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.