Last week I had a new comment on the the guest post I did over at Speculative Faith Blog called Sex, Violence and Dark Events. The commenter, Joanna Wilson, suggested we use the Bible as a model for portraying such things, pointing out how when it comes to sex and violence, the Bible is usually quite graphic when it comes to its descriptions of violence but not so much when it comes to sex.
Her comment sent my thinking off in a number of different directions. First is that sometimes what appears as mild and bland in our English translations is that way because of the translators’ reluctance to render the evocative, earthy terms of the original languages into comparable English words. Eg. “seized violently” instead of “took” and “raped” instead of “lay with.” (“Lay with” as a euphemism has always cracked me up. Talk about bland and inaccurate!)
My first thought, which I stated in my response to Joanna’s comment was that often the story being told in the Bible is not concerned so much with the sexual activity as it is other — worse — sins. Here’s what I wrote in my response (with additions):
In the case of David and Bathsheba, for example, it seems to me that story had little to do with the relationship between the participants but was instead about the steps a mature believer — the man who faced down Goliath because of his faith in God — can take when he turns his back on God.
First is the fact that David was not supposed to even be there, lazing around the palace and sleeping through the day, but out on the battlefield leading his army as 2 Sam 11:1 says clearly:
‘Then it happened in the spring, at the time when KINGS (like David was) go out to battle [on a military campaign] that David sent Joab and his servants with him and all Israel, and they destroyed the sons of Ammon and besieged Rabbah. But David stayed at Jerusalem.
And in case that wasn’t enough to clue us in, Uriah reinforces it in vs 11 when he dismisses David’s suggestion that Uriah go to his own home and spend the night with his wife while he’s in Jerusalem (there, because David had sent for him)
“And Uriah said to David, “The ark and Israel and Judah are staying in [tents], and my lord Joab and the servants of my lord are camping in the open field. Shall I then go to my house to eat and to drink and to lie with my wife? By your life and the life of your soul, I will not do this thing.”
This is the officer’s code that David himself had developed. Having Uriah throw it back in his face, you’d think he might take note. Apparently not.
We can see right there in vs 1 that David was out of it. If he’d been where he was supposed to have been none of this would have happened.
Then there’s vs 2, just to drive the point home:
Now when evening came, David arose from his bed and walked around on the roof.
This is the man who, when in fellowship with God, rose early in the morning to pray and commune with God, as he himself wrote in Psalm 143 (Let me hear Thy lovingkindness in the morning; for I trust in Thee; Teach me the way I should walk; for to Thee I lift up my soul.) and Psalm 88:13 (But I, O Lord, have cried out to Thee for help, and in the morning my prayer comes before thee.) Now he’s sleeping the days away and making mischief at night.
So the story begins with David’s failures as a king and as a soldier and a commanding officer. And he’s rising at sundown instead of the dawn: again, wrong place, wrong time.
Second, he apparently didn’t recognize Bathsheba since he had to “inquire about” her, so he must not have known her personally. Which tells me this wasn’t about a relationship, so much as an exercise of lust and an abuse of power, and came out of the sins that God called him on through Nathan in the next chapter: ingratitude and arrogance.
Nathan then said to David, “…Thus says the Lord God of Israel,
‘It is I who appointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul. I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!
‘Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? [That is] you have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon. Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised me and taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’ ” 2 Sa 12:7-10
Here God’s provided everything for David, promoted him fabulously, and he was still dissatisfied, and arrogant, despising God’s word, (which is the same as despising God Himself, as this passage also makes clear). He was so full of himself, he actually thought he could get away with murdering one of his loyal men and taking his wife, because the seven wives and unnumbered concubines he already had weren’t enough. Gross.
Since the story is really about David’s failure to love and honor God’s word — and thus God Himself — and not being humble and grateful, it seems to me that the specifics of the adultery/rape incident are irrelevant and would only distract from the main point.
Even in the area of violence, there aren’t many specifics. We know little of the details of Uriah’s death beyond the letter David sent to Joab telling him how to do it — that is, put him “on the front line of the fiercest battle and withdraw from him that he be struck down and die.”
Which I guess supports the point I made in my original post that such specifics only go in if they really serve the point you’re trying to make with the story.
If one were writing this story as a novel, however, I can see where you might put in a few more specifics. Fiction isn’t supposed to be an outline, or a Bible lesson, but an experience. Authors are supposed to try to assemble enough specific details of character and setting to make the scene come alive for the reader.
And therein lies the problem, I think. Some people would rather not “live” certain scenes. In fact, I suspect all people feel that way. It just depends on the scene.
More on this in another post…
Great post, Karen. You concluded by saying,
I agree and even contend, as I did at Spec Faith some weeks before your post in a comment to one by Mike Duran about horror, that it’s fine if some people would rather not live, vicariously, horrible things. I don’t think I have to “experience” rape or sex-trafficking or drug addiction to understand it in a visceral way. The imagination is a powerful thing.
But mostly I wanted to remark about your statement that David wasn’t thankful. Interestingly, the preacher Sunday pointed out in our series in Ephesians that in the fifth chapter, in the section that begins Paul’s description of what it looks like to live like Christ, there is a list of six things that we’re warned against and one we are told to do: give thanks:
Thanks for being willing to discuss this. Sex and violence in Christian fiction is rough. I’m writing a Christian thriller called Daniel’s Mighty Men about a spirit-filled non-denominational Pastor (who was the top assassin for the CIA in her day) and her husband who came out of the CIA and now run a private black ops business.
The plot deals with a major invasion in the near future from Chihuahua and the enemy is a cartel leader, a Chinese Triad leader with strong political connections, and an evil Admiral looking for revenge because of real damages he received from anti-gay homophobes. (No, homosexuality is not a Godly lifestyle and it’s sin, but homophobes are just as bad on the other side.] I need to make it graphically clear that there is a real difference between the way Christian warriors [in the mold of David’s Mighty Men] and evil warriors handle their plans and their people.
What fun it was to write about black ops operations designed and executed by strongly believing Christians. Try writing as a long-time believer about how killing in the military under Godly leadership is different than “you shall not murder”. What a joy it was to write about a meeting of a presidential candidate leading a group of Pentagon bureaucrats and black op operatives into a time of waiting on the Lord for guidance. How the Lord got the victory (and the glory) by staying the Christian assassin’s hand.
I avoided all sex though implying good marital relationships. I toned down the violence a lot. But war is hell. I think about Jael, killing that General by driving a stake into his skull and all the other graphic violence in Genesis, Judges, both Kings and so on.
By ignoring the reality of violence and evil we certainly do not help the readers and we can lose the examples needed for edification.
It takes the anointing of the Holy spirit to do it well. Even then, all I can do is pray that the Lord will make that real for my readers.