Mere Morality in Fiction

God Writing

Christianity means more than adhering to a certain set of principles, more than observance of the law, as Jesus made quite clear in his dealings with the Pharisees. Though most of us see this as a very basic truth, one that hardly needs stating, sometimes this recognition doesn’t spill over into our stories. We’re content to let them sit at the “merely moral” level, where they fail to touch the heart.

CS Lewis had this to say on the matter, in an essay on the books of Charles Williams:

The public has a distrust for moral books which is not wholly mistaken. Morality has spoiled literature often enough: we all remember what happened to some nineteenth-century novels. The truth is, it is very bad to reach the stage of thinking deeply and frequently about duty unless you are prepared to go a stage further. The Law, as St Paul first clearly explained, only takes you to the school gates. Morality exists to be transcended. We act from duty in the hope that someday we shall do the same acts freely and delightfully. It is one of the liberating qualities in Williams’s books that we are hardly ever on the merely moral level.

If you read or write Christian fiction, it’s likely you will have witnessed the complaints of certain readers about Christian content or “preachiness” in stories. Of course, there are people who will take offense no matter how Christian elements are presented, but sometimes I wonder if part of the issue comes when stories advance mere morals, instead of giving life and breath to the meaning and reality behind the moral. When morals are presented didactically, as a duty rather than a joy, it gives a sense of forced message rather than demonstrating a spiritual element which bubbles up from the creative well of the story.

As Christians, we don’t want to take the approach Charles Perrault did in his versions of familiar fairy tales. He took stories with rich, multi-layered meanings and distilled them down to a moral rule which he announced at the end of each tale, robbing the stories of natural meaning in his desire that none would mistake his moral purpose. Instead, we need to go a step beyond morality to that which defines morality, revealing the beauty and wonder of God Himself the best way we can. It’s rarely easy and often we’ll fall short, but it’s worth seeking to achieve.

In your opinion, what is the difference between merely moral stories as opposed to stories infused with spiritual truth? Do you agree or disagree with my perspective? I welcome all thoughts.

Image credit: marcos_bh


  • Patrick J. Moore
    January 17, 2012 - 2:40 pm · Reply

    I agree.

    The difference between Merely Moral vs. Spiritual Truth, in my opinion, is that truth is truth universally whereas “morality” seems more a product of cultural laws and taboos. Truth rings true and needs no preaching or coercion of arguments. Morals tend to be legalistic and take some convincing to buy into- unless you are a member of the culture that holds these morals- then to you they sound like truth because you’ve already been conditioned to accept (or reject) the arguments.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 23, 2012 - 4:26 pm · Reply

      Interesting thoughts, Patrick! I agree that morality (in the sense we’re discussing it) does often spring from cultural laws and views and can lean toward legalism–if you do x and y, then you’ll be a good person.

      In addition, while a truth will be valid across all situations, the attempt to implement that truth practically can vary a great deal. For example, the importance of modesty, something true from a Scriptural perspective, has been interpreted many ways across culture. In the Victorian era, exposed ankles caused shock and were considered a moral violation, whereas in our culture, even those of us women who seek to dress modestly typically don’t consider it a sin to display the ankles. 🙂

      However, I think sometimes a truth might not seem true or feel true, especially at first exposure, which is why we have to rely on Scripture to determine what’s actually true or false.

      Thanks for the thought-provoking remarks!

  • Kessie
    January 17, 2012 - 10:46 pm · Reply

    I think it comes down to showing and not telling. If you have a moral in mind, the story should show that moral in action. Kind of like Aesop’s fables. Each one illustrates the moral, with or without the moral at the end. But it’s the story that brings the moral to life.

    In the Temeraire books, Laurence discovers that England has unleashed germ warfare on France’s dragons. As this is morally reprehensible, he takes France the cure, full knowing that he’ll be tried as a traitor. And he is. And he and Temeraire (the dragon) both suffer for it. We’re left pondering the price of a moral decision, where the price of doing good caused a man to betray his country. Should he have let the dragons all die instead? It’s a hard question.

    But that’s the delight of fiction. Pondering both sides of the moral coin.

    • Sarah Sawyer
      January 23, 2012 - 4:32 pm · Reply

      Good point, Kessie, about the showing versus telling aspect of this. It’s what is demonstrated by a story, not told didactically, that makes a powerful argument for or against truth.

      The Temeraire books sound interesting, and your description illustrates the fact that stories that raise questions and plunge us in the thick of moral dilemmas have a powerful impact. I agree that’s part of what makes fiction so intriguing. 🙂

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