Why Fiction Is The Wrong Vehicle For Theology

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.
on Nov 30, 2012 · 57 comments

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.

– – – – –

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.

Mike Duran is a novelist, artist, and freelance writer. Mike writes fiction and non-fiction. He is the author of The Ghost Box (Blue Crescent Press, 2014), which was selected by Publishers Weekly as one of the best indie novels of 2015 and first in a paranoir series that continues with Saint Death (2016), and The Third Golem (2020). He's the author of Christians and Conspiracy Theories (2023) and Christian Horror (2015) His short stories, essays, and commentary have appeared in Relief Journal, Cemetery Gates Media, The Gospel Coalition, Relevant Online, Bewildering Stories, Rue Morgue, Zombies magazine, Breakpoint, and other print and digital outlets. Mike is interested in religion, science, conspiracism, media, books and monsters. You can learn more about Mike Duran, his writing projects, cultural commentary, philosophical musings, and arcane interests, at MikeDuran.com.
  1. Kirsty says:

    Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place?

    I’d say it can be, simply because Jesus did use it in this way. Sometimes using very flawed characters to do so  – the unjust judge, the dishonest manager. And these guys were not supposed to represent ‘baddies’ in the stories either! But as Christians I think we have problems handling these stories too – we read too much into them.

    • Great point, Kristy. All through the Bible there are stories that conveyed truth. We’re perhaps most familiar with the one Nathan told David that pointed out his sin with Bathsheba, but one of the judges told a fantasy story about the bramble ending up as the ruler of all the trees, Elijah told a story to King Ahab to show his guilt in killing and stealing from his neighbor. The prophets often enacted stories, and God used metaphor constantly. The true story of Isaac’s redemption carried the truth of the redemption God planned through His Son.

      I think it’s startling to hear Christians suggesting that art would be better with out spiritual truth.


      • “I think it’s startling to hear Christians suggesting that art would be better without spiritual truth.”

        I’d be startled too if I thought that was what Mike was suggesting. I don’t see that he’s suggesting that at all, however. He’s saying that Christian art will be better when we stop trying to use it as a vehicle for theological exposition, which is a far cry from saying that we should stop using it as a vehicle to explore spiritual truth.

        The correct medium for expounding theology is non-fiction. Yes, Jesus told parables, but He did so as part of a larger non-fictional discourse, and He actually did so in order to *obscure* his message from those whose hearts were not ready for it, rather than to make it clearer for them. Even the disciples, whose hearts were open to truth, were confused by His parables and had to ask Him for further explanation and exposition afterward — which He then provided in a very non-fictional form. But Jesus reminded them that His speaking in parables to the nation of Israel was a sign of judgment upon their unbelief, as foretold by the prophets — that they would hear, but not understand.
        Which is not to say that stories and anecdotes can’t be worthwhile illustrations to theological exposition, but they are certainly not a replacement for it. Fiction is simply not equal to, or intended for, the task of accurately conveying the nuances of philosophical and theological truth. Even C.S. Lewis’s theology comes into debate when people read the Narnia books, as when people take certain passages in THE LAST BATTLE to mean that Lewis was a universalist — when they’d be far better to look to Lewis’s non-fiction essays on the subject of salvation and other religions to find out what he actually believed.

        I believe fiction does its best work when it awakens spiritual longing in our hearts — a desire for something truer and better and holier, and an awareness of our own sinful and fallen condition. In that respect a gritty crime novel written by an unbeliever may well be far more effective at convicting readers of the need for salvation than a thin, preachy diatribe by a sincere believer who thinks that fiction ought to be a vehicle for theology.

        • R. J., as you see, Mike explained that he’s saying “art is not the best vehicle for articulating spiritual truth and that we limit our art when we impose too stringent of a theological grid.”

          I tend to think this is splitting hairs. If art is supposed to be beauty and truth, then why isn’t spiritual truth just as much a part of that mix? Why can’t spiritual truth be “articulated” as much as any other truth? Why are we limiting our art with spiritual truth but not “humanistic truth”?

          What I hear in this discussion is a division that fits with the philosophy of our culture–keep that Christianity in your churches; don’t bring it into the marketplace.

          You make a good point about some of Jesus’s parables. Certainly the disciples and others looking on didn’t get everything Jesus said in story form, but they got a lot. Often Jesus answered questions by telling a story, and it’s apparent by His follow-up that His story about the good Samaritan made its point. Also there were times that the Pharisees were angered because they understood that Jesus had painted them into His stories in ways they didn’t like.

          Clearly He wasn’t speaking His stories into a vacuum. He expected them to illustrate points that He’d been preaching about or that Scripture taught. The same is true today. Good stories, like The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wouldn’t have theological meaning apart from the Bible. Nowhere did Lewis explain within the story what he was doing. He did write at some length, however, about sub-creation and his belief about myth. Hence, his stories become richer when understood in light of Scripture and Lewis’s own beliefs about the way to write God into a story.

          I’ve said elsewhere, the problem isn’t too much “message” or too much theology; it’s poor execution of that aspect of storytelling–often because of this (in my opinion) errant view that theology has no place in stories. Hence, writing instructors aren’t teaching writers how to incorporate themes (godly ones or even moralistic ones) in stories. Instead, there’s this school of thought that a writer doesn’t have to worry because his worldview is bound to seep into a story on its own.

          I happen to think that method is bound to produce a stock, stereotypical theme with little depth. It’s no different than saying, I don’t have to work at creating complex characters; since I’m a person, my understanding of people will naturally seep into my story.


      • Mike Duran says:

        Becky said, “I think it’s startling to hear Christians suggesting that art would be better with out spiritual truth.”
        I wouldn’t be suggesting that at all. I’m saying that art is not the best vehicle for articulating spiritual truth and that we limit our art when we impose too stringent of a theological grid.

      • I wouldn’t be suggesting that at all. I’m saying that art is not the best vehicle for articulating spiritual truth

        Again we may have differing approaches, here based on the word “articulating.” We’re in full agreement that fiction should not attempt “systematic theology.” But articulating spiritual truth, systematic-theology-style, is different from exploring spiritual truth. Fiction is based on truth. It fleshes it out. It programs a “simulation” and asks, implicitly, how would this truth apply in this What If?

        Any ventured theories here must be based on Scripture, the true Story Prime, would you agree? In Scripture we find the Psalms, Proverbs, and other more-creative works not at all being hamstrung by “systematic theology” or verbatim articulations of God’s Law. Yet they also never contradict His Law. Their authors’ creativity was not limited by His revelation about Himself, but was set free. And because they honored correct “theology,” they felt even more free to be themselves, to lament, to be flawed, even to argue with God — while also speaking to themselves, encouraging themselves to get past that point.

        and that we limit our art when we impose too stringent of a theological grid.

        I’d love to hear examples, yes, even with named names. (Some have already broken that ground in the comments.) I have cheated by naming one of the most infamous names, but as you saw, I hope, my main argument was not that The Shack was Theologically Incorrect. Rather, I said it was boring, boring like the Hell Young evidently does not accept. Evidently his lack of regard for Biblical theology — while trying to articulate/expound his own in what should have been an organic story — led to his own limitations and a dull, manipulative book. All of the zeal and “subtlety” of a normal evangelical author, and less of the truth.

        Thanks as always for a great discussion, Mike.

        • Mike Duran says:

          Stephen, if we are asking that a story “never contradict [God’s] Law,” that’s something that even biblical characters don’t do. Moses contradicted God’s Law at points (see his exclusion from the Promised Land), Noah contradicted God’s Law (see his naked drunkenness), David contradicted God’s Law (see murder and adultery), and on and on and on. Problem is, it’s only as we see a character in a larger context and with an understanding of an established canon of Scripture that we can reconcile their bad example with good theology.
          Christians bring such an understanding (of biblical history and doctrine) to their readings. However, 1.) Fictional characters don’t, and 2.) Neither does every reader. I’m suggesting that we’re demanding too much from our fiction if I can’t show King David, man of God, murdering Uriah, without having to explain it in a larger context. Sort of like Robert Duvall’s character in “The Apostle.” The ambiguity is what made the story powerful. Although, in many Christian’s minds, it’s also what made it NOT a Christian film.
          A cyber friend recently reviewed my latest novel, The Telling, and was troubled by some of the book’s theological — or skewed theological — elements. Here’s a quote:

          “I gave the novel four stars for great story telling, but struggled justifying a five because of the realistic use of scripture in a false prophecy that I have never read yet in a novel. In the past, novels have explored theologies in fiction, but this mix of the occult, new age, and scripture felt new to me. Would I read this again?
          I don’t know.”

          I really appreciate the reviewer’s honesty. And despite the concerns, the review is actually pretty good. The reviewer’s right about the strange fictional brew I concocted in The Telling. Part quantum theory, Celtic folklore, angelology, and esotericism. I threw the kitchen sink at this. Even tried to spin a fictional motif in a new direction. Either way, it’s definitely an amalgam of fictional and non-fictional elements. Evil and good exist side-by-side in The Telling, as does good and bad beliefs.
          However — and this is where I try to put my money where my mouth is — I just tried to leave the reader to decide which was which. But that’s precisely what happens when a Christian writer does so: They’re accused of “bad theology.” 
          Not a one of my characters has perfect theology. Some have down-right bad theology. I’m trusting readers to figure out which is which. If readers, however, are asking me to spell it out, ensure that those protags with wacky theology get straightened out by the end of the book, or that those antags with bad theology get whacked by the conclusion (just to validate their heresy), I’m afraid they’re out of luck.
          Stephen, thank you for the platform here. I LOVE what your team is doing!

          • Stephen, if we are asking that a story “never contradict [God’s] Law,” that’s something that even biblical characters don’t do.

            I heartily agree.

            Yet isn’t there a difference between a story contradicting God’s revelation and the characters doing so? The story may prove them wrong. Or it may invite us to examine the story in light of God’s Story — as the “nonfiction” of God’s Word implicitly does when it presents characters sinning, but doesn’t directly say so.

            Thanks much for your encouragement. I believe that we ultimately agree on everything in this discussion. My hope is only to communicate more clearly — in order to make sure we’re doing “art” in light of God’s Word and that ultimate Story.

            Thus, if someone says, “My novel should be all about Right Theology, so great writing doesn’t really matter and all that matters is ensuring Clear Moral Principles, well-behaved characters, and a repetition of the Plan of Salvation,” then that author isn’t practicing Biblical theology.

            True “theology” does not limit but enhance God-honoring creativity. And reading and writing are acts of worshiping Him.

  2. Bainespal says:

    What is the difference between “theology” and “worldview,” for the purposes of Christian fiction?
    I agree that fiction is not suited to discussing theology.  A novel written to discuss the fine points of Predestination vs. Free Will would be absolutely terrible as art.  However, I’m not certain that the term “art” necessarily excludes sermons or  other explicitly theological messages.  I think there might be some degree of art in the delivery of a sermon.

    • Bainespal, I agree that fiction isn’t really a discussion–setting aside The Shack for the moment. But it can show truths, even ones like predestination and God’s sovereignty. The Trophy Chase Trilogy by George Bryan Polivka did so quite well.


  3. Steve Rzasa says:

    So if this filter of “right theology” is removed, what makes Christian speculative fiction any different than secular speculative fiction? What makes our work different than that of the rest of the world? A secular writer can write a scifi or fantasy novel that is every bit as moralistic as one written by a Christian writer, or vice versa. It’s the theology that sets Christian speculative fiction apart.

    I agree with Bainespal above. A novel doesn’t have to be a theological treatise.  Likewise I agree with his statement, “I think there might be some degree of art in the delivery of a sermon.” Except I would argue “there is” instead of “there might be.”

    • “I think there might be some degree of art in the delivery of a sermon.” Except I would argue “there is” instead of “there might be.”

      If a sermon is not preached artfully, with beauty, it’s a truth without beauty — in effect a half-truth. God delivers His “sermons” amidst His revealed Word that encompasses multiple different genres: epic narratives, theological treatises, personal-counseling letters, history records, biography, poetry, even erotic poetry. Yet the “stories” (true stories) of Scripture always rely on the theological treatises and Biblical Law elsewhere. One could not ask for a clearer endorsement, by the Author Himself, of how “fiction” and “theology” relate, or of the fact that varying genres all glorify Him.

    • Christian fiction differs from “secular” fiction in that it is written by Christians out of a Christian moral worldview. As a result, the “whole cast of the [Christian] author’s mind”, as Lewis put it, will naturally come to bear on the material that s/he selects to put in the book and the way that s/he chooses to address it, as well as the conclusions implied by the way the story is told.

      When I read general market fiction I can tell almost invariably what the author’s beliefs are by the way they tell the story, the themes they choose to emphasize, and so on. Atheist and agnostic sentiments have a way of making themselves known even if author is trying to write sympathetically about religion; I think it’s equally true that Christian beliefs have a way of coming through even if the author is trying to write fairly about characters who are atheist or agnostic.

      I think there’s a legitimate market for fiction written by Christians specifically for other Christians to read and be provoked to thought and discussion about spiritual truths, but in that case we really need to get past the “milk” of conviction and conversion narratives and dig into the “meat” of discipleship and daily Christian living. Some books are doing this, I’m sure; but there needs to be more and they need to be better and more honestly written. Let’s cut back on all those heart-warming stories of unbelievers being gloriously saved that do little more than make Christian readers feel sentimental and smug, and make it seem like conversion is the end rather than the beginning of faith’s journey. The Bible itself doesn’t treat its characters that way (and I’m talking about people like Abraham and David here), so why should we?

      • R. J., I agree–“conversion” is the beginning of life with Christ and we’d do well to show in our stories what happens next. What’s ironic is that a good portion of Christians begin writing as a means to reach those without Christ. But their stories end up in Christian book stores. That’s why I think it’s great when authors reach beyond the Christian market–in whatever way that happens. There’s a place for all kinds of stories and God uses a larger variety than we probably know.


    • Let’s cut back on all those heart-warming stories of unbelievers being gloriously saved that do little more than make Christian readers feel sentimental and smug, and make it seem like conversion is the end rather than the beginning of faith’s journey.

      Ay-men, sister.

      The root cause of this, though, is very sentimentalized and whitewashed views of people. According to some stories, apparently the Gospel only “works” on people whose lives have been “pre-treated.” Not a great way to sell a detergent, is it?

      a) The Gospel “works” on disgusting sinners, and our stories should reflect that truth. b) We have other, better stories to tell about a resurrected life anyway.

    • Mike Duran says:

      Steve said, “So if this filter of “right theology” is removed, what makes Christian speculative fiction any different than secular speculative fiction? What makes our work different than that of the rest of the world?”
      This is important. Are you saying then that a work of art can’t be “Christian” unless it contains some evidence of “Christian theology”? If so, then not only do you sweep countless songs, sculptures, and films into the “secular” dust bin, you force “Christian art” to look a certain way. In essence, we are debating two different concepts of “Christian art.”

  4. Kessie says:

    The Left Behind books delivered a thinly-veiled theology lesson (forget which ism it was), as did Hanegraaf’s Last Disciple series (which was the opposing ism) and neither series were particularly well-written.
    Ted Dekker’s novels stick to Biblical tropes so closely, they’ve achieved Utter Predictability status. Killing of the son, being saved by the blood, dying to achieve life, the word made flesh, and so on and so on. As soon as you figure out which trope he’s using, you pretty much can predict the rest of the book.
    Those are all examples of people using fiction as a vehicle to convey their theology.
    It’s when theology accidentally slips into the story that it’s any good. Like Dresden arguing with the atheist paladin that you can’t actually be an atheist and a paladin who is ordained by God. And another paladin points out, “God sees the heart.” It was a plot point, not the entire plot. Which is why it worked.

    • Bainespal says:

      Like Dresden arguing with the atheist paladin that you can’t actually be an atheist and a paladin who is ordained by God. And another paladin points out, “God sees the heart.”

      Every time you mention that scene from the Dresden Files, I resolve all over again to read that series soon.  But there’s just so much stuff to read.
      I can’t say that I’ve always found openly theological or philosophical dialogs in novels to be bad craft.  But I agree with the point made above — the best theological themes in fiction are not only subtle, but they come when you’re not expecting them and are not the main point of the story.

    • Christian says:

      Kessie, I agree that Ted’s more recent books (those since Adam) are very predictable but there was certainly a time when his books were anything but.

      • Kessie says:

        Yeah, the first book I ever read by Dekker was Blink, and it was fantastic. The writing quality is very good and the story was daring and provocative. So was Three. Then Red, Black and White came out all close together, and his writing quality noticeably dropped. You can tell he spent lots of time drafting earlier books, and stopped that process with later ones in favor of mass production. After the travesty that was Green, I swore him off.
        IMO he’s burning out and needs to take a break from writing.

        • Christian says:

          You’re correct in saying that Blink was well-written and a great read. Thr3e was a little more simplistic (the writing style, not the story) but all the same I loved it. I don’t think The Circle Trilogy ushered in a noticeable drop in writing quality. Yes, they’re a little less polished than previous books but they’re still very good and a totally different genre for him. They really moved me and made me think. Still, I wish Dekker had paid more attention to his world-building by creating something a little more interesting. Books like Showdown, Saint and Sinner vary in writing quality but the stories are intriguing as all else. That’s what I miss. Some of his more recent books are better written but they just don’t have the passion, the creative spark or the surprises that his earlier books had. Above all, Dekker is (was?) more skilled as a storyteller than anything else.

          • Kessie says:

            My biggest issue with Ted is that he comes up with the BEST redemption stories–like Johnny in Saint or Chelise in White–and I want to read about those characters until my eyeballs fall out. What do we actually get? An entire YA series about Billy, as well as Sinner. I hated Billy from the instant he showed up in Showdown, and I don’t understand why we had to spend so many books watching him turn evil.
            My poor husband picked up Forbidden, and I asked if it was linked to the Circle. He said no, it was new. I said, just wait for it, they’ll find Thomas’s blood. When they did, my husband put the book down. I feel bad about ruining it for him, but when Ted’s that predictable, it’s not fun to read anymore.

            • Christian says:

              Hmm… While I understand you liking Johnny and Chelise, I never had a problem with Billy, I found him fascinating.

              As for Forbidden, the premise was interesting  but the writing was lacking and it was too by-the-numbers for me. A poor man’s Circle Trilogy, if you will.

    • I haven’t read all of Dekker’s books by a long shot – I never got into his mystery-thrillers – but I haven’t tired yet of his favourite themes. (They’re themes, not sermons, which I think helps a lot.) 

      That being said, I can tell the difference between his newer books and older books. They were better when he wasn’t writing three a year… Immanuel’s Veins, for example, had some real potential that wasn’t really taken to its fullest, IMO.  

      • Christian says:

        I don’t find Dekker’s books preachy but they’ve definitely become predictable due to his common use of Christian tropes. I much prefer his older books. I’ve found most of his more recent titles to be severely lacking and as a fan, I’m rather disappointed. I hope Sanctuary proves to be a winner.

  5. I could agree much more easily with everything here if the word systematic preceded theology. Yes, a novel should not be a systematic theology, a Biblical exposition, a sermon. The two genres are drastically different.

    But neither should a Christian novel be divorced from theology.

    As to the limits of speculation — I think it’s a safe bet to ensure that any Christian’s novel does not infringe on the nature of God at the very least. Beyond that, we might “mess with,” say, exactly how He might show that nature in a fantasy world, or an alt-universe version of this one (such as would allow, well, the existence of ghosts, actual functioning occult spells that block spirits from departing, etc.).

    Personally, I find plenty of room to speculate even assuming every detail about our world is correct, even down to end-times particulars. But everyone is different!

    So far I’ve seen that the worst professing-Christian novels have the worst theology.

    For instance, popular bad-theology target The Shack is not a bad book only because it makes God into a woman (as some kind of cheap metaphor). It’s bad mainly because it’s just so poorly written; if it had front-loaded the heresy in the first chapters, instead of front-loading transparent authorial sympathy ploys, I would have read further by now. Similarly, the best newer Christian novels I have recently read, such as The DarkTrench Saga and Konig’s Fire, have the best “theology” — not up front, but organically supporting and interwoven with the story.

    Other Christian novels’ problem  is not “too much theology,” but “too much bad theology.” Example: not to sound unkind, but I have had it up to here with books in which non-Christian main characters go on Spiritual Quests. During these Quests, they hear from simple Christian characters things like “God really does love you,” and react to this announcement with wide-eyed realization and then sentimentality (A God up there, who actually loves me? I’d never thought of it like that before). They’re pre-washed, “basically decent pagan” stereotypes, as found in megachurch seeker-friendly propaganda, rather than actual humans who may truly hate Christ.

    Yet great novels have realistic, even sympathetic non-Christians, and Christians who have either been this way for a while, or are converted early in the story.

    Ergo: Christian authors, please stop rehashing the original Jesus-crush romances and take us beyond into the ups and downs of real life with Him, dealing with our fantastic and yet often bewildering and suffering world.

    • I think Christian fiction, by nature, needs something of Christ in it. While I agree that full exposition of theology is best left to non-fiction, there’s plenty of ways to portray Christ and Christian character in natural and non-preachy ways.

      Other Christian novels’ problem  is not “too much theology,” but “too much bad theology.”

      Yes, exactly! In recent months I have written strongly negative reviews for a historical novel who portrayed a controlling and on-the-verge-of-abusive man as romantic, and for two contemporary stories by the same author who taught that there is a “cosmic balance” that will repay us for either good or bad and that it is okay to let our fantasies define who we are and how we behave. In my opinion, these are not just tales mis-told, they are actually dangerous to readers who are not discerning. The first instance might not actually be theological error but the other two definitely were, and I had no problem writing disparagingly about the stories as a result.
      I don’t need sermons in my fiction. I do want to see truth and people who are learning and growing and messing up and finding the strength to go on. The Steven James quote in the original post is quite good. Part of what I love about fiction is that we do get to interpret it according to our own views, and it’s okay and sometimes welcome if it’s not all spelled out. If it makes you think, as well as entertains you, then the author has done a good job.

    • Mike Duran says:

      Stephen, your mention of The Shack illustrates where we might shake out differently on this issue. You mention the problem of God being portrayed as a black woman. Apparently, that was a point of contention for lots of folks. I didn’t have a problem with it because God is a spirit, a-sexual, and sometimes used feminine terminology to describe Himself. My concerns about the book came after hearing the author speak at our church where he hinted at, and I found out later he leans toward, universalism. Point being, our differences about that particular fictional device could illustrate how importing theology into our approach of fiction naturally creates problems… even for those who share similar theology!

  6. It never ceases to amaze me that people like Pastor Larry Shallenberger appeal to truth as part of the definition of art, then want to exclude spiritual truth. Of course, he indicated he believed Christian stories have been required to “touch a set of arbitrarily determined bases,” which implies that all Christian speculative fiction must include the same set of “arbitrary” truth propositions.

    I don’t find anything true to be arbitrary. I don’t think there’s a prescribe list of truth claims in Christian fiction. That many Christian authors think the most important truth is the way in which Mankind can be reconciled with God is understandable. The stakes are at the highest and that truth is determinative. Why wouldn’t we want to write about it?

    The idea that Mike suggests–that God is just too big to write about–is a weak argument. Mankind is complex, each individual is a convoluted composite of experiences and inherited qualities, so should we stop writing about people?
    Certainly not.

    Rather, I think we should write about God in a way that takes us deeper into His character. It’s the difference between holding up a John 3:16 sign and writing an exposition of the verse. If I have a complaint about the theology of much Christian fiction, it is that there are too many John 3:16 signs.

    The answer to that is not to simply scrap the signs, however. It is to do a better job showing theology rather than telling about it. Spiritual truth is no different than any other in fiction: it’s better felt than “telt.” In other words, stories that “explain” Scriptural truths have a problem, not because of the Scriptural truths but because of the explaining.

    I also take issue with the idea that our theme can “seep” into stories. Themes, if they are to have power and impact, need to be carefully crafted in the same way that a plot and characters are crafted.


    • If I have a complaint about the theology of much Christian fiction, it is that there are too many John 3:16 signs.

      Yes. Amen.

      The difference is between blandly repeating truth and creatively exploring truth.

      Repetition and creative, epic exploration are not the same and shouldn’t be equated.

      And it certainly doesn’t help when many repeated slogans aren’t even Biblical (e.g., implications that “God loves/forgives everyone in exactly the same way,” which downplays the need for repentance, or the quasi-fatalistic, “Let go and let God,” which downplays Spirit-driven efforts to grow in holiness and mind-transformation).

      I have recently begun calling such slogan-repetition types, complete with black-and-white starfield background and crackly serial announcer, Christians From Another Planet(!). Alas, though, this only reflects the tendency of many Christians in their nonfiction lives to frown upon rigorous, robust, real-life heartand-mind engagement with Christ’s truth and love. Many prefer soundbite tropes to truth. And it infects our fiction.

      Saying “we need less good theology emphasized in novels” sounds very close to saying “we need less Christian ‘social issues’ in politics.” Either is an overreaction.

      Based on Mike’s own rigorous doctrine pursuits, though, this leaves me confused! Would not emphasis on exploring the theological truth of “God so loved the world” lead to greater stories? More beautifully written and more truthful stories?

    • Mike Duran says:

      Becky said, “The idea that Mike suggests–that God is just too big to write about–is a weak argument.”
      If I was saying that, I’d agree that it was a weak argument. I’d be saying something more like, God is so big and Mankind so complex that no one story or character can perfectly represent Him. Of course, we should write about God! Question is, how clear, defined, explanatory, detailed, balanced, and biblical must those fictional representations be?
      Example: I write a biblical fiction about King Solomon. He loved God, right? He had good theology, right? So the book ends with Solomon worshipping false gods, his concubines stealing his heart, and he dies. End of story. Well, a tale like this could not stand in Christian fiction circles — even though it’s biblical! Why? For one, it’s not very “Inspirational.” For another, without some explanation, it could communicate wrongly about the character of God. But mainly because it requires “interpretation,” “explanation” and info outside of itself (i.e., biblical history and doctrine) to make it “Christian.” Many examples of God, God’s works, God’s judgements, God’s people, etc. fall into that category. That’s just one of many possible examples how Christians want too much from our fiction.

  7. More interactions with this crucial ‘graph:

    So am I suggesting NO theology in our novels? […] Am I winking at BAD theology? Absolutely not.

    And based also on your repertoire and interest in doctrinal subjects, clearly not.

    However, this seems confusing:

    I’m not sure it’s possible for an author’s worldview or theology to not seep into a story.

    Whence comes this concept of “seepage”? The very structure of a story is founded upon the truth of God’s Story, i.e., God’s own Word about Himself.

    Despite intents, the idea of “an author’s worldview of theology” merely “seeping” into a story sounds like a false dichotomy.

    How come? Because the concept of story is not neutral. No one can write a “story” according to the usual definition of the word and not be implicitly affirming a theological statement at the very core of the effort: “I believe in subcreating a world in which flawed heroes fight for (overall) what’s right and (overall) finally win.”

    Is fiction the right vehicle for reinforcing and/or expounding good theology in the first place?

    Expounding, no. Reinforcing, yes.

    Again I base this on the no-author-can-help-but-do-this truth. One’s story will be “based on” certain assumptions about God’s nature. That’s theology proper. It will also be based on beliefs about man’s nature and the world’s nature, a more-general “theology” or doctrine. All that undergirds a story (in addition to the concept of story itself being based on God’s Word).

    Ergo: it’s impossible for a good story not to “reinforce” good theology.

  8. Melissa Ortega says:

    An earlier poster seemed to make the point that is immediate to my mind on this issue. He asked about the difference between secular fiction and Christian fiction sermonizing.

    The truth is, it doesn’t matter what you’re preaching when you write. If you are telling a (secular OR Christian) story that is too intellectually self-conscious, it’s going to be crappy – because it’s nearly impossible to do without sounding like a condescending ape. 

    Still, there is no pat answer to this question. It is very hard for me as a Christian to really believe that what I make up in my head for fun and communicate to the world trumps the importance of communicating the truths of God faithfully. I absolutely believe that God’s Grace covers our inability to express His truths without flaw – but I’m not so sure He just gives us – because we’re “artists” – a free ticket to just put anything out there. He certainly doesn’t give this sort of free reign to pastors – in fact, he holds them to a higher standard. Imagine if He commanded them to just, you know, say anything and see what happens? to just say what he feels and then expect the audience to ask for clarification later?

    In reality, many of my favorite classic novels did/DO preach. Kind of loudly. There are few books that sermonize more than Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables or his Hunchback of Notre Dame. Charles Dickens sermonizes a great deal in A Christmas Carol. G.K. Chesterton’s Napolean of Notting Hill is as  Free Will vs. Destiny type of story as one can get. And who can forget his Man Who Was Thursday? with its sermon at the end on becoming, ourselves, the Accuser? The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis is an inside-out sermon that preaches on a multitude of sins….from Hell’s point of view, of course. And the Great Divorce steps on very, very specific toes every third paragraph at least. The end of GD even goes so far as to suggest Christ coming back and people/”ghosts” who are unprepared, being – gasp – left behind! Or perhaps Marmie’s discussion with Jo in Little Women about surrendering her temperment over to the power of the Holy Spirit was more exceptionally vague in its references? Then again, it could be just one of the most specific little sermons in all of classic literature.

    The truth is, theology or secular, bad writing is bad writing. Einstein once said that if you can’t explain something clearly, then you don’t understand it yourself. He also suggested that reading fairy tales to children was what made them intelligent. From this, one could surmise that Einstein believed there was a certain structure to fairy tales which made them – above all – teachers.

    Perhaps the modern Christian author should not be asking himself about the inclusion of theology in his writing so much as just studying theology – studying it until he can write about it without looking things up – studying it until it becomes the light by which he sees and writes all things. Then, his stories will graduate from being poor sermons to good sermons, from being a bad “Book” report, written by a novice, to an approved Book report whose instructions are simple but ripe with meaning.

    • Mike Duran says:

      This is a great comment, Melissa! And “The Man Who Was Thursday” is one of my all-time favorites. But even of the books you mentioned, and other similar “Christian classics,” many of them could NOT be published in the Christian market nowadays. For different reasons, some of them theological. For instance…
      The Man Who was Thursday is sprinkled with mild expletives like “go to hell” (ch. 9), “damn it all” (ch. 2), and my favorite, “You great fat, blasted, blear-eyed, blundering, thundering, brainless, Godforsaken, doddering, damned fool!” (ch. 10). Such language would never see the light of day in Christian fiction (that’s another misuse of theology in our storytelling).
      A Christmas Carol‘s primary “biblical” lessons are delivered by… ghosts! And everyone knows that ghosts are really demons, right?
      The Great Divorce occurs in a sort of purgatorial limbo. But Christians do not believe purgatory is biblical or that souls in hell might get a second chance to glimpse heaven. So strike this as “biblical.”
      The Lord of the Rings — Dr. Ralph Wood, Professor of English at Baylor University and a Tolkien expert, in his wonderful essay, Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings: A Christian Classic Revisited, states that Tolkien, “. . .called The Lord of the Rings ‘a fundamentally religious and Catholic work.’ Its essential conflict, he insisted, concerns God’s ‘sole right to divine honour’ (Letters, 172, 243).” But despite the author’s stated intent, Wood affirms that “Tolkien’s work is not self-evidently Christian.” In fact, many eschew Tolkien’s classic as “Christian” on the grounds that it employs magic, sorcery, etc. Poor Gandalf.
      A Wrinkle in Time, though containing many “Christian themes,” has been opposed by many Christian parents on the grounds that it teaches New Age philosophy. And, oh, it has witches.
      All that to say, many book do contain Christian themes, but are opposed on a minutiae of other “biblical” grounds. This is what I’m asserting is a problem, and also hinders Christian speculative fiction.

      • Christian says:

        Even The Chronicles of Narnia have their share of British swears and they’re primarily children’s’ books. Sheltered that I was, as a teen, I read The Cosmic Trilogy for the first time (and mostly loved it) but was shocked by all of the language. Naturally, they’re fairly mild Britishisms  but there were a few instances of God’s name being used in vain. You can’t have that language in a Christian story! I still don’t know what to make of the latter.

    • Such language would never see the light of day in Christian fiction (that’s another misuse of theology in our storytelling).

      Caught ya, brother. 😉

      So you are arguing not for “less theology” in Christian fiction, but better theology.

      In fact, your whole argument here has been theological — implicitly assuming that better, more-Biblical theology will lead to things like an eye for beauty and truth, subtlety in story and disregad for silly fiction-is-mainly-to-reinforce-moralism rules.

  9. Estelwen says:

    My understanding of the author’s point is that Christian fiction can and should have strong moral points.  What it should not have is page long sermons halfway through.  I’ll try and explain what I mean by comparing two christian fictions books. 

    The first example I hold up is Left Behind.  I have only read half of book one.  I couldn’t finish the book.   Jerry Jenkins got way too carried away sermonizing.  After the third or fourth break from the action to go into a several page long sermon.  I slammed the book down in frustration.  I didn’t pick up this book because I wanted the message of the gospel shoved in my face.  I picked it up because I wanted a adventure with christian ideals.  

    I don’t mind if a character gets converted halfway through the book, in fact I like it.  But when that character then spends untold pages explaining to me exactly what is so amazing about this transformation.  I go insane.   I guess here we go back to the famous writers saying, show don’t tell.  If that character changes then show me how his actions are changed.  Don’t spend countless pages in a monologue about it.  

    On the flip side I love Frank Peretti’s work.  More specifically Monster.  Monster carries a strong Christian message. You can’t miss it.  Yet, the action never stops to explain the message.  It doesn’t need to.  The entire plot of the book points to God.  A scientist decides to try and create a better human being, a stronger one.  Of course the scientist loses control of his new strong and moral less being.  The book is spent in pursuit of this being and the man who created him.  The obvious point is that human beings don’t have the wisdom or the right to create life.  It takes an all powerful God to do that.  

    So I guess what I am trying to say is that I read fiction to be entertained.  If the author can weave his theological message into the story so that it flows naturally then great.  But if the author finds himself typing out page long sermons in the middle of the story, then he is writing in the wrong genre. 

    • Christian says:

      I think you’ll find that Tim La Haye is more to blame. Still, Jenkins could’ve waved him away from the keyboard and done the series alone. Glutton for punishment that I am, and too curious for words, I managed to read all of the Left Behind books but some were incredibly painful to read. La Haye, you do not stop the story to tell 50 page sermons! Terrible, terrible series. Some parts were more painful than Christopher Paoloni’s Eragon and Eldest books. And that’s saying something. Also, the final Left Behind book, where Jesus returns, is so mind-numbingly boring, I didn’t want the Second Coming to happen (in the book). That’s not exactly what you want to share with your readers, if you’re trying to draw them to Christ!

      • Bainespal says:

        Some parts were more painful than Christopher Paoloni’s Eragon and Eldest books.

        Paolini also does his share of secular (or at least, seemingly secularist) sermonising, especially in Eldest.  I’ve only read the first Left Behind book, but you’re right; the Christian Left Behind series and the secular Inheritance series are lackluster for the same reasons.

        • Christian says:

          Too right! Paolini shares about the evils of eating meat, then has his ‘hero’ cry over the death of animals, but doesn’t care about killing a whole bunch of people (all while dressed in leather – go figure). And we’re meant to cheer on this egotistical brat? Yikes!

  10. Galadriel says:

    I want to say something extremely clever and witty…but my brain is mush from classes. Maybe I’ll come back later, but I think we’re trying to make a separation where only a distinction is necessary. Yes, there is a line between theology and storytelling,  but I get the feeling that trying to separate them completely is like trying to core an apple and expecting it not to fall apart…oh, it’s a rubbish metaphor, but I hope you get something from it

  11. Someone posted this in reply to this column’s link on Facebook:

    So true, creativity, like God, cannot live in any box. It will suffocate, as will our view of God. Good article. I often think that “Right Theology” (Speaking of peripherals now) is often human kind simply trying to bring order to what they perceive as an “Unruly” God…Creativity makes all things possible.

    This is what concerns me with appeals that seem to cast aspersions on “theology” in fiction. It accurately perceives a real problem — wrong theology in fiction, beautyless “preaching,” rejection of realism and cheap characterizations — and makes the wrong diagnosis: “Too much theology.” That gives credence to those who decry “putting God in a box” and who wrongly divorce “creativity” with glorification of God according to His own true Story about Himself.

    I feel conflicted in saying this, because as I responded on FB:

    Interestingly, in the many cyber-conversations I’ve had with Mike, he’s shown the love of Christ to me by seeking out the Truth in faith and doctrine.

    So I know Mike doesn’t mean anything like “truth about God doesn’t matter.”

    And yet theology means truth about God (as opposed to “systematic theology”).

    So what I’m not saying is that I wholly disagree with my brother Mike, or that we need to avert people’s potential misperceptions. Only calling for clarity! 😀

  12. My questions:

    1. What is theology? How do we define that?
    2. Is it different from systematic theology?
    3. How does the Story Prime, the Bible, directly and indirectly address this issue? For example, we find no direct “rule” that every work of fiction should make the truth absolutely clear. (Jesus Himself in His storytelling would have violated this “rule,” as others here have pointed out!) And implicitly, we find the Psalms and Proverbs aligning with “correct theology,” but not expounding it.
    4. Do most poor Christian novels really, really suffer from “too much direct promotion of sound theology”? Or do they suffer from repeating the same basic, spiritual-milk-level Moral Lessons, or even questionable sound-bites?
  13. Jill says:

    This debate has inspired me to be utterly obtuse and to write a spiritual novel told from the homilies of the pastor protagonist, in the same way one might write a novel through e-mails or texts or letters (or blog posts–I read one of those, recently). So there. I know; I’m childish, but I revel in my divine child.

  14. D.M. Dutcher says:

    I don’t think it’s the wrong vehicle for theology. If anything, there’s not much theological reflection in books. I’ve not seen novels ask theological questions about sin for example. Would a clone or created being be sinless? If we created an A.I. capable of human thought and interaction, how would it relate to God and us? 

    I think rather than “theology”the word should should be “evangelism.” Bad stories are too evangelistic, be they Christian SF or secular morality tales like Atlas Shrugged, or Ecotopia. Christian fiction, as much of Christian art, tends to be seen as an arm of evangelism first and art second. Even for works for believers.

    • Christian says:

      Really? There are countless books that contain theological reflections, often too much, too soon. The story is key. Everything else should work with and not take away from the story being told.

      • D.M. Dutcher says:

        No, not really. There’s a lot that just follow a variant of the hero’s journey except the end is the salvation of the hero, but I don’t see many Christian novels of late that actually do theology as opposed to evangelization. Like an example of theology in a secular book would be James Blish’s “A Case of Conscience.” It’s a theological puzzle, and the book doesn’t suffer at all for it. But it’s not an altar call with science fiction trappings.

        Like, name a good Christian time travel book. Time travel has theological implications. Michael Bishop in “Behold the Man” had a secular version of this, but where are the Christian books? I don’t mean books should always be theological disputations, but theology isn’t hostile to science fiction in particular. Most of the problems I think is that too many of them are evangelistic efforts rather than speculative ones.

        • Christian says:

          What about something like Bill Myers’ Fire of Heaven series? I thought those books presented interesting theological reflections.

        • Kessie says:

          I think that’s it–the evangelism at the expense of story. Theology is all right, usually–it’s when it’s just shoveled in there along with the evangelism that it becomes problematic. “Here’s what’s God’s like–now accept him as your Lord and Savior now! Now! Right now!”

  15. Timothy Stone says:

    A few thoughts.
    Most of the books that are too happy-dappy are annoying, I agree. But not everything needs be portrayed absolutely realistically. What’s more, sometimes folks just need a nice absurdly happy story in a bad day.
    I agree with ya, Bainespal, I love many of Sanderson’s works I’ve read, and I like Terry Brooks before the more recent ones. They had many worthy “morals” that Christians can also enjoy.
    I think that Mr. Duran would have had a better point had he limited his critique to the idea that theological points should not be rigidly put into a story, despite if they fit, or that readers should be more forgiving of non-Christian elements in their tales, Christian spec fiction would be better/better-received/not as limited. If the author does not try to subconsciously force the story to “fit” his points, as Brooks does with his later books and his Left-wing philosophy, or Ted Dekker and the Left Behind books do with their biblical (or pseudo-biblical, as the case may be) philosophy, then the books may have been better. CS Lewis once made a statement on writing that he had envisioned the faun in the woods, and eventually, Aslan (who as of yet didn’t exist in CSL’s mind) came “bounding in”. Lewis sprinkled spiritual truths in, but only where the story allowed for it naturally. He didn’t formulate and force the story onto certain ideas that were his real point for writing the tale. If one can write and sprinkle the ideas in, as Lewis did, and I would argue Tolkien did as well, then that is good. If you are like Dekker, the Left Behind bozos, or Brooks, then, no.
    I say this while admitting that I can understand certain authors’ desires to have their stories fit a certain worldview or ethic. I have a very rigid view of warfare, violence, self-defense, punishment, the motives behind them, etc. If I wrote a story, and the character was naturally developing contrary to own views on this issue, I would either force the character to change, or more likely just scrap the whole story.
    To give two examples on how passionately I take this issue:
    This is a reason why, in The Wheel of Time, my favorite moment with Nynaeve and one of my favorite moments in the series of any character, was her ripping the Aes Sedai over their arrogance and institutional morality (including that cruelty and torture for punishment and sadism are wrong because they are wrong, not only if they are bad for your side or embarrass you too much). Also why I like her over Egwene who embraces the institutional morality in all of these respects.
    This is also the reason why I much prefer the original Avatar cartoon over the later one and much prefer Aang to “fighting is fun!” Korra, who I barely tolerate.
    So, yes, I can appreciate why some authors try to force things, even though I agree it is bad practice, it ruins the story, and they shouldn’t do so. No one will try to learn the cause of Christ from a crappy tale.

    • Christian says:

      Ted Dekker does seem to force his themes into his stories in his more recent efforts and they’ve really suffered for it, but I don’t believe that was the case with his earlier books.

  16. […] guest posted at Speculative Faith last week, and my article Why Fiction is the Wrong Vehicle for Theology garnered some lively, if not predictable, responses. One of my favorite comments was from Melissa […]

  17. […] shouldn’t be held up as a guide by which someone judges fiction. Back in November in a guest post at Spec Faith discussing this very issue, Mike […]

  18. You’re dealing with horror authors  — theology is a torn place in horror like a torn curtain because I have seen the writer who is in that creative straightjacket when I told her about Mike Duran’s debut as an anthology publisher.  The writer is the wife of lead singer of Jacob’s Dream.  She was skiddish when I mentioned Christians writing very effective horror and unrestrained.  

    Door to Door in the Diner when I went and re-read that I didn’t realize how bold this story was.    The sub-genre that theology works quite well if someone can pull this off is Religious Horror as you can combine Gothic Horror elements to it.    What Mike and the crew of the Original Diner roster did was shown how Christians work in the realms of urban fiction as they kept up with my roster on Tabloid Purposes IV — I held back when I appeared with Lucia.   Because my style is a heavier version of Door to Door.   I use more strong language than Browning or Jens Rushing.   Rushing’s story rivaled mine in terms of the hardcore language as the Bible isn’t immune to this.

    The world of Christian literature is stuck in the Golly Gee Mindset where Tabloid Purposes, The Ethereal Gazette, and The Midnight Diner broke down some walls. The Diner Roster — would kick you in the grapes, give you the highway salute and then say God Bless You when they said, “We’re looking at reality right in the eyes and if you’re freaked out by that. Too bad.”

  19. […] Why Fiction Is The Wrong Vehicle For Theology […]

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