Friday, November 29, 2013

When a Character Chooses Evil

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When I was younger, I held to the idea that the only books worth reading were the ones in which the main character made the right choice. The ones where he was made of shining heroics, glowing with virtue and rewarded accordingly. A bad book, in my mind, meant the character who was faced with two decisions, and walked down the wrong path. True, a character could sometimes make the wrong decision for the sake of the story, and go through all sorts of hardships, and see the error of their ways. But I was quite sure that the main character couldn't be left in their wrong decision. In other words, the only way a book could be properly and biblically resolved was for the character to see the error of their ways and forsake the wrong choice for the right one.

But then I started thinking about a book I'm reading currently, and looking at Scripture, and now I'm starting to re-define that a little. Not much, for I still think main characters should be morally upright people. But there are a few valuable exceptions that I've discovered lately, where a character chooses wrong instead of right.

This subject requires much careful thought to draw the correct conclusion, so bear with me all the way to the end, and we'll explore this issue as biblically as possible, looking at the various facets that come to mind. Truth is truth, absolutely. Books must hold to truth, and books must always point to righteousness and virtue. Sometimes, however, they can point to virtue by a warning of what not to do rather than an example to follow.

Look for instance, at the story of Saul in Scripture. He never repented. Nor did King Ahab--that was one sordid mess from beginning to end. Samson died committing suicide after losing his strength at the hands of a prostitute. Judas Iscariot never asked forgiveness for betraying his Lord. The tribe of Judah deliberately continued sinning, and God sent them off into captivity to Babylon.

I'm reading a story right now where every character in the book can see the main character's problems but the main character herself. While I normally don't endorse stories like that, this author seems to be handling it biblically thus far. And as I thought about it, and looked at Scripture, I came to see that sometimes, sadly, people do not repent. And if real people do not always repent, then fictional characters do not always as well.

I used to ignore the bad guys in books--they were just props, someone there to be a foil to the hero, and who cared that they received judgment in the end, so long as the main character made it through victoriously? And then I realized what a grievous thing it was, whether the character was a side character or a main character, that they should choose to sin and reject God's grace. Main characters do choose to reject God's grace, in certain books. And though I do not endorse books where the villain is the main character, sometimes the main character, without being the villain, still chooses sin. We see that in Scripture. We see that in real life. Should we see that, then, in the books we read?

I don't think it's wise or healthy to read books with majorly flawed main characters too often. But on occasion, an author can write a book like that that is wise and fruitful for the reader to pick up. That being said, there are two guiding principles that should be in place when a main or side character rejects right for wrong, and we're going to look at those today.

1. The character must be given every opportunity to repent.

The character must be shown to be making deliberately sinful choices--not 'forced' to make the wrong decision. Characters around the person making the wrong choice must warn them of the consequences, and show them the right path to go in. We see this in Scripture, and we should also see it in the stories we read. The Lord warned the nation of Israel again and again and again through his prophets. Saul had Samuel to point out the way he should go. Samson's parents warned him against marrying a Philistine girl. King Ahab had the prophet Elijah. Yet they chose to ignore the warnings, and they received punishments accordingly.

2. The character must receive blessings or curses in equal measure to their actions.
In Deuteronomy 28, we see the Lord set before the nation of Israel blessings for their obedience, and curses for their disobedience. Again and again in Scripture we see this format, originally used in Genesis, when the Lord offered a curse if man would eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil. In Revelation, we see the ultimate blessing/curse format, when those who come to a saving knowledge of Jesus are taken to Heaven, and those who do not are taken to Hell.
This blessing and curse flip format is the key to seeing if an author handled the story resolution well--is the character struggling through disobedience, or blessed for their obedience?
All good characters suffer, so suffering shouldn't always be the tip-off of disobedience, but the character choosing the wrong choice should have warning signs, internal discomfort, and counsel from others that they're going down the wrong path. Such things correctly portray the grace and warnings God gives his children when we choose the wrong thing. If the character chooses to ignore those warnings, then we must see hardships start to come. God doesn't look lightly on disobedience, and nor should we as readers.
On the flip side of suffering, we do see in the Bible that some wicked people do prosper. The rain falls on the just and the unjust. Look at Job, who suffered though he had done no sin, and the wicked man Job describes, who has children and riches and family. We do see this in real life, and some books may choose to portray that side of evil. But even in Job we see that the prosperous wicked man is suddenly destroyed, and that should be the fate the characters we read who make the wrong choices. "Yet God prolongs the life of the mighty by his power; they rise up when they despair of life. He gives them security, and they are supported, and his eyes are upon their ways. They are exalted a little while, and then are gone; they are brought low and gathered up like all others; they are cut off like the heads of grain" Job 24:22-24.

In the end, the main character must be blessed or cursed according to his deeds. It is vital that his actions receive due justice by the end of the book, because this book is all the picture we'll have of his life, and therefore, we must read stories in which the sin receives proper resolution.

A passage in Psalm 34 beautifully expresses this point that I'm writing about today: that the characters we read about can be good and blessed, or sinful and cursed. Affliction comes to the righteous, and prosperity comes to the wicked, but in the end, every book should be based on the principles in the following verses:
The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous and his ears toward their cry. The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth. When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and delivers them out of all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and saves the crushed in spirit. Many are the afflictions of the righteous, But the Lord delivers him out of them all. He keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken. Affliction will slay the wicked,
and those who hate the righteous will be condemned. The Lord redeems the life of his servants;
none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned. Psalm 34:15:22

I used to think that only books with repentant righteous characters were biblical. Now I realize that some stories, just like Scripture, can portray the heartbreak of wrong choices, and the judgement it leads to. As long as that justice is clearly shown, then a main character not worthy to be emulated can still, with great discernment on the part of the reader, make a book worth reading. The only caution I would give is that if the main character is going to make the wrong choice, than the author must take even greater care to make sure the reader clearly sees the consequences of that. The danger of the main character choosing the wrong choice is that we as readers might make that choice with them, and fail to see how wrong it is, unless it's properly written.

Also, we should never read a book simply because the character made a wrong choice and was punished for it. Such books must clearly point us to our Lord, not merely justified for reading material because they 'didn't get away with it'. Reading a book with a character not worthy of emulation isn't worth our time only because the story was resolved correctly. This measure, this choice on the part of the author to deliberately make the main character choose the wrong thing, must be read with huge care, for the very specific reason of learning a lesson that couldn't be taught better in another way.

I tell you what, though. Reading books where the character makes the wrong choices all the way through, even when they are punished for it, is really depressing. There can be profit in such books, but it's tough profit, and emotionally draining. It's sad when people don't respond to God's love and mercy, and seek to follow him. I'm reading a book like that right now to review on the blog, and it drains you after a while to be so constantly vigilant. It's a book that the author seems to be handling correctly thus far, and one that I'm learning a lot from. But after it's over I won't be reading another one like that for a long time to come, I hope.

While a book where the main character chooses the wrong path all the way to the end may legitimately show biblical truth, there is one thing that it will probably lack. That is redemption. A character who deliberately rejects God's law will also be deliberately rejecting God's grace, for you cannot have one without the other. And I would rather have the majority of my reading diet focused on the themes of redemption, and thus, on Christ's work, rather than focusing on a character's wrong choices, and therefore, on man's sin.

Ultimately, I would rather have a bad character be a sub-plot than the main plot. But I now understand more clearly that sometimes people never make the right choice. We see that in Scripture again and again. And since fictional stories are supposed to be realistic portrayals of God's truth, there can be occasional stories (though we as the reader must use great care and caution in reading them) where we see the path of judgment instead of the path of redemption.

The points in this article today refers specifically to Christian stories and Christian authors. While non-Christian authors can also choose the blessing/curse format, they do not have an understanding of the Lord or his Word, and therefore are extremely unlikely to handle a main character's wrong choices with biblical consequences. I would rather read stories by non-Christian authors in which the hero actually is a hero, as a safeguard to my discernment and emotional involvement in the story, and that's what I would personally recommend to someone thinking about reading a book with a faulty main character.

This is only a very small introduction to this topic. I would say that this should be a subject of thought for mature readers. If you're new to reading with discernment, then don't tackle this aspect right away. Choose books with heroes worthy of imitating to build a strong foundation. Even strong Christian readers should approach the idea of a seriously flawed main character with caution. I bring it up today because it's a subject worth mulling over. I don't have it all hammered out yet, but this is what I've been mulling over this week, so I'd be more than happy to discuss it further in the comments. :)

Lady Bibliophile

1 comment:

  1. Well, you certainly have me mulling over this now! :P I've never read a book like that, actually. I've read books where the main character chooses wrong through the whole book and at the end comes to repentance but I've never read one where the character never sees his error. (For example, Twice Freed by Patricia M. St. John.)
    I enjoyed this post very much! :D


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