Copyright 2016 by Gabriel Salter
A few months ago I realized I had been indoctrinated.
It wasn’t into a cult or philosophy, in fact it was an idea many people in evangelical Christian circles seem to believe in. I can’t identify any single person who passed this idea down to me, it was an idea I picked up by growing up in church, living around evangelical church programs and evangelical church culture, and observing the Christian products that evangelical believers tend to promote. I didn’t even realize until recently it was wrong. The idea was as follows: because evil is ungodly, it should be avoided entirely.
Let me explain that. This idea says we shouldn’t just condone evil as bad, we should avoid evil entirely. We don’t simply flee from sin, we must not mention sin at all. Ever. It doesn’t matter that we all suffer from sin and need to talk about how to deal with it, we just shouldn’t talk about it.
Therefore, we don’t talk much about the secular world either, because after all the secular world is sinful. So, many Christians retreat into Christian communities with isolationist views toward the secular world. What was supposed to be the city on a hill becomes the gated community on a hill.
There are a lot of things to talk about on this topic, but right now I want to focus on how it affects Christian writers. Basically, this paranoia about evil has left many of us confused about how we should talk about and portray evil in our work.
Since we’ve been encouraged to that believe the only way to talk about evil is not at all, the acceptable thing to do is write family-friendly fiction that excludes sin entirely. Things have begun to change and Christian publishing standards are shifting a bit, but this attitude still stands. Which means writers like me who don’t naturally gravitate to family-friendly tales are in a tight spot. We are either “good Christian writers” who write Amish fiction and hate ourselves for it, or we write what we are passionate about and this apparently makes us in league with the devil.
Obviously I’m exaggerating slightly, but this is the truth I keep hearing in accounts (Chapter 5 of You Lost Me by David Kinnaman, Simon Morden’s 2005 talk at Greenbelt Festival), in interviews (with Ted Dekker, with former Christian graphical novelist Craig Thompson) and in my conversations with fellow writing students at Taylor University (which Jerry B. Jenkins has hailed as the finest college writing program in America).
I’m going to suggest something that will sound revolutionary to people who’ve grown up in the evangelical Christian subculture, perhaps even heretical: you can talk about evil without promoting evil.
I’ll use an example to explain this. Let’s say I was sitting in front of you right now with two objects hidden in my coat pockets. I reach into my pockets, pull out the objects and show them to you. In one hand I have a sex education film, one of those videos most of you had to watch in public school. In the other hand, I have a porn film.
What is the essential difference between these two things? The difference is the point each film is trying to make. A sex education film is trying to show how human beings sexually relate to each other, that there are healthy ways to pursue that and unhealthy ways, and you should use this knowledge to pursue healthy sexual relationships. A porn film, however, is showing a heightened fantasy version of what sex is and glorifies the violent, unhealthy ways to the point users can’t respond to healthy sexual activity.
This same principle works in fiction.
Write a novel like A.C. Crispin’s The Hutt Gambit where two characters go out on a date, he walks her home, they go into her apartment… and then scene changes and he’s getting up the next morning to leave, you’ve included sex to move the story forward. You’ve explained what the characters’ relationship is, and we know it will affect the rest of the story.
Write a Robert Ludlum-style novel, where you do an in-depth description of exactly what happened in that apartment, and you’ve strayed into pornography. You’ve given us a play-by-play when all we really needed was the final score.
Write a movie like Inception where people fight because they have to defend themselves and there is regret when people die, and you make the point violence is sometimes necessary but life is valuable.
Write something like Pulp Fiction where people kill senselessly but it is portrayed as fine and even funny, and you have told the audience that senseless violence is okay.
Write a book like This Present Darkness where there are supernatural evil beings but they are clearly bad and we should avoid them, and you’ve made a moral point.
Write a story where the supernatural exists but there are no real morals and the demons may or may not be the bad guys (anything in the DC Universe) and you’ve suggested the occult may be good.
Granted, there is a tiny middle ground for comedy, where writers parody evil and they neither say it’s bad nor that it’s good (Ghostbusters, the works of Charles Addams). It’s also much harder to write about graphic types of evil without glorifying them than it is to write about something like smoking.
But we always have a choice when we write about evil. We can write about evil in a way that shows its potency and that ultimately it isn’t worth it, or we can glorify evil for the sake of spicing things up and leave our ethics in the dust.