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Imagination And Truth

I am in conflict. I believe in telling the truth and I believe in the creativity of Man based on the Imago Dei. Part of me resonates with the “Evolution Of The Artist.” It sounds so freeing to color outside […]
| May 23, 2011 | No comments |

I am in conflict. I believe in telling the truth and I believe in the creativity of Man based on the Imago Dei.

Part of me resonates with the “Evolution Of The Artist.” It sounds so freeing to color outside the box, to soar above and beyond any limitations. I’ve even written an article here at Spec Faith describing how the Christian is the most free writer of all.

On the other hand, I’ve recently written an article at my own blog stating that truth puts parameters around our imagination. Which suggests closing Christian writers and Christian fiction in a box — a regulated, formulaic, orderly, artistic-killing box complete with gatekeepers to insure no toe crosses one of the lines.

Are Truth and Imagination in conflict?

They can be.

Think for a moment about Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. He imagined himself to be the central figure of the empire he ruled.

The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’ (Daniel 4:30).

The truth, however, was that his importance was all in his head. God proved this fact to him by setting him aside for seven years. Funny how the empire managed to survive and thrive without him.

Imagination in Nebuchadnezzar’s case led him away from the truth that God is sovereign, and he was not.

I’d say imagination is misleading people today. Some professing to be Christians claim they are freeing God from the box of orthodox Christian theology by re-imaging Him — another way of saying they imagine Him to be however they want Him rather than accepting Him the way He revealed Himself. Their imagination leads them away from truth.

It seems to me that all false teaching shares this “imagination over truth” component. Man’s ideas about what a loving God should look like lead universalists to imagine eternity without hell. Man’s imaginings about faith and God’s promises lead Word of Faith believers to invent “revelation knowledge” and “faith-force” that contradicts the sovereignty of God and the authority of the Bible. Man’s inventiveness about the Bible and Christ’s return led Harold Camping disciples to proclaim and follow a foolish and false prophecy.

When it comes to fiction, am I saying that the critics, and especially those criticizing speculative fiction, are right — that we ought not dabble in “lies”?

As forcefully as possible, I want to make clear that fiction is not a form of lying. Lying is an attempt to deceive by passing off that which a person knows to be untrue as if it is true. In contrast, fiction, by the very label on the back of the book or the inclusion of the word “novel” on the cover, declares that the contents within is not a retelling of actual facts about actual people.

On the other hand, while using inventive characters, worlds, events, it seems to me an author of fiction is constrained to tell the truth. Not All Truth — which story could ever accomplish such a goal? But in the realm of ideas that the author communicates to his reader through his story, those ideas should be true.

And here is the point that separates Christian fiction, I believe, from all other fiction. Christian fiction speaks the truth about God. Other fiction can speak the truth about morals or the way the world works or what makes a person love or hate or live on the edge. Other fiction might be silent about God. Other fiction might speak a lie (though undoubtedly the author believes that what he’s written is true) about any of these things. Only Christian fiction speaks the truth about God.

Not the whole truth, though. Christian fiction doesn’t need to — can’t, even — show all that God has revealed about Himself. But whenever the work addresses God, it must do so truthfully.

In the end, then, I don’t think imagination and truth are intrinsically contradictory. Rather, I believe imagination should lead to the truth.

What do you think?

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E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

It comes to mind that this past Saturday, the watching world — and the Church — got a rare direct exposure to what happens when someone fails to keep separate his “coloring outside the box” libertine imagination, and the truth parameters of God’s Word.

susanne lakin
Guest

It’s such an intriguing and important topic. I’ve seen discussions like this for years. I think about the book The Shack. God is so wrongly portrayed in that book, in so many ways that are contradictory to the Bible. yet, thousands of Christians love that book, and perhaps they are the sort that oppose fantasy fiction and allegory. For me as an author, I take Scripture out of context and use it creatively for my purposes. Some people get really upset about that. Tolkien himself said we fantasy writers breathe lies of silver. Artists use lies to tell the truth (V for Vendetta). Are we mincing words? Are we lying when we take a Scripture out of context and use it for some other meaning? What really constitutes a lie and a misrepresentation of God? These are important questions but I do not want to try to answer them for anyone else.

I believe that when I write my books and pray continually for God’s spirit and guidance in my creative efforts and that when I run with some symbolic themes and Scripture that leads me into creative usage apart from the Bible’s actual meaning, I feel a sense of affirmation and no condemnation, which is something I rely on. I know how it feels to have the Holy Spirit’s convicting and telling me what I am doing is wrong. Conversely, there is also a strong positive joyful affirmation that comes with a creative exploration that leads to a scene or plot or story that conveys a sense of God and his Word and purposes in a form other than the way the Bible presents. Again, I can only speak for myself. I have problems with books like The Shack, that seem to profess they ARE truth and essentially nonfiction description of God and how he behaves and works. That makes me very nervous. With fiction, such as the fairy tales I write, I am only trying to encapsulate the spirit of truth and the person of God in a respectful way. It is my aim to be faithful to the gospel and the person of Christ.

In my next release, The Land of Darkness, I have a rich fabricated story of the king-priest who foreshadows the heir to come, and I use dozens of Scriptures that are pulled wrongly out of context to create a story about a landowner who built a bridge that spans eternity. Yet all the while I wrote, my intent was to point to Jesus. Maybe some people will hate this book and be offended by it. I wrote in my notes in the back that my aim is in line with the Bible–where all Scripture is meant to point to Jesus as God’s plan for salvation. I guess I will just have to see what people think about my creative license. I can only say, though, that I feel the book is a strongly creative effort at revealing God’s truth, just presented in a different package but with the intent to glorify God and be true to his word. That is the way I handle my fiction writing and I trust that God will stop me if I ever start venturing off too far in a direction He feels is inappropriate. What do you all think?

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Here’s my thought, based first only on pure pragmatism.

Because we have so much freedom already to explore so many things, including…

1. God’s nature,

2. His real-life deeds and Gospel,

3, What this same God would likely do in another world, if it existed;

4. While being careful to honor His Word and its material in context, as best we can,

5. And not assuming that His Spirit will act in a mystical, personal- “gnosis”-style way that supersedes His clear revelation in Scripture, whose divine sword-point touches the intersection of mind and heart (experiences don’t trump Scripture but may confirm it, contrary to the Shack guy or even the popular devotional Jesus Calling) …

… I guess I’d ask why any Christian would feel the need to go outside that anyway.

It’s not like any one of us could honestly say “eh, been there, done that with the Bible’s ‘boundary lines’ …” Surely we’ll be exploring this Word, and its Author, for all eternity.

Sally Apokedak
Guest

I think this was a wonderful post. That’s what I think.

Sally Apokedak
Guest

I just read the comments: Susanne, without reading the book I can’t say if I think you went too far, but your comment makes me a little nervous. I’m not sure I’d want anyone pulling my words out of context, even in an attempt to draw attention to the cause I champion. I mean, if I write an article and you paraphrase it or explain it to someone who can’t understand me, that’s one thing. But if you take my words out of context and force them to mean something other than what I intended, I wouldn’t like that, even if you were doing it with good intentions.

Kaci Hill
Member

Oddly, I was read Daniel 3&4 this morning. I don’t think we can say Nebuchadnezzar was wrong in saying Babylon was a great city, as God himself says it is. Nebuchadnezzar’s problem was he took all the credit for it and kept trying to treat the God of Israel like any other god. What I found interesting is God’s declaration that he was humbling the king to repentance. And Daniel practically begged him to repent so God wouldn’t have to do that.

In the interest of simplicity:

1. Artists can go too far.
2. There is a wide array of flexibility on what constitutes as appropriate messages within the context of Christianity.
3. Christians can go too far outside the bounds of orthodoxy. It’s not a pretty line like we’d like it, but it does exist.
4. The art’s in the telling. I’d have to go case-by-case, to be honest, to tell you.

I’d say imagination is misleading people today. Some professing to be Christians claim they are freeing God from the box of orthodox Christian theology by re-imaging Him — another way of saying they imagine Him to be however they want Him rather than accepting Him the way He revealed Himself. Their imagination leads them away from truth.

I think I’m going to tentatively say I agree with you in general but feel like I’m having two conversations in one post: one a very legitimate, clear criticism on American Christianity and one, less clear (at least to me) on the distance a Christian writer can go without delving into heresy.

As far as writing heresy goes, again, I’d almost have to go case-by-case to have that one with you, because I’m not convinced it’s terrible to explore heresies in fiction. But I’d have to see it. There’s a lot that rides on what the individual writer’s intention is and how they go about things.

As forcefully as possible, I want to make clear that fiction is not a form of lying. Lying is an attempt to deceive by passing off that which a person knows to be untrue as if it is true. In contrast, fiction, by the very label on the back of the book or the inclusion of the word “novel” on the cover, declares that the contents within is not a retelling of actual facts about actual people.

Just wanted to thank you for catering to the OCD part of me that must know what your definition is before jumping into a discussion. 0=)

On the other hand, while using inventive characters, worlds, events, it seems to me an author of fiction is constrained to tell the truth. Not All Truth — which story could ever accomplish such a goal? But in the realm of ideas that the author communicates to his reader through his story, those ideas should be true.

I think here’s where you’ll get dissension. I don’t really disagree–I write to discover, myself–but (and this is where I risk sounding much more postmodern than I am) this is a point where the problems start for the following reasons:

1. Not all truth is universal for everyone (what is true for a Muslim is false to an atheist, and both are false to Christians).
2. Not all Christians (legitimate Christians) believe exactly the same. There has to be room for this. There just has to be room for it. It can still be completely wrong, but if that’s what the author really believes is true, then I can get mad all I want but it’s still not a falsehood for them. You mentioned word of faith people. I might not be the most, ah, full-on Pentecostal type in the world, but I can’t just write off a Pentecostal-leaning author, either.

(And it’s a bit ironic, given personal current circumstance, that that one comes up. Long story.)

Anyway.

Susanne–My apologies, I’ve heard of your books but haven’t read them. Could you perhaps offer an example or two that doesn’t spoil your book (I know that means you might have to do it on the fly, so don’t worry.)? Just curious.

Susanne Lakin
Guest

For instance, I researched Scripture verses deaing with trees. My character, Callen, is looking for a tree that had been used to build a magical bridge–or so he thinks. I pulled out prophetic verses from Job, Ezekiel, Jesus’s parable of the seed that grew into a great tree, etc., and used them in the book. I also used some of Jesus’s parables and Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones, plus verses that imply the coming of an awaited heir and king. I create a completely new scenario to a prophecy that foretells this coming, and the whole book is centered around the mysterious ten words found in Isaiah 53 of the suffering servant. As I said, everything points to Jesus.

But my stories and verses in my book are not being used the way they are in the Bible. The dead bones come back alive when the promised heir returns–who symbolizes Jesus, and the event is symbolic of the resurrection, which is not at all what Ezekiel’s vision is about. So these are some examples of how I take some of the lyrical passages and images in the Bible and create new “legends” in my world. However, I still have everything point to Jesus and his place as God’s heir in the kingdom and as the only way to reach God. Personally, I love using the lyrical symbolic language and metaphor of the Bible in different ways. In all my books I give a list of verses used, and there is a scriptural discussion that goes over many if not all of the biblical allusions in my books and in that discussion the true references and context are explained or pointed to.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Sounds like great stuff so far, Susanne — and certainly “re-mixing” Scriptural symbols for a new story is not without precedent set by Christian fantasy or allegory authors.

My only question concerns the “listening” to the Holy Spirit for some kind of check as to whether you’ve gone too far. I would suggest that the only certain “check” is Scripture’s truth itself. It can, of course — and should! — result in passions and emotions, especially delight in the amazing God Who breathed its words. But does Scripture support listening for the Spirit’s guidance in a more-subjective way, and making decisions based on that?

A lot of this is a nonfiction-level discussion, of course, and necessitates some gracious interaction and discernment based on how Scripture says God guided people in the past — such as with prophets — and how He guides His people now. We’re not like the OT prophets; nor should we expect to be led as they were, at that point in God’s revelation. Christ trumps all the prophets (Hebrews 1) and they were all pointing to Him. Etc. …

Still, I don’t mean to discount the satisfaction and emotional “bonuses” from striving to follow the Spirit’s only sure guidance in the written Word, which (to repeat my previous wording) hits us not in only our heads or hearts, but both. And sometimes it may seem difficult to separate the effects of that guidance from the guidance itself.

I have links to great columns by Dan Phillips at Pyromaniacs, about various views about figuring God’s will, if anyone’s interested. Also, Kevin DeYoung has great stuff about it.

Kaci Hill
Member

My only question concerns the “listening” to the Holy Spirit for some kind of check as to whether you’ve gone too far. I would suggest that the only certain “check” is Scripture’s truth itself.

Well, the Spirit wrote the book. 😛 But the idea of a ‘check’ of the Spirit is a whole ‘nuther can of worms.

But does Scripture support listening for the Spirit’s guidance in a more-subjective way, and making decisions based on that?

Yeah, we need another post for this one.

Sally Apokedak
Guest

Susanne if you’re in a fantasy world, I think it’s fine to take pictures from the Bible and use them in your stories.

Kaci, I have trouble with this:
1. Not all truth is universal for everyone (what is true for a Muslim is false to an atheist, and both are false to Christians).

I can go with you if you say we don’t know all the truth perfectly so a Muslim may think one thing is true that a Christian thinks is false. But I can’t go with you saying “what is true for a Muslim is false for someone else.” A Muslim man may believe if he’s martyred while killing infidels he’ll have virgins in heaven but just because he believes it does not make it true. It not truth for me or you or the Muslim. It’s not truth for anyone. It’s error.

Now if you really believe a thing does that mean you aren’t lying if you speak falsely? I think Leviticus 5, especially verse 17, indicates that we are guilty of sin even when we do it unintentionally.

Kaci Hill
Member

Yeah, that’s the part where I knew I might get in trouble. Basically, what you said. In that person’s mind, it’s the truth. That’s all I meant by:

1. Not all truth is universal for everyone (what is true for a Muslim is false to an atheist, and both are false to Christians).

Trust me, I most certainly do believe there is one universal Truth. My only point was that not everyone agrees on what it is. So, since atheists don’t believe God exists, I can’t expect their writing to support a world in which God exists.

Now if you really believe a thing does that mean you aren’t lying if you speak falsely?

It means you don’t think you are.

I think Leviticus 5, especially verse 17, indicates that we are guilty of sin even when we do it unintentionally.

I know. I agree wholeheartedly. I only made the comment to point out that, true or false, the writer believes it’s true, and the story will reflect that.

Kaci Hill
Member

I was clarifying a comment I made for Sally.

Galadriel
Guest

Almost all of my writing is fantasy, and in one of my more symbolic pieces, a character says
“There are true stories, but of greater importance are the stories of truth. They may not have happened in the author’s world, but they reflect the great Truths.”
I know, deep down, that there were no hobbits who struggled to the cracks of Mount Doom to destroy a Ring of Power, but there was One who gave up all majesty to defeat evil.
One way to look at it is with the Shadowlands from the Chronicles of Narnia–“As he spoke, he no longer looked to them like a lion. But the things that happened after that were so wonderful and beautiful that I can’t describe them.” Our stories are the Shadowlands, and Scripture is the Real Countries.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

From Becky ‘s comment above:

Christian publishers have agreed with you and therefore have shied away from putting anything “too denominational” in their books. I don’t think that’s the way to handle differences.

Rather, I think a writer should be free to write a character who is a five-point Calvinist so the Charismatics who don’t know what such a person believes can see it played out in fiction (or vice versa). I tend to think we’d understand each other better and have a lot less rancor — the kind of stuff I’ve seen spewing over the Internet from other sites, along with the “We’re Right” nose thumb. That stuff ought not to be.

Until just now, reading that, I had thought similarly but only cited truth as a reason: because I believe even visionary stories should reflect the reality of the Church’s nature — instead of pretending the world is neatly divided into non-Christians (with all their subdivisions) and nearly unified Christians.

But for the first time I see an equally valid reason: to promote understanding and show how doctrinal differences, in secondary matters and otherwise, play out.

(Adds this to personal belief-and-rhetoric catalog …)

Kaci Hill
Member

I’d be interested in fleshing that out over Skype or something, Stephen.

Oh, miscellaneous sidenote: are we doing that other podcast topic, or is it dead in the water?

Stuart Stockton
Member

Is there a great podcast I’m missing somewhere? I’d love to be able to listen in on a great discussion of things like we see here on Spec Faith. I’ve even been tempted to start one, I’m just way to sporadic right now to seriously consider it.

/rabbittrail

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Stuart, so far we have two, each half of my interview with author Jill Williamson. They are here, along with near-full transcripts (which I don’t think I’ll try again!). See the beginnings of both posts for the audio embeds.

Kaci Hill
Member

Stephen’s working on it. Technically, it’s an audio file at the top of each entry found here: http://www.speculativefaith.lorehaven.com/category/podcasts/

There’s only two. The third is a mammoth sized rambling of epic proportions involving myself, Stephen, and his wife, but it hasn’t been posted yet.

John Weaver
Guest

To a certain extent, I agree with you, Rebecca. Today, it seems that edgy just means anything that has sex or swearing, which is certainly a limited vision of “edginess”. For instance, one of the most edgy movies I’ve ever seen is Privilege. There is no sex in the movie, no swearing, very little violence. But there’s a devastating critique in the movie of how religious and governmental bodies manipulate pop musicians for nefarious ends. It ended up feeling eerily like a Ron Luce Battlecry event, without ever using a single f-bomb or nude scene.
I do think there’s a place for sexuality and swearing in literature, and I do tend to think that some of the rules the Christian fiction industry has made up about this are a tad bit ridiculous (have they read the Bible, for instance. A nail in a guy’s head is definitely R rated material, not to mention anything dealing with Bathsheba or David’s whole regime). But I’m not trying to push my views on the Christian fiction industry, as long as they leave me alone. I do think, however, that you’re not going to get the best talent if you’re not willing to take risks with material, whether or not those risks are considered edgy. And I think in that area Christian fiction falls flat. There’s still ways of taking risk that don’t involve sex scenes, that are seldom taken. For instance, as Stephen and I have discussed, there’s been relatively little Christian fiction that involves itself in internal theological debate. Nor is there much theological speculation on the order of Lewis’s Perelandra or Out of the Silent Planet. I’d love to see Christian sci-fi deal intelligently with A.I., sentient dolphins, alien life, but it seldom does, because these topics are still semi-taboo and people are hung up on very reactionary readings of these technologiesideas, readings which I’m not even sure would be considered Scriptural. I like Chris Walley, but listening to his caution on A.I. for the 3 books of Lamb Among the Stars was painfully embarassing. I still don’t understand why we couldn’t imagine other sentient species on earth, created in the image of God, but apparently that’s too much for the Christian book industry to take. That’s why, frankly, I don’t think the best Christian sci-fi is being written in CBA or CBA-like publishing companies. Gene Wolfe, Carver (who I believe is a Christian), etc. are writing better stuff. And frankly the Mormon Orson Scott Card seems at times to be more truly Christian than say, Firebird, Shivering World, or the Personifid Project (though i think the last shows promise).

Just my opinion though.

Stuart Stockton
Member

Roger Elwood’s “Dwellers” was one book that took an interesting spin on another sentient life-form (Bigfoot) co-existing on Earth alongside mankind. Including how their salvation would work. That was a long time ago though, and I’m not too sure on any current examples (maybe “Summa Elvetica”).

I look at my own writing responsibility to call people to seek out the greater Truth by getting them to engage with the bigger questions. In Starfire, I tried not taking sides in the good/bad debate as an author (apart from obviously knowing the consequences ahead of time) and tried to let the debate among the characters drive how the reader processed it through their own understanding. And hopefully in doing so they went on to wrestle with that and came closer to understanding the Truths of this world.

It can be debated as to how well I’ve done that, but the point is as authors I think we all have to come to a place of understanding where we draw the lines for each story in regards to truth and imagination. Each genre and every story will demand a different mix in acheiving what we believe God wants to be achieved in the telling.

Jonathan Lovelace
Member

It all comes down to this idea of responsible freedom. By not purporting to describe actual people and events, we have the freedom to go beyond actual people, places, and events, and to reach our readers in a way that mere recitation of facts can rarely if ever manage. But we are given that freedom for a purpose, and with it we have a responsibility: to accurately portray the truth beyond the semblance we clothe it in. Writers have been fighting this battle—against the charges of lying on the one hand and the world’s temptation to say whatever we feel like on the other—for centuries, going back at least to Sidney and the Apology for Poetry. And it’s really just the same battle as the rest of the Christian life: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free”—but to anyone who is not free, that freedom looks a lot more burdensome than the yoke from which he freed us.

E. Stephen Burnett
Guest

Admittedly, the Paradiso wouldn’t help the “sitting around on clouds” image much, but I don’t think I’ve ever encountered that presented as a serious possibility.

You’d be surprised. But I think the wrong ideas about Heaven are more exemplified by the Far Side cartoon-style, sitting-on-clouds images. Many Christians still carry over those notions that Heaven will be some kind of out-there, “spiritoid” world, too “spiritual” to have things like time or even individuality continue for God’s glory.

Lewis was close to refuting this directly, especially in his portrayals of Heaven as being more real than this Earth. Yet The Last Battle, with its presentation of a re-created, physical, more-real Narnia (with the other surrounding lands as well!) was always superior to his contention in Mere Christianity that all that talk of streets of gold and such were Symbols (perhaps because The Last Battle came later in his career). And much of what he wrote stresses the goodness of physical Things, which humans abuse (how I wish more Christians would recall that even Things like Patriotism can be corrupted or used for God’s glory, and are not inherently evil or anti-Gospel!).

For more-direct myth-busting about Heaven, and in particular reminders about what the Scripture says about the coming New Earth, I can’t highly enough recommend the nonfiction book Heaven, by Randy Alcorn — another fan of Christian visionary fiction.

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