A few years ago, I was listening to Elizabeth Elliot teach on the Fruits of the Spirit. I knew what Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, etc. were, but I’d never understood what Goodness was. It’s sandwiched in between kindness and gentleness, and my thinking was that Goodness was part of both of those. Kind of like saying “He’s nice.” It doesn’t mean anything.
So I was fascinated when Elizabeth Elliot defined Goodness as being high quality. “It’s like when we say, ‘This is a good cheese,’, or ‘This is a good vintage of wine’. In the same way, we are to be high-quality people.”
This stuck in my mind, especially as applied to writing. Was I portraying Goodness as desirable? Was I showing characters struggling to become higher and higher quality? After all, the refining process takes time and pain, both of which make for great stories.
Note: Holiness is: The state or character of being holy or sinless; purity of moral character; perfect freedom from all evil; sanctity.
Goodness is: The state or quality of being good, in any sense; excellence; purity; virtue; grace; benevolence.
Speaking of great stories, the other day, we were talking in my Discord about why Narnia and Lord of the Rings are still the Christian fantasy gold standards. One person said, “It’s wrong that their writings are still the best of Christian fantasy. By now we should have hundreds of works that are way better, and they’d be mostly honoured as those who started, not … all that it’s recommended when looking for Christian fantasy books.”
This got me thinking. As a Christian writer, I am obsessed with showing sinful man grappling with Ultimate Good. Evil is less interesting to me. Like, I pick up any Christian book, and yawn, it’s some lukewarm believer sinning again. You know what made Lewis and Tolkien stand out? They didn’t bother wallowing in the evil. Sauron has zero on-screen appearances. Instead, they grappled with Goodness, and man struggling to measure up. The Ring is a constant temptation, and arrayed against it are the Goodness of the elves, and Gandalf, and Gondor, and all the Good characters struggling to maintain their holiness in the face of corruption.
Goodness is treasured. It is something precious and desirable.
In Narnia, it’s each character coming to grips with Aslan. We’re not so much interested in what a pathetic waste of space Eustace is. We want to see him face Aslan and see how he changes. Each character is transformed by the end of each book by their confrontation with Good–they are either changed, or destroyed by it.
How many Christian books have been written since then that focus on man’s struggle with Goodness and Holiness and Righteousness? How many treasure goodness and constantly seek it out? I can’t think of any, and I’ve read quite a few. They kind of miss the point. Instead, they turn God into this cosmic battery that the hero channels in order to defeat the Bad Guys. Oh, and the hero wallows in evil. A lot. Like, in some books, the evil is pretty much front and center. This is no different from any book written by a non-believer.
Now, Mormons tend to get it right, and that’s why we have runaway authors like Sanderson and Meyers and Farland. They still write the stories of Man grappling with Good, although imperfectly. I think that’s why their books resonate so much.
For instance, Jeff Wheeler says in his Manifesto on Virtue:
When I was in college at San Jose State, I took Latin classes from Marianina Olcott. That is where I learned about the Roman concept of Virtus (pronounced “where-tuus”). It was a trait that the Romans respected, but it did not mean just virtue. It included other qualities too: prudentia (prudence), iustitia (justice), temperantia (self-control), and fortitudo (courage).
As I look around in the world today, I see that these traits are no longer honored and respected as they were in the past. Maybe that is why I love reading and why I have certain favorite movies I watch over and over again. You see, in my favorite books and films, the stories that grab me are about Virtus. All right, they can be cheesy sometimes. But I love that moment in Return of the Jedi when Luke throws down his light saber and tells the Emperor he failed to turn him to the Dark Side. That despite everything that will happen to his friends and (gulp) his “sister”, he surrenders and takes the blast of Force lightning full in the chest. That is Virtus.
I posted about this in a Christian writer’s group on social media. I received comments utterly dismissing my argument out of hand.
“Simple factor. [Narnia and LOTR] were not wrtten as “Christian” books. They were written for a secular audience and published by secular publishers. They were just writing great literature. They weren’t writing great “Christian” literature.
And both being classically trained lit professors probably didn’t hurt, especially considering the types of education they got. They probably wrote more during their teen years than most authors writing today have done in their entire lives”
Because Lewis and Tolkien were obviously gods among men and we can’t hope to achieve anything they did, or even study them to learn what they did. Yes. Very good lesson to draw from this.
I was also informed that stories that are dark and vile and end in death and despair have value. I have to wonder, to whom? English lit teachers? Fantasy readers seem to enjoy it with Game of Thrones, but I think that, even there, people still hope for some kind of a satisfying ending. There will probably never be one.
So, as a fellow Christian writer, I challenge every writer. Look at your books and see if you are glorifying good or evil. How many pages are devoted to villains and sin and perversion? How many pages are devoted to Goodness and Righteousness and Holiness? And I don’t mean in an ironic way. I mean in an honest, actual, doctrinal way, which shows what you know of Goodness?
Tolkien and Lewis changed the entire fantasy genre. Let’s change it again, writers. But we have to focus on grappling with the Good.
5 thoughts on “In search of goodness in modern books”
Wow!! This is so good. Its like you were sitting in my living room this morning. W. and I were grappling with this same thought. We were discussing the same thing too. I love that you are able to get to the kernel of thought. I love your conclusions. I wish I could put my thoughts in such a nice orderly fashion like you do. Bravo! This really was such an awesome post! Thank you!
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Oh wow, that is amazing! Yes, I’ve been chasing this around and around lately.
Some good thoughts here. Must ponder . . .
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Some good thoughts.
The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter Kreeft is an incredible book on the themes in LoTR.
I’ve heard good things about Brian Niemeier though I haven’t really been interested in his genres.
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Thanks for the rec! Yeah, I haven’t cared much for Brian’s books, myself, but his blog is very interesting.