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.
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.