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.

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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)  
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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)  
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Morality In Fiction


Prager-ZachariasIn 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.

Interestingly, 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 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 break the Ten Commandments, 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?

Theology Versus Morality, Part 3


Shepherdandsheep_1298569I ended Part 2, Theology Versus Morality by suggesting that there was perhaps more than one reason some readers want stories that show a “complete conversion”–one in which the protagonist apparently stops sinning.

The problem, of course, is that the story generally ends when the character conquers whatever problem he’s been plagued by, often by making a commitment to Christ. The implication is that ALL is solved and the character will never face the problem again. I suggested some read or write these stories because they put morality ahead of theology. Essentially they’re saying a moral life is the measure of a person’s relationship with God. It’s the same argument Job’s friends made.

But in the stories I’m talking about, the reward God gives is victory over sin.

And the truth is, God does give victory over sin. However, a new believer isn’t always free from addiction at the moment of conversion. Some people struggle. In fact, my guess is that more people identify with Paul’s statements in Romans 7 about the war between what he wants and what he does, than identify with what he said in Romans 6:

our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin. (vv 6-7)

Freed from sin, Paul says, but still struggling. Our fiction, however, seems to tell only the first part–freed from sin. Almost automatically. Almost magically. And those stories don’t ring true to readers who struggle with sin in their own lives.

Writers might be penning these stories because they have elevated morality above theology, but they also might write them because they have a philosophy of storytelling that values creating a model for readers to emulate.

A couple years ago I did some study for an article at Spec Faith and discovered that the novel in its earliest forms had two distinct purposes. One was “to invite the readers to mirror the virtues of the story heroes” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

I suspect this goal is still the desire of many writers. After all, we as a society copy those we look up to. That’s how fads and fashions catch on. That’s why ad companies use slogans like “Be like Mike,” a popular phrase back in the day when Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.

The key for Christian writers, I believe, is to show a character struggling, wrestling, working to turn away from evil and do good. After all, the Bible says a lot about morality. It would be one sided to pretend that God only cares about what we believe concerning Him, not what we do as a result of our belief.

But we must see morality as an outgrowth of our belief, not a means to gain right standing with God. And the depiction of morality in fiction must not confuse the two.

Some writers, however, believe that, rather than giving a model for readers to emulate, fiction should be a means to understand the world–natural and supernatural. To accomplish this, the writer must accurately and truthful reflect the world, warts and all.

This last approach creates stories that are in line with ones you can find in the book of Judges, involving such things as gang rape and murder, idolatry, betrayal, thievery, abuse, war. The idea is to discover and understand, “to expose life and society for what it is” (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”).

These stories, then, subjugate theology to morality, but not for the sake of establishing right morality per se. Rather, a reflection of society, especially an unrestricted look at the underbelly, which exposes or critiques, is the goal.

Here are the two views, both holding theology at bay:

If we understand reading to be a mechanism by which we learn how to be or as a means for personal growth, then we probably want books that call us to godliness or at least to ethical behavior.

If on the other hand, we see reading as a reflection and critique of society, then we want stories that push our awareness of the world, including the seamy side of society. (“The Point And Purpose Of Reading Fiction”)

What I wonder is why those who want to “push our awareness of the world” don’t see as paramount the need to push our awareness of the spiritual side of the world. And by this, I’m not suggesting we need more stories about demons or angels in the vein of Frank Peretti. Rather, there seems to be a great desire to show cursing construction workers and women who sleep around, and not so much a desire to show a loving God who will tend His people like a shepherd, who will carry us with His arm, or hold us close to His chest, or gently lead us.

This is the picture God gives of Himself in Isaiah 40:11. Do we fiction writers think it’s unimportant for the world to understand God as He has shown Himself? Or do we give verbal assent to it but doubt in our hearts that He really shows Himself as He described?

That, I think, might be the key question Christian writers should ask of ourselves. Maybe that all of us should ask.

(Here are the links to Parts 1 and 2.)

Published in: on February 14, 2014 at 6:42 pm  Comments (4)  
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Theology Versus Morality, Part 2


old-carriage-954803-mThere’s a saying my mom used to use which I think is fitting in this discussion about theology and morality. I’ve specifically applied the contrast to fiction, but I think it fits all of life. That saying is, “Don’t get the cart before the horse.”

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.

I don’t want to disparage morality. God clearly chastised Israel for their moral failings–they didn’t keep the Sabbath, didn’t care for orphans and widows, engaged in child sacrifice, trusted in foreign powers. But behind their moral failings was their great theological error:

For my people have committed two evils:
They have forsaken Me,
The fountain of living waters,
To hew for themselves cisterns,
Broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jer. 2:13)

In a nutshell, Israel abandoned God and chose to create their own system of righteousness. I suggest that a great number of people identifying as Christian today are doing the same thing, whether Progressive Christians or Word of Faith folks or universalists or Jehovah’s Witnesses or Sinless Perfectionists or Trinitarian Theology adherents or Westbow Baptists or any number of other people believing that the good things they do make them acceptable in God’s eyes.

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.

We end up, then, with criticism of books like Harry Potter that sounds like this: Never mind that Harry is trying to save the world, he left his dorm room without permission.

Of course he also conspired to take what wasn’t his, lied about leaving school, and broke a host of school rules–all for the greater good. Do such stories teach situational ethics, then?

Perhaps because the Harry Potter books do not pretend to be Christian, they aren’t good examples of viewing morality over theology. But the point is, readers often judge a book by its morality, not its theology.

In fact, there was considerable theology in the Harry Potter books–especially in the last book where Harry sacrifices himself to destroy the enemy. Certainly he was not a Christ figure in the same way that Aslan was in the Narnia books, but he was a type–“a person or thing symbolizing or exemplifying the ideal or defining characteristics of something” (Oxford English Dictionary). Harry exemplified Christ’s defining sacrificial characteristic much the way Biblical figures such as King David exemplified His Kingship and Moses, His role as mediator. They, of course, were real people, though flawed. Harry is fictitious, and equally flawed.

The fact that the Bible uses morally flawed people to point to Christ gives me hope, and it guides my thinking about fiction. The Bible never covered over the sins of the heroes of the faith. Take a look at the list in Hebrews 11, for example. Noah got drunk, Abraham lied, Sarah gave her servant to her husband as his mistress, Issac favored Esau, Jacob deceived his father in order to steal his brother’s blessing, Joseph bragged about his dreams, Moses committed murder, Rahab was a prostitute. None of these people is listed in Hebrews because of their morality. Rather, they had right theology.

I can only conclude that theology trumps morality. But I’m confident right theology leads to right behavior. However, the sanctifying process takes time–a life time, actually.

Why, then, do some readers demand a false conversion in fiction–one that shows characters no longer sinning? There are two possibilities. One is that some readers are choosing good morals over right theology. And that’s a problem.

The other is a more involved possibility, and I’ll reserve that for discussion another day.

(If you’d like to read or re-read the previous article, “Theology Versus Morality,” you’ll find it here.)

Theology Versus Morality


Lion-origional, smallFor over a week I’ve been thinking about theology in fiction. Well, truthfully, I’ve been thinking about it ever since a well-known, respected man in Christian schools circles he couldn’t endorse my fantasy because it had talking animals.

What? Had he not read Narnia?

I was stunned, flabbergasted, frustrated, appalled. And I changed the specifics of my story so animals don’t talk. Not because I agreed with the idea that something was wrong with animals talking. I mean, it’s fantasy! But I wanted to sell my book and have key people endorse it so that more people would read it. Never happened, but that’s not the issue for this post. Rather, it’s the question about where theology belongs in fiction.

This discussion which crops up from time to time, started with a guest blog post by James Somers at Spec Faith. Author Mike Duran picked up on something James said and wrote “No Zombies Allowed (In Christian Fiction).” To which I responded with “Reading Choices: Realism, Truth, And The Bible,” an article which I believed took a middle-ground approach. Mike, in turn, answered my points with a Part 1 and Part 2 rebuttal.

So, yes, this subject has been on my mind and continues to be on my mind. I apologize if this issue isn’t of universal interest. I acknowledge I might be one of the few people still wrestling with the subject, but I think it’s important.

Above all, fiction should convey truth. Novels are not a sermons; they’re illustrations. They show whereas non-fiction tells.

Bad stories are about nothing. False stories are ones that show a lie as if it were truth.

Christian stories should neither be bad or false.

What should they be? In my view, they must be theologically true. That is, they must represent God truthfully, in some way.

God cannot be contained within the pages of one story. He took the entire sixty-six books of the Bible to reveal Himself. Why would anyone think a four-hundred page book could show all of who He is?

But if a book shows God, it must be truthful in what it shows.

Not all books must show God. Some can be morally true and silent on theology.

They can, for example, show that lying is wrong. All kinds of stories have made a statement about lying, and some are written by non-Christians who have no belief in the authoritative Word of God to undergird their position. Nevertheless, they believe lying is wrong and that it is a worthy truth upon which to center a story.

Moral truth is not the same as theological truth. This fact seemed lost on many Christians during the last Presidential election here in the US. A moral man, whose morality agreed in many respects with Bible believing Christians (and disagreed in many ways that never came to light–but that’s a separate issue) ran for office with the expectation that Christians would vote for him. He implied that since his morality was similar, his theology aligned with Christianity.

That’s not true. I’ll tell you whose morality aligns in many respects to Christians–Muslims. But I’m getting sidetracked. The point is, a person can be pro-life or anti-lying and still have wrong views about God. Morality and theology are not the same.

Some people want to impose morality upon fiction. Or some morality.

I suppose I’m one. I’ve said vehemently that I think Christian fiction has no business following a couple into the bedroom and showing their sex act, whether they’re married or not. That’s a moral judgment on my part. I have reached that position via my theology, but that stance is not a theological one.

Like other moral ideas, that one can be shared by people of an number of faiths or no faith at all. It is moral, not theological.

It is theology that Christians need to get right, though I’ll reiterate–not all stories must speak about God. I’d hope that Christians would want to speak about God, whether overtly or symbolically or allegorically or surreptitiously.

I’d hope Christians would want to proclaim Him–to point to His work, His plans and person and purposes. And if they do, they must show Him as He has shown Himself. For example, God isn’t arbitrary.

But wait a minute. A lot of people think He is. Must that aspect of God’s character be true to who He is or to what people think Him to be? I believe, true to who He is.

No one else can speak the truth about God. Only Christians have seen Jesus and therefore seen the Father. Only Christians have the Holy Spirit. Everyone else who speaks about God is going to get it wrong at some point.

So why would Christians want to muddle around, nitpicking about moral matters when theological ones need to be truthfully shown?

Mike Duran used a great illustration which he borrowed from C. S. Lewis. The idea is that a story is the scaffolding for theological truth (in the context of what Lewis said, he was referring to the Resurrection). Mike said, “When we become preoccupied with a story’s ‘scaffolding’ and niggle over literary ‘artifices,’ we will inevitably miss the bigger story.”

The bigger story, as I see it, is what Lewis referred to as the True Myth–the story of God loving His creation, dying and rising for His creation lost in darkness that He might redeem all who believe.

What part of that story can Christian speculative fiction show? Does the idea of all stories being “about” the Great Story seem limiting, boring, predictable? No story has to be any of those.

But it doesn’t happen by hoping. Lewis didn’t hope Aslan would rule Narnia the way God rules our world. He purposefully crafted him to do so.

But now I’m straying toward a discussion on craft. I’ll stop. The point for this discussion is that stories can be moral or they can be theological. They can even be both. But stories held to a rigid morality ought not be confused with ones held to a truthful theology.

Published in: on February 12, 2014 at 8:12 pm  Comments (9)  
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CSFF Blog Tour-A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot by Patrick Carr, Day 1


    I see the Christian spec-fic genre as requiring a fairly serious break from the “bad theology” that has shaped much of mainstream Christian fic and a revisiting of a theology of the arts.

Them are my cards and they’re all on the table — “bad theology” has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.

My guess — no, my fear — is that many advocates of Christian speculative fiction are importing the same faulty theology and worldview into their approach of the Christian speculative fiction genre.

A-Cast-of-StonesSo said author Mike Duran in his post entitled “Christian Spec-Fic & ‘Intellectual Rigor’ — A Proposal.”

As it turned out, in the discussion that ensued, I presented Mike with a counter proposal, and he accepted. I gave him a short list of novels to choose from and challenged him to read and review whichever book he picked, in light of his question about Christian speculative fiction. As it happens, he selected A Cast of Stones, Book 1 of The Staff & the Sword series, by Patrick Carr, the second August selection of the CSFF Blog Tour.

Happily, Mike learned that in honor of the release of Book 2, The Hero’s Lot, A Cast of Stones is currently being offered as a free ebook (Nook is offering it for free as well), so he also invited his Facebook friends to join him in the challenge. One person even suggested a Facebook page where readers could discuss the book.

I wanted to intervene and say that such a discussion is the kind of thing that participants of the CSFF Blog Tour get to do, but I refrained–I don’t want to turn a positive conversation into smarmy spam. 😀

As to the portion of Mike’s post which I quoted above, I’ve spent some time trying to discern what “bad theology” Mike is referring to. From what he’s said in other posts and what he’s said in real life, I know he believes the Bible in the same way I do.

What he doesn’t believe (and again, I agree) is that there is a set of conservative behavioral standards often adhered to by an element of the more conservative evangelical churches which defines or even identifies Christians–things like no drinking, dancing, smoking, swearing. A number of readers who admittedly don’t read Christian fiction believe that these stories still hold to those standards. More than once I’ve heard how Christian fiction can’t show someone drinking, for instance.

It’s a laughable statement, and has been for at least five years, but A Cast of Stones ought to put the issue to bed because the protagonist of the story, Errol Stone, is the town drunk. (Note, he doesn’t just drink, but he is a drunk, something Scripture does, in fact, speak against). And yet, some strictures remain–primarily a prohibition against swearing and “coarse” language and against sex scenes.

As I understand Mike, this kind of “PG-rated story” means Christian speculative fiction is still tied to bad theology that says good Christians don’t do “those things” or at least want to hide their eyes from others doing those things.

I think I understand his point. Books that frown on including curse words have no compunction against showing characters steeped in greed and anger. Some have characters that slander their neighbors, or ignore the homeless. Why have evangelicals picked out a set of “defining sins” that aren’t in Scripture–at least in the way Christians use them–while ignoring others?

There’s something else in another comment that I think might also get to what Mike means by “bad theology”–that Christians have a bad theology of the arts. They exist as a means to evangelize. They are, in essence, little more than a pragmatic way to take the message of the gospel to those who need to hear. Or they are a means by which Christians can reinforce their own narrow views about life and godliness.

I’m stepping out on a limb here because I don’t know which, if any, of those ideas are part of what Mike thinks is the ongoing bad theology of Christian fiction. He says he doesn’t mean content when he refers to the intellectual rigor Christian fiction is lacking.

I’ll let others ferret out precisely what Mike means. I’ve written what I mean about intellectual rigor both here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction and also at Speculative Faith. I’ve written my theology of art, too, in bits and pieces here and there (see for example this post and this one and this one). Perhaps I need to revisit the subject.

In a nutshell, I see art as little more than an extension of who I am and what I am tasked to do and be. Consequently, my art is to be consistent with my life and my life purposes. My life purposes certainly include proclaiming who Jesus is and what He’s done (“. . . that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” 1 Peter 2:9b), but that’s not the limit by any means.

And how does all this relate to A Cast of Stones, beside the fact that Mike and some of his Facebook friends will be reading and reviewing the book? I see this novel, and a number of others, breaking the mold which has limited traditional Christian fiction. It questions things other books have not questioned before. It addresses, for instance, what might be a barrier to someone becoming involved in the church–a significant topic lately considering the articles discussing why millenials are abandoning the church.

I promise–tomorrow I’ll discuss the book itself in more detail. For now, I recommend you check out what other CSFF’ers are saying about the first two of The Staff & the Sword books. (A check mark give you a link to a tour article).

Julie Bihn
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Laure Covert
Pauline Creeden
Emma or Audrey Engel
April Erwin
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler
Rachel Wyant