Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Situational Ethics and How to Deal With Them

Hello friends and fellow bibliophiles! It's time for another series from the poll you so kindly voted on earlier this year, and the subject this time is Situational Ethics and How to Deal With Them. This is certainly an ambitious subject, but essential for every book lover to face. Why? Because every book has moral conflict. At least, every good book does, and it would be a rare and ill-crafted story not to have any moral conflict all.

If a book has moral conflict, then it follows that it must have moral resolution. No resolution can be a resolution in itself, but without exception, in a properly plotted story, the moral resolution is an intrinsic part of the character's growth. Sometimes the resolution is even part of the physical plot of the story, and therefore, since it is so clearly tied up into the message of the book, it is essential that we get a proper moral resolution. But it's often in the moral resolutions that we face this dangerous pitfall of 'situational ethics'. Situational ethics is the idea that "right and wrong depends on the situation you find yourself in". Sadly, many Christians embrace this idea, and it is vital that we come to a proper understanding of it.

Today we'll be defining our terms and looking at the overarching ideas. Then we'll get into the nitty-gritty situations that seem to break the rules, and evaluate them from Scripture. Ellis Peter's Cadfael novels are the perfect books to use as examples for the various points, but if you've never read Cadfael, there's no need to worry. All will be clearly explained as we go along. :)

Defining Our Terms
We're going to be using "Moral Conflict" and "Moral Resolution" fairly often during this series, so I'd like to take the time now to lay a really solid foundation with their meanings, as this will be essential for the rest of the series.

Moral Conflict
A moral conflict is when a character is faced with the choice of breaking God's law or keeping it: choosing right or choosing wrong. This conflict often comes about in moments of high tension, mostly when life is at stake. How the character deals with the conflict will show their worldview and level of Christian maturity. The conflict always has a resolution, though especially in cases of situational ethics, the resolution isn't always a good one.

Moral Resolution
A moral resolution is the consequence or reward a character receives for how they handled the moral conflict. What happens when they break God's law, or what happens when they keep God's law, is a moral resolution. Ideally the character will be rewarded for making the right choices, and hindered in their goal or punished for making the wrong one. Also, sometimes a character makes a wrong choice, and that's part of their character arc. Proper moral resolution comes by repentance in the case of deliberate wrongdoing, or forsaking the error of their ways and turning to right if they acted out of ignorance.

In the case moral resolutions when the author is using situational ethics, the character will be rewarded regardless of whether they choose right or wrong. The author believes in these cases that the situation dictated the response and the character couldn't help themselves, and therefore they shouldn't be held responsible for their actions.

Situational Ethics
When we say 'it depends on the situation' in trying to judge right and wrong, we've bought into a cultural phrase that violates the principles of God's Word. And all too often, that's what we say when we read a difficult book in which the author makes some poor resolution choices. How many bibliophiles, when we talk about difficult moral conflicts, say "It depends on the Bible", regardless of the situation? Granted, that's what the majority of Christians believe. But in our speech, and when it comes down to the final crunch, we often make the situation the measuring stick instead of the ultimate standards found in Scripture.

Books need to deal with hard-hitting issues. They need to dig to the dregs of human conflict, and the farthest efforts of Satan's dominion, and counter-act them with the truth of God's Word. However, a book that presents a shaky moral resolution to a heavy conflict, a resolution dictated by the conflict itself, is a dangerous book to read without counteracting it with the Lord's truth.

Situational ethics is a false reality. It's a reality the world created for itself to avoid having to keep God's law , and we need to be extremely careful that we as Christian bibliophiles are not falling prey to the world's thinking patterns in our judgments.

So when we read a story in which the character is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and doesn't know which behavior is right to chose, there are three principles we can keep in mind as we evaluate whether or not their reaction is right:

1. God's law is inviolable.

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments."-John 14:15

Jesus was very clear during his time on earth that he did not come to remove the necessity to keep the law. Though we are unable to keep it ourselves, and we find our righteousness in him, we still must keep his commandments through the strength of the Holy Spirit working in our hearts.

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.
--James 2:10

The Bible also teaches that God holds Christians accountable to keep the whole law. If we fail at one point, we've failed at all of it. Again, we find out righteousness in Jesus Christ. But after we have received his grace, we are all the more accountable to obey his commands.

Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?
 -Hebrews 10:28-29

It is our duty as Christians to hold the sacrifice of our Lord Jesus in high honor, because we deserve the punishment that he took upon himself. And therefore, when we read a book where the characters offend the law of God, and they get away with it, we are reading a book that teaches that humans can get away with violating the law of God. This attitude will begun to rub off on us over time if we aren't careful to keep it in check from the start.

2. God's holiness is inviolable

God's law must be inviolable because His holiness is inviolable. He cannot look upon or participate in the slightest compromise, for then he would be less than holy. Nor can sin have fellowship with him. Therefore, a book where a character sins and still retains unbroken fellowship with God is not an accurate portrayal of God's holiness and His inability to accept our sin in His presence.

Now we all sin, and we all break fellowship with God, and therefore it isn't necessarily wrong to read a book where the author makes their character deal with the moral conflict in the wrong way. We all succumb to situational ethics; we all break God's law. What is important is that the moral resolution does not contain situational ethics. Since Jesus kept the law and reconciled all mankind to the Father, so characters can be reconciled to the Father when they return to Jesus Christ and the keeping of His commandments. Jesus came not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and Scripture says time and time again in the Old and New Testaments that if we love him, we will keep his commandments, as found in the whole counsel of God.

Therefore, the books we read must be careful to hold God's holiness and His law sacred, whether in the way the character handles their conflicts, or the resolution they find from their conflicts.

3. God's sovereignty is inviolable

When a character chooses a course of action because 'there is no other way' and 'the situation requires it' we as the reader are being subtly taught another violation of God's character: that His sovereignty is not enough.

God is powerful enough to make right prevail in all situations. He is in all, and through all. The power of life and death are in his hands. And when we make a character lie or steal or kill out of fear of what man will do to him, then in that instance he is operating under the belief that his fellow-men have more power over him than God does.

Nothing evil can befall us, unless it comes first through the scarred hands of Jesus Christ, as one speaker I heard said so well. The books we read must reinforce that idea in our minds.

Entertainment is powerful. Our view of God's law, His holiness, and His sovereignty, are greatly influenced by the books we read. Fiction has an even greater power, for it puts flesh to the principles, and we imitate the characters we read about more than we will ever know. In this area of situational ethics, we must be careful to read books that show us how to biblically handle tough moral conflicts. It is possible as well to get benefit out of books that do not handle conflicts properly by filtering the conclusion from a Scriptural perspective. But that's another post. :)

In the end, though God's law is clear-cut and simple to follow, our emotions and compromises make it oh-so-difficult to obey. What happens when there just is no way out of a bad situation other than a small compromise? Sometimes we're put in situations where life must be taken, and there is no official law to declare the offender guilty. Other times we read of characters that must save life, and to do that they tell lies to get out of their situation. Stealing is wrong, of course: but what about 'borrowing' things, when there is no other option for the sake of national security?

Good questions. And we'll be looking at some of them next time. That will all be Friday here on the blog, and I look forward to discussing this topic further in the comment section! :)

Lady Bibliophile


  1. Oooo...I'm really looking forward to this series!!!
    Very good point. You see situational ethics in a lot of books, especially "kid running away" stories where the kid runs away and nothing really bad happens as a result. Because he won't do it again next time. :P
    If we have a character we like with no moral resolution, we try to bend God's law instead of holding it up as the standard for right and wrong. ;)

    1. Children's books are chock full of situational ethics, and that's why there are precious few on the library shelves today that are worth reading. The indoctrination starts from an early age. ;) Fortunately, we can still dig up old gems that are full of solid Christian principles, and we're starting to see some new ones on the market that are quite biblical as well. :)

      Love and cuddles,

  2. Good job, Lady B.
    The principles of God's law, God's holiness, and God's sovereignty are the key here, I think. In our culture they are often neglected in church doctrine, which is why Christian authors create worlds that operate without them, and the moral compass is left with no true north.
    In the situation you mentioned above, where a character sins (as we all do), it is important to remember that if the character is a Christian, he is still in fellowship with God through the blood of Christ. We may feel guilty when we sin and spend some time foolishly feeling "separated" from God or trying to make up for it, but the blood of Christ, which saved us in our sin, is no less sufficient now. A Christian must be constantly repenting and returning, but he does not need to "regain" anything in his relationship with God by his own effort. That is impossible, because in our very holiest moments our righteousness is still as filthy rags. All that must be done to reconcile us to God has been done by Christ; our work is to believe.
    That means when a Christian character sins, he has an opportunity to remember God's all-sufficient grace and to rejoice again in his salvation. It's sad that so many Christian authors lose that opportunity and instead barge right ahead as if no sin had occurred.
    I really appreciated this post. Thank you so much!

    ~The Philologist

    1. Thank-you very much Philologist, and you bring up an excellent additional point! :) Your comment reminds me of a series we're working through by James MacDonald, (pastor of Harvest Bible Chapel) that he preached earlier this year. It's called "I AM", and deals with Christians seeking identity--an inner compass, if you will. To quote, "God never loves us less on our worst days, and He never loves us more on our best days." His love is unconditional, based not on our performance for him, but on his relationship with us through Jesus.

      Many authors make characters find their worth in their good performance, or their lack of worth in their mistakes, because that's a common trap we fall into as humans. But a true story shows that God's grace is over their good and their bad, and His power should be at the root of the resolution, not just the MC's personal success.

      It's definitely a paradigm shift to introduce absolutes of God's holiness and sovereignty in today's culture, in reading or otherwise. We've been taught Grace without Law for so long that it's seeped into our literature.

      And maybe that's why I have such a penchant for giving villains their deserts. :) Ahem.



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