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Christian Novelists and the “Moral Artist Principle”

Apologist Randall Rouser recently posted a couple articles that touched on an important concept for Christian novelists. Rouser was rebutting some critics’ rejection of the Bible on the grounds that God does not appear to distance Himself from “moral atrocities” and “problematic moral content.” The illustration one critic used was that of an editor who allowed ambiguous moral content in their publications without dissociating themselves from the authors of said content and/or refusing to publish the piece. Rouser distills the argument thus: “…any morally upright and capable editor is obliged to distance themselves explicitly from ‘moral atrocities’ contained within their work.” Or to the critic’s point: God, like a bad editor, incriminates Himself by NOT offering an explicit disclaimer of the dirty deeds done by His people.

In his piece God and Gus Van Sant: Two morally irresponsible artists?, Rouser frames this into what he calls the Moral Artist Principle:

Moral Artist Principle: an artist is morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work (e.g. the depiction of a moral atrocity) is clear to those who will come into contact with the work. Failure to do this should result in a moral indictment of the artist and moral censure of the work in question.

Rouser then exposes what he considers the flaws of such an approach by applying it to art. In this case, Gus Van Sant’s controversial film Elephant. The film was inspired by the Columbine shooting, showing an average day at a high school before the massacre by one of its students. Apparently, some critics objected to the film on moral grounds, suggesting that the director did not offer a solution to school shootings or outright condemn the act. He simply showed the events and left it up to the audience to decide.

Allowing moral ambiguity did not sit well with some viewers. Rouser concludes,

Devotees of the Moral Artist Principle presumably want something like “Bowling for Columbine,” a preachy, entertaining, shrill piece of analysis that offers no ambiguity and abundant diagnoses and solutions. And there is a place for such films. But [Roger] Ebert is surely correct: there is also a place for the artist who refuses to supply reasons and assign cures so that we can close the case and move on. There is a place for the artist simply to depict life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness, without being morally obliged to add moralizing voice-over commentary.

What I find most fascinating about this discussion is its overlap with criticisms of “Christian art.” Just as some object to the Bible on the grounds that the Editor / God allows “problematic moral content,” some object to fiction on the grounds that it “depict[s] life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness.”

In this regard, critics of the Bible and advocates of clean fiction are remarkably in sync.

While many conservative Christians concede moral ambiguity in Scripture, they do not tolerate it in their novels. So while Lot offered his virgin daughters to be gang raped (Gen. 19:8) and Noah, after saving the entire world, got drunk and naked before cursing his grandson when he woke (Gen. 9:20-25), the Christian novelist must avoid such fare. And if, by chance, equivalent tales are told, we demand the Christian novelist be “morally obliged to add moralizing voice-over commentary.”

When it comes to Christian art, ambiguity is anathema.

However, in the same way that God included stories in Scripture that could be misinterpreted, that are morally obtuse, Christian novelists should be free to do the same. Of course, in the bigger scheme of things, God’s POV is abundantly made clear. Individual biblical stories are interpreted in light of the entire canon. Noah’s and Lot’s actions are miniscule movements within a much bigger story. Likewise, the Christian worldview cannot be definitively encapsulated in one character arc.  Unless we write “a preachy, entertaining, shrill piece of analysis that offers no ambiguity and abundant diagnoses and solutions,” we must tolerate “problematic moral content.”

So is the Christian novelist “morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work… is clear to those who will come into contact with the work”? I don’t see how that’s possible without writing religious tracts.

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{ 12 comments… add one }
  • Ame March 24, 2014, 8:50 AM

    my 16-year-old daughter has always been more interested in the villain. i remember watching a sweet, christian, video with her when she was a preschooler. there were probably 8-10 characters on the show. only one was the ‘disobedient’ character. she picked out that one character, who only had limited time on the show, to imitate.

    she has always loved the villain. as she’s grown and become an avid reader, she continues to be more intrigued with the villain. when you ask her why, she says, “They’re more interesting. There’s more depth to their character.”

    i think, especially in christian pieces of work, that if we portray only the good, we miss the depth of character and the reality of humanity.

    my daughter’s been through a lot in her short life, and she’s seen a lot. she’s very grounded in God, in Truth. we don’t candy-coat life. we face it and live it raw, as it is … as we are. she relates to that in the books she reads, in the tv shows and movies she watches, in all the art she appreciates. i love that kid!

  • Johne Cook March 24, 2014, 8:53 AM

    If I only published pieces I agreed with in every facet, I never would have published anything.

    If Rouser wants to put God on trial for allowing what He did to be recorded in scripture, that’s up to him. Good luck with that.

    In fact, good luck finding /any/ good redemption story that doesn’t contain an objectionable moral component. I’m not very good reading religious tracts and I’m even worse at writing them. Pass.

    • Mike Duran March 24, 2014, 10:29 AM

      Johne, to be clear, Rouser is defending the need for artistic ambiguity. As with the Bible, not everything will be clear to everybody. Especially without the big picture.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller March 24, 2014, 10:07 AM

    So is the Christian novelist “morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work… is clear to those who will come into contact with the work”?

    Mike, I think we’re as “obligated” as God is. You rightly point out that in the WHOLE Biblical narrative, “the bigger scheme of things,” you called it, God is abundantly clear. Consequently, He didn’t need to keep a running tab, telling readers how wrong were Abram’s lies about Sarai being his wife, or Isaac’s about Rebekah, because He says rather vehemently in Proverbs that He hates lies. He also says we’re all sinners, that our righteousness is like filthy rags, that Jesus is the Way. He doesn’t state and restate those truths throughout Genesis, though.

    I think that’s what moralistic writers feel the need to do. The commentary is needed, from that point of view, because there’s no trust in the greater story.

    But here’s where you and I disagree, I think. I believe a Christian novelist’s greater story isn’t “depicting life” truly if there is “spiritual ambiguity.” I don’t know how else to term it. To me, a story that creates or depicts theology that is not true, is far more a lie than if the physical aspects of the story stray from reality.

    The whole idea that we need to show the gritty nature of life sounds right. But why is it we think we can be ambiguous about the greater issues–the “heaven and hell” of eternity?

    Granted, no one novel, no one character arc, will depict the entire Biblical narrative. But I don’t think it’s a “tract” to write a story about what has happened to Christian after Christian after Christian. It’s as real for a person to come to an end of himself and find rescue from the dominion of darkness, for God to transfer him to the kingdom of His Son, as it is for an atheist to reject God even on his deathbed. I don’t think any subject matter should be declared taboo because it will inevitably read like a tract. It’s the job of the novelist to make sure it does NOT read like a tract.

    Frankly, I think too many Christians aren’t willing to do the hard work. Some settle for preachy fiction and some settle for “ambiguity.” I think we should aim for something higher than either of those.


    • Johne Cook March 24, 2014, 10:21 AM

      I think we should aim to tell the Truth (regardless of the genre or the publishing imprint).

    • Mike Duran March 24, 2014, 10:43 AM

      That’s a good point, Becky. Settling for preachy fiction or ambiguity is problematic. However, much that is considered ambiguous in Christian fiction falls under the category of ““depict[ing] life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness.” In other words, many would consider the Christian author delinquent if they did not include an open rebuke of Lot (for pawning off his virgin daughters) or Noah (for getting drunk) for their actions, even though Scripture doesn’t. While we allow for evil and grit, we also require it be explained and/or renounced.

      • Rebecca LuElla Miller March 24, 2014, 11:29 AM

        This is a perfect example of what I consider to be writing moral fiction rather than writing Christian fiction. If it’s more important to show that drinking (or even drunkenness) is wrong rather than that some aspect of God’s redemptive story is true, the morality has taken over.

        I suggest that “safe fiction” gets the cart before the horse. In real life we don’t live morally in order to become Christians. We become Christians and as a result desire to live to please God. Fiction shouldn’t show things backwards. Nor should it encapsulate a lifetime of learning what it means to please God into one chapter of triumph over temptation.

        That’s one thing I love about Jill Williamson’s Safe Lands series (there are lots of others as well): the character who makes the radical change in book one continues to struggle in book two. No automatic, instantaneous, conflict-free conversion.


  • Jill March 24, 2014, 1:25 PM

    There is literally no difference between recording history and writing fiction, as I’m sure the apologist already knows.

  • Suzan Robertson March 24, 2014, 2:22 PM

    Your question: So is the Christian novelist “morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work… is clear to those who will come into contact with the work”?

    How many books published by Christian publishers contain objectionable moral content? I guess it all depends on your worldview. That’s the problem with author disclaimers.

    Do adult readers need to be coddled and reassured by a novelist that he/she thinks murder is bad because he/she featured an unsolved murder or unpunished murderer? Indeed, if we are believers – especially if we are believers, we have our own internal moral compass. At some point in life we have to own what we believe and apply it, instead of letting others shield us or tell us how to think.

    If we write Christian fiction and present a morally ambiguous character or an atrocity without commentary, should we be condemned? I don’t think so. (Unless of course, someone pens a character who celebrates or justifies murdering a child for fun, and the other characters don’t think it’s wrong or question it – but seriously, would that ever be published in CBA world? I doubt it would sell in most markets. Most people want the good guys to win, even non-believers.)

    Should we add a disclaimer if we feature a character who doubts God exists – without a resolution? I don’t think so. If the novel is written by a Christian for Christians, it’s a safe bet to assume the author has simply written a fictional character – but he/she doesn’t necessarily agree with that character. That’s what I’d think. And if it’s written well, it would make me think about how I would discuss God with that character, what questions I would ask him, etc.

    We are adults with a brain and a certain worldview and an imagination. We should be able to use our brains to practice discernment. We filter through our worldview. If we read a story that presents a situation that is a moral atrocity or morally ambiguous – without a solution or disclaimer or explanation attached, that’s where our ability to reason comes in.

    Many novels, (both inspy and general market,) movies, the media, etc. feel they must present scenarios with an attachment – a certain “spin,” “message,” commentary, pat resolution, disclaimer, etc. – all very effective methods to nudge us into a certain way of thinking. Everyone has an opinion (as evidenced by social media.) The arts/entertainment world likes to tell us HOW we should think (we should agree with them) as opposed to getting us TO think, and come to our own conclusions.

    Thinking and reasoning is a positive thing, it challenges a believer into deeper truths and it deepens our relationship with the Lord. It also gives us confidence to discuss these things with others, because we’ve already reasoned it out, so we know not only what we believe, but why we believe it. (of course, always with God’s help/inspiration.)

    I don’t think a Christian novelist should attach a disclaimer if they present an atrocity or a morally ambiguous situation, unless perhaps they are writing for children who are too young to understand or discern – but then it is up to the parents to choose materials and guide their children, not the novelist.

    If a Christian novelist feels they have to clearly indicate in his/her story that an atrocity or morally questionable scenario is wrong so that Christian readers won’t think he’s in favor of it, then perhaps he should not write such things.

  • Jason Haenning March 25, 2014, 1:46 PM

    The biggest argument against requiring an author’s blatant moral assessment in a particular work is God’s own written word. As a comprehensive body of work, God’s moral assessment is clear, though it is not always made known within certain context. Jesus was also a skilled storyteller who used parables to intentionally veil his messages.

    In the face of misunderstanding or criticism, it is easy for me to forget that effectively conveying a message is different than controlling how it is received. To place the full burden of audience control on an artist strips so much beauty and power from creating and enjoying art.

    I think God uses so many different writing styles and stories because each resonates in different ways. He speaks directly about sin in one book, and in the next gives us a powerful story of real people facing consequences of their choices, both good and bad.

    God knows his audience perfectly, and tailored his writing to it, but what a blessing he did not dumb everything down. He allows us the joy of grappling with subjects that are difficult and sometimes unanswered in context. If I am seeking to honor God with my life and my art, I don’t see scripture saying he does not grant me the same freedom.

  • D.M. Dutcher March 25, 2014, 4:22 PM

    I’m trying to think of how this works in concrete terms. I mean what exactly is “morally ambiguous Christian fiction?”

  • Steve G April 5, 2014, 4:52 PM

    The readership in the CBA has been looking for women with bonnets on the cover. The stories are sometimes an emotional substitute for their own frustrated lives in reality. How is that honoring to God? Yet that is what sells. The Bible reveals God’s character to us, while allowing humanity to be imperfect. God doesn’t need a disclaimer because it is meant to be read as a whole revelation, not as individual stories taken out of context. It is why we have it in one cover.
    How does one be a “Christian garbageperson”, or a “Christian Fire Fighter”? How is that different from being a “Christian Writer”? Is it not Christian to have themes of community in your writing even if you never mention God, or have a priest who is rather liberal? What about themes of transformation, even if the end point is not total Christ-likeness? Sometimes, I think, it is not just about the writing, but about how you live your life with ypur agent and publishers and non-Christian authors.

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