A Roundtable Discussion Featuring Mike Nappa, Ted Dekker, Lynette Eason, and Vicki Crumpton
Funny thing happened on the way to the Christian bookstore…
Annabel Lee, the first book in my Coffey & Hill suspense series from Revell, almost didn’t get published because editors said it was “too violent” for Christian readers. I have to admit, it does contain violence—in fact there’s a German Shepherd guard dog in it “that’ll eat human fingers if you feed ‘em to it just right.”
Does that violent imagery cause Christian people to sin? I don’t really know, but I think I should try to find out. So today I’m working on my third Coffey & Hill novel, and I’m asking myself this question: What’s too violent for Christians to read?
Fortunately, I have a few friends in publishing, and they were happy to join me in a roundtable discussion on this subject. Care to listen in?
Mike Nappa: All right—Ted Dekker is in the house! Publisher’s Weekly called you “The reigning king of Christian thrillers,” and that sounds about right. You’ve published over 35 novels, including your historical fiction books,A.D. 33 and A.D. 30. You’ve sold over 10 million copies of your books, and seen two of your suspense stories made into movies. Pretty cool. So Ted, how did you first discover thriller fiction?
Ted Dekker: I grew up the son of Christian missionaries in Irian Jaya, Indonesia. I distinctly recall lying on my bed one afternoon in my mid-teens with rain pounding on the tin roof of our jungle home, reading The Stand by Stephen King. The story is set in the midst of an apocalypse and I was filled with wonder at the ultimate redemption I found in the midst of trouble. Like a grand parable, it spoke deeply to me, a young man trying to find his way in the suspense of his own life.
Mike Nappa: Bestselling and award-winning novelist, Lynette Eason, is also here. Your “romantic suspense” books like Always Watching and the novels in the Women of Justice series are fan favorites in Christian bookstores. What put suspense fiction on your radar as a kid?
Lynette Eason: I cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys as well as The Boxcar Children, Trixie Belden, Sweet Valley High, etc. Later, my mother introduced me to the Perry Mason books and Agatha Christie. So, I’ve always been a big mystery/suspense fan. Later, I discovered Dee Henderson and that was that for me. That was the genre I fell in love with.
Mike Nappa: Last but not least, Vicki Crumpton, my own editor at Revell, has joined us, Vicki, how did you discover suspense novels?
Vicki Crumpton: I’m an eclectic reader, so I don’t remember a defining moment of discovery. Maybe it began with Nancy Drew mysteries when I was a girl and grew from there.
Mike Nappa: All right everyone, I’m trying to work through what it means to write thrillers for Christian readers, and I’m thinking it starts with the writer’s vision and passion. Your thoughts?
Lynette Eason: My passion is to write a great story that keeps readers on the edge of their seats and coming back for more. My mission/ministry is to make sure that my heart comes through on each page, that God is the focus and that people fall in love with Him all over again because He is the real hero in every book.
Ted Dekker: Jesus made it plain: “In this world you will have trouble. But take courage for I have overcome this world.” Like all good transformational stories, suspense novels are incarnational, in that they bring light into real, authentic trouble which represents the conflict and struggle we face during this life. Jesus didn’t say there would be no trouble, only that in Him we can overcome that trouble, each day, as we place our identity in Him rather than in the storms of this life, which will come. There is no avoiding them, any more than there’s a way to avoid aging or physical death.
My vision isn’t to pretend the trouble isn’t there, rather to enter that valley of the shadow of death and there find the light, who is Christ. To that end, my mission is simply to awaken to my own identity in the midst of the storms, and to help my readers awaken in the midst of the storm they face in this life.
Thus our writing is incarnational. We bring light into the darkness. In doing so, we must first characterize that darkness, then bring light into it. It’s a suspenseful journey.
Mike Nappa: Violence is a staple of suspense novels. How do you decide what’s “too violent” and what’s “appropriate violence” for your readers who are Christian?
Lynette Eason: I try to stay away from graphic violence. I prefer to let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks.
Vicki Crumpton: I think genre makes a difference in reader expectations. You don’t expect much, if any, violence in an Amish novel and certainly not from the Amish themselves. You expect violence in suspense. You can’t have suspense without danger. And you can’t have danger without the potential, and even the reality of, violence. Unfortunately, we live in a fallen world and life can be violent. When you move beyond fiction published with a Christian audience in mind, you’ll find violence galore. Most readers don’t read exclusively “Christian” books, whatever genre they like. So suspense readers expect some type of violence.
Mike Nappa: What’s our responsibility as creators of suspense stories?
Vicki Crumpton: In novels written and published with a Christian audience in mind, I think about how the violence is portrayed and the extent to which descriptions are graphic. An important question to ask is what purpose the violence (and describing it) serves. Is it gratuitous or do we learn a lesson? Does it happen for the sake of being violent or something big at stake? Does a violent act save a life? Is evil vanquished and good upheld?
Ted Dekker: In my opinion, any gratuitous use of violence for affect alone is wasted space on the page. But worse is the inauthentic state of many gray novels which only pretend there’s no dark conflict in our world. Avoiding the valley of the shadow of death only leads Christians into inauthentic faith which denies the power of the light to abolish darkness. Did Jesus turn away from the leper’s sores because they were too gross to look upon? No. He kissed their faces. Did those closest to Him hide from his gruesome death? No. They stood by and watched with deep compassion.
Delicate yet poignant use of violence is appropriate if it makes the reader cringe and then rise triumphant when that darkness is defeated. But if you have no darkness in your story, the light is lost. This is the fate of all gray novels. Christianity is the triumph of good over evil. Light into darkness. Let us not make a mockery of that triumph.
Mike Nappa: What advice would you give Christian readers who are concerned about violence in suspense novels?
Ted Dekker: I have no problem with Christians who find violence disturbing—it should be. We all find ourselves in different stages of life, and it’s perfectly fine to turn away from that which bothers us. I would only suggest that they not judge others who will benefit greatly from facing their own fears though a novel—a safe place to do so. We have to ask ourselves this question: Why are we afraid? Why do we fear the storm? The question is at the heart of true Christianity in which light has overcome all fear. To that end, all my novels resolve in staggering love and peace. So then, I would speak peace to all, regardless of their personal preferences.
Vicki Crumpton: The Bible doesn’t omit violence in its stories. But it’s there for a purpose. Having said this, readers should feel free to know themselves and their reactions to violence and choose their entertainment, whether books, movies, TV, or video games, accordingly.
Mike Nappa: Any last thoughts?
Ted Dekker: The single greatest lesson I’ve learned from writing suspense novels is this: “It is Finished!” The light has overcome. As have we who are in Christ. Our only journey now is to see and believe what is already true of us in the storms of this life. This, we call awakening or transformation through the rewiring or renewal of our minds, as Paul said. And so we set our intentions on awakening to our true identity as the sons and daughters of the Father through Christ.
This is the boat we find ourselves in during this life and finding peace in the storms is our great suspense story. So be it.
Mike Nappa: Thanks everybody!
Vicki Crumpton is Executive Editor for Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
Ted Dekker is a New York Times best-selling author of over thirty-five novels, with over 10 million copies of his books sold worldwide. Two of his suspense novels, Thr3e and House, have been made into movies, and he’s currently writing an historical series about the life and teachings of Jesus.
Lynette Eason is an award-winning and bestselling author of more than 30 novels filled with action, suspense, and romantic encounters. She’s the creator of the Women of Justice series, the Deadly Reunions series, and the recently-launched series, Elite Guardians.
Mike Nappa is an entertainment journalist at PopFam.com, and author of the Coffey & Hill suspense fiction series from Revell.