Writer’s Ten Commandments #3: Taking God’s Name in Vain

In case you missed the first post in the series, this series is about breaking the Ten Commandments in your writing—doing to your characters, or having them do, things you’d never want anyone to do to you.

Commandment #3: You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain.

We usually think of this commandment as applying simply to the casual use of God’s name as, more or less, a swear word. OMG spelled out would be perhaps its mildest form—using the form of words that denotes calling on God when, in fact, that is not the speaker’s true intention.

In this sense, we could have a nice little debate about whether it’s okay to have your characters say things you as a Christian (if you happen to be one) would never dream of saying yourself. I’ve talked about this elsewhere, so I’ll just say briefly: I think profanity of any sort should be used in fiction very sparingly. When I come across profanity in a book, it feels like a slap in the face. So I only use it when I want to slap my readers in the face (in the nicest possible way). And then only in dialogue or first-person narration—when a character is in such extremity that any milder language just wouldn’t sound realistic. But that’s my personal take. Every writer has his or her own approach.

But there’s another way to look at this commandment. You could regard it as taking God’s name in vain when a person, or character, claims to be acting for the glory of God, while his or her true motives are in fact selfish. Think of Luke 6:46, where Christ says, “But why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?”

Now we’re getting into some fertile ground for great characters. Maybe not your protagonist, but quite possibly your villain or a secondary character. Pecksniff in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is this sort of hypocrite—a man we love to hate, who uses everyone around him in his quest for money and social position while claiming to be oh-so-disinterested. Bleak House has several examples of characters who claim to be doing good—even sincerely believe they’re doing good—while in fact they are wreaking havoc in all the lives they touch.

To use a more contemporary example, Meg Moseley’s fine novel When Sparrows Fall
includes a character who abuses his position of authority in a congregation to steal from his parishioners, manipulate their lives, and occasionally seduce them, all the while proclaiming himself a holy and prophetic man of God. This novel has generated some controversy, but I feel it is greatly enriched by this realistic depiction of a spiritual predator.

I can think of a third way of taking the Lord’s name in vain in fiction, and it’s something I hope you’ll never do. This way would be to depict God, or His action in the world (aka Providence), in a way that is not true to His character. To depict God as unloving, or His universe as fundamentally flawed, chaotic, and irredeemable, is to take His name in vain in the worst possible way.

This perspective is common in post-modern fiction, but it makes for bad fiction and even worse theology. Far better, as we said last time, to depict a universe radiant with the glory of the Resurrection.

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5 comments on “Writer’s Ten Commandments #3: Taking God’s Name in Vain

  1. Charise says:

    I think another way this commandment can be broken is to write such saccharine sweet fiction that the very Trueness of God is minimized because the conflict in the writing is so small. God is a BIG GOD, he can handle it.

  2. Meg Moseley says:

    Katherine, thanks for the mention of my novel. I’m honored. I just read your earlier posts in the series, and I love the way you’re getting into the heart of what it means to be a Christian and a writer of fiction. I especially like what you said about depicting a universe radiant with the glory of the Resurrection. Great post!

  3. Ellie says:

    I put a book down when I see the words g.. damn or j…. c….!

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