When God Shows Up In Fiction

In “Realism In Fiction,” I pointed out that rarely, if ever, do writers advocating for realism in human characters indicate that there needs to be more realism in our representation of God and His work in the world.

I find this imbalance disquieting. For one thing, I think it takes little talent to put four-letter words in the mouth of a reprehensible character, something realist advocates say is necessary to make such characters believable. Use of language in that way is cheap and easy. In contrast, I think it takes an amazing amount of skill to make the invisible God appear in a novel as a present and active part of the story.

But more importantly, I am troubled that we seem to care more that humans are depicted accurately than we care whether or not God is depicted accurately.

Perhaps the difficulty of the task discourages some writers from trying. After all, if we ask, as C. S. Lewis did for Narnia, how would God show up in a world such as this, we see that He does so through His word, through the preaching of His word, through the Holy Spirit speaking to individuals in ways that are consistent with His word.

I suggest those are the ways that contemporary Christian fiction has shown God since its inception, but these are the very elements that earned Christian stories the “preachiness” label. I tend to think that execution was more at fault than the traditional means by which God relates to His people, but I don’t think I’m going to convince very many people.

Hence, if a novel shows a character listening to a sermon, the cry of “preachiness” is sure to follow. Same if the character reads a passage from the Bible or a friend shares a Biblical truth. In other words, our fear of falling under the condemnation of being preachy has nearly handcuffed Christian authors from showing in a story how God works in our world.

In addition, few writers seem willing to tackle the hard truths — the fictional Jim Elliots or Corrie ten Booms or Joni Eareckson Tadas or George Mullers. It’s easier to say God loves you when no one dies. But the truth is, people do die and God still loves the world.

Even more difficult would be the fictional Ananias and Sapphira who received a death sentence for their conspiratorial sin. How hard to show God’s wrath and judgment. Those aren’t twenty-first century user-friendly images of God. Can we pull off showing the things about God that seem to collide with what we want Him to be like?

When I write posts like this, I am so thankful that I write fantasy, because I have to say, I don’t know how I would show God in this world. I love showing Him in a unique way in fantasy. But in a contemporary story, it’s a whole lot harder, a much greater challenge.

I know a writer who is tackling a difficult story without softening the lens or putting a slight glow over God’s head. I haven’t read her manuscript, so I don’t know how it’s working out, but I commend her efforts.

Do readers want to think deeply about God, to moved past the glad-to-meet-you stage, even past the acquaintance stage? I think there are indications that make me think so, but even if not, I’d still say we need stories that make the attempt. That’s where realism really lies, and it’s a lot more important — eternally important — than whether or not we show a human character slugging back a beer.

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See also “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take”

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Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 6:23 pm  Comments (11)  
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11 Comments

  1. For the record, in HILL OF GREAT DARKNESS, the LORD shows up in a couple different, very real ways. I have been very disappointed in modern sci-fi and decided to change the playing field around a bit. As far as language goes, profanity was alluded to, but never used and sex really plays no part at all…it’s not needed (or wanted as far as this author is concerned) for the story so why use it. As a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ, I don’t desire to read that stuff… therefore I’m not going to write that stuff. To be totally honest, HOGD is about mankind getting to boldly worship God in a place that we’ve never had the opportunity to worship Him before. It’s also a sermon (of sorts) on Deuteronomy 29:29.

  2. It definitely is hard to portray God accurately in fiction, especially with so many misconceptions of God in the world–including, I am sure, some of my own. But I agree that it is important to try.

  3. I try. it’s a tough line to walk when editors require little preaching and yet how do you show God’s glory?

  4. I’m intrigued by you tackling this topic and how adeptly you handled it. You posting makes me give thought to how I’ve handled expressing God’s presence through my memoirs. I believe He’s so tightly woven into the fabric of each story, while sharing my own experiences, that I’ve become the supporting actor/character. As I look back and having read your piece, it’s more evidence that I truly decreased and He increased with every click of the keyboard. Yet, another reason to praise Him from whom all my blessings forever flow. Thanks, Rebecca.

  5. The writer is not always to blame. I know of an author who was asked by her editor to remove the references to God from her manuscript, and when she declined, she was TOLD to do it, stating that the publisher has the final say on the matter.

  6. I’m a writer trying to do exactly what you’ve written about: writing about how God works in our contemporary world through realistic fiction. I really needed to hear this today. Thank you so much for writing this post.

  7. Thanks for all your comments. I appreciate the discussion and feedback. It’s encouraging for me to know that other writers are committed to showing God as He is.

    Michelle, about working with editors — I guess I think there are some things that are non-negotiables, and showing God as He is would be one of mine.

  8. [...] For further discussion, see also “When God Shows Up In Fiction” [...]

  9. [...] earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction,” “When God Shows Up In Fiction,” and “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another [...]

  10. I think part of the issue has to do with the intended audience for the particular book. I am an aspiring author (more aspiring than author right now) who wants to write books about real people and a real God – a God who is active in the world and who interacts with His creation. Unfortunately, there are many in the Christian community who believe that He does so only through His word and not through action. There are those who believe that God is not present unless there are signs and wonders. There are those who would say that what some Christian sects believe is more akin to witchcraft, and others who would say that most Christians have dead faith.

    My point is, who gets to decide what “real” looks like? I know Christians who don’t drink, don’t smoke, wears suits or dresses to Sunday worship, and who don’t have any concept of what it would be like for God to be more than a list of rules and behaviors, but who are absolutely genuine in their faith. I also know Christians who drink, smoke, cuss, and watch rated R movies, but who have prayed for the sick and seen them recover and who are also absolutely genuine in their faith. I’m not saying one group is better, more right, or more spiritual than the other. Both have their strengths and weaknesses. What I am saying is that God, by definition, is going to be reflected most accurately – albeit imperfectly – by His creation. His whole creation. Whatever that looks like.

    Authors have to write about the way God is real to them, or they will come off as disingenuous. They also have to write about people and situations as they see them for exactly the same reasons. Not every Christian book will have the same audience. Some will be geared toward evangelicals, others toward charismatics. Some will be sanitized romance novels, others will be grittier action stories. There will be sci-fi, fantasy and other speculative fiction. There will be mysteries and historical novels. Some will show God blatantly. Some will be more circumspect. There will be books meant mostly for committed Christians, and books for those who are skeptical believers or seeking unbelievers.

    It’s all OK. There is a whole world to reach and Christian fiction is one of the tools that will help reach it. As Christians and writers we should be supporting one another and helping each other find the right audience for the books we want to write. I guarantee there is an audience for all of it and no one type of writing is going to be the perfect fit for every reader.

    Sorry to have written such a long comment. I am just not sure I see the need for the controversy.

  11. Amy, thanks for stopping by and for your comment (and for the record, I’m not at all adverse to long comments, having been a creator of a good many myself. ;-) )

    I’m not sure I would consider this subject a controversy. I think I’m not debating that someone is wrong in their approach as much as I am trying to point out an incongruity. If we believe that fiction should tell the truth, I think Christians should be most interested in seeing stories that tell the truth about God.

    I don’t know how much Christian fiction you read, Amy, but I’ll tell you, there are too many books going out that do not tell the truth about God.

    But you asked, in essence, who’s truth? I’d have to answer, God’s truth. Our stories should be consistent with how God reveals Himself, not what I think about Him. I might think He will give me a pony tomorrow and the winning lotto ticket the next day. What does it matter that I think these things? An image of God as genie granting my wishes doesn’t mean that’s who He is.

    I agree with what you said about different books and different target markets. But along those lines, I’m wondering why so many Christian novels are conversion stories. It’s as if all we want is stories about meeting God, not living with Him day after day.

    Romances are good and fun and hopeful. Conversion stories are too. But is God nothing more than the One who loves and forgives? As I understand those who want “realism” in Christian fiction, they believe the abundance of romance leaves much of the human experience untapped. In the same way (but with no one apparently advocating for a change) I believe stories that do little more than showing a character meeting Christ, leave much of our relationship with God untapped.

    Becky


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