Posted in theology

Why does mankind resist certain fictional narratives?

By Elizabeth Prata

Philosophers are a funny breed. They have great thoughts and important discussions and some of them, even, contribute to the world in useful ways.

For the most part though, philosophers are to be pitied, for they pursue wisdom apart from God’s word. This is a vain pursuit.

Colossians 2:8 says, “See to it that there is no one who takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception in accordance with human tradition, in accordance with the elementary principles of the world, rather than in accordance with Christ.”

The word philosophy here means, according to Strong’s Concordance,

5835/philosophía (“philosophy”) in Col 2:8 refers to secular philosophy – elevating human wisdom over the wisdom of God. Such 5385 (philosophía) is loving one’s own thoughts (secular wisdomat the expense of God’s Word (true wisdom).

And that is exactly what most philosophers do.

I came across a new sub-sub genre of philosophy the other month. It’s the study of “imaginative resistance.”

Our imagination will accept a book plot that involves flying cars or talking cats or aliens from other worlds readily enough. The problem is not with imagination. The problem (or ‘puzzle’ as philosophers state it) comes in when an author writes a fictional narrative that includes elements we deem morally reprehensible. Our imagination resists it. We won’t go there as a reader or movie watcher.

Morally deviant narratives are almost universally resisted by readers or viewers. Factually deviant fiction is no problem. We suspend disbelief to allow our imagination to go along with warp speed or giant guardian talking trees and closets that lead to another world. Yet morally deviant fiction is a huge problem. We reject infanticide and slavery as being deemed ‘good’. The evil villain who gets away with it doesn’t sell as many books as the one who receives justice in the end. People won’t consume it. Why this happens is a puzzle to philosophers. This paper explains further:

When engaging with a work of fiction we readily imagine all sorts of things, many of which depart from the world as we know it. Moreover, we tend have no trouble imagining such factually deviant propositions; our knowledge that, e.g., there are no such things as hobbits does not get in the way of our imagining the world described by Tolkien. Matters are different, however, when we are asked to imagine morally deviant propositions. If told: “Giselda gave birth to her fourth child,” we go along with the author.  But if told, “In killing her baby, Giselda did the right thing; after all, it was a girl,” we tend to resist. How to explain this asymmetry has come to be known as the puzzle of imaginative resistance”. Source

This philosophy blogger said, “Without the slightest resistance, we accept invitations to imagine scenarios that contradict the known laws of nature or that rewrite some large or small fragment of the history of the world.”

Our imagination is inhibited by very few restraints, as confirmed by the fact that fiction has been alive and well since almost the dawn of history. However there IS a constraint upon imagination, there are some things our mind does resist treading toward and over a certain line. And that this is a generality that seems true across cultures and times, for almost the whole of humankind, indeed must be a puzzle to those who do not know the Lord.

For example, speaking of rewritten history, the television series “The Man in the High Castle” was an extremely well done and by the way, successful show that revised history to spin out what America would be like if we had lost to the German Nazis in WWII. It was an imaginative puzzle of interesting ramifications and scenarios that the show’s writers dealt with in ingenious ways. The Nazis were repugnant and their regime was a horror. Still, though, the author could imagine a world run by Nazis, and readers and TV watchers did also, but … we don’t normally accept imagining a world where the adulteress wins.

Famously, the 1987 movie Fatal Attraction with Glenn Close, Michael Douglas and Anne Archer had an ending that we never got to see. The plot centered on Michael Douglas as Dan, who was a (supposedly) happily married man and his weekend-long sexual encounter with a woman he’d just met. When the weekend was over he assumed the relationship would end, too, but the woman, (Glenn Close, playing Alex) became dangerously unstable and refused to let go. She performed increasingly dangerous intrusions into the family, at one point, boiling the family’s pet bunny. This is where we get the term “bunny boiler.” The climax came when she appeared in the married couple’s bathroom and tried to kill the wife (Anne Archer). Michael Douglas’ character drowned Alex in the tub, but she wasn’t dead and popped back up, but by then Anne Archer’s character was ready with a gun and shot Alex dead. Cue the end.

Audiences loved that ending. It was satisfying. Especially because 35 years ago, the woman was much more looked upon as the person more in the wrong in any adulterous affair. That she got what was coming was fulfilling to the audience. But that was not the ending the screenwriter put on the page at first.

Originally, the Alex character slits her own throat and frames the Michael Douglas character. She commits suicide and dies a lonely death in her bathroom. This did not please audiences at all, who clamored for a more theatrically potent and a more morally just ending.

Director Adrian Lyne reminisced, “Somebody said that the only innocent party in the movie is Beth, so it had a certain logic that [Alex’s death] would come from her,” he says of how he approached Archer’s revised role.”

Imaginative resistance refers to the way readers are willing to give consent to all sorts of implausible things in the context of a fiction, but become uneasy when asked to imagine that something they consider morally or ethically reprehensible is good. Source

Texts in quarantine: Karl Barth, biblical interpretation and imaginative resistance | Scottish Journal of Theology | Cambridge Core

That this resistance is a puzzle to philosophers is not puzzling to Christians. God has instilled in every person’s soul a moral compass, vestigial knowledge of the Ten Commandments impressed into the heart, and a conscience.

William Fenner, English Puritan, wrote, There is in every man a conscience: “their conscience…bearing witness.” There was a conscience in the scribes and Pharisees: “being convicted by their own conscience” (Joh 8:9). There is a conscience in good men, as in Paul: “our rejoicing is this, the testimony of our conscience” (2Co 1:12). There is a conscience in wicked men: “their mind and conscience is defiled” (Ti 1:15). As it is impossible the fire should be without heat, so it is impossible that any man should be without a conscience. 

We all have one. And why is that? Do worms have a conscience? Do mice have a conscience? Do butterflies have a conscience? No. Only humans have a conscience, and this mental activity inside us that accuses or excuses did not “evolve”.

AW Pink wrote, “CONSCIENCE is the faculty of the soul that enables us to perceive of conduct in reference to right and wrong, the inward principle that decides upon the lawfulness or unlawfulness of our desires and deeds. Conscience has well been termed the moral sense because it corresponds to those physical faculties whereby we have communion with the outward world, namely, the five senses of sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. Man has an ethical instinct, a faculty or moral sensibility informing and impressing him.“

We suspend disbelief, we can imagine illogic, we can set aside physical laws, but for “some reason” we humans almost universally cannot go beyond some aspects of moral imagination. Why? I put it to you that it is because we have an innate sense of the line that is drawn of ethics, morals, and values as humans, and that glimmers of the knowledge of our accountability to God restrains us. The Common Grace of the Holy Spirit in His restraining activity enacts this.

The Greek word for conscience appears in the New Testament 31 times, writes RC Sproul. Its use is two-fold, it accuses as well as excuses. “When we sin, the conscience is troubled. It accuses us. The conscience is the tool that God the Holy Spirit uses to convict us, bring us to repentance, and to receive the healing of forgiveness that flows from the gospel,” he said in “How Can I Develop a Christian Conscience?“.

How is the conscience informed? God’s word informing God’s principles to the person’s mind. How is the conscience breached? By constant sin unaddressed, which hardens the mind and dissociates the soul.

The conscience excuses as well as accuses. We are living in a time when that moral line of resisting moral deviance in fiction, as well as resisting it in real life in all arenas, is rapidly evaporating. Sproul continues,

“It’s interesting that we can always find someone who will give an articulate and persuasive defense for the ethical legitimacy of some of the activities that God has judged to be an outrage to Him. As humans, our ability to defend ourselves from moral culpability is quite developed and nuanced. We become a culture in trouble when we begin to call evil good an good evil.”

What happens when the puzzle of why humans resist going over certain morally deviant lines erodes to the point when anything and everything is good, or at least, should be tolerated? It is prophesied that the cycle of evil over human history will always devolve to the point of calling evil good and good, evil, says Isaiah 5:20.

We have after-birth abortion which is just another name for infanticide, drag shows to children, homosexual marriage, torture and defacing of children in pursuit of another identity, riots that are called peaceful and peaceful protests that are called riots, and much more and worse. We have this now. What do you think will happen when the Spirit ceases His restraining hand and like the line of children playing tug of war, fall down, all moral restraint collapses and falls all at once?

GotQuestions mulls this over:

Of course, the Spirit works through believers to accomplish this. The church, indwelt by the Spirit of God, has always been part of what holds society back from the swelling tide of lawless living. At some point, Paul says, the Spirit will “step aside” from His restraining work, allowing sin to have dominion over mankind. Second Thessalonians 2:7 can be literally rendered, “The secret of lawlessness is already working, only it cannot be revealed until he who now withholds disappears from the midst.” We believe this “disappearing from the midst” will happen at the time the church leaves the earth at the rapture. The Holy Spirit will still be present in the earth, of course, but He will be taken out of the way in the sense that His unique sin-restraining ministry—through God’s people—will be removed (see Genesis 6:3). Source

Can you imagine? Literal hell will break loose on earth.

Philosophy is all well and good for those who stumble in the dark. God’s word says of philosophy,

We also speak these things, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. (1 Corinthians 2:13).

Timothy, protect what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly, empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called “knowledge”— (1 Timothy 6:20).

It is admittedly a distressing state to sit in a seat of light and truth and knowledge, and watch philosophers and ethicists and sociologists the unsaved elites grapple with these issues of morals and conscience. It’s worse to see these people informing our leaders in government based on these horrific principles. The Lord in His wisdom bestowed true knowledge to His people, yet the unsaved stumble in the dark and fall into a pit. O, the Day when He comes to show all who He is and that the Light is pure and Holy will be too late for many.

For the Christian in these times, protect your conscience. It is valuable and is the guiding light that informs our mind of sin, grows us in accusing us of sin, which drives us to the Father in repentance. Be a believer, not a philosopher.

Further Resources

The Conscience Revisited, Grace To You article

Everyone Has a Conscience, William Fenner (1600-1640)

Suppressing the Truth and Searing the Conscience, The End Time

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Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.

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