More Than Moralism

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.

18 thoughts on “More Than Moralism

  • Yes! And I like your term: “redemptive rather than a moralistic view of stories.” The Lord wouldn’t give grace if we didn’t fail. I can imagine how this subject would cause a stir.

    I’m liking your blog more and more. It’s one of my bookmarks now. :)

  • I definitely agree with this. Besides being realistic, I don’t think it really helps me, or many other people I know of, to see a perfect hero, a Christian who is perfect and a goody-goody, or the equivalent—because we aren’t like that. The best characters are the ones who start out rather, and perhaps seriously, flawed, and grow, like we should, so that in the end they come out much more refined, though perhaps not perfect, like we will. If we see someone as bad and depraved as us turn from that into something better, into something useful, something greater, we can use that to inspire us to emulate that. I’m not encouraged by watching someone perfect and qualified winning a battle. It’s not encouraging to see an Olympic runner win a race against country boys. It is, however, encouraging and inspiring to see someone like us rise above the others, even someone as great as an Olympian, and overcome the odds. That can be helpful for us, and makes for a more powerful story. Nor does the Christian ideas and faith have to come into it specifically. We can draw from symbolism, great or small, and from underlying messages. Nothing explicit has to be there for it to get the message across.

  • I’m glad to know I am becoming bookmark worthy. :)

    I would also suggest, thinking of William’s comment, that the movement from ‘seriously flawed’ to ‘more refined’ might well include serious setbacks along the way, as I tend to think real believers stumble and fall during the “race” that is our life, but that God continues to work in us nonetheless.

  • I totally agree with all this. Very good. One of my favorite authors, Stephen R. Lawhead, uses this theme quite often. In keeping with what you commented on, L.B., his characters suffer serious setbacks along the way. One of his characters falls further and further into sin before his redemption at the end of the book. I liked what you said, William, about it not really helping us to watch a “perfect” Christian. Everyone needs to be redeemed, by the one Redeemer.

    Evan

    Isa. 52:10

  • Simply and well-said. We as human readers identify more with characters that have their own moral struggles. This is what makes David one of my favourite men in the Bible, seeing how God lifted Him up, how reckless he became, and how God redeemed that.

  • Came here via Jeff Overstreet’s site. Great article. Reminds me of C.S. Lewis’ reminder that we are not trying to make people (or cultures) nice but to bring them into God’s kingdom work. Also great assessment of heroes.

  • Thanks for stopping by, Heather! I didn’t even know I could be found from Jeff’s site. That’s very kind of him to have a link or mention of my blog there.

    Your reference to Lewis on this point is exactly right. As one might have expected, Lewis had already said what I wanted to say and said it better!

  • Thank you for explaining the difference between Christianity and moralism. It seems to be a very confusing subject for Christians.

    Off the subject a little, what would you say about books that might create a wrong impression towards biblical truth? For example, what about fantasy fiction that might sway children heavily toward sorcery or witchcraft?

  • I would certainly say that stories that attempt to sway children toward sorcery or witchcraft are a problem, but I would guess there would be serious disagreement between believers about what constitutes attempts to sway children and what doesn’t.

  • I wish that you would take a printed copy of this posting and nail it to a) the door of everyone who eats up enough of the sugary moralizing ‘Christian’ fiction that currently floods the marketplace to send themselves into a diabetic coma, and b) the door to the headquarters of the CBA.

    Thanks!

  • Dear Mr. Graham,
    Comment 4
    I totally agree. Thank you for this. Someone I know did a speech on writing and this was similar to one of the points. You expounded on it.
    My sister used to hate the “Elsie Dinsmore” series, precisely because Elsie was such a perfect person. It potrayed Victorian Virtue as above (in some ways) the gospel. For a while, she couldn’t figure out why she hated it, except that Elsie was a “Goody-goody.” But your post explains it. Thanks again, and I’ll try to use this in the books I write,

    ES

  • Dear Wylde Irisman,
    Amen, Brother! (or sister). I hate sugary modern fiction. But do you know what I hate worse? I hate sugary OLD fiction. When it was written in 1800, you expect people should know better, back when Christianity was a major influence in lives, and pastors were more important to most people than politicians. (I am thinking right now of the Lamplighter Publishing co.’s books, and a certain Elsie Dinsmore series). We have to go up, point up, face up. Towards God, and our Savior. LB Graham, that’s exactly what you do well (although I do agree it’s not quite as revolutionary as Luther, it’s in the same class/type)

    AtN! About Face! Forward, March! Hee, hee.

  • That is awesome way of putting it!!
    I see in a lot of things like when i was younger veggie tales ignores the story of redemption and focuses on sugary moralism.
    I think that this is something that struck me about BOTB is that their are evil people but as some as Paul writes “are saved by faith and it is not of their own doing but a gift from God so no man may boast.”

  • Thank you so much! Your words are wonderfully helpful. I look forward to reading more of your books and blogs.

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