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”