Is Prayer In Fiction Fictional?

What constitutes an unrealistic view of prayer in fiction?
on Feb 17, 2015 · 8 comments

PrayerSpeculative fiction is a story that speculates on what if something(s) was(were) true that is currently not or impossible by our understanding of our world as God has created it. Sometimes it isn’t easy to tell when speculation is happening in regards to prayer.

After all, the Bible is filled with answers to prayer that are miraculous. Many people today can point to valid miracles as a result of prayer. Yet at what point does prayer in a fictional story become speculative and not true to real life and/or the Bible?

Following are some times when prayer in a fictional story can become fiction. Due to the nature of prayer, these are not clear cut, black or white lines drawn in the sand, but often can present a distorted picture of what the believer can expect when they pray.

The Chatty God

To read some fiction, you’d think it should be quite normal to hear God audibly talking with us. While the Bible does have specific examples of that happening—Moses for instance—in most cases how the Biblical character, be they prophet or king, gets that message, we are not told. Sometimes it indicates it came through a dream or vision, but rarely is it clear the person in question heard an audible voice either inside or outside their head. In the cases where it is recorded as such, context indicates God delivers a specific message rather than a continual chat back and forth for days at a time.

While not denying that God can do that and has done that to communicate with us, such an expectation can be a set up for delusion. An “angel of light” has more than once in Christian history led people astray through an audible voice claiming to be God or delivering a message from God.

The reality is, for most of us, we would not be able to bear hearing God’s voice audibly. (Exodus 20:19) Nor do most people experience God speaking as He is depicted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Yet often in our speculative fiction, the “still small voice” that Elijah struggled to find is missing. (1 Kings 19:12) Instead, it is quite loud and obvious to the characters.

The Overconfident Prophet

Related to the last one, many times doubt about the message is absent in our fiction. Most of us are like Elijah in 1 Kings 19, trying to discern the will of God in our lives through the events of our lives. Sometimes we feel confident we’re on the right track, other times, not so much. We long for the certitude of many of the prophets who could say, “Thus saith the Lord.”

Problem is some people overcompensate for their doubts about God’s message to them. Instead of acknowledging them, they cover them up with pride. Many false prophets also said, “Thus saith the Lord” without having received such a message. When we become too overconfident that we no longer “test the spirits” upon receiving a message, we risk hearing what we want to hear rather than what God may be trying to tell us.

If our fiction rarely shows such testing and doubts, it can set the reader up to be deceived by an “angel of light” or by their own desires, if the reader believes they should adopt the same attitude.

The Cosmic Vending Machine

When our fiction depicts prayer as saying a specific set of words and always getting what is asked for, it can depict God as a cosmic vending machine. Put in the right words, push the button, and get your heart’s desire.

To be realistic to our lives and the Bible, sometimes the answer should be “no” or “not yet.” We need examples of people who persist in prayer without an answer as well as the dramatic answers to prayer. Answers should sometimes be not what is expected or desired.

To do otherwise paints a speculative picture of prayer, God, and our relationship to Him.

Buddy Prayer

Prayer should certainly be an integral part of our daily life. There is nothing wrong with depicting prayer as a conversation between us and the God who loves us. Too often, however, our fiction divorces prayer from the context of worship.

The Bible gives us examples of short prayers (Luke 18:13) as well as long and worshipful prayers (John 17). The whole book of Psalms is a prayer book used by Jews and Christians in worship for centuries.

This fallacy is easy for most fiction to fall into. Fiction tends to focus on moments of a character’s life and decisions that affect the outcome of the story. Too long of a prayer or too formal will often lose many readers. If they wanted to sit through a worship service, they’d attend church, not read a fiction book depicting one in detail. Inherently fiction assumes a level of worship with the Christian characters.

Despite that, prayer is worship and worship is a series of prayers to God. Fiction’s prayers should acknowledge God as God of our lives and the whole of creation in a worshipful manner. When that attitude of worship and awe are missing, it distorts what prayer is.

Most Authors Are Guilty of These Fallacy

Myself included. Sometimes outright wrong depictions, sometimes simply leaving the wrong impressions unintentionally.

This is not intended to bash authors, many of whom are doing their best to depict Christianity in a real manner through their fiction. Rather, for readers to be aware of these pictures that can, because of the nature of fiction, be incomplete or simply send the wrong messages about how prayer integrates with our life and relationship with God.

What depictions of prayer have you seen requiring some discernment on the part of the reader to not end up with a theologically incorrect view of prayer?

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.
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  1. Keanan Brand says:

    You’ve written an excellent and necessary post for Christian writers who want to portray faith realistically in their fiction.

    I’ve been concerned about the prayers and interactions with God in my fantasy fiction. I didn’t want cheesy or easy or the magical cosmic vending machine. 😉 In the end, I modeled the prayers on my own: sometimes yelling in frustration, sometimes questioning, sometimes challenging. The story of Job is also an influence.

    And God doesn’t always answer when or how the characters want. Often He’s silent.

  2. Lisa says:

    Thank you SO much for this. #1 and #2 encapsulate what I often find so irritating about “Christian” fiction. I struggled to understand why I often found myself discouraged rather than uplifted when reading it, until I realized it was because my Christian experience looked nothing like that of the characters in those books. God never spoke to me “in my head” like He so often does in Christian books, and those characters get clear leading from God that I mainly haven’t had. I started thinking, “What’s wrong with me?” So I  am very aware of this when I am writing, to try to avoid that reaction in my readers.

  3. Oooh, great discussion topic and good post!

    Something I’ve enjoyed in my own writing is showing how uniquely each character prays.  One character will be prone to long, worshipful prayers when they have time to think, while another shoots off “bullet prayers” all the time.  One character might typically start with a formal “Dear Father in heaven,” while another simply starts with, “God,” or “Father,” or, “Dear Lord,” or doesn’t preface the prayer with any special beginning, jumping right into what they want to say.  I think probably each believer has a unique way of praying, just like we all speak uniquely. 🙂

    I don’t usually have God answer my characters – that isn’t my usual life experience, nor does it necessarily sit well with my theology.  But very recently I had a character hear that “still, small voice,” because I have experienced that a couple of times in recent years (never before!) and it felt very natural and important to the scene I was writing.  Normally I’d be hesitant to ascribe words to God in a fictional setting where He obviously did not actually speak, but it made sense for this circumstance, and I hope it represents how He might actually speak to my character in real life.

    It really irritates me, like nails on a chalkboard, when characters address God in casual, flippant ways like, “Hey, God, I know you’re probably busy, but – ”  Ugh.  NO sense of reverence, awe, or honor.  God isn’t our coworker or pal.  While we may address Him in familiar, loving ways – He is our Abba, Father! – I personally frown on the way some fiction represents prayer, like a casual chat with a friend rather than a petition to the Lord of the Universe.

    • dmdutcher says:

      A lot of current fundamentalism/evangelicalism was a reaction against the rather impersonal worship of the orthodox churches as much as the leftist ones. I know my mother’s generation attended those churches and found a service focused on liturgy really impersonal, dry, and dead. The awe and reverence it evokes in some people also evoked coldness and distance, and that’s why so many people choose informality.

      R.L.’s “cosmic vending machine” is related to this. It rose up in evangelical culture because so many people used the idea of “no” or “not now” poorly and even inhumanly.  The “no” is a kind of theodicy, and a lot of the frozen chosen used it like a club instead of consoling those who suffered.

      It seems different now, with more people identifying back with those denominations. But informality is a reaction against excessive formality, imo.

  4. Excellent post! It evokes quite a few interesting questions. I liked the categorization as well. Some of these examples have turned me away from Christian fiction, because I can’t relate to them. It could be argued that Christian fiction isn’t automatically prescriptive–that is, readers shouldn’t necessarily be expecting a good example of prayer life from all of the characters, because people are human, and everyone faces different temptations to misuse prayer. However, when the writer sets up a character to be a main character or a “hero,” then along with that there is an implied sense that this person is someone to be aspired to, or at least related to.

    With that being said, I do sometimes show the “bad kinds” of prayer in my stories–if only to contrast between characters. Some people do pray to a “vending machine god” and showing that can be a way of revealing character traits and perhaps even opportunities for growth arcs. Also, I just want to mention to be careful about the “buddy God” comments. While being too casual or loose with the Creator of the Universe is wrong, sometimes people just don’t have elegant words to say–and Jesus Christ was a friend as well as a Savior. I have one or two characters who very much cherish and revere that friendship (while not losing sight of the key importance of salvation).

    In summary, “bad praying” can be used in different contexts to actually show character weaknesses and places they need to grow and change. It can also show how some characters may not be Christian, even though they act like it (I had one character who thought he was Christian, but through his internal prayer life, it became clear he was self-deceived and hadn’t accepted salvation). However, the danger comes when people with poor prayer lives are set up as heroes to follow.

    Question – I’m not sure if this is an issue in Christian fiction, but it would be fun to show a character who had the opposite problem of being too casual. Instead, they are so seemingly worshipful and reverent that they think everything is fine, until they realized that they are using all of those words to avoid voicing personal issues and problems. Just an idea.

  5. Sherwood Smith says:

    Oh, thoughtful post–thank you!

  6. Julie D says:

    Very interesting.

  7. Nena says:

    My problem with prayer in my fiction writing has always been “Is it right to use it, isn’t it somewhat blasphemous?”

    Your post has helped me.

    I have tried to write non Christian fiction, but it feels like trying to keep a fish alive out of water. I always stumbled on the need to have my characters pray all of a sudden. They would find themselves in some situation that required it and then I felt as if I had dropped a clone of them in the story, a Christian clone.

    Because I am a Christian praying is something that I need to do and I came to the conclusion that I can’t write fiction without it.

    Thank you for this. It has helped not only to answer that long burning doubt but also given me pointers on how to do it properly.

What do you think?