Often lost in the debate between “realistic” and “clean” fiction, is the overall message a story conveys about sin.
On the one hand, proponents of “realistic” fiction can fall into the error of glamorizing sin. In their attempts to portray a realistic depiction of sin’s life in this world, often to contrast it with the grace and hope of God, the message that ends up being sent is that some sins are minimal, normal, or not all that bad.
On the other, advocates of “clean” fiction can end up glamorizing ideal characters, situations, or simplistic solutions that have no bearing in reality. They end up with the Barbie effect: establishing a perfection of character, which instead of inspiring, creates a negative spiritual self-image that is debilitating.
Either approach can end up painting an unrealistic picture of sin from God’s perspective.
Let’s use an infrequently discussed but important sin: marital infidelity.
The media industry tends to glamorize cheating on one’s spouse. Often infidelity of some kind is used to increase the drama. While it is generally not viewed in a positive light, rarely does TV and the movies show its real impact of such betrayal on all involved. Frequently, there is minimal fall out from cheating. It either is shown to be benign—the demands of “love” trump the responsibility of self-giving love—or even in some cases it is depicted as a good and positive event.
The cheater is more often shown to be the victim than the betrayed.
Christian fiction is not immune from this problem. Oh, there may be the understanding it is wrong, but the author, unless they’ve been through it themselves, tends to gloss over the magnitude on all involved. It serves as a plot device to increase tension, but is portrayed as an easily solved problem with no lasting repercussions.
Likewise, on the “clean” fiction side, cheating will never play into a story line. Despite the fact that statistics say over 50% of people will experience infidelity during their life, even among Christians, “clean” fiction pretends it doesn’t exist.
If it does come into the story line, the simplistic solution tends to focus on the betrayed forgiving the betrayer, making everything okay again. Not only is that not a realistic depiction of an affair, it is a perversion of what forgiveness is about.
By failing to address the sin realistically or at all, our “clean” fiction enables sin.
First, by hiding it from us. We come at sin thinking we’re immune from it rather than fearing that “sin lieth at the door” (Gen 4:7). Too many Christians marry believing it will never happen to us. We love each other. He or she is a moral, strong Christian man or woman. They would never violate their vows.
I know. I considered my wife a strong, moral Christian. We loved each other. Though we had areas we could have improved in, we both expressed happiness and satisfaction with our relationship—for 29 years of marriage. I trusted her completely. I knew it wasn’t impossible, but I felt immune from it happening.
But the unthinkable happened. She fell to temptation. For seven months she lived a secret life. When I discovered it, my world fell apart. I questioned the reality of our past, and the future was up in the air. The person I thought I knew, who I’d shared 29 years of life with, became a stranger. It is by far the greatest upheaval and trauma of my life.
Because we thought it would never happen to us, because we never gave serious consideration to the possibility, we both became complacent in guarding against it. None of the marital books we’d read, fiction or non-fiction, prepared us for the reality of what we would encounter.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to rebuild from that devastating loss, and develop a better marriage. So much so that we wrote a book about our experience, Healing Infidelity. But our story isn’t in the majority. Most end up divorced or in unhappy marriages.
Books like mine should be required reading for premarital counseling. Newlyweds should be required to join an infidelity support group for a while and lurk. Being ignorant of fire increases your chances of getting burned by it. Books that ignore the topic or give unrealistic pictures of its effects end up glamorizing and enabling sin, whether secular or Christian.
A truly Christian book, whether fiction or non-fiction, will not ignore the presence of sin, nor will it paint an unrealistic picture of it from God’s perspective.
It will, however, present it as something that will destroy us—the definition of sin—while guiding us to the way of escape.
Glamorizing sin is more than making it shiny. It is lying about its reality on either end of the extreme.
What ways have you seen sin glamorized in fiction? How do we avoid it? Should we avoid reading such books?