Extraneous Theology


In a Facebook group to which I belong, another member used the term “extraneous theology.” I might not have given the phrase too much thought except for the fact that it was used in conjunction to a definition of “Christian”—someone who “professes and follows Christ.” All the rest, he went on to say, is “extraneous theology.”

Really?

The discussion began with the question about including books by Mormon writers in a list of titles considered Christian science fiction or fantasy. One person stated that Mormons are not Christians. To which the aforementioned member responded with the professing-and-following-Christ and extraneous-theology comment.

I don’t think the deity of Christ is extraneous. That’s the issue at stake when Christians want to include Mormons among the brethren. Someone else in this same group chided the membership for being overly concerned about who is in “the club.”

I’m not sure which point to answer first!

The Church is not a club. It’s the bride of Christ. All may be included.

The gospel of Matthew records a parable Jesus told of a king who invited people to his son’s wedding feast. Presumably he began by inviting those close to him—neighbors and friends. But they refused to come. So he told his servants to go out into the streets and invite whoever they encountered, “both good and evil.”

Christianity is not an exclusive club—apart from this one thing: Christians accept God’s invitation to His banquet. Well, there’s one other thing.

One of the guests in Jesus’s parable showed up without the proper attire. “A man [was] there who was not dressed in wedding clothes” (Matt. 22:11b). When the king asked him why, he had no answer so he was thrown out. Worse, he was punished.

So, were those who attended the wedding feast a special club? How could that be if everyone was invited? Were the requirements for attending the wedding feast “extraneous”? Hardly. Seems like they were necessary.

In the same way, understanding who Jesus is falls into the necessary category. Mormons understand him to be a created being, the brother of Satan. A number of years ago I did some research on this subject. Here’s what I found regarding Mormon beliefs

About God and Jesus (source for these excerpts, Truthnet.org):

  • “God himself was once as we are now, and is an exalted man…”(Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, 345)
  • “The Father has a body of flesh and bones as tangilble as man’s; the Son also; but the Holy Spirit has not a body of flesh and bones, but is a personage of Spirit…” (Doctrine and Covenants, 130:22)
  • “As man is, God once was: as God is, man may become” (Prophet Lorenzo Snow, quotedin Milton R. Hunter, The Gospel Through the Ages, 105-106)
  • Remember that God, our heavenly Father, was perhaps once a child, and mortal like we ourselves, and rose step by step in the scale of progress, in the school of advancement; has moved forward and overcome, until He has arrived at the point where He now is” (Apostle Orson Hyde, Journal of Discourses, 1:123)
  • When our father Adam came into the garden of Eden, he came into it with a celestial body, and brought Eve, one his wives, with him. He helped to make and organized this world. He is Michael, the Archangel, the Ancient of Days! About whom holy men have written and spoken—He is our FATHER and our GOD, and the only God with whom we have to do” (Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 1:50)
  • Jesus is the brother of Satan this is revealed in the Pearl of Great Price, Book of Moses 4:1-4 and affirmed by Brigham Young in the Journal of Discourses, 13:282)

Let me add a statement from a Mormon site:

Like most Christians, Mormons believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Creator of the World. However, Mormons hold the unique belief that God the Father and Jesus Christ are two distinct beings. Mormons believe that God and Jesus Christ are wholly united in their perfect love for us, but that each is a distinct personage with His own perfect, glorified body (see D&C 130:22).

Mormons believe that all men and women ever to be born, including Jesus Christ, lived with God as His spirit children before this life. God wanted each of us to come to earth to gain experience, learn, and grow to become more like Him. But God also knew that His children would all sin, die, and fall short of His glory. We would need a Savior to overcome our sins and imperfections and reconcile us with God. Mormons believe that Jesus Christ was chosen to be this Savior long ago during our premortal life with God. We shouted for joy when we were presented with God’s glorious plan for His children (see Job 38:7). [emphaes are mine]

Notice the intro, “like most Christians.” Mormons, or Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ, which is their official name, want very much to be accepted as part of the mainstream of Christianity. They are not. What they believe about Jesus (let alone the concept of our preexistence as “spirit children,” God having a physical body, and much more) shows that they do not agree with what Scripture teaches.

Is the deity of Jesus “extraneous theology”? Clearly not. Why are so many Christians blinded by externals? In truth, Mormons live upright lives. They believe in “family values.” They are good citizens, for the most part (except for the small portion that clings to the original Mormon doctrine about polygamy). They are kind and welcoming and friendly. In all likelihood, Mormons make good neighbors. They certainly have a close-knit community, and they support their writers. But these things do not make them Christians! Beyond these externals lie the false ideas about Jesus.

Perhaps the starting place is for us to learn the difference between extraneous and essential theology. Who Jesus is, is pretty much at the core of Christianity.

Advertisements

One More Thanksgiving Post — C. S. Lewis


Yesterday was the infamous 55th anniversary of the death of three notable men: President John F. Kennedy, writer Aldus Huxley, and Christian author and scholar C. S. Lewis. I don’t see many people talking about this milestone, but five years ago, JFK was still receiving the largest slice of media attention. Aldus Huxley, a brilliant writer in his own right, seems to be fading in memory and impact. But C. S. Lewis? His words and his impact live on in every writer who was ever influenced by him, in every person who was touched and changed by his books.

I’ve just started reading The Language of God by Francis S. Collins. This famed scientist who headed the Human Gnome Project chronicled his transformation from atheism to “unshakeable faith in God.” As it happens, a big part of this change resulted from reading C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity.

Collins’s story is just one example of a person who was transformed when he encountered this literary scholar who had himself come from atheism to belief in God as Savior.

Others, like myself, already believed, but Lewis deepened and clarified that belief, sometimes through his nonfiction and sometimes through his fiction.

My top four Lewis books include two fiction and two nonfiction. That’s if I set Narnia aside and don’t count it at all. Which I ought not do. How do you set aside an author’s seminal work?

When I think of the books that Lewis wrote that influenced my spiritual life most, I think of Surprised by Joy, The Great Divorce, Til We Have Faces, Mere Christianity, Screwtape Letters, and Narnia.

When I think of his books that influenced my writing, I think of Narnia. Just Narnia. I loved the idea of a secret world that existed to be discovered, of the good King who ruled. I loved each adventure that expanded the mythos of the world. I wanted to write like Lewis.

Well, not like him. I wanted to create myth like him. I wanted my stories to point to Truth like his do. I wanted to imagine memorable characters like he did. In so many ways his fiction was a map that showed me what great stories should look like.

I’m not saying I’m there. In fact, I’m not saying that any writer is there. In truth, only one C. S. Lewis has existed or will ever exist. But no doubt, God has used him to impact a generation of Christian writers for such a time as this.

Perhaps no genre has captured the imagination of the general public as has fantasy. The Harry Potter series became a nationwide hit, first as books for which readers waited in line at midnight to acquire, then as movies that showed in living color the wonderful imaginative world which J. K. Rowling invented.

Not long after came the urban fantasy of Twilight, followed by the dystopian blockbusters by Suzanne Collins (Hunger Games) and Veronika Roth (Divergent).

Countless Christian writers have made small ripples in the bottomless fantasy lake, and many, if not most, will include C. S. Lewis as an author who influenced them.

He was a great thinker and greatly imaginative. He had a grasp of the way story works, of how to make the large ideas simple enough for a child to grasp.

He was only 65 when he died, and I’d say he died too young, except Psalm 139 says our days are ordained for us, “when as yet there was not one of them.” God knew the impact Lewis would make, that dying in the shadow of the assassination of an American President actually might grow his legacy, not overshadow his accomplishments.

God knew that a set of children’s books would speak to generations of kids even when they became adults. God knew that this atheist convert would understand how to answer the objections of atheists better than any other apologist could.

I am so grateful for C. S. Lewis and his stories, his thinking, his example. May his legacy grow.

Statue photo By “Genvessel” – https://www.flickr.com/photos/genvessel/149269475/in/set-72057594139281324/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=826864

Gratitude, Day 11—Children


I’m specifically thankful for little children, toddlers, infants, preschoolers. Little people.

I spent over thirty years teaching the big kids, and I loved doing so. But the little people are the ones with no guile. True, they might be shy, but chances are, if you smile at a little person, he will smile at you. They haven’t learned the art of deception yet, and they aren’t looking for deception from those they meet. Other children are playmates. Other adults are question marks, unless we give them some attention. Then they giggle, and run, and sparkle.

Infants, of course, can do nothing but lie there and look cute. And that’s all great—because I’m not in a position to change diapers or give baths or get up in the middle of the night with a colicky, crying baby. But even when I was the aunt who took a turn doing those jobs, it was not burdensome.

There’s an element of hope. This little bundle of crying cuteness is a person. A wonderful person with all kinds of unknown potential. There’s joy in the discovery.

It’s great to watch children learn. The world is all so new to them and they want so much to do what the grown-ups in their lives do. That’s how they learn to talk—by imitating. That’s what makes them want to read or color or build with the Legos someone has given them.

They’re also filled with creativity and wonder and joy. Well, besides thinking the whole world revolves around them. But there’s just so much potential in little people.

But I have to admit, I also like little people books. The art, the simple wording, the unhidden point made on each page. Take Hannah C. Hall’s God Bless books, such as God Bless Our Fall, for instance. The first page reads

The trees are dressed in gold and red.
Their colors seem to call,
“God decorates what He creates.”
We say, “God bless our fall.”

Simple. Straightforward. Nothing too hard to understand there. And yet profound. That’s the kind of kid-book I like.

Of course there’s the very important truth that children are the future. They are! Which is why I don’t understand adults who don’t take time to build values into their children.

God told the people of Israel as they came out of slavery, to remind their children about God and what He’d done for them. They were to talk about God’s Law day in and day out. They were to display it visibly. They were to hold celebrations for what God provided, what He accomplished for His people. In other words, the children were to receive instruction from the adults about more than how to tie their shoes or how to make their bed.

Our culture has lost the importance of instructing children about morals, ethics, standards. At one point some noted psychologists taught that newborn were essentially blank slates and we could imprint whatever society wanted. Children are certainly NOT blank slates as the baby study at Yale showed. At the same time, they are not equipped with the experience, wisdom, and knowledge to make up their own minds about morality!

Interestingly, a series of commercials have popped up here in California urging parents to talk, read, sing to their children. It’s good advice, a needed correction. Because too many postmodern, and now post-truth, parents care more for what they want than they do for raising their children. Just recently I learned of a mom who essentially neglected her little one while she self-medicated with the drug of her choice. And her child? Delayed in speech, for starters. Who knows what else, given that so much of human development takes place in the first five years.

But we must not stop short with talk, read, sing. Content matters. At least to people it does. On the other hand, I can pretty much say anything to an animal—“You mangy, no good, ugly excuse for a dog. You act more like a cat”—as long as I say it with a winsome, engaging voice.

Children aren’t like that. They might not know what the words mean until years later, but if they receive negative values such as pride and selfishness and greed and division and hate and bigotry and abuse and dishonor and rudeness and such, long enough, their little hearts will bend with their sin nature. If they are neglected and left to devise their own values, they’ll bend to their sin nature.

Instead, children need to receive moral education along with the knowledge they receive that enables them to get through life.

But of course, that’s really on the adults in their world. Kids don’t usually cry because they aren’t receiving moral instruction. They don’t even understand that they need it. Unless the adults in their world harm them, children grow up filled with all kinds of laughter and curiosity and desire and expectation. They’re just waiting to be nourished.

When I see kids thriving like that, what a blessing. What a joy. It’s then I’m especially mindful of how thankful I am for children

Published in: on November 15, 2018 at 5:40 pm  Comments (2)  
Tags: , , , ,

Looking For Christmas Gifts?


I’m a big fan of giving books as Christmas gifts, and children’s books are the best. The thing is, they offer hours of pleasure for years to come. And for little kids, they are fun when they get the gift because they can look at the pictures right away, and they are fun every night they ask for the new book as their bedtime story.

I thought I’d mention the picture books by Hannah C. Hall as great gifts for the little ones in your life—kids, grandkids, nieces or nephews, neighbors. You name it, I think these books are some of the best.

Of course, Hannah is best known for her God Bless Books. They are seasonal or tied to a familiar activity. So now the book that’s most popular is God Bless Our Christmas. But the newest in the series is God Bless Our Family (pictured above).

Perhaps her best, though, is one not in that series. It’s called Would a Worm Go on a Walk? Here’s the description of that one:

“Would a worm go on a walk, if you could lead him down the street?
Would he wear his tiny tennies, if he had two worm-sized feet?”

So begins this humorous and imaginative picture book that introduces children to the idea that animals are uniquely created by a loving and wise God. Would a Worm Go on a Walk?, with its colorful, comical illustrations, is a fresh, fun way to teach young children that God created all things very good. He gave all the animals, and children, too, wonderful qualities and unique strengths. Children will giggle over the ridiculous scenarios presented, and they will come away with the knowledge that we all are loved and special. Ages 4-7.

I don’t think you can go wrong buying one of Hannah’s books this Christmas. And the cool thing is, the adults will likely get as much enjoyment as the kids.

Published in: on December 8, 2017 at 4:45 pm  Comments Off on Looking For Christmas Gifts?  
Tags: , , , , , ,

Christian Fiction Must Be . . . You Know, Christian; Or, The Shack Is Back


This past week, I saw the TV add for the upcoming The Shack movie. I’d seen the trailer some time ago, but was dismayed that the promotion was reaching a TV audience. And in LA. We don’t often hear about “Christian” projects here.

There’s no doubt that The Shack positions itself as Christian. After all, Jesus shows up, albeit in imaginary form. But is it Christian?

What constitutes “Christian fiction”? That’s a question we at Spec Faith have answered and revisited since our inception some ten years ago (see for example this early post by one of the founding members of Spec Faith).

Not only have writers and readers debated what constitutes Christian fiction, and particularly Christian speculative fiction, we’ve debated the rightness of and the need for good doctrine in our fiction (see for example “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible“). “Doctrine” encompasses both theology and beliefs concerning morality, and we’ve discussed those too (see for example “Marcher Lord Press and the Hinterlands Imprint“).

On top of these generalized discussions, we’ve also posted articles and comments specifically about The Shack. But that was eight years ago, when the book was still on the top of best-selling lists and Christians and non-Christians alike were passing it around from one person to another and discussing it over coffee.

Now the movie version of Paul Young’s book is about to come to a theater near you, and the question no one could answer back then is bound to resurface: Is The Shack truly Christian?

There are some specific issues that came under scrutiny concerning the book.

Some people stumbled over the most glaring issue right from the gate. I mean, isn’t it blasphemous to depict God the Father as anything but a Father?

I understand how portraying God as other than how He portrays Himself, can be troublesome. At the same time, I can see how others accept “God’s” explanation: that He needed to reveal Himself to the main character in a way he could receive Him.

That being said, I suggest one of the central problems of the story surfaces within the discussion of this rather peripheral issue. The Shack has little use for the Bible. Hence, God the Father is easily replaced by the needs of the character.

There are other major issues—the attitude toward the Church and universal salvation and an understanding of the Trinity.

Yet more than one Christian has reported how life changing The Shack was for them, how they wept as they read it, how they understood God’s forgiveness in a way they never had before.

So . . . is it Christian?

Can it be Christian if it shows God in ways He does not show Himself? If it does not point people to His word or His body, the Church? If it falsely claims universal salvation?

On the other hand, how can it not be Christian if it gave many believers renewed faith and deeper love for God and a deeper understanding of forgiveness?

On one hand, The Shack may not tick all the intellectual, theological boxes, but on the other, it more than makes up for that lack by the emotional, spiritual juice it provides.

In thinking about the “what makes something Christian” question, I have to look at the object itself, not the results that may come from it.

The Apostle Paul did just the opposite when he was imprisoned in Philippi and a bunch of so-called Christian brethren started preaching. Paul identified their motives as envy and strife and selfish ambition (Phil. 1:15, 17), but he basically said, so what? As long as they preached Christ, who cared that they had bad motives?

the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice. (vv 17-18a)

Paul was only concerned with the bottom line: the result. These “brethren,” false or true, were telling people about Jesus.

So, isn’t that the best test? Shouldn’t we be applauding The Shack, if the movie is successful, because it is bringing people to Christ?

I said above that I have to look at the object itself, because my question is, Is The Shack truly Christian? Lots of things can bring people to Christ. War has been known to do so. A friend of mine came to Christ by reading a novel. Others look at the heavens and know they need to find the One who made them. After 9/11, here in the US any number of people turned to God in the midst of their fear and uncertainty.

Would we say war is “Christian” because some soldiers reported coming to Christ when faced with their own mortality? No, certainly not. God can and does use whatever means He wishes, but His use of the thing does not baptize it as emblematic of His Good News.

So I reject the idea that The Shack must be Christian because people report a deeper relationship with God after having read it.

When Paul talked about those so-called brethren in Philippi, he gave no indication that they were preaching anything but what was true about Christ. Elsewhere, however, he addressed those who were not preaching the truth.

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. No wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. Therefore it is not surprising if his servants also disguise themselves as servants of righteousness, whose end will be according to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13-15)

In writing to the Galatians he also brought up the matter:

But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. (Gal 2:4)

Clearly, Paul was not hesitant to call out those who were not preaching the gospel but who were masquerading as if they were fellow believers. The same is true throughout the Bible about false teachers and false prophets. Jesus Himself made some of the strongest statements about “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” about false prophets misleading many, even about false Christs.

So determining who is and who isn’t a Christian, what is and what isn’t true Christian teaching, seems like an important aptitude.

Yet I know people will hold back for fear of judging. We aren’t supposed to judge each other, are we?

We’re not.

But that doesn’t mean we’re to put our brains on hold, either. We can still think. We can still look at the story on the screen and compare it with what the Bible says. Which is, after all, the unchanging, authoritative Truth by which we know what “Christian” means.

This article is a re-post of the one I published today at Speculative Faith.

Published in: on February 20, 2017 at 5:45 pm  Comments (11)  
Tags: , , ,

Standing Up For Magic


magic-book
Several speculative writers (E. Stephen Burnett at Speculative Faith, for one) have been looking at the subject of magic from the vantage point of Christians trusting something other than God and His word in their pursuit of righteousness—including their efforts to controvert magic. As a result, some in this camp take a stand against speculative fiction, whether from a Christian or not, that includes magic.

I’m convinced that those who would blackball a work of fiction for including magic are in the minority, but I don’t think it hurts to take another look at the subject. Here’s a reprise of an article that examines magic using the lens of the Bible.

– – – – –

Some time ago I had a discussion with a Christian who considers much of speculative fiction to be opposed to the Bible. I’ve only had a few encounters with people who hold this view, though other writers have spoken of being surrounded by such folk.

The exchange reminds me that it’s wise to confront this attitude head-on, with Scripture, starting with the fundamental question some ask: how does a Christian fantasy writer handle magic since magic is intrinsically un-Christian.

Interesting.

Here’s the first definition for magic in the Oxford American Dictionaries: “the power of apparently influencing the course of events by using mysterious or supernatural forces.”

My question, then is, Do we Christians not consider God “supernatural”? But … but…but … Someone may well say God’s work is miraculous, not magic. And the Oxford American Dictionaries would agree that God’s work is miraculous: “occurring through divine or supernatural intervention, or manifesting such power.”

But isn’t miraculous simply a more narrowed term, specifically referencing the divine? Magic, on the other hand, does not exclude the divine.

However, I don’t want to get too caught up in semantics. Let’s agree that the Bible does warn against magic and witchcraft and other sorts of divination sought from powers other than God Himself.

In contrast, God’s powerful works are called miraculous and prophetic.

The point that is noteworthy for fantasy writers and readers, however, is this: the Bible makes it clear that both God and Satan have power. Not in equal measure. Satan is no more omnipotent than he is omnipresent, though I suspect he’d like Man to think he is both.

Make no mistake. God’s power trumps Satan’s, and it’s not even a fair comparison. Satan may not get this because it seems he keeps trying to go up against God, as if he can outmaneuver Wisdom or out-muscle Omnipotence.

Be that as it may, we can’t deny that he has power and it is supernatural—beyond Man’s abilities. Pharaoh had his magicians and so did Nebuchadnezzar, and seemingly they were used to these conjurers producing what normal folk could not. Their power was not from God, however.

Moses, with the rod of God, went head to head with Pharaoh’s magicians, if you recall, and God’s power dominated. Nebuchadnezzar’s sorcerers could not tell their king his dream, let alone the interpretation of it, but God’s man, Daniel, could.

But back to fantasy. If supernatural power—good and evil—is real, then why should Christian fantasy writers pretend that the evil forces in their stories don’t have real supernatural power? Why should we pretend that those siding with good have no supernatural power?

Fantasy, after all, gives a story-long metaphor for the real world. Why would we want to give Christians—young adults or adults—the idea that there isn’t actually supernatural power of any kind by doing away with magic in our stories?

It seems to me it’s important to address the source of power and the reality of power and the proper attitude toward power—all of which fantasy can address. Unless, of course, a Christian story must be scrubbed clean of supernatural power.

This post is an edited version of one that first appeared here in 2010 and was republished in August 2013.

Morality In Fiction


Reading_Jane_EyreIn response to “Fiction Isn’t Lying”, a number of people, here and at Facebook, said they had experience with people who thought of fiction as a form of lying. Once again I was shocked. The thrust of the article, however, dealt with the Christian’s responsibility to speak truthfully about God in our fiction.

I’ll say again, Christians do not have to speak about God, directly or indirectly, but should we choose to do so, we have an imperative to be truthful. But “truthful” doesn’t mean we must tell all about God. First, it’s not possible to do so, and second, so much theology would overwhelm the story so that it would cease being a story.

I’m convinced that many readers and writers alike stumble over theology in stories because they confuse it with moral teaching. Two years ago I wrote a short series about that issue, and I’m re-posting the concluding article which sums up more completely than the final paragraph in yesterday’s article, what I believe about morality versus theology in fiction. Here is that article:

– – – – –

In my recent brief series, Theology Versus Morality, (Parts 1, 2, and 3), I essentially took a stand for theology in Christian fiction while calling into question the validity of judging a novel by its morality. For example, in part 2 I said,

I tend to think too many Christians put the cart of morality before the horse of theology. In fact we advocate certain behavior without the foundational belief system that can rightly shape a person’s actions.

Later I added

When it comes to fiction, I think there’s a segment of Christian readers who want their brand of morality mirrored in the stories they read. In fact, for some, the morality might be more important than the theology.

I think that position is bad for fiction and bad for Christianity.

Does that mean that morality has no place in fiction? Should we write the story of adultery with nothing but a suggestion that a way of escape exists? That would be truthful to the way the world is and truthful to theology.

But is it sufficient for the needs of society?

I look at western society, and I see a growing cesspool of immorality. We have TV programs with titles like Scandal and Revenge and Betrayal. Others focus on the criminal mind and blood splatters and entries wound, with the intent to show the process of catching those who perpetrate psychotic and cruel behavior.

We have TV news magazines discussing yet another school shooting, one many people forget because “only” three children died.

Last night’s news carried stories of an old man struck down with intent by a hit-and-run driver in a gas station as he walked toward the office to pay for his gas and of a twelve-year-old and his mother living next door to a state senator (i.e., not your usual violent-crime neighbor) who were bound and gagged while a crew of four robbed their home on a Sunday afternoon.

Further, an NBA athlete was celebrated this week as the first openly gay player in any of the four major sports in the US.

Then on Facebook today, one topic of discussion revolves around an article about the growing advocacy for “polyamory” especially by the media. Clearly, if marriage is no longer allowed to be defined as a relationship between a man and a woman, why should it be limited to a single person with another single person, instead of multiples?

There’s more, from the LGBT community successfully advocating here in SoCal for children to pick the bathroom, locker room, gender sports team, based on how they feel, not on their biology, to the new idea for losing weight based on Yoga meditation and fasting during certain phases of the moon.

The muck and mire of the world is thick and growing thicker.

So do Christian novelists simply tag along, showing society as it is, without addressing morality in our stories? Do we write to the edge, and when the edge shifts further from us, scurry along behind in an effort to catch up? Quite honestly, I think that description fits too much Christian fiction.

Many of the strictures that writers complained about are gone. Christian fiction has characters that are divorced, have affairs, drink, see ghosts, see demons—all things that once were considered taboo. But as general market fiction played at the edges, Christian writers begged to be allowed the same latitude.

The problem, as I see it, is that this move toward a reversal of moral constriction is built on the same error as that which established the legalistic mores in the first place—theology does not undergird the view of morality.

Prager-ZachariasInterestingly, apologist Ravi Zacharias, in a discussion Saturday with radio personality Dennis Prager, identified three levels in which philosophy is passed on: (1) argumentation—reason; (2) art—the imagination; (3) “kitchen table conversation”—the daily statements of belief. To influence society, then, Zacharias says we must argue from reason, illustrate in our art, and live out our beliefs. The problem he says, is that we try to do number three without number one and number two.

Exacerbating the problem, I believe is something G. K. Chesterton identified:

Nothing sublimely artistic has ever arisen out of mere art … There must always be a rich moral soil for any artistic growth.

So if society has lost its “rich moral soil,” how is art to illustrate the theology (philosophy) that underpins our beliefs?

In other words, we are in a downward spiral—a morally vacuous society that cannot produce art which will show us how to live morally.

There but for the grace of God are we all.

But God does give a greater grace. He is “opposed to the proud but gives grace to the humble,” Scripture says.

So, what if Christian novelists determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and Him crucified? What if we painted theology into every corner of our art—and won awards doing so? What if we stopped fighting to get cuss words into our stories or stopped counting the number of times the characters say golly or disobey their parents, and started writing to show what God is like, to show His Son, to the best of our ability? What if we gave stories that illustrated the power of forgiveness or love for an enemy, neighbor, or stranger, or for God? What if our stories show what we say we believe?

Wouldn’t that be a step in the process of influencing our society to get out of the morass we are making?

Fiction Isn’t Lying . . . Until It Is


booksSome Christians, apparently, don’t think it’s OK to read fiction because fiction is all about made up characters, places, and events. In other words, it’s all lies.

I had never heard that point of view until I got on the Internet, and then mostly other writers said they’d been confronted by others who chastised them for their lies. I did read a post once by someone who took that extreme position, but it was new to me.

For one thing, appealing to the definition of lie explodes that view, the key being the intention of deception. No one who writes fiction pretends their story is factual. No one who reads fiction is unaware that the story is pretend. So no one is deceiving or being deceived. So fiction isn’t lying.

In addition, authors of fiction use the pretend to make statements about reality. In all my literature classes throughout college, we analyzed stories to determine, among other things, what the author was saying, what he wanted readers to take away or to believe about humankind or the world or God. Thomas Hardy, for example, wrote stories to show that humankind is pushed and pulled by fate. On the other hand, Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol which showed that a person can change his ways and isn’t locked into beliefs by chance circumstances.

Those two views which are in opposition to one another can hardly both be true. One might be truthful or they both might be false, but they both can’t be true.

It’s still probably incorrect to say that one which is not truthful is therefore a lie. I’m certain Thomas Hardy believed he was truthfully showing readers the way the world worked, but he was wrong. In his made up stories Hardy revealed his own belief system, one that replaced God with the ‘unconscious will of the Universe’ (see Wikipedia).

My question is this: ought not a Christian writer who knows the truth, reflect truth in any story he or she writes? I want to be clear: I do not think any story can tell ALL truth. For one thing, we don’t have all truth. The Bible, though complete, doesn’t show us all there is to know about God. It is our view of the world through that dark mirror I Corinthians 13 mentions. Second, ALL truth would not fit into one story, even one the size of The Grapes of Wrath or Gone With The Wind.

So what “truth” is a novelist supposed to show in his or her story?

That’s the beauty of writing. An author can open the door for readers regarding all kinds of important truths.

I’m thinking of one novel, for instance, a fantasy, in which the God of that world was worshiped by both factions in an owner/slave society. Both believe this God figure provides for them. Which brings up all kinds of interesting questions: does God provide for the wicked as well as for the victimized? Are those enslaved believing in this God in vain? Is the ruling class worshiping in hypocrisy? Is there anything similar going on in our world?

I could go on to discuss ways in which a novelist can show truth by developing their theme, but the point I want to make is this: a Christian writer, while not burdened to show all truth (an impossibility, but an attempt at such would clearly necessitate the entire plan of salvation), should show truth.

Of course it’s possible to leave out any direct reference to God and still show truth. J. R. R. Tolkien did that. He had Christ figures, but not a direct reference to God or to Jesus.

What Tolkien did not do was mislead people about those Christ figures. He did not have Gandalf decide to take the One Ring for himself. He did not have Aragon desert the forces of Gondor. The one who would sacrifice himself for the fellowship did not turn evil. The returning king did not forsake those who trusted him.

Thus, what an author chooses to show about truth is really up to him, but he must do so faithfully. He would be lying to portray God or a God figure in his world to be selfish or greedy or blood-thirsty or immoral or weak. Any of those would be a lie. A Christian who knows God must portray some truth about Him if He or a representative figure shows up in the story.

Non-Christians who turn God into an it with an unconscious will or who make Him out to be evil, as I understand Phillip Pullman did in his fantasy series, aren’t lying about God in the same way a Christian who knows the truth would be. Rather, they have rejected God and are trying to make sense of the world without Him. They are more to be pitied, though readers must beware so they see the ways their views deviate from the truth.

In short, the Christian is really the only one who can lie in fiction. We know the truth. If we purposely misrepresent God, how can that be thought of as anything but a lie?

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)  
Tags: , , , , ,

Affecting Culture Through Stories


HollywoodStreetPreachingHow important are stories? Next to actual Bible study, I suggest they are the most powerful teaching tools available.

Way back when—more than twenty years ago—I read a book by Gary Smalley (which, it turns out, was re-released several years ago) entitled The Language of Love. In that book, Smalley suggested a communication technique that would especially help women reach men, not with abstract information but at the heart level. The technique, in essence is, to tell a story.

After reading that book, I began to see ways in which our culture has been and is being shaped by the stories we embrace. Changes in attitudes toward a particular moral idea often follow the gradual changes in depicting the topic in the media. (The typical pattern is first to make a joke about the subject until joking about it is normative; then joking changes to acceptance and open discussion; acknowledgment, especially of the rights an individual has in connection to the subject then morphs to an attitude of “everyone does it” or “they’re just like us.” This pattern is evident in things such as the attitudes toward pornography and homosexuality).

I was reminded of this by two unrelated sources. One, a letter from a US-based ministry, quoted statistics published in the AARP magazine (that’s for seniors), including questions like, “Do you believe in God, in heaven, in hell?” The startling thing for me was this report:

There was a sizeable number of individuals who believed in a second time around. 23% believed in reincarnation (50 years ago the % would have been 1.)

Now for the second source. In a blog post including information from an interview about the non-fiction book, Rethinking Worldview author Mark Bertrand said this:

After all, the average Christian has been much more profoundly influenced by non-Christian art and entertainment than he has by non-Christian evangelism and apologetics.

That line made total sense as I thought about the 22% of our population who have converted to belief in reincarnation, without people standing on the street corners handing out tracts about it. Or holding reincarnation tent meetings.

Mind you, I am not against these kinds of evangelism tools in the hands of Christians. The point is, persuasion often comes in more subtle ways—through pop culture, through art, through literature.

I’ve ranted before about the “innocent” little Disney movie that so many Christians embraced, The Lion King, in which many New Age teachings were front and center. Shortly thereafter (at least here in SoCal), makeshift shrines began to appear on the street when someone died, followed with claims that “I know my deceased ____ is watching over me/helping me/looking down on me.” I’ve heard such anti-biblical comments from people who claim to be Christians. And maybe are.

The point is, the culture, and story in particular, has had a greater influence on forming belief about death and the afterlife than has the Bible and preaching about the subject. Well, to be fair, maybe not a greater influence. After all, the reincarnation number is still not the majority.

Sadly, however, only 29% believed they would go to Heaven because of a belief in Jesus Christ, though 88% said they believed THEY would go to heaven. Clearly, our culture is an eclectic hodge-podge of false teaching, with truth mixed in.

And how can we sort through the sludge to show the gospel? Next to Bible study and good expository Bible teaching in church, I tend to think stories can be the most effective tools.

With some minor revision, this post first appeared here in September 2007.