The idea that morals are absolute certainly isn't a popular one. Part of this is because we are creatures of the flesh, and absolute right and wrong makes us face a some point the denial of our desires. Another reason is the conflict waging in our souls between yielding to God as the ultimate authority, and wanting to take His authority for ourselves. Since this is an all-too-human struggle, we find it not only in ourselves, but also in the human characters we read about.
Situational ethics--the idea that right is dependent on the situation itself--is often described as 'mercy'. Sadly, this false mercy gives the idea that, as long as our intentions are pure, we should not be held responsible for the results of our actions. And this is very far both from God's grace and from His justice. It should be our goal to fill our minds with stories where His redemptive plan is clearly portrayed: either by a character choosing wrong and receiving grace after repenting from it, or a character choosing wrong and being punished for it, or a character choosing right and being rewarded for it. While there are many facets to these options, at least one of these should drive the plot and character resolution in the story.
In today's post, to wrap up our series, we'll be addressing the issue of whether or not to keep reading when an author inserts situational ethics as the moral resolution. But first we need to look at a final point before we can address that properly. Because there are some commonly misunderstood plot resolutions that are considered situational ethics, but actually aren't. And we'll be looking at those first.
Not Situational EthicsSituations do not dictate principles. That's why it's important to know your principles before you get in bad situations, so you don't make a wrong choice under pressure. However, situations can in some cases dictate applications of those principles, and it's very important that we learn how applications can vary while still remaining true to the laws that God sets forth in Scripture.
Take Sherlock Holmes and The Abbey Grange.(Holmes gives abundant opportunity for introspection on today's topic.) The murderer killed in self-defense, after a woman was attacked, and he himself as well. He offers to stand by his crime; he refuses to run away, in spite of his innocence, after a way of dishonorable escape is offered to him. And in the end, Holmes finds him not guilty, so long as no one else is taken, and lets him go free to marry his love after a year of separation.
Take also another Cadfael novel, by Ellis Peters (with names removed for sake of spoilers.) The young man who commits the murder did so out of love for his master, and is exacting a painful penance for the deed. At his heels is a relative of the murdered man, sworn to avenge his master if the murderer ever slacks off on the penance he has set for himself. And soon enough he does, and stands at the mercy of the avenger and Hugh Beringar. Beringar hands the murder over to the avenger; and the avenger, in spite of his anger, chooses mercy.
Were either of these situations wrong, simply because a criminal was not handed over to the traditional forms of justice? I would argue not.
Sometimes God may give someone (in this case, a character) a direction to act against man's law in order to give life or freedom. This is a legitimate plot twist in stories, if man's law is unjustly going to take life. Peter, when standing before the Sanhedrin in Acts 5, was faced with a government order that violated his conscience. But his answer, in verse 29, was that "We must obey God rather than men." And so is sometimes the case in stories as well: when man's law is going to violate justice, and the main character has an opportunity to save the victim, then I don't have a problem with them taking that opportunity. Jonathan helped David escape from his father when his father was violating the law and seeking to kill him, and he was counted both as a friend and as a good man.
Then that gives rise the question, if a character is taken up unjustly by man's law, shouldn't they just choose to suffer unjustly? Not necessarily. David was unjustly hunted down by Saul, the king of the land, and though I suppose he could have stayed and allowed himself to be unjustly killed, he made his escape and hid. Suffering for religion is one thing; but escaping the law for the sake of a crime you didn't commit, like Alan and Davie in Kidnapped (though I'm not sure you can exactly call Alan innocent) is quite another. Throughout history, men have fled for the sake of escaping harshness, or injustice, and this is not an improper moral resolution.
But in the action of the character taking man's law into their own hands, the compromise must never, ever include violating God's law. That's where the problem comes in, and that's normally what books do. We sometimes take man's law into our hands. We never should reinterpret the Lord's law.
And ideally the disobedience, however justified, is resolved in the story as well, though that can't always be the case. The law of man shouldn't be broken lightly, and even in cases where it is justifiable, I think we should always be a little bit uncomfortable when that happens. It is not a normal thing, and should not occur often. As Forerunner's commentary says:
Of course, God's spiritual law is of prime importance and takes precedence over all other law. As Peter said, "We ought to obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29) when a conflict between the two occurs. Though breaking man's laws may not always be sin, a rebellious attitude against what God appoints over us will in time lead to transgressing God's law.
If every book we reads has a character 'justly' choosing to break man's law, then we're going to get the idea that we can take the law of man into our hands on a regular basis, and that's a dangerous pit to fall into.
There are a couple of safety guards we can bear in mind when a character takes man's law into their own hands. Ideally after this situation happens, the character should be absolved by an authority figure, whether someone they look up to and receive guidance from, or even better, the law itself. In any case, there needs to be a clear indication that the character is violating man's law for the express purpose of obeying God's law. Also, there should be another character that they hold themselves accountable after the fact so that they aren't becoming an authority unto themselves.
Those are my present thoughts on the subject, but it's a knotty issue, and I would welcome more discussion on it.
When the Author Resolves It WrongMost times when a story is resolved incorrectly, it's wisest in the end to pitch it for good. This is important for our spiritual protection. Better to throw away something that causes us to stumble than risk being spiritually blinded or crippled in our understanding of truth.
One indication that we have of whether to keep or throw away a book is our level of attachment to the main character. If we're so attached to the hero we don't care whether they did wrong or not, then we should cut our affections down to a proper size, or if we can't do that, then pitch it. Right away. This kind of love will only weaken us, and it shows that we're not in a fit mental state to properly draw the right conclusions. It is possible to be emotionally connected to a character and still make correct moral judgments about their actions, as long as we have our love in correct line with the Word of God. But when our love goes beyond all bounds of right and wrong, then we're placing that love on too high a scale, and we need to root it out.
The more blatantly the author resolves a problem without caring about the violation of biblical principles, the more we should be cautious about continuing to read the book. The people shaping our minds through the written word need to be careful, even if they use situational ethics for the sake of the plot, that they resolve it in a proper manner. If they don't, then they shouldn't be the authors shaping our minds. I bought a book once without looking through it quite as rigorously as I should have, and brought it home only to realize that not only did the characters get away with everything they did wrong, the whole plot was a situational ethics romp from beginning to end. There was nothing good to be gained by reading it, and it was a terrible waste of money; fortunately the shopkeeper allowed me to return it, or I would be one regretful owner of a book that was a successful blueprint for every way you could handle sin incorrectly.
However, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule, as far as getting rid of books that don't handle the situation correctly, and we'll finish by running over those.
Sometimes the author doesn't intend to put in consequences, but you can see that the character is punished for what they did, even though the author and the characters don't know it themselves. A prime example of this is Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now. Most of the characters know they have sinned and gotten what they deserved, (in the book, I might add; the movie unfortunately took out all moral conclusions.) But there are a couple, who, even though they are miserable, have no idea that they did anything wrong. But the reader can see why they're suffering, and in that case it's not always necessary to get rid of the book. Ideally the character should know it. But in cases where they don't, as long as the reader can see the consequences then it might be worth keeping.
Second, if you learn something right, even though the author handled it completely wrong, well, then you'll have to evaluate whether it's fruitful to keep or not. We tend to learn by someone else's example, whether good or bad, and it is possible in some instances for an author to draw a completely wrong conclusion and the reader can still draw the right one. However, this option is only for readers who strictly evaluate the books they read, compare it with Scripture, and draw their own conclusions. If you read with discernment, then there are occasions when reading a book that does not line up with your worldview will give you a good exercise in apologetics and strengthening your stance. Though I would point out that this should not be an everyday exercise, and the majority of your reading diet should be that which builds you up and points you to the truth. But if you read merely for entertainment, and don't take the time to process, then you must be extra careful only to choose books that will show the right conclusion.
Situational Ethics in war is another post for another time. But for this series we're going to wrap up here with the reminder that God's law is absolute, and the consequences for breaking it are very real. The books we read should be in agreement with the way He works, and our characters should be accountable to the same rewards and consequences that we are in real life. However, as we have seen today, there are times when we legitimately show mercy, when man's consequences go beyond what God would justly give.
In the end: right is right, regardless of the situation the character finds himself in, and God honors those who trust Him enough to act according to right, whatever the odds against right may be.
With that, we'll close for now, and I'll be back Friday with a book review. :)