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.

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

  1. Interesting, Becky. I hear complaints sometimes about “God blogging,” about how some people never talk about the “real world,” as if “the real world” is somehow separate from God, as if people must have two distinct identities, one for the Christian world, one for the not so Christian world. It’s somewhat funny, I have no idea how one would go about doing this. Theology is the real world! It is also the fiction world. Where would I be without Narnia or even The Moon is a Harsh Mistress? It is in our fiction where we are able to explore real life themes and sometimes to even come to understand aspects of theology that may once have eluded us.

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  2. Does this ever hit a nerve! One the one hand, some of the most dreadful muck comes from the Christian market. By the end of the first paragraph you know somebody will hit rock bottom, pray the sinner’s prayer, get Jesus in their heart and go on to a wonderful middle class American life. At the same time, anything with a hint of an Evangelical perspective has a real uphill climb in the broader market. It’s hard to find a home for stories that don’t fit some pretty specific molds. I once sent a novel to a small press with a professing Christian as the editor. The critique that came back pointed out that I had used one or two terms common in “Christian” fiction. Never mind what those terms meant in the context of the story which was set in a distant world with a complex, non-Christian theology. I worked pretty hard on the alien belief system but to no avail. So what’s an imaginative Evangelical to do?

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  3. “So, God isn’t realistic enough, and we need to stop including him in our fiction?”
    Well, of course not. I think what we are struggling with here is the “how” to do that. I tend to agree with the quote from Mike Duran’s post – that fiction is the wrong place for theology. Theology is all about giving answers – this is what God is like, this is what sin is, this is how to repair the damage in our relationship with God. However, fiction, and all good art, is about asking questions, I think. We as evangelicals try to be the Holy Spirit for our readers too often. We want to make sure every little part of our books are tied up tight in a “proper” theological box. I remember reading the blog of one writer who was struggling with writing her book, and was sending the first draft to her pastor to check over to make sure it was theologically sound. Now if she was writing a non-fiction book about faith, okay. But a fiction book? No. Let’s write our books, showing flawed characters struggling with messy lives and impossible situations. Show them wrestling with faith, abandoning faith, embracing faith or whatever the STORY demands. Be true to the story, ask the big questions, give your readers something to think about, and trust God to lead them home. That’s what I think, anyway.

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    • So, LA, if I’m understanding you correctly, writers should be true to the STORY . . . even if it makes God out to be a liar?

      Stories influence people’s thinking. You sound as if you believe a story is a neutral agent and readers simply need to draw their own conclusions. But I believe they are conduits for what the author believes. Good stories show what the author holds to be true, and good readers will evaluate what they experience to determine if they believe those ideas are truthful. But the author still ought to convey values and ideas. I believe the Christian should align those with Biblical truth.

      Becky

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      • I guess I’m struggling at bit to express myself. I think the story a writer tells is very much influenced by who the writer is. But I don’t think we should be afraid to ask questions that we don’t answer in the story itself. Taken individually, Jesus’ parables didn’t contain the whole truth about everything, right? And in some of those parables He presents a God that is puzzling to us. Yes, taken as a whole, we can see a full picture of God and the Kingdom in the parables. But they were spoken individually, to certain specific people. For some (many?) that specific parable might be the only one they heard Jesus speak. They may have left puzzled, or confused, or dismissed it out of hand. But that’s where God comes in, right?

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        • I agree, LA, and I think the parables are a helpful way of looking at fiction. For instance, Jesus told one about an unrighteous judge when He was teaching about prayer. Was He saying that God is unrighteous? Certainly not. So we don’t have to have every element in a story toe some ideal standard. Characters in our stories should struggle and should sin—that’s the way humans are. But that’s not the theology of a story. That’s what C. S. Lewis calls the scaffolding (thanks to Mike Duran for pointing me to that term). And in the end, I think the better stories let readers wrestle too, but not because they don’t know what theology the author has shown them, but because they understand and want to think about whether or not it’s true.

          Becky

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  4. I think my dashed-off-before-running-out-the-door-to-work comment might not come across exactly as intended. It’s just that the issue of theology in art has loomed large for many years so your post, like I said, hit a nerve.

    Of course theology belongs in fiction. It is the roadmap of life as well as reality itself. One of the complaints I have against much popular Evangelical fiction is that it contains way too little theology. A lot of Christian artists seem to remain in the shallows because that’s where they feel safe. They continue to mine the same old vein rather than follow where sound, Godly theology combined with inquisitiveness, imagination and astute observation of the world around them can lead. This isn’t unique to Christian literature but we of all people are without excuse. Our stories begin before time and end… well, they don’t end. They’re set in eternity. They ought to leave the reader with a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Would we really describe much of what we find in the Christian market these days as inspired? Do our books belong in the company of Bunyan or Milton or Dostoyevsky, to name a few? Not that everything has to be a masterpiece but I’m afraid we’re in the habit of contenting ourselves with tepid knockoffs of the world’s literature with a dash of “Christian” to redeem it.

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  5. Amen. Haha. Any writer of worth will write what he is compelled to write, say what HE has to say…and if some writers are Christians, what they have to say will be founded upon, oriented to, the way in which they understand reality, to their own body of beliefs which make up their worldviews. Just as is any writers. Why should Christian writers be expected to divorce their most foundational beliefs when others are free to expound on theirs?

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  6. That said, a good writer’s work, IMHO, is informed by what he believes to be true. He does not force or preach it; that body of beliefs which makes him himself is behind, before, perhaps even unspoken, but THERE.

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    • I agree, Madeline (sp?). The one thing I didn’t challenge was the idea that fiction should not proselytize. That’s not it’s purpose. Stories show as opposed to telling. They get their power from taking Truth and putting skin on it.

      Becky

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      • Exactly. JRR Tolkein certainly wrote out of a belief system but he does not ever explain it to you or tell you its limits…I agree that the best stuff doesn’t tell you what to think and how to feel–that’s just poor writing. But. Actually I think fiction should do whatever the author wants it to do. Maybe something preachy isn’t as palatable to as many readers but there may be a place for that too. To declare that this or that should exist in literature strikes me as a bit megalomaniacal

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  7. *…should NOT exist…*

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  8. All fiction has a “theology” in it, whether we acknowledge that or not. By theology I mean a belief system, a worldview. The world of Game of Thrones gives us a view of the world all right, where kindness and goodness are freak occurrences that get drowned in the depravity and brutality of Martin’s perception of “reality.” Avatar gives us a false goddess whose name is a corruption of the Tetragrammaton, i.e., the “real” deity is an “earthy” woman and not that patriarchal skygod we should abandon. Lucas gives us ancient Taoism dressed up as space opera science fiction. Meyer gives us Mormon gods and goddesses who sparkle in daylight instead of perishing in it. It’s impossible to amputate theology, worldview, from fiction. Which is why fiction MUST be the vehicle for biblical theology, a biblical worldview. As you said so well, “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.” Indeed, we must, for we ARE the only ones who can. Not because we came to love Him, but because He loved us first and saved us. Our stories should ring with the Truth of the Word of God. Thank you for taking this bull by the horns. And breaking its neck.

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  9. Head is spinning with all this. First of all having been in the art world, I am always amazed at the acceptance of pure porn as art form from Christians. I feel the same way in the book world. I cannot stomach fiction that tells a bizarre view of a Bible story. A few little things to add to story, okay, but it makes me angry. I used to really like the 10 Commandments movie but there are so many irritating discrepancies, I want to scream. Something like Ben Hur doesn’t bother me.

    It is all the way it is handled in the books. I have not said this in “book world public” but some of best sellers in Christian fiction have made me crazy with sick theology. It is spiritual porn when it is messing with the truth of the Word of God.

    I think we need to give forth the heart of the Word and His truth and let the story pan out that way. When something is in our heart, it is going to come out, just as you said, evil or righteous.

    We have the truth and we cannot hide our light.

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  10. Really liked the post Becky. I’ve got two different trains of thought on this subject so I’ll break them down into two different posts.

    First I’ll address the issue of theology in fiction. This is personal to me since I’m in the middle of writing a Christian Adventure Series that has strong Biblical Theological content.

    I think there is a fundamental misreading of the Christian reader market. I think it is the same mistake that causes Pastors and Ministers to think that their congregations just want seeker sensitive fluff, feel good pop culture sermons, and motivational rah rah pump everyone up messages. In short, I think too many feel that there’s no market in today’s Christianity for substantive Bible teaching.

    I completely disagree with that, and in fact I think it’s the other way around. I think Christians are tired of all the fluff and are wanting more substance.

    But at the same time I would quickly add that it has to be done right. Simply preaching doctrine AT people, whether it be in a book or from the pulpit doesn’t work. The word of God must first be allowed to have an impact on the communicator (be it a Pastor or Fiction Writer) in such a way that the words of God go into the person and changes them. The communicator then preaches (or writes) from this position of having been impacted.

    I have two children studying to be ministers in a SBC Bible College. I constantly emphasize to them that it is so important that ministers don’t preach DOWN and AT their people. They must minister out of the overflow of what God is doing with them. They must communicate that they (the ministers) are with their people going through the same things, and it is the grace of God that makes the difference.

    I think that applies to Christian Fiction as well. If a book simply tries to preach at people to tell them what to believe then of course that isn’t going to work. But if a writer shares out of the conviction of their own heart the Biblical truths that have impacted them, then I believe that comes across well and is well received.

    So I don’t think the problem is including Theology and Biblical truths into our fiction, but more so how we do it.

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  11. When I first started writing my series back in November, I surveyed the Christian Fiction market to see what others were doing. I must say that I was not very impressed with Christian Fiction in general, so it doesn’t surprise me that it has taken a dip in popularity.

    What concerns me though is what some seem to be saying is the answer. There’s no doubt that Christian Fiction appears to have settled into a boring and predictable rut, but is the answer to move away from Christian themes and try to be more appealing to the market at large?

    I don’t think so. God’s word is appealing because it represents universal truth and not just Christian truth. Rather than trying to be more daring and edgy by including more sex, violence, drugs, paranormal, etc. why don’t we become more daring and edgy by including more explicit Biblical themes and references?

    Yeah I know, that’s a crazy thing to suggest, but it’s just crazy enough that it could work.

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