I’m an avid reader of fiction, and I learned one lesson pretty early in my life: it’s difficult to grow up as a reader in the Christian homeschool community, and not stumble into a series of discussions with friends and family about the suitability of this or that novel. If anything, the discussions have intensified since I became an adult, perhaps because I took the step of becoming an author myself, and to compound the problem, an author of historical fantasy fiction.
One of the perennial questions that crops up in these discussions has to do with depictions of sin in fiction. Authors themselves will disagree sharply about whether it’s ever right to include swearing and foul language in their stories, while readers (and their parents) will wonder where to draw the line. Is it OK if a protagonist lies and disobeys authority? What if the villainess is a witch? We might know what to say about a book in which we get a vivid depiction of two characters fornicating, but what if it’s kept offscreen and just implied?
Given that God’s law is the ultimate standard of right and wrong, and given that so many stories contain sinful behaviour to some degree or another, where are we supposed to draw the line between “acceptable realism” and “celebrating sin”?
As Christians, it’s imperative that our standards are based on God’s word. And I think these questions become much easier to answer if we bear in mind two principles.
Principle #1: God as the Ultimate Storyteller
Art is such a special thing, because the Ultimate Artist is God. Christian artists have always understood that by making things—whether music, paintings, poetry or fantastic fictional worlds—they are, in a sense, following in God’s own footsteps. He is the Creator, the Maker of all things ex nihilo; but we are the subcreators, the lesser makers; as Tolkien said, we make according to the law by which we’re made. A big part of being made in God’s image means that we also have an urge to create things. And our stories are just going to reflect God’s story, whether we want them to or not.
That means that authors can learn a huge amount about our craft just by studying God’s own story.
And the first thing that appears from God’s story is that sin is an essential part of it. If you’re a prelapsarian, you believe that God even planned the presence of sin in this world long before the Fall. ND Wilson points out that before Adam sinned, he already had a dragon in his garden, and pretty soon, a fallen wife. God included sin, evil, and brokenness in his plot from the very outset.
This doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the craft of fiction. It’s axiomatic in fiction that every good story is driven by conflict, and James 4:1 tells us, “From whence come wars and fightings among you? Come they not hence, even of your lusts that war in your members?” Conflict arises from sin, and so every story is going to be driven by the need to overcome sin.
Obviously, no one can write a story in which nobody ever sins. Even if it was possible to write a good story without the presence of conflict, GK Chesterton once pointed out that a book with no bad characters in it is a very bad book. Sin is a part of God’s world, and our fiction should not be a means of escaping this world. Instead, it should bring us to a deeper understanding of it. At present, that means we have to faithfully depict a world in which sin mars every human heart. If it was wrong to tell stories that contain sin, then Jesus would never have told the tale of the Good Samaritan, or the Prodigal Son.
Take a look at the stories that the Lord himself told, whether in person during his time on earth, or via the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. In the Lord’s parables and in the history of the Old Testament, we do not find tales of lust and wrath that wring from us an emotional approval of the ones sinning. But, we do find stories that contain these things. We find characters like Rahab, the prostitute, who repents and is honoured with a place in Christ’s royal lineage. We find characters like Joab, the pragmatic general who never repents and is finally dealt with by Solomon, David’s successor. We find characters like the witch of Endor, employing witchcraft to summon Samuel’s departed spirit. And we find things in certain chapters of Ezekiel that I doubt many modern Christians would consider at all appropriate.
These things are not just part of history—they’re part of Scripture, providentially preserved through all ages for the meditation and edification of the children of God. If authors are going to faithfully imitate God’s story, then they must deal with topics of sin and evil.
Principle #2: The ethical/judicial imperative
Perhaps now would be a good moment to make a couple of quick disclaimers.
First, I do believe that when ever an author depicts sin in fiction he or she should take care not to do so in any way that would cause or unduly tempt the intended audience to sin. An audience watching a movie in which someone gets killed is not participating in a sin, but an audience watching a movie in which someone takes their clothes off, usually is. (And this goes for the actors too, of course).
Second, while it may be an objectively good thing to discuss certain topics in the arena of fiction, that doesn’t necessarily mean that reading such fiction is a subjectively good thing. From personal experience, there are books that were a problem for me as a child or teenager that don’t trouble me now. Some of those books were, in themselves, good books that I just didn’t have the maturity for at the time. The fact that they were good books, didn’t mean that I and my parents didn’t have to exercise care and restraint. But the question of which books are appropriate to which age, is best determined by each person (or parent) on a case-by-case basis, based on his own maturity level and needs, and doesn’t come within the scope of this article. What I want to talk about today is not subjective application, but objective principle.
If it’s imperative that our fiction should deal with topics of sin and evil—and I think it is—then the question is how? This is the point at which we might be tempted to answer the question quantitatively. One or two swearwords are OK, but not lots. Or a little bit of bad attitude, but nothing too outrageous. Or an implied liason, as long as the camera fades to black before the clothes come off.
There’s one problem with this approach: it’s not the approach we see in Scripture.
The Bible varies in how graphically it discusses sin. Sometimes it is very reticent. Sometimes it is frank to an extent that most of us today would find embarrassing. And when it comes to the moral effects of sin, the Bible is very clear that a quantitative approach is completely unjustified. Every sin, no matter how “large” or “small”, is punishable with eternal torment as an offense against an infinitely holy God. One who breaks one part of the law is guilty of breaking it all, as James 2:10 tells us. The Bible’s answer to sin is not to exhort us to keep it to a minimum, but rather to identify it and kill it. The Bible’s answer to a breach of God’s holy law, is judgement: either personal judgement on the sinner, or the substitution of Jesus Christ who bears our judgement for us.
This ethical-judicial principle gives us the framework for our approach to sin in fiction. It may be permissible to include sins of various kinds (always bearing in mind the necessity of not putting a stumbling-block before the intended reader), but only ever for the purpose of judging it according to God’s word.
In Ephesians 5, Paul demonstrates this approach when he tells us that “it is a shame even to speak of those things which are done of them in secret.” He then goes on to tell us not to have any fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but “Rather, reprove them… All things that are reproved are made manifest by the light, for whatsoever doth make manifest is light.”
Reproof is a judicial activity: it measures an observed sin against the standard of God’s law, and condemns it. Paul tells us that it’s a shame to have to speak of such things, but he doesn’t tell us not to speak. Rather he tells us to confront these sins with God’s ethical standard. In 1 Corinthians 2:15 Paul describes the spiritual man not as one who attempts to remain ignorant of sin, but as one that “judgeth all things”.
This means getting our attention off quantitative concerns (though certainly a story pervaded by perverse sinfulness may be a sign of refusal to judge according to God’s ethical standard) and focusing instead on the qualitative question: Is the sin in this story being judged according to God’s ethical standard?
And this can be easier to discern than you might think. Every story contains characters in conflict, and in order to be in conflict, the characters must have conflicting ethics. Throughout the story, these ethics will come into conflict, and at the final, climactic confrontation of the story, when one character triumphs over the other, so will whatever ethic he represents. Thus, in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, it is an ethic of humility and weakness that triumphs over the Dark Lord’s ethic of top-down bureaucratic power, while in Jane Austen’s Emma, it’s Mr Knightley’s ethic of speaking the truth in love that triumphs over Emma’s ethic of heartless teasing and matchmaking for her own amusement.
In books like these, the authors shine a light on evil by reproving it according to God’s law-word. They do not celebrate or approve the evil: rather, they judge it, showing it for the empty and selfish ethic it is, and sanctioning it with defeat within the story world. This is how the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture to write, and it’s what I believe our own aims should be as writers.
Because reading fiction is like running war games for life. In real life, all of us will deal with various temptations, even the worst kinds of temptation. All of us need to be trained via fiction to refuse the evil and choose the good. Fiction can help us do that—but only if it’s honest about sin; honest about the fact that it exists, and honest about the dire consequences that will come if we surrender to it.