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The Character Of God In Speculative Fiction

On Sunday, I noticed more than ever that when we sing about God, we mostly sing romantic songs. Old hymns weren’t like this, so much, but modern praise music is. We worship our loving, gentle, intimate, beautiful, wooing, dancing, serenading […]
| Mar 16, 2011 | No comments |

On Sunday, I noticed more than ever that when we sing about God, we mostly sing romantic songs.

Old hymns weren’t like this, so much, but modern praise music is. We worship our loving, gentle, intimate, beautiful, wooing, dancing, serenading God.

Last Sunday in my church, that sort of praise music–with all that is good and right about it–was followed by a hard-hitting sermon on the jealousy and wrath of God.

That juxtaposition put the powerful paradoxes of God on display in a very good way. But it also made me wonder if God wouldn’t like us to sing about His other qualities sometimes. If we couldn’t more accurately celebrate His whole nature; if we couldn’t more effectively worship everything He is.

Recently I’ve been reading a lot of CBA historical fiction, which, the market being what it is, means I’ve been reading a lot of Christian romance. While the times and places of these stories influence the action, the action isn’t about those times and places–it’s about women and men and falling in love, attendant with lots of blushes and stomach quiverings.

And I can’t help wondering if the supremacy of romantic women’s fiction in the CBA is a symptom of our romantic view of God.

A church that views God primarily as a patient (if sometimes boyishly irascible) Lover, one who comes to gratify our desires, bestow worth upon us, make our insides quiver, and woo us into a close personal relationship with Him, has no better genre to give image to its understanding.

A romantic view of God can tell us true things. God is, in fact, a lover. He does bestow worth upon us, He gratifies our holiest desires, He woos us into relationship with Him–though we do nothing to deserve it. And no man has ever made my insides quiver like God has!

But that’s not all He is. And if those are the only images we create, the only terms in which we couch our faith, we will worship a lopsided view of God and not God as He really is. We need to do what my pastor did as well: move beyond the love songs and deal with God’s wrath and justice and jealousy and frightening holiness.

Here is where I think speculative fiction is positioned especially well. Romantic fiction tends to stay within the sphere of “personal relationship,” while speculative fiction has the power (or perhaps just the newness) to range much farther afield.

In speculative fiction, Christian authors wrestle with suffering, mercy, and justice (Polivka’s Blaggard’s Moon), the relationship between art, beauty, and truth (Overstreet’s Auralia Thread), the presence of God in whole nations and cultures (Summa Elvetica, The Lord of the Rings), atonement (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), the gospel in the darkness of human nature (Schooley’s The Dark Man; Hancock’s The Enclave).

Fantasy especially can give voice to a whole raft of biblical concepts we’ve almost lost in our modern American culture: kingship, holiness, the power of the sword. When I read of Christ our coming King, who will sit on the Throne of David to judge the nations, I know that my concepts of my King are at least partially shaped by authors like Tolkien and Lewis; Stephen Lawhead and George MacDonald.

One of the things storytellers do is use images and characters and unforgettable plots to give form to the things we believe–and to shape the things we believe. Jesus did this with parables. I don’t think a nonfiction work of theology could do in seven hundred pages what Jesus did in a few minutes with the parable of the prodigal son, for example.

As writers, then, we can and should take opportunity to explore the whole nature and character of God in our stories.

And as readers, we should pay attention to what stories we are using to understand and shape our own faith.

Thoughts?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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Esther
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It makes me wonder whether our worship music today is shaped by our culture’s wrong understanding of love–and whether someone ought to write some contemporary worship music that deals with the Justice, Wrath and Holiness of God.

As I write, I realize that there already is at least one older contemporary worship song that covers those qualities in detail: Rich Mullins’ Awesome God. Thing is, we hardly ever hear the verses, just the chorus. Wonder why? And only one out of so many!

I’m sorry that you’ve had to read those romances, though. Blech. Here’s hoping you are done with your research soon.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Heh, thanks for the sympathy :). It hasn’t been all bad–two of the batch were among the best books I’ve read in a while! They were also the least romantic.

I would love to hear more songs like that. “Revelation Song” is another powerful one that is sung more often these days. Don’t get me wrong, we should absolutely be praising God for His love. But it’s interesting to me that when people in the Scriptures saw God, their first response was more likely to be “Holy, Holy, Holy!” than it was to be “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

Esther
Guest

Piffle. Posted again without clicking the subscription box.

Lindsay A. Franklin
Member

Great post. This is one of the biggest reasons that I write fantasy. It allows me to explore so many aspects of God’s character, the Church, and what it all means to an individual’s life. This isn’t impossible in other genres, of course, but the speculative ones provide so much freedom to do so. This is all very timely for me, as I just finished my latest WIP. The premise is based on the book of Job. Talk about a view of God that’s difficult for modern Christians to entertain!

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

I recently read Walt Wangerin’s “Naomi and Her Daughters,” which takes on views of God amidst the suffering of the period of Judges. It even retells the story of the Levite and his concubine–not exactly a Sunday School favourite. Good for you for tackling another difficult premise!

Sally Apokedak
Guest

Great post. I was reminded of a hymn one young gal used to pick in my church every Sunday night when we got to request favorites. Hers was Stand Up, O God, Be Present Now. The music that goes with the words is rousing.

I wonder if even in romances writers should be dealing with things such as sovereign authority and good and evil and mercy and justice and all the rest. I don’t think it’s the genre as much as it’s simply that our understanding of God, as you pointed out, runs towards knowing God as lover and doting grandpa and not as prophet, priest, king, champion, disciplining father, judge, master, advocate, and creator.

I guess it’s easier to put some of those concepts into a medieval fantasy, but I think romance writers should stretch to try to put them into contemporary romances, too.

Thanks for the thought provoking post—I’m starting a ya fantasy romance and trying hard to nail down a theme and see if it is worth writing at all.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Well said! And I agree. I think romance writers can and should tackle some of these issues. Most don’t, unfortunately. But romance is a powerful, powerful thing. It can be used in powerful ways in story.

Luther
Guest
Luther

We cannot sing about God’s wrath or our wretchedness because that just may offend someone and turn them away from the Gospel. No, wait a minute, the Gospel is the good news that God poured out His wrath on Christ and He ( Jesus ) rose again as the firsfruits of the resurrection.

There can be no Good news without bad news. We are saved from God’s wrath ( and ourselves ) and unto God for His glory.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Yup … and that’s one of the areas where I think spec fic is better positioned than romance. For a romance to work, you generally need a heroine who is naturally lovable. Totally depraved heroines and heroes just aren’t as quiver-inducing :).

Kaci Hill
Member

Maybe if the quiver contains an arrow aimed at said depraved. πŸ˜‰

Luther
Guest
Luther

Meh….forgot to subscribe also

Kirsty
Guest

Fantasy especially can give voice to a whole raft of biblical concepts we’ve almost lost in our modern American culture: kingship, holiness, the power of the sword. When I read of Christ our coming King, who will sit on the Throne of David to judge the nations, I know that my concepts of my King are at least partially shaped by authors like Tolkien and Lewis; Stephen Lawhead and George MacDonald.

I agree (except I’d substitute ‘modern Scottish culture’ πŸ™‚ ). Though I think for me those things also came from historical fiction. Not christian historical romances, but books by Rosemary Sutcliff for example.

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Mine definitely has as well. Actually, many of Stephen Lawhead’s books are more historical than they are speculative. (They generally walk the line.) I’ve just been struck–and yes, disappointed–by how many Christian “historicals” are just romances set in a historical period.

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

Rachel, this is a great post. So many good lines.

A friend of mine pointed out some time ago that much of contemporary music puts the emphasis on us, the worshipers, rather than on God, the object of our worship. Consequently, our songs are filled with the love we feel (or should feel) rather than with the truth of who God is.

If anyone’s looking for contemporary songs that are truth filled and not emotion filled (though the music still generates emotion), check out Keith and Kristyn Getty‘s CDs (Awaken the Dawn is the one I’m most familiar with). Their most popular is probably “In Christ Alone.” Can’t get much better than that.

All that aside, Rachel, what you’ve said about the stories we’re writing is so important. If we look at the parables Jesus told, we see God’s justice on display in one, His tenderness in another, His patience, His persistence, His mercy, His forgiveness, and any number of other aspects of His character in others.

Why, then, should we write stories that look only at His love?

Becky

Shannon McNear
Member

Coming out of a long hibernation to offer a slight different perspective. Not that I really disagree … but Becky asked, “why should we write stories that look only at God’s love?” The way I see it, His love encompasses other traits … the tenderness, the mercy, the faithfulness … and it’s His love that keeps humanity from being crushed beneath the weight of His sovereignty and omnipotence. Deity took on flesh … why? The Creator became created and shed His blood to redeem fallen man … why? Jesus set His face toward the cross and perservered through the pain … why? “Because of His great love for us.” (from Romans)

May I suggest that the message of love (and mercy, forgiveness, tenderness, etc.) is a very needed thing when one is weary and wounded? I keep believing that God has a plan and purpose for me, why? I get back up when I’m too tired to continue, why? When life is falling apart and I can’t see any sense at all in the things that are happening … because of His love, because He only allows what He can work together for my good as well as His glory, I do not lose hope.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that His other attributes aren’t important, or that I don’t remember them in times of trouble … but I see His love as the single strongest motivating force in my life. At least right now. πŸ™‚

A friend of mine recently commented that God’s judgment and righteousness are probably more of motivating forces for unbelievers than love … think about how many people get saved because they’re afraid of going to hell? But at some point, as we begin to know God, we grow in love for Him, and in our understanding of His love for us. And … the work of the church is as much to continue building up the church as it is to be a light for the lost. (See Ephesians.)

Thank you, Rachel, for not completely dismissing the romantic parallels … after all, Song of Solomon is Scripture as well, and doesn’t just apply to married love. πŸ™‚

I love spec fiction, and I love that so many “general fiction” novels in CBA have speculative elements (Chris Mabry, Marlo Schalesky, Nicole Seitz, to name a few) … but I’ve come to realize that God ministers to people through all sorts of fiction. Even category romance. πŸ™‚ Sure, we need to be careful of wrongful doctrine, but we also need to be careful not to denigrate other genres (or various modes of worship) because they don’t happen to suit our tastes …

Amy Rose Davis
Guest

So very well said, Rachel! Bravo! I agree–and often, my husband and I get very tired of the worship music we sing at church (and then the obligatory “golf clap for Jesus” at the end of each song). It’s funny, because I sometimes notice that when we sing good ol’ hymns that focus on sovereignty and holiness, the congregation sings a lot louder. πŸ™‚

The song that irritates me the most? One that says “He is every question’s answer.” Really? Is Jesus the answer to “what are we having for dinner?” Yeah, okay, I’m a literalist perhaps, but it’s just… irritating… Think, people.

Anyway, I completely agree, Rachel. And I love that fantasy gives us a safe playground for the kinds of ideas you mention. My novel, “Ravenmarked,” is not what I would consider a Christian fantasy, but there are definitely biblical images and themes in it–including a literal angel of death and an earth crying out for justice because it’s sickened by sin. Oddly, though I didn’t really intend it at first, a couple of strong romantic storylines emerged in the course of the writing, and one of them is allowing me to give the view of a man who used to have any woman he wanted, but feels compelled to change and grow and honor the woman he now loves.

Might I submit… Subjects such as authority and sovereignty might be rather unpopular in romance because they are subjects that “modern” women are supposed to buck against? I mean, it’s not popular to have male authority figures of any kind. To suggest that God might be an authority figure, or that the male half of a couple might be a little more “alpha,” might be unpopular. There’s another advantage of fantasy. I don’t think anyone questions the use of extremely strong alpha males in fantasy–the guys who swing a sword and lead with stirring speeches. Just a thought… I’m not familiar enough with romance to speak knowledgeably, so I’m really just musing.

Love the discussions on this blog!

Tim George
Guest

Great points Rachel. In interviews with writers like Kerry Nietz and Stuart Stockton I have explored the reason Christians writers should consider genres like Sci-Fi, fantasy, and epics. These genres offer such large canvas on which to present parable of love, hate, failure and redemption. And they also offer a great platform for surprising the reader with love and even romance.

Think of X-Files are today’s Fringe. Are these Sci-fi or Romance? The answer is yes. X-Files ended with Scully in Mulder’s arms, a romance realized. Olivia and Peter, in Fringe are the center of the story. It is the horror around them that makes their love so much more profound. Christian authors can a learn a lot from that.

Leanna
Guest

I don’t understand why seeing God as Lover is contrasted against him being King/Warrior/Lord. Boyishly irascible? Doting grandpa? Not what I see when I know Him as lover. His strength and wrath and power and justice are all in His love in my mind.

But maybe I haven’t been reading the right romance novels? πŸ™‚

Rachel Starr Thomson
Member

Maybe you HAVE ;).

Sally Apokedak
Guest

My fault on the doting grandpa line. I should have used the word “or” instead of the word “and” when I said people see him “as a lover and a doting grandpa.”

I see God as the lover of my soul. It is the thing I cling to. I’ve met others who see him as a doting grandpa and that’s not a correct view of him.

But to just see him as lover, though God is love, is not the whole picture. If we harp on one aspect of his character to the detriment of other aspects we lose out. God is love, but God also is holy. God is just. He’s the just and the justifier. He’s the lover and the judge.

You may see his justice and wrath bound up in his love and that’s how he should be seen. But reading some of the books that are out makes me think that many people do not see God as having any wrath at all. Many people, it seems, think that God exists to make us happy.

Erica
Guest

This is why the books I read are so varied. When preachers and Evangelists, and regular folks like us say “the person of christ” or the Character of God” we are speaking of a being which breathed life into us, thus giving us our intelligence, emotions, and yes-personalities. None of us are just happy go lucky folk; we have a calm side to us and a side that wants to see justice served.

Is not God the same way?

He is a loving God with Grace, Mercy, and Justice all about him. So yes, songs about God should reflect love, humility, charity, and Justice. The books I read are the same. As much as I love sweet romances in Amish Fiction, I crave Speculative Fiction like Offworld(Robin Parrish), Broken Angel(Sigmund Brouwer), Chronicles of the Brothers(Wendy Alec).

Luther
Guest

Any novel that you professional writers write ( in my opinion ) should not sacrifice one attribute of God for another. It is not the novelist fault but much of our theology today comes from pop culture, sound bites, and ( gasp ) even christian fiction literature. No one should expect you guys to write your novels in a ” systematic theological ” sort of way, but every representation that is given of God by us should be true