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“Showing” vs. “Telling” — Should Christian Novelists Not SHOW Evil?

David with the head of Goliath, by Caravaggio

David with the head of Goliath, by Caravaggio

I’ve encountered many Christians who argue that certain depictions of evil, violence, sex, or the occult should not be fleshed out in fiction. So while writers are commonly taught to “SHOW not TELL,” Christian writers are sometimes taught to “TELL not SHOW.” This advice is based on a uniquely Fundamentalist view of culture, one that attaches a sort of magical power to images and words, thus prescribing a “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” (Col. 2:21 NIV) approach to art. In this way, certain words, depictions, scenes, content is viewed as automatically verboten.

So writing,

The shepherd boy removed the giant’s head

is OK. But writing,

The shepherd boy took the giant’s sword in one hand and with the other, yanked the head back, hacking at the throat until the head snapped from the Philistine’s body

is NOT OK.

Does the second depiction mischaracterize the first? Not at all. Does the second depiction exaggerate or embellish the first? Not really. Does the second depiction accurately reflect what probably happened in real-time? Pretty much.

So what’s the problem?

The problem is that many evangelical writers and readers have deemed certain things un-watchable, un-hearable, and un-readable. Just hearing a certain word, defiles us. Just reading the description of evil, befouls us. So…

  • Reading that David cut off the giant’s head is fine. Any more detail is not.
  • Reading that Samson was allured by Delilah is all right (barely). Describing the process of seduction is not.
  • Reading that Noah got drunk and lay naked is tolerable. Glimpsing his bare bum is not.
  • Reading that Peter cursed when he denied Christ is legit. Actually citing a specific word is forbidden.

“Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” Or in this case, “Do not watch! Do not read! Do not listen!”

A few days ago I linked to an article on Facebook about Christians and the horror genre. The author argues that horror is a valid genre for Christians to traffic in. Writer friend Becky Miller countered. One of her objections had to do with intentionally evoking fear or terror in our audience and that visual or fictive descriptions of evil could have damaging effects on certain people. While I agreed that people will have a whole range of responses, I suggested that such an approach can lead to insulation. One of my arguments was that Scripture contains lots of potentially scary, dark, and violent images and content. Becky responded with this:

The Bible is not graphic in any of its depiction of mankind’s sin. I find it an unhelpful comparison when people equate, say, David’s adultery with Bathsheba to fiction today showing graphic sex. It’s not anywhere near the same. So too with passages that allude to Satan, demon possession, hell. Case in point since you mentioned it: I have never read the passage in Matthew about Jesus freeing the possessed man from the Legion and felt oppressed and . . . not sure what the right word is–polluted, maybe. I have felt that from reading some Christian horror.

This is a very common argument, but one that I believe is deeply flawed. The problem with this approach, as I attempted to illustrate above, is that it applies the same standard to two very different mediums.

Film and fiction are very different mediums than Scripture. The “rules” for directing a movie or writing a fictional story are entirely different than the purpose of Scripture, much of which is simply chronicling history. We approach the Bible not get a detailed, play-by-play of the parting of the Red Sea, Jonah’s three-day hiatus inside the great fish, or Paul’s rapture into the third heaven. We don’t approach the Bible in the same way we approach film or fiction, and it’s a mistake to do so.

This is actually why Historical Fiction and Biblical Fiction are currently very popular. We want to experience, see, and feel what the story might have really been like. We want flesh on the biblical / historical bones.

Movies and novels are intended to take their audience where textbooks, epistles, journals, and historical accounts cannot. To evoke emotions, recreate events. This is one reason why Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ was so powerful and effective — it SHOWED the Crucifixion. It helped its audience visualize what the Bible describes. But it’s also why the movie was rated R.

It is often suggested that if Scripture were made into a movie, it would probably be rated-R for sex, nudity, and graphic violence. Indeed, the list of horrific scenes and events is quite long: The drowning of almost all human and animal life (Noah’s flood). The first Passover’s death angel killing all of Egypt’s firstborn (Ex. 11-12). Jael killing Sisera by hammering a tent peg through his temple (Judg. 4:21). Prophets being sawn in two (Heb. 11:7). Herod’s slaughter of the innocents (Matt. 2:16). John the Baptist’s head being brought on a platter (Mk. 6:14-29). The Gaderene demoniac running naked through the tombs (Lk. 8:26-39). Herod Agrippa being eaten by worms (Acts 12:23). Stephen being executed by stoning (Acts 7:54-60). Judas hanging himself, falling forward, and his innards spilling out (Acts 1:18). Then there are the historic accounts of Christians being fed to the lions and used as pitch to ignite the torches in Nero’s palace, as well as the church traditions suggesting that the apostle Peter was crucified upside down and the apostle John survived being boiled in oil. While the Bible may not be “graphic in any of its depiction of mankind’s sin,” let us not mistake that for the fact that these sins WERE graphic.

As usual, the question comes back to How far should Christian readers / writers go in depicting real evil?

In my book Christian Horror: On the Compatibility of a Biblical Worldview and the Horror Genre, in the chapter Objections to Christian Horror, I addressed this issue:

If [Akira] Kurosawa was right when he said, “The role of the artist is to not look away,” then looking upon the unpleasant and terrible could be the right thing to do. The Christian’s eyes should be wide open. This doesn’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness, but that our perspective of the world and the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute.

Our world is full of real-life horrors which we should not look away from. After the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001, most of the American media refused to show the true extent of the carnage. Survivors and first responders watched in horror as blood and body parts rained down, and as victims jumped to gruesome deaths. The media censored such optics under the auspice of inappropriate content. While discretion is obviously needed, seeing the visceral horror of such events is often a necessary step to processing and addressing these evils. By closing our eyes to the awful truth we can short-circuit the necessary response of outrage. The aftermath of a tsunami, the innocent victims of a gang shooting, photos from the crematorium at Buchenwald, the psychological scars of abuse victims—these are horrors that Christians should not turn their eyes from. In this way, refusal to look upon and think about evil may itself be evil.

Of course, there should be a limit to how far artists go in depicting evil. As it was famously said, we don’t need to climb into a sewer to know it stinks. On the other hand, being unwilling to climb into the sewer (whether via book or movie) — especially if is to escape or rescue someone — is its own type of evil. Arguing that the Bible does not contain graphic depictions of evil assumes that graphic depictions of evil are therefore wrong or unnecessary. But was the intent of the biblical authors to go into detailed description about human depravity and darkness? This also judges Scripture in the same medium as film and fiction, which it was never intended to be interpreted as.

The bottom line result is that we send Christian authors and readers mixed signals. On the one hand, they must SHOW not TELL. Regarding evil, however, they must TELL not SHOW.

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Samuel Choy May 22, 2015, 9:16 AM

    Hi Mike,

    How would you reply to someone who cites Ephesians 5:12.

    It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret. (NIV)


    • Mike Duran May 22, 2015, 9:50 AM

      Good question, Samuel. First I’d note that the context has to do with the Christian’s posture toward evil: “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (v. 5:11). The gist of the text doesn’t seem to mean “never say this or that,” but don’t be in fellowship with darkness. We are to operate from a completely other perspective. I’d also say that the Bible DOES mention what “what the disobedient do in secret.” Scripture references all kinds of evil, reprobate stuff: bestiality, incest, homosexuality, pagan practices, etc. So it’s not simply the mention of evil, but the bigger picture of refraining from “fellowship” with said evils.

      Secondly, I’d respond by drawing the same distinction I did in the article: There’s a difference between Scripture and history and film and fiction. Depicting “what the disobedient do in secret” is different than actually doing it. In a fictional setting, SHOWING evil may be important to the story. So unless you believe that showing / speaking evil in a fictional story is equivalent to actually doing / saying it yourself, we must allow for a different standard. (I say this knowing that some Christians DO believe, for example, that having a character say a curse word is the same as the author cursing.)

  • Travis Perry May 22, 2015, 10:06 AM

    If you were to ask the question, “Is there a point where depicting evil glorifies evil?” the answer for most people would be, “Yes.”

    But I can’t think of a standard for when that line is crossed other than that of the line for obscenity as discussed by the Supreme Court: “I know it when I see it.”

    And perhaps that’s a good thing–doesn’t the discussion of Christian liberty in Romans 14 and 15 state the line of personal sin is not crossed in the same place for all believers? What may be sin to me may not be sin to you?

    SO, maybe there is room for more than one approach to this problem among the group of Christians who write fiction. Maybe some can and should “tell” more and others can and should “show” more.

    By the way, I don’t see the writers’ rule of “show don’t tell” as an absolute. Stories can be literally told in a bardic style and still be interesting. In fact, I would recommend a first-person narrator who is clean-thinking for someone who wants to portray evil but not go too far into it. The narrator can refuse to look at or acknowledge things he or she finds too horrific–giving a solid story reason for being less than fully gruesome.

    But I also support writers who feel it is necessary to be more graphic (I’ve been more graphic myself at times). There’s room for both.

  • Donovan Neal May 22, 2015, 5:48 PM

    Wonderful apologetic Mike. It amazes me when people use the double standard towards authors, then praise Mel Gibson’s passion of the Christ. I cringe watching that movie. It brings to life the reality of what the readers of our Bible saw in their day saw. Out job is indeed not to look away but to show the truth. I appreciate your biblical and sound investment in this topic.

  • Ev Bishop May 23, 2015, 9:00 AM

    I really appreciated this post (actually, your whole blog). Good, thoughtful stuff. Thank you.

  • Karen P. May 25, 2015, 11:20 AM

    One of my favorite books is “This Present Darkness” – Frank Peretti’s famous novel about spiritual warfare in which he depicted the battle between demons and angles in the heavenly realm. I was in the New Age at that time, and suffice it to say that book had a huge impact on me. I doubt it would have if Mr. Peretti had chosen to only “tell” about the evil forces, and “show” the good. Not only would it have been very unbalanced, but also the impact would have been much less pronounced. That book changed my life.

    I think it comes down to two things: discernment on the part of the reader. I inherently know there are certain things I need to steer clear of, but even when I venture forth to test the waters, I rely on the Holy Spirit to convict me if I start going off the rails. But that doesn’t mean that particular book, film, etc. is necessarily wrong for everyone. In fact, it may be the very thing that God uses to reach that person right where they are. Second, I believe that as writers we need to think of our audience and the message we are trying to convey – who are we writing this for and why? We write what we do based off our own life experiences. Not everyone has grown up in the church, or was raised with a reverence for God in their homes. Some of us have witnessed more, dare I say, evil in our lives, and feeling convicted and discovering a truer, better Way is what we hope to express in our writings. Whether done in a bold or subtle way, we as Christian writers need to hold fast to what we feel God is leading us to write. Call it our voice, or whatever you like, but we all have something unique to bring to the table.

  • JaredMithrandir May 30, 2015, 6:31 PM

    The few parts of the Bible that are a narrative rather then a chronicle are fairly “graphic” we just don’t recognize sometimes because some of the KJV language is archaic. But the Song of Solomon does indisputably not just communicate they two had sex, it communicates that they had Oral sex, in every variety.

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