This is the last of my posts originally written for the Motiv8 website. It caused a bit of a stir there, so I anticipate there may be reactions here. Feel free to comment.
With the Tour gearing up to begin in less than two weeks, this might be the last post in our brief series on various elements of fantasy fiction writing. However, this post is less about fantasy writing in particular and more about Christianity in general and Christian writing as an expression of faith.
Christianity is not about moralism, and Christian fiction shouldn’t be either. Christianity revolves, not around good behavior, but around God’s mercy shown to man in the death and resurrection of Christ. However, even though we know this to be theologically true, I think we struggle to remember this as we go about our daily lives, and one of the places where we really struggle to remember it is in our engagement with the arts in general, but as fiction is our topic, we’ll limit our reflection here to that.
I’m constantly surprised at how often fictional stories are judged to be Christian or not, based more or less on how well the characters behave themselves. Of course it is true that morality matters – God has taken great care to expound in some detail the moral laws which flow from and are an extension of His own character. It is also true, though, that the Bible itself is full of flawed men and women whom God used almost despite of rather than because of their moral triumphs. However, when Christian writers incorporate flawed heroes into their stories, men and women with moral failings of any significance, they are often left open to charges of having given dubious testimony to their Lord.
Now of course, when stories are geared for children, writers should take care how graphically or explicitly they portray sin. Even in stories for adults, there are simply some things that don’t need to be spelled out or portrayed in any kind of detail. Even so, one of the really beautiful things about God’s dealings with men is that he takes really, really broken people and uses them to advance His kingdom. Are we open to reading about such things in the books we pick up and read? I suspect that for many of us the answer is no, and yet there are stories in the Bible that would make anyone blush in their unblinking portrayal of man’s capacity for sin and debauchery.
Here are a few thoughts, in no particular order, about how we could have a more biblical view of morality and fiction.
First, we should remember that we do live in a moral universe and attempts to portray immoral behavior as free from consequence cuts against the grain of reality. To be sure, in the short run, sin and evil may yield pleasure, success and more. Even so, the testimony of both scripture and history is that such gains are rarely sustainable and that ultimately, those who live by such behavior often reap what they have sown.
Second, we should remember that portrayals of characters with ‘good morals’ doesn’t mean a book is Christian. Many people have high moral standards and portray as much in their stories. We can certainly say that the moral standards of a book or story are consistent with Christianity, but that doesn’t make the book Christian. This doesn’t mean we don’t read it; it simply means that high moral standards is insufficient to demonstrate a story is “Christian.”
Third, the portrayal of sin in realistic terms, and even the attribution of sinful struggles and moral failures to key characters, even good ones, doesn’t necessarily prove the author condones such behavior. The attitude of the writer toward the behavior of his characters can be tricky to determine. Many writers stand back from their stories and refrain from obvious comment on the good or bad that is done, allowing the actions to speak for themselves and the story to reveal the consequences of choices made. This isn’t moral cowardice or neutrality, but rather, artful storytelling.
At the end of the day, I don’t see many Christian fiction writers leaving much doubt that they believe God’s standards for human behavior are both good and right. What I do see is a certain level of discomfort if characters portrayed in some way as “good” are given significant moral struggles or weaknesses. I hope this will change and that audiences and authors alike will embrace a redemptive rather than a moralistic view of stories – both their own and the one’s they read.