Last Friday, on my own blog I discussed truth in fiction. In part I looked at an article by Travis Prinzi at the Rabbit Room (where Andrew Peterson, Pete Peterson, Jonathan Rogers, and others interested in speculative fiction also hang out) which explored the Christian fantasy tradition established by the authors many think of as the founders of the genre.
What struck me forcibly was that Tolkien, Lewis, MacDonald, Chesterton, and L’Engel all seemed to consider their speculative writing to be a means of revealing truth. In contrast many speculative writers today, including some Christians, look at their fiction as a means of discovering what they believe to be true.
Most notably, perhaps, as I’ve mentioned before, Anne Rice stated that her vampire novels served to help her work her way to faith:
But though they didn’t include Jesus, the writer … says her previous books have always pursued questions of morality. From the vampire Lestat to the devil Memnoch, all her heroes are immortal outsiders who have supernatural powers and who live in worlds where right and wrong matter deeply. If the Russian novelist Dostoevsky had his Grand Inquisitor interrogate Christ in “The Brothers Karamazov,” Rice conducted her own theological investigation in “Memnoch the Devil.”
“The books in a way are like stations on a journey,” Rice said. “They reflect different points on a lifelong quest.” (“Anne Rice: ‘Stations On A Journey’ ” by Marcia Z. Nelson at beliefnet)
C. S. Lewis’s “supposal” and J. R. R. Tolkien’s subcreation stand in stark contrast to this discovery quest method of writing.
Lewis clearly started with the known — God — then speculated to what truth would look like in the imagined world of his creation.
I did not say to myself ‘Let us represent Jesus as He really is in our world by a Lion in Narnia’: I said ‘Let us suppose that there were a land like Narnia and that the Son of God, as He became a Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would have happened.’ If you think about it, you will see that it is quite a different thing. (Walter Hooper, Literary Criticism, 426, as quoted by Joe Rigney in “Narnia Helps Us Live Better Here” at desiringGod)
He elaborated further:
If Aslan represented the immaterial Deity in the same way in which Giant Despair [a character in The Pilgrim’s Progress] represents despair, he would be an allegorical figure. In reality however he is an invention giving an imaginary answer to the question, ‘What might Christ become like, if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?’ This is not allegory at all.
(from a letter to a Mrs. Hook in December 1958, quoted in Wikipedia)
Nowhere is there a suggestion that Lewis was unclear about God’s nature or plan or purpose or manner of relating with His creation. In fact the opposite is true. Because Lewis knew these things about God, he could speculate what God might look like and how He might act if the world were one Lewis imagined.
As I look at our western world today and consider the prevailing postmodern and humanistic beliefs, I conclude that many writers, including Christians who claim to believe the Bible, have abandoned known truth for a type of agnosticism.
In a recent discussion (the other half of what prompted my Friday post) at Christian supernatural suspense author Mike Duran’s site, a number of commenters took this “unknowable” approach to explain why Christian writers couldn’t be held to a high standard for showing God realistically in fiction.
At one point, the idea surfaced that we shouldn’t base our theology on our fiction. True, I think, but perhaps writers should base our fiction on theology.
The idea also came out in the comments at my site that such an approach might make it hard to write good stories:
Depicting God in fiction, as I see it, requires a specificity that can actually stilt our storytelling.
While I don’t believe this is so in fantasy, I don’t know if that’s true about stories set in this world. However, good stories, by the definition of “good,” seem to me to require truth. Art has long been understood as the marriage of beauty and truth. How can a story be better if it is fuzzy about Truth? And why would anyone want to write such a story? That would be like saying it’s critical to care for the body of a car while neglecting the maintenance of the engine.
I can’t help but wonder . . . perhaps no new C. S. Lewis has surfaced in the past fifty years for the very reason that so few writers are starting with the known and speculating from there.