The Bible, Reality, And Theology

Abraham_with_IsaacAs many of you know, Roma Downey (star of the TV show Touched by an Angel) and Mark Burnett (successful producer of a number of TV game shows including Survivor, Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader? The Voice, and Shark Tank), spearheaded the production of the TV mini-series The Bible which began airing on the History Channel last Sunday. Apparently it’s a ratings success and most likely a financial one too, but how does it stack up in the areas that really matter?

What, in fact, would be the areas that really matter? For viewers, undoubtedly the important elements would be the quality of storytelling, acting, and cinematography. In other words, is it good on an entertainment level? But for those of us who believe the Bible to be true, not a collection of myths, there’s another level that matters–the truthfulness of the production, the adherence to Scriptural intent, if you will.

But should that matter?

My friend and writing colleague Mike Duran recently took to task a reviewer for slipping into the role of “Theology Police.” I don’t know if it’s possible to agree with someone in the midst of disagreeing with them, but that’s kind of where I find myself. Toward the end of his post on the subject, Mike said

In their attempt to be “discerning,” many Christian fiction reviewers are straining at gnats and swallowing camels. (emphasis in the original)

Understand, I haven’t read the book in question or the review. But in principle, I agree with what Mike is saying there. No one should be so consumed with minutia that they miss the big picture. What I find myself disagreeing with, however, is what appears to be Mike’s guiding principle in looking at reviews:

Being “discerning” about theology is different than being “discerning” about art. (emphasis in the original)

Really?

Is bad theology ever OK, even for a fiction writer, even for a speculative fiction writer?

I don’t understand that–not that Mike is advocating such. Rather, it seems he’s expressing his belief that theology shouldn’t be held up as a guide by which someone judges fiction. Back in November in a guest post at Spec Faith discussing this very issue, Mike said

So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story. But “seeping” into a story and showcasing it therein are huge differences. Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not. My question is: Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place? (emphasis in the original)

So MY question is this: is it ever right for a Christian to knowingly portray bad theology? Hence, since I know God to be loving, should I write a speculative story showing the One True God as less than loving? Or Satan as less than rebellious? Or man as less than sinful by nature?

Those particular issues might seem to be a little easier to answer than some of the “minor issues” that crop up. Can a Christian work portray “magic” as good? Or can The Bible skip Abraham’s name change from Abram or God making a covenant with him?

One reviewer of the first episode of The Bible had this to say:

I know there’s such a thing as creative and artistic license, that’s fine. But the entire reason a theological advisory board was brought on was to ensure that Biblical details were accurate. And they’re not. I’m not saying I’m surprised. I’m saying this reveals that the theologians involved either knew the details and did not tell them (or production changed them, in which case why bother with advisors) or they didn’t think them important enough to include in the stories.

So how important is accurate theology? Or should artistic license overrule adherence to theological particulars?

I feel very strongly about Truth, which is why I bristle when people seem so willing to throw it aside, even when they clamor for “realism” in fiction. We need to accurately portray people in our fiction, the argument goes, and those people cuss and swear. So our fiction out to be allowed to reflect these people accurately.

But what about God? Apparently it’s not such a big deal if we get things about Him right.

But what does “right” mean?

Are the makers of The Bible mini-series trying to transcribe the actual Bible onto screen? Absolutely not. When interviewed on Focus on the Family shortly before the first episode of their project aired, Mark Burnett said he considered the TV series to be a ten hour commercial for the real thing.

So my thinking is this: a work of fiction needs to be judged by what it’s attempting to do. If it’s a commercial, then it shouldn’t be judged as a documentary.

C. S. Lewis was not attempting to portray Christ in allegory. Consequently his first Narnia tale shouldn’t be criticized because Aslan died on a stone table and not a cross or because he came to life the next day and never spent an hour in a tomb.

The theology issue, then, should be judged according to intent. No work of fiction will ever portray all the truths of the Bible, even The Bible–that much should be clear from the start. But this fictionalized story does carry a burden, as should all fiction Christians write, to tell the Truth about God as it works to fulfill its intent.

Agree or disagree?

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4 Comments

  1. Becky,

    This is a good post. I must admit I’m divided on this issue.

    I will agree with you that Christian Authors should not allow bad theology into their works or the reviewers of Christian Fiction should overlook bad theology in a novel they are reviewing. Writers should be held accountable for the work they produced and want to be read by the public.

    However, I do agree Mike Duran (I have read the blog post you mentioned) that fiction should not be the place to reinforce theology. There has to be some creative or artistic license and honesty to the story that the author is telling.

    I have not watched the Bible TV Series (even though my wife has mentioned it to me several times this week….LOL!) and I believe because they are attempting to retell the Bible that it must have good theology as well as good entertainment.

    I understand from interviews they are only doing several stories from the Bible and not the entire book. Those stories must have an accurate portrayal to the Gospel as much as possible.

    But, a novel that is using a Christian worldview or principles should have more artistic license because that writer is not trying to retell a Biblical account.

    There will always be this artistic tension with Christian artists by trying to walk that tightrope between creative freedom and good theology.

    Here are a couple of quotes from one of my favorite books and should be read by all Christian artists:

    “A few years ago when I started to work out a Christian epistemology and a Christian concept of culture, many people considered what I was doing suspect. They felt that because I was interested in intellectual answers I must not be biblical. But this attitude represents a real poverty. It fails to understand that if Christianity is really true, then it involves the whole man, including his intellect and creativeness. Christianity is not just “dogmatically” true or “doctrinally” true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life.”

    “Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art. Many modern artists seem not to see the distinction between man and non-man, and it is a part of the lostness of modern man that they no longer see value in the work of art as work of art.
    I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect.”

    (Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible)

    I believe those quotes should give all Christian artists a framework on how they should view art and be placed in the right perspective.

    Marion

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  2. It depends I guess. It feels so arbitrary at times though; no one is complaining about Anne Elizabeth Stengl’s theology when she uses fairies and makes Christian fantasy, but if we took those fairies, put them in the real world, and made a tale about what happens in a realistic world where both Jesus and the Unseelie court exist, we’d probably see jaws drop. Yet both are equally fantastic.

    I don’t know if there’s any solution other than just to always warn people to be careful. It’s easy to err.

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  3. We are not relativists so we have to see good and bad. Bad theology is in the eye of many Christians. But not just in the eye, it’s in their heads. Anyone who cares about theology (interested in good doctrine) won’t get far w/o having their antenna buzz. From people writing about “letting God save them” and other biblical booboos, to Christian fiction with such a light smattering of any faith threads that you’d miss it if you weren’t watching for it, you can’t get away from bad theology. But, that said, your posts reveals deep thinking on your part and you seem to be striving to be fair to all.

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