There is a huge disparity between the popularity of speculative titles in the general market and the Christian market. Why is this? I have several theories. One of them is that we Christians are too beholden to demanding “right theology” in our fiction. We judge the “Christian-ness” of a story by how much it jibes with our worldview, theology, and doctrine.
This can be a problem for fiction that is supposed to… speculate. If our stories have to do with alternate histories, futuristic theories, fantasy worlds, new universes, new races, or just flawed characters, passing those elements through the sieve of “sound biblical doctrine” can be problematic. Nevertheless, Christian readers expect to follow a story’s theological breadcrumbs to a, hopefully, “biblical” conclusion. And they, sadly, demand their authors to sprinkle them along the way.
I suggest that this expectation of “right theology” in our fiction not only keeps writers creatively hamstrung, it keeps Christian speculative fiction from reaching a larger swath of more serious genre readers.
So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story. But “seeping” into a story and showcasing it therein are huge differences. Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not. My question is: Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place?
Here are four questions to ask yourself:
- What constitutes a realistic portrayal of “good theology” in a fictional setting anyway?
- Must that portrayal be a primary “distinctive” of Christian fiction?
- When does a fictional story move from showing someone with bad theology to endorsing bad theology?
- Is it even possible in the context of a single novel, as well as through flawed characters, to accurately portray God’s character and sound doctrine?
Christian theology and doctrine is an immense subject. Libraries of theology have been compiled over the centuries, veering from the hyper-orthodox to the unorthodox. So my initial response to the question of theology in fiction is to ask what constitutes a realistic portrayal of sound theology anyway? That may seem like hair-splitting. But unless God is actually shown doing something in a novel (through a miracle, vision, or divine decree), or one of the characters launches into a theological exposition, Christian fiction is pretty much consigned to showing doctrine through flawed characters and narrative, much like the Bible.
Which leads me to ask, can you ever accurately portray God and/or sound doctrine through sinful, unsound characters? I mean, which biblical character apart from Christ always spoke or lived or believed “good theology”? King David? Moses? The apostle Peter? Rahab? Solomon? Judas? Mary Magdalene? Any character brings the baggage of depravity into their story. And free will – if not, fictional free will – to boot.
Also, is it possible for any single work of fiction to accurately depict God’s nature, attributes, and laws? He is merciful, holy, infinite, just, compassionate, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, gracious, etc., etc. So where do we start in our portrayal of God? And if we resign our story to just highlighting one attribute of God or one theological side, we potentially present an imbalanced view (like those who always emphasize God’s love and not His judgment, or vice versa). Furthermore, Christians have the luxury of the Bible and centuries of councils and theologians to help us think through this issue. But when Christians impose this body of info upon their novels, they must remember that other readers don’t possess such detailed revelation… not to mention the story’s characters.
Despite my reservations about Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, I really appreciated pastor Larry Shallenberger’s recent critique of a review of the film version of the book. In Christianity Today’s Odd Straight-Jacket for Christian Art Shallenberger summarizes:
The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine. Art exists to reveal beauty and truth. No story, sculpture, bears the whole weight of that task…
As long as we expect the arc of every faith-based story to touch a set of arbitrarily determined bases, Christian art will continue to earn the stereotype of being sentimental, emotionally dishonest, and stilted.
It’s time to take the straight jacket off our artists and let them tell all kinds of stories. Only then will our stories of God escape the Evangelical ghetto.
No “story [or] sculpture” should “bear the whole weight” of “affirm[ing] a body of doctrine.” So why do we expect our fictional stories to do just that?
Popular thriller novelist Steven James in THIS INTERVIEW with Crosswalk, was asked about his philosophic approach to spiritual truth and story:
“I’ve always loved thrillers. But most of the Christian thrillers I’ve read are thinly veiled sermons. I say, if you want to teach a message to share or a lesson to teach, write non-fiction. That’s what it’s there for. If you want to tell a good story, write a novel. Fiction explores issues or exposes things, but it doesn’t explain them. That’s not the point of a story. It’s to allow people to think and consider and explore things. It’s interesting to see how Jesus told people his stories. He didn’t tell people what they meant.” (emphasis mine)
The reason why fiction is the wrong vehicle for theology is because “fiction explores issues or exposes things, but it doesn’t explain them.” Theology explains, systematizes. Fiction, not so much. Trying to use any one person’s life or story to buttress a specific theology, be they a real or fictional person, will always fall short. Because WE always fall short.
So if you want to know the nuances of my theology, ask me. My stories, on the other hand, are not a doctrinal treatise.
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Mike Duran writes supernatural thrillers. He is a monthly contributor to Novel Rocket, and is represented by the rockin’ Rachelle Gardner of Books & Such Literary. Mike’s novels include The Telling; The Resurrection; an ebook novella, Winterland; and his newly released short story anthology ,Subterranea. You can visit his website at mikeduran.com.