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The Spiritual Element

I read with interest a recent conversation on the Enchanted Inkpot regarding religion in fantasy novels. Most of the participants in the discussion were not Christians, therefore their responses gave a broader view than often seen in these sorts of […]
| Jul 29, 2011 | No comments |

I read with interest a recent conversation on the Enchanted Inkpot regarding religion in fantasy novels. Most of the participants in the discussion were not Christians, therefore their responses gave a broader view than often seen in these sorts of faith in fantasy discussions. Several points in particular were relevant to Christian writers of speculative fiction, which I’ll recap here for conversation purposes.

The article offered an even-handed portrayal of religion in fantasy novels and the reasons you may or may not want to include it.

Possible advantages:
• Enhance richness of setting
• Add tension to plot
• Flesh out motivations of a character

Possible disadvantages:
• May not be relevant to a particular story
• May cause controversy
• May be prevented by the author’s personal beliefs

But in the comments, things really became interesting. Several common threads cropped up:
• People enjoy creating and reading about fictional religions (often ones that blend elements of real world faiths and mythologies)
• Some have had negative experiences with religious expression in speculative fiction, namely with preachiness (specifically mentioned in connection with Christianity), Christian themes, or the portrayal of monotheistic religions as uniformly bad.

Despite the variety of opinions shared and the distaste of some for Christian themes, almost every commenter placed a value on faith and its inclusion in fantasy tales. Why? Because everyone believes something about the supernatural. That’s equally true of individuals in an invented fantasy world or a far-future civilization as it is of people in our own world. Neglecting the spiritual element doesn’t enhance the realism or decrease the preachiness of the story, rather it leaves out a significant component that shapes the attitudes and actions of characters in a given culture — and indeed, shapes the world itself.

In a discussion of imagination and world creation, CS Lewis aptly stated that “no merely physical strangeness or merely spatial distance will realize that idea of otherness which we are always trying to grasp in a story about voyaging through space: you must go into another dimension. To construct plausible and moving ‘other worlds’ you must draw on the only real ‘other world’ we know, that of the spirit.”

So whether it’s overt or subtle, there has to be reflection of something greater for a story to resonate as true. It may take the form of direct allegorical elements or a subtle symbolic thread, but in capturing some element of spiritual truth, our stories will gain impact.

Yes, Christian writers face prejudice at times. There’s an interpretation (sometimes rightfully so) of Christian works as preachy, and there certainly seems to be a more favorable view toward the depiction of fictional faiths that spring from no greater reality than the mind of their inventor, fusing together bits and pieces of mythology, legend, and obscure spiritual beliefs.

Yet rather than taking this to mean any hint of our worldview should be expunged from our works, I take it as a challenge to craft something so compelling that even those that might normally be repelled by any Christian element would want to read it. To truly engage readers, we must craft the spiritual elements of our stories with as much care as plot and character.

We may end up with stories like Tolkien’s that only reveal a spiritual framework when viewed as a whole or tales like Lewis’s that contain more obvious suppositions. Either way, the faith element should dynamically connect with the story in a way that enriches setting, enhances character, and strengthens plot, a seamless fusion without which the story would fail to function. Can you imagine Middle Earth without Gandalf? Or Narnia without Aslan? The spiritual underpinnings of these books make the stories function at their highest and best…and that’s what we should all aspire to achieve.

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Sarah Sawyer loves creating other worlds and exploring what they can reveal about our own. Her passion for story led naturally to novel writing, and her love of the imaginative to fantasy.

Sarah has served as a Carol Awards judge and a book reviewer, and she works to promote Christian speculative fiction wherever she can. She blogs on matters related to fantasy, faith, and the wonders of the everyday world at sarahsawyer.com.

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Amen. And just for the record, I’ve read plenty of “non-religious” specfic that was plenty preachy, thank-you-very-much. One’s “faith” WILL come through, even if it’s faith that people are parasites and are ruining the world or that a peaceful world can be attained through gender identity elimination rather than a faith in the God of the bible.

Bethany J.
Bethany J.

Oh my goodness.  This is exactly the question that’s been haunting me this week! – to include or not to include overt references to Christianity in my WIP’s next rewrite.  These are some good thoughts.  My particular book is complicated, as it involves people from the real world, but is fantasy – sort of like the Chronicles of Narnia, except more grown-up, science-fiction, and the young people from earth are Christians.  There is no Christ figure or religious symbolism, but the characters’ faith is integral to who they are and how they interact with the people from this other world.  It provides a lot of the drive and motivation for what they do.

I still haven’t decided what to do.  But this was very encouraging to me: “Yet rather than taking this to mean any hint of our worldview should be expunged from our works, I take it as a challenge to craft something so compelling that even those that might normally be repelled by any Christian element would want to read it. To truly engage readers, we must craft the spiritual elements of our stories with as much care as plot and character.”

Consider me inspired!  😀  Thank you, Sarah! 


On the juvenile fiction level, I really enjoy The Mistmantle Chronicles by M.I. McAllister. The author, a minister’s wife, creates a world where the ‘religion’ is not defined, but is an essential part of the character’s lives.

E. Stephen Burnett

Thanks for a great piece, Sarah. I’ll echo Esther above and say that “preachiness” is certainly not limited to Christian fiction. Those who say otherwise are either naive to others’ propaganda, or have an agenda and simply don’t want to hear Christianity at all.

Earlier this morning I was reading a very foul-fingered but overall-right secular critic’s review of a child’s movie, which for the sake of anonymity I’ll call here by a fabricated pseudonym: Happy Feet. In a long and highly interesting tirade (for a non-Christian critic!) he doesn’t lambaste liberalism so much as say that the movie’s makers were flagrantly dishonest about its themes. Just a cute singing-penguin movie, right? Ha.

I have no qualms about any theme whatsoever in mature films. Art is art. I might think a particular theme is wrong, but I certainly won’t say it doesn’t belong in film. And I don’t object to any of the above themes being introduced to children. If a parent believes that their child should grow up someone free of the constraints of religion, believing that any and all spiritual individuals are dogmatic, controlling fools – then God bless ‘em. That’s America. If that’s what you want to teach your child, you are more than free to do so. And I’ll back up your right to do so 100%.

However, and here’s the big however, I do not, do not, DO NOT, agree that it is in any way a good idea to discuss such radical ideas in an animated film and then sell that film simply as a harmless, singing and dancing Penguin extravaganza. It’s like March of the Penguins only animated, right?

Go ahead kids, it’s only Kool-Aid.

Similarly, some non-Christian readers feel snookered when you pretend like the book is only a thriller about police detectives, blah blah blah, and maybe some Questions about Faith™ like even secular books have, and then they get nothing but “preached” at in an artificial way that has little to do with the actual story. This style accepts several myths:

1. Christian content, or the Gospel, is only useful for “evangelism.” After you’ve Accepted Jesus Into Your Heart, everything makes itself clear and things get boring and aren’t worth writing stories about. The Gospel call and encouragements to live out its fruit are only for non-Christians.

2. Christian “preachiness” can only be done overtly, with Words, just like the preacher at church does. Otherwise, the other stuff is just pure-fun filler.

In effect this notion denies the fact that God Himself inspired indirect creative works pointing to Himself and His truth, in the Psalms and the parables of Christ, which aren’t as direct as direct preaching/proclamation but were never meant to be separated from the direct stuff either. It denies that every Christian is meant to reflect God in all life areas, whether direct preaching or “fun,” and accepts the very worldly notion that some areas of life are detached from God’s sovereignty.

Fred Warren

I take it as a challenge to craft something so compelling that even those that might normally be repelled by any Christian element would want to read it.

This is key. I think oftentimes as Christian writers, we try so hard to tell The Story that we forget we’re telling a story. Our effort to force in the message squeezes all the life from it, and being a Christian is most of all about living.

Simply turning the book around is a helpful exercise. “Would I sit through 200+ pages of this?”

Rebecca LuElla Miller

Excellent post, Sarah. When I first started writing my fantasy, I had not considered that societies all have religion. Because I predicated the religious elements in my story on metaphor, I was concerned that the lack of actual religious elements would make the world seem less dense. It may — I just don’t know. Anyway, I think my next world will have a religious system of some kind.



E. Stephen Burnett

From Sarah:

A statement like that frequently seems to intrigue people, but if you substituted Christianity in that sentence, it might very well be a turn off. There’s a great deal of offense taken at the “intolerance” of the Christian faith, and a number of people have closed their minds to what it says…or what they think it says.

Agreed. And their disgust can be because Christians have treated them poorly in the past, or they have a distorted view of what Christians believe. More likely, though, I think Christians too quickly assume better reasons (which do exist for some people) and neglect that deep down, and genuinely, people simply cannot stand the real Gospel. Some of them know it quite well, and even say they appreciate what Christianity has done for society (think the Norwegian mass-murder guy). But they hate Christ Himself.

I think it was in a previous column series here that I included a quote from pastor and author Kevin DeYoung, who finally phrased what I’d thought for a while in the best way I’ve seen so far. (Pause for search) Found it, quoted in the Critiquing critics of Christian fiction series, part 2. But I’ll quote more for this, from DeYoung’s original blog.

2 Timothy 3:12 […] is sobering: “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” This is one of those Bible promises that doesn’t make it into the flower-covered book for graduates.

Granted, there is a danger that some Christians do all they can to invite “persecution.” Thy refuse to accommodate–ever. They live to find hills to die on. They lead with their chins. They wear every bit of opposition as a badge of honor. The world hates them and they love it.

But for most Christians, there is another danger, the danger of thinking that if we clean up our image, smooth out the edges of our faith, change a few songs, do a few good deeds, then we can get people to think well of us. Sometimes we act like God has promised that if we do the right thing, with the right heart, and say things with the right attitude, then the world will stop choking on the church.

But God makes no such promise.


[…] The Spiritual Element Sarah Sawyer at Speculative Faith […]

A. T. Ross

I think more secular thinkers get a free pass because we have allowed them to define their own religious opinion as “neutral.” So people who believe are “religious,” and people who hold to secular opinions about religion have “no opinion.” Not having an opinion *is* an opinion on religious matters.

Moreover, I think in response to this many Christians have sought to include God or the “spiritual realm” (like Peretti) as a way of countering this. And so we merrily include characters who pray, who talk about God and walk other characters through a stiff and stilted version of the Four Spiritual Laws, and God and Angels and Demons all become characters in the book.

I think this is problematic, and for a couple of reasons. 1) It makes God a character in the story. But as soon as you do this, God ceases to be a being above the creation, and becomes jammed into the creation, dictated to at the whim of the author. It also means almost always venturing into blasphemy, since we are trying to express the Christian faith literally in literature, which is always a step away. We stick words into the mouth of God or His servants without having any idea how God would actually act in the situation, and that is always dangerous.

2) It does not come from the deep unconscious of the author’s mind, in many cases, but from the surface. We start out saying, “How can I express this or that of the Christian faith in a story form?” This makes the Christian elements “obvious” in the bad sense, designed for instruction, and fairly superficial. We hang our faith over top of our scaffold, rather than make our faith the scaffold itself. Our beliefs really ought to emerge as part of the percolation of the story itself and show up as an integral part of the story. And I think it ought to almost always be expressed symbolically, not literally, with angels and demons. As one theologian says, fantasy is itself an expression of our faith, of God and his messengers, but with the names changed to protect the innocent. 

This is what Tolkien and Lewis did, and they, I think, show far more incarnational power than many “Christian” works these days. There is no religious cult in Middle Earth; none of the characters pray or worship in public houses or speak of God much at all, but it is not a secular story. Rather, the Christianity bursts forth as part of the weave of the world in which they move and live and have their being. Even Aslan is not Jesus shoved into a story. He is a Christ-figure, a Christ-metaphor, a Christ-cipher, but he is not Christ himself.


I understand that we shouldn’t put words in God’s mouth but if we realise we’re writing fiction and prayerfully consider it, I don’t think asking What If? is out of the equation. I don’t think writing about the spiritual realm is close to blasphemy. That seems a terribly unbalanced view.  Yes, we should be discerning in what we read, write and view but there’s also a place for more overt Christian themes in novels. Write what the story demands. Let your faith breathe through your writing. If it’s overt, so be it, if it’s more subtle, so be it. But it musn’t be forced.

A. T. Ross

Well, looking back on it, perhaps “close to blasphemy” could have been a mite bit too strong. Certainly my own view falls closer to Tolkien’s than anyone else with regard to how to portray Christian elements in fantasy, but I should clarify that I don’t object to direct spiritual elements in works of fiction – certainly not! Heck, even Shakespeare did that. I think my primary point was that in a time when direct elements are sneered upon and put up walls in the mind of the reader, more indirect routes become necessary.

All I really intended was to suggest that we ought to make the decision to include God or real-world spiritual elements undisguised in our fiction more carefully than I have seen it done in the past. There’s so many more problems that it raises – because once you include them, you have to portray them with theological accuracy in everything, and things can get sticky. Even C. S. Lewis said The Great Divorce wasn’t an accurate portrayal of  heaven and hell and angels.


Absolutely, I guess I just take issue with you lumping Frank Peretti with such practices when he never intended it to be non-fiction but rather fiction that gets us thinking. Fiction that helps us realise there’s a lot more to it than just Christians vs. non-Christians in society.

Martin LaBar

The Juliet you refer to must be Juliet Marillier. Her work shows Druid influences, indeed. But she is also quite sympathetic to Christianity, much more than might be expected. I have posted about this subject in her work, http://sunandshield.blogspot.com/2006/01/paganism-and-christianity-in-juliet.html and http://sunandshield.blogspot.com/2006/03/paganism-and-christianity-in-juliet.html.
Thanks for your post, and for the commenter’s comments.

Chestertonian Rambler

The one recent book that seems absent in this discussion is J. Mark Bertrand’s Back on Murder.

One of the things I think it gets *right* is that different Christians–even going to the same church–have different beliefs and different ways of living their lives. One Christian police-woman seems there to represent the many Christians who live normal, quite peaceable lives (at least when she isn’t driving), yet the main representative of Christianity is a youth pastor haunted by the fact that he may have, in preaching God’s command to believers to take up their cross and follow Him, lead a girl to her death. I think that sort of portrait of struggles and difference *within* Christianity can be a far better witness than a bland vision of God healing all our problems (as seen in recent movies such as Fireproof). For one thing, it accords with the reality that anyone can observe. For another thing, it issus Christ-like challenges to people who are already Christians, asking them how far they’re willing to  go in following Jesus. 

Honestly, I’m working on a similar project, which triggered my interest. I’m writing a secondary-world (kinda) fantasy, complete with medieval tropes like castles, knights, kings, queens, sorceresses–and priests, bishops, and a Pope. Generally fantasy is seen as free of actual religions (instead replacing them with invented religions), but I don’t see why that needs to be the case. Further, as a Protestant, I feel I already have one advantage–the characters have significant differences of belief with me, so I’m not quite so tempted to fold them into my own beliefs, even as I show them trying to balance the demands of following Christ with the complexities of lived life. But because no one is unambiguously always-right, I think I present a vision of Christians working in society (to be emulated or not at the reader’s discretion), rather than some preachy Christian Message (TM).


[…] A sensation of otherness. Sometimes this sensation comes from a small aspect of the world’s construction, a turn of the phrase or unique point of view that could only be held by the inhabitants of the realm in question. Yet in the large scale, I believe this often springs from capturing the spiritual element in a meaningful way, drawing on “the other world” that truly exists. For more thoughts on this aspect, see The Spiritual Element. […]