THE CHRISTIAN WRITER'S MORAL DUTY:
What makes Christian writing Christian?
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right,
whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable, if there is
anything excellent or praiseworthy, think about these things" (Philippians
4:8). Christian writers' moral duty is to make readers think about such
things. Unfortunately, their opposites are essence of conflict and conflict
is the essence of good literature. Hence the banality of many otherwise
talented Christian authors.
Note, however, the word "think." Nobody thinks about food properly until
they face starvation. Judges 17-21 describes a society without the things
in Philippians 4:8. In chapter 19, the Levite does what the author does
throughout - showing Israel their depravity and saying, "Has anything this
evil happened before? Look how far we've fallen!" In Crime and Punishment,
Tolstoy does the same by depicting showing the gory logical implications of
Patricia Sprinkle, an American Christian murder mystery writer, said, "I
feel, as a Christian, I have to deal with the darkness of the world as well
as the light. All of Scripture talks about darkness. If the darkness is
not written about truly, then the Gospel cannot be seen in all its glory."
Danuta Shaw, an Australian Christian editor, says, "It is only in the
darkness that you truly see the light. The greater the darkness, the more
powerful even a little candle. However, a candle in the daylight
illuminates nothing. Conflict is the essence of revelation, for in the
light of conflict we see and hunger for peace." The Good Samaritan begins
with an unprovoked, vicious assault and robbery. The Samaritan's goodness,
the robbers' violence and the priest's cold indifference accentuate each
other. In The Prodigal Son, the father's love, grace and forgiveness are
conspicuous only because of the son's heinous wantonness.
According to Philip Gerard, Jesus' storytelling genius is based on respect.
Jesus respected His material enough to let the sparest story present
conclusions. He respected His characters enough to replace abstract
absolutes with people. He respected His audience enough to let them
interpret. He hinted at clandestine truth, making people fossick for it:
they would "look and look but never see, listen and listen but never
understand" (Matthew 13:13). He was dialectic, not didactic: as Emily
Dickinson said, "Tell all the truth, but tell it slant." He encouraged
hearers to assay His claims and "reason" with God (Isaiah 1:18).
The intellectual and the spiritual go together (Romans 12:1). So in CS
Lewis' Cosmic trilogy, Ransom (and therefore, also the reader) mentally
wrestles with his experiences to assimilate them with his prior convictions.
At the end of the second book in the trilogy, Ransom and the demonic Weston
literally wrestle, and are evenly matched until Ransom unforgettably
declares, "In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, here
goes! I mean, Amen!" Elsewhere, CS Lewis said, "Any amount of theology can
now be smuggled into people's minds under cover of romance without people
knowing it." There must be something to make people wrestle spiritually and
Satire can stimulate intellect. Many passages call idolatry evil. Isaiah
44 satirically calls idolatry absurd. There is political satire in
Revelation 17. [A statue, symbolising Roman supremacy, of the goddess-queen
Cybele riding a lion stood outside the Emperor's palace. It was labelled,
"Cybele, mother of the kings of the earth". At its unveiling, priests
distributed wine to proconsuls and sang "Here a queen I sit, I shall never
fall."] Dostoyevsky's satire of Russian aristocracy in The Idiot has the
same idea, but isn't nearly so biting.
By whatever means, writers (Christian or otherwise) must tell something.
What? The all-too-obvious answer is "that Jesus died for them" or something
relating to Christian morality. Authors cannot help but reflect their
beliefs, passions, ethics and moral standards in their writing. So
Christian writing in one sense is simply writing by a Christian.
Knowing that the Christianity of our writing is the inevitable result of our
Christianity frees us to an extent from deliberately lacing our work with
our beliefs. This is as it should be. Jesus warned us not to flaunt
"practicing our piety" (Matthew 6:1-18). Instead, in the same way as people
around us learn the Gospel through our lifestyles and we "win them without
words" (1 Peter 3:1), so readers will see the Gospel in our characters'
lives, their worldviews and philosophies. We may therefore redress author
and Presbyterian minister Frederick Beuchner's sad observation that "the
world is full of people - many of them, I regret to say, book reviewers -
who, if they hear that a minister has written a novel, feel that they must
know, even without reading it, what sort of novel it must be. A sermon with
illustration in the form of characters and dialogue, and, as such, its view
of life must be one-sided, simplistic, naïve, with everything subordinated
to the one central business of scoring some kind of homiletical bullseye."
This leaves us free to focus on creativity, structure and craft. Author
Gilbert Morris says, "In my fiction, I strive to dramatise the Gospel. It's
a way of presenting the Gospel that is very different from preaching; truth
needs to be dramatised, not explicated." Similarly, Dorothy L Sayers,
referring to her plays about Jesus, said, "It was assumed that my object in
writing was to do good. But that was not in fact my object at all. My
object was to tell that story to the best of my ability, within the medium
at my disposal - in short, to make as good a work of art as I could. For a
work of art that is not good and true as art is not true or good in any
other respect. Let me tell you, good Christian people, an honest writer
would be ashamed to treat a nursery tale as you have treated the greatest
drama in history: and this in virtue, not of his faith, but of his calling."
But if our "calling" is to produce art (in literature or any other form),
what of our faith? Skilful craft is the partial answer: for instance, the
way in which readers' sympathies are subtly drawn to characters with
Christlike natures. Yet, as we abandon ourselves to God, ideas and truths
arise which we never intended. "He who speaks, let him speak as the oracles
of God" (1 Peter 4:11). "Oracles" are literally God's "little words"
through us. Christian writing is a calling and ministry of distributing
truth, which can only glorify the Lord (John 7:18). Therefore, be honest
and humble about doubts, struggles or ignorance, by passing them on to
characters. Check, verify and prove every detail: if "facts" are wrong, who
will trust us about greater truths?
The most obvious and least refutable truth is creation (Romans 1:20).
Author and literary critic Annie Dillard calls nature God's book, adding,
"For many of my readers, that's the only book of God they will read. I must
start there." When Job doubted Scriptural truth, GK Chesterton says, God
first pointed out that the logical consequence of Job's doubt was to doubt
even his own existence, then referred him to the least doubtable things of
all. Uniting natural and supernatural is the essence of fantasy fiction.
Fantasy and its scion, science fiction, have strong Christian traditions.
Christian fantasy writers include George McDonald (Phantastes, Lillith), CS
Lewis (the Narnia series, the Cosmic Trilogy), JRR Tolkien (Lord of the
Rings), Madeleine l'Engel (A Wrinkle in Time) and Andrew Lansdown
(Dragonfox). Science fiction can be used in a variety of ways to enhance
the Gospel message. In Let's Go to Golgotha!, Gary Kilworth uses time
travel to show how human nature hasn't changed, and never will, without
Christ. Truth isn't necessarily the same as accuracy; somehow, whimsy
sometimes reinforces truth. Kel Richards cleverly transposes modern
technology to Biblical times (eg The Case of the Vanishing Corpse) to make
it easier to relate to. Fantasy owes much to traditional fairy tales, many
of which have Christian themes (eg Cinderella: exalt the lowly; Sleeping
Beauty: love restores what malice destroys; Beauty and the Beast: "love to
the loveless shown that they might lovely be"). Speculative fiction, the
branch of science fiction that extrapolates social and technological trends,
is perhaps the most effective conduit for modern satire. According to
Kingsley Amis, "To write a religious novel that isn't concerned with details
of ecclesiastical practice and the numbing minutiae of history and so on,
science fiction would be the natural outlet." It is the perfect means to
introduce readers to something beyond normal experience, yet transcending
it, to take readers behind the veil (the Greek for "unveiling" is
"apokalupto"). We must acknowledge devilry in fantasy and science fiction.
Indeed, we must acknowledge it in the whole world (2 Corinthians 4:4, John
14:30), but that does not mean we should avoid the world - quite the
The Bible, and all the other great literature, comprises realistic
characters in realistic situations facing realistic problems. Jehoshaphat
feared (2 Chronicles 20:3) a great oppressor and God had to tell Joshua four
times not to be afraid (Joshua 1:1-9) of his undertaking. Contrast the
Christians in Frank Peretti's novels, none of whom come close to saying, "My
soul is overwhelmed within me, even unto death". King David's supporters
were "everyone that was in distress, and everyone that was in debt, and
everyone that was discontented" (1 Samuel 22:2). I'd like to read some of
their biographies. I don't know who'd write them - Adrian Plass wouldn't.
In much modern Christian fiction, Christian characters are too good and
baddies have no good points. In reality, nobody except God is 100% good and
nobody except Satan is 100% evil.
Our characters should be vivid and realistic. Readers need someone to
relate to. It is said that after one episode of "Happy Days" when the Fonz
visited a library, membership of libraries in America increased by 30%.
Imagine if he had visited a church or prayed or quoted Scripture! But he
had to be someone to whom viewers could relate fondly. The writers never
intended to promote libraries. So, let us focus on improving our literary
technique, growing in grace and in godliness, and having the courage to
expose on paper as much as possible of our inner lives. People will notice
if it's contrived, and will resent it. If it isn't contrived, people can
only conclude the truth.
Melody Carlson defines her "gifting of being a writer" as being able to
"show traces of. positive aspects of real Christianity." This "gifting,"
according to Jamie Langston Turner, includes the ability "to smash a few
stereotypes people have about Christians. I want to show there are many
Christians who are totally sold out to the Lord, who also love art, can
express themselves well, are intelligent and fair-minded, have a good sense
of humour and love life." A Christian writers' moral duty involves chasing
perfection, as God is perfect, in our writing and entrusting both the
writing process and the finished work to God. An important part of
fulfilling this moral duty is making our characters and plots as realistic
and relevant to the world as possible, drawing simultaneously from the world
and from God to pass His message to all.
Eble, Diane, Behind the Stories, Bethany House, 2002.
Gerard, Philip, Writing a Book that Makes a Difference, Story Press, 2000.
Manlove, CN, The Impulse of Fantasy Literature, Kent State University Press,
Yancy, Philip, Soul Survivor, Hodder and Stoughton, 2001.
Read more articles by Jason Bolster or search for articles on the same topic or others.
Excellent! There’s nothing like reading an exposition and nodding, “how true,” and “of course,” all the way through despite the uniqueness of the perspective.
This was a truly fine gift, and I thank you.