Harsh realism may jar our sensitivities, but do we dare avoid it?

Few issues arouse the sanctified hackles of believers as much as the question of the proper response of Christians to the repugnant realism and feeble moral relativism found in much modern literature. Conscientious parents worry about what their children may be required to read in school English courses, while Christian English teachers ponder the dilemma of having to fulfill their professional obligation to give fair treatment to prescribed curricula without violating personal values and tastes.

Others, who desire to understand contemporary society more fully, may read a current best-selling novel, only to discover their Christian sensibilities bombarded by the directionless self-centeredness of the characters, and with every man seemingly free to do what is right in his own eyes.

Whether one is a Christian parent, student, teacher, lay person, or pastor, the nagging suspicion remains that the reading of most modern literature violates Paul’s command to the Philippians: “If anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Phil. 4:8, NIV).

For some, avoidance seems the only satisfactory solution. Such a response is easy if one assumes that valid insight into the nature of reality belongs only to those who have experienced the New Birth.

And yet, other considerations would seem to render avoidance of contemporary literature inappropriate, if not out-rightly escapist. Jesus observed that his followers are the salt of the earth (Matt. 5:13), which, among other things, implies that the body of Christ is to be involved in direct confrontation with the world and its philosophies so that the bland and unwholesome qualities of the whole society will be effectively seasoned and revitalized. Such a process requires confrontation, not withdrawal; involvement with society’s ideas, not isolation from them. Modern literature, then, cannot be totally evaded and ignored by the Christian community.

Indeed, one of the most potentially beneficial consequences of an encounter with serious literature is its power to move the sensitive reader to an identification with the anxieties, perplexities, and frustrations of the characters—an understanding that a whole list of propositional statements about the nature and effects of human sinfulness could never hope to duplicate. Good literature engages us as whole beings, directing our attention to both the awesomeness and the awfulness of the human condition. It is not limited to nice stories about people who inevitably find God, always overcome evil and selfishness in themselves and others, and live happily ever after.

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Therefore, the believer who desires to be informed about society cannot outrightly reject an exposure to its literature, in spite of its unpalatable elements. He or she must encounter it with prayerful caution and uncompromising good sense. The two qualities of much modern literature most likely to elicit a negative response are:

1. Incessant realism in depicting various evidences of human depravity—especially physical violence, scurrilous language, or illicit sexuality.

2. Moral relativism, where there seems to be no identifiable criterion for judging human behavior.

The Bible is an excellent model of how the unpleasant realities of human sinfulness can and should be handled in literature, particularly in the Old Testament writings. Some of these are prominent examples of biblical writers’ forthright and uncompromising accounts of mankind’s shameless carnality and perverted sexuality. The impact in many such episodes is not even modified by adroit narrative summary. At least three principles for handling of such unpleasant but realistic material are consistently observed in these biblical accounts, however.

First, the wickedness of man is never glossed over or evaded, but always censured and eventually punished: an explicit or implied value structure for assessing the behavior is always present.

Second, a solution is always present or implied whereby sinful man can overcome evil and experience divine forgiveness.

Third, while the evil behavior is portrayed candidly, the treatment is consistently succinct.

If, then, it can be granted that depicting human depravity and violence in literature cannot in and of itself trigger automatic rejection from Christian readers, what principles can be developed to guide our response to such material? I would suggest the following guidelines:

1. The Christian reader should try to ascertain the presuppositions governing the author’s depiction of human depravity. Do the characters seem able to indulge with impunity in expressions of human depravity, or is there a system of ethical values that requires them to be responsible for their actions in operation? Does the portrayal seem designed to titillate rather than expand the reader’s overall understanding of character and motive? Is there any balancing evidence for humanity’s goodness, or is the work a one-dimensional depiction of profanity, sacrilege, and obscenity? In short, does the overall moral or social significance of the work as a whole exceed in importance the offensiveness of some of its parts?

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2. The Christian reader should constantly assess his motives for and attitude toward reading the material. Is he reading a work so as to knowledgeably serve as salt of the earth within his culture? Is he being morally repulsed by the material, or does he find himself becoming subtly immune to the tragedy of human debasement and lostness?

3. The Christian reader, recognizing the degree of subjectivity involved in his response to literature, should refrain from indiscriminately imposing on others his own conclusions about these matters. One must acknowledge that because of both the subjective aspects of literary response and the varying backgrounds of individual readers, it is extremely difficult to make universally acceptable pronouncements on the proper “Christian” response to any particular work. Also, it becomes exceedingly difficult to separate one’s “gut-level” feelings about a work from a more thoughtful, analytical approach to questions of literary tastes and values.

I urge caution in the degree to which Christian young people are exposed to the unpleasant realities of modern literature. But total insulation from those realities is not a sound approach, either; indeed, isolation is almost impossible.

We must also exercise caution in determining the extent to which we should impose on secular society our conclusions regarding the sordid realism and moral relativism in modern literature. Too often Christian groups have stridently condemned a work of literature for the sheer presence of unpalatable material, without considering context, authorial perspective, and overall literary worth.

As a serious student and committed teacher of literature for almost 25 years, I can only acknowledge how much more I personally need to learn about a biblical response not only to literary art but to all of culture. To take such creativity seriously, to approach it sensitively, to come to terms with it intelligently—these are tasks that cannot be delegated solely to the unregenerate. May God help us to open ourselves prayerfully, carefully, and fairly to truthful insights into man and his world wherever they may be found—even in the sometimes amoral, harshly realistic creations of modern literature.

DEANE E. D. DOWNEYDr. Downey is chairman of the Division of Humanities at Trinity Western College, Langley, British Columbia, Canada. His article is adapted by permission from His Dominion (Dec. 1982).

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