Does Theology Have A Place In Fiction?


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

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

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

Then a few sentences later:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It does seem like an argument for doing so poorly.

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

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

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

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

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


(Yes, an anomalous Saturday post—I owe you one from the week I was sick.)

How long do you keep after something if it’s not working?

Over and over I read on the Internet and in author interviews and in writing publications that above all else, a writer needs to persevere. I’m wondering, then, if that shouldn’t be true of publishing houses.

Recently the Evangelical Christian Publishing Association (ECPA) put on a Book Expo designed to supplant the Christian Booksellers Association (CBA) trade show. The idea was that a books-only event aimed at readers, not bookstore owners and managers, would do more for the publishing business.

From all reports (here’s Thomas Nelson CEO, Michale Hyatt’s), however, the event was a dismal failure. While the organizers anticipated upwards of 15,000 people to attend, the numbers were closer to 1500. Discussion has flurried and those in the know have a sense of what went wrong and how the event could be improved. (Chip MacGregor voiced his opinion here and an “insider,” here.)

Apparently the problem was not with the product—the panels and author appearances received high marks. Where things broke down seems to be in the promotion, along with the cost and the venue.

I can testify that Internet promotion was nearly non-existent. I am involved in several writer groups and I visit a number of writer blogs. When I recently read that someone was getting ready to head off to Dallas for the book expo, my reaction was, Really, it’s here so soon? I thought about it a moment, then remember that when I first heard about the event I thought it was too bad it was so close to the Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference. I figured one would necessarily hurt the attendance of the other since few writers would want to leave home for Dallas, then turn around less than a month later and fly to California.

Apart from the poorly chosen date, I wondered why I hadn’t heard more about the event. From reports, evidently the ECPA executives assumed the publishers would promote it. Could be the publishers, in turn, assumed the writers would promote it. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers thought, Finally, an event I don’t have to promote.

All the what-went-wrong discussion aside, some insiders have expressed doubts about a second ECPA book expo.

Are they so quick to give up? When writers are told to persevere, persevere, persevere?

Unfortunately, I see a trend. Recently D. Barkley Briggs announced that NavPress, the publisher of his YA fantasy, The Book of Names, was pulling the plug on book two. The amazing thing is, the book is edited, the cover designed, the pages typeset. In fact the book was due to release next month, but reportedly the sales numbers for The Book of Names don’t warrant going ahead with the project.

This is a repeat of what Kathryn Mackel experienced when Strang pulled the plug on her supernatural suspense after the first book, Vanished, came out.

What happened to perseverance? When a person or a business or an association takes on a new project, there should be some understanding that success won’t be instantaneous, that getting the word out to all the right people takes time and effort (and some money).

But here’s a bigger consideration for Christians. If we pursue something we believe God has led us to, doesn’t that require us to hang in there and trust that He will see us through? (Especially if “hanging in there” means honoring a contract?)

The fright-and-flight reaction of these publishers who lost a lot of money on the book expo, and of NavPress, which apparently lost money on The Book of Names, is similar to the reaction Gideon could have had when God sent home 99 percent of his army and the reaction Saul did have as his army deserted him.

In Gideon’s case, he trusted God and his gang of 300 achieved an incredible victory. In Saul’s case, he took things in his own hands, ended up incurring God’s wrath, and lost everything.

So back to the question: How long do you keep after something if it’s not working? As long as God wants you to. It seems like the right answer for writers, publishers, and associations alike.

More on Blogging—Book Buzz, Part 4


So we have a successful blog and we have a book with high-quality content. Is buzz assured? Hardly. I don’t know the latest figure tallying the number of people who blog, but a recent book on the subject says the number doubles every five months. That puts the total in the millions, I’m guessing, so how is my little voice going to stir action when so many voices are asking for attention and a response at the same time?

One key component is the trust factor. Some bloggers, because of their position, have others listening to them. Examples in Christian writing circles would be Thomas Nelson CEO, Michael Hyatt or agents such as Chip MacGregor.

Others have built up trust because of what they say or because of their experience. Brandilyn Collins comes to mind. As a relatively new and successful author, she hooked a number of us onto her blog because she shared a detailed, and often humorous, account of her road to publication.

For those of us who have no high-profile position and no validating experience, the job of creating buzz via blogging is somewhat harder but certainly not impossible.

One of the most successful is Camy Tang. Besides building up her blog readership, she has ventured into a number of other buzz-creating endeavors. One such is to offer freebies. People love winning free stuff and will often continue to come to a site and leave a comment on the chance they will win.

“Free stuff” can be free info, especially if the person is situated as an insider. Randy Ingermanson may be the best writer offering free help for those starting out, to the point that he has morphed his teaching into a business. Agent Terry Whalin also has a number of free articles he links to at his blog.

Besides offering free info or books or what have you, bloggers are building buzz through blog tours such as CSFF, blog carnivals, and blog parties. Parties have extended to launch parties. I haven’t seen one of these done up big yet. The only “party” I was involved in, I was pretty much on the periphery, but the buzz part was created by every participant posting a link to party headquarters. Also, lots and lots of people donated prizes, so the purpose was really to join the party, post, and see if you might win something.

Contests are another part of creating book buzz, and blogs are ideal for holding contests such as Fantasy Challenge and Fantasy Challenge II or Wayne Batson’s Treasure Hunt.

But there’s even more. Can you tell blogging is becoming one of the bigger pieces of the marketing pie?

Some of This, a Little of That


So I’ve been catching up on blog posts I wasn’t reading this week because I was touring CSFF participants’ sites instead. Lots going on, but nothing that really stuck as something I HAVE to post on my blog.

For writers, Chip MacGregor has a post about agents and proposals. President and CEO of Thomas Nelson, Michael Hyatt, posted a list of agents his company uses.

For regular visitors here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction, we are nearing the end of the Fantasy Challenge II. If you have something to report, I hope you’ll take a moment to write up your comment as soon as possible.

For fantasy fans, Latest In Spec will be coming out with a special Christmas Gift Issue that you’ll want to get a copy of. It’s a great resource for you and for those you influence—your local librarian, your children’s teachers, your local bookstore managers.

Another fantasy tidbit. The online December issue of CBA: the Association of Christian Retailing listed Wayne Thomas Batson‘s Isle of Swords as #4 on the YA best-selling list. Of course it continues to do well at Amazon.com and is even listed as #5 for children’s books about pirates.

Still, His Dark Materials, atheist Philip Pullman’s children’s series, is getting a big push with the upcoming movie release of The Golden Compass and high on Amazon’s best-seller list. It’s unfortunate, but I tend to think the Christian reaction to the books and movie helps spur interest. More on that subject tomorrow.

It Really Is Up to Readers


As near as I can tell, editors and agents are just too busy to know what readers actually want. As Thomas Nelson CEO Michael Hyatt admitted in a blog post last May, publishers do not do market studies. They rely on “the Book Industry Study Group and various trade associations … but very little is done at the individual publisher level.” Instead, marketing trends become apparent after the fact, based on the sales record of particular books.

In my mind, this explains some of the tendencies I see in the CBA, one being the slow response to the fantasy craze in the culture. This, from agent Steve Laube via Chip MacGreagor’s blog,

We get the same problem with science-fiction and fantasy (which are two distinct genres, contrary to common verbiage). I championed that category when I was at Bethany House and we launched Karen Hancock, Randy Ingermanson, John Olson, and Kathy Tyres. Unfortunately the market was soft and the category sort of frittered away to where the 2007 Christy Awards didn’t even have the category designated for an award. However at the same time we have observed the wild success of CBA YA fantasy novels from both Donita K. Paul and Bryan Davis. That success has opened a small window of opportunity in this category for adults too. Only a couple publishers are looking, and I can state that they will probably only release one or two authors, and wait for the market to vote. If the numbers are not strong? The cycle will begin all over again.

Steve is right about the publishers waiting “for the market to vote.” I’ve had two acquisitions editors tell me personally or publicly that they are waiting to see how current projects do before making a decision about acquiring additional fantasy projects.

As a writer on the out, looking in, I feel frustrated at times. Granted, Donita Paul and Bryan Davis are selling well. To have Steve characterize their works as wildly successful is incredibly encouraging. But isn’t Wayne Batson also wildly successful? Doesn’t the media attention from this summer (remember the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly articles), not to mention the soon-to-be released Reuters interview with Batson and Christopher Hopper, count for something when publishers consider what projects to pursue? From where I sit (outside looking in, remember) it appears that sales trump all.

How unfortunate. Of the authors that Steve Laube contracted for Bethany, only one is a fantasy writer, so as a reader I admit I was not out there buying science fiction. But the combined genre got a black eye because the sales of all the books weren’t … what? Making money hand over fist? 🙂 I admit, I don’t even know what publishers consider “successful.” And in any case, I don’t have any real sales numbers to go by, anyway.

So guess what? It keeps coming back to the same thing—if we want Christian fantasy, we have to buy Christian fantasy.

So, who’s on your Christmas list that could surely benefit from reading a good fantasy? 😀

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