Fiction and the Third Commandment

One of the magazines I subscribe to is Reformed Perspective, and I would encourage you to do the same. If you like, you can get over there and subscribe right now.

I bring this up because the cover story of their most recent issue was on “Christian Fantasy after Lewis and Tolkien,” a theme worthy of much discussion.

One element of this discussion has to do with how sin is portrayed in Christian fiction, and this would particularly apply to the sin of how God’s name is used. How is the Third Commandment honored or dishonored in fiction? In a sidebar comment in this issue, a key distinction is made between portraying a sin and committing a sin in the course of portraying it. This really needs to be thought through because it is not as simple as it looks.

First we should get that important distinction down. When a character in a play pulls out a fake gun, points it at another character, and pulls the trigger, he is pretending to commit a murder. If an actress in that same play pulls off her clothes, she is not pretending to be immodest, she is being immodest. In short, “the story” is not an all-purpose disinfectant, where the author and actors are absolved of all responsibility. Some sins are the sins of the characters in the story, while other sins are the sins of the tellers of the story. So how does this happen?

So let’s take this into the realm of prose fiction, and see how it works with the Third Commandment. God’s name is always to be honored, and so an author who sprinkles in the OMGs for the sake of “realism” is, in my view, violating the Third Commandment. God’s name is too holy to used as part of the backdrop scenery.

Many years ago, I wrote a short fictional piece for Credenda describing a man’s conversion. Without going into all the details, this man was walking upstream in a wooded area, fell down, and exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” He was swearing, pure and simple. A short time later, as he came to a point of self-abnegation, he said, “Lord Jesus Christ,” which was the point of his conversion. His use of the Lord’s name was sinful in the first instance, and submissive and obedient in the second. My authorial use of it in both instances had the second instance in mind the entire time, and I was driving toward that point.

The point of this story is that I then got into a back and forth with a reader who objected to my violation of the Third Commandment. In his mind, it was not the character’s violation, but rather mine. But I was not taking the Lord’s name “in vain.” It was there for a purpose, and the purpose was to honor the name of the Lord Jesus. Now I may not have done this competently enough, which is a separate issue, which I will get to momentarily.

In the course of our discussion, I appealed to the example of the Lord Jesus Himself, who taught us through many short fictional vignettes called parables. In the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax man praying the Temple, the Lord said this: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” (Luke 18:11).

He uses the name of God, but He is clearly not communicating with God. This is not a true prayer. The Lord is explicit–this particular prayer bounced off the ceiling, fell to the floor, and has rolled into the corner. It was a clear breach of the Third Commandment.

“The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain . . . superstitious, or wicked mentioning . . .” (WLC 113).

In short, this fictional depiction is a high violation of the Third Commandment, committed by a character in a bit of prose composed by the Lord Jesus Himself. We therefore have to do more than simply say that the sinful use of God’s name in prose is automatically a violation.

When a writer portrays sin, any sin, the central question has to do with what side the author is on. The outlook of the author must be moral. It cannot be immoral, on the side of the devil, or amoral, in the pretense that there is a neutrality room in which writers can do all their writing. There is no neutrality.

In sum, any sin whatever may lawfully be portrayed by a Christian writer. If his intentions are scripturally healthy (and if he is competent), he is not entailed in the sins he is portraying, because nobody ever heard the Lord’s parable and came away wanting to be more like that Pharisee. The story is devastating, both to the Pharisee and to the sin being committed.

But I have mentioned competence several times, so let me close with that. There are writers who may not be violating the Third Commandment in their hearts, but what they are actually violating is another scriptural admonition.

“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith” (Rom. 12:3).

There are Christian writers who think they have the chops to write an orgy scene in order to make it plain to all and sundry what a tawdry and empty lifestyle that is. And if they were correct in their self-assessment, their fiction would indeed advance the cause of righteousness. But alas, they are not correct in their assessment, and all we wind up with is one more participant in the orgy.

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Valerie (Kyriosity)Luken PrideJquelRobertJane Dunsworth Recent comment authors

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Eric Stampher
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Eric Stampher

Competently-written post on a worthy topic!

When a character in a play pulls out a fake gun…

Do you mean here — an actor playing a character, or the character in the script?

SarahS
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SarahS

One of the only authors I’m familiar with who competently does what you describe is Flannery O Connor.

prayersofadoration
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“God” is more of a title than a name, at least technically. How does that bear on the commandment? It’s true that most English speakers seem to use “God” as his name.

Brandon
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What if the person is using OMG as an interjection rather than a violation of the Third Commandment?

In Studies in Words (pp. 321–322), C.S. Lewis talks about the use of damn in modern English. He says, in effect, that people aren’t using it to cast the person into perdition, but simply as an ejaculation of emotion. It has completely lost its meaning, unless it is used in the context of hell or religion. Could it be the same when an eighteen-year-old says, “OMG did u see her shoes”?

Moor
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Moor

I know that if you say it in Spanish, it’s okay…

goodeguyIII
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goodeguyIII

Does the same rule apply in film? You make the case that an orgy can be written about, but not portrayed, which follows from what Scripture writes of sins committed without sinning. But where do describing and portraying part ways? Can an actor curse fluently “in character” and be as guiltless as a good author portraying reality?

Keith LaMothe
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Keith LaMothe

Doug, I’ve been meaning to ask, and it’s not quite as off-topic here as it would be on recent posts, since it all relates to using words as if we really worship The Word: The “Fidelity” book is subtitled “How to Be a One-Woman Man”, and the related teaching has been very helpful to me over the years. What material would you recommend on “how to be a man of your word”? I ask because increasingly I’m finding people, even Christians, make statements/promises of intent and later appear that they didn’t even expect those to be taken seriously. For instance,… Read more »

valerieab
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“If his intentions are scripturally healthy (and if he is competent), he is not entailed in the sins he is portraying….”

Also ties into how the Author can write a millennia-long masterpiece including every sin ever committed and not be guilty of any of them. None of us has that level of competence.

Tom
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Tom

Valerie,
How true.
And of course he is the hero of the story. A hero of which all others, ever written, are but a faint echo.

Jill Smith
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Jill Smith

Pastor Wilson, I was wondering how your comments would relate to Paradise Lost? With the best imaginable intentions, Milton managed (in the opinion of many scholars, both Christian and secular) to give his best lines to Satan, to make Satan so seductive a rebel that he spawned dozens of subsequent Byronic hero-types, and to have his Adam ask Raphael for information about the sex lives of angels as they ate a nice lunch together. I think PL is the best epic I have ever read, and I love Milton with all my little Catholic heart. But I wonder if even… Read more »

Matt
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Matt

The third commandment isn’t violated by “god”. God is just a word and not anyone’s name. “Jesus Christ” used as an interjection is much worse than even “oh my god”, a debatable case depending on how you view the “my” part.

Nudity is almost impossible to do visually without being pornographic. The issue is that while it may be an important plot point that someone is naked, it is almost never necessary to actually show them naked. I guess if you made a Lady Godiva movie, you would have to have a naked woman in there somewhere.

Matt Massingill
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Matt Massingill

So, to push the application of this principle out even further . . . if we take your parameters of right intent + competence, and apply them to the work of an author who does, in fact, sprinkle many such violations of the Third Commandment into a book, film, etc. in order to provide a baseline of realism — but, that realism is not gratuitous, but is used for the same reason that you used it in your story (but just with many more instances of such sin), then what about that? In other words, if the fundamental difference is… Read more »

Jane
Member

“The third commandment isn’t violated by “god”. God is just a word and not anyone’s name.” I understand what you’re saying here, and I don’t think you’re entirely wrong. However, I think this is a letter/spirit thing; most people do think of “God” as someone’s name. If they use it lightly, as a thoughtless interjection, or as part of a curse, then they are taking something in vain that they think of as being God’s name. I think they are violating the third commandment in that sense. I agree that the casual or cursing use of “Jesus Christ” is objectively… Read more »

mekt75
Member

Whenever I hear this nudity argument, I always think of the exception to the rule. In other words, the one nude scene where there is no nudity. Ever see X Men? The blue skinned girl is supposed to be nude. Okay there is my moment of silliness. On a serious note, how would film holocaust scenes? They really were naked when they were murdered. At the end of the day, if someone wants to be titilating, they will do so. If you are doing historic events, even if you don’t show genitelia, everyone knows it is a nude scene. Thoughts?

Jquel
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Jquel

Daniel Radcliffe did a nude scene on stage once. Before he did it, he asked an older actor about doing so. The actor told him that the first two nights, he would be mortified. The third night, he wouldn’t think about it at all. i believe it. Many years ago, I worked in a nursing home working with end of lifers. The first 2 days, I was very uncomfortable changing the women’s clothes. By the third night, I didn’t think about it. There was a real temptation to forget they were real people. Your focus became getting them processed fast… Read more »

Luken Pride
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This raises the whole question of the place of escaping reality and fantasy in the Christian worldview in general. There were extended metaphors to illustrate truth in scripture, but not whole worlds fabricated for the prime reason of entertainment or supporting ideas that would not work in reality. I like fantasy but I’ve yet to be convinced by reason or experience that it is healthy to create or get our lessons from alternative realities that are no realities at all.

valerieab
Member

Luken Pride — The issue to be concerned about isn’t fiction versus nonfiction or fantasy versus realism, but truth versus falsehood. There’s plenty of pit-of-hellism out there among the most nonfantastical of literature, and some rock-solid truth to be found among the most imaginative of fantasy.