Christian Fiction And The Christian Worldview


Earlier this week I wrote the following:

Sower_oilGiving the good news [of Jesus Christ], however, doesn’t look the same for every single person. Some are preachers, some serve. Some prepare the soil, some plant, some water. All parts of the process are necessary for a harvest. But one thing is true—wheat doesn’t come up by accident. (“A Look At What’s Most Important.”)

I think that paragraph summarizes my views about Christian fiction about as well as anything I could write on the subject. But sometimes particulars are lost in metaphors, so I want to elaborate a little on this topic.

First, I’m aware that some readers and some publishers equate “safe fiction” with Christian fiction. That view is in error. Christianity is not the same as morality. For example, Mormon fiction can have a “true love waits” theme as much as can Christian fiction; fiction written from a secular humanist worldview can have a tolerance theme that looks similar to a “love your neighbor” theme you might find in Christian fiction.

The externals that so many look to as the definition of “safe”—no bad language, no sex scenes, a minimum of violence—can be true in movies like Wall-e or in DVDs like Veggie Tales.

Consequently, no matter what marketing or promotional blurbs say, safe does not equal Christian. Anyone saying otherwise is closing their eyes to an attempt to usurp the term Christian and make it over to mean something it is not.

Secondly, Christian is not the same as theistic. Consequently, a story that includes or even centers on a belief in God is not the same as Christian fiction. That fact should be clear from Scripture:

You believe that God is One; you do well. The demons also believe and shudder. (James 2:16)

A story like Gilead, then, with a pastor who does not pass on the gospel to his son in the last moments of his life, may speak of God, but can’t be understood as a Christian story based solely on those pronouncements.

So what makes a story Christian or what does fiction written from a Christian worldview look like? I think we have to take a step back and ask, what defines a Christian or Christianity?

I think there are several key components:

    * Humans have a bent toward sin to which we’re chained.
    * This human failing creates a rift between us and God, who made humans in His likeness.
    * God Himself solved the rift problem when Jesus switched us out and Himself in as the One to bear our sins in His body on the cross.
    * The net result is that God rescued us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of His Son.
    * As members of God’s kingdom, we are His heirs, in His family, part of His body.

Christian fiction or stories written from a Christian worldview do not have to have all those components, either explicitly or implicitly. In addition they might have moral components shared by any number of other worldviews.

Nevertheless, something unique to the Christian faith must be part of the story, if it is to be Christian in any capacity. Again, this “something unique to the Christian faith” does not have to be overt. It can be, certainly. But it doesn’t have to be.

There are wonderful stories by authors like Kathryn Cushman that show people of faith struggling to follow God and live as members of His family. Key components of that which is unique to Christianity are clear in and through each story.

Other stories, like Karen Hancock‘s Guardian-King fantasy series also show these same unique components, but from a somewhat allegorical approach.

Still others like Anne Elisabeth Stengl‘s Tales of Goldstone Wood rely on symbology. Nothing is overt, but the unique components of Christianity are in operation throughout each story, shown through symbols.

Another type of story such as general market author R. J. Anderson‘s Faery Rebel, communicates components of the Christian faith through metaphor, much the way the Old Testament does. Isasc portrayed the promised Messiah and Abraham, the Father willing to sacrifice him; the Passover lamb pictures the sacrifice Jesus would make to remove sins; Moses portrayed Jesus as the Mediator between God and man; David depicted the Messiah as King, and so on.

These stories are best referred to as Christian worldview stories. The unique Christian components are easily missed, but they serve an important purpose one way or the other: they show readers of all stripe what redemption or sacrifice or rescue or sinning against a loving authority looks like, without actually naming God or drawing any overt parallels.

Recently at Ruby Slippers Media for Fiction Friday I posted a short story entitled “Haj” that I think falls into this latter category. Last week, however, I posted another story, “At His Table,” that is best described as overt, including faith components unique to Christianity. The first I’d call Christian worldview fiction and the second Christian fiction.

One last point: while I think writing is a wonderful opportunity for the Christian to pass along his faith, I also believe there are other legitimate reasons a Christian might write fiction that is not Christian and does not communicate his Christian worldview. However, those who choose to use their writing as an avenue to reflect what is unique to the Christian faith have a variety of ways to accomplish this, one not superior in any way to the others.

The fact is, God can use gold and silver drinking vessels, and he can use ordinary clay pots that might contain water turned to wine. It’s not up to us to determine what kind of story God will use.

Integration, Not Segregation


Salisbury_Cathedral,_cloister,_from_top_of_towerMuch has been said by writers about the artificial divide in publishing that has created the Christian arm of the industry. Some accuse Christians of cloistering against the world. It’s an unhealthy divide, they say.

Interestingly my pastor, Mike Erre, has been preaching about a similar topic as he works through the book of Luke. Christians, as opposed to the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, are not about separating ourselves from what is unclean, as the Jewish Law required. Jesus modeled this new paradigm in which relationship matters more than separation.

These concepts sound good, but the conclusions seem to be off.

In the writing world, any number of writers have advocated for grittier or edgier fiction, still with redemptive themes, but no explicit Christianity. After all, stories aren’t propaganda.

In life, the theologians seem to be saying, Jesus hung out with tax collectors and sinners, so we should go and do likewise.

In other words, in both instances, in order for Christians not to be cloistered, the answer being offered seems to say, mingle with the world. What’s off with that conclusion?

What’s off is that the gospel is offensive—prophets were put to death because they proclaimed God’s word; Jesus was put to death because He was God’s Word; the apostles were put to death because they announced the fulfillment of God’s word.

Therefore, I can only think of two ways a Christian can mingle with the world: (a) if “the world” is interested in the gospel or (b) if the gospel is missing.

In reality, there’s no indication that Jesus “hung out” with anyone. Rather, He invited people to follow Him. One of those He invited was Matthew the tax collector. Scripture says Matthew left everything and followed Jesus. But the very next sentence says Matthew gave a “big reception” for Jesus in his house, to which he invited tax collectors as well as others who the Pharisees labeled sinners.

So yes, at that one meal we know Jesus ate with tax collectors and sinners—invited there by one of His followers. But clearly, the gospel was not absent during this reception. In answering the Pharisees about what he was doing, eating with tax collectors and sinners,

Jesus answered and said to them, “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:31-32, emphasis mine)

Jesus was not burying the lead. He wasn’t holding back. He wasn’t worried about being too explicit. He actually knew the gospel was divisive, and He expected some to take offense

Unlike those writers advocating an approach to fiction that would make a Christian story look no different from a Mormon story or a moralist’s story. Unlike those theologians who advocate Christian gospel-less good works.

But here’s the thing. The gospel should not be an add-on. Writers should not deliver a story with the gospel added in. In all walks of life, Christians should not do life with the gospel added on as a spiritual exercise.

Rather, God should be so important, so pivotal, so foundational, so integrated into our lives that He is who we think about and who we talk about and who we want to introduce others to. When people ask us what we’re reading, part of our answer ought naturally to be something having to do with God. When they ask us where we’re going, part of that answer ought to be something about God’s house. When they meet our friends, some of those people ought to be part of God’s family.

In other words, the gospel should be as hard to separate from us as oxygen is from water molecules. The essence of water requires oxygen. The essence of a Christian requires the permeation of the gospel in every area of life.

And as such, some people will be offended. After all, we believe all have sinned. We aren’t born good and we aren’t even born blank slates. And that offends some people.

It offends people when Christians say Jesus is the Way, the Truth, the Life, no one comes to the Father but through Him. People are offended when we say sex should be reserved for a monogamous relationship between a husband and wife. They are offended when we say God gave different roles to a wife than to a husband. They are offended when we say the Bible is an absolute authority.

There’s really no way around it. If Christians integrate the gospel into our lives, we will cause offense at some point.

Not that everyone will be offended. Really, only those who have turned away from the gospel find it offensive.

And of course Christians should not be offensive for things apart from the gospel. Peter says it like this:

If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you. Make sure that none of you suffers as a murderer, or thief, or evildoer, or a troublesome meddler; but if anyone suffers as a Christian, he is not to be ashamed, but is to glorify God in this name. (1 Peter 4:14-16, emphasis mine.)

I don’t know how comfortable most of us are with the idea of suffering because we are Christians. I suspect the day will come sooner than later if today we decide the gospel is too offensive to put in our stories and too offensive to integrate into our lives.

Open Letter To Christian Publishers


ReadingDear Christian Publishers,

I’m not a happy customer, and I think it’s time I stop complaining to my friends and come right out and say what’s bothering me.

The problem leaked out as I wrote my review for Wayne Thomas Batson’s recent (excellent) middle grade / YA novel Dream Treaders. At one point I said that middle grade boys were an under-served reading market, but that’s only partly true. In reality, all children are under served by Christian publishers!

I find this to be a horrible state of affairs. The few books I see in book stores and in publisher catalogs more closely resemble Sunday school material than entertainment. Don’t misunderstand—I’m a big fan of Sunday school. I just don’t think kids like going to school—no matter what kind of school it is—when they want to play and imagine and get lost in a story.

I understand from discussions on agent and editor panels at writers’ conferences that the topic of the paucity of children’s books comes up from time to time. In explanation, industry professionals identify two problems. First, there are so many clean books available in the general market that there is no real need for Christian children’s books. And second, Christian children’s books simply don’t sell.

I find the first reason to be reprehensible. Yes, reprehensible. Since when is Christianity limited to moral living? Do believers have nothing else to say about life except, don’t use bad words, obey your parents, and be nice to the little disadvantaged boy who lives next door?

I mean, really. Are we content to let the world tell our children how they should think? That’s precisely what we do when ALL their entertainment—TV, video games, movies, and books—espouse the same humanistic agenda. The two hours children spend at church on Sunday (and it’s a pretty shaky assumption that they do spend two hours there), is not enough to counter the multiply hours they spend every day hearing that they are good (not sinful), need only look inside (not to Jesus) for strength, can do whatever they put their mind to (not what God has gifted them for), and many other principles that fly in the face of Scripture.

Who, I ask you, Mr. and Ms. Publishing Professionals, will counter the humanist, postmodern worldviews that children are being taught?

Ah, someone is bound to suggest that parents are tasked with that job. I couldn’t agree more. Moses certainly gave parents the responsibility of teaching the Law to their children:

These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deut. 6:6-9)

The idea is that parents are to use every occasion to teach their children the things God wants them to know. Every occasion. Including their reading time.

Yes, parents can use reading time, like they must for movies and video games and TV and public education, to teach how the worldview behind the stories and games and curriculum is false. But is it too much to ask that Christian publishers give parents a better tool than negative examples?

Seriously, why aren’t all Christians up in arms at the poor pickings we are offering up to our children?

Which leads to the next issue. Publishing professionals say that parents don’t buy Christian books. Well, here’s the thing: some don’t know any Christian books exist. What’s more, the few books that are on the shelves in book stores may not be geared toward the needs of the parents who are looking. If there’s one book about pumpkins at Halloween time, for example, what does the parent do who is looking for a book for her little boy who loves horses?

The other “not buying” issue is price. Publishers say, all that color and thick paper for children’s books make printing children’s books prohibitive. Their print runs aren’t big enough to bring the cost down, so given the choice of buying a cheaper general market book and an expensive Christian market book, parents go for the less expensive.

Both these issues can be taken care of if you, Mr. and Ms. Publishing Professionals, would think creatively and take seriously the need for adults to pass on the Truth of God and His love for the world to the next generation.

First, the not knowing. There are plenty of women buying Christian fiction by everyone’s calculation. Why not package a popular author with a children’s book? You could work with an author who is best-selling and might be willing to contribute to this cause. The idea would be to give Popular Best-selling Author’s latest book away for free to everyone who buys brand new children’s book–for a limited time, if you choose.

That’s just one idea, but I can guarantee you, women who love Popular Best-selling Author will buy that children’s book and therefore discover Christian children’s books.

As for price, there are ways to cut costs. Like making the pages of children’s books smaller (that’s already being done by at least one publisher, and if I recalled which one, I’d stand up and applaud).

And of course, cost isn’t really an issue for middle grade or young adult books. Those don’t have the expensive art work or the glossy paper or any of the other high cost elements.

For teen and pre-teens, it’s really a matter of letting readers and their parents know the books are available. So why not do a little bit of old-fashioned promotion? Why not set up an author to speak at schools, selling books along the way? A few fantasy writers have done this, and teen Christian fantasy came into being.

It’s doable, Mr. and Mrs. Publishing Professional. It’s really a matter of whether or not you think it’s important enough to work at it and make it happen.

And here’s a secret. If you invest in this next generation, chances are, they’ll become your customers of the future. And when they do, please work to keep them happy.

Not Ashamed Of The Gospel


Love of Divena coverIt’s getting harder in western society, I think, to say we’re not ashamed of the gospel. Well, we can say we’re not ashamed of the gospel–free speech, and all. But taking a stand because of the gospel, especially on the hot bed issues of our day, is becoming risky. Hence, Christians are re-thinking whether or not they should let their Christianity be known.

For example, I or my beliefs have been belittled or vilified on my own Facebook page by family and friends because of certain positions I’ve taken.

Dovetail this with what some Christian writers have been saying: Christian fiction is poor art in part because it aggressively preaches.

The accusations about Christian fiction are anything but new. Often people have decried the loss of Christian influence in the arts. Once Christians dominated painting and literature. So what happened, they ask.

Well, what did not happen was a switch from not preachy to preachy. Milton, John Donne, George Herbert, John Bunyan, and a great list of other writers led the way in literature by writing about their faith or incorporating it in their works in very clear and obvious ways. They were not ashamed of the gospel.

The real difference between then and now, however, is in execution. Too many writers add on “faith elements” as an after thought or to fulfill a necessity for their publisher. Some, on the other hand, slather in gospel references in the hopes of . . . well, preaching to the lost.

Other writers would just as soon see the divide between secular and sacred erased–but the implication is that a story well told, without any “faith elements” is sacred by virtue of the fact that it is artistic.

I wonder if this isn’t the writer’s way of being ashamed of the gospel. If a story is well told and the gospel is front and center, why does that story automatically get treated as if it is second rate?

Well, some may say, those stories are too unambiguous. They don’t make people think, they give too many answers? Really?

Recently I’ve been discussing salvation in regards to “the unreached peoples” of the world, and those living in India have been mentioned. At once I think of Kay Marshall Strom’s series Blessings in India: The Faith of Ashish, The Hope of Shridula, The Love of Divena.

India 1990. In the final book of the Blessings of India series, Shridula, old and stooped at fifty-nine, makes her painful way to pay homage to the elephant god Ganesh, lord of success and destroyer of evils and obstacles. “Why are we Hindus instead of Christians?” her seventeen-year-old granddaughter Divena asked.

“Because we are Indian,” said Shridula.

So begins a spiritual journey for Divena as she struggles against an entire culture to proclaim a faith close to her heart while rocking the world of two families. (backcover copy quoted from Amazon)

Yes, those are stories about God at work in one of those unreached parts of the world. No easy answers, but no hiding God, either. No shame of the gospel.

Honestly, I don’t know why, in light of the vast number of people who don’t know Jesus Christ as Savior, all Christian writers don’t make it a mission to bring faith to bear in a discernible way in our writing, in our stories.

No, I don’t think every story needs to be a salvation message. Some can show a believer coping with anorexia as Running Lean by Diana Sharple does. Others like Firstborn by Lorie Ann Grover can address gender issues. Or how about the Safe Lands series by Jill Williamson that shows a character’s struggle with lust and addiction?

God can show up in dramatic ways or daily, gradually, through His people. He can show up through types and symbols and allegory, or He can be present, identified from start to finish as the Creator, Sustainer, and Savior of the world. The how isn’t the issue, I don’t think.

But a dying world needs to hear Truth, and I don’t think it’s time for Christian writers to shrink back, ashamed of the gospel.

The Christian View Of Culture: The Secular/Sacred Divide


    Nothing for the Christian is essentially secular. It can only be secularized by leaving God out of it or by engaging in that from which God, by his nature, must be excluded.
    - The Real Face of Atheism by Ravi Zacharias (p. 145)

mud_poolI’ve read any number of times that one of the problems in the church and in Christian fiction is a propensity to divide life into camps—secular over there, Christian over here. Often times this line of reasoning comes from someone decrying the term “Christian fiction.”

However, the thought usually goes more along these lines: God created the world and everything in it; therefore, everything has a touch of the divine if we will see it—mountains and mud puddles, priests and prostitutes.

Interestingly, the quote above from evangelist/apologist Ravi Zacharias agrees with the idea that we have constructed an artificial divide. There’s an interesting wording difference between Zacharias’s phrasing and what I’ve read before. Rather than saying all is sacred, he says none is secular. I think that might be significant.

On one hand, those suggesting we do away with the “Christian fiction” distinction say all is sacred. There seems to be a period there. The implication is that all can be enjoyed or utilized by a Christian whether or not God shows up.

In contrast, Mr. Zacharias stipulates that nothing is secular but anything can be secularized by leaving God out

But what does it mean to include God in the picture? Are we supposed to see Jesus in Avatar, for instance? Are we supposed to read Watership Down (Richard Adams) and see some end times message?

Not at all. I think including God means I first see the object or person or piece of writing before me for what or who they are. Jesus, for example, understood exactly who the woman at the well was—a Samaritan, a “seeker,” a divorcee, a sinner in need of a Savior. He didn’t dismiss her as too far gone for God and He didn’t dismiss her as already one of the family of God.

I guess what I’m thinking is this: we don’t need to force God into places.

I remember when I saw the first two Star Wars movies. I started to see Christian parallels and began to wonder if possibly Lucas was using intentional symbolism to convey a Christian message. Maybe he was saying the Force was God. Maybe our hero was a type of Christ.

In reality, I was forcing my worldview onto the movie.

Then where is God in Star Wars? Are they simply “secular,” something I can enjoy apart from my Christianity?

While I can enjoy them, I don’t think it’s necessary for me to do so apart from my Christianity but because of it. As I think on God and His Son, I am filtering my culture through the lens of my Christianity.

For example, I can look at the Force and compare that to God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible—a personal, loving Heavenly Father. While the Jedi knights could say, “May the Force be with you,” they could never say, “May the Force comfort you in your time of grief” or “May the Force hear your prayer” or “May the Force extend its grace and love to you.” God transcends the Force by His nature, by His personhood.

So I can come away from Star Wars entertained but also thankful that I know a personal loving God and do not have to trust to an impersonal, distant Force.

That’s only one example. Other possibilities include a conviction to commit to God … Or a willingness to mentor someone new in the faith … Or a determination to stand against evil regardless of the strength of the opposition.

You get the idea.

Nothing is secular unless I leave God out.

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This article is a reprint of one entitled “The Christian View Of Culture” published February, 2010.

The Place Of Truth In Fiction


Truth in FictionFiction as truth? Almost any novelist will tell you that truth is an important component in storytelling. The setting needs to be believably true, the characters need to be true to their personality and experience, and the story needs to be true to its setup and foreshadowing. And all of it needs to ring true with the reader.

Behind the curtain, though, is a story’s theme, and the truth of the theme seems to be at the heart of understanding the place of truth in fiction. According to R. L. Copple in a recent article at Speculative Faith, there are two primary views of truth in fiction:

One view is that fiction is a teaching tool.

In that understanding, Christian fiction’s primary goal and purpose is to relate Biblical truths (as interpreted by a specific community of faith) in a systematic and accurate fashion. Ultimately, it should convey the Gospel message. The fear is that if it doesn’t do so, it will teach people untruths and lead them away from God, not to Him. Thus, any deviation from their perception of Biblical truth is cause for alarm and condemnation.

The other view is that fiction conveys an emotional experience of Christian themes.

Unlike God, who is infallible, authors are not writing the Bible, nor a systematic theology, but a story about fallible characters who may believe the wrong things, misunderstand God, in short, sin. It is a story depicting theology lived out, and thus like real life, messy. Not every question gets answered. Not all resolutions are in tidy, neatly wrapped packages.

The purpose of this type of Christian fiction is to wrestle with Christian themes in an emotionally engaging manner. To help people encounter and incarnate the truth within themselves. The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.(Emphases in the original.)

“The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.” There’s some truth to this statement. In The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, for instance, the important details about Aslan dying on a stone table as a substitute for Edmund didn’t need to be true in the sense that a real lion talked and walked or sacrificed himself. Nor did the details have to match up with precision to that which the allegorical sacrifice depicted–Jesus Christ dying on a cross as the substitute for sinful humans.

However, there were details that did need to remain truthful if the story was to be true. The White Witch, for instance, couldn’t win the battle and become the new Aslan. Such an ending could well have been engaging, and there might even have been an engaging theme, perhaps even a truthful one, such as “Looks are deceiving” or “It’s better to obey those in authority than to rebel.”

Nevertheless, such themes do not mitigate the falsehood of evil winning out against good.

Does that mean, then, that fiction is supposed to teach? Well, sure! Fiction is supposed to teach the same way all of life teaches. For the Christian, this is mandated in Scripture:

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 11:18-19)

And when you tell stories.

OK, the text doesn’t add he line about stories, but Jesus modeled the use of stories as a teaching device.

I honestly wonder what people mean when they question the idea that stories aren’t supposed to teach truth. It’s as if “teaching” has somehow become a suspect activity. We don’t want to indoctrinate our children or our readers or our colleagues or our friends.

Teaching is not indoctrination! In fact, the best teaching spurs the learner to think critically, to ask the hard questions, to dig for answers, to mull, cogitate, meditate, debate. The best stories, the truthful stories, ought to do that.

The problem isn’t that some stories teach truth and others let readers experience. Rather, it’s that some stories which teach truth do it badly. Of course, some stories that let readers experience, do that badly, too, because they aren’t truthful stories. The Shack had lots of people praising it because of what they experienced, but in the end, the story was filled with falsehood.

The place of truth in fiction? Right dab in the middle, as far as I’m concerned. Stories by Christians should be all about truth. But they ought to be artful in their expression of it, and yes, they should show truth instead of telling readers what is true.

Why Morality In Fiction, Or You Experience What You Read


The best books take readers to new places

The best books take readers to new places


I know this isn’t a great hook, but I think you should know up front: this post is largely a reprint of an article I wrote for Spec Faith in August, 2011. The subject leads naturally into a look at morality in fiction, and honestly, I didn’t think I could summarize the content adequately. I’ll add a few remarks at the end, but here is the original with slight editorial changes.

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    Stories matter. Any reader can tell you this. We cry because a beloved old yeller dog, which never actually existed, dies. We laugh at the pig’s tail applied to the imaginary greedy Dudley Dursley. We cheer when the fictitious Aslan returns alive.

    Clearly stories affect us in powerful ways. We skip meals and stay awake late at night. We “forget to breathe” and find our muscles coiled tight until our heroine is out of danger.

    Such physical effects indicate that all this pretend is very real. But how can this be?

    At long last, scientists are beginning to take note and study the power of fiction. One of those leading the way is Keith Oatley, professor emeritus in the Department of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto. He and his colleagues devised a way to measure the effects of literature on the human psyche. In summary

    the central assumption Oatley developed to frame their research [is this]: “When people are reading literary fiction, they’re creating in their mind a simulation of experience. It’s a simulation that’s cognitive as well as emotional….” (“Toronto scientists determine that fiction can change personalities” By Natalie Samson, accessed August 12, 2011 – emphasis mine)

    In essence, it seems these scientists are saying we readers have our own little holodecks in our minds, and consequently we mentally experience the stories we read. And that changes us.

    At least that’s the hypothesis.

    black_horseI get that. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Walter Farley books (The Black Stallion, The Black Stallion Returns, The Black Stallion and Satan, The Black Stallion’s Filly, and many more, my favorite being The Black Stallion Mystery). Somewhere during that reading phase, I decided I wanted a horse. I knew I’d bond with a horse and that I could ride like the wind.

    At that point, however, I’d done nothing with horses except ride an old nag at summer camp where we walked our mounts behind a guide for an hour.

    I never did own a horse, but my confidence around them did not wane, despite my own lack of experience. You see, I didn’t feel inexperienced.

    Years later when I visited a friend who did own a horse and we went riding, the particular mount I was on tried a clever trick to unseat me. My friend was somewhat amazed that I didn’t end up sprawled in the dirt.

    Some time later I did a “rent-a-horse” ride in Colorado. After several return visits, the guide let me take my horse out on my own. Again I had the experience of a horse trying to deposit me on the ground, this one by rearing.

    No problem. After all, I’d experienced much worse from the Black. Oh, wait. No, that wasn’t actually me. That was a character in a book. But it felt like me.

    It felt as if those experiences had become part of my acquired knowledge. Not in a conscious way, to be sure, but as I look back, I find it easy to believe that I wasn’t fearful and didn’t overreact in the real life circumstances because of the simulated experiences of my childhood.

    How many other experiences have I lived through behind the eyes of the characters in books I’ve loved? And how have those changed me?

    Oatley, whose scholarly work Such Stuff As Dreams: The psychology of fiction (Wiley-Blackwell) is now available in North America, and his fellow scientists developed experiments to “examine what Oatley calls the ‘big five personality traits’ – extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness” (ibid).

    I don’t know about those particulars, but here’s what Oatley’s publisher says:

    Oatley richly illustrates how fiction represents, at its core, a model that readers construct in collaboration with the writer. This waking dream enables us to see ourselves, others, and the everyday world more clearly.

    Yes, fiction matters, with readers and writers collaborating. And the end result is clearer vision.

    Always? Or can fiction lead us to believe something about ourselves and the everyday world that is not true?

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And this is where morality comes in. Dr. Zhivago, the movie, was one of the first pieces of fiction that made me aware of the power of a story to affect my moral compass. Here was a story about a man in the midst of political upheaval who loved two different women, each love shown to be beautiful and right. Was it true that a person could love two different people with the same passion? And if so, did loving them both justify sexual involvement with both?

At some point during my reading experience, I also became aware of my tendency to mimic the speech patterns I was reading, if only in my head. Unfortunately, this bent included a variety of cuss words, and at times I found the first word that came to mind in certain situations was one I’d copied from a character in a book.

These experiences and others made the idea of reading as “a waking dream,” as a type of holographic experience, resonate with me.

If reading is a collaboration, though, between the reader and writer, at what point does the writer have a moral obligation to the reader?

I remain convinced that theology should inform our fiction, but I believe theology should also inform our morality. How do the two intersect?

Morality In Fiction


Prager-ZachariasIn my recent brief series, Theology Versus Morality, (Parts 1, 2, and 3), I essentially took a stand for theology in Christian fiction while calling into question the validity of judging a novel by its morality. For example, in part 2 I said,

I tend to think too many Christians put the cart of morality before the horse of theology. In fact we advocate certain behavior without the foundational belief system that can rightly shape a person’s actions.

Later I added

When it comes to fiction, I think there’s a segment of Christian readers who want their brand of morality mirrored in the stories they read. In fact, for some, the morality might be more important than the theology.

I think that position is bad for fiction and bad for Christianity.

Does that mean that morality has no place in fiction? Should we write the story of adultery with nothing but a suggestion that a way of escape exists? That would be truthful to the way the world is and truthful to theology.

But is it sufficient for the needs of society?

I look at western society, and I see a growing cesspool of immorality. We have TV programs with titles like Scandal and Revenge and Betrayal. Others focus on the criminal mind and blood splatters and entries wound, with the intent to show the process of catching those who perpetrate psychotic and cruel behavior.

We have TV news magazines discussing yet another school shooting, one many people forget because “only” three children died.

Last night’s news carried stories of an old man struck down with intent by a hit-and-run driver in a gas station as he walked toward the office to pay for his gas and of a twelve-year-old and his mother living next door to a state senator (i.e., not your usual violent-crime neighbor) who were bound and gagged while a crew of four robbed their home on a Sunday afternoon.

Further, an NBA athlete was celebrated this week as the first openly gay player in any of the four major sports in the US.

Then on Facebook today, one topic of discussion revolves around an article about the growing advocacy for “polyamory” especially by the media. Clearly, if marriage is no longer allowed to be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, why should it be limited to a single person with another single person, instead of multiples?

There’s more, from the LGBT community successfully advocating here in SoCal for children to pick the bathroom, locker room, gender sports team, based on how they feel, not on their biology, to the new idea for losing weight based on Yoga meditation and fasting during certain phases of the moon.

The muck and mire of the world is thick and growing thicker.

So do Christian novelists simply tag along, showing society as it is, without addressing morality in our stories? Do we write to the edge, and when the edge shifts further from us, scurry along behind in an effort to catch up? Quite honestly, I think that description fits too much Christian fiction.

Many of the strictures that writers complained about are gone. Christian fiction has characters that are divorced, have affairs, drink, see ghosts, see demons–all things that once were considered taboo. But as general market fiction played at the edges, Christian writers begged to be allowed the same latitude.

The problem, as I see it, is that this move toward a reversal of moral constriction is built on the same error as that which established the legalistic mores in the first place–theology does not undergird the view of morality.

Interestingly, apologist Ravi Zacharias, in a discussion Saturday with radio personality Dennis Prager, identified three levels in which philosophy is passed on: (1) argumentation–reason; (2) art–the imagination; (3) “kitchen table conversation”–the daily statements of belief. To influence society, then, Zacharias says we must argue from reason, illustrate in our art, and live out our beliefs. The problem he says, is that we try to do number three without number one and number two.

Exacerbating the problem, I believe is something G. K. Chesterton identified:

Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art … There must always be a rich moral soil for any artistic growth.

So if society has lost its “rich moral soil,” how is art to illustrate the theology (philosophy) that underpins our beliefs?

In other words, we are in a downward spiral–a morally vacuous society that cannot produce art which will show us how to live morally.

There but for the grace of God are we all.

But God does give a greater grace. He is “opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble,” Scripture says.

So, what if Christian novelists determined to know nothing but Christ, and Him crucified? What if we painted theology into every corner of our art–and won awards doing so? What if we stopped fighting to get cuss words into our stories or stopped counting the number of times the characters break the Ten Commandments, and started writing to show what God is like, to show His Son, to the best of our ability? What if we gave stories that illustrated the power of forgiveness or love for an enemy, neighbor, or stranger, or for God? What if our stories show what we say we believe?

Wouldn’t that be a step in the process of influencing our society to get out of the morass we are making?

Theology Versus Morality, Part 3


Shepherdandsheep_1298569I ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a “complete conversion”–one in which the protagonist apparently stops sinning.

The problem, of course, is that the story generally ends when the character conquers whatever problem he’s been plagued by, often by making a commitment to Christ. The implication is that ALL is solved and the character will never face the problem again. I suggested some read or write these stories because they put morality ahead of theology. Essentially they’re saying a moral life is the measure of a person’s relationship with God. It’s the same argument Job’s friends made.

But in the stories I’m talking about, the reward God gives is victory over sin.

And the truth is, God does give victory over sin. However, a new believer isn’t always free from addiction at the moment of conversion. Some people struggle. In fact, my guess is that more people identify with Paul’s statements in Romans 7 about the war between what he wants and what he does, than identify with what he said in Romans 6:

our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (vv 6-7)

Freed from sin, Paul says, but still struggling. Our fiction, however, seems to tell only the first part–freed from sin. Almost automatically. Almost magically. And those stories don’t ring true to readers who struggle with sin in their own lives.

Writers might be penning these stories because they have elevated morality above theology, but they also might write them because they have a philosophy of storytelling that values creating a model for readers to emulate.

A couple years ago I did some study for an article at Spec Faith and discovered that the novel in its earliest forms had two distinct purposes. One was “to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

I suspect this goal is still the desire of many writers. After all, we as a society copy those we look up to. That’s how fads and fashions catch on. That’s why ad companies use slogans like “Be like Mike,” a popular phrase back in the day when Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.

The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good. After all, the Bible says a lot about morality. It would be one sided to pretend that God only cares about what we believe concerning Him, not what we do as a result of our belief.

But we must see morality as an outgrowth of our belief, not a means to gain right standing with God. And the depiction of morality in fiction must not confuse the two.

Some writers, however, believe that, rather than giving a model for readers to emulate, fiction should be a means to understand the world–natural and supernatural. To accomplish this, the writer must accurately and truthful reflect the world, warts and all.

This last approach creates stories that are in line with ones you can find in the book of Judges, involving such things as gang rape and murder, idolatry, betrayal, thievery, abuse, war. The idea is to discover and understand, “to expose life and society for what it is” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

These stories, then, subjugate theology to morality, but not for the sake of establishing right morality per se. Rather, a reflection of society, especially an unrestricted look at the underbelly, which exposes or critiques, is the goal.

Here are the two views, both holding theology at bay:

If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.

If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society. (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”)

What I wonder is why those who want to “push our awareness of the world” don’t see as paramount the need to push our awareness of the spiritual side of the world. And by this, I’m not suggesting we need more stories about demons or angels in the vein of Frank Peretti. Rather, there seems to be a great desire to show cursing construction workers and women who sleep around, and not so much a desire to show a loving God who will tend His people like a shepherd, who will carry us with His arm, or hold us close to His chest, or gently lead us.

This is the picture God gives of Himself in Isaiah 40:11. Do we fiction writers think it’s unimportant for the world to understand God as He has shown Himself? Or do we give verbal assent to it but doubt in our hearts that He really shows Himself as He described?

That, I think, might be the key question Christian writers should ask of ourselves. Maybe that all of us should ask.

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Theology Versus Morality, Part 2


old-carriage-954803-mThere’s a saying my mom used to use which I think is fitting in this discussion about theology and morality. I’ve specifically applied the contrast to fiction, but I think it fits all of life. That saying is, “Don’t get the cart before the horse.”

I tend to think too many Christians put the cart of morality before the horse of theology. In fact we advocate certain behavior without the foundational belief system that can rightly shape a person’s actions.

I don’t want to disparage morality. God clearly chastised Israel for their moral failings–they didn’t keep the Sabbath, didn’t care for orphans and widows, engaged in child sacrifice, trusted in foreign powers. But behind their moral failings was their great theological error:

For my people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:13)

In a nutshell, Israel abandoned God and chose to create their own system of righteousness. I suggest that a great number of people identifying as Christian today are doing the same thing, whether Progressive Christians or Word of Faith folks or universalists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Sinless Perfectionists or Trinitarian Theology adherents or Westbow Baptists or any number of other people believing that the good things they do make them acceptable in God’s eyes.

When it comes to fiction, I think there’s a segment of Christian readers who want their brand of morality mirrored in the stories they read. In fact, for some, the morality might be more important than the theology.

We end up, then, with criticism of books like Harry Potter that sounds like this: Never mind that Harry is trying to save the world, he left his dorm room without permission.

Of course he also conspired to take what wasn’t his, lied about leaving school, and broke a host of school rules–all for the greater good. Do such stories teach situational ethics, then?

Perhaps because the Harry Potter books do not pretend to be Christian, they aren’t good examples of viewing morality over theology. But the point is, readers often judge a book by its morality, not its theology.

In fact, there was considerable theology in the Harry Potter books–especially in the last book where Harry sacrifices himself to destroy the enemy. Certainly he was not a Christ figure in the same way that Aslan was in the Narnia books, but he was a type–”a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something” (Oxford English Dictionary). Harry exemplified Christ’s defining sacrificial characteristic much the way Biblical figures such as King David exemplified His Kingship and Moses, His role as mediator. They, of course, were real people, though flawed. Harry is fictitious, and equally flawed.

The fact that the Bible uses morally flawed people to point to Christ gives me hope, and it guides my thinking about fiction. The Bible never covered over the sins of the heroes of the faith. Take a look at the list in Hebrews 11, for example. Noah got drunk, Abraham lied, Sarah gave her servant to her husband as his mistress, Issac favored Esau, Jacob deceived his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing, Joseph bragged about his dreams, Moses committed murder, Rahab was a prostitute. None of these people is listed in Hebrews because of their morality. Rather, they had right theology.

I can only conclude that theology trumps morality. But I’m confident right theology leads to right behavior. However, the sanctifying process takes time–a life time, actually.

Why, then, do some readers demand a false conversion in fiction–one that shows characters no longer sinning? There are two possibilities. One is that some readers are choosing good morals over right theology. And that’s a problem.

The other is a more involved possibility, and I’ll reserve that for discussion another day.

(If you’d like to read or re-read the previous article, “Theology Versus Morality,” you’ll find it here.)

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