Last month I offered the opinion that we Christian fiction writers shouldn’t hide our lamps under a bushel; we should present the gospel message in a manner that’s both artistic and unambiguous. As several commenters pointed out, fiction isn’t the place for pulpit-pounding, however. The goal is to draw readers into an gripping story that illustrates the point rather than skewering them with it.
There are countless ways we can do this. One example of an engaging presentation is that of Eustace, the boy-turned-dragon, in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. He’s soon sorry for his greed, and his companions are sympathetic to his plight; but neither he nor they are able to nullify his sin’s effects. Everyone’s helpless to change his situation until he meets Aslan, who tells him, “You will have to let me undress you.” The lion peeling off the dragon skin and dressing Eustace in new clothes is such a clear illustration of salvation that it makes me tingle as I think about it.
We might focus on various aspects of the story: man’s fall from perfection, God’s authority to judge sin, our inability to save ourselves, the self-sacrificial love or perfect holiness of Christ. It’s not even necessary to show a salvation experience. Sometimes, the message comes across when a character refuses the opportunity to be redeemed.
In one of my first attempts at a novel—which will remain f0rever unpublished, since I typed it on an old-school typewriter and later tossed it, page by page, into the burn barrel—a character stood at the “moment of decision” but chose to reject Christ. She’d suffered at the hand of an abusive father and valued her new-found independence too highly to submit to the Lord’s, or anyone else’s, authority. The book concluded with her feeling certain she’d made the right decision, and she looked toward the future with confidence. Nevertheless, a beta reader (who, interestingly, rejects the Lord herself) complained that the end was too depressing.
We can, and I believe should, present the gospel in one form or another, and to one degree or another. But it’s not only important that we show it, rather than tell it. We also need to keep it basic and centered on Christ.
The simple gospel is a gem of unfathomable proportions. It needs no elaborate setting to make it breathtaking. Bury it in the sands of an epic desert fantasy; hide it in a dragon’s lair; launch it across the galaxy in a starship for an eager reader to find. Give clues to its existence and whereabouts so the reader can find it. But make sure it’s the gem the reader finds, not the box it’s in or the filigree that surrounds it.
I like the way Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 11:3. He wasn’t writing to fiction writers, of course, but to real people struggling to live out their faith in the real world. (And isn’t that what we are as Christian writers?)
He said: But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ.
The King James Version here translates the Greek word haplotes as “simplicity.” Some of the modern versions (NIV, ESV, RSV) translate this as “sincere and pure devotion.” But since haplotes means single or simple, sincere and pure doesn’t convey the intent of the word that Paul, under the Spirit’s inspiration, chose here.
A complex mathematical formula might be sincere, pure, and true; one might even call it beautiful or elegant. But it’s not simple. It’s not single. Only a person trained in higher mathematics can understand it.
The gospel—the one we dare not stray from or corrupt with our religiosity—is beautiful and elegant in its simplicity. It’s as basic as “Jesus Loves Me” but profound enough to transform lives in real and substantive ways.
There’s great depth to the Bible, and, although the gospel story runs through all the scriptures, other doctrines are important as well. But where reaching the lost is concerned (as our Lord commands us to do), the simple gospel is what we must present. Theological issues, like predestination, free will, eternal security, replacement theology, baptism by immersion, transubstantiation, pre-, post-, or a-millennialism, etc., can be confusing at best, and too often bitterly divisive.
The anger, name-calling, accusations, and sometimes savagery that go along with these disagreements tend to turn people off Christianity (small wonder). But separate Jesus from the religiousness—put him at a table with lawbreakers—show His compassion for the weak and imperfect—reveal His impatience with the hypocritical loudmouths of the religious hierarchy—and people who shun churchiness will be drawn to Christ’s divine humanity. When we show His love for them, His sacrifice on their behalf, and His triumph over hopelessness as being something they can get in on, we participate in the Great Commission.