Apologist Randall Rouser recently posted a couple articles that touched on an important concept for Christian novelists. Rouser was rebutting some critics’ rejection of the Bible on the grounds that God does not appear to distance Himself from “moral atrocities” and “problematic moral content.” The illustration one critic used was that of an editor who allowed ambiguous moral content in their publications without dissociating themselves from the authors of said content and/or refusing to publish the piece. Rouser distills the argument thus: “…any morally upright and capable editor is obliged to distance themselves explicitly from ‘moral atrocities’ contained within their work.” Or to the critic’s point: God, like a bad editor, incriminates Himself by NOT offering an explicit disclaimer of the dirty deeds done by His people.
In his piece God and Gus Van Sant: Two morally irresponsible artists?, Rouser frames this into what he calls the Moral Artist Principle:
Moral Artist Principle: an artist is morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work (e.g. the depiction of a moral atrocity) is clear to those who will come into contact with the work. Failure to do this should result in a moral indictment of the artist and moral censure of the work in question.
Rouser then exposes what he considers the flaws of such an approach by applying it to art. In this case, Gus Van Sant’s controversial film Elephant. The film was inspired by the Columbine shooting, showing an average day at a high school before the massacre by one of its students. Apparently, some critics objected to the film on moral grounds, suggesting that the director did not offer a solution to school shootings or outright condemn the act. He simply showed the events and left it up to the audience to decide.
Allowing moral ambiguity did not sit well with some viewers. Rouser concludes,
Devotees of the Moral Artist Principle presumably want something like “Bowling for Columbine,” a preachy, entertaining, shrill piece of analysis that offers no ambiguity and abundant diagnoses and solutions. And there is a place for such films. But [Roger] Ebert is surely correct: there is also a place for the artist who refuses to supply reasons and assign cures so that we can close the case and move on. There is a place for the artist simply to depict life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness, without being morally obliged to add moralizing voice-over commentary.
What I find most fascinating about this discussion is its overlap with criticisms of “Christian art.” Just as some object to the Bible on the grounds that the Editor / God allows “problematic moral content,” some object to fiction on the grounds that it “depict[s] life in all its beauty, glory, depravity and ugliness.”
In this regard, critics of the Bible and advocates of clean fiction are remarkably in sync.
While many conservative Christians concede moral ambiguity in Scripture, they do not tolerate it in their novels. So while Lot offered his virgin daughters to be gang raped (Gen. 19:8) and Noah, after saving the entire world, got drunk and naked before cursing his grandson when he woke (Gen. 9:20-25), the Christian novelist must avoid such fare. And if, by chance, equivalent tales are told, we demand the Christian novelist be “morally obliged to add moralizing voice-over commentary.”
When it comes to Christian art, ambiguity is anathema.
However, in the same way that God included stories in Scripture that could be misinterpreted, that are morally obtuse, Christian novelists should be free to do the same. Of course, in the bigger scheme of things, God’s POV is abundantly made clear. Individual biblical stories are interpreted in light of the entire canon. Noah’s and Lot’s actions are miniscule movements within a much bigger story. Likewise, the Christian worldview cannot be definitively encapsulated in one character arc. Unless we write “a preachy, entertaining, shrill piece of analysis that offers no ambiguity and abundant diagnoses and solutions,” we must tolerate “problematic moral content.”
So is the Christian novelist “morally obliged to ensure that their own moral assessment of any objectionable moral content within their work… is clear to those who will come into contact with the work”? I don’t see how that’s possible without writing religious tracts.