“You can’t legislate morality.” I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase. Maybe said it yourself. While in a personal manner, there is some truth to it, the statement as written is categorically false.
Why? Because the truth is that all laws are based upon someone’s morality. We have laws against murder because we believe that activity in most cases to be morally wrong. We have speed limit laws to limit traffic casualties because it is understood to be a right and moral goal.
If the phrase was stated, “You can’t legislate the adoption of a moral code,” it would be accurate. The truth is, however, that all laws are an attempt to impose a moral code on a population’s behavior. Even the most insignificant law exists to enforce someone’s concept of right and wrong.
“You can’t effectively preach morality in a novel.” I’m sure you’ve heard that or some version of it. “Don’t be preachy.” Often that translates into meaning if the story appears to have any kind of moral agenda…. Bad. Seemingly neutral? Good. If they do have a moral agenda, it had better be near invisible. Stealth seed planting only, please.
The statement is false.
Why? Because all stories convey someone’s moral code, no matter how overt or subtle they may be. Every story, no matter how benign, preaches a moral code. Even an amoral code is a type of morality.
The question isn’t whether a story preaches morality, but whether it does so effectively.
For the Christian reader, substitute “the Gospel” in place of morality or alongside it. Whether a Christian author has the gospel in a story isn’t the issue, but what gospel and how effectively he conveys it.
This is the scary part for authors. Authors are not the ones who decide what moral or gospel message resides in a tale. Authors don’t decide what message will be conveyed.
Oh, we try. Believe me, we do. Then we toss it out to the public. People read it. They report what they received from it. Sometimes it is what the author intended. Often it is not. Sometimes it agrees with the author’s morality and theology. Often it does not.
When all is said and done, readers decide what message exists in a story’s pages.
Classic case in point. Fahrenheit 451 is known for its message that censorship of literature is a means of controlling people in a dictatorial government. Yet Ray Bradbury, who wrote it, protested that the story isn’t about government censorship. He may not have intended that moral, but that is the moral message readers received.
What’s ineffective preaching?
I’m sure many of us have our own definitions. Mine is a story that tells instead of shows the moral or the Gospel. Or to put it another way, it is the mixing of non-fiction with fiction.
Several years ago, I reviewed a book for my first publisher, Double-Edged Publishing. The publisher wanted my opinion of the book, as he was considering publishing it. It was well written. Good, interesting story. One big problem. At several points, the author stopped the story to inform the reader for several paragraphs what meaning and message should be derived from the events just depicted. Cut those out and the story could have stood on its own.
Authors do this because they are scared to adopt Jesus’ method of preaching. How did He frequently do this? By telling a story, often micro-stories, and let the hearer figure out what message to distill from His words.
Many came away from one of Jesus’ “sermons” saying, “Interesting stories. But not sure what he meant by them.” Others might say, “What? Is he talking about me?” Then there were those with ears to hear that would have one of those “Ah ha!” moments as the message sank in.
If Jesus explained his stories, it was only to the disciples after the crowds dispersed. Jesus was content to let the crowds find the message. Many authors are not. They are intent that the reader get their message, so they tell alongside the showing.
As a reader, this limits what message God can reveal. Same reason I hate reading someone else’s highlighted book. I get what they saw as important, not what I might see as important. The message the author wants to convey may not be the message God has for that reader. By feeding it to them like a baby, an author can bind God’s hands.
Jesus knew if a person was not ready to hear the message, there was no point in trying to force feed it to them.
The most effective preaching is when people see the truth for themselves. When that happens, they are far more likely to adopt that message as their own.
All fiction has a message, a moral, and a gospel according to someone. The real question is, what message, moral, or gospel, and how effectively are they conveyed for those ready to hear?
What messages have you picked up from stories that were conveying it effectively?