Fantasy Friday – Truth In Fiction

Over the past couple days, there’s been a small discussion over at author and friend Mike Duran’s site in response to an article I wrote here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction entitled “Realism In Fiction.” The central issue is whether or not authors have the same burden to be truthful about God as about Mankind.

In contrast, I recently read an article by Travis Prinzi over at the Rabbit Room about fantasy, particularly the fantasy tradition created by five writers who might be considered at the top of the genre.

In Travis’s article, he used the word “truth” nineteen times. Here are a few samples:

  • George MacDonald wrote that fairy tales are “new embodiments of old truth.”
  • G.K. Chesteron believed that “the world is wild,” and that the philosophy of the fairy tale was far closer to truth than “realism.”
  • Tolkien argued that in “escaping” to the world of Faerie, we often encounter truth in a more potent way than in non-fiction or in works of “realistic” fiction.
  • C.S. Lewis believed that in fairy tales, our imaginations allow us to grasp important truth about spiritual reality that our intellect alone, through reason and propositions, cannot fathom.
  • Madeleine L’Engle … criticized the idea that the “real world” was only found in “instructive books,” and wrote that “The world of fairy tale, fantasy, myth…is interested not in limited laboratory proofs but in truth.”

I’m not surprised by the marriage of truth and fantasy literature. I’ve long stated that the fantasy genre is best equipped to deal with spiritual realities. What surprises me most is that some aspiring Christian writers apparently find spiritual truth — specifically truth about God — so hard to pin down.

One commenter, for example, said

God by definition defies classification. You can’t pin Him down like a bug on a board.

Who is to say He isn’t portrayed realistically?

In those lines I hear an echo of Pilate’s question to Christ, “What is truth?”

Who God is cannot be known completely by any human being, but what God has said about Himself most certainly can be known. Fantasy allows us to explore His self-revelation and what that means to us.

Shouldn’t realistic fiction take up the mantle as well and strive to faithfully show God, not in the way a theology treatise would, but the way He works and acts in the real world?

So often art is defined using the terms “beauty” and “truth.” I guess I’m wondering what kind of art we Christians will create if we don’t pursue truth about God.

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15 Comments

  1. Had to smile when I read your post just after viewing a photo of this

    http://www.lifeslittlemysteries.com/hydrothermal-worm-1867/

    Now how is that for “imagination”

    Doesn’t God’s creation just tickle you sometimes?

  2. Becky,

    This has been an interesting discussion, both here and on Mike’s blog, but I’m still missing one thing.

    What do you want to see?

    I guess I’m looking for some concrete examples of how you think Christian fiction, real-world or fantasy, should portray God, or better yet, some examples that you feel miss the mark. Everyone seems to agree there’s room for improvement in this area, but I’d like to get your take on precisely *how* we can do better.

    I’m not getting the sense from the folks advocating a grittier portrayal of human characters that they’re attempting in any sense to slight or neglect a truthful depiction of how God works in the real world–I think that’s ultimately what they’re aiming at, but they’re pressing issues like profanity, violence, and sexuality because it’s where they’re getting the pushback from readers, critics, and publishers. I don’t think many people are taking heat because they’ve provided a picture of God that’s too accurate.

  3. Fred, I really agree with your point. As one who argues for grittier depictions of life in Christian fiction, I do so as a quest for Truth, not as an avoidance of it. Depicting God in fiction, as I see it, requires a specificity that can actually stilt our storytelling. I mean, are we really wanting to dissect our novels with the scalpel of Scripture? We Christians have the luxury of looking back on thousands of years of history and theological debate. Even so, none of us know Him or His ways perfectly. So how can any one story actually capture an issue as vast as… God? Snippets? OK. Snapshots? Maybe. Glimpses. Possibly. But an accurate depiction? We look through a mirror dimply. So why must our stories be subject to theological specificity? Furthermore, apart from actually showing God or explaining His actions in a novel, we are forced to portray His doings through sinful characters. Which contains doctrinal perils. After all, no one Bible character accurately depicts God. So I’m kind of with Fred, here. Some examples of a novel that accurately depicts God would be helpful. Thanks, Becky!

  4. Wow, Sue! That’s amazing. I saw a mag once with pictures of sea life from the deepest part of the ocean. What amazing creatures. I tapped into those to help me create some of the “monsters” in my fantasy. What is real, from God’s mind, is so beyond what we can come up with on our own!

    Becky

  5. I’m not getting the sense from the folks advocating a grittier portrayal of human characters that they’re attempting in any sense to slight or neglect a truthful depiction of how God works in the real world–I think that’s ultimately what they’re aiming at

    Fred, in various discussions about Christian fiction, inevitably someone brings up a list of what’s allowable and what’s not. Without a doubt much of Christian fiction in the past and a good bit still being published seems concerned with issues of what the characters do or don’t do regarding externals.

    To counter this, a number of authors are “advocating for gritter portrayals” as if that is the answer. Isn’t the real problem that people think a relationship with God hinges on a list of behaviors? Will showing characters not adhering to that list give a more accurate picture of God and the relationship He desires to have with us?

    Fred and Mike, as far as concrete examples are concerned, I think fantasy is the best at this, which is one reason I’m happy I write fantasy. C. S. Lewis was the master — Aslan, of course, but he also did a great job bringing to the forefront who God is in his space trilogy and in Till We Have Faces.

    I mentioned in my first comment on your post, Mike, that after writing “Realism In Fiction” (or because of it), I asked some of the same questions you asked which I dealt with in another handful of posts.

    Let me see if I can pull from them to answer some of your questions here: “I mean, are we really wanting to dissect our novels with the scalpel of Scripture?” We’re the only ones who can tell the truth about God, Mike. This is the Christian’s distinctive.

    Only Christians can include God in a story and have Him appear as He really is. Non-Christians can’t because they don’t know Him. Of course we Christians don’t know all there is to know about God, and our stories shouldn’t lead people to believe that we have Him tamed. (From “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take”).

    “So how can any one story actually capture an issue as vast as… God? Snippets? OK. Snapshots? Maybe. Glimpses. Possibly. But an accurate depiction?”

    Of course we can’t show all of God, but neither can we show all of any of our characters. That doesn’t stop us from trying to be truthful about what we do show, though, does it? In the same way, I think it’s paramount that we show the truth about God in whatever aspects we wish to address. However, if all we show, over and over, is one particular trait (most commonly today, this is love) we have an imbalance that’s as good as a lie.

    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. (From “When God Shows Up In Fiction”).

    “Furthermore, apart from actually showing God or explaining His actions in a novel, we are forced to portray His doings through sinful characters. Which contains doctrinal perils. After all, no one Bible character accurately depicts God.”

    We fantasy writers have an advantage here, but I addressed the problem for contemporary writers:

    A Christian character, who’s faith has been established, steps up and does something out of step with what society expects. And all hell breaks lose. Literally. Temptations come his way. Criticism.

    Think Joseph rejecting Potiphar’s wife. Clearly he was acting in a way that was contrary to what Mrs. Potiphar expected. And probably to what most of Egyptian society would have expected …

    I don’t think the Apostle Paul is the Bible figure most people identify with. It’s Peter because he was just as apt to do the wrong thing as to do the right.

    So maybe we take a Peter and show him giving his last dime to get his high school buddy set up in an apartment — the buddy who just got out of jail for molesting his cousin when he was still a minor. Or some other self-sacrificial thing that’s out of step with society. (From “Showing God In Fiction Via The Protagonist”)

    Sorry this is so long. It’s a huge topic so I don’t know how to give quick answers.

    Becky

  6. “To counter this, a number of authors are “advocating for gritter portrayals” as if that is the answer. Isn’t the real problem that people think a relationship with God hinges on a list of behaviors? Will showing characters not adhering to that list give a more accurate picture of God and the relationship He desires to have with us?”

    Ah, but stories are all about *showing,* and behaviors are how we show what’s going on inside our characters without resorting to endless exposition.

    “However, if all we show, over and over, is one particular trait (most commonly today, this is love) we have an imbalance that’s as good as a lie.”

    Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Showing an imbalanced view of God is like fielding a cast of 2-dimensional, cardboard characters. In a way, I think you’re arguing here for a “grittier” portrayal of God that talks about justice and sacrifice as well as love and forgiveness, and I like your examples. I’m not terribly afraid of characters falling into doctrinal pitfalls, because we do this ourselves daily. That’s real life, as is the recognizing and learning and recovery. It makes for some great post-game discussions, too, where I think readers and authors can work some of this out more productively.

    Again, I think it isn’t coming out in the debates so much not because the authors don’t think it’s important, but because they’re not getting hammered for it. When was the last time somebody got a review that faulted the author for portraying nothing but God’s love?

  7. Becky, I enjoyed Sue’s example of God’s fantastic sense of reality and fun, and I thought your examples were pertinent to our topic, but I especially enjoyed a brush-by reference to what I think is the core issue here–and I am sorry if it has already become canned hash by now: whether it is relevant and appropriate to set and keep standards for our writing. I think you’re right–if we don’t, who will, or can? God is the Source for all Goodness and Righteousness, even if it initially makes us gag! (Haven’t you always hated what sinful man required God to write about in the “ugly” passages, such as the gruesome story in Judges 19 of the concubine who ran away? Obviously, In Righteousness, I am speaking here of the fact that God did not allow this evil to continue)

    Sometimes, God speaks to us in ways that make us hate sin, and sometimes in ways that make us love Him. I think each believer in God has an innate mandate to be true to God’s Nature, because that is our Nature, if only in the formation stage.

    So how do we do that? What does it look like?

    I think we do it by becoming as close to God as we can; getting over our own peculiar grievances toward Him, so we are free to help others over the Stumblingblock that Jesus Is, to become our Cornerstone. We do that and formulate what we write, based on God’s answers to our prayers for help and wisdom.

    Then, what it looks like can never be a cookie cutter cut-out of someone else’s life-extension. It is a unique cuneiform on the page of destiny, written with the Finger of God.

    When we make God our Editor-in-Chief, I think many wonderful things will transpire, not the least of them, something I call the Divine Ambiguity, which I dubbed some of my poetry at the time. I found that I would write one thing, intending one thing, but God intended more, with what I wrote. I can’t recall which poems they were, right now, but I remember that there was a an unexplained streak of poetry that could be read at least two ways, with different meanings, both true! That same poetry may have even perished in floods or fires by now, but the God Who prompted this remains forever the same.

    I hope I’ve piqued your interest and that I will one day read some awe-inspiring stuff!

  8. Great post, Becky. Good stuff for me to keep in mind for my Camp NaNoWriMo entry.

    Fred – I think you will find Frank Peretti, if you haven’t already read him, to be a good Christian author that gives a grittier portrayal of Christianity. His book “House” is an excellent read, and definitely gets deep down into the subject of moral absolutes and God with agnostic characters. His books(I’ve read two so far – should desperately Piercing the Darkness) show characters dealing with darkness. In “This Present Darkness”, the characters have to deal with New Agers led by demons who possess the small town in the book. In “House”, it’s agnostic characters who are dealing with a psychopathic murderer who wants them all dead, getting them to talk about God and evil.

    If you ask me, I think that’s a GRITTY portrayal of Christianity

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  11. Fred, you said

    Ah, but stories are all about *showing,* and behaviors are how we show what’s going on inside our characters without resorting to endless exposition.

    Are you suggesting that the only way we can show God is by showing characters that don’t smoke or chew or … you know, the girl thing? How do we show a human character’s inner life? Might we not use the same methods when we show God?

    Pravda Veritas is right, I think, about Frank Peretti (though I haven’t read House). He wrote novels that showed the invisible — as he imagined it. Was what he wrote about the spirit world “real”? In the same way that Aslan is a “real” depiction of God.

    In many ways, I think Peretti might have approached his stories the way Lewis did. He started with demons and angels being real and apparently asked, what would the world look like if we could see the warfare that’s going on in the spirit world?

    In a way, I think you’re arguing here for a “grittier” portrayal of God that talks about justice and sacrifice as well as love and forgiveness

    I think you could phrase it like that, yes.

    I think it isn’t coming out in the debates so much not because the authors don’t think it’s important, but because they’re not getting hammered for it. When was the last time somebody got a review that faulted the author for portraying nothing but God’s love?

    I’ll disagree on this one. When was the last time you read a novel about God’s justice or jealousy or wrath? I don’t think we’re writing them. So of course no one is “hammering” them. We have this idea that we need to clean up God’s image, make him somehow more acceptable to the watching world. Why?

    I actually think an author would have a hard time finding a publisher — Christian or general market — for that kind of story, I doubt if Milton would be published today. Or Dante. Not that I think their depiction of God was so “right,” but they did say something about Him that is truthful — something I don’t see coming through in contemporary fiction.

    It makes for some great post-game discussions, too, where I think readers and authors can work some of this out more productively.

    That’s what I think would be great. And actually that happened with Lewis and Tolkien. Thus we have their letters and essays that discussed their work. Today, of course, it would happen on blogs and Facebook. :-D

    Becky

  12. Becky, I love all the writers you mention and I particularly like Madeline L’Engle ‘s A Wrinkle in time. Her view of the deadly ordered world where all was dictated says so much about evil. Of course, Aslan is easy to relate to as a Christ figure; I remember our seven year old boy praying for Aslan because he was like Jesus. after reading to him. The innocence of Tolkien’s heroes is also appealing and holds one.
    I’m not led to writing fantasy but I do see the value of it and fairy tales.
    This blog is thoughtful and leads to deeper thoughts. Thanks, Jane

  13. Becky: “Are you suggesting that the only way we can show God is by showing characters that don’t smoke or chew or … you know, the girl thing? How do we show a human character’s inner life? Might we not use the same methods when we show God?”

    …or mix with those who do? :) I’m not suggesting that at all. I’m saying you can’t fault an author for showing a flawed character wrestling with God and displaying their own fallen-ness. These writers are frustrated that they’re not allowed to write about people acting the way people do. By the same token, in a Christian story, I’d expect to see God’s justice and judgment (and mercy) as they experience the consequences of those actions. We see the hand of God in His dealing with people’s hearts and drawing them to Himself, often through the actions of other people. If we see someone transformed, or at least begin to change for the better, I can’t interpret that as anything else than God at work, even if He never makes an appearance, says a word, or is credited by anybody. Who else could it be?

    Becky: “I’ll disagree on this one. When was the last time you read a novel about God’s justice or jealousy or wrath? I don’t think we’re writing them.”

    And I’d have to disagree right back at’cha…almost all the dystopian, pre/post apocalyptic stuff, and as has been mentioned, many of Frank Peretti’s books. Quite a few folks on the secular side take up that theme: Stephen King’s The Stand, Greg Bear’s The Forge of God, Ted Chiang’s Hell is the Absence of God are some examples. I wouldn’t call the last three Christian stories, but they illustrate that you can talk about the wrath of God without becoming the literary equivalent of poison oak.

    I still think the real issue here is the question of balance in the portrayal of God, though I’m not going to get too worried about the community doing a Rob Bell en masse unless we see a big drop in the production of end-times novels.

  14. Jane, thanks so much for your feedback — about this post and the blog in general. You made my day! :-D

    It’s also nice to hear someone not writing speculative fiction weigh in on what you see in the genre. Thanks for taking the time.

    Becky

  15. I’m saying you can’t fault an author for showing a flawed character wrestling with God and displaying their own fallen-ness. These writers are frustrated that they’re not allowed to write about people acting the way people do

    I get that, Fred. My point is, the frustration some exhibit seems out of proportion to any frustration that God is also equally not shown in all His holiness. We seem fine to let characters make accusations against God — that He isn’t good or powerful enough or interested or caring. Who’s standing up and saying, Above all we need to tell the truth about God?

    We see the hand of God in His dealing with people’s hearts and drawing them to Himself, often through the actions of other people.

    But that’s so often where the story stops, which is my point. Over and over, this is the one aspect of God we see in Christian fiction. He is a God who loves and draws us to Himself, but His love and pursuit of us is not the totality of His personhood or work.

    Quite a few folks on the secular side take up that theme

    You made my point, Fred. Secular folks, who do not know God and cannot therefore tell the truth about Him are writing about the “gritty” side of God. How can we let that go?

    I still think the real issue here is the question of balance in the portrayal of God, though I’m not going to get too worried about the community doing a Rob Bell en masse unless we see a big drop in the production of end-times novels.

    I’m not so worried about “Rob Bell en masse.” Maybe The Shack re-do, though. :lol:

    Nor am I advocating for more end-time stories. I think it’s possible to show God in fiction, as He is, even in contemporary fiction, without speculative elements. It’s what you said about God working through His people — in the case of fiction, through the characters. Mind you, I’m speaking from what I believe is possible and Christian writers should attempt. I haven’t done such work myself, so I’m speaking from theory.

    Thanks so much for the interesting discussion.

    Becky


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