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What Is Intellectual Rigor?

Some writers sacrifice theme for the sake of art. However, the most artfully told story that says something untrue is nothing more than an artful lie.

MRI_brainIn essence, when I wrote “Christian Speculative Fiction And Intellectual Rigor,” my Spec Faith post last week, I addressed what I believe intellectual rigor is not. It is not writing in such an obtuse way that only brainiacs can understand. It is not utilizing a story structure–and by implication, I intended to say, any other artistic device, even realism–that confounds meaning. It is not valuing how a story is told over what a story means.

Only at the end of my article did I touch upon what I believe intellectual rigor, when it comes to fiction, actually entails: significance. In saying this, however, I need to qualify this point as I did in my last post. We are still talking about stories, not essays or sermons or non-fiction books. I believe a piece of fiction will not be significant unless it is a good piece of fiction.

Consequently, all parts of a story need to be given due attention. Characters need to be crafted in such a way that they are believable and realistic. They should be properly motivated and should develop in natural ways as a result of the circumstances of the plot. The events themselves should unfold in organic ways, one thing causing another in an understandable and logical manner. The setting also should be textured and fully developed.

But ultimately, the first three key story elements do not exist for themselves. They exist for the sake of the fourth, less conspicuous element: theme. All good stories say something. They have a point. After all, writing is a form of communication. Fiction writers, therefore, are making a statement, but they do so by showing rather than by telling.

It is this statement, this theme, I believe Christian writers must pay closer attention to, without diminishing our efforts in regard to characters, plot, or worldbuilding.

512px-Bible-openFirst, our themes need to square with Scripture. This point is perhaps the most complex issue for the Christian. Some writers sacrifice theme for the sake of art. However, the most artfully told story that says something untrue is nothing more than an artful lie.

Some readers, and as a result, some writers, may become enamored with the beauty of the language, the depth of the characters, the realism of the world, or the intrigue of the plot. But a lie is still a lie. Good art will not only be beautiful but truthful.

On the other hand, some writers, and perhaps readers, confuse other elements of a story with theme. For example, I recently read one believer’s opinion that anything not squaring with the way God created the world, should not be in our fiction. Consequently, elves and hobbits and aliens and talking animals should be outside the realm of permissible Christian fiction.

Certainly I believe the Bible, and I believe a Christian’s fiction should square with the Bible. Does that mean every story must show truth in every aspect throughout? I suggest it does not. Stories in the Bible itself can best demonstrate this point.

In one of Jesus’s parables about prayer, He equates God with an unjust judge. Was He in fact teaching that God is unjust? Certainly not. That concept clearly contradicts any number of other passages of Scripture. The point of Jesus’s parable, however, was true.

In a story told by an Old Testament figure, trees were looking for a king, asking first one, then another to reign. The idea that trees talk and can organize a government contradicts what we know as reality: trees aren’t sentient. The point of the story, however, was accurate, even prophetic.

First and foremost, intellectually rigorous Christian fiction should deliver a Biblically true theme.

In addition, our themes need to be important to our audience. In this regard I agree with the intent of the commenter who criticized my post last week by saying, “Lewis engaged with and responded to (literary) Modernism, and I’ve yet to see anyone engage with Postmodernism in a way that looks genuine.”

The Christian understands that nothing matters in life as much as our relationship to God. Consequently, the MOST important theme, on the surface, is the one that presents Jesus Christ as Savior and Redeemer.

The problem, however, is that in our postmodern culture, many people believe Humankind is born good, or at worst, a blank slate. There is no need for a Savior, in this way of thinking, because there is no sin from which to be saved.

People influenced by postmodernism also believe in relativism and are apt to oppose authoritarianism. The idea of God as a judge condemning people to an eternal destiny in hell or as an all-powerful sovereign who allows suffering, grates against their moral understanding.

The Christian writer who offers Jesus as the answer in a “come to Jesus” type story is actually offering gold to a thirsty man. The giver of gold will appear to be foolish, even though he knows what he is offering will provide Everlasting Water and is precisely what the thirsty need. The thirsty man, however, will curse him for his insensitivity and look elsewhere for something to drink.

Intellectual rigor in fiction, I believe, means bridging the gap between what our culture perceives to be their needs and what Scripture says each of us actually needs. Sometimes that requires stories that don’t present Christ, at least not overtly and not even allegorically.

Instead, stories may need to challenge the postmodern assumption that there are many ways rather than one true way. They may need to challenge the assumption that seeking without expecting to find is wisdom, that God is mystery and therefore unknowable apart from whatever each individual perceives him to be. They may need to challenge the belief that now is all that truly matters, that pleasure is always better than pain, and that an individual has the answers within himself if he’ll only look.

Those stories would not contain the gospel, but they would challenge the presuppositions of readers influenced by postmodernism–presuppositions that can cloud the thinking of people in contemporary culture so that they do not understand what the gospel is all about.

Thus, when it comes to fiction, I’m all for the kind of “intellectual rigor” that makes stories eternally significant. Those stories may include an overt communication of the gospel, or not.

Best known for her aspirations as an epic fantasy author, Becky is the sole remaining founding member of Speculative Faith. Besides contributing weekly articles here, she blogs Monday through Friday at A Christian Worldview of Fiction. She works as a freelance writer and editor and posts writing tips as well as information about her editing services at Rewrite, Reword, Rework.

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Bethany J.
Bethany J.

Great thoughts, Rebecca. I know I could use some more attention to, “What am I SAYING here?” while I write. Thank you for the food for thought!

R. L. Copple

It seems to me that “intellectual rigor” definition all depends upon what aspect of writing fiction one is talking about. There can be some intellectual rigor demanded on the writing craft itself in various forms. It could be in reference to the science behind the story, or the consistency of world building. In what you are referring to, the intellectual rigor is on theme.

Both you and Mike, I think, were ultimately addressing is the intellectual rigor of addressing your target audience with meaning. Different approaches, but similar goals. One focusing on delivering the theme in a meaningful way within the story while another on those issues and themes that would relate to that audience. Overlap, of course, but maybe different starting points.

But a question. My Virtual Chronicles series I wrote to be fun space opera, with no intentions or goal of a specific theme when I sat down to write it. That’s not to say themes didn’t evolve from it, and reviewers see some I didn’t, but I didn’t set out to make the story say anything as such. Just a fun YA space opera story. Meanwhile, the Reality Chronicles is definitely theme, message oriented, with even a couple of “come to Jesus” moments in them.

Do you think there is a place in a writer’s list of works for both kinds, or is writing any story without an intentional theme a bad idea, as a Christian writer?

Teddi Deppner

Both are acceptable. I don’t even see a problem with an author who only ever writes “fun” stories without “significance” or deep themes.

First of all, we err if we judge another for what they write. “Who are you to judge another man’s servant?” (Romans 14)

And secondly, there is always a place for enjoyment without overt message. God gave us taste buds — for pleasure. He could have made food nutritious without giving it flavor. Same goes for so many things in life. God made us for enjoyment of life. Children and otters and dolphins play for the delight of it. Beauty is gratuitous.

I see no contradiction with orthodox theology in having stories that are enjoyable simply for the enjoyment of them — given the assumption that they are enjoyed for reasons that aren’t at odds with His truth (enjoying porn may be enjoyable, but it’s still destructive).

It’s up to the reader not to overdose on the fun stuff, not to use your enjoyable stories to escape from the reality of his or her life.

Glad you’re writing both kinds, Rick!

R. L. Copple

Thanks, Teddi. I do, however have a method to my madness. 😉

I figure if I write good general market stories, it will entice those readers to check out my more Christian oriented books. Sort of a bridge strategy to gain more exposure for the books we often feel are stuck in the “void” between the Christian and general market.

I meant to say in my original post, Becky, that I’ve always felt my goal was to, “…they would challenge the presuppositions of readers influenced by,,,” fill in the blank -ism. I think fiction is a good vehicle for that, because a reader gets to experience someone else’s reality. Where their walls might go up in a discussion on the subject, they’ll be more open to seeing it in a character and their experiences.


I don’t think you can really interact with postmodernism if all you’re doing is outlining your plans to debunk it. The opposite of relativism isn’t Christianity, it’s the traditional sense of order, with the neatly lined boxes. I wonder if people don’t tend to conflate their religion with their sense of order to the extent that their sense of order IS their religion.
Just play with the ideas without an agenda. Postmodernism IS pretty much playing with ideas without much/any of an agenda. It pretty much only has meaning to the individual who experiences it, but literature takes great pains to capture the individual’s experience.
I just might have to write that story myself.

Paul Lee

They may need to challenge the assumption that seeking without expecting to find is wisdom, that God is mystery and therefore unknowable apart from whatever each individual perceives him to be. They may need to challenge the belief that now is all that truly matters, that pleasure is always better than pain, and that an individual has the answers within himself if he’ll only look.

I agree with you, but I’m cautious about knee-jerk reactions against perceived postmodernist semantics. For instance, I think God could be said to be the ultimate Mystery, even though mystery is not all that He is, since He has revealed Himself to us in ways that are sufficient for our purposes. Postmodern ideologies clearly get a lot wrong, but almost everything wrong about postmodernism can be spun to illuminate an aspect of real truth. At any rate, we shouldn’t fight Postmodernism by trying to go back to old Modernist rationality or even the religious nominalism that existed before that. We should present the truth through great storytelling the best that we are able (and as readers and critics, see the truth even in works that try to deny it), irrespective of the latest cultural fads.

That probably sounds like an opinionated argument, but it’s really not. I agree with this post, almost 100%. I just differ in emphasis, I think.


My browser crashed, so I don’t know if my comment got posted or not, so here goes again.
It’s not really going to work if your interaction with postmodernism is just to debunk it. The opposite of Christianity isn’t relativism, it’s the traditional sense of order. The neatly lined boxes. Then again, some people’s sense of order is so conflated with their religion that it’s more like their religion is their sense of order.
Just play with the ideas without an agenda. Postmodernism IS pretty much the play of ideas without much/any of an agenda. It may not have much meaning outside the individual’s experience, but a great deal of literature is the capture of the individual experience. Use Deism if it helps.


I began writing a story from one image with an overwhelming sense of awe and peace, but it ended up having a strong sense of the Holy Spirit, which was definitely nothing I set out to write.