But for God to convict him of this crime, he didn’t storm in with a proclamation of wrath. Instead, through the prophet Nathan, he used the covertness of Story.
Nathan’s parable is well-known, but it’s worth quoting at length:
“There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds, but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. And he brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children. It used to eat of his morsel and drink from his cup and lie in his arms, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was unwilling to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the guest who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb and prepared it for the man who had come to him”2 Sam. 12:1b-4
If Nathan were to confront the sin directly, it would have only added to the problem of David’s self-preservation, which had been his chief priority since the sin’s committal (11:6-24). In other words, the story couldn’t have been “on the nose,” with a plot involving murder or sexual sin, for that would have broken the spell. God simply used a different angle to get at the same type of sin: the abuse of power.
The fictional tale was catered specifically to David, who, being a king, was responsible for judicial verdicts. He would have understandably taken it as just another exercise of justice.
Still, despite its specificity, we can still glean the relevant technique Nathan used. The key is empathy, for when David identified with the victim of the story (David himself being a former shepherd; 2 Sam. 7:8), he felt the brunt of greed and lust–little did he know that it was his own greed and lust!
“Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man, and he said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”2 Samuel 12:5
David’s emotional response to injustice allowed Nathan to turn the tables (“You are the man!”) because David walked into a trap of his own making. David could not retreat to disinterested judgment once he placed his own moral cards on the table. To put it differently, when David felt the impact of greed and lust via empathizing with the poor man, he was then vulnerable enough to see his own villainy.
Becoming the Villain
The contemporary trend of antiheroes and villains, fictional or not, gives an opportunity for the negative side of the gospel (Rom. 3:23) to speak. For we are all the “villains” in God’s story (Rom. 5:8, 10; Eph. 2:1-3), and we must see our own sin in light of God’s goodness (note how David admitted that his sin was against God; 2 Sam. 12:13; Psa. 51:4) before we can move from ignorance to contrition. We cease to be passive spectators when we’re forced to confront the villainy within ourselves, and once we do, we see the “Good News” as it really is.
That’s why stories with negative character arcs are necessary; they compel us to see how easy it is to become the villain. Specifically, well-written stories invite us to follow an apparently good character pursuing an apparently good goal until he inevitably reaches villainy by overemphasizing one good over others. David, for example, overemphasized personal sexual fulfillment, perhaps by overindulging his God-given lordship, at the expense of God’s laws of fidelity.
While engaging with negative-arc stories, our mirror neurons allow us to affix ourselves to the villainous characters. We are affected without consciously knowing why. While we may identify with fallen characters, it will take intentionality to break through to the Truth lurking within.
Yes, it’s easy to scoff at the prospect of self-reflection. “Entertainment” analyzed ceases to be entertaining for many of us. But choosing ignorance doesn’t change the fact that stories affect us. If we deny this, we become no different than David, who allowed ignorance to blind him to his own villainy.
We may not have our own personal “Prophet Nathan” to tell us customized stories to convict us of sin, but we do have the Holy Spirit (John 16:8; Rom. 8:26), whose ministry reaches to the deepest ignorance. With that in mind, it’s wise to be intentional about the narratives we enjoy. As the Reel World Theology slogan aptly puts it: “Entertainment is not mindless.”
It all starts with some simple questions, such as the following:
“What would I do in this character’s situation?”
“What am I prone to value too much?”
“Could I become the villain?”
“Am I already a villain?”
And especially, “What does Grace mean for the villain?”