In this second session of my Christian writing course we will look at the pros and cons of message-based writing and whether Christians can or even should be involved in secular writing.

Consider these two poems:

Bread of Life
Sometimes I see you rummaging deeply
into other peoples’
castaway lives.
And I think to myself:
“If only you knew Jesus …”
But halfway across the vacant lot
I stop.
Fixed in confused animation
between a world of bricks and soaking cardboard;
And I think to myself:
“Do you want Jesus or do you want food;
will you take a bite then spit Him out?”
Oh how can I,
with belly full,
tell you there’s food more satisfying than that in your hands?
You may not believe me,
but still I must speak
and offer you the Bread of Life.

A Traveller Through the Karoo*
He is like a road in the Karoo;
Neither coming nor going.
But if you were to follow him, beware,
For he might take you
With him.

If he looked right or if he looked left
(which, I admit, he might never do)
He would see yellowed tufts of surely-it’s-dead-grass
Pointing, sharply

And then he might scrape his palm
Over brittle hair,
Sigh in disappointment, then turn his back,
Never to see the brazen aloe
Swell in phallic glory.

*The Karoo is a semi-desert region in South Africa

Exercise 1:

  1. Which of these poems do you consider to be the most ‘Christian’? Why?
  2. What is the ‘message’ of each poem?
  3. Which is the more ‘Christian’ message? Why?
  4. Do you consider the ‘Traveller Through the Karoo’ to be a legitimate expression for a Christian poet? Why or why not?
  5. Does the use of the phallic imagery shock, offend or surprise you? How does this affect your view of the poem or poet being ‘Christian’ or otherwise?

I wrote both of these poems. This is what I was thinking about when I first penned them:

Bread of Life, Fiona Veitch Smith, 1998

In 1998 I was working with Youth With a Mission in Cape Town. I ran a performing arts group with my husband, Rodney. In YWAM we were exposed to the concept of the ‘two-handed-gospel’ which essentially is a crossover between the sometimes opposing views of Christian ‘mission’.

The one group believes that God’s love needs to be shown as a ‘social gospel’, providing practical help to the outcasts of society. In Muizenberg, where I lived, there was plenty of opportunity to show God’s love this way as it was a gathering point for ‘Bergies’ – vagrants.

But the other view, which I had been brought up with, was that practical help was well and good but unless the soul was ‘saved’ by confession of sin and accepting Jesus as Lord, then the person’s life would not be truly transformed. People with this view spent more time involved in door-to-door and street evangelism than setting up homeless shelters.

The two-handed-gospel was meant to address both needs. This poem was my response to that, expressing my doubts about how the homeless man would respond to the ‘second hand’. I now believe you should show love in practical ways without ‘strings’ attached. Do it in God’s name and allow Him to apply it to people’s hearts. I still believe that you must speak of God’s love whenever you have an opportunity, but practical help should not be conditional.

Exercise 2:
What are your views on the two-handed-gospel? How might you express this message in a poem or story? Take some time and write down your thoughts.

A Traveller Through the Karoo, Fiona Veitch Smith, 2007

I wrote this poem after thinking about a painting that used to hang in my uni flat back in 1989. It was of a flowering aloe in the Karoo. An aloe is a cactus-like plant that produces a single giant, red phallic flower once a year. The Karoo is a semi-desert area in South Africa which, at first glance, appears lifeless. But when the aloes are in flower, it’s magnificent. I wrote this poem in response to that image.

If you were to ask me what this poem is ‘about’ I would say it’s about spiritually and artistically castrated people. The yellowed grass pointing ‘heavenwards’ speaks of the struggles in our life that point us towards God. The phallic aloe is a symbol of fertility and life in what appears to be a dead place. The man who is just passing through the desert is ‘castrated’ whereas the aloe refers to people who have found life there.

Does this change your view of the ‘Christianness’ of the poem? The difference between this poem and the Bread of Life is that I approached that one with a ‘message’ and wrote the piece as an expression of those concerns. This second poem started as an image – a non-spiritual image – and I simply responded to it. The message / meaning / theme of the poem only emerged in the writing.

Exercise 3:
Look again at the first poem or piece of prose you wrote in response to images in exercise 2 of the session on finding your style. What message, theme or meaning emerged from your writing? Did you approach the picture with a message in mind, or did it just develop? Don’t worry, if there’s no ‘message’ other than an emotional or artistic expression, that’s great. And if you do have a ‘message’ and it’s not Christian or even spiritual, that’s ok too.

Does everything we write have to have a message?

In the past, as a writer who also happens to be a Christian I have felt a great burden to ‘use my gift’ for God. I felt guilty if everything I wrote wasn’t ‘furthering the Gospel’ in some way. This was the result, I believe, of spending my formative years in a church that had no use for the arts other than as a mode of evangelism. But I thank God I’m finally free of that. Now I describe myself as a writer who is a Christian rather than a Christian writer.

There is such a thing as art for arts sake. And as the Eric Liddell character said in the film Chariots of Fire, ‘when I run I feel God’s pleasure.’ He said this in response to his sister who was questioning how running in the Olympics was fulfilling his Christian call (he then went on to be a missionary in China). What Liddell meant is that to exercise his gift was, in itself, a way of giving glory to God. It’s the same with art. There are many writers who are Christians but don’t produce ‘Christian’ writing. And that is quite legitimate. For more on this read Science Fiction writer Simon Morden‘s excellent article.

Some of my writing is aimed at Christian readers, others not at all. I write for the Christian and secular press, including Sports Illustrated on one hand and the very Christian Woman Alive on the other. I have written a series of children’s picture books about the life of the young King David, and ghostwritten another series with no Christian message at all. I do not find this a contradiction as when I am writing for Sports Illustrated I do not cease being a Christian. My position as a child of God is dependent upon who I am, not what I do.

Unfortunately some people in the church do not share my view and condemn anyone who does. Take for example this sad tale from a Christian writer that I read on an internet forum:

I once had a very close friend rake me over the coals for not writing about matters of faith instead of matters of the heart (I write mainly love stories). She said that my ‘secular novels’ weren’t furthering the Kingdom of God in the slightest and that I was ‘wasting my God-given writing talent’ because I wasn’t writing specifically about my faith.

I explained that the novels came to me very easily, but that writing about matters of faith was foreign and difficult for me – I can churn out 20 pages in one sitting of my novel, but it takes me days to write two or three pages of faith-based matter – and she asked me whether I thought following Christ always had to be easy?

I don’t know. I guess her words still hurt me, even after two years … but the thing is, after two years I’ve realized that she’s wrong. It is more glorifying to God to write the words he gives me, than to try and force my writing into someone else’s mold.

Am I writing great, crossover literature? Of course not. Don’t expect high art from me, anyone. I write to entertain, but I write from a worldview of loving Jesus. And yes, I do think that does come out clearly in one’s writing, whether one is writing about faith or pirates. (By ‘Amica’ on

Exercise 4:
With these thoughts in mind, write a poem, story or short article on what it means for you to be a Christian writer or, even, a writer who is a Christian.

In the next session we will be looking at how to use your writing as witness (if you feel led to do so, of course!)

9 comments on “What’s the message?

  1. Satrena on said:

    I love the way you explain things. How it is OK, to write in different directions. I do want to write things that are Pleasing to God and that give Him glory. Writings that would help someone else understand Him better, or help them with a question they may have. I also want to write about just everyday life. My feelings, hopes and dreams, my hurts and pains and of course poems and the such. Again thank you for your view point here.

    • fiona on said:

      This agony over whether or not Christians are ‘allowed’ to write other things is so frustrating. And unnecessarily so I believe. It’s a particular problem for writers who come from an evangelical position. Other expressions of Christianity don’t seem to get so hung up about it!

  2. Funto on said:

    I believe that a writer’s style is a product of their being. A writer who is a christian will write from the Christian view point no matter what genre of literature he is writing. Great examples are Ted Dekker and Francine Rivers. Both write intensely from a deeply Christian view point. Much as I admire them both though, I just discovered from the What is your Style segment of this course that I am an apologetic. I love being who I am, and also desire to develop in other areas as well. There is room for every style of writing… to the glory of God

  3. i love your course. it’s helping reinforce certain things in Christian writing. but i just wanted to say that i gave my life to Christ before i was ten and discovered that i loved writing simultaneously. looking back, most of the stories i wrote during that period and in my teens were erotic but all i was trying to do was reach out to unbelievers through what they love and bring them to Christ. i still write but now i struggle to read my bible more and understand doctrine by the grace of God and illustrate that in my writing. this is after years of God finally knocking it into my stubborn head that whateva i do is to give Him glory and others should see that it is peculiar to Him. it’s tough because it means more praying to understand the message and working with Him to get how to convey it but dat’s actually the work of a Christian writer. dun get me wrong, Amica’s friend didn’t relay the message well, yes. but i believe she has a point. bottom-line,the question we should keep asking ourselves is: will Jesus write what i have just written as a writer, a follower of his? does my writing say that i belong to him? anything beyond this should be watched. :) so love stories and all are accepted but would He write it as you have written it?

  4. Fiona, reading this early on a Saturday morning has been so encouraging. I write non-fiction at present, ranging from Christian devotionals to books on crafts. Thanks for this thought-provoking post & course.

  5. Mary on said:

    I appreciate and agree with your perspective here. I am a Christian and anything I do should reflect that, but that doesn’t mean I have to only have Christian activities. That includes writing. I employ several interests as they are enjoyed by the secular community as well. God created all of life for us to enjoy.

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