Does Theology Have A Place In Fiction?


ArtistThe discussion about theology in fiction is not new, but agent Chip MacGregor brought it up again in a recent blog post, and it’s received some traction in social media. I’ll admit, parts of what Chip said drive me crazy. Things like

[many authors have tried to] take their stories to the broader general market… and it hasn’t been working. Why? First, understand that much of CBA fiction is dominated by the conservative evangelical brand of Christianity, and the general market isn’t interested in those types of stories.

“Those types of stories”? Stories that hold to what the Bible says? I have much to say on that subject but will save it for another time.

Then a few sentences later:

A writer who grows up in the evangelical culture, who is surrounded by the American evangelical milieux, often isn’t going to know how to speak to a broader audience.

I think the error of that generality is self-evident. But the line that has me most concerned is this:

There is a movement among many Christian novelists to make fiction more realistic and less theological

So, God isn’t realistic enough, we need to stop including Him in our fiction?

All this as a way of introduction. I’ve written quite a bit about the intersection of fiction as art and Christianity, and I’d like to share (with revisions) some of those thoughts, first posted at Speculative Faith back in December 2012.

A rather accepted definition of art, including fiction, is an endeavor which utilizes creativity and imagination resulting in beauty and truth. Not beauty alone. Not truth alone. Art shows both. In a post at Spec Faith, author and friend Mike Duran postulated that fiction and theology don’t belong together: “Why Fiction Is The Wrong Vehicle For Theology.” He quoted a pastor who affirmed this definition of art but who also stated, “The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine.”

As I understand it, doctrine is nothing more than a body of truth about spiritual things. So we want truth in our fiction, but not spiritual truth. How can this dichotomy exist?

Perhaps we are defining terms differently, starting with “theology.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of theology is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” The second definition, however, includes the idea of ordering beliefs systematically. Perhaps, then, those who say “theology” and fiction don’t mix are actually saying fiction isn’t a good place for expounding an ordered system of beliefs.

Then, too, the issue might center on the “body of doctrine”—stories that attempt to reveal all truth about God rather than revealing a truth about God.

First, stories have long espoused or refuted a systematic, ordered way of thinking. Thomas Hardy espoused his views of fatalism in story after story. George Orwell showed his opposition to autocracy, particularly to Communism, in his novels, most notably Animal Farm. Frank Norris and other “muckrakers” made their views about the abuses of corporations known through their stories. Harriet Beecher Stowe penned a novel against slavery—clearly taking a systematic view of the way the world ought to be.

More recently the movie Avatar echoed a theme about greed in corporate America found decades ago in ET.

Is the problem, then, an ordered, systematic set of beliefs? I hardly think so. A system of beliefs has never been considered out of bounds in fiction.

More to the point might be the idea that fiction should not attempt to show an entire body of doctrine because the scope of such is too big for a single story. As I see it, this statement is similar to saying, no book should try to tackle all there is to know about the human psyche. Of course not. However, that does not mean an author should refrain from dealing with any part of the human psyche.

Rather than shying away from the depiction of “theology”—by which I mean knowledge about God—in fiction, I think Christian writers should embrace the challenge. In saying this, however, I do not believe all stories must show all the truth contained in the Bible, nor do I believe that our stories must affirm all Biblical moral values (as if Christians even agree on what those are).

I do believe, however, that it is possible to speculate about this world and about the spiritual world and yet remain faithful to truth about God. In fact, I believe this is fundamental to a work of art. Non-Christians can reveal truth up to a point, but because they do not know Christ, they cannot accurately reveal spiritual truth. Christians can.

Will the spiritual truth in a story ever be “complete”? Of course not. Mike Duran asked in his post

is it possible for any single work of fiction to accurately depict God’s nature, attributes, and laws? He is merciful, holy, infinite, just, compassionate, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, gracious, etc., etc. So where do we start in our portrayal of God? And if we resign our story to just highlighting one attribute of God or one theological side, we potentially present an imbalanced view (like those who always emphasize God’s love and not His judgment, or vice versa). Furthermore, Christians have the luxury of the Bible and centuries of councils and theologians to help us think through this issue. But when Christians impose this body of info upon their novels, they must remember that other readers don’t possess such detailed revelation. . .not to mention the story’s characters.

In essence he says, the body of truth about God is beyond the scope of one novel. Absolutely true. However, the idea that we might be misunderstood if we portray only one aspect of truth or that others without our understanding of Scripture and church history might not grasp what we are “imposing” on them, doesn’t seem like a sound argument for steering away from using stories as a vehicle for theology.

It does seem like an argument for doing so poorly.

If an author incorporates all the tenets of evolution in a story, undoubtedly the message will overwhelm the plot and characters. In other words, over reaching is the problem. A theme that is poorly executed—whether by an atheist or a Christian—suffers, not because of the author’s beliefs or his decision to incorporate them in his story. It suffers because it hasn’t been done well. (Of course, the atheist has the added burden of weaving into his story a theme that may be incomplete or even untrue, but that’s another subject).

Think for a moment about people who wish to “witness” at football games by holding up a John 3:16 sign and contrast that to a sermon expounding on the meaning of that verse. A story is not a sermon, but a story that tacks on a verse in an off-handed way as if doing so fulfills a touched-that-base religious requirement, is a weak story, not because it has introduced theology but because it has done so with no depth and with no purpose that serves the story.

In short, fiction is the perfect vehicle for showing theology rather than telling it. After all, spiritual truth is the ultimate truth. If art is to really be all about beauty and truth, then it OUGHT to include spiritual truth at some level.

The legitimate problems with some Christian fiction have little to do with the existence of theology in fiction and everything to do with how to incorporate it into stories. Instead of warning people away from theology in fiction, I think we’d be better served to spread the word about the novels that handle spiritual truth by weaving it seamlessly into an entertaining story.

Published in: on July 20, 2015 at 5:56 pm  Comments (17)  
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