Why Fiction Is The Wrong Vehicle For Theology—A Rebuttal

Blog | | Monday, December 3, 2012
Rather than shying away from the depiction of “theology”–by which I mean knowledge about God–in speculative 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).

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 Mike Duran‘s Friday guest post here at Spec Faith he quoted a pastor who affirmed this idea. “Art exists to reveal beauty and truth.” And yet he also stated, “The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine.”

So art, even “religious art”—or Christian fiction—ought not affirm “a body of doctrine,” or truth about spiritual things. How can this dichotomy between the requirement of truth in art and the rejection of spiritual truth in art 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 speculative fiction don’t mix are actually saying speculative fiction isn’t a good place for expounding an ordered system of beliefs.

Then, too, the issue might center on the “body of doctrine” this pastor is taking a stand against–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 in his stories, particularly to Communism, in 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, and in the speculative genre, Avatar echoed a theme in the movie ET about corporate America and greed.

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 speculative 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 isn’t true, but that’s another subject).

In one of my comments to Mike’s post I used the example of holding up a John 3:16 sign versus expounding on the meaning of that verse. A story that tacks on a verse in an off-handed way as if fulfilling a touched-that-base 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, and speculative fiction, is the perfect vehicle for theology because 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 problems particular people such as the pastor quoted in Mike’s post are pointing to, 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 speculative fiction, I think we’d be better served to teach writers how to include themes in effective ways.

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13 responses

  1. Sound reminders, Becky.

    I’m still hoping to continue that discussion and hear what makes theology proper — literally, truths about God — so objectionable in a Christian’s fiction. This is definitely different from the concept of systematic theology, or trying to wrap an artistic work around any truth about God that we could know or could explore.

    The poorest Christian stories have the worst theology and the shallowest themes.

    Their authors seemed to have taken an anti-beauty, purely-functional, “form and style matters little so long as I follow the Rules,” simplistic-theme approach.

    So how can reinforcing that assumption do anything more but repeat the error?

    Rather, Christian authors should be free to delve into the wonders of God’s truth, bottomless though they may be, and enjoy the swim.

    “Truth” without beauty is deceptive, and “beauty” without truth is ugliness.

    And all of this still rests on the crucial question: what is the chief end of a story?

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  2. As the discussion went on over in Mike’s article thread, what came out was that we, as readers, don’t despise theology, per se. What rubs is the wrong way is evangelism in a story. Particularly evangelism aimed at other Christians. (Preaching to the choir much?)
     
    I know I get my hackles up when an author preaches to me about a worldview I disagree with. “Get off your stinkin’ soapbox and finish the story!” So I understand when people with opposing religious views take a narrow view of Christian fiction.

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    • Kessie, I agree that much Christian fiction centers on evangelism. I think that’s understandable. Making a decision for Christ is the singular most important event in a person’s life; we are given the commission to go and make disciples. Hence, writers want to deal with universal, lasting truth and they want their writing to be an appeal to the lost.

      The problem is in the execution. Too often the character response to the evangelistic effort isn’t realistic–usually because it happens too fast and too easily. In real life, lots of people hear the gospel numerous times before they respond. Not always. At any rate, my point is, I don’t think writing a story about the evangelizing of a character is wrong. I think we need to learn how to do it well.

      I think J. Mark Bertrand, who writes in a different genre, does a remarkable job showing the realistic introduction of a character to the claims of Christ. And at this point, there’s no guarantee he will respond affirmatively. What a shocking result–that a character might actually reject Christ. Maybe we need to have more stories that mirror this reality.

      Becky

      Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: Accusations Against ChristiansMy Profile

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      • Making a decision for Christ is the singular most important event in a person’s life;

        I think the moment of decision — the prayer and the emotion of the moment — can become an idol in both outreach and art.  I think it might be better if more Evangelical literature (and even services) revolved around salvation, rather than people getting saved.

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      • it might be better if more Evangelical literature (and even services) revolved around salvation, rather than people getting saved.

        I’d be interested to hear this fleshed out, Bainespal.

        I think I agree, though I never wish to minimize the value of the Cross in the great Story and the victory Christ won there. Nevertheless, even that moment of “getting saved” is a gateway to salvation, the redeemed state of living that itself points to final and full redemption: physical resurrection, to match spiritual resurrection.

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        • I’d be interested to hear this fleshed out, Bainespal.

          Well, I regretted having posted that a moment after I did it.  It’s a personal hot-button thing for me.  I know that a lot of Christians know the moment they first trusted in Christ, and many times it has been expressed in a sinners’ prayer and/or an emotional experience.  That’s just not how it worked out for me, and I struggled to manufacture it for years.  Sometimes I still think I’m not “saved” compared to other Christians, but I resent the suggestion that I can always re-commit just to “make certain” in case the first time was not real, but for me it’s actually been the first hundred times, and I don’t even have a specific “first time” to remember.
           
          I shouldn’t have posted that; it’s off topic and it’s just my personal grievance. ;)

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      • A direct comparison: the thousands of romance novels, including Christian ones, that focus on the wedding event rather than the drama of actual marriage.

        Sure, if one must choose, it’s better focusing on the wedding than a hookup.

        But far better is to honor the inaugural ceremony as a means to adventures beyond.

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  3. Rather than shying away from the depiction of “theology”–by which I mean knowledge about God–in speculative fiction, I think Christian writers should embrace the challenge.

    I’m still confused about the way the word “theology” is being used.  Should it be taken for granted that “knowledge about God” is the same as “spiritual truth”?  Ultimately, I think that God is all truth.  The word knowledge complicates matters.
     
    If theology is “spiritual truth,” is a Christian worldview without specific theology also still spiritually truthful?  What is the difference between theology and a Christian/Biblical/truthful worldview?  If a Christian writer doesn’t lie about God but also doesn’t show much theology, is that writer being untruthful?
     

    Non-Christians can reveal truth up to a point, but because they do not know Christ, they cannot accurately reveal spiritual truth. Christians can.

    What does it look like to accurately reveal spiritual truth?

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    • I’d say that the result of accurately revealing spiritual truth will be repentance, faith, adoration and worship in the positive, and rebellion in the negative. Even if it’s a singular truth, in contrast to the body of truth, the results will be the same. Spiritual truth is beauty, but it’s not always expressed beautifully. That should be the goal of Christian writers. Leave the response to the truth up to God.

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      • Bob, great points. I think it’s the leaving the response to the truth up to God that’s hard. I know I struggled early on with the idea that readers might miss what I was trying to show them about God. I would cringe when someone asked me why I considered my fantasy Christian. I hated hearing about pagans revering Lord of the Rings for the same reason. What if some day people thought of my work divorced from the spiritual underpinnings I used to write it? It’s tempting, oh, so tempting, to “make it clear” (read, explain).

        I think one of the things we ought to be teaching writers is to trust God first, then trust the reader. It’s not up to the writer to insure a particular outcome. We just can’t do it.

        Becky

        Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: The Truth About The Star – And Why It MattersMy Profile

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    • Bainespal, I don’t think knowledge of God and spiritual truth are quite synonymous, but close. “Knowledge of God” is what He has told us about Himself, either through proposition or example. Hence, God is omniscient, transcendent, unchanging, sovereign are statements that would fit into the category “knowledge of God.” They are also in the category of “spiritual truth,” but so is “angels are God’s servants,” “the devil is real,” and “there will be a day of judgment.” In other words, “spiritual truth” encompasses not only what God has revealed about Himself but what He has revealed about the unseen world of the spirit.

      Knowledge simply means what we know. God is truth, certainly. But we know more about Him–because He has showed us Himself–than that one statement.

      A Christian worldview is the way a person looks at the world as a result of their relationship with Christ. This ought to influence our moral behavior, which is why much Christian fiction depicts characters that are moral. The question in play, I think, is whether fiction should influence for right behavior or reflect realistically the way the world is. Those advocating “art” say it should be the latter because this is truthful, but it is also truthful that God does a work in the heart of sinful man and changes our desires. So moral behavior resulting from a relationship with Christ is also realistic. However, in writing fiction, it’s the author’s job to show the reader such changes are realistic. That’s something we need to learn to do better, in my opinion. It’s not that change isn’t real; it’s that the fiction techniques don’t make them realistic.

      You also asked if a Christian writer doesn’t lie about God but also doesn’t show much theology whether that writer is being untruthful. I don’t think so. There’s no way any book can reveal all truth–not even all that God has made clear in Scripture. Consequently, not every Christian author needs to write about spiritual things. I think it’s fine to write with a moral theme. God can use that to prepare the hearts of those He wants to call to Himself, or to convict the hearts of those who are rebelling. He can use those to help create a culture more receptive to His truth.

      I think it’s a mistake for us to say there should be only one kind of fiction. But the kind I see under-represented right now are stories that accurately and truthfully show God–in the way C. S. Lewis did through Aslan.

      You asked how it would look like to show spiritual truth. Any of Lewis’s fiction does so. Some people want all aspects of his fiction to show theology. In other words, they want him to have written an allegory when he did not. He wrote what he called supposal. His approach was to ask the suppose question: suppose there was a planet in which there was no sin; suppose there was a world with talking animals; suppose men upon dying could get a glimpse of heaven. He then wrote stories based on how he believed God would show up in those scenarios and how men would react.

      One contemporary writer who I believes does this as well is Shannon Dittemore, author of Angel Eyes. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Great example of supposial, though I don’t know if she’d call it that. My point is, she started with an imaginative scenario, then showed in a way that’s consistent with Scripture how it would play out in the lives of her characters.

      Becky

      Rebecca LuElla Miller’s recent blog: My Most Unforgettable ChristmasMy Profile

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      • Thank you for the reply.  That makes sense.
         

        I think it’s a mistake for us to say there should be only one kind of fiction. But the kind I see under-represented right now are stories that accurately and truthfully show God–in the way C. S. Lewis did through Aslan.

        That’s a good example, because some Christian fantasy that I read did it wrong by trying to be more realistic and theologically correct in portraying God than C.S. Lewis was in the portrayal of Aslan.  Its far better to show some aspects of God’s nature in a fantastic or monolithic representation — like the noble lion — than simply to have an alternate-world name for the Father and an alternate-world name for Jesus and an alternate-world name for Christians.

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  4. Timothy Stone says:

    Ma’am, aren’t you and Mr. Duran both right, in a way of speaking? I mean, you are largely right I think that Christians can and should put their worldview in their writings (if they think it’s the right genre for it) and that to say they can’t, makes no sense. It’s like corralling theology into a separate box that says “no-go” but allowing everything else.
     
    However, isn’t it more than showing theology “tacked on” or “unrealistic”, that is a problem? Isn’t there also a problem that some authors try to literally force the Christian contexts into the story, even if the story suffers for it? There were examples given in the comment section of Mr. Duran’s piece. I mean, I would argue that in that extent, he did have a point.
     
    Also, not all stories have to have some “realistic” version of salvation, do they? I mean, sometimes a heart-warming tale is quite unrealistic, and obviously so. I think our presumptions of readers as thinking that this is how it is in real-life because it was that way in some story, is a disservice to them. True, some are going to think it realistic and that easy to bring someone to the Lord, but they’re also probably the same folks who think that unless they’re told otherwise in nutritional information, a Big Mac is healthy for them.
     
    Bainespal, I would recommend reading CSL’s Surprised by Joy. In it, he does identify some trip in which he came to Christ, but he also identifies that he doesn’t know for sure when on that trip to the zoo (I think it was the zoo) he came to Christ, and that it was a long process of coming first to God existing monothetistically, then the possibility of Christ. It took some time. I think as a good tonic to what you struggle with, you should read that.
     
    Also, this next paragraph is off-topic a lot, but I wanted to say this so you know I do mean this. I have had similar struggles, so I can sympathize. I have wondered why I wasn’t “on fire” enough, so I must not have been saved. I didn’t feel this huge difference, so I must not have been saved. I read the Bible, but I wasn’t voracious in my reading as a pre-teen/teenager upon salvation, so I must not have been saved. I had people as a kid tell me the above and so much more that I spent most of my teenage years into young adulthood absolutely terrified of burning in Hell. I actually despaired that God wouldn’t give me the faith to believe in Him. You can see right there the problem I had, and the blasphemy, unbiblical source, etc., of my doubts. But I had folks I trusted who told me all these things a Christian should be (and no doubt I should endeavor to do some of them in witnessing somehow and reading the Word more), but the fact that some of them I wasn’t/didn’t feel, I was convinced I didn’t have the faith and would burn for it. I can’t say the number of times I begged God to give me enough faith. I actually resigned myself at points to going to Hell, or other times I wept and begged repeatedly for God to save me. Over and over again. One night for hours at night time.
     
    Also, like you, I honestly can’t remember the exact time it happened. I’ve looked at my life in how I’ve recommitted myself to Christ so many times based on how I saw my faith/knowledge increase, and I can’t tell you when my actual point of “saving faith” was for sure.

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