It’s not enough to say there’s a problem, as I and many others have. If anything’s going to change, we have to offer advice and help, too. So today I’d like to offer an alternative to the one of the greatest dilemmas of Christian books and films: preachiness.
Christians want to teach morals and lessons. We want to share God’s word with the world, and art is a great medium for it. But how does one get a point across without stopping the story, looking the audience in the eye, and asking them to take notes?
The answer lies within a scene from chapter 55 of the fantasy novel The Way of Shadows by Brent Weeks, the first in his Night Angels trilogy. While the book gets a hard R for…disquieting…content, Weeks is a professed Christian, and it shows even though this murky (yet brilliant) work. And within this scene, there’s a gem of wisdom that all Christian writers should learn.
First, though, I have to set the scene. Naturally, there will be spoilers for The Way of Shadows, but nothing too destructive to the experience of reading the book.
Roth is one of the nastiest twists you’ll ever read about. He has some fairly standard ambitions–become the greatest king, claim the greatest magic, etc–but these are his goals, not his joy. What’s his joy? Torture. Physical, mental, sexual, and most importantly, spiritual.
Roth sets up tables of food before peasants, then shoots them with a crossbow, but only a few so that survivors and onlookers may try again the next time Roth serves a feast, which means he can shoot more peasants. Nice fellow. He enjoys the game, the depravity, and the power he gains from being the sickest man around.
In the other corner, we have Logan Gyre, a young noble so just, so righteous, so pure, it makes your teeth hurt. He walks the tightrope between inspiring altruism and face-palming naivety. In the last third of the book, Logan agrees to ditch his fiancee and marry Jenine, daughter of the king, so that Logan may one day be king. This will put a good man on the throne after centuries of bad ones, which is a blessing for the suffering kingdom.
And for Jenine, it’s a dream come true. She’s loved Logan from afar, and now he’s hers. They marry without ceremony, and Logan is still reeling from losing his true love. However, in just one conversation, Jenine shows Logan that she’s a woman worth marrying, and even gets him to fall in love with her.
So all in all, it’s a good day. Good guy Logan will be king, Jenine gets her man, and the two come together for their first night of loving intimacy.
That’s when Roth breaks in.
The Pitch-Black Shadow
This scene is hard to read. Roth invades the castle with a small army, killing everyone in sight, and charges into the room where Logan and Jenine are about to make love. With a bit of magic, the couple is bound, unable to move.
Roth takes his time, savoring their horror, reveling in his position over his victims. Killing Logan and Jenine will help Roth become king, but he’s already having the time of his life being evil.
The moment drew out. There was nothing Roth loved so much as watching bewilderment turn to dread turn to despair. -Weeks, Way of Shadows
Roth strips Jenine, fondles her, then cuts her throat, not enough to kill her outright, just enough to let her die slowly in Logan’s arms.
When I said this book has a hard R rating, I meant diamond hard. It’s an agonizing scene, not only for the depravity, not only for the heartbreak of two fresh lovers, but because these are the good guys. Logan is one of the only truly good men left in the kingdom, and Jenine seems like the perfect wife for him. It’s not fair that this should be their fate. Not fair and not right.
Evil has triumphed. Roth will be king, Logan will suffer, and the last vestiges of hope in the book will die out. But then…
The Searing Light
Roth watches Jenine die, watches Logan cradle her fading body, searches their faces for the despair and terror, for the shattered spirits which give him so much glee.
But then Logan speak to Jenine, whom he calls Jeni, and something amazing happens.
“I’m here, Jeni,” Logan said, holding the girl’s eyes with his own. “I’m not going to leave you.” The gentleness in his voice infuriated Roth. It was as if Roth didn’t matter anymore. With his soothing voice, Logan was pulling Jenine and himself out of this world of darkness, walling them off somewhere Roth couldn’t go…
He struck Logan across the face, but his blow might have been the buzzing of a gnat…
Something’s happened. Logan assures Jenine that they’ll be reunited soon, and keeps “whispering in her ear.” Suddenly, the despair and terror on which Roth “gorged himself” have vanished, leaving him empty and starving.
“Jeni, Jeni,” [Logan] said quietly, “I already love you. I’ll be with you soon.”
“You’re dying!” Roth shouted, not a pace a way, but he might have been a summer breeze.
And when Jenine does die in Logan’s arms, something shatters in Roth’s mind.
“No! No!” Roth yelled. She wasn’t even afraid. He’d done everything right and she wasn’t afraid to die. Who wasn’t afraid to die? It wasn’t right. It wasn’t fair.
My, my, how the tables have turned. Just a moment ago, I was saying how the assault on Logan and Jenine isn’t right or fair. And now Roth is saying the same thing about their ability to ignore him in their darkest hour.
And in that one scene, we have a better sermon than most Christians dare to attempt.
The One True Hope
Roth is a powerful, vile man. He’s a fierce warrior, talented with magic, clever, ruthless, and backed by one of the most powerful and evil empires in the land. Yet in this moment, the mighty Roth has failed, failed so badly that he regresses to childish whining.
Why? Because Logan is stronger? He’s not. Logan is weaker than Roth in every way, but he has one weapon that Roth cannot counter: hope.
Logan gives that hope to Jenine when he promises her that they’ll be together again, that death is not the end. Roth screams, curses, and fights, but this hope is too powerful. Roth has backed himself into a corner. He could kill Jenine quickly, but then her suffering ends, which was the point of killing her slowly. But a slow death doesn’t mortify her either. Roth can’t win.
Without the fear of death, Roth is powerless. As soon as his enemies realize there is something beyond this life, somewhere Roth can’t go, all his weapons melt like wax.
Are you getting it?
When the saints realized that Jesus’s resurrection from the dead meant that death was not the final say, it gave them the courage to die. This courage shattered their enemies’ weapons. Tim Keller said that God gives evil “Just enough room to destroy itself.” When the forces of darkness threaten the Christian’s life, they’re pushing the Christian to the very place where he or she will be happiest. Why fear death when God is on the other side?
And if death can’t scare you, why should you be afraid to speak out against evil? To fight the powers that be? True, true, they can torture your body and mind, but the same hope that saves you from the fear of death saves you from the fear of life, too, as Logan showed Jenine.
There’s something beyond your suffering. Something bigger and better and brighter than any evil, any pain, any horror. The agony may be great, but when you realize that that goodness is greater, then evil’s threats become a “summer breeze.”
The Two Steps of Genius
Author Brent Weeks never once winks at the audience, doesn’t include a discussion guide at the end of the book, and never even explicitly says that this hope is the Christian God. He just lays the pieces out in a twofold process.
ONE: The scene fits. Roth is already established as a nasty, horrible man and Logan a good one. Beyond that, Weeks shows that the Christian God exists in this universe (referred to as The One God as opposed to the polytheistic religions), even including a quote by Martin Luther (though not by that name).
What’s more, the main story is consistent with themes of light that’s stronger than darkness. An assassin character lives a life of darkness and grim, brutal “honesty.” There’s no God, no hope, no goodness in the world. Deal with it. But his apprentice sees the hypocrisy of his master, a constant hope for something better, that leads him to believe these cynical views of the world are wrong, that something better than “honesty” must exist, and it helps him escape his master’s misery. This leads him to victory.
So Logan and Jenine’s victory over Roth is not some random cutout intent on teaching a lesson and nothing more. It fits the characters, the world, and the themes of the book, all carefully planted and built up so that this moment makes perfect sense even if Weeks himself wasn’t a Christian.
TWO: Weeks trusts his readers. I think Christians don’t give their readers enough credit, believing they have to spell out the moral in order for the audience to understand. However, readers are generally clever enough to figure things out if you give them just enough clues.
Implications are stronger than explanations. Give your audience just enough information that they HAVE to fill in the missing pieces and they WILL fill in the missing pieces. It forces them to use their brains so that they understand what’s going on, and any psychologist will tell you: if someone thinks of an idea themselves, they will be more attached to the idea than if someone fed it to them.
This isn’t to say you can’t use blatant explanations or clear phrasing at any time. Obviously you need to be clear in many things so that your audience has enough puzzle pieces to fit it all together. But hold back. Don’t give them everything, just enough that they can do the rest themselves.
If you can do this, then you’ll weave an organic message into your book, your film, your whatever, that will stick with the reader far longer than an obvious sermon. Their brain will have to chew on it, turn it this way and that to see if it makes sense, and if it does, the work they’ve put into figuring it out will cause them to remember it.
You can do it. Remember, the Author and Creator of the world is at your side. Now go, teach us something.