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.)

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Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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4 Comments

  1. “The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good.” vs “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.”

    I don’t think these of necessity must be mutually exclusive, and I don’t think that’s what you are driving at. I love your allusion to the Book of Judges, one of my favorites in the Bible — it shows warts the size of Gojira. But it also shows God’s love, mercy and care for His own to the same degree. Our stories should be no different. We should follow the model of the Master Storyteller Himself. So many Christian tales today, by eschewing the warts, present an unrealistic view of the world and, to me, the gospel they attempt to portray becomes just as unreal and unconvincing. But some Christian writers forget the first part of your admonition, or play it too softly. Some of them even have evil triumph, to an extent, in order to preserve what they perceive as “reality” and in doing so give a very false view of God Almighty.

    This is a tightrope we must walk if we are to persevere and write to God’s glory. Thank you for helping us to see a little more clearly so as not to trip!

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    • “A tightrope” is a great analogy. I see it that way, too. I heard Ted Dekker at Mount Hermon one year. He used the analogy of a precious gem displayed on black velvet to illustrate that by showing evil, good shines brighter. He said we were graying God’s work, or something along those lines. I agree in part, but I don’t want to make the black velvet the thing on which people train their eyes. I don’t want it to swallow up the gem. And as a reader, I don’t want to lift away folds and folds and folds of black to get at a small gem in the end. I’ve read books–Christian books–that make me feel depressed or dirty, like I need to grab my Bible and wash away the mud I’ve bee wallowing in. I’m happy a book makes me want to turn to God’s word, but I’m not sure that’s the best motive.

      I much prefer the way Sharon Hinck’s Sword of Llyric books elevated God’s word. Yes, there was darkness in her stories, and evil that needed to be fought, but I saw the hope.

      It’s like Lord of the Rings. How bleak things looked toward the end, but as long as Frodo was still free and determined to do what needed to be done, there was hope.

      Becky

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      • It’s so easy to emphasize the darkness, because darkness is beautiful. Something about it attracts us — all of us — in individual ways, if we’re honest. But one thing I really cannot abide are stories where evil wins in the end, in some fashion. Modern horror of course can be replete with this, but “older” and “classic” horror is not. But the same can be said for fantasy too. I’m thinking of a major older classic series which shall remain nameless, of which a good friend of mine who had read all of them said, in the end: “Good wins, but just barely — and not really.” This wasn’t a Christian series, but it’s a real trap. I agree with you about the velvet and jewel (though my current novel under consideration might test my assertion!), so much velvet for a miniscule shard is too much. Thanks again for helping me keep perspective!

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  2. […] 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 […]

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