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?

– – – – –
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?

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Published in: on February 26, 2014 at 6:02 pm  Comments Off on Why Morality In Fiction, Or You Experience What You Read  
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Fantasy Friday: The Reality Of Hope


Novel cover collage2Christian fiction isn’t realistic, or so some charge. After all, there’s no cussing, no sex, and everything turns out happily ever after. The last point actually isn’t true, depending, of course, on what kind of “happy” a person is talking about. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Today at Speculative Faith our guest blogger, Shannon McDermott (yes, the same Shannon McDermott who is up for this month’s CSFF Award), wrote an inspiring post entitled “The Echoes of Christmas” in which she discusses what a story would look like if it were written as an expression of Christmas-all-year-long. She pulled out three responses that Christmas generates: joy, wonder, and hope.

For some reason, that triplet rang true to me, but especially hope. In some ways the world this year seemed more prone to despair. The US supposedly is hurtling toward a fiscal cliff, children were gunned down in their school, and no one seems to have an answer for our ailments, or at least one we can agree on.

Stories seem to reflect this kind of harsh reality, whether novels like The Hunger Games or TV programs like Revolution. And in many ways, Christian writers are being told to get with the program. If feels very much like a Job’s-wife kind of admonition–curse God and die. Except for the dying part. But curse, cuss, swear–let the world know that Christians see the way things really are.

Oddly, I don’t hear those same voices saying Christian writers should show the reality of abortion in their stories, or homelessness, or drug trafficking or gang violence or illegal immigration or homosexuality or corporate fraud or government corruption or divorce or an almost endless list of “real.” Instead we’re told, in the same manner as a dripping faucet, that Christian fiction needs to use cussing or cursing or swearing in order to be real.

And sex. Once in a while we’re told that sex ought to get into the stories, though no one seems to think graphic sex scenes are OK.

I have to say, I’m stuck on the definition of “real.”

Over and over I read from Christians in the writing community that the Bible is one of the darkest books around, that it didn’t sugarcoat such things as rape or adultery or murder. That look at the Bible, however, isn’t comprehensive. The Bible doesn’t have a “The End” after the story of David having Bathsheba’s husband killed after he’d slept with her. There isn’t even a “The End” after Judah gets led away into exile or one after Jesus’s crucifixion. There isn’t one after Stephen was martyred or Paul was arrested.

In truth, the Bible is all about hope–in the Old Testament, God’s chosen people hoped for the coming Messiah. And guess what the New Testament is about? The first coming and now the expectant waiting of the Church for the return of that same Messiah.

We long and we hope. We suffer and we hope. We sin and we hope.

As far as I’m concerned, stories that show or engender hope are real stories.

Cussing/cursing/swearing is not what a story is about. There are lots of ways to make a story seem real as far as how characters are painted. And people don’t generally pick a novel to read because they like the cussing/cursing/swearing. The choose a book because they believe they’ll like the story.

I suggest stories with hope will ring the most true and seem the most real.

Published in: on December 28, 2012 at 6:39 pm  Comments (8)  
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Unity And Disagreement


Apparently I entered the Christian fiction wars again last week with my Thursday post, “The Misconception About Weaker Brothers.” The irony is, I actually intended to remove some of the shrapnel the combatants so often use to snipe at each other. But according to Fred Warren at Spec Faith, Sally Apokedak at Facebook, and Mike Duran in the comments to the above post, I apparently initiated an incursion. Not my intention.

The truth is, Christians aren’t supposed to be warring with each other. Paul said to the church in Philippi

make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.

Later in the book he scolded two women who weren’t living in harmony with each other, and earlier he pointed out there were some believers preaching Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives. About the latter, he said, So what? Just as long as Christ is being preached, that’s all that matters.

Which brings me to the fiction wars. The issue in question is whether or not Christian writers should use profanity and cussing in fiction. (Sometimes references to sex get thrown into the mix as well, but of late the topic has centered on “certain” words).

Both sides have their reasons and their verses–one of the more popular being Romans 14, which I addressed in my “Misconception” post and even more so in “Weaker Brothers, Legalists, And Christian Fiction”, believing as I do that so many of us are ignoring clear passages of Scripture in order to make this a treatise on how to handle “gray areas.”

In all honesty, I don’t see why Christians can’t look at each other’s writing and conclude, So what? Just as long as Christ is being preached. OK, I could hear it from the abstainers before I’d finished typing the sentence: But they’re not preaching Christ. They admit it. They don’t even think they have to have good theology in their books. They’re sacrificing truth at the altar of art.

I submit that this position isn’t tenable. No one knows what God can or will use in someone else’s life or for what purpose. For example a story with some of “those words” may well bring a reader to the author’s Facebook page or blog where he will hear the gospel or at least interact with Christians.

At the same time, I can hear the accommodaters saying, YIKES! Preaching in fiction? That’s been the whole problem with Christian fiction and the very thing we’re crusading against!!!! (OK, maybe only two exclamation points. 😉 )

So what, I say. There are Christian brothers and sisters who have a different vision of fiction than you do. But aren’t we to be serving the same Lord? Aren’t we to have one purpose?

Not the same methods, mind you. It’s the whole feet-hands-ears-and-eyes argument showing that even the small and apparently offensive parts of the body are important and necessary. So why can’t abstainer writers simply look at the accommodater writers and say, there go those smelly old feet. I’m sure glad they’re trudging the mean streets for me. Or why can’t the accommodater writers say, there are those Bible-thumping hands. I’m sure glad they’re out there contending for the faith, even in stories.

The fact is, there are no winners in the Christian fiction writer wars. No winners. None. When we judge each other or treat each other with contempt, the Church loses. We are to love each other as a demonstration of our relationship with God through Jesus Christ. When we fail to demonstrate love for one another, we give the world the opportunity to discredit God’s name.

This does not mean we need to wave the white flag of surrender or that we need to find a position with which we can all agree. I suspect we won’t. This does not mean we should stop stating what we believe. Most of us have that right and freedom–thank God.

It does mean, however, that we refuse to fight with each other, that we respect those who disagree with us, that we stop treating them, even in subtle ways, as incompetent or inferior, either spiritually or artistically. It means that we make a decision to value our witness over our ideas about writing.

The Misconception About Weaker Brothers


Since I discovered an online group of Christian writers, there’s been discussion about what ought or ought not to be allowed in Christian fiction. Can writers address difficult topics–adultery, pornography, abuse. Is magic OK? How about cussing and swearing, when the character in question surely would cuss and swear in real life if he or she were in the situation of the fictitious individual. Then there’s sex, or any suggestion of sex, promiscuous or other wise. Can it be shown, should it be shown?

Inevitably someone brings up the idea of not offending the “weaker brother,” a concept taken from Romans in a section of Paul’s letter dealing with not eating meat offered to idols. This is usually understood as a “gray area”–an activity not clearly defined, but one which Paul seems to say it’s better for the strong believer to give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother.

From that point the debate may rage about who is actually the strong brother–the legalist or the one enjoying freedom in Christ–and whether or not Paul is giving weaker brothers the right to dictate legalistic behavior to the rest of the church.

This issue becomes a problem because of a great misunderstanding–the belief that eating meat offered to idols was a gray area. It was not.

When Paul first began preaching Christ to the Gentiles, there was a council in Jerusalem to discuss whether they needed to abide by the Mosaic Law. As a result, “the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.”

They examined Scripture, they listened to Peter’s testimony about the Holy Spirit manifesting Himself among the Gentile believers, and they listened to Paul and Barnabas’s witness about the miracles performed among the Gentile converts. In the end, here’s what James concluded:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols . . . (Acts 15:19-20a)

Whether James was the final authority or whether he was merely voicing the decision of the gathered church leaders, this decision was the one they passed on to the Gentile churches, delivered by letter. In this communication, they added one other significant fact. Here’s the pertinent statement:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols . . .” (Acts 15:28-29a–emphasis mine)

In other words, the church leaders had no thought that this was something they personally preferred. They understood this to be a sure direction from God.

There’s more. In Revelation 1-3 John records Christ’s message to seven churches. To two of them, he chastises them in connection to eating what has been sacrificed to idols. First to the church in Pergamum:

‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.’ (2:14–emphasis mine)

Granted the actual eating of that which was sacrifice to idols was something the people of Israel did, but Christ was explicit with the church in Thyatira:

‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.’ (2:20–emphasis mine)

There’s no idea here that eating meat offered to idols was a “gray area,” a take it or leave it, depends on whether or not your conscience bothers you or not, issue. It was wrong. Clearly wrong.

So what was Paul going on about?

He was addressing two particulars. First, some people, in order not to eat meat offered to idols accidentally, decided to become vegetarians (See Rom. 14:2). Second, some people decided they needed to research any meat they ate to know if it had been offered to an idol–including what they bought in the market and what they were served when they went to someone else’s house for dinner.

About the first matter, Paul said, don’t criticize each other–the meat eater (not the meat-offered-to-idols eater, because there should not be any believes who would fall in that category) and the vegetarian. One position is not better than the other.

Regarding the second issue, he essentially said, Don’t ask. In other words, it wasn’t their responsibility to go out of their way to find out the history of the meat they ate.

However, if a weaker brother who felt compelled to do the research, told them that the meat they were being served had indeed been offered to idols, then they needed, for the sake of the one who told them, to refrain from eating.

What does that have to do with writing and the subject matter an author can or can’t include in his fiction? Very little. Unlike the issue of meat offered to idols, we have no explicit command about what we are to put in our fiction. We know we are to refrain from coarse jesting, taking the Lord’s name in vain, unwholesome words, but does that mean our characters must refrain in the same way?

Similarly we are to be self-controlled, patient, joyful, kind. Does that mean all our characters are to exhibit those qualities? Add in the fact that we ourselves don’t live the holy lives God calls us to, and it seems logical, then, that our imperfect characters should act imperfectly.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind, though, and it does have to do with thinking about others. I’ve argued before that swearing in literature is harmful to the reader in ways that other “sins” aren’t. As a reader, I “sub-vocalize,” or essentially pronounce the words to myself. I’ve discovered that when I read a novel with considerable swearing and cussing, and I’ve been sub-vocalizing those words for a time, I begin to think them when I’m away from the novel. My choice then, for myself, is to avoid books laden with bad language.

In no way do I want second rate or inferior stories, however. I want what the classics offered–great stories which, for the most part, didn’t require expletives. I believe Christians can write such stories.

Do they have to? This is not a meat-offered-to-idols issue. Otherwise it would have a cut-and-dried answer. Whatever else Christian writers find in Scripture to guide their decisions, I would hope we put to bed the “weaker brother” argument because that’s a different discussion and not applicable to the determination of content in fiction.

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