The Light Under the Bushel

When I wrote A DEATH OF HONOR, I was rebelling. Not against my faith — which had proven itself under fire again and again — but against my conservative upbringing.

See, I come from an ultra conservative family. As a little kid I used to dread get-togethers with my father’s side of the family because they practiced gloom and doom politics; "It’s bad and there’s nothing anyone can do about it." I remember losing sleep as a kid because from my bed I could hear them say things like "When the Russians take over, I’ll be the first one they shoot!" and "The end is near! We’ve had it as a nation!"

So A DEATH OF HONOR was a rebellion. Having proven that I could write a novel with DESPERATE MEASURES, I was now going to write something with depth. I told myself that it wasn’t going to be political. I was going to throw out all of my political influences and write a straight-ahead, apolitical thriller. As a bonus, my subconscious took the opportunity to exorcise a few demons in the process — hence the book’s nightmare scenario of a Soviet-dominated world (hey, you write what you know).

In addition, though I was not consciously trying to write Christian fiction — the genre barely existed when I was starting out — I did hold myself to some semblance of Christian standards, which I had tried to work out with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12):

Use of profanity would be limited to words and phrases that did not take the Lord’s name in vain. There were also a large number of expressions, mostly having to do with bodily parts and functions, that I just couldn’t bring myself to use because of the people I associated with using that type of language. This still gave me a flexible palate of vulgarity with which to work.

Explicit sex was out. By then I had read enough novels to know that I resented the action grinding to a halt in order for certain characters to display their athletic prowess at coupling. Yes, there is sex in most of my books, but I generally feel that it is enough for the readers to know that sex has occurred between two characters. The logistics of it are left up to the reader (the exception to this is THE COMPANY MAN).

I had no standards regarding violence. I spent my childhood seeing it in movies, and my earliest writing successes were short stories in which the bullies who tormented me died spectacular deaths (one reason I think I am able to write excellent action scenes now). Generally, I write violence to the point where my own pulse starts to race. I don’t consider it graphic — but some people do.

With that in mind, I set out to tell a secular tale of a man trying to choose between two women while searching for a better life in a world where life has become dirt-cheap. I have written elsewhere on this site about people’s reactions to HONOR and how everyone has their own personal set of limits when reading fiction. But imagine the surprise in store for me when I read this review in a fanzine:

This is a first novel, so (the editor) says I should be nice. Ok, let’s see. It’s not as bad as it could have been. I suppose that if you weren’t a lesbian, or a liberal, and didn’t know anyone with AIDS you could manage not to be offended by this book. It would help if you hated the Russians and the US government, too.

I’ve learned, over the course of many debates, to separate the writer from his or her writings. For all I know, Joe Clifford Faust might be a tolerant, liberal kind of person. It’s just that he doesn’t write that way.

(if you want to read the entire review, you can see it here)

Imagine my total, utter and complete shock of seeing a complaint that HONOR had been too conservative. After all, I had been working hard to avoid politics. Looking back on it now, this revelation reminds me of Christ’s words to Saul when interdicting him on his trip to persecute Christians in Damascus (Acts 9:5): "It is hard for you to kick against the goads…"

Meaning, this is the direction you’re going, whether you like it or not.

In my case meaning, okay, you want to be a writer, but you’re going to write from your heart, whether you know it or not. Go ahead and deny it, but these are the things that are on your heart.

That was my way of finding out how closely tied to my faith my conservative upbringing was. It wasn’t about the gloom and doom of impending Soviet invasion. It was about protecting the innocent (the abortion issue) and punishing the guilty (capital punishment, et al). It was about standing up and denouncing something as being wrong, no matter what the cost. And it was about loving the sinner but hating the sin that had corrupted their lives.

In denying myself that, I was trying to hide a city on a hill. I had stuffed my light under a bushel (Matt 5:14-16). The thing was, my light was still shining. I just didn’t know it at the time.

No more. I’ve long since quit kicking against the goads. I’m letting my light shine before men. I’m a conservative and am happy about it. But I’m an optimistic conservative, meaning no doom and gloom from me (most of the time, anyway). And I’m glad I used a God-based series of standards before writing those first five novels, because it helped to keep me focused on what was truly important to me in my life. Even if I was busy trying to ignore it.

Of course, in due time fear and trembling would set in again and I would reconsider those standards…

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