We ended Part 1 of this two-part post by asking a question: How is it that scripture is clean and holy, despite containing a long list of scenes and situations that wouldn’t make it past the editorial standards review at most modern Christian publishing houses? The answer is that scripture is clean because of whose word it is, not because it adheres to a convenient list of taboos to avoid mentioning. It’s holy because of whose Spirit it exudes. It’s pure because its author is pure. This is true of the whole Bible, even the parts that make us uncomfortable.
When the Bible writers chronicled unholy acts, they did not do it with unholy purpose. They didn’t portray violence for its shock value. They didn’t include sexual content to provoke readers to lust. You can read about vile sins in scripture without fear that you will somehow be dirtied or defiled by the reading. Even the ugly stuff is in there for your benefit. God had the writers include what was needed to accurately portray the truth, and to convey its emotional and spiritual impact. This is the only effective way to teach the lessons that need to be learned.
The fear of the Lord is to hate evil. An author who shares God’s abhorrence of evil can write about evil people or evil deeds without conveying either approval or unwholesome fascination with that evil. That’s what scripture does. But when authors filter a story through a list of prohibited words and topics, they risk writing something that is not merely clean, but sterile. If the goal is to avoid having any character think, say, or do anything that a Bible Belt deacon would not approve, even Christian readers will get bored. The writer has bleached the soil to get rid of all the germs, and now nothing will grow in it: no conflict, no passion, no pathos, and certainly nothing powerful enough to resonate deeply or stir the soul of the reader. A sterile story is emotionally unsatisfying.
Worse yet, a sterile story fails to tell the whole truth, or even enough of the truth to matter. When your most hardened characters talk like Boy Scouts; when single men aged 18-35 go through their days with nary a lustful thought, either not thinking of women at all or thinking of them with nothing but sisterly affection; when the ministers in the story are perfectly wise, perfectly patient, and perfectly loving; none of your characters seem to be real people. If the prodigal son had done nothing worse than miss a few synagogue services, it wouldn’t have been much of a story. We need to see from whence he was redeemed. It’s only because he wound up in the metaphorical gutter after squandering his money on riotous living and prostitutes that we understand the depth of his Father’s love and grace. To sterilize the story is to bleach away all its power.
So like many things in life, defining “clean” turns out not to be as simple as it first appears. It is not merely a matter of avoiding prohibited topics on The List some committee compiled. I’ve seen and heard artistic creations that did not violate the strictures of The List, but still struck me as unclean. And as we’ve seen with scripture, it’s possible to run afoul of The List and yet be holy. What’s needed is something less convenient but infinitely more useful than The List: discernment, exercised on a case-by-case basis.