Fiction Is The RIGHT Vehicle For Theology
From time to time, the subject comes up about theology in fiction. It’s a good discussion because it calls Christians to rethink what exactly we’re doing in our fiction—either writing or reading it. Here’s an earlier article (with some minor changes) published more than four years ago at Spec Faith that explores the place theology has in fiction.
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A rather accepted definition of art, including fiction, is an endeavor which utilizes creativity and imagination resulting in beauty and truth. Not beauty alone. Not truth alone. Art shows both. In a guest post here at Spec Faith the author quoted a pastor who affirmed this idea. “Art exists to reveal beauty and truth.” And yet he also stated, “The purpose of art, and even religious art, isn’t to proselytize, or to affirm a body of doctrine.”
So art, even “religious art”—which would include Christian fiction—ought not affirm “a body of doctrine,” or truth about spiritual things. How can this dichotomy between the requirement of truth in art and the rejection of spiritual truth in art exist?
Perhaps we are defining terms differently, starting with “theology.” The Oxford English Dictionary’s first definition of theology is “the study of the nature of God and religious belief.” The second definition, however, includes the idea of ordering beliefs systematically. Perhaps, then, those who say “theology” and speculative fiction don’t mix are actually saying speculative fiction isn’t a good place for expounding an ordered system of beliefs.
Then, too, the issue might center on the “body of doctrine” this pastor is taking a stand against—stories that attempt to reveal all truth about God rather than revealing a truth about God.
The Place Of Truth In Story
First, stories have long espoused or refuted a systematic, ordered way of thinking. Thomas Hardy espoused his views of fatalism in story after story. George Orwell showed his opposition to autocracy in his stories, particularly to Communism, in Animal Farm. Frank Norris and other “muckrakers” made their views about the abuses of corporations known through their stories. Harriet Beecher Stowe penned a novel against slavery—clearly taking a systematic view of the way the world ought to be.
Not so long ago, and in the speculative genre, Avatar echoed a theme about corporate America and greed which the movie ET espoused years earlier.
Is the problem, then, an ordered, systematic set of beliefs? I hardly think so. A system of beliefs has never been considered out of bounds in fiction.
The Scope Of Fiction
More to the point might be the idea that fiction should not attempt to show an entire body of doctrine because the scope of such is too big for a single story. As I see it, this statement is similar to saying, no book should try to tackle all there is to know about the human psyche. Of course not. However, that does not mean an author should refrain from dealing with any part of the human psyche.
Rather than shying away from the depiction of “theology”—by which I mean knowledge about God—in speculative fiction, I think Christian writers should embrace the challenge. In saying this, however, I do not believe all stories must show all the truth contained in the Bible, nor do I believe that our stories must affirm all Biblical moral values (as if Christians even agree on what those are).
I do believe, however, that it is possible to speculate about this world and about the spiritual world and yet remain faithful to truth about God. In fact, I believe this is fundamental to a work of art. Non-Christians can reveal truth up to a point, but because they do not know Christ, they cannot accurately reveal spiritual truth. Christians can.
Will the spiritual truth in a story ever be “complete”? Of course not. Our guest asked in his post
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.
In essence he says, the body of truth about God is beyond the scope of one novel. Absolutely true. However, the idea that we might be misunderstood if we portray only one aspect of truth or that others without our understanding of Scripture and church history might not grasp what we are “imposing” on them, doesn’t seem like a sound argument for steering away from using stories as a vehicle for theology.
It does seem like an argument for doing so poorly.
The Need For Excellence
If an author incorporates all the tenets of evolution in a story, undoubtedly the message will overwhelm the plot and characters. In other words, over reaching is the problem. A theme that is poorly executed—whether by an atheist or a Christian—suffers, not because of the author’s beliefs or his decision to incorporate them in his story. It suffers because it hasn’t been done well. (Of course, the atheist has the added burden of weaving into his story a theme that isn’t true, but that’s another subject).
In one of my comments to guest post I used the example of holding up a John 3:16 sign, versus expounding on the meaning of that verse. A story that tacks on a verse in an off-handed way as if fulfilling a touched-that-base requirement, is a weak story, not because it has introduced theology but because it has done so with no depth and with no purpose that serves the story.
In short, fiction, and speculative fiction, is the perfect vehicle for theology because spiritual truth is the ultimate truth. If art is to really be all about beauty and truth, then it OUGHT to include spiritual truth at some level.
The problems particular people such as the pastor quoted in the guest post are pointing to, have little to do with the existence of theology in fiction and everything to do with how to incorporate it into stories. Instead of warning people away from theology in speculative fiction, I think we’d be better served to teach writers how to include themes in effective ways.
“stories have long espoused or refuted a systematic, ordered way of thinking”
YES. Reams of great speculative fiction is very politically/philosophically/religiously charged, and people are happy to read it that way. Please, can Christian speculative fiction authors be as willing as their non-Christian counterparts to try to speak passionately, skillfully and openly about their beliefs in their work?
Exactly, Sheesania. I think at this point we need to emphasize the “skillfully” part, because as I see it, many people are reacting to less skillful writing that doesn’t incorporate a theme or, more accurately, embed it, but rather leads with it the way we were once taught to write a topic sentence for every paragraph. Too much Christian fiction has given us topic sentences instead of themes.
The counter to that problem has created a worse one, from my way of thinking–theme doesn’t belong in stories. Well, it does, and as you say, non-Christian writers have no problem speaking passionately about what they believe.
We Christians need to step up our game. As I see it, too many writers are complaining about what they “can’t” do in the Christian publishing world instead of working to master what we can and should do.
I maintain if we had more writers producing stories of the quality of Narnia and Lord Of The Ring, we wouldn’t have trouble selling the books outside the Christian bookstores.
Please post more wisdom on this topic, Becky. I agree with you 100% and have no qualms in doing so. The snippet you quote is both laughable and lamentable. What difference does it make whether the reader has or does not have 2,000 years of “tradition” to bring to what he’s reading? What matters is bearing witness to the Truth, the very thing Zachary encourages us to do on another post today. You don’t have to possess a master’s degree in theology to write what is biblically true, you just have to know the Word and submit to it, and prayerfully seek the Spirit’s guidance. A little perspective: back about 30 years ago there was a rash of Christian fantasy novels all obsessed with the “message,” where nothing mattered but the “message.” As a result many of the tales were clumsily told and pretty unconvincing. The theology may have been sound, but the stories were subordinated to it. But what we’re seeing today, right now, is a pendulum swing to the other direction, where “theology” becomes a dirty word and striving to remain “biblical” is termed “fuzzy” and above all, “ambiguous.” So let’s don’t worry about theology, let’s just tell our stories because it’s okay. Wrong. I keep saying this because it needs to be said. Today, story is becoming all that matters and Truth is being lost and replaced with our own foolish and vain imaginings that bear no resemblance to what is taught in the Bible. I advocate for balance, as I have said before, though I am more than a little hesitant to use the language of Lucas. His “Force” is another god and its trappings should never be on a Christian’s lips. But we do need a balance between good stories, excellent craft. engaging prose in tales that don’t promote teachings you won’t find in scripture. God is not served by these things. He is served by a humble heart committed to remain faithful to what He tells us. Therefore, we need more theology, not less. More Truth, not things made so much like the world there is no discernible difference. Tell us more. Show us how to do this. Thank you.
I totally agree with your premise. I have only one small tweak to make and it’s not in your intent (I’m sure we’re both on the same page) but in your terminology: I might change the word “theology” to “truth” in the title. A nuanced distinction maybe, but an important one. “Theology” carries with it a connotation of churchiness. “Truth” simply speaks for itself. Non-Christians don’t need theology; they need truth. The truth will teach whatever theology they need.
If this seems picky, let me illustrate. A Christian writer decides, “I have a fantastic story and I’m going to make it theologically sound!” Right away, that premise blares “disguised sermon.” A second Christian writer decides, “I have a fantastic story and I’m going to make it True.” (Capital T to distinguish truth of general things like gravity to Truth of weightier things like our need for redemption.) Hear the difference?
As for the rest of the article–super well done. I agree that people really don’t have a problem with strong themes or worldviews. For example, I was astonished at how blatant the privacy v. protection theme was in Captain America: Winter Soldier, but it didn’t seem to bother anyone. In fact, people loved it, and not just the Christians. Okay then! People love thoughtful themes, even those espoused by sparkling clean gentlemen like Steve Rogers. So Christian fiction isn’t out. It just needs a stronger and more artistic voice.