Note: Much prayer and thought has gone into this post. I want to thank my friends Micah, Naomi, Sarah, and every adult who has fostered my love of different writing styles. Without my horizons and comfort zone being stretched, I wouldn’t have even the humble amount of insight I hope to encourage someone with in this post.
Lately, I’ve been pondering the balance between writing a good story and presenting its underlying “moral.” As a Christian, my ultimate aim in life is to glorify God. As a writer, my passion is creating excellent stories. I’ve spent the last four years learning about good storytelling and taking theology classes that have deepened my faith.
How to combine these two callings in a way that acknowledges the merit of good storytelling and the supremacy of the gospel? I pray this post, a result of my musings, benefits and gives peace to other Christian artists and writers.
Some “Appetizer” Questions
The following are a few questions that have arisen in my heart:
- How do Christian writers present the Gospel in a winsome, inviting way through fiction?
- How do we employ skillful story technique to glorify Jesus?
- How do Jesus’s parables—as fictions with underlying truths—teach us to combine story and moral?
- Are there other Christian authors that can teach us about selection different levels of “overtness” in our writing?
- How do we avoid poor technique—being too preachy, judgmental, heavy-handed, or general—and turning off readers?
- What role do Christian authors play in reaching audiences; and what part of our influence falls into the realm of God’s responsibility?
(Yes, I’m a 4 on the Enneagram, why do you ask? 😉 )
Let’s dive into this topic a bit more.
First, I want to clarify what I’m referring to when I use the words “moral,” “moralistic,” or “didactic.” In Christian circles and in a general sense, “moral” often refers to good works or righteous living. For example, my friend recently voiced a great reminder: “The Gospel isn’t about morality but about Jesus, and Who He is, and what He’s done.” In this context, “moral” refers to our good works.
In this article, I want to use “moral” in a story sense: referencing the ultimate motivation, or truth, behind a narrative. A “didactic” message is defined similarly: something “intended to teach, particularly in having moral instruction as an ulterior motive.”
In today’s culture, an author could cite anything as the moral of his or her fictional (or nonfictional) work: religious beliefs, sharing a good story, encouraging others, heightening a genre, addressing a social issue… an author could even argue there is no point to it. This is the sense in which I want to discuss “moral.”
It’s my personal belief that no human being can approach an artistic work, either as author or audience, with complete objectivity. We all believe in something, whether that’s Jesus, Allah, global warming, or that socks and sandals are a hideous combination. Our worldviews will manifest in some way as we create and engage with written works. I don’t see any use in pretending otherwise.
As a believer, one of my motives, or “morals,” in my fiction is conveying that Jesus is the one Truth. The question, then, is how do I integrate that “moral” in a way that will invite readers in? In a more general sense, how do Christian fiction writers integrate our morals into stories?
Fiction and Nonfiction
Some may reply, “The author’s agenda should never supersede the story.” I agree. Christian apologist and author Peter Kreeft says something similar in reference to J. R. R. Tolkien’s fictional work:
“Though Tolkien’s philosophy can be gleaned from the story, the story is not simply a vessel for philosophy. A true work of art, as opposed to a work of propaganda, never is.”
My argument isn’t that moral should supersede story. In fact, I want to discuss how we can intertwine the two so excellently that our stories sing, and in the reader evoke both emotion and ethical benefit.
Fiction and nonfiction have unique conventions that allow for the presentation of story in different ways. I believe they can be utilized in tandem; Jesus used parables and sermons to convey messages to audiences. The Bible as a whole utilizes many genres: prose, poetry, speeches, parables, songs, letters, etc.
Nonfiction’s more overt presentation of moral doesn’t negate the fact that countless works of fiction have resulted in realizations, positive actions, changes of heart, and acceptance of truths. In fact, fiction’s imaginative layer aids in disarming the reader and presenting truths in a unique way from nonfiction.
In short, I believe both types have their place; and truth can most definitely be conveyed through works of fiction.
Christian Writer—In That Order
As Christians, we are called by Christ to glorify Him in all that we do, make, and are: see Colossians 3:17, Matthew 5:16, 1 Corinthians 10:31, and so on. For those of us called to be writers, or artists, our art falls within this bigger call. It’s important to remember the supremacy of the former calling. If you have accepted Jesus as Lord of your life, your primary and eternal calling is to worship, love, and Him. Our other earthly callings will never supersede this.
In order to glorify Jesus in our earthly pursuits, however, it’s essential to study the crafts to which He’s called us. Simply put, we want to glorify Him in how well we create. We’ve all seen movies, books, or speeches created by Christians that are so heavy-handed, unloving, or poorly-executed they turn off audiences. Many Christian films and novels, though their creators’ hearts are often in the right place, struggle because they sacrifice story for the sake of moral.
Where’s the balance? How do we artfully integrate moral and ensure the result is worth our audiences’ time?
Below are a few humble suggestions. Again, I’d like to thank the friends and thinkers who have contributed insights into these musings.
What May Be Helpful
Examining Jesus and His Parables
As believers, the primary example for us to follow is Christ. Jesus’s parables are fictional stories with underlying truths about the kingdom of God. After telling the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds, Jesus receives a question from the disciples about His narrative choice:
“The disciples came to him and asked, ‘Why do you speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. This is why I speak to them in parables: Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear or understand.”—Matthew 13:1—13.
Jesus explains the purpose behind the parables (“the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven”) and indicates that the morals are not overtly available to every audience member (“has been given to you, but not to them…though seeing, they do not see.”) Jesus infuses morals into his stories yet leaves room for listeners to engage with the story and discern the meaning. He doesn’t spoon-feed it. This is integration of story and moral in an excellent way.
As discussed before, crafting a good story is integral to conveying a message. If no one reads past your first page or chapter, it’ll be hard to share your moral. We must draw readers in. Consider the following quotes from established writers:
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.”—Brandon Sanderson
“If a story is not about the hearer he will not listen. And here I make a rule—a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”—John Steinbeck
“There are books full of great writing that don’t have very good stories. Read sometimes for the story…don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words—the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”—Stephen King
Whether the moral is “We all need Jesus” or “2% milk is better than skim milk,” audiences must be engaged to even have a chance of finding it. We must study our craft and practice our art to develop these skills.
Research a “Mentor” to Emulate
If you have found a genre and a “level” of overtness that suits your personal style, find an artist who’s gone before you and employed a similar technique. For instance, Lewis and Tolkien employ different levels of overtness in their work. Many have recognized, with amusement, Lewis’s clear reference to Jesus in the character of Aslan, and Tolkien’s contrastingly subtle philosophy, presented through the culture and mythology of Lord of the Rings.
Based on what rings truest to your style, try to find an author that has carved that path already. It may encourage you to see there are more voices out there similar to yours.
For me, thick, detailed, novels with huge paragraphs are inspiring. Our Mutual Friend, Clarissa, and Anna Karenina are some of my favorites; for others, these volumes would be agonizingly dull. It just depends on your style and intended audience.
What May Be Harmful
In talking with friends and studying works at university, I’ve noted a few problematic choices, as well. Some of these may not bother some, but be instant turn-offs for others.
Random Moralistic Diatribes
Have you ever run across a passage in a book that doesn’t seem to belong there? A stranded string of sentences, full of preachy language, that breaks the atmosphere and comes across forcefully?
One of my friends commented that she is always jarred out of the story by this. She advises writers not to make their opinions into ultimatums. “Don’t tell other people what to think. Don’t hit them over the head with your message.” After all, we wouldn’t want someone of a different worldview doing the same to us. If you want to integrate a message, do so artfully. “Showing and not telling” comes into play here, as well.
Having an ulterior motive that trumps the story
Again, we all worldviews; but when the worldview is the only reason we’re creating, our readers sense it right away. I’m still learning to control this in my own work. Have you ever received a spiel from a salesman who lures you in with, say, a raffle ticket, only to ask you to subscribe to something unrelated (this happened to me recently at HEB)? It leaves you feeling disoriented, deceived, and a bit disgusted, doesn’t it?
Take the time to write your story well. Listen to feedback. Make changes. Present something you’re proud of, that glorifies God. This will convey your moral infinitely better than a poor story.
The original sin: thinking we’re God’s gift to the world; harboring judgment toward others; pushing our beliefs on others while neglecting to love them. Readers will sense pride, too—it’ll mar our witness.
There’s a verse in 1 Corinthians 4 that the Spirit led me to recently. It reads, “For who sees anything different in you? What do you have that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?”
Our salvation, our love for God, our writing abilities, and every other good thing have all been given to us. Let’s stay humble, and our writing will manifest that same submission.
The Crux of the Gospel—Closing Thoughts
I’d like to end this exploration with a bit of encouragement. A lot of times we as Christians, and as writers, can be extremely hard on ourselves. The following are gentle reminders that it’s not up to us to do this on our own—following Jesus or creating stories for His name:
- No amount of writing or working for Jesus validates our salvation. Our relationship with Jesus is made and kept by Him. We should always create from a foundation of being loved, accepted, and secure. Don’t go to the keyboard—or notepad, or typewriter—until you’ve communed with Jesus and allowed him to soothe your soul with His blood-bought, unconditional love. Then, He will manifest that love in your writing.
- One friend made a brilliant point about Christian art during our conversation. She said, “Instead of thinking ‘I have to turn my art Christian,’ think, ‘I’m just making art, as a believer, and God will infuse His truth through His Spirit into my work.’” It was a distinction I’d never recognized before. It’s cliché, but we have to remember to leave room for the Holy Spirit. He knows what He’s doing, He created us with these callings and gifts, and He can trusted with the reigns.
- If I’m worshipping and abiding with Jesus, He will align my content with His truth and move the hearts He chooses to move through my writing. Our responsibility is to abide in Him and put words on a page—to do this excellently, and have fun. Jesus’s responsibility is to bring about His intended results. Let’s allow our spirits to ultimately rest in that—in Him.
I know this is a long post; I believe I’ve covered all I wanted to say on this topic; but the most complete discussions involve more than one person. I would appreciate your feedback. Whether you’re Christian, non-Christian, published, or just starting out writing, your opinion is valuable to me. Leave a comment below, let me know what you think, and thank you for reading. ❤