A Nice Little Moral Dilemma

There’s been some discussion in the blogosphere lately (see, for instance, this post on Novel Rocket) about whether Christian fiction in general is too sterilized. I generally come down on the “yes” side of that question. What I look for in a novel (overtly Christian or not), what makes it really satisfying to me, is redemption. And it’s pretty tough to write about redemption without writing about sin.

But here’s the other side of the coin: For a story to be believable and engaging, the reader has to enter deeply into the character’s emotions. That means when a character—especially the protagonist—is tempted to sin, and even more so when he or she succumbs to sin, the temptation has to be shown as, well, tempting. If it isn’t, the reader will lose identification, thinking the character is weak or stupid or just plain bad. Whereas if the temptation is rendered convincingly, the reader may think consciously, “This character is acting wrongly and better get his/her act together quick,” but deep down inside the reader will know that he or she, given the same situation, just might act the same way.

So here’s the syllogism:

A) Good fiction must depict sin in order to depict redemption.

B) Good writing requires that readers feel what the character is feeling.

Therefore

C) Good fiction writing requires that we lead our readers into temptation.

Of course, if we really are writing about redemption, we also lead them out again. And if we honestly believe in what we’re saying, the redemption will end up being more attractive, more compelling, than the sin.

But does that end justify the means? Is it responsible to stir up lust, anger, greed, envy, in order to show them ultimately quelled?

Or is there something wrong with my syllogism?

What do you think?

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This entry was posted in Writing.

11 comments on “A Nice Little Moral Dilemma

  1. I’m not so sure a book will stir up anything that isn’t already there, and perhaps identifying with a character and realizing my own weakness is part of the redemptive quality of the story. When I recognize the character is acting wrongly and needs to act differently to avoid further trouble or to correct the wrong done, am I not also telling myself subconsciously, “If I were in this situation, the right thing to do would be ____.” Just like it is easier for me to give advice to someone else than it is for me to figure it out when I’m in the midst of a similar situation, perhaps it is easier for me to recognize the right thing to do in a book than when I’m faced with the same dilemma in real life. Could it be possible that we mentally teach ourselves, reconfirm our values, and assure ourselves that we can overcome every time we root for a character to do the right thing?

    I think G.K. Chesterton knew what he was talking about when he said, “Fairy Tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” And I think it applies to more than fairy tales.

  2. Excellent points, Adriane! That is how I feel when I read others’ books. Hard to see my own as objectively.

  3. Bev. Cooke says:

    Exactly, Adriane! You said it really well. One thing too, that I try to keep in mind, is that my characters have to be human. In Orthodox terms, that means, weak, broken and in need of healing, but with that spark of God within, however hidden or buried. Redemption and salvation are the end goals. But along the way, we have countless chances to turn from our sickness to health and healing. Every decision we – or our characters – make is toward the light or away from it. It’s not a once and only thing. And as writers, I think that frees us to show a fully rounded, human character who is strong and virtuous and healthy in some places in their lives, and weak, needy and broken in others. Sin is sin, but it’s our brokenness that leads us into sin. If we can show broken people who nevertheless have enough health to turn to the source of healing and ultimately redemption and salvation, we’ve done our job.

  4. Neeks says:

    I think we have to show the evil in order to show how to overcome it. It’s well enough to tell someone don’t jump in shark infested water but if they don’t know what a shark is they might decide to pet the nice fishy.
    Thanks for such a thought provoking post! I had to sit and work out an answer and it took a while, because no matter what I came up with it always ended up being we have to show the evil and then show how to overcome. To me, that’s what God does too. He let’s Satan show the evil here and the God’s Word shows us the proper way to overcome it.

  5. All I can say (as a Reader) is: Dorothy Sayers got it right. Without getting overly graphic, she draws you in and keeps you right there with her characters’ feelings, struggles, imperfections, and – ultimately – redemption. I hope I meet Lord Peter and Harriet Vane in Heaven. 🙂

    • Oh, Wendy, I so agree! I just bought and reread Whose Body, which had been the only book of hers missing from my collection. Sayers is fabulous. I would never have gotten into mysteries if not for her. And have you read her The Mind of the Maker? Excellent study of creativity and the nature of art.

  6. Pete says:

    As a Christian and aspring author (thought not necessarily an aspiring “Christian author”), I was bouncing around the Internet reading what people had to say on this very topic. Even though I’m commenting on a stale blog post, I thought I would toss in my two cents.

    Most Christians are aware (along with Satan, and Christ himself!) that our strongholds and weaknesses are deeply personal. Certain gates of temptation are much wider for some of us than others, and must therefore be guarded more fervently. As a reader, I must decide what to read, (and even whether to continue on through what I choose to read), based on keen attention to my personal gates, and how well each of them is fortified. In my past, as an unsaved single man, I exposed myself to a lot of pornography. In my 15 years as a husband and slave to Christ, I have worked diligently to shut and guard that gate, but I can’t deny that that gate is still there. For me personally, identifying with the temptation of lust through a fictional character is much more dangerous, based on my past, than, say, the temptation to become a serial killer, which I have thankfully never had to struggle with in real life.

    I deeply dislike “sanitized” stories in which the behavior of non-Christians adheres closely to Christian morals, even though they don’t believe Christ, for the purpose of not offending and disturbing a Christian audience. In these situations, the temptations or weaknesses or sinful actions of these characters are straw-men, propped up so that they fall to pieces with one carefully written witnessing scene.

    As a writer, I have to be more careful in how much detail I go into in the description of a beautiful woman’s body than I would in the description of firing an assault rifle or describing a street brawl. But that has everything to do with guarding MY heart, not my readers’. There could be a reader who struggles with fantasies of violence who would be putting HIS heart in much greater peril reading a crime drama about a serial killer.

    We do have a responsibility to share our personal struggles. Overcoming trials allows us comfort and witness to others in similar trials. Frankly, I would have a much more difficult time convincingly portraying the temptations of a serial killer in a book (whether I intended it to reinforce Christian beliefs or not), than my own testimony of the temptation and the redemption of lust.

    Which brings me to the point of my now-much-too-long comment: The perils of identifying with the temptations exist not only for the reader, but for the author. But that does not make the journey worth the risk, as long as we remain rooted firmly on the foundation of Christ, who, the Bible says, “will not let you be tempted beyond your ability.”

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