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Moralism and Books that Smell like Smoke


A long time ago, I wrote a nonfiction book with the word “sex” right there in the title. Years later, I published it. So bold, younger me. But even though I have felt the nudge to do so in recent weeks, I have been dragging my feet in breaching the topic of Christian sex yet again. I thought maybe purity culture had died and I didn’t need to talk about it anymore. Maybe we have turned back to the God who invented sex, and I can leave that one alone. I’m pushing forty and I’m married to an assistant pastor. Who wants to hear me talk about…that?


Then, while browsing a Facebook group for Christian readers, I came across a post requesting a specific genre of Christian fiction. The poster requested that any recommended books not include romance or sex of any kind. A completely valid request, as we each have our preferences. “Clean” books are often requested in this group. No judgement there.


The comments, as comments go, were interesting. But the one that drove me back to the keyboard today said:


“Christian books don’t have sex!”


*Sigh*


So here we are, writing this blog post on this topic after many years. I’d ceremonially step back onto a dusty soapbox, but as it turns out, I’m still standing on it. I write Christian fiction, after all.


Moralism and Cleanliness

If you were to ask a set of unbelievers to describe Christianity in one word, you’d probably get a spectrum of answers. But I am willing to bet that on the kind end of that spectrum, you would hear something like, “clean” or “honorable.” On the other end, you’d probably hear terms such as “intolerant” and “hypocritical.” Those come from the fact that we Christians generally fail at being clean and honorable, however much we preach it. That’s why we need Jesus.


We hold the world to a standard that we ourselves cannot meet. Perfect holiness is the standard (1 Peter 1:16). But the fact is, we cannot meet that standard without the blood of Jesus Christ which covers us and reconciles us with a holy God (Romans 5:10).


Still, there is always this sense that good behavior, by cultural standards of the time, will somehow make us holy.


We call that moralism, which is, in a nutshell, Christ-like behavior but without a saving knowledge of Christ.


And that is impossible. That's like telling someone to act like a doctor when they haven't been to medical school. That is quite illegal.


Moralism should be just as detestable.


But from moralism comes this dishonest comparison that has now made synonyms out of two words that sometimes cross paths, but don’t really mean the same thing.


The two words?: “Christian" and “Clean


Let me stop here to say that by God’s definition, clean means holy, flawless, and pure (which can be achieved by Christ’s blood alone). God’s version of clean is always good! Ephesians 5:1–3 tells us:


Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma. But fornication and all uncleanness or covetousness, let it not even be named among you, as is fitting for saints. (emphasis mine)


What that means is that sin should be far removed from us. We shouldn’t be able to say, “You know Pastor so-and-so? The one who fornicates regularly and we’re cool with that?” That’s horrific. But that kind of clean is not what we mean when we say “Clean/Christian entertainment” is it?


No. We mean void of sex, drugs, bad words, violence, etc. You know, clean. Christian?


Nope. Not the same.


Clean ≠ Biblical*

In the same Facebook group, and in others, something horrifying comes from this flawed synonym. Sometimes a person will request a book in a Christian fiction group, and commenters will make recommendations with the following caveat:


“I’m not sure if it is Christian, but it is clean. Don’t worry.”


But I’m worried. Because the thing about moralism and “good” behavior is that so, so often, those morals were not written by God. They were written by the kind of person that Jesus condemns in Scripture. In His day, it was the Pharisees who enforced laws written or twisted by men. Today, those moralists go by the same title as me: Christian.

So. Frustrating.


Throughout history, different groups of Christians have condemned different things. Let’s name a few that will seem silly to you now because they have nothing to do with Jesus:


· Songs in minor keys

· Songs with fully voiced major chords

· Pants

· Chairs (not pews) in church

· Wearing certain colors

· Covering one’s head

· Not covering one’s head

· People who are not white


Ridiculous, right? But in certain times and places, you were considered a clean, moral person for also condemning those things.


Clearly, clean (moralistic) and Christian (follower of Christ) are not the same thing, since Jesus never changes (Hebrews 13:8). You may disagree, which is why I’ll stop spewing my opinion and open the word of God.


So, I homeschool, right? I’m a super meany Christian mom who requires that her children read the entire Bible before I will graduate them. What they do is read one book of the Bible at a time and then do an oral presentation, which must include one memorized verse from the book they are presenting. They choose the verse.


Well, I have a thirteen-year-old son who was giggling while he was reading Leviticus and memorizing his verse.


For those who don’t know, Leviticus is one of the books that contains the law of Moses, which is the way to do things so that people could remain clean and holy. When Jesus died, He became our holiness before God, as I mentioned. But the Mosaic law also contains things that describe literal cleanliness because people were new and didn’t have knowledge of microorganisms and such. This common sense stuff was cutting edge then—prophetic, really.


Anyway, my son memorized Leviticus 15:16. You ready? I sure wasn’t.


If any man has an emission of semen, then he shall wash all his body in water, and be unclean until evening. (Leviticus 15:16)


His presentation included pubescent laughter and, “You said any verse!”


It also led to a fascination with a Book that doesn’t back down from the truth and a love for a God who redeems the unclean with His own blood. But I digress.


My point? This is a blog by a Jesus Freak who wants you all to know and love Jesus so that you can be free of your sin (in that order). And I just said the words “emission of semen.”


How unclean of me. Except I copied and pasted it directly from the Bible. So let me lay this out:


The Bible is the holy word of God and contains the history of His people (and humanity) as well as an account of the life, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ and then letters from His followers that contain practical tips for living like a Christian. As Paul put it:


All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16–17)


and


For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12)


The Bible is many beautiful things.


Clean, it is not. At least not by the standards of “clean” entertainment today.


If the Bible were clean by that standard, it would be scrubbed of many truths that are shocking, convicting, and often horrifying. And it would be pointless. I believe the same thing about clean books, movies, and music. A story that is void of drugs, sex, violence, and yucky language is not necessarily a story that will contain the truth of God’s grace or an account of the gospel or reach a lost and dying world. But it’s clean. So there’s that.


Lest you forget, you can wash your hands and have all the good behaviors according to culture and tradition and Jesus will still say:


…Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition? (Matthew 15:3)


Your moralistic mask will not fool a holy God (Proverbs 21:2).


Christian ≠ Clean

So should we just allow whatever and say it’s okay because Jesus and grace and stuff?

In the words of Paul: “Certainly not! How shall we who died to sin live any longer in it?” (Romans 6:2)


We should avoid exposing ourselves to things that we know will cause us to sin or be stretched a little far in our own temptation or knowingly cause a brother to stumble (1 Corinthians 8:12). It is for this reason that I felt led to create a content advisory for my books. And so that I do not stir up temptation in my heart or the hearts of others, I don’t write explicit sex scenes with physical descriptions. Even though the Bible does it, and the Bible is my standard for content, I haven’t figured out an eloquent, edifying way to mention emissions of semen without sounding like, well, Leviticus.


But I also haven’t figured out how to tell an authentic story about a healthy Christian marriage without even mentioning sex. I’m a survivor of purity culture, and I know how that omission has damaged entire generations. I also won’t avoid topics like rape and alcoholism and certainly not spiritual warfare. If I’m supposed to use my gifts to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in a world that sorely needs Him, I can’t avoid writing about the things that have torn apart so many souls. And yeah, moralism is one of those things.


What I’m saying is that I’m a Christian. But my books aren’t clean.


Let me qualify that by saying that my books do honor God. I am not to look like the world; I am to walk around with the fragrance of Christ on my clothes like I’ve been fellowshipping around a campfire and the fire is Him—a sweet-smelling aroma. I want to live my life so close to Him that I can never get that smell out of my clothes. And I want you to smell my clothes and either crave roasted marshmallows or tell me I stink and should leave. Whatever your opinion of Him, let there be no question that I have made His love my hearth. He is my home, and He is the fireside I'll return to even before the fragrance wears off.


But not everyone liked what Jesus did or said. He wasn’t concerned about political correctness or manmade religious rituals for “cleanliness.” He was born in an unclean environment and died an unclean man’s death. Between those days, He went to places He was advised not to go to minister to people he was advised not to love in ways He was advised not to love them. Along the way,


He mentioned sexual sin directly: (Matthew 5:32, John 4:18)

He was sometimes violent: (John 2:15)

He used harsh language: (Matthew 23:33)

He died a gruesome death in public: (John 19)


He was righteous and holy and sinless. But if “clean” is the standard, Jesus Christ missed the mark.


It is true that many “Christian books don’t have sex!”


But here’s my standard: If it can be righteously written into the Christian life, it can and should be written into a Christian book.


I write Christian romance that rarely ends at the wedding. Because I think the real romance is in marriage. Because that is what God thinks. And marriage is designed as a sexual relationship.


But should Christian books have sex? Well, do Christians have sex?


Don’t answer that. I know it makes you uncomfortable.


Maybe a better question is this: if we feel like we should go around condemning the world’s version and perversion of God’s design for sex, what do we plan to present as an example of righteousness?


No sex? The “clean” version?


Is that truth? Is that what we see in Scripture? And when the world sees our “clean” do you think they see Jesus? Or do they just smell hypocrisy?


Christian books should smell like the smoke of the sweet-smelling aroma of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. They should present God’s way, and sometimes that means smelling like a campfire and looking like ash and maybe even sackcloth as we somehow traverse this world with hope and joy.


If you want to read clean books, you may want to avoid reading mine. And avoid the Bible too. The clean version doesn’t have your salvation in it.


You can have your clean. Give me Jesus.


 


*In mathematics, the symbol “ ≠ ” means “is not equal to.” It does not mean they are opposites. It means they are not equal. And it works both ways. Neither side of the (non) equation is equal to the other.



Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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1 Comment


Penny Taylor
Penny Taylor
Oct 07, 2023

This is fantastic! I‘ve never thought of Christian books or movies in the way of choosing moralism over authenticity, but it is unfortunately true much of the time. So what do we have, then? We have to choose between watered down entertainment or something vile? I think the world craves authenticity, not an unattainable standard of “purity.” And that is what Christ asks of us, too!

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