For whatever reason, many in the Christian side of the publishing industry frown on allegory. Perhaps editors have seen too many representations of God-by-another-name. I don’t know if readers care, but I suspect editors and agents find this approach “not fresh.”
How, then, should a Christian speculative writer show God?
I’ve read some stories in which God is God. In other words, He is no different in the speculative world—science fiction or fantasy—than He is in the real world or as He would appear in a contemporary story.
Many others seem to shy away from a representative of God at all. Rather, the conflict is between a morally right group and a morally corrupt group with God perhaps being the catalyst for the former to live as they do. J. R. R. Tolkien wrote along these lines. Sauron, the great evil of Middle Earth, doesn’t exactly show up in Lord of the Rings, but his presence is more tangible than that of Ilúvatar, the Supreme Creator God who brought into being others of power.
C. S. Lewis approached showing God in a way that seems allegorical, but in reality was what he termed “supposal” (for further discussion of Lewis’s approach to fantasy, see “C. S. Lewis And Sub-creation”). He created the world of Narnia and essentially asked, If Jesus were to become incarnated there, what would He be like?
In a recent blog post about C. S. Lewis struggling to reach an unbelieving generation, Phyllis Wheeler, editor at Castle Gate Press, said
[noted lecturer Jerram Barrs] told us this week that Lewis’s prayer for the non-Christians reading his stories was that “they will fall in love with Aslan, and when they later hear of Jesus, they will recognize him.”
(“C. S. Lewis struggled to reach an unbelieving generation, too”)
I’ve taken a symbolic approach in my fantasy series The Lore of Efrathah. Except, I find it nearly impossible to convince those who have given me feedback that the rightful ruler of Efrathah isn’t a representation of God. And of course He is, though I made no intentional effort to model the character after Him. Since God is singular—good and all powerful and sovereign—a fictitious character with those qualities is hard to mistake for someone other than God, at least among other Christians.
Now Jesus—that’s another story.
The Old Testament does an incredible job of preparing humankind for the Messiah by presenting a string of living, everyday folk who exhibited a quality or acted in a specific way or filled a particular role that mirrors who Jesus is and what He’s done. So Isaac became the sacrificial Son (and the ram, the substitutionary sacrifice); Moses was the Judge leading the people out of captivity; David was the victorious King, and so on.
In the same way, fiction can represent Christ, rather than replicate Him, simply by portraying characters who lead the escape or sacrifice that others might live or provide the means of healing the wounded or become the long-awaited ruler.
Of course many stories have featured those characters, so perhaps the next innovative way of showing Christ is something other than what we typically think of Him. Perhaps we need a character who acts a bit more like the zealous Jesus cleansing the temple or the One telling Peter to stop acting like Satan or the rabbi sending away people who aren’t willing to sell everything.
The thing is, God the Father doesn’t act in predictable ways. He builds a nation by letting His people get pulled into slavery. He defeats an army of tens of thousands with three hundred shouting, pot-breaking torch wavers. He brings His Son into the world via a virgin. Jesus, being the image of the invisible God, is just as unpredictable. He paid taxes with a coin from a fish’s mouth, cursed fig trees to make a spiritual point, and include among His close disciples one He knew would betray Him.
We’d say people who act this way are thinking outside the box. In contrast, though, it seems to me our story representations of God and of Christ are quite inside the box. We seldom see God do anything unique or unpredictable in our fiction.
I don’t think depicting God in an overt way means we cannot show Him doing surprising and unexpected things. His nature is to do and think things that are different from our thoughts and ways, so our fiction would rightly show God losing to win or telling the protagonist to wait instead of go or comforting him instead of rescuing him.
Of course allegorical representations of God, supposal creations of Him, or symbolic renderings can do the same kinds of inventive, radical actions.
In short, I think a reflection of God in fiction, to be effective, should contain the unexpected.
In what books and with what ways have you seen an author successfully show God?