The Appearance of Gray Part 1

Gee, I wonder...

In his post on Thursday, Brian touched on a subject that I’ve been planning to address, and I’m sure that he will add in his opinions later.  However, I want to talk about how we approach morality in fiction.  Now, as most of my fellow writers know, I have certain objections to the terms ‘Christian fiction’ and ‘Christian author’.  I am both a Christian and an Author, both of these aspects of my identity inform one another, but neither defines the other.  It would be equally inappropriate to call me either a Christian author or an authorial Christian, I am simply a Christian who also happens to be an author.  Thus my work is simply fiction that happens to be written by a Christian.  That being said, it has relatively nothing to do with my post today, just wanted to clarify my opinions on terminology and that I think this post applies equally to all fiction, no matter who the author is.

Relativism is common in modern culture and, to an extent, appropriate.  I doubt that anyone reading this would argue that one flavor of ice cream is absolutely better than another.  I also doubt that anyone reading this would argue that one book is absolutely the best book ever written.  That is because these are matters of opinion and preference, not matters of fact.  Since we can see that, in matters of opinion, relativism is perfectly appropriate, the question becomes: ‘is morality a matter of opinion?’

Currently, I am teaching an ethics class, and I encourage my students to be exact in their definitions.  We must understand that while distinctions between right/wrong, moral/immoral, and ethical/unethical are intertwined, they are not the same thing.  Right/wrong distinctions (the words good/evil may be inserted here) exist on a universal level.  If we assume that truth equals reality (a safe assumption I believe), then truth must not only exist, but be universal in nature.  Otherwise there is no reality.  If truth exists on a universal level then there should be (I hesitate to say ‘is’ because I cannot address convention theory in a post this short) a universal standard for good/evil (right/wrong) distinctions.  If there is not, then we are left with a situation of might makes right where whoever is the strongest makes the rules.  Thus, any right/wrong distinction must be considered a matter of fact, not a matter of opinion (we can argue back and forth all day about which truth claim presents the correct fact in terms of right/wrong, but the key is that it must be a matter of fact, not one of opinion).

When do they start beating each other up?...That's what always happens in the cartoons...

Moral/immoral distinctions on the other hand, exist on a cultural level (Moral comes from the Latin Moralis which refers to the rules for acceptable behavior in a society).  Moral/immoral distinctions must be separated from right/wrong distinctions on the cultural level.  Japanese morality creates a society that functions just as well as one based on Judeo-Christian morality (preferences in this may differ, but both create stable, functioning civilizations), and so they are equal in their efficacy for civil control.  This does not mean that they are equal in terms of a right/wrong distinction, but that they are equal in terms of a cultural acceptable/unacceptable distinction.  For instance, in Judeo-Christian morality suicide is unacceptable, but in Japanese morality it is perfectly acceptable.  However, as a Christian, I say confidently that suicide is wrong.  So, even though suicide is morally acceptable to the Japanese, it is a wrong (evil) action on a universal level.  While the terms moral/immoral have come to be associated with universal right/wrong, I think that this distinction is a very important one.  Thus moral/immoral distinctions become a matter of cultural, but not personal opinion (a.k.a. Different cultures may have equally valid moral codes [in that each code serves to maintain a stable culture], but individuals may not acceptably hold to a moral code that significantly differs from that of their culture [at least in practice]).

Ethical/unethical distinctions may be understood to refer to an individual’s adherence to a required sub-moral code within their society (lawyers and counselors are both held to an ethical code that differs distinctly from the general Judeo-Christian moral code of the U.S., because of their professions).  This sub-moral code, for the individual, supersedes the societal moral code.  For instance a defense attorney, when confronted with his clients admission of guilt, is expected to defend that client as the client wishes regardless of that admission.  He is also expected to refrain from exposing his clients guilt, even though this would normally be the moral course of action.  A person can be said to act ethically when this sub-moral code is followed, thus a defense attorney may act in a manner that is both ethical and immoral (see the example above).  Thus ethical/unethical distinctions may exist at a sub-cultural and, potentially, personal level (however, at a personal level it becomes difficult to justify their existence).

I write all of this to say that when we are presenting our characters, and their actions, sometimes we must leave the appearance of gray, even when we do not believe that this gray exists.  Take, as an example, Dante’s portrayal of Francesca de Rimini in Inferno.  The reader encounters this woman in the second level of hell, reserved for the lustful, and she is absolutely unrepentant of her crime.  Dante’s pilgrim is even sympathetic to the woman and her lover (her husband’s brother).  Even though Francesca’s sin is obvious, and not in doubt, she refuses to accept that it was wrong.  This sort of denial is perfectly acceptable in our writing and creates for the reader the appearance of gray, leaving the decision to the reader as to whether Francesca was actually deserving of the punishment she received.

This tool is invaluable to the writer, because it allows us to show real reactions to evil, to punishment, and to consequence.  It also allows us to guide our readers gently, instead of pushing them forcefully, in the direction that we, as the authors, wish them to go.  We must also realize that some readers will inevitably mistake or misinterpret our intention (I am reminded of a friend from my graduate work who was staunch in his opinion that Dumbledore represented God in the Harry Potter novels, even though the author’s own statements refuted this idea).  The appearance of gray, and the distinction between moral/immoral and right/wrong, allows us to create characters who act in ways that are both culturally correct, and in character, while allowing the reader to determine the right or wrong of their actions.  For example, a medieval Japanese character who believed that suicide was wrong would be quite a leap.  A group of such characters would be very difficult to accept.  However, a story that presented these character as believing that suicide was both acceptable and honorable, while still showing the inevitable consequences of that suicide, would be powerful.

Paolo and Francesca in the midst of their effrontary. For those of you who have never read Dante, Paolo is Francesca's brother-in-law

The danger here is in writing only cultures that agree with my (the author’s) moral viewpoint.  If I believe that suicide is either wrong, or immoral, then it becomes difficult for me to write a character or culture in which it is acceptable.  However, if all of the cultures in my world adhere to the same morality, then it will become a dry (and somewhat unbelievable) world.  So, what is the key?  As authors you and I must write stories, and worlds, that allow this distinction between right/wrong, moral/immoral, and ethical/unethical standards to be seen.  We must display worlds where cultural beliefs clash, but where a clear standard of right and wrong is shown.  The difficult part is actually doing this.  More on that in my next post in this duology.

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on July 23, 2011, in Christianity, Educational Resources, Social Commentary, Tobias Mastgrave and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. This was an excellent post. Unfortunately, moral, ethical, and right/wrong are lumped together by many people today, and all are believed to be relative, along with reality itself.

    In my college writing course, we were asked to write a paper defining fact, truth, belief, and knowledge. Out of the entire class, only two people considered fact and truth to be absolutes.

  2. Good post. I think we can talk more about what we mean by a “Christian” author vs. author who just happens to be “Christian” in the future. I think you’re letting the Christian bookstore (or perhaps the Christian music industry) control your definitions.

    They tend to define a “Christian” author very narrowly as a certain type of person who produces a particular kind of inferior evangelistic literature complete with forced anachronism, artificial conversions, and unbelievable altar calls. That seems to be what you assume.

    On the other hand, if we define it the same way we do something like “the Christian worldview” then we mean that as authors we are informed by our Christianity and we use it as an interpretive framework through which to understand our characters and our worlds. That doesn’t predestine what our characters will do or how they will act necessarily, but it does affect hundreds of smaller points along the way. And while the character may not accept something as wrong, the reader should have enough clues to be able to figure it out without the author trying to cram it down his throat. Otherwise, you’ve actually said nothing in particular.

    If our Christianity doesn’t inform our writing in any clear and meaningful sense, then, as Christians, I think we have some hard thinking to do. If there is a part of our lives that we intentionally keep isolated for fear of what Christianity might “do” to it, I don’t see that as much different from the hypocrites who act one way at work and another at church.

    You may have just given me my next post…. 🙂

  3. I would say that the common definition of Christian author is an author who writes primarily for Christians, which I do not consider myself. However, my objection to this is not that I don’t want to be defined in a certain way, but that I hesitate to put the word Christian before anything other than a person. For instance, a ‘Christian’ worldview is not like Christ. It is more apt to call it a biblical worldview, assuming that it actually follows the bible (which is often questionable), or a cultural worldview. In the same way ‘Christian’ culture often does not reflect Christ. It is more apt to call it Southern Religious Culture, or Western Religious Culture, etc.

    My objection to the idea of a ‘Christian’ business is the same. I have yet to see a ‘Christian’ business that actually reflects Christ in their business practices and policies. Better to call them Religious Businesses. It is my opinion that businesses, like governments, cannot be run on purely Christian principles. For instance, neither can make a practice of forgiveness. If a government made common practice of forgiveness then laws would never be enforced. If businesses did so then outstanding debts would never be paid. Just to cite one example of why a business cannot be ‘Christian’.

    While my faith informs my fiction, my fiction is not biblical allegory and will not reflect Christ in every way. Thus I do not think that it could be called ‘Christian’ fiction.

    Above and beyond that, none of these things is a conscious entity that can hold to a particular statement of faith. While members of a business may be Christian, the business itself cannot express faith. Thus the business cannot be Christian.

    As an author and a Christian my beliefs should inform my writing, and do. Furthermore my writing informs my faith and my understanding of God, and it should. However, the same could be said for my cooking. It is also a part of me. Or my studies, again a part of me. Both are affected by the fact that I am a Christian and my Christianity can be affected by both. However, I would not call myself a Christian Cook, or a Christian Student any more than I would call myself a Christian Author.

    Lastly, it is difficult to get away from common definitions. There is a common understanding of the terms Christian author and Christian fiction that most people hold. I do not believe that I fit within this understanding, and so I choose to avoid the terms associated with it.

    • Of course, by that definition, you need to stop calling anyone or anything “Christian.” After all, I’ve never met a single individual who perfectly reflects the person or life of Christ Himself. Rather, we generally use the word “Christian” to describe people and things that are (in theory) striving to become like Christ and to exhibit His teachings and Truth. Sadly, we all fail to live up to it because we are all fallible and human.

      Likewise, I don’t see the point in differentiating between “Christian” and “Biblical” since they are in the practical sense synonymous. I am not trying to be “like a book” when I hold to a “Biblical worldview” so much as I am trying to be like the Person behind that book. The Bible is not an end in and of itself so much as it points us to a much greater reality behind it.

      Finally, I would submit that though we acknowledge the reality of the common definition, we don’t have to abide by it. I’m ambitious enough to think that we can change it. By producing works of fiction that flow from an intelligent, Christian/Biblical worldview that demolish the stereotypes, I see no reason why we can’t reach into BOTH audiences while still maintaining our integrity. Proof of this lies in Mythcon, where some positively anti-Christian people come together to study a provably Christian author like J. R. R. Tolkien.

  4. I would submit — along with Brian, it would seem — that you are jaded with, burned by, or just very frustrated with the mainstream Christian religion. Your staunch views of “Christian” fiction and authors (and the application of that qualifier) don’t sound like you are open to dialogue with anyone who willingly identifies with the label. .

    • While I won’t disagree that I am frustrated with southern Christianity this has more to do with my concern that we are continually making ourselves more ‘Of the world but not in the world’ rather than ‘In the world but not of the world’.

      While we can find fiction written by Christians dating back hundreds of years, the idea of ‘Christian fiction’ and the ‘Christian author’ date to the late 20th century. They are recent ideas that have come out of the emerging ‘Christian subculture’ of North America as it tries to separate itself from mainstream culture. However, scripture never tells us to separate ourselves from mainstream culture, it tells us to be a part of mainstream culture, but not conformed to that culture.

      Instead we separate ourselves from that culture and create our own culture that, when we take an honest look at it, is little different from the mainstream culture, just slightly more sanitized. This separation does nothing for us as people because we still focus on the things of the world, we just try to clean them up. It does nothing for the world because we separate ourselves to the degree that the world is not welcome in our subculture.

      I also submit that the very term Christian means ‘follower of Christ’. The majority of the things that we label ‘Christian’ are not animate, sentient beings with the ability to follow Christ. Even my writing cannot attempt to follow Christ. I may attempt to follow Christ, but my fiction is simply fiction and cannot hold any beliefs of its own.

      • Thank you for this further explanation. My mind is eased — I don’t hear a bitter reaction anymore, but a genuine lament about the extraction of Christians from culture.

        I’ve actually been thinking about that myself lately. This could be another whole post topic (or even a whole blog) so I’ll limit myself to one realization I had last week. I was struggling over whether I could or should support an outreach program begun & run by Christians which does not highlight Christ first and foremost. Their mission is helping people, not preaching. The charity in question also refuses to take the label “Christian” lest the label itself turn people away.

        As I was mulling it all over, I remembered that when hospitals were first formed, they grew out of the church — but they didn’t serve exclusively Christians. Now, I realize that the culture at the time was more dominated by Christianity or Catholicism than in America today. But the point remains: they grew out of imaging Christ for the world.

        Am I making sense?

  5. One reason that the term “Christian Author” did not gain prominence until the 20th century is that in the West prior to that point almost all authors considered themselves culturally Christian. It would have seemed redundant. When it became evident to serious Bible-believing Christians that the biblical world view could no longer be taken for granted (which happened way too late, by the way), they began to feel the need to differentiate authors who still operated in that context from others who did not. That was the original meaning of the phrase. The connotation of “writers in the Christian subculture writing only for the Christian subculture” came in later. I do agree with Kyle that this was an unfortunate development–though I think the earlier coinage was unavoidable.

    Terms are problematic, and we cannot seem to avoid the necessity of defining them to death. I am NOT a writer who just “happens” to be a Christian–my Christianity is too central to everything about me to ever become merely incidental. So I will not use that language. But I’m not entirely comfortable with the connotations many will read into the term “Christian writer” today either. There is no perfect solution to the semantic problem. Bottom line: Whatever we call ourselves and however we explain it, we still have to do good work and pray that it will overcome all these distractions in the long run.

    • Being an author and being a Christian are both essential parts of my nature, as is being a Martial Artist, being Male, and a few other things. All of these things have a profound, unconscious, and unavoidable impact on my understanding of the world. This is why I am equally comfortable saying that I am an author who happens to be Christians, and that I an a Christian who happens to be an author. I am also a Christian who happens to be male, and a male who happens to be Christian. Etc, etc, ad nausem.

      However, we do not see the term ‘Christian Author’ and ‘Christian Fiction’ gain common use until after the rise of Christian subculture, along with terminology like ‘Christian Music’, ‘Christian Movies’, and Christian Business’. We have used this terminology to separate ourselves from mainstream culture, to show who is welcome and who is not.

      However, I completely agree that whatever we call ourselves and however we explain it, we still have to do our best work and then find an audience that appreciates it.

  6. @Thinkhmm: Yes, you are making sense and I have two brief comments in reply. In my opinion, the term ‘outreach’ is also one that is often used and ill-defined. If an ‘outreach’ sets as its primary goal to aid those who are in need then I think that Christians can, and should, be a part of it (as long as there are no serious doctrinal issues; a friend of mine recently asked my advice on dealing with a situation where Christians were supporting a support group that openly embraced homosexuality as right, proper, and a gift from God. These kinds of doctrinal issues are a separate matter. I think a good example of what I am talking about here, to my knowledge, is the Red Cross. Though they do not exist specifically to spread the gospel, they are an outreach group that was founded by Christians and I do not know of any serious doctrinal issues.) However, I balk at supporting ‘outreach’ missions groups that do not seek to spread the gospel. While we must support those groups that seek to make a difference in the world, the nature of ‘missions’ intrinsically involves the spreading of the gospel. For a group to call itself a missions group or organization (and I have a couple in mind as I say this) and not spread the gospel is essentially stating that the gospel is not necessary for salvation, or that salvation is not necessary for man. I hope this is making sense to you.

  1. Pingback: Editing, Part One « Writer With A Slinky

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