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.