Editor’s Note: This article is the third installment in our four-part series on pursuing the storyteller’s great commission. To learn why we’re running this series and how we’re approaching each topic, read our introductory article.
Writers are missionaries. Sure, we may cosplay as caffeine-addicted insomniacs with questionable search histories, but beneath the silly clichés, we explore uncharted (and often dangerous) territory in hopes of reaching broken hearts and lost souls.
The Great Commission tasks us with a heavy responsibility—not just to proclaim the gospel but to witness to others through the testimony of our lives, our work, and our relationships. As storytellers, we face a unique challenge: How can we universalize our message when fiction encompasses a broad audience with a wide range of beliefs?
The Great Commission calls us to be more than megaphones. First Corinthians 13:1–3 warns us that love must underline our words and actions or our efforts will be in vain: “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, but have no love, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.”
Love is the propellant of outreach, the fundamental pillar of ministry, the distinction between Pharisaical pulpit-thumpers and shepherds guiding their flocks. If we want readers to care about the truth we carry, we must first prove that we care about them. Without the intimacy of one-on-one connection, however, loving individual readers through a story written for hundreds can seem too impersonal to be plausible.
That didn’t stop Jesus from meting out parables to the crowd gathered beside the Sea of Galilea. When we understand the four mindsets that most readers come from—the searching unbeliever, the unrepentant skeptic, the apathetic churchgoer, and the struggling Christian—we’ll know how to touch each one. A thread of grace can unite them all.
Weep with Those Who Weep: Using Compassion to Breach Worldview Barriers
The obvious goal of the Great Commission is to broadcast the news of salvation. But fiction doesn’t allow for “street preaching.” While in-person evangelism may require a direct approach, novelists must subtly and artfully translate their values into themes, character arcs, and symbolism. If I wrote a book about a woman who grew red horns and a tail after cheating on her husband, readers (both Christian and non-Christian alike) would cry foul. Not only would the phenomenon be absurd but also derogatory toward people whose choices I disagree with.
The tension between God-breathed Scripture and man-made ideologies places us in a sticky position. How can we fairly represent characters who oppose our worldview and promote the gospel without alienating a secular audience or watering down our convictions to avoid offense?
Consider how Victor Hugo handles the character Fantine in Les Miserables. She forfeits her innocence under pressure, resulting in an illegitimate pregnancy. Shunned by society, she descends into poverty, despair, and eventually prostitution. But despite her ugly situation, Victor Hugo never influences us to hate her. She’s not willfully wallowing in immorality—she’s desperate to feed her starving child. Instead of condemning her, Hugo lets the tragedies that befall her expose her foolishness.
Compassion enables us to impart our beliefs and engage opposing worldviews without sermonizing or casting judgment. For instance, I can imagine the factors that might motivate a female protagonist to be unfaithful to her husband. Perhaps he’s emotionally cold or persists in bad habits. Showing sympathy toward her won’t compromise my worldview if I balance her mistakes with unpleasant consequences.
Empathy is crucial when pursuing the Great Commission in storytelling. The gospel isn’t a weak child who only wins a fight when his opponent is handicapped. If we treat other worldviews with as much honesty as our own, readers can’t accuse us of distorting their behavior to make Jesus more appealing. We should pay attention to the circumstances that might shape a person’s perspective (e.g., sexual abuse victims tend to support abortion), not with the intention of pouncing on fallacies, but to equip ourselves to address deeply felt needs and problems. Never underestimate the power of pausing to listen.
Love Your Enemies: Unrepentant Does Not Equal Unredeemable
Since fiction shouldn’t attempt to proselytize, following the Great Commission as a storyteller means revealing fragments of truth instead of a full scroll. How we portray people who reject virtue and embrace their own vices reflects our attitude toward them in real life, which affects our reputation overall.
Not everyone detaches themselves from the lies they cling to, and conversion arcs aren’t necessary to point readers to the narrow road. Apart from proper development, what protects an antagonist from coming across as an insensitive caricature of evil is the opportunity for redemption. Sometimes the most loving tactic is to intersperse glimpses of mercy, whether or not the character is receptive.
In Lord of the Rings, the One Ring mutates Sméagol into a miserable creature who eventually betrays Frodo. But ultimately no one can withstand the Ring’s seduction, not even the heroes. So Sméagol’s plight isn’t entirely his fault—which deprives him of poetic justice and strips away his culpability, leaving us with a character who exists only to be hurled into Mount Doom.
Compare the deformed hobbit to Thenardier, a sleazy con man who repeatedly defrauds the protagonists of Les Miserables. He’s given multiple second chances throughout the story, and at the end when Marius offers him money to start his life afresh, he uses the undeserved gift to become a slave trader. We see traces of compassion even in this repulsive character, because Hugo never dismisses him as too far gone.
What makes villains truly reprehensible—and thoroughly human—is when they bind themselves to wickedness regardless of the numerous outlets for escape. Thenardier falls into bankruptcy because of his unscrupulous decisions, not because a deity cursed him, no matter how he tries to absolve himself of blame.
With those precautions in mind, we shouldn’t ban conversion arcs either. Some of the greatest Christian heroes began as persecutors and critics of the church, like the Apostle Paul and Adoniram Judson. Returning to fiction, Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment and Dalinar Kholin from The Stormlight Archive both undergo drastic transformations, including remorse for the wrongs they’ve committed. When depraved, darkness-driven people turn to the light, we’re reminded that no one is beyond God’s deliverance.
Iron Sharpens Iron: Fiction Edifies the Body of Christ
Because the Great Commission focuses so heavily on evangelism, we forget that the commandment also mentions discipleship. Our job is not finished when we hand out tracts and someone professes belief. We’re supposed to continue mentoring our brothers and sisters in Christ through the variety of mediums and settings available to us. And the outworking of discipleship through fiction is twofold: exhortation and encouragement. I need space to unpack each of those, so I’ll address the first in this section and the second in the next.
We exhort readers when we challenge their habits, attitudes, and perceptions through poignant thematic questions and character arcs. Although life-changing books are rare, all of us have read stories that lingered in our memories, simmering with revelations that never struck us before. Overcoming the barrier of familiarity is a benefit that in-person discipleship lacks. In fiction, we can convey truths that have become trite from new and emotionally evocative angles.
For example, as a child raised in church, Christ’s death and resurrection had been reiterated so frequently that it felt on par with the multiplication table—something I memorized and recited out of perfunctory devotion. But when I read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, associating Aslan’s sacrifice for Edmund with Christ’s sacrifice for me cleared the haze. I gazed at the cross with a sense of awe and gratefulness.
This doesn’t license us to browbeat readers with our favorite underappreciated Scriptures, however. While we can (and should, if possible) seek to teach as well as delight, condescension isn’t loving. Instead, we should draw from our own struggles, epiphanies, and growth, as Martin talked about in a previous manifesto series. After all, we’re not grouchy schoolmarms forcing reluctant pupils to learn a mathematical formula—we’re fellow students helping each other study so that everyone can discover the answers and succeed on the exam.
Bear One Another’s Burdens: Uplifting the Downtrodden with Authentic Depictions of Reality
Encouraging readers might seem easy-peasy. We position a soldier on a battlefield and orchestrate events so that he emerges a hero. He’s the wisest, bravest man in his contingent because of his strong faith! Of course we also allow him to accumulate a few scrapes and bruises for good measure. His experiences will assure readers that they can conquer any difficulty, physical or spiritual, right?
Let me introduce one of the saddest products of Christian fiction: the Elsie Dinsmore series. Elsie is a shining role model of all the traits we should exhibit as believers, and the surrounding cast contrasts starkly with her. They have trouble maintaining self-control, unlike the patient and prim little Elsie who never distrusts God. Their failures highlight her triumphs, epitomized by the final, burning object lesson that unless we emulate Elsie, we’ll never be acceptable to God.
Outrageous theological inaccuracies aside, the Elsie Dinsmore series demonstrates how damaging “holier than thou” characters can be. If we open up to a friend about the sins we’re wrestling with, or a trial we’re going through, and they assert that we’re suffering because we’re not close enough to God, we’ll feel misunderstood. Likewise, when we rely on platitudes to soothe and solve complicated issues, we gloss over the legitimacy of readers’ pain. Believers should embolden each other to lay their unworthiness at the feet of Christ, not hide guilt and shame behind a smile.
Look at Dorothea Brooke from Middlemarch. Dorothea’s naïve, self-righteous ambitions push her to marry a clergyman whose eloquent speeches conceal hypocrisy. When her poor discernment becomes apparent and her future threatens to suffocate her, she grapples with questions and conclusions that a Sunday School pamphlet couldn’t cover. We recognize ourselves in her flaws, and her determination to find a purpose amid her predicament inspires us to climb out of our own ditches.
Life is not all rainbows and sunshine. Christians aren’t perfect. Following Christ doesn’t eliminate hardship. Implying the opposite, whether intentionally or not, discredits the gospel and our attempts to spread it. Discipleship demands candor, not pithiness and Aesop morals.
Fiction Is a Ministry
The Great Commission can be obeyed in our quietest moments, when we’re hitting backspace for the hundredth time or researching an obscure historical detail. We’re so much more than entertainers. Through the skills God helps us cultivate, we can reach the unreachable. We can speak to people without them ever hearing our voices. We can sow thoughts and ideas in fertile hearts and minds.
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal.” Our books lose meaning when we lose our love for others. Although the rules for compassionate storytelling are relatively unambiguous, outreach begins with us, not the pages within a glossy spine on a shelf. To share the radical love of Christ with others, we must first rest our own sin-tainted souls in the shadow of His cross.
Return next Monday as Rachel takes an inventory of the resources God has provided to fuel our creativity. In the meantime, we’d love to hear from you. Which of the four groups described above compels you the most as a storyteller?
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.
I think this is my favorite of your articles so far. It’s REALLY good.
I was going to say, “I especially like point number _,” but then I couldn’t choose which one. 😂 So, all of ’em, but especially especially 1, 2, and 4. It’s SO TRUE, ack, how any type of storytelling has to come from a place of compassion on the part of the storyteller for it to reach people in a positive way.
(Also I love love love the point about discipleship being equally important as evangelism.)
Thank you! I think compassion is one of the most important things to get right in fiction, especially for Christians. (Poor point #3, it’s so unloved… 😉 )
Yuppers. 👌(I mean, it’s good too, but the others get me especially excited. 😜)
Excellent article! Love/compassion is, I think, one of those qualities that separates the good books from the great.
Thanks! I so agree — there’s a reason classic lit is referenced so much in this, because the classics are RIPE with compassionate storytelling, and it’s one of the reasons they’re so powerful.
That was stunningly crafted, WOW.
I appreciate how you mentioned in “Iron Sharpens Iron” challenging other believers’ beliefs by drawing from our own mini transformations. Sometimes when I learn a life lesson, I want to share it, and I’m delighted that I can do that in storytelling!
I think that drawing from our experiences and growth is what tips storytelling over the edge into genuine truthfulness and encouragement. It’s the difference between reading a self-help manual or watching your grandmother demonstrate the skills she’s learned. ❤
Wow! Great insight into this oft-thought-of topic. Thank you for writing this. I appreciate it.
Thanks! Glad it resonated with you!
If I would ever advocate for a book burning, it’d be for Elsie Dinsmore. That series is DANGEROUS. Not just for the guilt-tripping and ridiculous standards, but also the nicer-than-God approach to correction and punishment. Elsie refuses to “tell” on people that should be locked up.
Needless to say, it’s nice to read someone who shares my views. xD
YIKES, I don’t remember that part, though it’s been a while since I read them. Those books are a minefield of horrible content. I was so stuck on the part where she married her dad’s best friend that I don’t remember much else. 😣
I really loved this article. Such a good approach to writing fiction as a believer. Still chewing on this one since it’s so densely packed with good stuff, so I can’t say which point was my favorite.
Loving readers by displaying compassion in story teller is such a tall order, but the examples you included to demonstrate giving characters opportunities for redemption illustrates that disposition so well. Wonderful advice and examples.