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A Moral Imperative

“You can’t legislate morality.” . . . the statement as written is categorically false.
| Nov 5, 2013 | No comments |

“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.

Pulpit on wall“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?

As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and The Virtual Chronicles series, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines.Learn more about R. L and his work at any of the following:Author Website, Author Blog, or Author Store.

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Galadriel
Guest

Part of the problem is that the word “preaching” carries the implication that the audience isn’t smart enough to understand without having everything explained for them.It can also be associated with forcing a viewpoint instead of opening a dialogue.

Kirsty
Guest

Jesus was content to let the crowds find the message.

One important point, though, was that he told stories that fitted with their background. E.g. the lost sheep, the vineyard etc were Old Testament images which he was expanding on. Because he was talking to people who knew the Old Testament.

An author today can’t assume any knowledge of the Bible. So they need to write stories that start where people are. Otherwise allusions will go way over their heads.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Great points, Rick. I really like your explanation that preachy writing tells more than shows and that it is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. I’ve come to believe that preachy writing also is the author delivering his moral message directly to the reader, bypassing the characters. Rather, effective deliverance of message in story, as I see it, is allowing the character to discover the moral message. If the readers discover it too, great, but they might not and writers need to be OK with that.

Welcome to the Tuesday slot, BTW. Great to have you on the Spec Faith team.

Becky

notleia
Guest
notleia

While I would say that all stories have a message, I don’t think I would say they all have a moral. I don’t think those words are perfectly synonymous. And I have to disagree with amorality being a type of morality. That’s a little like saying that atheism is a kind of religion. (Clarification: atheism is not a religion.)

Austin Gunderson
Member

While atheism may not qualify as an organized religion, it is a faith. But I think the distinction between “faith” and “religion” may be comparable to that which you draw between message and moral: while they’re both attempts at persuasion, the latter carries a weight of authority (or ostentation, YMMV) which the former doesn’t presume upon itself.

notleia
Guest
notleia

Uh, no. It is specifically a lack of faith in supernatural stuff. You might be able to say that they have faith in science or humanity or themselves or something, but nothing not comparable to what the average person in the same culture has. I have at least some faith in science and humanity and myself, and I imagine you do, too.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Did I say “in supernatural stuff”? Why, no — I did not.

Faith is trust, pure and simple. One has faith in God, another has faith in not-God. Neither belief, by definition, can be proven or disproven through human scientific inquiry, since their scope exceeds the grasp of science. Both beliefs require … well, faith.

notleia
Guest
notleia

They don’t see it that way. I heard somebody compare it to not believing in ghosts. Would you say those people believe in not-ghosts, then? It seems more like a semantic game.

Austin Gunderson
Member

Well, let’s break it down. If I don’t believe in ghosts, why would that be? Ghosts are supposed to be spirits. Spiritual things cannot, by definition, be examined by human science. Therefore, I cannot ever know for a fact that ghosts don’t exist. So what do I say on the matter? Not “I know there are no such things as ghosts,” but rather “I don’t believe in ghosts,” which is just the negative form of “I believe ghosts don’t exist.” Either way, it’s a belief. One belief may seem much more reasonable or substantiated than the other, but that doesn’t alter their basic nature. It doesn’t mean they don’t both require some degree of faith.

In the case of God, what does it mean, practically, when an atheist declares his or her “lack” of belief? It means that the atheist believes the entire physical universe originated from pure nothingness without outside instigation. It means the atheist believes that the universe developed into a teeming cornucopia of interdependent complexity through absolutely random happenstance. It means that the atheist believes the natural human yearnings for purpose and meaning and beauty and morality to be nothing more than vestigial byproducts of an evolutionary biology motivated solely by reproductive necessity.

When put in those terms, the deceptively-enlightened-sounding phrase “I don’t believe in God” loses its incredulous tang. We can see now that atheism requires just as much — if not more — faith than theism. It isn’t mere “faith in science,” either (an oxymoronic phrase when you think about it); actual science — as opposed to the opinions of scientists — can pass no judgement on the beliefs inherent to atheism. They stand or fall by faith.

This is much more than a semantic squabble. The recognition of atheism as a faith carries huge implications. Atheism is still generally perceived as a kind of “blank slate” perspective on life, as though its adherents just haven’t been able to ferret out reason enough to sully their enlightened minds with the primitive beliefs espoused by the unwashed masses. After all, they only sign on to things that can be proven by science, right? Nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been down in the faith muck with the rest of us this whole time. And that makes a world of difference.

notleia
Guest
notleia

My point is that it isn’t a 1:1 replacement. It might be a simple swap from God to science in the formation of the world, but in everyday life they do not carry a concept of God. Nothing truly replaces (“replaces” isn’t the right word, but I’ll go with it) for them what God is supposed to be to Christians.

Paul Lee
Member

Right. Atheists are victims of false dogmatic certainty even more than Evangelicals often are.

I know that real atheists have a lot of reasons to disbelieve that I don’t understand, and I don’t want to be unfair. But I think denial is a cheap and cowardly way to handle uncertainty, to affirm the human need for security and common sense. Among the skeptics, agnostics have a much more reasonable and commendable position.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Atheism is still generally perceived as a kind of “blank slate” perspective on life[. …] Nothing could be further from the truth. They’ve been down in the faith muck with the rest of us this whole time.

Indeed. Those who don’t recognize this have simply passed from one kind of propaganda to the other. Atheists don’t recognize that theirs is an equal and opposite religious faith out of either willful blindness or a bourgeois desire to think themselves above all that religious competition. It ends up a refusal to complete on fair grounds and win solely based on spreading the myth of belief “neutrality.”

notleia
Guest
notleia
D. M. Dutcher
Member

Some fun reading about morality in fiction can be found at tvtropes.com. They call the moral message of a book an Aesop, and they give a ton of examples of how it can work or backfire. Like the Space Whale Aesop where the consequences of your morality are so fantastic as to be worthless-if you don’t save the whales, two centuries later space whales will come to kill your planet.

I think R.C. is right about that every book has some form of moral code if only that humans are moral beings. Amorality gets thrown around about, but it means the complete absence of morality, and it’s something you don’t find outside of animals or severely damaged people. Sometimes though the stated code and unintentional code clash, and that’s where you don’t get an effective book.