God From The Story

Any author who has God as a character is always in danger of alienating readers by what God does or doesn’t do or say.
on Nov 19, 2013 · No comments

Burning_Man_2013_Church_Trap_(10227013015)Most of our readers have heard of the term Deux ex machina. It is Latin for, “god from the machine.” It refers to:

. . . a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly resolved by the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. Depending on how it is done, it can be intended to move the story forward when the writer has “painted himself into a corner” and sees no other way out, to surprise the audience, to bring a happy ending into the tale, or as a comedic device

This is only one of the dangers involved when God is a character in the story. But there are many more. How many, you may ask? Here are three that come to mind.

Difficulty establishing tension

Related to Deux ex machina, if the reader knows God is going to save the day at some point, it is hard to build much real danger for the protagonist. Instead, tension is built more by inner conflict within a character arc in most cases.

It can also be increased by God not saving the day when He’s expected to. Like Josh Whedon kills off a main character occasionally to keep the viewer guessing whether others will survive, this leaves the reader not sure whether God will or won’t jump in.

To be honest, though, this is a problem with a majority of novels. We know, in most cases, the good guys are going to win somehow. Despite all he goes through, we know Bruce Willis is going to survive and win in a Die Hard movie. Yet, we still find ourselves on the edge of our seat watching one.

God comes across as arbitrary

I’ve been accused of this one. It is inherent in depicting God who has said,

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. (Isa 55:8 ASV)

In real life God’s actions can seem arbitrary, even though we trust He is doing what is best. An author can know why God is doing all He is doing in the story, but how can he let the reader in on it? Either God explains Himself to characters, which is not true to life, or we get internal monologue from God’s “brain,” which collides with the above verse. Not too many authors are crazy enough to even attempt the later.

So even if there is rhyme and reason in the author’s mind, it is near impossible to convey that in a story without venturing into even more dangerous territory.

My God would never do that!

The God we get from reading a story will frequently not mesh completely with our understanding of Him. There is a conflicting theological picture painted we don’t like. There are several levels to this.

One key to keep in mind is the Bible may be inerrant, but authors are not. Due to human limitations, authors are never going to paint a perfect picture of God in their novels. Even with the best of intentions, we can get it wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, and even promote heresy on occasion that we didn’t intend to portray.

On one level, there are the differences in theology about God among Christians. A Calvinist author and a Wesleyan author are not likely to portray God’s words and actions toward man the same way. One author’s depiction of Hell may not match another’s. So some disagreement is to be expected.

On another level, sometimes the author inadvertently portrays God in a manner even he doesn’t agree with, and never saw it in editing. We are, after all, limited humans. Sometimes messages are conveyed we didn’t intend.

Yet there are also authors who believe and intend to “teach” through their writings a view of God that is heretical, outside the traditional bounds of Christian understanding. A Mormon isn’t likely to portray Jesus, whether directly or allegorically presented, as being equal to the Father in substance.

So any author who has God as a character is always in danger of alienating readers by what God does or doesn’t do or say.

I should point out, that the statement, “My God would never do that,” is problematic. One, we don’t own or define what God will or won’t do. He does. Two, it reflects a “God in a box” mentality, leaving us insensitive to God’s efforts to teach us something new.

Sometimes we need to give authors the benefit of a doubt, realize this is fiction written by a fallible human being, and use it to teach what God is really like instead of threatening to burn books, figuratively or literally.

What are other problems you see when God is a character in a novel? Where do you draw the line on what is acceptable?

As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and The Virtual Chronicles series, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines.Learn more about R. L and his work at any of the following:Author Website, Author Blog, or Author Store.
Website ·
  1. I feel so strongly about the sovereignty of God that I hate to see God used as a main character in a story. I don’t think we get to make up what God would say or do in a story. I know people who pray about using God or God under some other name in their books and feel like they are honoring God with their writing. I don’t want to put those people down, but I can’t get past that God is not my genie, He is not my servant, He is Lord, and I don’t get to order Him around, not even fictionally. Some people get around my objections by having their fiction universe God say only what is written in the Bible. That helps. And some have not God speak, but rather His angels, which is only marginally better.
    And so, as I was thinking about writing the above in my review of a book by Melo Bel where he had Jesus appearing to a character and talking to him, when I thought about The Great Divorce where an angel speaks, and the entire Narnia series where Jesus speaks through the mouth of a lion, and my tirade stalled. I thought, The difference is those are not allegories, those are supposals. And then I tried to think what difference does that really make? And then I thought of Dante and Milton,…., and now I have a lot to think about. Why do I allow some to speak for God and not others?

    • R. L. Copple says:

      Good points, Lelia. Another route, which I’ve used in my Reality series, to think about. I don’t ever have God audibly speak, but characters claim to be receiving messages from Him and events happen which we derive from the story are by God’s will. is there much difference between someone in a novel sensing “this is God’s will” or that God brought about certain events, and having the story directly say God did such and such, or said this or that?

      I find the former more true to life, but unless the author gives indication that the person may be reading God wrong, it would be assumed to be the same thing. I think most any Christian novel that acknowledges God as real runs into this in one form or another. Like every story conveys some type of morality, most every story conveys some sort of theology even if it is just by what happens within that universe.

      • That characters may claim to be hearing directly from God is certainly true to life, at least in my tradition. Other traditions may have a little more humility about such things.
        It’s putting words into God’s mouth that chafes me. That practice makes me worry about taking God’s name in vain. So why do I think it’s okay in Narnia? I think it helps that those conversations are not protracted and/or carry the whiff of me and my buddy, God. And maybe quoting Scripture or paraphrases is not egregious.
        I feel a difference, but what is it I’m feeling? Is it that I can only find the practice acceptable if it confirms what I think about God?

        • Literaturelady says:

          I love your remark about “me and my buddy God”…if the cliche lists I’ve read are correct, that is a problem in Christian fiction/sermon-disguised-as-fantasy. Interesting that you mention Aslan in the same paragraph–because I think the Walden Media movies did reduce Aslan to a buddy for the most part. Unfortunately.

          • notleia says:

            I dunno, I think you could get some mileage out of “me and my buddy, Jesus.” Like, Jesus would be like, “Quit asking me to spike your water bottles, notleia. I’m your personal lord and savior, not your personal walking mini-bar.” And I’d be contrite and “Sorry, Jesus.” I’d extend a cup, “Reconciliation wine slushie? I made them myself this time.” After a moment of companionable sipping, I’d say, “Here’s a thought. Does this count as communion, or does the shaved ice render it null and void? I can get some pita. Pita is unleavened, right?”

  2. It all comes down to praying fervently that I am conveying in my story what the Lord is leading me to write. The only hope is leaning on the Holy Spirit to anoint. That’s a walk of faith working out “whatever” with fear & trembling… It’s a tough thing and helps explain why excellent Godly fiction is so rare.

  3. Lelia, as I read your comment, I was thinking about Aslan (especially since I just did that post about Lewis). But then you added some of the other great writers as examples of authors who did successfully portray God in their stories. Does make a person think!

    I’d suggest that there are a couple things that make “God work as a character.” (Ugh, that sounds horrible as I write it). First, He is portrayed as He is in Scripture. He isn’t just rushing in to save the day. He is sovereign and does have a plan, isn’t caught off guard or surprised, is sacrificial and powerful.

    Along that line, He isn’t just “out there” with a cameo appearance towards the conclusion, but is integral to the story from beginning to end. Aslan didn’t dominate the action, but he was on the mind of the characters and frequently served to motivate them. When he did show up, then, it was expected, not out of the norm.


  4. Literaturelady says:

    Great article! You’ve touched on some points that deserve lots of consideration–especially in the light of Who God is.

    I wonder, though, if one solution to deus ex machina is understanding the purpose behind God’s miracles. Lots of His miracles in the Old Testament weren’t to “save the day” but to prove that He was the living God, and that the living God was indeed working through these unpopular prophets.

    Or when He did work in the interests of a specific person, He sometimes required action and faith from that person. The widow’s oil comes first to mind: she had to trust that God would work something out and prove that trust by obeying the instruction to borrow many jars, not just a few.

    Of course, that’s the Old Testament. Here in the church age, the nature of miracles has changed–God doesn’t tend to deliver supernatural displays anymore like the fire on Mount Carmel. I think He still works miracles, but they’re more subtle; the sort that non-Christians chalk up to pure coincidence, though we know differently. I consider the Senate vote against the CRPD last December a miracle, especially since the treaty opposition vote was merely five more than the treaty support vote.

    Anyway, those are my thoughts/theories on the matter.


    • I love all your comments. I think the key is to have committed believers believe they have heard from the Lord and let it prove itself out one way or the other. We need to remember that the penalty for saying “this is what the Lord says” [you heard from the Lord], and it doesn’t come to pass used to be stoning. Then we start coming to realize that these things are important, and not light matters. Maybe if we re-instituted stoning for false prophets things would get better 😉

      • R. L. Copple says:

        I think the key is to have committed believers believe they have heard from the Lord and let it prove itself out one way or the other.

        True, but while that works in real life, in a story that shows the theology of the author, and then we’re back to the question as originally posed.

    • notleia says:

      Not to sidetrack this to politics, but the CRPD as in that UN thing for disabled people? From what I’ve heard, there’s no real reason why we shouldn’t ratify it. Our own disability laws have the same or higher protective standards, so there would be no changes made to our laws and it would essentially be a statement on the international stage of our commitment to human rights, which is not at all a bad statement to make. Would it just be because you don’t feel like the US should be messing with the UN?

      • Literaturelady says:

        Good questions, Notleia, and I appreciate your thoughtfully phrased remarks and questions. Yes I was referring to the UN treaty, and here is why I’m thankful it wasn’t ratified:

        If our standards are the same or higher, why do we need this treaty? America already has disability laws, has pretty much set the standard for such laws, and that’s a powerful human rights statement as it is.

        But more than that, the nature of the treaty, as I understand it, actually would change our laws (Article 4 (1) (a) says that American law must conform to the UN standards), and if WE ratify this treaty, it affects US and no one else.

        Also, the treaty puts too much power into the hands of not only the UN bureaucrats but also the American ones (since we’d have to conform to UN standards). I’m not against disabled people or disability laws, or government–not at all! But if the Senate ratifies this treaty, they will give away a lot of American sovereignty.

        This is going to sound like a commercial, but here’s a website with more information, if you’re interested: http://www.parentalrights.org/index.asp?Type=B_BASIC&SEC={20D0981D-7D74-43AD-B748-776EA0867E21}


  5. Julie D says:

    I find it really, really exasperating when otherworld versions of God or their scriptures are Bible verses with a few edits. Even if it’s an otherwise good story, it throws me out of the fiction and back into our reality.
    I don’t have an immediate problem with God being a part of a fictional world, though I never would support a novel in 1st person from the point of Christ. One good series I have read with Christ as a fictional character is the AD Chronicles by Brock and Bodie Thoene. He doesn’t sound like a walking Scripture generator, even when dialogue is taken from Scripture. It also helps that most of the novel is viewed through minor characters from Scripture (the man born blind in John 9) or characters who would have existed in the setting (a Bethlehem shepherd)

    • R. L. Copple says:

      I find it really, really exasperating when otherworld versions of God or their scriptures are Bible verses with a few edits. Even if it’s an otherwise good story, it throws me out of the fiction and back into our reality.

      True, I’ve thought about that. But it also depends on how the alternate world exists. For example, in my Reality series, the world is a parallel hub world for any number of realities, including our own. So each has similarities and differences based on how their history has played out. So there is an identifiable historical similarities between that world and our own. But I do avoid direct quotes of Scripture, usually alluding to them or a rough paraphrase, in large part due to what you’ve said.

What do you think?