!!

    1. Wow--thank you! I am glad we can take something good and useful out of this situation that is so otherwise not good.

  2. Well said and timely. I was just working on a piece this morning in regards to what Scripture says over what man says and while the world will not agree with my words, I cannot write to please man. I must first and foremost write to please God. Well done Jill.

    1. Thanks, Laura. I appreciate you taking the time to read (and write what's on your heart.)

  3. Thanks for sharing this awesome piece. You are "right on" with this one! I especially appreciate what you said about the effect fiction can play. After all, Jesus used stories to teach eternal truths, because he knew that they reach right in and grab your heart. It behooves us as Christian writers (no matter the genre or venue) to do our jobs well for God's glory and intentionally with eternity in mind.

  4. Jill,
    It is not only fiction writers that must watch their words. Writer of non-fiction must watch too. Taking Scripture out of context, twisting it, using it to serve one's own agenda - these are scary things. I have been doing a deeper study of Titus on my blog on Sundays. The past 2 Sunday's it has been on deceivers and violence. I touched on 50 Shades as well.
    Yesterday I found a great resource called I am so excited about the possibilities! Now I am even more determined to study further and only print the truth as I find it in Scripture.
    Thanks for a well written article.

    1. Thanks, janis. I'll check out what you've done. I am primarily a non-fiction writer, and yes, I am appalled at the things written "in the name of Scripture" that are anything but. They do a great disservice to the church and its reputation. Unfortunately, to unbelievers and young believers that reflects on God, even though it's not his fault when his children behave badly.