Flannery O’Connor is an author who has spent more time than most explaining how her faith affects her writing:
“I see from the standpoint of Christian orthodoxy. This means that for me the meaning of life is centered in our Redemption by Christ and what I see in the world I see in its relation to that” (The Fiction Writer and His Country, Mystery & Manners, p32)
For O’Connor, a Christian writer (and I imagine, by extension other artists as well) must expect their work to reveal their worldview, but they mustn’t build this into their work at the expense of representing the real world that is around them.
Our fiction should ‘reinforce our sense of the supernatural by grounding it in concrete, observable reality’ (The Church and The Fiction Writer, M & M, p148), not gloss over reality to make a theological point or promote our spiritual perspective:
‘A belief in fixed dogma cannot fix what goes on in life or blind the believer to it. It will, of course, add a dimension to the writer’s observation which many cannot, in conscience, acknowledge exists, but as long as what they can acknowledge is present in the work, they cannot claim that any freedom has been denied the artist. A dimension taken away is one thing, a dimension added is another; and what the Catholic writer and reader will have to remember is that the reality of the added dimension will be judged in a work of fiction by the truthfulness and wholeness of the natural events presented. If the Catholic writer hopes to reveal mysteries, he will have to do it by describing truthfully what he sees from where he is.’ (The Church and The Fiction Writer, M & M, p150, my emphases)
I find this incredibly helpful in helping me understand how to be a Christian and a writer without compromising my faith in Jesus or my integrity as an artist. My first responsibility is to represent ‘concrete, observable reality’ in a way that other people can recognise and identify with. I describe truthfully what I see from where I am. For example, my characters must behave how people actually behave, not how any theological purpose I may have might like them to behave!
However, I’m not afraid to imbue all of my writing with this added dimension that comes from my Christian beliefs. In the background of what I write, there is a real, all powerful, loving, sovereign God and just as in our lives, we navigate the real world aware of these two dimensions, our characters live in their worlds in the same way. Often in our lives, we recognise that there are tensions between these two dimensions- how does the death of a loved one, a series of unanswered prayers, our stuttering progress to become more like Jesus square with our beliefs about God?- and, surely our writing should also include these conflicts and work through them authentically (and in faith), as our lives should.
I think this a very helpful backdrop as we consider the specific question I presented last post: how do we, as Christian artists, depict a realistic humanity, with it’s beauty and depravity, without accidentally eroding a belief in the absolute values that we believe underpin the universe?
We need to present complex, nuanced characters from the realm of ‘concrete, observable reality’, but we do so while maintaining the Christian dimension to our work- which includes the existence of absolute good and evil. We need to be Walt Disney and Hazao Miyazaki!
Now, how we do this is something that the writers amongst us are going to have to work out for ourselves. However, I thought I’d share a few ideas and examples that I’ve found helpful while thinking through this question:
Characters that act as personifications of good and evil
While this may seem to go directly against O’Connor’s realist approach, some writers effectively feature characters that act less as representations of real human beings, and more as personifications of absolute good or evil.
Heath Ledger’s Joker in ‘The Dark Knight’ is a case in point. He simply does not function like a human being, even if we factor in some degree of mental derangement. His motivations are inhuman (the scene in which he burns the mountain of money) as is the origin of his murderous tendencies (the inclusion of his divergent accounts of how he gained his facial scars).
You could argue that as this is a superhero film, O’Connor’s rules about concrete reality do not hold. However, I wonder if this is to misunderstand O’Connor’s point. She is not saying that everything has to be realistic, but that the author must demonstrate that he/she does have a firm grasp on what the world/human nature is like. The Joker’s character works so well as this non-human demi-Satan, precisely because the other characters are so 3-dimensional, not least Christian Bale’s tortured Batman, who is surely the most human of all superheroes.
The Coen Brothers’ oscar winning ‘No Country For Old Men’ does exactly the same in a much more earthy tale. The film (an adaptation of the novel by Cormac McCarthy) features a more ordinary bunch of characters than many of the Coen’s films, with Tommy Lee Jones’ world weary sheriff and Josh Brolin’s compassionate thief being two particularly well rounded examples. However, amongst these very recognisable humans, Javier Bardem’s assassin is completely alien to us. No backstory, an inability to comprehend human behaviour, and an inexplicable ‘moral’ code- he acts as a type, more than a person. A hoodless Grim Reaper. The rest of the cast may muddle through their moral choices, but the world they live in is clearly one where there are absolutes, and Bardem’s killing machine represents the extreme negative end of that spectrum.
On the other hand, goodness can be personified wilfully without alienating an audience. Lord of The Rings does this beautifully, and very Christian-ly, through the trinity of Frodo, Aragorn and Gandalf. Tolkien certainly wasn’t making a Shack-like theological statement, but it’s surely not unfair to take these three characters as Jesus viewed from 3 different angles or at least an examination of nobility and goodness. Again, there is an obvious distance from us and the inhabitants of Middle Earth, and many iconic heroes of this type live in similarly fantastic or extra-terrestrial worlds, but I still remember the sense of exhilaration I got when I first experienced Russell Crowe’s Maximus in Gladiator, who, for me, is a great fictional representation of goodness, at least in the form of the Greek virtues.
With this said though, I wonder if it is much harder to present goodness and unadulterated heroism than evil and depravity and I think that Christians have a special role in adding to this pantheon of heroes with characters that can portray a rugged moral excellence, rather than the weak, insipid shadow of goodness that many associate both with the idea and its perfect embodiment: God.
Maintaining a moral centre
Moving on from this idea, even when stories only contain recognisably human characters, it is possible to bring a balance through these characters that doesn’t relativise everything.
For example, The Walking Dead, the ongoing zombie TV series, manages this well by maintaining a moral centre even while most of the characters are veering wildly in their moral choices (as presumably most of us would if the world had been taken over by zombies!)
Perhaps Scott Wilson’s Hershel plays this role most notably but others step into his shoes at different times. Basically, this means that although things get pretty grim, there is usually someone somewhere in the Walking Dead world, who maintains an upright way of life in a remarkable way that we find attractive.
Compare this to, say, the first season of True Detective and the effect is clear. The characters in this series are some of the most interesting I’ve ever seen on the small or big screen, but there is no moral centre. Everyone seems defined by their deep rooted flaws. While the subject matter became increasingly disturbing as the season wore on, it was this absence of goodness that was probably most instrumental in me and my wife deciding to clock out about 6 episodes in. True Detective featured some very important themes, but up to the point we got to anyway, I couldn’t help thinking that the brutal nihilism of Matthew McConaughey’s character (Rust Cohle) was the most lasting taste left to savour.
In our date night entertainment, Jemma and I have preferred to live in a world full of flesh munching zombies but still some sense of goodness than in one with just one serial killer and a whole world of moral nothingness. I think the same would be true if the alternative was a real one!
As Christians making art in a world where evil is seen as edgy and good is seen as weak, I think we have a responsibility not to shy away from the grisly and gruesome realities around us, but while doing so, refusing to trade in all our Hershels for Rusts!
But there is one other example of how to depict the reality of moral absolutes that is proving pretty popular particularly among Christian film makers at the moment. However, I’m still not 100% sure what I feel about this one, so I’ll give a whole post to it next time.
To read the final post in this series, try here.
Jonny Mellor is a rapper, a writer, and the director of Sputnik.