Life Isn’t a Hallmark Film, and Christian Authors Shouldn’t Pretend It Is

November 2, 2020

Most writers are familiar with the staples of the Hallmark formula. A nice guy and a nice girl visit a nice town with mostly nice citizens, and after a few minor misunderstandings and slip-ups, they discard the cruel world of business and money to find love at a nice dinner party. Bonus points if it’s set during Christmas.

 

Hallmark films aren’t objectively bad or wrong. We all need an avenue of pure entertainment, and while mine is superhero flicks, yours could be Hallmark. No shame in that.

 

However, stories that focus on the rosy sides of reality are rarely compelling or memorable. They’re predictable—and indistinguishable from other patented plot lines. Just like Hallmark films.

 

Although lighter fiction has a place in today’s market, I’d argue that we need more stories tackling the gritty sides of reality from a Christian perspective. We explored this two years ago with our Tricky Subjects series. And this year we’re addressing it again from a new angle based on the eleventh resolution of our Christian Storytellers Manifesto: “We resolve, in light of God’s ultimate victory in our fallen world, to paint traces of hope in even the darkest situations.”

 

Because here’s the crux: you can’t write poignant portrayals of hope unless you’re prepared to step into the world’s brokenness.

 

When Christians Paper Over Hurt

As Christians, we believe in the power of redemption. But due to a misapplication of Philippians 2, a sunny outlook, and a desire to avoid corrupting ourselves with filth, we sometimes rush to show the beauty of rebirth without first showing the ugly state of humanity. In our well-intentioned efforts to celebrate God’s grace, we slip into two main traps.

 

The first is a focus on simple problems. Accurately depicting mental illness is hard. Treating depression and anxiety as strictly a spiritual matter is less complicated. Dealing with sexual abuse is uncomfortable. “Smaller” sins are less disturbing. Why give characters serious transgressions if they can wrestle with white lies instead?

 

Minimizing human depravity (and the pain it causes) streamlines the transition to redemption. But it leaves little for readers who do struggle with malignant sins to learn from. They need stronger examples than cartoon villains. Neither is redemption as meaningful without a panorama of the impact that separation from God has on the world.

 

That’s why Scripture doesn’t take this approach. It tells us that all have “fallen short of the glory of God,” possess “hearts that are deceitful above all things,” and wield tongues that are “set on fire by hell.” And it depicts that accordingly. Jacob is a thief. The Israelites commit genocide against the tribe of Benjamin. David uses his authority to coerce a woman into bed with him.

 

The sins are deep, not shallow. But the brokenness and darkness undeniably proves why we need a Savior. Because let’s be honest: If life resembled a Hallmark movie, would we really need Jesus?

 

The second trap is attached to the first, and it’s a focus on simple solutions. We enjoy happy endings where the protagonists demolish every obstacle, straighten out their flaws, and ride off into the sunset. Poetic justice may lead to that outcome. But we also risk lying about reality.

 

After all, life rarely hands us simple solutions. Some Christians wrestle with doubt for years. Some people suffer from mental illness their entire lives. Sometimes heroes fail.

 

If our stories always have a positive denouement, are we exposing readers to the light of Christ? Or are we exchanging the true gospel that puts our final hope in heaven for the prosperity gospel that turns our hope earthward?

 

Without clear representations of the fall’s continuing effects, why would we yearn for change?

 

When Christians Embrace the Grimdark

When writers recognize the issues of concealing unpleasant truths, sometimes they swing the pendulum too far in the opposite direction. I once read a book that deliberately defied the conventions of the Christian fiction genre. But its edgy elements didn’t compensate for the lack of a solid narrative or theme.

 

This mistake isn’t limited to the Christian market. At the risk of upsetting certain fandoms, Christopher Nolan’s phenomenal Dark Knight trilogy left movie studios with the wrong impression: that superhero films need to be brooding and ultra-realistic. Unfortunately, sepia tones and somber soundtracks don’t guarantee that a movie will be a hit.

 

At a deeper level, however, darkness isn’t necessarily more realistic!

 

I don’t deny that horrifying crimes happen every day. Sexual abuse is perpetrated and covered up in churches, and countless people are trapped in the human trafficking industry. But those aren’t the only facets of our world. Fixating on the grimdark is as deceptive as dwelling on rainbows.

 

Scripture states that the world groans in anticipation of restoration. Stories that begin and end bleakly present a nihilistic view. A refusal to infuse hope into the darkest situations is a refusal to depict God’s reality accurately.

 

But if we can’t paper over hurt on the one hand or embrace the grimdark on the other, where is our Aristotelian middle?

 

When Christians Rely on the Power of the Cross

Encouraging writers to include both hope and darkness in their stories would be easy. But difficult questions don’t deserve simple answers.

 

Instead, the cross and resurrection define reality, lending balance to our stories. No event could be more triumphant than Christ shattering the bonds of death, loosing the prisoners, crushing the dragon’s head, and cracking open our stone-cold hearts. Or more brutal than the execution that placed Him in the grave to begin with.

 

Sometimes we forget the gruesomeness of the cross because the symbol is so prevalent in today’s culture. However, Frank Turek vividly reminds us in his article for the Christian Post: “Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed, and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs but it cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath… Now begin hours of this limitless pain, cycles of cramping and twisting, partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber.”

 

Turek prefaced his article with a warning that many of his descriptions would be graphic and demand discretion. Yet this incomparably unjust, pitch-black moment gave birth to radiant hope. Why?

 

Because the greatest hope emerges from the greatest sacrifice.

 

That’s the secret to blending hope and darkness in a distinctly Christian way. Sacrifice allows Beowulf to defeat the last monster. It pushes Raskolnikov toward repentance in Crime and Punishment. It frees Matt from his hero syndrome in The Promise of Jesse Woods. It emboldens Frodo to destroy the Ring. And it enables Jean Valjean to bring his daughter happiness in Les Mis.

 

Look at the most moving endings ever written, and whether the story is Christian or secular, you’ll notice the eminence of sacrifice. Consciously or not, all of us understand the magnitude of Christ’s sacrifice and how it’s the perfect combination of darkness and hope.

 

Resisting the Temptations of Humanistic Hope

As we try to sprinkle hope into our stories, sometimes we misrepresent it. In common parlance, “hope” is a synonym for “want.” “I hope I’m accepted into this college.” “I hope we win the match.” “I hope we’ll find a quick vaccine for COVID-19.” Yet as Minneapolis pastor John Piper points out, biblical hope is not a mere wish but confidence in God’s promises. Because reality is designed to eventually reward righteousness and punish evil, hope shouldn’t result from chance.

 

Neither should hope be founded in human goodness. Many stories suggest that happy endings are inevitable because of humanity’s innate virtue. Of course, Scripture declares that this is false: human nature is inherently corrupt and true hope comes from God and His promises. When writing for the secular market, we may be unable to refer to God directly. But we can still emphasize the presence of grace. When our characters choose rightly, not because they’re naturally good but because they receive grace, we’re alluding to the hope that flows from Scripture.

 

One example is the book of Esther. While the work never mentions God, grace surrounds Esther as she gradually builds the courage to approach King Ahasuerus. Alternatively, in Steven James’ excellent thriller Rook, the protagonist is reluctant to forgive the man who tried to violate his daughter. But over the course of the novel, he learns to quell his anger and vengeance—not because he’s noble in heart, but because of grace. Character arcs remind us that our good deeds are credited to forces outside our control.

 

Christian stories reveal hope—not through human integrity or coincidence but through the mystery of grace.

 

Identifying Our Personal Calling When Portraying Hope and Darkness

Though I’d prefer to talk more about including sacrifice than achieving balance, each writer needs to determine what amount of hope and darkness she’s willing to put on her own scale.

 

Lest we assume, however, that all Christian authors need to pursue the same equilibrium, Scripture indicates otherwise. Multiple books are bundled into the Bible, and each one balances hope and darkness differently. In 2 Kings, kingdoms fall due to their sins and hope for Israel rises in the figure of Jehoiachin. In Ruth, the young widow’s commitment to providing for herself and her mother-in-law leads her to a husband. In the final pages of Judges, hope fades among the unspeakable wickedness. And in Luke, Christ conquers death and ascends into glory.

 

Each of us needs to form our own convictions as storytellers. Do we follow Dostoevsky’s path in Crime and Punishment, placing ourselves in the POV of an axe murderer? Do we imitate Austen, who doesn’t deal with glaring immorality in Pride and Prejudice but demonstrates our ability to overcome hidden faults? Do we take Endo’s approach in Silence, grappling with God’s apparent absence and the smallest shreds of hope? Or do we chase after Rivers in Redeeming Love, showcasing the full redemption we’ll experience at the end of time?

 

Our manifesto urges writers to paint traces of hope in the darkest situations. But every author and book requires a unique application. Because the implications of this resolution are so vast, we’ll continue to delve into it through the following articles:

 

Looking Ahead to the Second Coming

J. R. R. Tolkien’s letters say that all stories point toward eucatastrophe—the “sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears.” We only recognize our need for that moment when we walk through darkness. But we only understand the significance of eucatastrophe when we catch glimpses of hope and victory.

 

We need stories where characters resolve their problems to remind us of our heavenly hope. But we also need stories where characters never escape their struggles to remind us that in this life we’ll have trouble.

 

As Christian storytellers, we have the privilege of depicting the world with honesty: warts and all, but also joys and all.

 

Reality is far darker yet also far richer than we realize.

 

Let’s depict that with our words.

 

Return on Thursday as Daeus explains how to tackle suffering. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. How do you think writers should weave a distinctly Christian hope into their stories, even in ones aimed toward the general market?

4 Comments

  1. Aline

    As a novice author I was always afraid of dealing with some topics like PPD, suicide, sexual abuse, alcoholism, etc, but at the same time I’d start a story and then I was faced with characters going through some of these things.
    It has been an effort to peel away the “easy answers” for life darkness from my works and truly show hopeful broken people touched by the redeeming work of our Savior.
    Mostly I feel stuck between a Christian and a secular audience not quite fitting on either side.
    But now, as I go through the articles here, I’m learning so much.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      It is hard to find the right audience for works like this. But I do think your desire to deal with these subjects is the right desire and am glad that our articles are helping you determine how to best do so!

  2. Daeus Lamb

    Even though I’m contributing to this series, this article made feel like a new recruit fanned into flames for the cause.

    I do have one clarification question. Were you implying that depression isn’t spiritual? Or that it doesn’t have to be spiritual, but can be one or more of spiritual, mental, and physical?

    Reply
    • Josiah DeGraaf

      Ah–that wording isn’t as clear as it could be, and I’ll work on fixing that. My intent is to imply that it doesn’t have to be spiritual. While there can certainly be spiritual components to depression or anxiety, I think that there are also several physical and mental factors that can also be at play.

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