What Is Holiness?

As a Christian who writes and publishes, rather than a “Christian writer”, I’ve been engaging in the question of holiness in art for years now. To be honest, I’m a little tired of the discussion because there’s simply no clarity–no accepted definitions for anything. This is a general problem for all of us in a postmodern society, but more on that in a bit. Years ago, I befriended a community of fellow speculative fiction writers, most of whom I found at Mike Duran’s. Throughout the years, the topic of holiness vs honesty in art has been beaten to death over there. Here is one example (that happens to conveniently be showing up in his “most popular posts” list at the sidebar): Why Christians Can’t Agree About Christian Fiction.

In this conveniently accessible post of Mike’s, he divides Christians into two camps: the Holiness Camp and the Honesty Camp. The Holiness Camp will, ostensibly, produce clean literature complete with appropriate moral messages. Those in the Honesty Camp are, by contrast, a group of artist types who believe they are more intellectual than the Holiness types. I have one crucial question to ask: Why is Holiness not the light that reveals what Honesty is? I will reiterate: If you are a Christian, why is Holiness not the beacon you use to determine Honesty?

Perhaps the problem is with the definition of Holiness. Perhaps those in the Honesty Camp are anything but honest about what Holiness is. Is Holiness defined as following a set of man-made rules? Please answer that question for me. Is it? Did Jesus himself violate Holiness by refusing to follow man-made rules? Did he? One commenter on the article linked above makes an argument so oft-repeated it nauseates me: The Pharisees loved the Law more than they loved other people (and presumably God) and that was their error; by extension, Jesus loved people more than he loved Jewish Law and constantly broke the laws to reach people (this commenter goes on to demonstrate how Jesus broke laws by speaking to the woman at the well). Let’s extract the truth from this oft-repeated nonsense. The Pharisees didn’t love God; that is true. They didn’t love God enough to love God’s laws above their own set of rules. The Pharisees were following their own laws and deeming themselves righteous for doing so. Jesus didn’t ever break his Father’s laws. If he had done so, he wouldn’t have been the spotless lamb. He would have been guilty before God and in need of redemption just as the repentant thief who died by his side was.

Do you want honesty? You need a new definition of Holiness. You don’t know what Holiness is. If you knew, you wouldn’t insist on continuing this argument.* Thank God our salvation doesn’t require a perfect understanding, or we’d all be sunk–especially in these postmodernist days when anything means nothing or everything depending on the day and the popular mode of literary criticism.

For most of my life, I’ve been deeply skeptical of postmodern art, and I’ll tell you why. I don’t mind pushing the boundaries of traditional forms. I don’t mind breathing new life into word and image and dance. But what has always bothered me about postmodernism is not the desire to bring something new to art, but the desire to completely destroy all traditions from the past and rebuild art and religion from a postmodern worldview–a world without definition such that each individual can create one for himself. Don’t you realize how modern man has robbed himself of vital foundations? Don’t you see that in art, in poetry, in dance?

Don’t you see how that foundation is missing in religion, as well? We literally have no foundation to stand on. When we accept that there is a dichotomy between Holiness and Honesty, we admit we no longer have a foundation. It didn’t used to be this way. It didn’t. Holiness and Honesty are intertwined concepts. They inform each other. They tell us what state man is in, and what state man should be reaching toward. One cannot exist without the other, not honestly anyway.

*This is a general “you”. I’m not picking on YOU.

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  2. Jill, I’ve participated in many debates on a lot of subjects–debating truth is part of my nature, because truth matters enormously to me. (Recently I’ve done a lot of debating over the existence and nature of God, the role of science, the value of history, the nature of disbelief, and other topics.)

    So it surprises me a bit to hear there have been major debates over the topic of holiness versus honesty. I’ve never partaken in such a verbal conflict that I recall, though I was vaguely aware that disagreements existed along these lines.

    As someone who is rather…er…OBSESSED with truth, I can’t see how anyone could ever say that holiness can exist without honesty. Though perhaps that’s my personal bias showing.

    The issue here seems to stem from how we as Christians who are artists are to portray especially the unbelieving world. Do we show them cursing, killing, and fornicating (with accurate descriptions of these activities)? Or do we avoid portraying the unbelieving world or only show a small bit about the world, in order to show an idealized version of how Christians SHOULD behave? With what I said about truth, you might think I’d favor the former, but I think the latter has merit under certain circumstances. To deliberately attempt to show perfection in a work of art informs the debate concerning what perfection is and how it is humans really ought to ideally behave.

    I have favored writing stories that feature believers of various stripes but show them with real weaknesses and failures. Perhaps that is not enough.

    Perhaps what is called for is a higher degree of honesty. Perhaps at least in some works it would be worthwhile to show people in the world as lying, cursing, corrupt fornicators (with accurate descriptions of the above), but to also show them as hopelessly lost and needing salvation. And then show Christian believers as lying, lusting, and judgmentally angry people failing to avail themselves of the full fruits of the salvation they already have.

    Would that not honor God every bit as much as deliberately idealizing good behavior for didactic purposes? More honesty, not less–showing how much holiness is NEEDED?

  3. “[D]eliberately idealizing good behavior for didactic purposes” is neither holy nor honest. It demonstrates a human agenda for social control, and that is all.

    1. Sorry, I disagree. The opposite applies as well–writing a society that is as bad (or dystopian) as one can imagine serves the purpose of comparing reality to the story world of as-bad-as-one-can-conceive. Doing so allows one to gauge how reality really compares and can be a great teaching point. As in, “You think it’s bad now–imagine this” or “See these little trends happening how–this is where they can lead.”

      The same can be done with characters who are ideally good, they can model the maximum of goodness and show how people fall short of it. This is fiction after all. It is not dishonest to go to extremes in fiction, as long as people aren’t confusing the fictional world with reality. So this technique is ESPECIALLY appropriate in speculative fiction, since people are usually pretty clear that science fiction, fantasy, and horror are not reality…(I would say at times it’s appropriate–I would not say it is always).

      1. I suspect it would depend on the story. I think the movie Pleasantville did that. But the good was masking the bad in that story.

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