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Sunday, November 14, 2010

Stumbling Fears

When I was a Nazarene minister, my friend and I had a little joke about our up and coming ordination reviews. One of the stories we'd heard is that some applicants had been questioned about wearing wedding rings. You have to know the history of the Nazarene Church in that regard. In the "early days" holiness was evidenced by following several rules, both dos and don'ts. One "rule" was wearing no jewelry, and that included wedding rings. (You'll rarely find this sentiment today in the Nazarene Church, and I did pass my ordination, ring and all.)

My friend and I would joke that if we were asked about our wedding rings in the ordination meeting, we'd tell them, "Well, I think it is all right to wear one, but if me wearing this will make you stumble, I'll take it off." Like, I'm sure that would have gone over like a lead balloon.

Well, that verse is used in lots of situations. Most recently I've heard it used in relation to how much sin we depict in our stories as Christian authors. Since I just broke down one verse along these lines, why not this one too? Here's the specific verses:
But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to the weak. For if a man see thee who hast knowledge sitting at meat in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be emboldened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through thy knowledge he that is weak perisheth, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And thus, sinning against the brethren, and wounding their conscience when it is weak, ye sin against Christ. Wherefore, if meat causeth my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I cause not my brother to stumble.
(1Co 8:9-13 ASV)

The concern is that by depicting a sin as enticing, or even a possibility to do, that we could cause someone to plunge into that sin who is weak.

First, I will acknowledge that there is a line we shouldn't cross. In my understanding, it is when we show sin as enticing, but also without the negative consequences it can have. That could potentially send a message to a brother or sister who is weak to stumble. I would suggest that depicting a sin, even if done in a "this is normal" way, if it shows the negative consequences, or that it was wrong, it should provide support for the weaker brother or sister to avoid such things, not a cause for them to stumble.

And as mentioned last time, we have a responsibility as Christian writers to only show what needs to be shown to make the story and characters work, not merely for shock value, or trying to be "edgy." If we do the later, we are unnecessarily throwing out enticement without intending to show any consequences, which can be just as bad as showing positive consequences to sin.

All that as a given, there is still one area where I feel some go too far with this verse. First, let's take a look at the context of what St. Paul was talking about here.

There was an apparent debate in Corinth over whether it was okay to eat meat offered to idols. Those who had come out of that religion, who had participated in those rituals, or felt strongly that eating such meat was the same as worshiping that idol, naturally felt that no Christian should eat such meat. Likewise, there were those who saw it as nothing more than meat. They couldn't care less about where it was before. It was just meat to eat, and they didn't feel they worshiped any idol by eating it. It was food, nothing more, nothing less.

St. Paul diplomatically agrees with both. Yes, it is only meat, but your brother over there feels strongly the other way, and for good reasons. So don't eat meat offered to idols when you know it has been, so as not to put your brother into a situation where he either has to say "no" and make a scene, or eat it out of hospitality and then feel he's sinned. But to those who go to a brother's house and meat is placed before them, St. Paul tells them not to ask where it came from, but just eat it. Sort of a "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

Note what this is talking about. It is talking about one's direct influence on a specific brother. They are in your house. You're serving them meat, or you're with them at another's house and they mention that the meat before you was offered to an idol. What do you do? That's the context of what St. Paul is answering here.

If we want to put this in modern terms, what St. Paul is talking about here is disillusionment. Same thing as when some big celebrity we idolize ends up sinning, or a pastor ends up running away with another woman, or embezzling from the church. They can cause a lot of people to stumble. This verse speaks of those who you have direct influence over. They look up to you as an example to follow. So when you blow it, and at some point you will, they will potentially stumble. But if you intentionally do something you know will cause them to stumble, then you have some culpability for their sinning on that point.

But we can take this too far. Yes, I could write something that causes someone to stumble. As a matter of fact, given the number of people out there, the wide views on many topics, and interpretations of things, I think it will be very hard for any author, Christian or not, to avoid causing someone to stumble. If we wrote to avoid that possibility, then we wouldn't be writing.

And another point goes back to the previous discussion. Some people out there will associate my values with my character's values. Because I have a character that blows someone's head off doesn't mean I personally approve of that action. Yet, some readers will make the assumption that I do. On that specific instance, they may not because of the sin. But let me have a character cussing up a storm, and many a reader will think I must cuss a lot and approve of it.

But the fact that this is a fictional character isn't even in the same realm as me personally have influence over someone. That's true to a degree. If we've built our character up as a model of virtue, then some could stumble over that character approving of something they have believed is sinful. But most people are savvy enough to know that because my character drinks, doesn't mean they should too, especially if they know they have a tendency towards alcoholism. It's simply not on the same level as what St. Paul was talking about, with real people in real life with real influence.

But this is also true: someone who stumbles can't blame anyone but themselves, in most cases. To point the finger and say, "Rick's book made me do this sin," is akin to saying "The Devil made me do it." We can't make excuses for our sins by pointing the finger. God requires us to confess, repent, humble ourselves, and seek His face. Not point fingers like Adam did and say, "That woman you gave me, she caused me to sin!"

That's right. If we take these verses literally, God is the biggest offender because He gave Adam Eve, and she caused him to stumble by sticking the fruit in his hands. But Adam was wrong to use that as an excuse for his sin.

But to get back to the verse, a lot of this revolves around what we approve. So we return to what I said at the beginning. If we show sin, do we show it as something good, something to be desired, that has no negative consequences even if enticing at first? In other words, when your story is taken as a whole, does it show an approval of a sin? That's where we have to focus to apply the above verses. For if our story doesn't in the final analysis show it as a positive or neutral, then we haven't shown that we approve of the sin. Writing about it, even if in graphic detail (if the story requires it), doesn't mean the story approves of it if the proper negative outcome is shown. Consequently, we haven't violated the above verses which first requires that we show that we approve of the activity in question.

In the end, while I share a responsibility to those I have direct influence over to not show approval over something that could cause someone else to stumble, even if I believe and have reason to support that it isn't a sin, I can't be responsible for all the ways a reader might interpret what I write and commit some sin because of it. I believe using these verses to over generalize their application is to take them out of their proper context. There is a big difference between causing someone to stumble, and offending someone. As a matter of fact, if something you've written offends someone, then it didn't cause them to stumble. Otherwise, they'd not be offended.

As I said last time, it isn't where a story starts that makes it Christian, it's where it ends.

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