(Warning: This is an editorial by Julie Lessman, as well as a discussion and book giveaway.)
Okay, it’s true—I’m definitely what you’d call an “Edgy Inspirational” romance writer, teetering on the edge of what is considered appropriate for the Christian market. But I have a confession to make—yep, I’m afraid of heights. And let’s not sugarcoat this, I’m talking heights of any kind … peering down from those tiny windows at the top of the St. Louis Arch (cold chill) or a knee-knocking trek across a dry creek on a board three feet high. Whether it’s the physical aspect of getting nauseous on the Six Flags ferris wheel or just sick to my stomach over a 1-star review, trust me, it’s not pretty … nor comfortable.
It takes me back to the summer my 12-year-old daughter talked me into an innocent chairlift ride at the Lake of the Ozarks, billed as a relaxing scenic adventure over a pretty ravine of trees and wildflowers. Yeah, right. Pretty? Maybe, if I had kept my eyes open. Relaxing? Not even close for either my daughter or me, the poor, scarred child whose mother had a death grip on her, forcing her to sing Amazing Grace while I hyperventilated and muttered “In Jesus’ name” over and over under my breath. I wanted to throw up once my feet hit solid ground, and I vowed I would NEVER go there again.
So recently, when a reviewer told her blog audience that she stopped reading my newly released book, A Passion Denied, halfway through because “In my opinion, smut is smut. Even if you slap God's name in it on occasion, it's still smut,” I have to admit, it kinda feels like that stupid aerial tram ride had given way, plummeting me into a ravine on a patch of thistle and Missouri primrose. Ouch!
Now before you go feeling sorry for me, please understand that as my Seeker bud, Ruthy, likes to point out, I knew I was going to rock the boat when I hit the Christian market with my brand of passion, so duh! And, yes, I really have developed thicker skin for things like 1-star reviews and nasty comments, neither of which barb me quite as much as before. But I’d be less than truthful if I didn’t tell you that I ache inside at the thought of offending people I love and respect because some of the “passion” in my books made them uncomfortable. And more to the heart of the matter, I bleed inside at the prospect that what I write would in any way offend God.
So if you would be kind enough to humor me today, I’d like to take this opportunity to editorialize just a bit by explaining to both my critics and my supporters just WHY I write the way that I do. It should be no surprise to anyone who knows me that I am a woman of considerable passion—whether for God or romance or even just brushing my teeth, which I do, by the way, ruthlessly, eyes closed and a pained expression on my face. So when God tapped me on the shoulder in a beauty shop (figuratively, of course) while reading a 2001 Newsweek cover article on how Christian movies, books and music were on the threshold of exploding, I was nervous. Now is the time to finish your book, the thought came, and I knew that meant the book I’d begun at the age of twelve after reading Gone With the Wind. But romance? The "subgenre" that literary snobs (myself included) looked down upon? Yes, the thought came again, write for Me. Mmm … passion for God, an interesting concept. Thus was born my tagline—Passion With a Purpose.
So I did. And then I sent tons of query letters touting the statistic that “nine out of ten women nationwide (90%) consider themselves to be Christian” -- American Religious Identification Survey conducted by the Barna Group. Ironically, most of these women who do read romance wouldn’t choose Inspirational romance to save their soul. Why, you may ask? Well, I can only speak for myself and my friends who wanted more heart-pounding, 21st-century realistic romantic tension interlaced with God’s precepts (i.e. on the "edge," like mine), which in years past, hasen't been overly prevalent in the Christian market. As a result, most of my friends, Christian and non, read secular romance, which, of course, generally promotes the world’s amoral lifestyle rather than God’s. What’s wrong with this picture? I mean if the world can take something that God created and use it to sell its amoral agenda, then why can’t Christians utilize this God-given passion to promote Him and His precepts?
Look at the world today—it’s obsessed with illicit passion. Hollywood promotes adultery and unmarried couples sleeping together as sexy, and I can count on one hand how many young, unmarried women I know who are still virgins today, Christian or no. Why? Because passion is important! Not just to romance readers, but to everyone on the planet. We were created that way by a passionate God who analogizes His own depth of love for each of us in a very passionate love letter called “Song of Solomon.” And what happens? The world uses this beautiful, God-given gift to shove sin down peoples’ throats, and I, for one, am really sick of it. I want to use passion the way it was intended—to teach people God’s precepts and therein, His love. It’s the cry of my heart, and I hope and pray that for my readers, my stories of romantic passion translate into passion for God.
But those who disagree with me do give me pause to think … and to pray … that I stay the course with God’s plan and not my own. I thank them for their passion for purity, which I assure them, is as fervent as mine and which inspires me to be even more vigilant and careful in future stories I write. And, yes, I do understand the concern and “passion” of those who feel Christian romance must remain chaste and pure. But on the other side of the spectrum, there are Christians like me, who worry that “chaste and pure” will not reach the majority of Nora Roberts or Hannah Montana or the MTV crowd anymore than old-time Gospel music will reach those who listen to Christian rock such as Pillar or metalcore rock like Underoath. The Body of Christ is just that—a body of human beings at varying levels of faith. It’s not one size fits all in reaching people for Christ, but it’s the cry of St. Paul who said “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.” Salt … in an unsavory world.
But I’ll be honest—in the last few months, I have been going through a really discouraging time regarding my writing, wondering if I was on track with God regarding the level of passion I include in my books. Sure, I’ve received lots of positive feedback, like the 15-year-old who couldn’t talk to her mom about anything, she said, until she and her mom found common ground in their mutual love of A Passion Most Pure. Or the guy who contacted me to get a signed copy for a friend he wanted as a girlfriend. When he told her he wanted a deeper relationship with her, she actually made him read A Passion Most Pure because “that was the kind of relationship she wanted, with God in the middle.” Or the woman who’d “fallen away” from Christianity and wouldn’t read Inspirational books on a dare, but picked mine up not realizing it was spiritual. She wrote that A Passion Most Pure rekindled her love for God and gave her hope again. These are stories that I treasure in my heart.
But life up on the “edge” is still scary for me, nonetheless, because at the base core of who I am as a woman and a writer, I have this deep, primal longing to please and honor my God. So I was praying with my prayer partner about it (AGAIN!) when her 25-year-old daughter stopped by, a girl I hadn’t seen in a long time but knew that she had strayed from her Christian roots—living with her boyfriend before they got married, not going to church anymore, heavy drinking, etc. This young women proceeded to tell me that when she read my books, she actually got angry at me. Why? Because the spiritual parts convicted her so much that she wanted to throw the books out. But she didn’t, she said, BECAUSE the sensuality and intense romance so grabbed her by the throat, that she was compelled to finish the books. And when she turned the last page of A Passion Redeemed, she told me it had brought her up to a whole other level with God. I had tears in my eyes when I learned she is now back at church and trying to live for Him. Call me “edgy” if you will, but for me, it just doesn’t get any better than that.
Writing on the “edge” in anything—romance, suspense, young adult, women’s fiction—is a dizzying prospect for any of us who attempt it, especially for those who don’t like heights … or the jolting effect when you crash to the ravine below. But it’s also exhilarating, standing on that cliff, eyes on God instead of the valley below, hoping and praying the wind of the Holy Spirit will help you to soar … for Him. And in that one breathless moment when something you wrote turns the heart of a person back to the Father … oh my … you feel like you can fly!
So I’m going to go out on another ledge here and ask you what your thoughts are on “edgy” Christian fiction—are you pro or con, and if so, why? Your feedback is important to those of us who write it because as one Body in Christ, we need to be sensitive to the various parts and open to honest discourse. And for those of you brave enough to comment with your opinions, you will have an opportunity to win a signed copy of your choice of one of the books in The Daughters of Boston series, the series that according to the Romantic Times, “isn’t your mother’s inspirational fiction.” And don’t worry, if you win, I’ll send it in a plain, brown wrapper … J