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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7 Comments

  1. Yes, Amen & Amen. Only His Holy Spirit can transform. Only His blood can cleanse. Only His Grace can save us and make us new…NOT RELIGIONS or CHURCHES! Jesus Christ Alone! “The morality might be more important than the theology.” This is what legalism is and Pharisee’s lived like this. We know how harshly Jesus spoke to them. You are on target again with His truth. Keep teaching others boldly!

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    • Yes, I think when living to meet an external standard becomes more important than living to please God, we’re not loving Him with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength.

      I guess it bothers me that some believers who rail against strict standards aren’t seeing the difference. They seem fine, for example, with calling, “Don’t use dirty language” one of the tenets of theology. While I think a case can be made from Scripture about what our language should be like, I don’t think that’s part of my theology.

      For Christians, our theology should be in agreement, whereas our morality can vary. I mean part of our morality has to do with the circumstances we’re in. I think I should be a law-abiding citizen, but would I think that had I lived in Nazi Germany?

      This is all very tricky, though. It would be easy to fall into situational ethics, and I’m not trying to justify that at all. I’m saying that my circumstances may affect the moral standards under which I live. But since we don’t all live under the same circumstances, I think it’s likely that other Christians will adopt different moral standards. My accusing them of being less Christian because they don’t see things the way I do, actually means I’m putting my eyes more on their morality and less on the commonality of Christ.

      The thing is, I think that works both ways. I think some people who celebrate their freedom in Christ, point to the strict morality of “fundamentalists” as if that makes them less devoted to Christ. But those making such a judgment are paying more attention to the morality and less to the commonality–that none of us is sufficient in our own righteousness. It’s not by what we do, but what we believe. The doing ought to come because of the believing.

      Again, thanks for stimulating more thought on this important topic.

      Becky

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  2. So well said, Becky. Fiction portrays people at their worst and best – the reality of this world. At least it should. Our best is so far short of God’s best it can’t even be measured. And my best can be so inferior to your best, but perhaps our hearts are equal in their love and devotion to Jesus. God knows. The “upright” readers who don’t want real characters have secured their dominion in some Christian fiction. It seems that demographic (at least in the romance genre) dictate “right” and “wrong” for publishers, and the result is a lack of depth in many stories as well as a lack of reality.

    Good post, Becky.

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    • Thanks, Nicole. I’m still pondering this whole topic. I’d probably be writing about it every day if it weren’t for our current blog tour. I do think some fiction is lacking depth, but that’s OK because some readers aren’t ready for the deep end. The problem is if the entire pool is shallow.

      This is where I’ve been encouraged. Not only has the quality of writing improved when it comes to Christian speculative fiction and at least some of women’s fiction, so has the depth.

      I don’t know about romance, though, since that isn’t a genre I read in. But I can see how readers would want to see a character making hard choices and living a godly life AND getting the guy in the end, simply because that holds up a model to encourage them in their own struggles. It’s odd though. The people in real life who have encouraged me most are the ones who made the hard choices and suffered for it or died because of it. Somehow that faithfulness, and knowing someone who is willing to say, Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him, well . . . that really resonates with me. Though I do like the stories of Daniel walking out of the lion’s den, too.

      Both are needed, I think.

      Anyway, thanks for the extra prod to think more deeply about this subject, Nicole.

      Becky

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  3. […] ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a […]

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  4. […] 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 […]

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