“I didn’t expect the person killing me to yawn with boredom.”
As opening lines go, this has to be one of the best. It’s from Dr. James Dobson’s novel, Fatherless and while I hadn’t expected much from this psychologist’s first try at fiction, after skim-reading the opening chapter in the bookstore I was pleasantly surprised and bought the book.
But I soon came across a surprise of a different sort. On page 171 a character used God’s name as an expletive. He wasn’t talking to God, or talking about God; this was God’s name as an exclamation mark.
That wouldn’t have been surprising in a secular novel. But why would a Christian author take God’s name in vain? While you won’t find the F-word in any Christian fiction, it isn’t all that rare to find God’s name abused. In the past I’ve run across this with several other Christian novelists. When I asked three of them why they did it, I got three very different responses.
My first letter was to an author who has written a couple dozen popular novels. He said no one had ever pointed this out to him before – none of his readers, none of his editors. He promised that, going forward, he would certainly not do it again.
An encouraging response…but also an indicting one. Of the thousands of Christians reading his book, none had ever mentioned it? It seemed that a big reason God’s name is being dishonored among Christians is because we aren’t willing to speak up about it to each other.
I couldn’t find contact information for the second author, but an opportunity came up when I attended one of his lectures. At the coffee break I came forward to ask him about it privately. I was as tactful as I could be, but this was an unavoidably confrontational situation: I was telling him he had done something wrong. His response was gracious: “Can you show it to me?”
We found the page, and he read it over. The character was a detective who as a young boy had grown up in the church, but who as an adult had abandoned belief in God. And yet here he was, near the end of the novel giving insincere “thanks” to God.
The author explained that I had missed some of the subtleties in the story. He showed me that at this point in the book the detective was no longer the agnostic he had been. While there wasn’t any big conversion scene, a reader who was paying more attention than me would have realized that the character was genuinely thanking God.
It was a great lesson, very kindly delivered: before correcting an author about his mistake, it is important to be sure something really does need correcting.
That said, in most cases it is pretty clear.
The third author asked if I objected when there were other sins in a story. He said that if a Christian author could only write about nice characters doing nice things there would be no stories to write.
Good point, and I wrote back that I had no problem with murders or many others sins taking place in a Christian novel. When a character is murdered, no actual murder takes place, and readers aren’t generally left thinking that murder is no big thing.
Now, it is possible for characters’ fictional sins to become real ones. That’s why, while a Christian novel can involve adultery, those scenes must be handled in a very different fashion than they are in a Harlequin romance. There is no place for “steamy” scenes in God-honoring fiction; a Christian writer shouldn’t be tempting his readers to covet or lust.
Similarly, when a character takes God’s name in vain, a sin is happening. As we read these passages, whether in our heads or aloud, God’s name is being used as if it were an expletive or maybe a word whisper (just something to say in place of “um” or “ah”). This treatment contributes to the belittling of God’s name. These passages contribute to the overall impression that hallowing God’s name isn’t all that important, that it is only as “holy” as any other swear word. Actually God’s Name doesn’t even get the same “reverence” as the N-Word – that has to be used with care. The F-word, too, can’t just be thrown around in every situation. Maybe if you’re a sailor, but not if you’re a Christian author. However, God’s Name can be interjected in mixed company: sailors or saints, no one objects.
To put it another way, I wasn’t objecting to the depiction of sin – I was objecting to the committing of it. When a character takes God’s name in vain then a commandment really is being broken…and not by the character. It’s the author who is using God’s name in a way that God never intended: as a substitute for the F-word, or some other swear word. God allows us to use his holy Name to talk to Him, or about Him. But God’s name shouldn’t be used simply because a story’s heroine stubbed her toe and the writer wants the audience to understand that it really really hurt. The author is using God’s name in vain when he inserts it simply because he lacks the creativity or patience to think up another interjection.
When it is appropriate to abuse God’s Name
Douglas Wilson has pointed out there are situations in which fictional character can appropriately misuse God’s name, so long as the intent is to honor God. And he cites Jesus’ storytelling as his example:
In the famous parable of the Pharisee and the tax man praying the Temple, the Lord said this: “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, God, I thank thee, that I am not as other men are, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this publican.” (Luke 18:11).
He uses the name of God, but He is clearly not communicating with God. This is not a true prayer. The Lord is explicit – this particular prayer bounced off the ceiling, fell to the floor, and has rolled into the corner. It was a clear breach of the Third Commandment.
“The sins forbidden in the third commandment are, the not using of God’s name as is required; and the abuse of it in an ignorant, vain . . . superstitious, or wicked mentioning . . .” (Westminster Larger Catechism 113).
In short, this fictional depiction is a high violation of the Third Commandment, committed by a character in a bit of prose composed by the Lord Jesus Himself. We therefore have to do more than simply say that the sinful use of God’s name in prose is automatically a violation. ….any sin whatever may lawfully be portrayed by a Christian writer. If his intentions are scripturally healthy (and if he is competent), he is not entailed in the sins he is portraying, because nobody ever heard the Lord’s parable and came away wanting to be more like that Pharisee. The story is devastating, both to the Pharisee and to the sin being committed.
While casual abuse is always sinful, there is a deliberate way authors can abuse God’s Name that does still honor Him. So, for example, one character might abuse God’s name so that another can question or correct him. Of course, not every instance has to be this obvious: an author might decide that a congressman whose only god is ambition will sign off his speeches with: “May God save America.” Like the Pharisee in Jesus’ parable, the congressman is misusing God’s name, but if the author is competent, then the story will be “devastating, both to the [congressman] and to the sin being committed.” God’s Name will actually be honored.
Competency is key
However, as Wilson goes on to note, competency is key. As we learn in Proverbs 27:14, good intentions are not enough – it isn’t enough that the author intends to honor God; he actually has to pull it off.
That means if a character stubs his toe, and then makes mention of God, it doesn’t much matter what the author intends, we know how most of his audience is going to understand this – just another instance of someone calling on God instead of dropping an F-bomb. No matter what the author intends, this type of usage reinforces our culture’s casual contempt for what is holy, and it will have the effect of belittling God’s Name.
This is what the Third Commandment forbids.
I can’t imagine that any Christian writer wants to violate the Third Commandment. That means that many who are dishonoring God’s name are doing so for no other reason than no one has explained how wrong it is. That also means there is quite the opportunity for change. If we speak up, reaching these writers through their personal websites or their publisher’s sites, there is every reason to believe they’ll listen, and even be grateful for the correction…and even if they don’t listen, God will be glorified simply by our defense of his Name.