Wednesday, April 18, 2007

CSFF April Blog Tour: Sin Boldly! (Day Three of "Return of the Guardian King")

CSSF Blog Tour

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, today’s topic is "Sin Boldly!" Those of you with any Lutheranism sneaking around in your background will recognize that as a Luther quote. Maybe even if you don’t. But this is some advice that I think writers of Christian fiction need to hear. More specifically, their characters need to hear it.

By way of explanation, let me tell you a true story. Way back when the only Christian fiction I knew of was Frank Peretti, I read The Oath and was mightily offended by it. Why? Because in The Oath, the main character, Steve Benson, had sex with a married woman. I thought that was absolutely awful. Benson was clearly the hero of the story. Even though he fought against it, you knew he was going to be a Christian by the end of the book. How dare Peretti have this soon-to-be Christian commit adultery! It was awful! It was scandalous! It was sinful!

Looking back on my reaction, I’m a little embarrassed. To put it bluntly, I don’t agree with the me who reacted so badly anymore, because I understand this simple truth: human beings sin.

They do. I do. You do. We all do. Even after we become a Christian, we still sin. We don’t want to, but we do. It’s like what St. Paul wrote about in Romans 7:15-25. It’s what Martin Luther called "simul justus et peccator" (righteous and yet sinful at the same time). If writers are to create realistic, three dimensional characters in their stories, those characters have to sin, even if they’re on their way to be Christian, even if they already are.

But writers seem to get so hung up on this. I can understand why. We certainly don’t want to condone sin. We don’t want to place stumbling blocks in the path of anyone. Better for a millstone to be tied around our necks and all that. Yet we can’t escape the fact that our characters have to be sinful if they’re to be realistic. So what do we do?

We make our characters wimpy sinners. They sin in "small" ways (I know, sins aren’t "small" or "big" in God’s eyes, but we humans tend to classify them that way). They might get mildly miffed when something doesn’t go their way. They may have a slightly harsh word for someone they don’t like. But our heroes rarely forsake their marriage vows. They usually don’t kill; if they do, we make sure we explain it away as something they had to do, something that couldn’t be avoided. They don’t rob banks. They lead relatively sanitized lives that are free of the "big" sins.

But is that realistic? I don’t think it is. More than that, I think it robs God’s grace of its true power. When our characters don’t sin boldly, we give the unintentional impression that there are some sins that can’t be forgiven.

Let me give you an example: let’s say that there’s a good Christian girl. We’ll call her Cheryl. She grew up hearing the dire warnings against premarital sex. It’s a sin. It’s wrong. It’s contrary to God’s will for your life. She made a pledge early on to remain a virgin and, through high school, she kept that promise. Of course, it was pretty easy since Cheryl was something of a late bloomer and didn’t do much dating.

But then Cheryl went off to college. There she met Steve, a great looking guy. She can hardly believe it when Steve asked her out. Pretty soon she’s head over heels in love. Even the fact that he’s a Christian in name only doesn’t bother her. She figures there’s plenty of time to get him on the straight and narrow, especially since Steve says all the right words about the future and togetherness and all that.

As their relationship progresses, Cheryl is confused by her feelings for Steve. She always assumed that if lustful feelings came her way, her faith would be enough to drive them off. But when she’s with Steve, giving in to those feelings doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. Finally, one night, Cheryl falls to the temptation. Afterwards, to silence the guilt, Cheryl tries to convince herself it’s all okay because she and Steve will get married someday.

Only that day never comes. A few weeks later, Steve and Cheryl get into a major fight and break up. Now Cheryl is devastated. The convenient excuse she used has been stripped away and the full import of what she’s done comes crashing down. She’s horrified, she’s sickened, she’s angry. And in this time of spiritual anguish, she turns to her favorite hobby for a little bit of solace: reading Christian fiction.

But in the pages of the books she’s reading, she keeps encountering people who have never messed up as badly as she has. Sure, there are people who have sex outside of marriage, but they’re the bad guys. But the good guys, they know better than to have premarital sex. They’re strong. They can resist the temptation. So Cheryl is left with the message that a true Christian would never have given in the way she did and she wonders if she can ever be forgiven.

Is that the message of Christianity? That some sins are too big for God to forgive? Absolutely not! Obviously not! But when we tame down our characters’ sins and make them mild, when we don’t let our characters sin boldly, I think we wind up preaching that gospel instead of the true Gospel that no sin is bigger than Jesus. There’s nothing that can’t be undone by the death and resurrection of Christ.

Instead, we should let our characters sin boldly, not because we’re okay with sin, not because we’re trying to "sin so that grace may increase," but so we can show our readers that God’s grace is so big that it can wipe away all sin, no matter what it is. The bold sins of our characters can help us depict God’s grace all the more clearly, all the more powerfully, all the more beautifully. It’s like what Martin Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melancthon in 1521 – "Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly, for He is victorious over sin, death, and the world."

Now I realize what some of you might be thinking. "If we put the ‘big sins’ in our stories, we might come across as condoning those sins and saying they’re okay." That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. I’m not saying we should condone sin. I am saying that we should be free to depict sin. We won’t condone it if we depict it properly.

That means showing the negative consequences of sin. By way of another example, let’s say we’re writing the story of a businessman named Bill. Bill is a Christian, a regular churchgoer and a good family man. But due to mounting financial problems, Bill is tempted to embezzle from the retirement funds at work. He knows not only how to do it, he can do so in a way that places the blame on someone else. He also knows that if he does, a lot of his friends will be ruined. And he knows that it’s wrong. But he’s desperate. He goes ahead with his plan. The money is soon safely tucked away in an offshore account and a guy that Bill never really liked is on the hook for the crime.

So we’ve depicted a pretty "big" sin here. What happens to Bill after the crime will determine if we’re condoning his actions or not.

If we say that Bill goes home the night after the crime and sleeps like a baby, that he and his family live high off the hog, that Bill is never caught and lives to the ripe old age of 94, never gaving what he did another thought, we’re condoning it.

But if we say that Bill is wracked with guilt afterwards, that Bill knows he’s done wrong and can’t live with himself, and finally, after finding forgiveness at the foot of the cross, turns himself in so his patsy can go free, we’re not condoning sin but we are demonstrating that God can forgive it.

So what does any of this have to do with Return of the Guardian King? I think Karen Hancock struck that delicate balance where her characters could "sin boldly" without crossing the "condoning" line.

In the first book, Light of Eidon, before Abramm becomes a Terstan, he spends a passionate night in the arms of a slave girl named Shettai. They’re not married. And Abramm doesn’t seem to think it’s that big of a deal.

At least, he doesn’t until the third book, Shadow over Kiriath. Then, as Abramm is preparing to marry Maddie, he’s suddenly overcome with guilt over what he did with Shettai many years ago. He can’t believe that Eidon has forgiven him and he tortures himself over his sin. Trap finally helps Abramm through the guilt by pointing him to Tersius’s atoning death, reminding him that Eidon’s grace is more than enough to take care of that sin.

Abramm sinned boldly. But because he also believed and rejoiced even more boldly we were given a true picture of what grace is all about.

The heart of Christian fiction shouldn’t be moralistic tales of right and wrong (do this, don’t do this, etc.). Instead, the heart of Christian fiction should be God’s heart as well; His incredible, overpowering, incredibly rich, sin-overcoming grace.

Now I’m not saying that we have to have our characters commit every imaginable sin. I’m not even saying that every hero should commit one "gigantic" sin either. Instead I think that rather than be intimidated in writing about sin, we should "sin boldly." By depicting sin realistically, by letting our characters sin boldly, by remembering that Christian characters are saints and sinners at the same time, we can demonstrate "how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ."

Or at least, that’s my two cents. Errrrr ... more like two bucks. I just realized that I’ve been writing a sermon to y’all. Danger of my chosen profession I guess.

Be sure to check out the rest of the blog tour participants:

Nissa Annakindt
Wayne Thomas Batson
Jim Black
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
Frank Creed
CSFF Blog Tour
Gene Curtis
D. G. D. Davidson
Chris Deanne
Janey DeMeo
April Erwin
Kameron M. Franklin
Beth Goddard
Marcus Goodyear
Rebecca Grabill
Andrea Graham
Jill Hart
Katie Hart
Sherrie Hibbs
Sharon Hinck
Christopher Hopper
Heather R. Hunt
Becca Johnson
Jason Joyner
Dawn King
Tina Kulesa
Lost Genre Guild
Kevin Lucia and The Bookshelf Reviews 2.0 - The Compendium
Rachel Marks
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Shannon McNear
Caleb Newell
Eve Nielsen
John W. Otte
Robin Parrish
Cheryl Russel
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika Schultz
James Somers
Tsaba House Authors
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Daniel I. Weaver

Oh, and if you want to read the "Sin Boldly" letter for yourself, there’s a translation at "Project Wittenberg" here. This translation is a little different than the one I used in writing this essay, but it still gets the point across.


Jamison said...

Hey John. This was a powerful post. I realize it had little to do with the book you were reviewing, but you just preached a great sermon there. Thanks for sharing all of that.

Jason said...

John, I agree that this was a great post. I was thinking about Light of Eidon along similar lines. Like Hancock's books show - God can use all we do for His glory. Not that He wants us to sin, but His grace is sufficient. Thanks for tackling a tough subject in this little world we call CBA (works for general Christian life as well).

Becky said...

John, I thought your post was very relevant. When I read Light of Eidon I had questions about the sex-outside-of-marriage scene. I thought (this shows my judgmental attitude) the author (who I didn't know at the time--not even via the web) was putting in the scene unnecessarily. I don't know as I assigned a motive to why she would do that, but the point is, she put it in purposefully as part of a long term goal. I appreciated that in books 2 and 3 and appreciated Karen's spiritual depth as well as writing skill as a result.

I do think we need to write with depth and that's pretty hard to do if we pretend about the human condition.

BTW, I'd love to hear what you would say to Bryan Davis regarding his posts here and here. There are others, too, but you'll get the idea.


Karen Hancock said...

Great sermon... er... post, John! Actually I thought it had a LOT to do with all my books. There is no sin too great for the Cross, save the one of not believing in it. I think the magnitude of God's grace and faithfulness is one of the most important things I want to come out in my books. Thanks for bringing it out and elaborating on that theme.

D. G. D. Davidson said...

Unfortunately, when Luther counseled people to sin, he apparently really meant it.

Interesting post, and a very good point. Soft-soaping the human condition is no way to preach Christianity and no way to write good fiction, either. The balance is to depict the bad stuff without wallowing in it. I think Peretti did a pretty good job of that in The Oath. I have some objections of my own to that novel, but on the whole it's very strong art.

Rebecca said...

I'd been thinking along similar lines (my hint yesterday about the PG rating of Christian culture). It is very hard for anyone who has a real, human need to step into a Christian bookstore and to find anything that can speak to that need.

Thank you for the wonderful, well-thought post.