Showing God In Fiction Via The Protagonist

Earlier this month Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees hit a home run for his 3000 hit of his career, the first player wearing pinstripes to do so. This was big news, but someone else has crowded Jeter out of the limelight, at least a little. In the stands Christian Lopez, a recent college grad with a sizable school debt, caught the ball … and gave it back.

Those in the know say that record-setting ball could have brought between $200,000 and $1,000,000 from sports memorabilia collectors. But Lopez gave it back to Jeter, saying that he knew how important it was to the player. After all, he’d worked his whole life to get to that point. The ball was a symbol of what he had achieved and rightly belonged to him.

Some fans say Lopez played the fool. Others claim the Yankees conned him out of the ball. No one seems inclined to believe that the young man acted on a set of principles that outweighed any monetary gain or fast-talking arm twisting.

I have no idea what motivated Christian Lopez, but the key point here is, people are talking and writing about him because he did something unexpected. Unexpectedly generous. One writer asked, “What does it say about the Yankees, Mr. Jeter and our society that multi-millionaires and billionaires knowingly (and happily) accept the charity of a young man in debt?”

My question is, what does it say about the young man, acting out of step with the rest of the actors in that situation? He alone, who could least afford it, acted sacrificially.

As a result, people notice. And talk. And write. And ask, what would I have done in that situation? Is there a right or a wrong in the decision to keep the ball or give it back?

But what does any of this have to do with God and fiction?

If a simple act of kindness that cost a needy young man a sizable amount of cash can generate this kind of discussion, why can’t a character in a novel do something like this?

A Christian character, who’s faith has been established, steps up and does something out of step with what society expects. And all hell breaks lose. Literally. Temptations come his way. Criticism.

Think Joseph rejecting Potiphar’s wife. Clearly he was acting in a way that was contrary to what Mrs. Potiphar expected. And probably to what most of Egyptian society would have expected, because he made a decision, not based on his hormones but based on his relationship with the Living God.

Do we not write those stories in our novels today because we think they are too unbelievable? Would such a character seem too good for most of us to relate to?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? If we want to show God, somehow we have to show good. Not in a cliched way, not necessarily with everything turning out great in the end.

Perhaps in our stories the protagonist who sacrifices needs to end up in jail. But he’s singing. Or praying. Or telling somebody else how glad he is that God gave him the strength to resist.

Maybe that’s too over the top and no one can relate to a guy willing to go that far for his love for Christ. For this same reason, I don’t think the Apostle Paul is the Bible figure most people identify with. It’s Peter because he was just as apt to do the wrong thing as to do the right.

So maybe we take a Peter and show him giving his last dime to get his high school buddy set up in an apartment — the buddy who just got out of jail for molesting his cousin when he was still a minor. Or some other self-sacrificial thing that’s out of step with society.

Wouldn’t that get people thinking and talking? What kind of a God is this jerk following? What kind of a God is this compassionate young man following?

What do you think? Might not protagonists doing the unusual be a powerful way to show God in fiction?

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For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction,” “When God Shows Up In Fiction,” and “God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take.”

Published in: on July 14, 2011 at 5:36 pm  Comments (1)  
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God In Contemporary Fiction, Another Take

Typically readers learn about characters, not by what the author says about them or how he describes them, but by what they do. Since God does not appear in our world as a corporeal being, it’s not easy for an author to show Him in action. I mean, how is the reader to know that the protagonist’s near miss on the freeway was God’s doing?

How do we know in real life? How do we know what God is “saying” to us or how He is leading us?

Often times it’s the accumulation of things — an open door here, a closed door there, a passage of Scripture, a specifically themed article followed by a sermon much like it, and so on. But those things don’t make for great fiction.

Neither does God coming in to save the day in answer to prayer, though He might do so in real life. In fiction it looks like authorial manipulation. The story seems contrived.

The truth is, life is contrived, more than we’d like to admit. God is sovereign, after all. Yet we humans, made in His image, have the freedom to choose. So what does that combination look like in fiction?

I’ve been playing around with different options for showing God in a contemporary story, and what I keep coming back to is showing Him through a relationship with the protagonist. The reader, then, not being able to see how God acts, can see how the person trusting in God acts.

I’m still not sure where the conflict should be, but I came across this quote on Facebook, posted by the C. S. Lewis Society of California:

Be not deceived, Wormwood, our cause is never more in jeopardy than when a human, no longer desiring but still intending to do our Enemy’s will, looks round upon a universe in which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys. – C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

Besides making me want to reread the book, I saw a kernel of a story there. Not the demon’s involvement, but a protagonist still obeying in the face of events that look as if God has abandoned him.

The protagonist’s unyielding obedience, then, would serve to show us God — that He is worthy of that kind of trust, that kind of service. That His love matters more than whatever earthly stuff holding on to Him might cost.

I still think showing God truly, so that readers come away after reading the story knowing Him more, or at least being curious enough to want to know Him more, has to be some of the hardest writing a novelist can undertake.

But the more I think about it, the more I’m convinced this is what sets Christian fiction apart from all other fiction.

Christians or non-Christians can write about troubled teens who hurt themselves or others. All writers can tell stories about angst-driven adults who have been disillusioned. Christians can show the world truly and sinful man’s nature in all its ugliness in the same way that non-Christians can.

Both can also show the moral thread that runs through men and women, making some determined to fight for justice and others choosing to live by the rules of their own making.

However, only Christians can include God in a story and have Him appear as He really is. Non-Christians can’t because they don’t know Him. Of course we Christians don’t know all there is to know about God, and our stories shouldn’t lead people to believe that we have Him tamed.

But neither should they make readers think God is unknowable or inaccessible or uninterested or absent.

Part of creating great art is addressing universal themes and telling the truth about them. Hitler had a distinct worldview but it was false. If he had been a talented painter or a great writer, he still would have been writing about that which was false. There is no beauty apart from truth.

Hence, today’s Christian novelists, should we wish to create artistic stories, must write about life in a way that unveils truth about far more than man and his behavior in the bedroom. We need to stop worrying about what we can and cannot write according to publishers’ strictures and put our shoulders to the task of writing what needs to be written, what only Christians can write — stories that tell the truth about God.

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For earlier posts on the subject see “Realism In Fiction” and “When God Shows Up In Fiction.”

The discussion continues with “God In Fiction Via The Protagonist.”

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