Romeo and Juliet, born again

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — It’s hard to imagine “Romeo and Juliet” with a happy ending.

But what if William Shakespeare had been preparing his manuscript for sale in stores linked to what used to be called the Christian Booksellers Association? What changes would he have been pressured to make?

“The lovers would meet, just as before, and the parents would still disapprove. Probably one set would not be Christians at all, providing a convenient subplot of salvation,” said novelist Reed Arvin, in a rollicking lecture at the 2002 Calvin College Festival of Faith & Writing.

As newlyweds, Romeo and Juliet would strive to evangelize those lost parents. Shakespeare would manfully struggle to build tension, but “the fix would be in,” with a happy ending assured, said Arvin. In the final scene, Romeo’s parents would be converted and, as Juliet’s father leads them in prayer, the sun would break through the clouds over Verona. Amen.

“I thank my God that William Shakespeare did not write for a CBA publisher, because that version of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ would have been forgotten 15 minutes after the marketing plan ran out of money,” said Arvin.

But Shakespeare, rather than “making his story end like an episode of the ‘Love Boat,’ taught us about power and young love. … Above all — in messages profoundly Christian — be taught us the importance of forgiveness and showed us how the sins of the fathers are visited on the next generation. The people were real, the situation was real and the stakes were real.”

Arvin’s lecture on “Why I Left the CBA” was a curve ball at a conference that drew a wide array of Christian publishers, editors, writers and entrepreneurs. People listened, because he was a force in the CBA before he chose to exit. In addition to his books, Arvin is a skilled pianist and producer — known for years of work with singers Amy Grant and the late Rich Mullins.

But a not-so-funny thing happened when Arvin sought a Christian publisher for a legal thriller called “The Will.” He said his friends liked the book, but were sure that it would offend a key CBA audience. Everyone warned him not to anger the “little old ladies.”

What Arvin learned is that writers can address issues of sin and salvation, but that certain sins are more offensive than others. In Christian bestsellers — such as the omnipresent “Left Behind” series by writer Jerry Jenkins and preacher Tim LaHaye — characters commit a variety of unspeakable acts of evil. No one claims that the authors have endorsed these actions. But authors go to “literary purgatory” if they violate CBA standards on sex and bad language.

“The Will” was a perfect test case, said Arvin.

The key, he explained, is that he is writing about characters that are quite normal, from a secular point of view, which means that they are messed up, from a Christian point of view. Thus, when writing about a high-strung, morally confused lawyer from a Chicago mega-firm, Arvin faced the question of what this character would do — in real life — if he fell in love with yet another hot female. The logical question: “Would he have sex with her?”

“Because I am writing a work of fiction and not propaganda, I don’t ask questions such as, ‘What should I have this character say next in order to lead people to Christ?’ Or, ‘What should I have this character do in order not to offend someone?’ … Only this: ‘What would he say next? What would he do next?’ “

There is a happy ending to this story. Arvin took his manuscript to Scribner and the powers that be at Simon & Schuster. They were not worried about its strong Christian sub-plot or that it mentioned Jesus by name — in the context of salvation, as opposed to cursing. Then Paramount bought the film rights.

“What I am finding out is that there are major, major companies in places like Hollywood that are actively searching for stuff that will speak honestly about spiritual issues and even appeal to Christian audiences,” said Arvin. “But it has to be real. It can’t be fake. We have to write real stories that speak to real people.”

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