Will my first post of 2020 be about my new novel? No. I want to talk about something that has been nagging at me regarding Christian characters.
I watched Jamestown over the holidays. If you ever want a “don’t do this” lesson in screenwriting, watch it. The dialogue is gorgeous, pure poetry in motion… but the character motivations are inconsistent, no one’s choices make any sense, and it establishes a villain it does nothing with at the end. He dies. Off-screen. I think. I’m not really sure. It wasn’t clear. If we must watch a man be a total pig for three seasons, ranging from abusing his wife to branding a slave girl’s face, to cutting off a man’s head at his dinner table, we deserve to see his proper downfall. If you spend a lot of time building a villain, you have to pay the viewer back with his defeat. It is only fair.
I’m also not happy about writers taking historical figures and turning them into psychopaths, with no documented evidence to support it. Jamestown isn’t the only show that does this; Turn: Washington’s Spies took a famous Canadian abolitionist and turned him into a sociopath. The Canadians are not amused. If you want to make someone a villain, please just invent a fictional character, that way their descendants aren’t furious.
But what bothers me more is a general lack of understanding Christianity. I can’t expect most secular writers to know anything about it, since their understanding of the motivational drive of their Christian characters is speculative. To put it simply, Christians are trying to shape their sinful will toward an ideal against their nature. Christians often beat themselves up for not being more loving, selfless, forgiving, and generous, because they want so desperately to be like Jesus. They take their beliefs seriously.
People who aren’t “doing this,” don’t “get it” on a deeper level. Just like I “don’t get” what it’s like to be a devout Hindu or Buddhist or Muslim. All I can do is assume their “devout” is similar to mine, in that “I do this because it’s what my faith asks of me.” I do these things, because I have chosen them and want to be other than I am. I am striving for an ideal.
Historically, most of the people at Jamestown were Puritans who came to America to escape religious persecution. Not all of them were decent, moral human beings, because not all people who profess to be Christians act like Christ tells them to. In Jamestown, the Christians, in a stereotypical manner, are backward-thinking hypocrites. Governor Yeardley uses Christianity to justify slavery, as some did. Which is fine with me, because the governor in no other way appears to be a Christian. He uses the Bible as a weapon to get what he wants; it’s not a life-changing influence in his life. That has been true of many “Christians” over the years.
But I can tell the writer doesn’t really “get” what it means to be a Christian, in his mishandling of Temperance, the governor’s wife. She is devout. She carries around and reads her Bible. She defers with wifely obedience to her husband, even though it goes against her nature. She spends time in prayer. But disturbed by her husband’s immoral actions, she seeks the assistance of a local witch in tormenting her husband through nightmares. Temperance hopes this will “turn him against his baser nature,” but it’s inconsistent with her beliefs. A woman as devout as she is does not turn to “witchcraft.” She would never consider it, because her Bible tells her to avoid such things.
I know, because I have been “devout” in my life. I clung hard to my strict Baptist upbringing. It never crossed my mind as a teenager to drink, engage in premarital sex, or tolerate bad behavior. When Christian friends asked me if they should date people from other religious backgrounds, I dutifully told them, “Do not be unequally yoked.” I still believe that, though I have grown more tolerant over the years. I still have never drank, engaged in premarital sex, or dated someone outside my beliefs. These beliefs are ingrained in me. I have, as an adult, evaluated and chosen them anew, but they influence every decision I make, and many of the opinions I hold. They saturate every aspect of my life.
I get Temperance in that way, because I know what it is to be devout.
The only show on television to handle Christianity with any kind of deeper understanding is Call the Midwife. A believer writes it, and you can tell, because she understands the struggles of a godly woman. She gets the bending of one’s will to a higher power. The frustration, the occasional anger at God, even the resentment at having to be different from “the world.” Yet, she also understands the compassion. The love. The boundless joy. Until I saw her characterization of Sister Julienne, I never understood what “show others unconditional love”actually looks like. Julienne is unapologetically, beautifully, authentically a Christian. It is powerful, because it’s real to the woman who wrote it.
They say write what you know. “What you know” is love, loss, heartache, happiness, friendship, family, betrayal and trust. The things that unite us, that all humans have in common regardless of region, culture, or time. They play out well in sci-fi, fantasy, modern drama, and costume dramas, because they are universal truths. Beyond that, becomes more personal and much harder to fake. If you “don’t know,” maybe you ought not “to write,” because it won’t be convincing. It comes out contrived. That goes for writing a Christian as an unbeliever, or an atheist as a believer. Some of the latter’s characterizations of atheists, as someone with atheist friends, makes me cringe. Whenever as a writer, you do not understand something on a deep personal level, get a person who lives it to help you. Otherwise, you are chasing after ghosts… and your writing will show it.