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:

– – – – –

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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A Godless Universe


big-bang-theory-rainbow-gravityOne of the latest scientific theories, or more accurately, an idea some scientists have postulated, suggests the universe did not have an origin, that there was no Big Bang. This concept, known coincidentally as Rainbow Gravity, is an attempt to resolve incompatibilities between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

In short, this idea that’s been around for about a decade, and which isn’t widely accepted by physicists, is based on gravity’s affect on different wavelengths of light, which can be seen in the colors of the rainbow (and thus the name).

Now scientists at Cern in Switzerland believe they might find miniature black holes which would reveal the existence of a parallel universe.

And if the holes are found at a certain energy, it could prove the controversial theory of ‘rainbow gravity’ which suggests that the universe stretches back into time infinitely with no singular point where it started, and no Big Bang.

The theory was postulated to reconcile Einstein’s theory of general relativity – which deals with very large objects, and quantum mechanics – which looks at the tiniest building blocks of the universe. (“Big bang could be debunked”)

I gather from my reading that the String Theory came into being to answer the same paradoxes.

We need a new theory allowing general relativity and quantum mechanics to coexist peacefully. This theory could attempt to solve the problems of each to bring them together. Or it might start afresh and establish completely new ideas of reality.

String theory is an example of such a theory. (“Why String Theory”)

At issue is our understanding of such things as black holes, parallel existence in multiverses, nonexistence, and the Big Bang. And God.

Of course none of the articles I read mentioned God. Because clearly He isn’t being considered as a possible answer to the paradoxes. Rather, these scientists are looking for the Theory of Everything (ToE).

In fact, as one commenter noted, they aren’t following the observe-describe pattern of actual science. Instead, they have reversed the order to be describe-observe. They see a conundrum and have developed an idea to resolve it. Now they’re looking to see if they can find evidence for their ideas. But the scientists don’t agree on what this unifying theory actually looks like.

I’m certain each of these intelligent, scholarly people has reason behind their ideas. What they don’t have is any particular evidence to believe Rainbow Gravity over String Theory or the ToE. And they also have no evidence to discount God as the Creator and Sustainer of all.

They see problems—this truth not meshing with that truth, or these paradoxes impossibly existing together—and they can’t find a unifying principle.

And there stands God, declaring that what He created shows us who He is:

For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. (Rom. 1:20)

The net result of humankind turning our back on God is what we have been witnessing more and more with each passing year: the rise of terrorism, the redefinition of marriage, corruption in high places, racial and ethnic divides, gender confusion, and more. Scripture says it plainly:

they exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged the natural function for that which is unnatural, and in the same way also the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, men with men committing indecent acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error.

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper, being filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them. (Rom. 1:25-32, emphases mine)

I suggest every time we say it’s the woman’s right to choose, and we mean she can therefore kill her unborn baby, we are worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. I would also say that every time we say a person can choose the gender they feel they are instead of the one “assigned to them at birth,” we are worshiping the creature instead of the Creator. And I suggest when we say two people of the same gender can marry, we are worshiping the creature instead of the Creator.

As scientists struggle to understand the universe without God, so all of us struggle to understand morality without God. What is right and what is wrong?

It can’t be whatever I feel to be right, or the hateful man who shot nine Christians in their church would be morally right—it’s what he felt was right. So too with the radical Muslim terrorists who killed over sixty people last week in their suicide bombings.

There must be a different standard, a universal code of conduct that governs life beyond our feelings, because our feelings don’t always mesh with other people’s feelings. There is as much paradox between one person’s view of the world and another’s, as there is between quantum mechanics and general relativity.

We need a Theory of Everything.

Of course, some suggest tolerance is that something. Others have more recently put forth empathy. But neither of those work unless everyone agrees.

Again, God stands above us declaring that His grace is sufficient, that His love—His empathy—is the solution to our moral struggles. That which we can’t fix, He’s already put together and made available. And it’s a gift.

But in a godless universe, what God has revealed falls on deaf ears.

Increasing And Decreasing


CBS logoHuman nature seems to push us toward selfishness as I noted in “The Scientific Discovery Of The Sin Nature.” If in doubt, watch CBS’s 60 Minutes video for yourself. Here’s an excerpt:

Lesley Stahl: Sounds to me like the experiment show[s] they [the babies who were the subjects of the experiment] are little bigots.

Paul Bloom [Yale researcher]: I think to some extent, a bias to favor the self, where the self could be people who look like me, people who act like me, people who have the same taste as me, is a very strong human bias. (emphasis added)

The Bible doesn’t equivocate when it comes to human nature. We are self-deceived and wicked at our core—primarily because of our bias to favor ourselves. We want to win, to be noticed, admired, loved and praised. We want our fifteen minutes of fame, and if we can stretch it out to a half hour, all the better.

The problem for the Christian is that when we push ourselves forward, we are actually stealing the limelight from God. He’s the star, after all, the One who deserves the accolades, who produces the show, who works behind the scenes to hold it all together, who assembles the cast, who writes the checks, and who takes center stage. So when the curtain comes up for the credits, for whom is the applause greatest? The actor playing the page who carried the king’s sword, or the king himself?

Clayton_Kershaw_(8664742364)We live in a celebrity culture. Consequently Christians often flock to “famous Christians,” like Tim Tebow or Jeremy Lin or Russel Wilson or Clayton Kershaw. And isn’t it a good thing when people of all stripe, even people of other religions or people of no religion, recognize a “famous Christian” for their talent and intelligence and good deeds?

That’s what the Bible seems to say. We are to let our light shine so that people see our good works (Matt. 5:16). It’s the last part of the verse that I think 21st century Christians seem to have trouble with: “… that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (emphasis added). The goal isn’t that they might glorify the Christian, but that they might glorify the God whom we serve.

John the Baptist articulated the principle well. One of his disciples was troubled that the crowds were leaving John and flocking to Jesus. Here’s his answer:

John answered and said, “A man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven. You yourselves are my witnesses that I said, ‘I am not the Christ,’ but, ‘I have been sent ahead of Him.’ He who has the bride is the bridegroom; but the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made full. He must increase, but I must decrease. (John 3:27-30)

In other words, John’s popularity was a gift from God. But he was not the Messiah. He was the second, the best man, the squire. Understanding his role, he rejoiced to see Jesus get all the attention. That’s what he lived for. To decrease, that Jesus might increase.

In some ways, it seems a person must first increase to get to the point that he can decrease. I mean, if John didn’t have a following, would he ever have been able to say, I must decrease?

But what about the widow who gave her last coin in the temple. She had no following, and she was still willing to decrease that God might increase.

I think our current Christian culture has it wrong. We should not be working to be known so we can make God known. That’s upside down. The widow gave to God because she knew God deserved her very last coin. As a result, God spread her fame down through the ages, to every tribe and tongue where the gospel is preached. She wasn’t after fame, but God gave it to her as a result of her willingness to decrease.

I think too of Boaz and the anonymous relative who could have married Ruth. In that day, a widow had no protection unless a relative of her deceased husband married her. She was also tied to the property her husband may have owned. So Boaz, wanting to take Ruth as his wife, first had to find out if the relative who was closer would step up and do the right thing.

Boaz started by asking the man if he wanted to buy the property which had belonged to the deceased. The relative said, sure. OK, Boaz said, but you know, of course, that means you’ll also have to marry Ruth. Oh, the man answered. Forgot about her. You know, on second thought, this marriage and property purchase isn’t going to work for me after all. It would jeopardize his own inheritance, he said—something about the child of their union would be known as belonging to the first husband, and his land reverting to that side of the family at the jubilee.

It’s a bit too legal and technical for me. But I bring it up because this man who wanted to guard his inheritance is no longer remembered by name. Boaz, however, and Ruth are both recorded in the ancestral record of the Messiah. The one who wanted to increase, didn’t. The one who cared for the widow, who served and protected a foreign woman in need, received recognition throughout the ages.

He must increase. And I must decrease.

My devious mind immediately goes to the idea that, yes, the way for me to get noticed, like the widow Jesus praised, like Boaz, is to put Jesus on display. But that misses the point. God can use even that wrong attitude, as Paul says in Philippians, but the right perspective is to see the way things really are: God, the high and exalted King; I, the servant holding the edge of His train.

Shockingly, this life is really not about me. It’s about God—serving Him, loving Him, listening to Him, abiding with Him, and above all glorifying Him. Seeing Him increase.

A Master Demon’s Advice


Facebook_logo_(square)With a nod to C. S. Lewis, I am once again revisiting a Master Demon’s advice to his young lieutenant:

Wormbottom, er, Tonguetape is it, or Tapeworm—whatever you’re called—I’ve had some additional thoughts about our fight against the Enemy.

You’ve done a credible job of late suggesting to your charges that the Enemy is nothing but their fan, standing on the sidelines cheering them on to greatness.

His highest goal is their success, you’ve told them. Bravo! I heard three or four of the weaklings repeating that line at work, and one posted it on Facebook. With any luck we can get several of them to share it on Twitter, too, where someone is bound to retweet it.

Be that as it may, the next phase of your work is to shift your charges’ focus so they begin to think it their responsibility to evaluate the Enemy. You can prompt them to ask such questions as, Is He really as kind as they are? Is His plan for Humankind fair? Don’t all people everywhere deserve better?

256px-JUDGE_PARKER'S_COURTROOMOnce they start asking such questions, they have slid toward the role of judge.

Above all, keep them away from the Enemy’s playbook because there are some clear statements that will ruin this plan—things like, “There is one Lawgiver and Judge, the One who is able to save and to destroy.”

Our Master claims the line is written about him, but of course the Enemy says otherwise, and it is His playbook. At any rate, if any of your charges are thinking at all, they’ll realize that line is not talking about them, that in fact they are not the judge, and therefore they are wrong to usurp that role.

You must not let them consider the possibility they are wrong. Rather, encourage them, Bottomtape, er, Tongueworm, whatever, to think that they deserve to know and understand the Enemy’s every move.

Once they have reached this conviction, move them to the next phase: they deserve to approve of what the Enemy is doing. Of course you must also convince them that the Enemy’s plans are not up to the standards of today.

Tell them morality has improved over time, that people everywhere now know slavery is wrong, for example, or that prejudice is intolerable. Tread carefully here, though. You must lead them to a prejudiced opinion without realizing that they are condemning the thing which they have embraced.

Once you have appealed to their pride, the rest should be easy. They will see their advanced state and the Enemy’s archaic standards, and conclude it is only right for them to make corrections of His plan, and even reinterpret His handbook. The net result will be that they end up saying the opposite of what the Enemy intended.

narrow_pathFor example, when He said, the way is narrow, they’ll think it’s too narrow and can’t possibly be an accurate picture of the way the world is unfolding. In fact the Enemy either was mistaken or His followers who wrote those words were exaggerating for effect.

Granted. That will be a hard one, but I have faith in you, and and foot soldiers in the past have had some success with this plan of attack.

You might try another tact in these postmodern times. Get them to think the narrow way is for people today who have copies of the handbook. Those who embrace its philosophy are on the narrow way—which actually is true. But here’s the key. Get your charges to adopt a second narrow way and a third, if you want to, maybe even a fourth.

For example, the weaklings the Enemy created can be sincere about what they believe and that will put them on another narrow way. Or they can do their best with what they had, and that will put them one a third narrow way.

Only don’t let your charges think these are actually separate ways. Convince them that they are different manifestations of the same path.

And whatever you do, don’t let them realize they are standing in disapproval of the Enemy. Rather, convince them that He came up with the “many narrow ways which are simply different manifestations of the same path” idea. Let them think they are actually ferreting out His meanings and intentions, because, after all, He would certainly be fair.

Fair, of course, in their understanding means giving everyone, no matter what they think of the Enemy, the same chance to live with Him forever.

What nonsense! As if most of your charges can even stomach to talk with the Enemy for five minutes, let alone offer Him praise throughout eternity.

More ridiculous still is their false belief that they deserve to live with Him, since He’s the king and all, and they are surely good company for a king to keep.

You’ve made a good start, Wormbottom. But there’s lots yet to do. Nevertheless, I’m confident you can sway your charges to hold the Enemy in contempt for His exclusivist views and bigoted plans. You’ll have them working for you then. So keep at it.

Published in: on May 5, 2014 at 6:31 pm  Comments (7)  
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Guns And Plastic Bags


HandgunsConservatives, a group many evangelical Christians find themselves tied to, have been criticized for having pet topics—most notably, abortion and gay marriage. I’ve heard these topics are growing tiresome and Christians ought to accept that we’re in the minority on these issues and get over it!

Surprise, surprise. Liberals have their pet issues too—notably gun control and global warming/climate change. I find these issues as tedious as I’m sure liberals find topics I’m concerned about.

Gun control in the US has a major barrier: the Second Amendment to the US Constitution which states citizens have the right to bear arms. Of course our world is a very different place than when the founders of our government put that right in place.

All of us decry the misuse of guns—from gang drive-bys to school shootings and political assassinations or the attempts. But the debate rages whether or not passing new restrictions on gun ownership or purchase will change the climate of violence.

In other words, we all acknowledge the problem, but we don’t agree that gun control is the solution or even a solution.

So we seem to be at a sort of stalemate . . . until the state of Georgia comes along and passes a law which allows their citizens to wear sidearms in public, possibly even in churches or schools, and in parts of the airport. These are people without a police record and without reported mental illness for the last five years.

OK, that last point disturbs me. When was the last time someone was “cured” of mental illness? Isn’t it more likely that various mental disorders are being treated or medicated, not cured? And haven’t a number of those perpetrating mass murders been discovered to have a history of mental illness?

But apparently this wasn’t a concern in Georgia. Oh, well. What I’m wondering is this—will the Georgia gun law have the same effect as the marijuana laws have had? In other words, will they catch on? Will other states think passing state laws is a good way to get around the Federal government, no matter what they have on the books or how they might try to restrict long held freedoms?

I find all these attempts at regulation or deregulation quite interesting. The gay rights efforts are an attempt to deregulate the long held beliefs about marriage. Ever since the US became a country, marriage has meant a union between one man and one woman. The deregulation efforts could turn marriage into a free-for-all.

Abortion is also a law that deregulates. Once there was a moral understanding that life is sacred, but now that view has been deregulated and life is not sacred if a woman doesn’t choose to permit life to grow in her womb.

On the other hand, new regulations are being added beyond the gun control. For example, the city council for Huntington Beach, CA, has joined San Francisco in banning plastic bags. While all plastic is frowned upon, it is bags that have received the environmentalists’ ire.

I forget all the evils that plastic bags are responsible for—all related to sea life, I believe. I just find it . . . incredible that we are so concerned for the health and well-being of fish and dolphins and seals and whales and crabs, but so unconcerned for the health and well-being of pre-born humans.

But I misspoke. There is great concern for the health and well-being of the pre-born as long as the mother decides to keep the baby. In that instance, a violent crime against a pregnant woman that results in her baby dying, can bring charges of murder against the perpetrator. And a woman who smokes when she is pregnant? She’s marked with the scarlet N for negligent.

Ocean_wavesIt’s a crazy world anymore. But it’s not really a surprise. Once we detached from our religious moral underpinnings which had been influenced by Scripture, we’ve been adrift. Now we’re moving so far from shore, we’re losing sight of solid ground. We’re following the peaks or dips of each wave, depending on who’s at the rudder and how hard we’re rowing.

I recently read this in an article posted at The Federalist:

“The censorial climate of academia extends beyond tenured professors and touches the students, both in undergraduate and graduate school. They are being taught what is and is not an ‘acceptable’ way of thinking rather than being encouraged to think through difficult questions on their own.” (“The Closing of the Academic Mind,” emphasis mine)

No wonder we have so many inconsistencies. No wonder we have key talking points and favorite liberal or conservative issues. What we actually need is a return to that moral compass that can help us find solid ground again. Maybe then we could reason out what to do about immigration and energy resources and crime and yes, the big favorites of both sides of the divide.

There really are Biblical principles that could apply to these issues, if we would accept the authority of Scripture. But the only way that will happen is one person at a time, each person reading the Bible, believing it, and choosing to live according to its dictates.

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.

– – – – –

    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?

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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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.)

Theology Versus Morality


Lion-origional, smallFor over a week I’ve been thinking about theology in fiction. Well, truthfully, I’ve been thinking about it ever since a well-known, respected man in Christian schools circles he couldn’t endorse my fantasy because it had talking animals.

What? Had he not read Narnia?

I was stunned, flabbergasted, frustrated, appalled. And I changed the specifics of my story so animals don’t talk. Not because I agreed with the idea that something was wrong with animals talking. I mean, it’s fantasy! But I wanted to sell my book and have key people endorse it so that more people would read it. Never happened, but that’s not the issue for this post. Rather, it’s the question about where theology belongs in fiction.

This discussion which crops up from time to time, started with a guest blog post by James Somers at Spec Faith. Author Mike Duran picked up on something James said and wrote “No Zombies Allowed (In Christian Fiction).” To which I responded with “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible,” an article which I believed took a middle-ground approach. Mike, in turn, answered my points with a Part 1 and Part 2 rebuttal.

So, yes, this subject has been on my mind and continues to be on my mind. I apologize if this issue isn’t of universal interest. I acknowledge I might be one of the few people still wrestling with the subject, but I think it’s important.

Above all, fiction should convey truth. Novels are not a sermons; they’re illustrations. They show whereas non-fiction tells.

Bad stories are about nothing. False stories are ones that show a lie as if it were truth.

Christian stories should neither be bad or false.

What should they be? In my view, they must be theologically true. That is, they must represent God truthfully, in some way.

God cannot be contained within the pages of one story. He took the entire sixty-six books of the Bible to reveal Himself. Why would anyone think a four-hundred page book could show all of who He is?

But if a book shows God, it must be truthful in what it shows.

Not all books must show God. Some can be morally true and silent on theology.

They can, for example, show that lying is wrong. All kinds of stories have made a statement about lying, and some are written by non-Christians who have no belief in the authoritative Word of God to undergird their position. Nevertheless, they believe lying is wrong and that it is a worthy truth upon which to center a story.

Moral truth is not the same as theological truth. This fact seemed lost on many Christians during the last Presidential election here in the US. A moral man, whose morality agreed in many respects with Bible believing Christians (and disagreed in many ways that never came to light–but that’s a separate issue) ran for office with the expectation that Christians would vote for him. He implied that since his morality was similar, his theology aligned with Christianity.

That’s not true. I’ll tell you whose morality aligns in many respects to Christians–Muslims. But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is, a person can be pro-life or anti-lying and still have wrong views about God. Morality and theology are not the same.

Some people want to impose morality upon fiction. Or some morality.

I suppose I’m one. I’ve said vehemently that I think Christian fiction has no business following a couple into the bedroom and showing their sex act, whether they’re married or not. That’s a moral judgment on my part. I have reached that position via my theology, but that stance is not a theological one.

Like other moral ideas, that one can be shared by people of an number of faiths or no faith at all. It is moral, not theological.

It is theology that Christians need to get right, though I’ll reiterate–not all stories must speak about God. I’d hope that Christians would want to speak about God, whether overtly or symbolically or allegorically or surreptitiously.

I’d hope Christians would want to proclaim Him–to point to His work, His plans and person and purposes. And if they do, they must show Him as He has shown Himself. For example, God isn’t arbitrary.

But wait a minute. A lot of people think He is. Must that aspect of God’s character be true to who He is or to what people think Him to be? I believe, true to who He is.

No one else can speak the truth about God. Only Christians have seen Jesus and therefore seen the Father. Only Christians have the Holy Spirit. Everyone else who speaks about God is going to get it wrong at some point.

So why would Christians want to muddle around, nitpicking about moral matters when theological ones need to be truthfully shown?

Mike Duran used a great illustration which he borrowed from C. S. Lewis. The idea is that a story is the scaffolding for theological truth (in the context of what Lewis said, he was referring to the Resurrection). Mike said, “When we become preoccupied with a story’s ‘scaffolding’ and niggle over literary ‘artifices,’ we will inevitably miss the bigger story.”

The bigger story, as I see it, is what Lewis referred to as the True Myth–the story of God loving His creation, dying and rising for His creation lost in darkness that He might redeem all who believe.

What part of that story can Christian speculative fiction show? Does the idea of all stories being “about” the Great Story seem limiting, boring, predictable? No story has to be any of those.

But it doesn’t happen by hoping. Lewis didn’t hope Aslan would rule Narnia the way God rules our world. He purposefully crafted him to do so.

But now I’m straying toward a discussion on craft. I’ll stop. The point for this discussion is that stories can be moral or they can be theological. They can even be both. But stories held to a rigid morality ought not be confused with ones held to a truthful theology.

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 8:12 pm  Comments (9)  
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