I sit reading her essay, pain settling in my gut. She takes me to the park, to a meeting alone with a friend, and forces me to watch him rape her. It is a horrible story. It is true.

I have asked her to write about a frightening experience. She has written it well, employing the devices we have been studying to not so much tell me this story, but show me.

As I read, I am profoundly disturbed. At one level, I wonder how I should respond to content like this. At another level, I ask myself as a teacher: How should difficult topics be handled when we write about them? She has used details, words, that I don’t like to see in print. But they are real. Should I invite my students to write the sordid facts, raw and blunt? Or should I teach them to allude to an act like rape without sharing detail?

To find answers, I turn to the Bible. God is its author. He is holy and sinless. How does He write about difficult topics?

  1. God reports unvarnished history, but in language appropriate for any audience: The men of Sodom bang on Lot’s door, demanding, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them.” Lot’s daughters “lay with him” and “became pregnant by their father.” Amnon “violated” his sister and “lay with her.”
  2. God uses graphic imagery, but again in language that is somewhat veiled. Ezekiel 23 speaks of Judah playing the whore with lovers “whose members were like those of donkeys, and whose issue was like that of horses” and longing for the Egyptians who “handled your bosom and pressed your young breasts.”

(I realize some Bible translations choose to modernize these passages by using more explicit language. I have chosen here to quote from the ESV, which attempts a word-for-word translation of the Hebrew.)

At a recent family event my uncle told us about a postcard still in his possession which announces my grandfather’s birth by simply stating that “Sarah’s trouble” has ended. In following the Biblical pattern, we hardly need to veil our language to quite that extent.

However, graphic writing allows the reader to experience vicariously what he or she has not lived. If the story being told involves sinning or being sinned against, the reader should not be invited into the experience. The Biblical pattern is to report sins, but in language which does not cause the reader to experience the sin.

That said, the story does not need to be dull. My student could appropriately paint the fear she felt in the park that day or the dark pain she carried afterwards without asking her reader to feel the rape itself. As Emily Dickinson says:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—