Horror and Hope
In February 2020, I had lunch with a colleague. It was one of those hours-long lunches that leaves you thoughtful and feeling grateful to have that person as a friend. We touched on two polarized worldviews that are common in modern America—and, I think, might even transcend cultures. These two views can be generalized by how people think the world is versus how it ought to be.
A person with the first worldview thinks the world ought to be good, fair, and beautiful. They see beauty and love and joy and believe that the world should only be full of these good things. Because the world contains ugliness and hate, this person is at risk to live most of their life sheltered or angry and despairing when the smallest things go wrong. The world doesn’t align to their beliefs, no matter how hard they fight. This is a horror-based view.
Someone who holds the second worldview thinks the world ought to be bad, unfair, and ugly. They see destruction and hate and despair and believe that the world can only be full of these bad things. But because the world contains beauty, love, and joy, this person is constantly shocked or amazed and grateful for every good thing that happens in their life. The world isn't confined to their beliefs, and they find unimaginable joy in the smallest things. This is a hope-based view.
Now, dear writer, you know that the world is far more nuanced than this generalization makes it out to be. And you’re right. I find myself believing both of these things at different times and in different situations almost every day. Since the horror-based worldview reflects what you hope to be true and the hope-based worldview reflects what you fear to be true, these beliefs feed one another. So how does this existential conversation apply to writing as a Christian?
In Romans 6, Paul explains the Christian’s predicament between a horror-based and hope-based worldview. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, we are no more enslaved to the horror of sin and death through the law, and we can submit ourselves to God as “instruments of righteousness” (v. 13) because we are ruled by the grace of Jesus. In other words, we can have a relationship with God because we were freed from the reality of sin’s chains. Christ has triumphed! We as believers are no longer in a state of unredeemed chaos, but our world is still waiting to be redeemed (Rom. 8:19–22), and even Christians often live as if they are still enslaved.
Every day, every year I am alive, God is still calling me to himself in large and small ways, reminding me that I’m not a slave to my whims or evil’s siren call. I am free in Christ, yet so many of my habits and failings try to pull me back into the slavery of my former life. Much of that struggle is reflected in my writing.
The themes and methods of literature have changed over the centuries, but the purposes never have. To entertain, to evoke emotion, to teach, to capture the heart of the human struggle . . . as Christian writers, we have an obligation to honor the truth of our paradoxical existence and the truth of the gospel. Far from constraining our creativity, this command is freeing—we have the opportunity to proclaim our freedom in Christ in the method that God puts on our hearts. But how?
To be authentic Christian writers, we must acknowledge the promises of God and the reality of sin and death. Both fiction and nonfiction can touch on these topics and the practical issues that arise from them. Individual stories have unique purposes, and you have God-given strengths and experiences that will help you write the stories you’re called to write. Not every piece can address all of these topics (and they shouldn’t!), but your writing can still reflect truth that resonates.
So how can we identify God’s promises? With Scripture! The Bible is God’s inspired story of his relationship with the world, and we can identify many basic truths from his Word. The two most important to our writing is 1) the truth of the human struggle and 2) the truth of Christ’s triumph.
Most stories deal with some facet of the human struggle. This theme transcends genres, topics, and styles. Throughout the history of humankind, from The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Odyssey to The Lord of the Rings and All the Light We Cannot See, people have been inspired by tales of human striving. We see ourselves in these stories of imperfect people working to become something better than they are—grasping for a perfection that is always out of reach.
Both horror and hope lie in this never-ending struggle:
Horror that we are inherently flawed and can never attain this godlike perfection, but hope that our perfect Creator might make us perfect and give us the strength to achieve what we never could alone.
Horror that we might be left wholly alone and be consumed by the chaos, but hope that we would be granted that final puzzle piece (Jesus) to become the person we were meant to be.
Remembering Our Own Suffering and Redemption
In the Bible, God doesn’t leave us without hope. He promises that this state of struggle—our fallen state—is not forever, and he has given us death as a promise that it will come to an end (Gen. 3:22). Evil has an expiration date. Jesus’s death and resurrection has provided a way for us to connect to God in a way we could have never achieved on our own (John 14), and we were given the Holy Spirit as a guide.
This pattern of fallenness and redemption is so prevalent in literature that we can’t narrow it down to a single genre or story type. Everything from mystery and romance to literary fiction and inspirational nonfiction can contain redemptive arcs. People who read these kinds of stories want to be reminded that they don’t have to remain in their current state. Self-improvement and improvement of circumstances aren’t as out of reach as they feel. Goodness, love, and joy are possible because of God’s grace, even in a dark world.
One caveat: our individual sufferings affect how and what we write. In non-central matters of conviction, Christians should remember Romans 14. In the passage, Paul calls for discretion and care as we exercise our freedom in Christ. What we believe we are approved to write may be a stumbling block for other Christian writers.
Do not pass judgment when other writers share different convictions, and do not encourage brothers and sisters to write in an area that they believe harmful (even if you do not). As you would not ask a recovering alcoholic to taste a cocktail you made, don't ask fellow believers to read, write, or help you in your writing process if the topic or genre is one that they have struggled with and believe to be wrong.
Balancing Horror and Hope
Does the redemption in Scripture mean that all works written by Christians should have a redemptive arc? No. God gave humanity the law to reveal the horror of our sin and separation from him (Gal. 3:21–28). If we paint life in our fiction or nonfiction as beautiful and simple and easy or even perfect, we do a disservice to our readers.
Imperfect people cannot draw near to a perfect God without his intervention and salvation. Only those who have faith in God’s promise to rescue them through Christ can experience lasting hope. Although God will triumph in the end, not every story has a happy ending, and yours doesn’t have to. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis writes from the perspective of a demon to satirically and profoundly reveal patterns of temptation in the human heart, the ease with which we stumble, and how God pursues us in spite of our constant failings.
But the author himself admits that this book was not easy to write.
At the end of The Screwtape Letters, Lewis remarks, “Though it was easy to twist one’s mind into the diabolical attitude, it was not fun, or not for long. The strain produced a sort of spiritual cramp. The world into which I had to project myself while I spoke through Screwtape was all dust, grit, thirst, and itch. Every trace of beauty, freshness, and geniality had to be excluded.” To express truth in his story, Lewis had to step into the place of his past self—a place where so many people still languish—a place where God is the enemy.
Lewis recognized that our writing serves a purpose, and to that end, we are called to serve our target readers, whoever and wherever they may be. If your aim is to inform or teach, are you honoring the truth of the human struggle and the gospel both generally and in the ways it has affected your own life? If your aim is to entertain or elicit emotion, are you drawing from the beautiful and the ugly aspects of reality?
Horror exists because there is an ideal for which to hope—because there is justice and goodness that supersedes our personal experiences and was offered to us on the cross. So let’s write. Let’s tell our own suffering and redemption stories, seek the face of our Savior, and have the eyes of our hearts enlightened to the hope to which we have been called.
If our efforts point other human hearts to Jesus along the way, all glory be to God!