The Argument Against “Christian Horror” (a Response) by Mike Duran

March 2011 Christian Science Fiction and Fantasy Blog Tour

Is the horror genre incompatible with the Christian faith? Many would say so. But a closer inspection of the arguments reveals flaws.

What are those arguments? Perhaps the most common is the one that centers around this verse:

Philippians 4:8 – “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.”

The argument goes like this: Stories that involve ghosts, demons, gore, and occultism draw our minds away from the things we should be dwelling upon. The Christian who spends too much time contemplating evil will be corrupted by it. We are commanded to focus upon “good” things, which is why Christian fiction has no business flirting with “horror.”

At first glance, this argument sounds reasonable. There should be a qualitative difference between what Christians write and the mindless splatter and occultism that defines much of today’s horror. Furthermore, Christians who “dwell” upon what is untrue, dishonorable, and impure are indeed setting themselves up for problems. But does this verse actually say what the “Christian horror” objectors intend? Does Philippians 4:8 teach that believers should “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”? I don’t think so. Let me offer two responses.

First, the Bible is perhaps the greatest refutation of the argument against “Christian horror.” Remember, Philippians 4:8 is but one verse amidst 66 books. Many of those books contain scenes of gore, torment, destruction, demons, plagues, catastrophe, divine judgment and eternal anguish. The reader who wants to “dwell” only on what is “pure” may want to avoid the Fall of Man (Gen. 3), Noah’s Flood (Gen. 7), the Slaughter of the Firstborn (Ex. 11), the Destruction of Sodom (Gen. 19), the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20), and The Crucifixion of Christ (which involves one of the most brutal forms of execution ever devised). While the Bible’s message is one of redemption, that redemption unfolds amidst a dark world that is pummeled by evil beings and plummeting toward chaos and destruction.

Secondly, there’s a difference between what we observe and what we choose to focus on. We have all witnessed evil, ugly, disturbing things. We have seen atrocities and wept over the wreckage of human lives. This verse is not telling us to turn away from what is unlovely and impure, but to not focus on them. In fact, Christians are commanded to NOT turn away from evil, injustice, poverty, hate, bigotry, and pain. Refusing to look upon or acknowledge evil may in fact BE evil.

Yes, we are called to think pure thoughts and meditate on that which is good. However, that does not mean we should live in denial about the darkness all around us. Nor should we eschew the horrific simply because it is unsettling. In fact, it is this “unsettling” that may make our stories more efficacious. Prairie romances should have a place in the Christian catalog, but so should tales of woe. As long as there really is a place like Hell, then horror must inhabit part of the “Christian imagination.”

The famed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa simply said, “The role of the artist is to not look away.”

Christian artists, perhaps more than any other, should abide this proverb. We should not “look away.” I don’t mean that we should delight in evil, be captivated by the macabre, or celebrate darkness (which is the most common charge against “dark” art), but that our perspective of the human condition should be unflinching and particularly acute. Feel-good story-telling may have its place. But artists — especially Christian artists — who only subscribe to a “feel-good” world have violated an essential artistic law… they have “looked away.”

Philippians 4:8 is not a prescription against writing “Christian horror.” It is an exhortation to focus our minds on the Truth. In this sense, turning our eyes away from darkness may be the most dishonorable, unhealthy, deceptive thing we can do.

Mike Duran is a freelance writer whose short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Relevant Online, Novel Journey, Rue Morgue magazine, and other print and digital outlets. Duran is an ordained ministry and lives with his wife and four grown children in Southern California. You can learn more about him, his writing projects, creative interests, and confessions at his website.

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19 Responses to The Argument Against “Christian Horror” (a Response) by Mike Duran

  1. Pingback: CSFF Blog Tour Highlights

  2. Gina Burgess says:

    “…As long as there really is a place like Hell, then horror must inhabit part of the “Christian imagination.””

    I agree wholeheartedly. I think this is where those behind the pulpits today are failing in their job. There are Christians who do not believe there actually is a devil and that demons can and do oppress Christians with legal authority given to the demons because of sin in the Christians’ lives.

    I believe as Christian authors, we have a responsibility to bring God glory through our work. It is very good and very noble to point a finger at the dangers of this world and to open the window so rays of hope can shine deep into the darkness.

  3. Rachel says:

    Wonderful points! We try so hard to live in our cocoons that we miss the whole point of being a Christian–let alone artist. Shouldn’t we be the ones out there facing off with this darkness? And as artists, we have a unique opportunity to reveal truth–but how can we if we’re continuing to hide from it? I think it’s mostly a western Christian problem, though. It seems like we really like our fluff here in America. And it’s blinded us to reality almost.

    Now, where is Becky? I know she has things to say about this…

  4. As I read your thoughts, Mike, two things came to mind. One was the parable of the good Samaritan. The priest and the Levite looked away when they passed the injured man. The Samaritan was willing to look at the horror of the man’s life hanging in the balance.

    Secondly, at some point in Western Christianity, we stopped reading Fox’s Book of Martyrs widely. In fact, I’ve never read it. Too horrific. But isn’t that the point? We once saw the sacrifices of believers as testimonies of God’s faithfulness in the face of suffering and persecution. Now we want only that which promises comfort and ease.

    Perhaps we have “escaped from,” as Tolkien put it, long enough, and need to integrate what we know about the Great Escape with what we see in our temporal conditions.

    Becky

    • Scáth Beorh says:

      We stopped reading that book, and many other books besides, because, thank God, there is a breaking down of all walls in the Church which keep us separated from one another, hating one another, avoiding one another, and your book in question, FBoM, is anti-Catholic propaganda to the extreme.

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  6. Thomas Smith says:

    Excellent post. As always, your arguments are cogent, well thought out and scripturally sound. The one thing that some people tend to forget is that horror, at its core, is an emotion. It became a genre (Christian or otherwise) when booksellers realized in the late 70s and early 80s that Stephen King was “on to something” and it became a genre/marketing tool.

    In many suspense novels there is an element of horror. In thrillers there can be an element of horror. Even in a romantic suspense there can be an element of horror. And if the truth be told, the Christian horror argument has been made about all genres and even Christian fiction itself. So none of us get off scott free. I was asked as recently as yesterday, “Do you have to call your novel Christian horror?”

    Again, great job.

    Thomas Smith
    Author of Something Stirs

  7. Keanan Brand says:

    Good, good post!

    Yes, we do need to be willing to look evil in the eye and rock it back on its heels.

    I once worked in a church where the pastor’s motto was “I shall be positive or silent,” and had that posted on a sign in the office and occasionally in newsletters and other written material. He was proud of that saying, and (on the surface) it seems like a sound principle to live by, but we disagreed over what “positive” means. Sometimes, the most positive thing a person can say is “no.” Sometimes, the most positive thing a person can do is NOT walk away from a fight. The truth can be harsh, but it must be told.

    And if that truth is told in compelling fiction that can reach a broad audience, well, I say, “Bring it on!”

  8. D. Bell says:

    The Bible is full of horror. The slaughter of entire peoples in the Old Testament. Today we call it genocide. Sodom and Gomorrah. The death of Christ – or haven’t you seen The Passion of the Christ? The persecution of the Christians. How many of them got tore apart by lions? Even the final description of the lake of fire in Revelations – which is far more horrific than we’re taught in church. Burrr. It terrifies me to think what is going to happen to unbelievers.

    How can you say, with such images and stories in the Bible, that horror fiction shouldn’t be part of part of the Christian genre? It already is. So why are many backing away for it?

    As a published Science Fiction and Horror writer, in the secular and hopefully soon the Christian markets, I disagree with you. This is field where the Devil has been having a field day and misleading people and finally, Christians are getting open doors to walk in and witness.

    This is a mission field for many of us. We have been called here both as fans and as writers. I’m so sorry the rest of Christiandom is afraid of it.

  9. Mel Gibson’s The Passion dealt with the Crucifixion quite directly, but it was not labeled a horror film.

    A Christmas Carol and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow revolved around supernatural elements – and ghosts, unlike demons, are not part of Christian orthodoxy. Still, these stories are not horror.

    As for pain, loss, and death – Bambi has that.

    I agree with about everything you wrote. I think it opens up the Christian horror debate, but I don’t think it ends it. There are many ways – even in fiction – to confront evil and suffering. Horror is only one of them.

    The debate over Christian horror is not ultimately about whether we should face the darkness, but how and when we should. We all are, Paul tells us, sons of the light. As such we should face the darkness, and as such we should not wander around in it indiscriminately.

    As the old warning goes: If you look long enough into the abyss, the abyss will look back into you. The time does come to look away.

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  12. George says:

    I was just reading in the book of Kings where Jehu cuts the heads off of all of King Ahabs governors and piles them up in front of a building before telling a couple of servants to throw that evil ol’ Jezebel down the wall for the dogs to eat her. The scripture says that the only thing left of her were her feet, her head and her two hands. Now jezebel and ahab had perverted religious worship in Israel and had forced the people to worship Baal (middle eastern god of fertility I believe). So God was really angry.
    This is in YOUR BIBLE. Don’t tell me God is against horror. God is a horror writer. And the best kind –one who shows not only that there is evil but as Johnny Cash says to the bad guy in his song : “you can run for a long time but God’s gonna cut you dooooowwwwn”

    Amen and amen.

    To Rachel: You are right about it being more of a Western Christian thing (the whole fluff stuff). In Eastern Christian traditions there is a sense of “you must show how bad the Fall really is to make one understand how good the Resurrection is”
    in my branch of Christianity ( Eastern Orthodox) its a sin to NOT show there is evil and punishment of that evil. We have icons of the righteous being resurrected in the New Earth who put their trust in Jesus (by Grace you have been saved through faith and this not of yourselves!) and ones where the damned are thrown bodily into hellfire. Makes some of my protestant friends who visited my church kinda queasy . One friend said: “you guys are so upfront with it. What if a nonChristian saw this. It would scare the #@$ out of him!” I said: “Good, maybe he’ll turn to Jesus to avoid it.”

    In my church you have to face it square on and say “yeah this is hell. See the wicked will be thrown into the lake of fire. End of story.”

    I find in the West many christians (not all) are too nice (and forgive me) too goody goody almost “Ned Flanderish” when it comes to talking about or writing in fiction or nonfiction and showing the real ghastly horror of evil and the real anger of God against it. I think this is a recent development.

    As for when and how to show evil. You show it like the bible does with Jehu: in detail without giving an anatomy lesson on the gore. And when? Whenever you can! Because then you can rush it along and show good kicking its ass. showing that the reader wants no part of evil and telling them “listen dont believe the relativists who say there is no good or evil. There is and here it is. No pick sides yo.”

    Grace in Christ !

  13. George says:

    oops– “Now pick sides!”

  14. George says:

    PS all the best to you in your writing Sarah and the same to anybody on here with that desire.

  15. Thomas Smith says:

    Something to consider is that we may be making this way too complicated. At its core, horror is not a genre. It is an emotion. Like love, fear, elation, giddiness, and a host of others. It was only when certain types of stories became popular in the 70s that marketing types actually turned the emotion into a marketing device and pseudo-genre.

    Still, since that is the universe in which we find ourselves, we must deal with the reality. And the arguments being made for and against Christian horror are the same ones which have plagued Christian romance, Christian science fiction, Christian thrillers and other such literary endeavors. The funny thing is, many of the other genres utilize their share of horror (abortion, murder, etc.) as part of the plot. You go boys and girls!

    Maybe the important question in all of this is not “Is it horror?” Maybe the important question is, “Does it glorify God?” For in the long run, if God is satisfied with our efforts, then what other approval do we need?

    Thomas Smith
    author of Something Stirs

    • Karla says:

      Yes, I agree that that is the question we should always be asking in whatever we read, watch, listen to or say…Does it glorify God?

  16. Karla says:

    Your article was well-stated. Could you also include some scripture illustrating your point that Christians are commanded not to turn away from the injustices you listed? I think Christian horror has its place, I just wonder if there is a line we can cross over where it becomes more focused on the atrocities described, and not a redeeming message. I used to read a few Stephen King books until I felt they were getting more and more “gross” and were more about how awful can we make the events in the book and less about a storyline. I’m certainly not calling his books Christian Horror, but am always wary of Christian Horror going over some unseen “line”. Ted Dekker comes to mind as an author I enjoy but am wary of. Does he fall under the genre “Christian Horror”? Does Frank Peretti? Anyway, very good article. I enjoyed reading it.

  17. Scáth Beorh says:

    The Bible began the Horror genre. That should be enough pro argument right there. But if more is needed, here’s a list of famous 19th and 20th century Christian Horror writers: Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, Arthur Machen, George MacDonald, M. R. James, August Derleth, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Charles Williams.

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