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Deus Ex Machina: A Christian Problem?

You mean I actually remembered to post a column with only two weeks between them instead of four? I’m just as shocked as you are! Allons-y! Ahem. I’ve been watching too much Dr. Who lately. Anyway. Let’s get back to […]
| Jul 31, 2013 | No comments |

You mean I actually remembered to post a column with only two weeks between them instead of four? I’m just as shocked as you are! Allons-y!

Ahem. I’ve been watching too much Dr. Who lately.

Anyway. Let’s get back to talking about deus ex machina. Last time, I mused about whether or not Rose was a deus ex machina when she saved the Doctor from the Daleks. I also considered the possibility that the Doctor himself is a walking deus ex machina, since he always seems to stumble on the right answer after being thoroughly stumped for most of the episode. Several of you disagreed with my assessments (one person pointed out that Rose simply wanted to communicate with the TARDIS, which is true), and that’s okay. I’m a big boy. I can handle a little disagreement.

But what does this have to do with Christian fiction? Well, I wonder if, at times, we’re guilty of accepting deus ex machinas at the end of our stories. And I’m also wondering if that’s really a bad thing or not.

In recent years, I’ve read a number of Christian speculative fiction (some of them award-winners or nominees) that seemingly have their endings firmly rooted in the tradition of deus ex machina. The heroes have their backs up against the wall, it looks like the forces of evil are going to triumph, and then God (or His stand-in, depending on the book) unleashes some sort of miraculous intervention that sweeps away the bad guys and saves the day. It took me a while to notice, but the more I thought about it, the more stories I realized had that ending.

And to be quite frank, I don’t know what to think of that.

I mean, the deus ex machina is derided as a literary device and for good reason. Think about it this way: would you be satisfied with a book where a person is having a bad life, but then, when he or she converts to Christianity, everything suddenly turns out okay? Of course not! We know that’s not a valid way to end the story. It’s unrealistic. It’s a deus ex machina, even if we don’t call it that.

But what about the miracle endings we see in Christian speculative fiction? Are those bad?

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve come to realize that no, they’re not. A deus ex machina is only a deus ex machina if the solution to the story’s problems don’t logically flow from the story’s situation. If the author has already established that God is a character in his or her novel, that divine intervention is a possibility, then it’s not necessarily a deus ex machina if God intervenes in a miraculous way. So long as the author has established that this is a possibility, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Or am I wrong? Let me know in the comments below. What do you think? When is a deus ex machina okay?

John W. Otte leads a double life. By day, he’s a Lutheran minister, husband, and father of two. He graduated from Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, with a theatre major, and then from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. By night, he writes unusual stories of geeky grace. He lives in Blue Springs, Missouri, with his wife and two boys. Keep up with him at JohnWOtte.com.

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Galadriel
Guest

One of the most interesting examples of this I’ve seen in fiction is the Binding of the Blade series by L.B. Graham. Beginning with the first book, it is known from prophecy that Malek (that world’s Satan) is going to fight a third time and be defeated, but when the event occurs, several characters point out that the time between his fight and his defeat is unknown. Maybe he will reign for a thousand years before defeat.

SPOILERS
He doesn’t and God does intervene, but he does so through his prophets and the willingness of his people to sacrifice.
SPOILERS
So it’s not really a deus ex machina because the problem–a world bound to warfare–has been established from the very title, and the solution is suspected but still a surprise

Teddi Deppner
Guest

The answer is found in the definition of “deus ex machina”:

“…a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object.” (from Wikipedia)

The key words being “contrived”, “unexpected”, and “new”.

As has been mentioned, it’s not a deus ex machina ending if the salvation is effected by someone or something that has been established throughout the story. This sort of ending might still be mishandled, might still be unsatisfying or disappointingly predictable… but not technically a deus ex machina.

At least that’s how I see it! 🙂

notleia
Guest
notleia

In my mind, bad use of deuses (deii?) is when you have them omnipotence everything into a happy ending. I like it better when they do it indirectly, even better of something seemingly insignificant dominoes into saving everything (but only if it’s well thought-out. I’ve seen plenty of lame ones).
But it really is worth thinking about that Christian fiction depends a LOT on Jesus/God ex machina. It’s usually the way that Jesus/God ends up in there in the first place, and most authors feel they need to hammer in the “we can do anything through Christ” stuff — or conversely, they really don’t like implying that people are capable of doing anything good independently of God (which I don’t really like, but I’m not a Calvinist).
(On that not-Calvinist note, maybe we need to be having a discussion about denominational differences and how they might hamstring us as writers.)

Kirsty
Guest

they really don’t like implying that people are capable of doing anything good independently of God (which I don’t really like, but I’m not a Calvinist)

I’m not a calvinist either, but I would agree that people are incapable of doing anything good independently of God. Because all good (whether found in believers or not) comes from God. We can’t do anything by ourselves – including existing!

Some calvinists may interpret total depravity to mean that non-christians can’t do anything good. But others would consider that they can, and call this common grace (I think – maybe need some clarification from a calvinist here)

notleia
Guest
notleia

You can ascribe goodness/morality as being ultimately from God, like existence, but people have pretty much always existed independently of God in the sense that we don’t need him to tap our chests rhythmically to keep our hearts beating. Some part of what we call goodness, like fairness and altruism, is something for which most people, even atheists, have an innate sense. Our animalistic parts may tend to selfishness, but they are also social animals who need positive interaction with our fellows.

Kirsty
Guest

But
“in him we live and move and have our being”
“in him all things hold together”

Austin Gunderson
Member

Someone call for a Calvinist?

Concerning the creation’s dependance on God, scripture says this:

“[Christ] is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power.” Hebrews 1:3a

“By [Christ] all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible or invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities — all things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” Colossians 1:15-17

Concerning common grace and the fact that there’s only one moral order, scripture says this:

“When Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse and even excuse them ….” Romans 2:14-15

Of course unbelievers can do good. Nowhere does scripture say otherwise. What scripture does say is that those not in Christ are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-10), and therefore incapable of either submitting to God’s law or pleasing Him (Romans 8:1-8). Fortunately for the sake of storytelling, scripture is also clear that “for those who love God all things work together for good, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). God not only can work through anything and everything, but in fact does.

Regarding the actual subject of this post, I subscribe to the wisdom of screenwriter Terry Rossio: the best resolutions are unexpected yet inevitable (http://www.wordplayer.com/columns/wp13.The.Big.Finish.html). No one at the time expected the incarnate Son of God to put our sin to death in His body. Yet, now that His mission has been accomplished, it’s so simple to look back at the law and the prophets and see how His every action on earth was absolutely necessary and effectual, steeped in symbolic meaning. Now that we know what was happening the whole time, we understand that it couldn’t have happened any other way. Christ’s death and resurrection were totally unexpected, yet completely inevitable. He wasn’t some flippant deus ex machina who just magically waved off the devastating consequences of mankind’s rebellion — He fulfilled every jot and tittle of the law we found impossible to keep. He was the payoff to every setup, the scissors to every loose thread.

And His is the sort of resolution to which we should aspire, I think.

notleia
Guest
notleia

“Calvin-man, Calvin-man,
Does whatever a determinist can,
Pointing at what the Scripture shows,
Here he comes, there he goes,
Watch out, he’s the Calvin-maaan”
(I’m not sure if that’s actually as funny as I think it is.)

Anyway, I think we pretty much agree on the theology, but I consider it more of an abstract. My point is that too many people use it as a crutch for sloppy characterization or plot.

Austin Gunderson
Member

“Calvin-man, a Calvin-man,
Gonna stand in heaven-land,
Oh when are you going, Calvin-maaan?”

I totally agree that far too many Christian authors think they can employ abstract theology as a plotting paradigm. They need to yank their heads out of textbooks and take a look at the real world, which never feels scripted. This isn’t to say that Calvinists can’t write great fiction. They most certainly can; they just can’t be lazy about it. Calvinist authors have to make a real effort to bury the “God’s in control” through-line beneath layer upon layer of subplots, red herrings, and other “thickening” material. Stories written from a perspective beyond time just aren’t that thrilling for human beings.

E. Stephen Burnett
Admin

Yes. It’s funny. Trust me. I LOLed.

And if you want to be especially self-deprecating, try “Calvinoid.” Once someone tried that one me, and I liked it so much I brazenly co-opted it.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I remember years ago when someone on the CSFF Blog Tour said Sharon Hinck’s ending of the first book in the Sword of Lyric series involved a deus ex machina. I was so frustrated because the idea seemed to be, if God showed up, if the ending involved the supernatural, then it had to be faulty writing. The key, as John says, is the inclusion of God throughout the story so that His work in the end is not unexpected or contrived. That Wikipedia definition is right on, I think. Thanks for quoting it, Teddi.

Becky

R. L. Copple
Member

What Teddie said.

I read one book where God was a character. It was about the angel world and involved some demon vs. angel stuff. As I read it, I wondered two things. One, why was God letting all this happen. Two, would it end with God finally coming in and setting everything right? Yep, that’s what happened in spades.

It isn’t deux ex machina, but it was a disappointing resolution. Along the same line of Aslan in Prince Caspian, staying gone until the end, come along and make everything right at the seeming point of defeat. Even if it isn’t deux ex machina, it still isn’t a satisfying plot device to end a novel on.

That said, it isn’t much different than most novels. You know the protagonist is going to “win” in the end. There is no surprise in that happening. But you want to see two things happen. How it happens and how the character grows and resolves it.

That’s why in my novels, even with a lot of magic and God as a character, the plot tends to resolve based on decisions/actions of the characters.