. . . a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring a happy ending into the tale, or as a comedic device
This is only one of the dangers involved when God is a character in the story. But there are many more. How many, you may ask? Here are three that come to mind.
Difficulty establishing tension
Related to Deux ex machina, if the reader knows God is going to save the day at some point, it is hard to build much real danger for the protagonist. Instead, tension is built more by inner conflict within a character arc in most cases.
It can also be increased by God not saving the day when He’s expected to. Like Josh Whedon kills off a main character occasionally to keep the viewer guessing whether others will survive, this leaves the reader not sure whether God will or won’t jump in.
To be honest, though, this is a problem with a majority of novels. We know, in most cases, the good guys are going to win somehow. Despite all he goes through, we know Bruce Willis is going to survive and win in a Die Hard movie. Yet, we still find ourselves on the edge of our seat watching one.
God comes across as arbitrary
I’ve been accused of this one. It is inherent in depicting God who has said,
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. (Isa 55:8 ASV)
In real life God’s actions can seem arbitrary, even though we trust He is doing what is best. An author can know why God is doing all He is doing in the story, but how can he let the reader in on it? Either God explains Himself to characters, which is not true to life, or we get internal monologue from God’s “brain,” which collides with the above verse. Not too many authors are crazy enough to even attempt the later.
So even if there is rhyme and reason in the author’s mind, it is near impossible to convey that in a story without venturing into even more dangerous territory.
My God would never do that!
The God we get from reading a story will frequently not mesh completely with our understanding of Him. There is a conflicting theological picture painted we don’t like. There are several levels to this.
One key to keep in mind is the Bible may be inerrant, but authors are not. Due to human limitations, authors are never going to paint a perfect picture of God in their novels. Even with the best of intentions, we can get it wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, and even promote heresy on occasion that we didn’t intend to portray.
On one level, there are the differences in theology about God among Christians. A Calvinist author and a Wesleyan author are not likely to portray God’s words and actions toward man the same way. One author’s depiction of Hell may not match another’s. So some disagreement is to be expected.
On another level, sometimes the author inadvertently portrays God in a manner even he doesn’t agree with, and never saw it in editing. We are, after all, limited humans. Sometimes messages are conveyed we didn’t intend.
Yet there are also authors who believe and intend to “teach” through their writings a view of God that is heretical, outside the traditional bounds of Christian understanding. A Mormon isn’t likely to portray Jesus, whether directly or allegorically presented, as being equal to the Father in substance.
So any author who has God as a character is always in danger of alienating readers by what God does or doesn’t do or say.
I should point out, that the statement, “My God would never do that,” is problematic. One, we don’t own or define what God will or won’t do. He does. Two, it reflects a “God in a box” mentality, leaving us insensitive to God’s efforts to teach us something new.
Sometimes we need to give authors the benefit of a doubt, realize this is fiction written by a fallible human being, and use it to teach what God is really like instead of threatening to burn books, figuratively or literally.
What are other problems you see when God is a character in a novel? Where do you draw the line on what is acceptable?