Editor’s Note: This article is the final installment in our five-part series on how to portray tricky subjects in Christian fiction. To learn why we did this series and how we approached the topics, read our introductory post.
“One day we two were reading for delight about how love had mastered Lancelot; we were alone and innocent and felt no cause to fear. And as we read, at times we went pale, as we caught each other’s glance, but we were conquered by one point alone.
“For when we read that the much-longed-for-smile accepted such a gentle lover’s kiss, this man, whom nothing will divide from me, trembled to place his lips upon my mouth… That day we did not read another page.”
Weighty implications are contained in the last words (“we did not read another page”) of Paolo and Francesca’s adulterous relationship in Anthony Esolen’s translation of Dante’s Inferno. Like many medieval writers, Dante had few qualms with addressing sexual relationships in his work—though his beliefs about illicit acts are clearer than most (setting your story in hell helps).
Of all the topics we’ve covered in our tricky subjects series, sex may be the most controversial. Yet, in the ongoing aftermath of the sexual revolution, sex is possibly the most relevant subject of the four in our current culture.
That’s why we need to get it right as Christian storytellers. In a world where the gods of sexual pleasure pose strong opposition to Christianity, we need Christian storytellers who are ready to write about sexuality appropriately and biblically.
The only question is how.
Today I want to outline seven principles to consider when incorporating sex into our stories.
(Note to our younger readers: This article will not be graphic or crass, but it will be frank about sex in fiction. Exercise wisdom as you assess if you’re mature enough to continue reading.)
1. Sex Is Good
Though this may seem obvious, sometimes a conspicuous truth can be overlooked. And since sex is an outlier in our discussions the past five weeks, our intentions might be misinterpreted.
The previous subjects in this series were negative. Darkness is a reflection of a twisted society in rebellion against God; violence may be necessary at times but nonetheless is a repercussion of a world still waiting for peace; and swearing is violence in words. None of these were present in Edenic paradise.
But sex was.
Why point this out? When sex is lumped into the same category as darkness, violence, and swearing in fiction, classifying it as negative becomes easy. While inappropriate depictions of sex (in vogue at this moment in history) are undeniably bad, if sex is truly a positive aspect of creation, appropriate depictions of it can be good.
Such depictions, of course, do have unique dangers. Unlike other tricky subjects, sex is not evil, but it does have more power to tempt readers.
To understand how to appropriately depict sex in storytelling, however, we must start with this foundation: no matter how people misuse it, sex is part of God’s design.
2. Readers Need Stories that Depict Sex Appropriately
For the past forty to fifty years, our culture has openly rejected biblical principles governing sexuality. This is one of the biggest hurdles for unbelievers to cross when evaluating Christianity, and sex presents a major temptation for believers as well.
However, we can’t expect to fully solve the problem by writing nonfiction books that explain why the biblical worldview on sex brings the most long-term happiness and success for individuals and communities. Why? Because people usually spurn biblical teaching due to desires rather than beliefs. The desire for sexual pleasure runs deep, and if people are to resist it, they need changed mindsets and perspectives. They need works aimed at their minds and hearts.
This is the advantage of storytelling.
Great stories impact individuals and cultures by emotional appeals that embody beliefs in narrative form and powerfully show readers truth. Our culture needs stories like Randy Alcorn’s Dominion, which examines premarital and teenage sex, or Francine River’s Mark of the Lion, which explores biblical truth amid a sexually depraved society. We need stories that don’t shy away from sex because of its dangers but that steer our thoughts in the right direction—believers and unbelievers alike.
Past Christian storytellers didn’t have an aversion to sex. In Edmund Spenser’s The Fairy Queene, the protagonist forfeits a “perfect” virgin bride for an adulteress and spends considerable time with her before he regrets his actions and realizes his need for deliverance. Sexual and adulterous affairs intersperse Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (the definitive work of Arthurian legends). Chaucer and Boccaccio constantly deal with such matter in Canterbury Tales and The Decameron (though they don’t always handle it appropriately). Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, translated by Tolkien, focuses on the protagonist nearly being dragged into adultery. And we haven’t even touched Shakespeare yet.
Christian authors of previous eras didn’t treat sex as taboo because Scripture doesn’t shun it. This doesn’t mean every Christian author must write about sex. Much of the human experience doesn’t involve sex, and our culture needs reminded of that as well. However, sex is a valid topic for Christian storytellers to tackle.
3. We Must Know Our Audience
If we feel called to delve into sex in our stories (and not everyone is), how should we depict it? Pinpointing our target audience is crucial when undertaking any tricky subject, but it’s perhaps most applicable for this one.
I’m not talking about the fact that we shouldn’t write stories about sex for children, but that a huge spectrum exists within YA and adult audiences. Though most teens can handle appropriate conversations about sex (I regularly discuss sex and chastity with my ninth and eleventh grade English students), the information a ninth grader can absorb and process will be different than the threshold for a forty-year-old married couple.
Interestingly, children in ancient Israel weren’t allowed to read Song of Solomon until a certain age (at least according to claims)—not because the book contained anything wrong, but because even good literature may not be suitable for all ages. When writing about sex, we need to consider how much our readers can or should handle.
4. Remember the Seventh Commandment
As I mentioned in my first principle, though sex is not evil, it qualifies as a tricky subject because it has a strong ability to cause readers to lust if depicted indiscreetly. Knowing how to thread this needle is difficult and requires wisdom, but here are two sub-principles to keep in mind:
1. We are responsible for depicting sexual matters appropriately. Christ warned His disciples that one should tie a millstone to his neck and throw himself into the sea rather than cause a “little one” to sin. “Little one” refers to His disciples (our brothers and sisters in Christ), not just children. The dozens of minute decisions we make as storytellers must be for the goal of cultivating an understanding of reality, not sexual gratification.
Christian authors need to be especially cautious with lustful point-of-view characters who have the potential to engage readers in the protagonist’s pursuit of sin. A series by a well-known Christian fantasy author ostensibly promoted chastity with a protagonist who waited until marriage to lose his virginity. However, the protagonist didn’t easily follow this course and frequently lusted after various women. This was depicted so extremely that I struggled to read the story without being pulled into his sinful thoughts.
2. However, we are not responsible for the sins of our readers. Some people will use anything as an excuse to lust. Some men will lust for a woman no matter how conservatively she’s dressed. The same applies to stories. We are accountable to God for our own sins, but not for the sins others choose to commit—even if they blame our work. We pray for God’s guidance and strive to portray actions as appropriately as we can. But when we’ve fulfilled that burden, how readers respond is up to them.
5. Don’t Avoid Writing about Sexual Sin
If storytelling is to mimic reality and “accurately reveal the brokenness of the world,” not all of the protagonists in Christian fiction should be virgins.
Protagonists aren’t supposed to be perfect role models for readers to emulate (that honor belongs to Christ). They’re supposed to be flawed characters in need of God’s grace and redemption. This pertains to sexual ethics along with “regular” ethics.
Don’t be afraid of writing about protagonists who sin sexually—even horrendously. Look at Abraham, Jacob, Judah, Samson, David, and Solomon. We do need Josephs who stand strong and remind readers that resistance is always possible. But we also need Davids who reassure readers that even if they fall into horrible patterns of sin, God’s grace can overcome.
Three works that do this well are The Last Disciple by Sigmund Brouwer, Fairy Queene by Edmund Spenser, and The Echoes from the Edge series by Bryan Davis (which is a useful example of how to cover sexuality for Christian teens). All three feature protagonists who sin—whether by engaging in premarital sex or making immoral marriage choices—and are offered God’s grace.
Of course, this principle applies to antagonists as well as protagonists. If we have the courage to show protagonists who sexually sin, we shouldn’t hesitate to show antagonists who do the same. But since the former comes easier for Christian writers, I’m focusing on it here. The protagonists-are-virgins/antagonists-are-harlots dichotomy doesn’t accurately represent reality and God’s grace toward sinners.
6. Portray Immorality as Sin
Some writers may take the advice I’ve given so far as license to flaunt sexual sin on every page, and in the name of “being realistic,” lure readers toward debauchery and portray sexual sin simply because it exists.
That’s why this sixth principle is so crucial.
We must portray sexual sin as wrong, not merely something that happens. We aren’t truly revealing the depravity and brokenness of the world if we’re not casting it in a negative light.
Some might argue that realism is sufficient justification for such portrayals. But is iniquity devoid of consequences realistic? As Christians, we understand that the consequences for sin—especially sexual sin—are severe (see the book of Proverbs). If we’re omitting those consequences, we’re not portraying reality faithfully.
Our goal as storytellers is to help readers view the world correctly. This doesn’t mean we must always denounce sin (stories have word limits and we can’t fully depict all sins with their consequences). But the more we focus on certain aspects of reality, the stronger this duty becomes.
7. When Portraying Sex, Less Is More
Significantly, when the Bible records a sexual act, it either describes it briefly (“Adam knew his wife Eve”) or poetically (Song of Solomon). This is partially due to the Bible’s literary style (tending toward brevity without much detail), and to be clear, the poetry of Song of Solomon is more vivid in the original Hebrew text than most English translations. Though Scripture is more explicit than is the norm in Christian fiction, it’s nowhere near as graphic as secular novels.
When you peruse classics like Epic of Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, Faust, The Fairy Queene, All Quiet on the Western Front, and Brave New World, you’ll notice they’re full of sexual scenarios (which surprises some of my students’ parents). Yet I believe all those examples do it appropriately because, like Scripture, they depict the act for a purpose and don’t lusciously dwell on it. Not only is this a more virtuous approach, it’s a more literary approach. Giving readers all the details and eschewing subtlety is lazy writing.
Because the Bible describes sex, I don’t believe that doing so as a writer is necessarily wrong. As a rule of thumb, however, I’d propose that intimacy should either be described briefly or, if lingered upon, poetically.
“But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matt. 5:28). Jesus views thoughts as seriously as actions. And real people (thus realistic characters) have lustful thoughts.
Personally, I’m likely to set down a book that’s filled with inner, lustful monologue. When authors let their characters get away with lustful thoughts, it’s frustrating and distracting. Since lust begins inwardly, characters often don’t confront the problem. I feel that showing the reality of lust only has a purpose if we can expose it as a grievous sin.
One way is to use the character’s conscience to convict and urge him to stop harboring lustful thoughts. But if he refuses to listen, his thoughts will eventually become immoral words and actions. At this point a mentor may warn the character that his thoughts and behavior will lead him to serious consequences if he doesn’t turn from them.
Even then, we need to consider our target audience and ourselves. Writing or reading about lust can create an emotional roller coaster of disruptive thoughts. Thus, if you feel called to address this issue, be extra cautious and pray before attempting it.
–Rolena Hatfield, Former SE Director
No conversation about sex would be complete without touching on the topic of marriage. As Josiah said, sex is good within the boundaries God set for it: the union between a man and a woman for life. Though immorality must be treated as sin, we can’t focus on fornication and adultery and avoid ever demonstrating the rewards of God’s design for marriage.
Now, this does not mean we ought to be graphic or sensual about the portrayal of sex, whether it’s a sin in a character’s life or a husband cherishing his wife. Subtext and implication can go a long way. But don’t get so caught up in the perversion of a good act that you neglect to show the virtuous side.
Also, remember that marriage is about much more than sex. Marriage is two people committing to love each other for life, sacrificing personal desires for a spouse, and working together as a unit to forward God’s will, raise a family, and help and support each other. Yes, sex is a part of that. But marriage has many other attributes.
–Hope Ann, Newsletter Manager
Charting New Paths
For myself as a storyteller, sex is the hardest topic to navigate.
But it’s also one that needs addressed in our current society.
We live in a culture that’s largely abandoned biblical teachings in this area. That provides a golden opportunity. We have the chance to advocate a biblical ethic so that readers vicariously experience its value.
Perspectives will vary on what strategy is best and which books do or don’t cross the line of appropriateness. But even though we all might set different barriers, the principle remains. Our culture needs to understand why biblical teachings on sexuality give us true happiness and freedom.
Let’s show that to them.
With this, our series on tricky subjects in fiction is complete. However, we’d love to hear your thoughts. What do you believe about depicting sexuality in stories, and how do you grapple with this in your writing? Share your perspective in the comments!
Josiah DeGraaf is the Marketing Director of Story Embers. He loves helping Christian writers impact readers. As a reader, he loves epic fantasy stories with imaginative worldbuilding. And as a storyteller, he loves crafting fantasy stories about characters who face the same dilemmas we do when we try to do the right thing. You can download his illustrated short story collection for free to read about ordinary people who need to decide how far they’re willing to go to save lives when they’re gifted with supernatural powers.