Thinking Out Loud – Theology in Fiction

Another blog tour ended. As much fun as I have during a blog tour, I admit it takes time to visit and read what others are saying about a book we’ve all read. Since I didn’t read the CSFF April selection, I didn’t feel as left out as I thought I might. But as I visited other blogs, I became curious.

Opinions on this particular feature were quite varied. Nearly all agreed the writing was excellent, but the main point of criticism, for those who had a problem with the book, was … theology.

And what was it that David C. Downing and R. W. Schlosser said in “Smuggled Theology” was the divide between C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien? Theology.

Of course, in the case of the classic writers, the ramifications seem greater, but what I’m beginning to understand is why so many Christian writers and publishers seem fine with producing pabulum. As soon as a writer dives into a controversial topic or takes an inventive tack, especially with anything reflecting on Scripture, he/she essentially invites criticism. So why not write a book with the lowest common denominator, one that will appeal to the greatest number of buyers/readers?

I’m of two minds on this subject. I think there is heretical theology—stuff that people believe that is false and shows God to be other than who He is. I also think there are differing opinions, differing interpretations of Scripture, that do not affect the core tenets of the faith.

So on one hand, I think it is important to adhere to truth, but on the other hand, I think readers/critics need to lighten up and not be so judgmental. “Theological accuracy,” if that’s what we demand of Christian writers, is a tricky thing.

If we read a story written by a non-Christian, there is no theological burden. We do not expect a non-Christian to write from a Christian worldview. But other Christians, we seem to think for some reason, ought to write from MY view of Christianity.

I see nothing wrong with identifying a theological bias, then enjoying the story, in much the same way I would identify the humanist bias or the new age bias or the evolutionist bias of a non-Christian writer.

But there are some things that I hold sacrosanct. One is Scripture. Consequently Biblical fiction or fiction dealing with the Bible, in my view, has a much higher requirement of accuracy, and less creative latitude. It is historical fiction, for one thing, so the research should be impeccable.

However, Scripture is also the inspired word of God, so I question the wisdom of writing stories that would bring into doubt the inspiration or accuracy or truthfulness of the Bible or events in the Bible. I was horrified, for example, when I read one fan thanking an author for enlightening him about the events of the Bible, when in fact the novel was entirely fanciful.

Still, I am an advocate of Christians writing deeper, more meaningfully. Isn’t there, then, a risk that their “deeper” will cross my line and tread upon the sacrosanct? What if a person claims the name of Christ, but the theology of their story declares man’s goodness? Or God’s unwillingness to act as Judge? Or a believer’s sure and eventual health and wealth?

So is it better if we just leave the theology out and content ourselves with happy little stories of people finding Jesus?

Published in: on April 24, 2008 at 12:34 pm  Comments (9)  
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9 Comments

  1. Great post, Rebecca. I also sometimes think the quality of Christian fiction drops because publishers feel many people will buy fiction just because it is Christian, so the quality doesn’t have to be as good. But this will come back to bite them because people can be fooled once or maybe even twice. But eventually they’ll stop buying those books.

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  2. The quality of Christian fiction in recent times is a non-issue. It’s out there for everyone to read and expanding all the time. If people haven’t read any lately, they are ignorant of some of the excellent authors. I’m fairly sure Becky agrees with me here.

    People who haven’t read any of it are quick to criticize its supposed lack of quality. This is simply untrue.

    Becky makes a good point about theology in fiction. Most of the “theology”, although not all, is from a mainstream Baptist or Presbyterian-type doctrine. If as a reader you can accept these types of theology, you won’t even notice the slant toward their doctrinal opinions. The crux of the “acceptable” theology lies in the salvation through Jesus Christ, and the thing which elevates the literature is when a writer can incorporate basic or sound theology in a creative, seamless, and beautiful story without degrading it to “cliche”.

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  3. Scott, I wanted to clarify my comments. I agree with Nicole that the quality of writing has improved a great deal, especially in the last five years or so. But quality of writing doesn’t translate into depth of story, and this is the thing I think should be the next giant to slay.

    But the core question remains—since one person’s depth is another person’s heresy, can this be achieved or do the lcd (lowest common denominator) proponents have it right?

    Let’s use a specific. Catholics elevate Mary to a position that seems idolatrous to many Evangelicals. Should a Catholic writer seek to plum the depths of that doctrinal position through story, knowing that Evangelicals will most likely write it off?

    Plug in any distinctive for any denomination. Chances are, someone will think it borderline heretical or divisive or a misinterpretation of Scripture. The distinctives exist because Christians are imperfect (and even that statement is heretical to some believers), and we don’t always get it right.

    So here’s my thinking (at the moment 😉 ). Maybe we should concentrate less on the doctrines of our theology and more on who God is, who Christ is, who the Holy Spirit is.

    Maybe, instead of focusing on how we know what we know about God (visions, prophecy, Scripture, creation, church tradition—denominations, religions will argue about the viability of these), our writing can find depth in portraying God as … well, as He shows Himself.

    I think Christians, defined as those who are children of God because of the shed blood of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, can agree on a lot about God’s nature. Yet most stories camp on one or two traits—His love and mercy or grace.

    But what else? What qualities, for example, might Jesus be displaying when He says He is the Good Shepherd? What characteristics did God the Father display when He brought the people of Israel though the 40-year wilderness wanderings? What attributes can we see of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s admonition in the first part of Phil. 2? It seems to me there is more to agree upon than not.

    Becky

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  4. I agree there is a great deal we, as Christians, agree on. If we come across as having an axe to grind (at least a big axe), then our writing will turn off some segment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

    I would be more concerned about this watered down (or maybe better—simplified) theology if it was the only spiritual input I was getting. If we are all getting fed properly from the Word and the pulpit, from our families, and from godly mentors, then these book are gravy. Besides edification, writing and reading are supposed to be fun!

    For me, I had a hard time with the premise of The Begotten, but then, as I stated on my blog, I haven’t read the book. Where to draw that line? It’s really hard. The writing sounded so good, though, I could still read a book like that and enjoy it. But if we, as writers, are aware that something we are including can detract from our book, then maybe we should consider taking it out.

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  5. I struggle quite a bit with this issue, Becky. The genre of Christian Fiction, by its own nature, kind of demands parameters. After all, Christian art MUST look different from secular art. Right? Inevitably, “what we believe” becomes that distinctive. But forcing a theological grid over everything becomes, in my opinion, problematic. Showing “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is one thing, but being expected to frame that in overt Christian imagery and language (so the reader understands that this is a biblical principle, not a Hindu or humanist one), is where things get weird.

    Furthermore, the implementation of theology in our stories often surfaces as “cultural distinctives” or, what Augustine would call, “non-essentials.” In other words, we often interpret the evidence of “sound theology” as a certain “moral purity,” and then proceed to impose our own preferences re: language, tobacco, drinking, dancing, tattoos, body piercing, rock music, etc., etc. But if that’s the case, those darned Hobbits should be banned for all that pipe-weed they puffed and Tolkien ousted from the Christian Fiction club.

    To me, it’s far better to explore how theology, generally, applies to the work of a Christian writer, not how a Christian writer can articulate or alliterate her theology in her work. Blessings!

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  6. Becky and I have this uncanny knack for making similar posts on the same days. Although mine is different, it does address some of these concerns, but Becky is far more diplomatic ;).

    To me, it’s not an either/or necessarily but a both. I believe good stories and good writing do not have to exclude theology. I mean, secular humanism is more of a religion than Christianity, and that “theology” is evident in the majority of ABA fiction. I think anyone who is mature in the faith will not be trying to “sell” a denomination via fiction, but certainly any story can bear the demonstration of doctrine if it is fitting to the plot and characters. Certainly not all stories must include squeaky clean characters, and if they once did, they no longer do.

    Yeah, Mike’s right. There are certain parameters, but the narrow boundaries are only required in certain houses and imprints. Beyond those, there are all kinds of lusts and sinful people and situations in today’s Christian novels. And not all of them get saved. 😉

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  7. Not every “interpretation” of the Scriptures is correct, not every teaching put forth by various denominations or religious organizations has biblical authority. Christians should not shy away from marking false teachings. I have no problem with author’s including their pet theologies in their work. It stimulates needed debate and conversation over what is Truth. Calling for less theology to further the palatability of “Christian” fiction is a disservice, and tends to create an environment where every doctrine should be tolerated.

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  8. Great discussion! See why this is a knotty subject, though? We have everything from Mike who thinks, apparently, that theology has no place in fiction (though I admit, I don’t understand what exploring how theology, generally, applies to the work of a Christian writer would look like) and Kameron who thinks less theology does a disservice.

    I have to insert that I cringed at your remarks, Mike, because it seems you must translate these topics into your definition of Christian fiction. Therefore “theology” becomes a certain “moral purity,” which allows Christians then to impose our own preferences re: language, tobacco, drinking, dancing, tattoos, body piercing, rock music, etc., etc., though no one until you commented mentioned anything of the kind.

    I’m talking about theology: the Bible is the inspired word of God; God is One and He is Triune; God created the heavens and the earth; Man though created in the image of God is, by nature, sinful; God is loving, merciful, good, but He is also just and jealous and holy. Those kinds of things.

    I am also conscious of false teaching weaving its way into fiction, whether it’s salvation by works or man is good or God saves even the unrepentant or every Christian is meant to be healthy and wealthy or church tradition is as important as Scripture in learning about God or … Not saying that I’ve read stories with these themes or even with these implications.

    But if we take theme seriously and start crafting what we believe into our stories, doesn’t that mean those who hold false beliefs will also be weaving in their theology?

    Perhaps Nicole and Kameron are right. In handling literature with such themes, the rest of us get to discuss them in light of Scripture.

    Becky

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  9. Good thoughts Rebecca. So good that I’ve linked to you from my web site.

    http://tegeorge.wordpress.com/on-writing/about-theology/

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