Morality In Fiction

Reading_Jane_EyreIn response to “Fiction Isn’t Lying”, a number of people, here and at Facebook, said they had experience with people who thought of fiction as a form of lying. Once again I was shocked. The thrust of the article, however, dealt with the Christian’s responsibility to speak truthfully about God in our fiction.

I’ll say again, Christians do not have to speak about God, directly or indirectly, but should we choose to do so, we have an imperative to be truthful. But “truthful” doesn’t mean we must tell all about God. First, it’s not possible to do so, and second, so much theology would overwhelm the story so that it would cease being a story.

I’m convinced that many readers and writers alike stumble over theology in stories because they confuse it with moral teaching. Two years ago I wrote a short series about that issue, and I’m re-posting the concluding article which sums up more completely than the final paragraph in yesterday’s article, what I believe about morality versus theology in fiction. Here is that article:

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In 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.

Prager-ZachariasInterestingly, 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 Jesus 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 say golly or disobey their parents, 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?

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15 Comments

  1. Rebecca, I very much enjoyed your follow up on this matter. Writing fiction while telling the truth is what Jesus did through parables and I like to think of our work like that.
    Blessings.
    Dajena 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree. Jesus is the best illustration of good story telling. I find it interesting that he sometimes used ungodly characters, and he didn’t stop to give a moral about where their lives were headed.

      For instance, in teaching about prayer, he had a widow appeal to an unjust judge who finally did the right thing for her because of her insistence. As far as we know, though, he went right on being an unrighteous judge. Or how about the overseer who got fired and then cheated his master so that he’d be favorably received by his creditors when he went looking for work?

      Of course there are examples of characters that did evil and suffered the consequence for it, but my point is, not all of the characters in Christ’s stories were squeaky clean, and those who weren’t didn’t always face immediate consequences for their actions. In fact, Jesus had something to say, and if ungodly characters played a part, He was not sanitizing the story or taking a tangent to show how they too ended up judged for their deeds. Jesus didn’t cram a salvation message into a story about prayer.

      We writers today would be wise to take a lesson!

      Becky

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amen. It would. Focusing on the issues of society just makes us another noise. Focus on loving your neighbor as yourself – show the world His love.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The thing is, Susan, a story about loving our neighbor can get messy—sort of like the one Jesus told in which the hero was a hated Samaritan.

      I actually tried to write a story about a Christian being a Christ-like neighbor to a pedophile. I ended up setting it aside. I still think it could be a powerful story, because our society has an idea of those who are worthy of our tolerance, if not our love, and those who deserve to burn in hell. What could a story about loving the unlovable do to communicate the unfathomable, infinite love of God? But it’s not easy to write. We Christian fiction writers need to go deeper, I think, and not settle for easy.

      Becky

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  3. Well written! The trouble is that many artist want to be accepted, revered, seen as exceptional by the mainstream. And the mainstream finds interest in sin. Many Christian Musicians don’t considered themselves to be successful until the secular world says so. So what do they do? Give in a little to reach the masses. And then give in a little more, to reach more… This world is controlled by those that do not want to see morality upheld. Therefore if you are looking for that type of success you have to play by their rules. Christians should start to be more selective and demonstrate that we are an audience. We should be considered.
    I think artist don’t necessarily have to address theology. We should, however allow are moral views to be evident. As a writer, for example, we can not have a couple who happens to be unwed living together and not address the fact that fornication is a sin.

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    • Rose, you make a good point. If a writer is looking for acclaim from the world, then the chances are he’ll continue to move toward the preferences of the world.

      When we talk about discernment, though, I think there’s a lot for us to consider—not just the externals such as how much skin is showing or what kind of language the characters use. The bigger issues should be, where is God in this story and does it reflect mankind’s need for him?

      Sadly there are stories that purposefully mock God or show Him as a figment of people’s imagination. And there are lots more that put humans in his place. Those are the things we would be wise to pay attention to.

      Becky

      Liked by 1 person

      • Great point!

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  4. I think CS Lewis and Tolkien may have had this very same discussion! It is said that Tolkien did not like Narnia because the religious elements were too powerful. Lord of the Rings however, was so full of myth, legend, and story telling, many people can feel the faith coming from those tales, but they don’t really understand Who is the source of that faith. I do have to say however, without both of those tales, works of complete fiction, many would not have come to know Christ at all.

    Kind of funny, long ago Dean Koontz wrote a short story and won some awards, but he killed all the kids and the dog too. There was no hope in it at all. I was so mad a him, those are not Christian values! Considering he basically writes suspense and horror, you would think I would be more tolerant, but no I wasn’t at all. Since those days he always makes sure he puts some elements of good in his tales, the kids escape, the dog lives, the people remain married.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see Tolkien’s point of view, though I think he couldn’t envision a society as Biblically illiterate as ours—one in which the Narnia Christian elements don’t seem overt to a good number of readers. Shortly after TLTWATW movie came out, I read an editorial by a writer who said she’d read the books as a child and had no idea that there was any religious subtext.

      I can also see what people say about Tolkien’s creation of myth and legend. If you have a negative view of those, it’s hard to imagine them “purified” or “baptized” by the truth. But that’s what he did.

      Dean Koontz is another story. I don’t read horror so haven’t read any of his books, but I get his newsletter. He’s an engaging writer, no doubt. I would love to know what he understands about the gospel.

      Becky

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  5. Odd how you should write about this just days after we watched Sherlock Holmes: The Man Behind The Myth. It was moderately entertaining, but what we took objection to was how he started out a secularist, experienced great tragedy leading to extreme self doubt, and in the end appears to have adopted certain Buddhist religious practices as well as sitting down to write a flagrantly false account in a letter to a man he met in Japan. He called it fiction, but it really was a total lie.

    He’d already told the man the truth, however unpalatable and offensive it had to have been.

    And we were left scratching our heads and wondering how this had ever come to be defined by the screen writer as “positive character growth.”

    There was more in that vein too–

    We came away feeling disenchanted and disgusted, and were sorry we’d wasted our time watching it.

    So what you’ve said here about theological underpinnings, etc really hits home.

    Sherlock, in that movie at least, is a man bereft of theological underpinnings consumed by guilt and floundering in a moral morass of his own making with no hope of escape. He’s merely found another, more wretched trough of the same old slough to drown himself more thoroughly in.

    And his audience learns nothing worthwhile from it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ugh! I hate stories that tear down a hero. As you noted, Sherlock was already flawed. He didn’t need to become more despicable. And when that kind of story is over, we’re left with a huge, so what. Truly, not a story I want to spend time on!

      Becky

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  6. It was so lovely to read this. It’s a discussion that just recently happened on my own FB (complete with a quote from Tolkien: “God is the Lord of angels, and of men–and of elves”, which I LOVED).

    I’ve had at least three Christian friends approach me in worry because they think that by writing, I’m ‘lying’. And it’s nice of them to be concerned, but it’s such a horribly wrong idea! We don’t have to speak overtly of God to be speaking of him, and we tell the truth in the ideas and ideologies which we write. Fiction is hidden truth, not lies.

    I’ve come to the conclusion, however, that some people are not ever going to understand that, and to them, I’ll always be a liar. That’s ok. I’ll live with that so long as God continues to give me the delight of writing the truths he shows me.

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  7. I agree I loved what you wrote and how you wrote it, I also have some questions if you don’t mind about Christian philosophy fiction ..
    where do philosophers get their omission of judgment ?
    is it by given grace?
    life experiences ?
    faith ?
    mind fiction ?

    thankx

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    • I’m not sure I understand your question. Some writers do show judgment in fiction, but many are cautious because they don’t want to give the impression they believe God always judges a sinful act in the here and now. God is gracious and patient, so in real life a person many not experience God’s instantaneous judgment because He’s giving them another chance to turn and repent.

      Becky

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  8. thank you

    Like


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