Faith and Fiction: Where Does Religion Fit?

The great characters from the Ramayana...a thousand years in the future!

Christian Fiction is the only type of religious fiction that has its own distinct section in any given bookstore.  However, it is not the only religious fiction on the market.  I have read quite a bit of fiction from a few different religious perspectives, and most of them have similar difficulties; similar questions that any author has to answer.  The first, and probably most important, of these questions is, ‘How much theology do I sacrifice for the sake of story?’

This question has many answers, for instance Frank E. Perreti has a disclaimer in the front of at least some of his novels (I haven’t read all of his work) that the theology of the story represented within is distinctly altered from orthodox Christianity.  On the other hand the Shakti line of Virgin Comics (featuring the comics Devi, Sadhu, and Ramayana 3392 A.D.) focuses on retelling the Hindu myths in a modern context and, as far as I have been able to tell, stays true to Hindu belief.  So, when we ask this question each author must decide for themselves how much theology can be sacrificed, or ignored, for the sake of the story.

That being said, there are a few caveats that must be addressed.  First if you, as the author, do not have a clear understanding of the theology of your religion then you cannot effectively decide what can be sacrificed for the sake of your story and what cannot.  As I write this I am watching the end of the 5th season of Supernatural, and it strikes me that this is an excellent example of what I am talking about.  In the 4th and 5th seasons the writers of Supernatural venture into the murky world of Christian mythology.  However, it is obvious to anyone viewing that these writers have no clear concept of what orthodox Christians believe.  Because of this all angels become brothers, with God as their father; God becomes an absentee father; and Death becomes older and more powerful than God (who will eventually die).  The writers, I have no idea what their religious affiliation might be, have decided to sacrifice some of the central tenants of Christian Orthodoxy in order to tell their story.  So, you get to decide how closely your work will follow your religious orthodoxy, but first you need to understand your religious orthodoxy.

Sam and Lucifer face off...that's right folks...Lucifer has a potbelly.

The second caveat is this, if you are going to decide how much theology can be sacrificed for the sake of your story…you must have a story worth telling.  This is not to say that all religious fiction is bad, far from it, but if you don’t have a story worth telling then there is no point in sacrificing any orthodoxy in order to tell your story.  So, how can you tell whether or not you have a story worth telling?  The simple answer is, ask.  Find people that are honest, critical, and willing to hurt you (not eager by the way) and ask them if you’re story is worth telling.  If it is they’ll tell you that it is.  If it’s not, well, they’ll tell you that too, and then you can go back and rework your story until it is worth telling.

The last thing I’m going to say about this issue is that you should first ask yourself how much theology you CAN sacrifice for your story, and then ask yourself how much theology you MUST sacrifice for your story.  For instance, a Christian may very well be willing to sacrifice a strict, orthodox view of the short day creation for the sake of his story…however he may not be willing to sacrifice the doctrine of the divinity of Christ for his story.  A Buddhist might be willing to sacrifice the specifics of Moksha for his story, but not be willing to sacrifice the central tenants of Brahman and Atman.  Whatever the case may be, first you must decide how much of your theology you are willing to sacrifice.  Then you can decide how much of a sacrifice the story requires.  If the story requires a greater sacrifice than you are willing to make then you need a new story.  However, if you decide how much theology you must sacrifice, before deciding how much you can sacrifice then you are likely to wind up with a story that makes you, and others, uncomfortable.

I think this picture is pretty self-explanatory.

The second question we have to ask is this, ‘How much faith can I put into my story without making it trite and ridiculous?’ The answer to this question is difficult at best.  Anyone who reads religious fiction, whether it be Christian, Mormon, Buddhist, or Islamic, has read something that is just ridiculously over the top.  How do we avoid turning our deeply held religious beliefs into pandering fictional dogma that makes people roll their eyes?…at best.

The first step is to tell the truth.  We all believe, probably strongly, that whatever we believe is the truth.  However, there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfect people, and there is no religion in the world that is filled with perfectly wicked people.  No matter what they believe (or whether or not those beliefs are true) people are still people, with all the hopes, dreams, desires, strengths, and flaws that make up any person.  If you are a Christian writer and every Christian in your story is a kind, caring, wonderful person who just loves everyone and only wants the best…then something is wrong.  In the same vein if you are an atheist writer and every Christian in your story is a rabid jerk who uses God as an excuse to commit horrible crimes…then something is wrong.  Both of these people exist in any given religion, but neither makes up the entirety of any religion.  As a Christian I have met fellow Christians that I love and respect.  I have also met fellow Christians that I can’t stand.  On top of this I have met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I love and respect.  I’ve also met Atheists, Buddhists, Wiccans, and Muslims that I can’t stand.  Be honest with your characters and show people for what they are, the good, the bad, and the ugly.

The second step is to make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  Unlike my fellow writers on this board, I am not a fan of the Chronicles of Narnia.  One of the primary reasons is this; in Lewis’s series good people get saved and bad people get killed.  While you do see a few people who make mistakes and are redeemed, one of the overriding messages in the series is that God doesn’t want bad people.  When I look at the great heroes of Christianity: Moses (Coward, Murderer), David (Violent man of blood, Murderer, Adulterer), Samson (Had too many problems to list), Jephthah (Brigand, Killer, Blackmailer), Paul (Murderer, Persecuted the Church), etc; none of them fit well into The Chronicles of Narnia…or at least not as the heroes.  If you are writing religious fiction make sure that you are representing what your religion actually believes.  For instance I recently read a manuscript by a Christian author in which the main character was unbelievably virtuous.  When I pointed this out to the author he responded that, ‘I wanted to show that she’s the kind of person that would be chosen by God.’  However, when we read the Christian scriptures we see that God chooses the weak, the foolish, and the flawed.  In the Christian scriptures God chooses these people to work through so that there may be no doubt that it is him working through them.  The author’s choice to represent an excessively virtuous person a ‘the kind of person that would be chosen by God’ does not fit within the great themes of Christianity…that’s a problem.

The third step is, perhaps, the hardest for many religious people (I know it often is for me).  Stop trying to defend your religion and start showing it.  Let’s face it, whether you believe in Yahweh, Allah, Kali, Shiva, Vishnu, Brahman, Buddha, Amaterasu, or the Giant Spaghetti Monster, they can take care of themselves.  Either 1) They do exist and are powerful, cosmic beings, and don’t need you to babysit them; or 2) They don’t exist and you probably shouldn’t be placing trust in them anyway.  We are all convinced that our beliefs are true, and we all feel a need to prove that they are true.  However, if God exists he doesn’t need us to defend him.  Stop trying to protect whatever god you believe in (or don’t, as the case may be) and start showing your beliefs.  This is what I love about the Buddhist and Hindu fiction that I’ve read.  The writers don’t try to defend what they believe, they don’t argue about whether or not it is true, they just assume it is.  Especially as writers of fiction, everyday we ask people to accept things that we know aren’t true for the sake of the story.  I mean, my Avnul stories have people that live a thousand years and lizards that talk.  Brian’s Meg stories are about a teenage girl that jumps between universes to face down giant cyborg tyrants.  If we can ask people to accept things that we, ourselves, don’t believe for the sake of the story…why do we feel like we have to prove something we do believe?  Let your beliefs be a part of the story instead of trying to make them a part of the story.  Trust me, if you really believe something it’ll find a way in.

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About noothergods

I hate writing these things. Ok, a little bit about me. I split my time between this world and other worlds so I'm only here about 25% to 50% of the time. Other times my body might be here (or you never know it might not) but I am off somewhere else having strange and usually pretty horrible adventures. I consider myself a scholar of Christian Theology and of Religion in general, I love learning about other people's belief systems. I think that Shinto is fascinating and I'm obsessed with the theology of sin...and with monkeys...I don't know why I'm obsessed with monkeys but I blame Gus...if you know him you'll understand that, if you don't then...well...I blame Gus. Anyway, I'm the one of the blog that needs to be censored the most so if there's anything posted that you find offensive it was probably me. I think that my brain doesn't really work the way it's supposed to but that's an issue for a whole other time. I have two degrees, a B.S. in Religion and an M.Div. in leadership. I enjoy a great many things some of which include writing (gee, what a surprise), martial arts, anything media that has a good story to tell, cooking, discussing/reading/occasionally writing about Christian theology, General theology, religious belief systems, philosophy, etc. I also enjoy reading medieval and previous magical texts and studying the history, practice, and beliefs about magic from around the world. I don't practice magic and if you want to know my personal beliefs on the subject you can email me, however the intersection of magic and religion is a very interesting topic.

Posted on June 18, 2011, in Characters, Christianity, Theology, Tobias Mastgrave, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. My only point of disagreement is on Narnia, which I do admire and love. You’re absolutely right about the biblical heroes, that they are all deeply flawed and that some of them are almost entirely unlikable (Samson, anyone?), and that it is good for Christian fiction to pay more attention to this fact that God chooses people for His own reasons that have nothing to do with our relative (and usually nonexistent) merits. But the first part of your article is about how certain details of theology can be sacrificed in a fictional or fantasy setting in the service of the story, and I think Narnia legitimately makes such a sacrifice. In fact, it’s not even a theological point, because the world of Narnia does not preclude bad people from being used by God and redeemed–it merely doesn’t focus on that aspect and show it as strongly as the Bible itself does. I think Lewis in Narnia was trying to make characters that are more basically good seem just as interesting as we usually think deeply flawed characters are. He could have had more deeply sinful characters be chosen by God/Aslan in Narnia, but I don’t think it’s a requirement or a reason to deem the series not up to snuff.

    That said, I think this is a fantastic article, and I really appreciate all that you said. As I write my own fiction–some in invented worlds–I have really struggled over how explicit and how detailed the theology of those stories needs to be. In the meantime, I am studying Paul’s letter to the Romans, and eagerly striving to correct my theology.

    • My issue with the Chronicles of Narnia is, admittedly, a personal one. However, as a young reader, I know that the Chronicles of Narnia helped to alienate me from Christianity because of the implied message that only good people are welcome. It is important to remember audience, many Christians love Narnia and feel that it is something that everyone should read. However, while Narnia does have a legitimate place and message, it is not something that sends a positive message to everyone that reads it. I used Narnia as an example because it is a point of contention for me. In the same way stories that do emphasize flawed people finding redemption have their place, but are not good for every audience.

      However, while Narnia does have it’s place, I do think that Lewis overemphasizes the virtue of his heroes and misses a number of chances to exemplify a deeper sense of redemption.

      • You think Edmund in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a ‘good person’? Or what about Eustace? Certainly by the end he’s become a pretty good person, but he definitely doesn’t start out as one. Keeping in mind that Narnia was geared toward children (thus no bloody murders or the like), I think Lewis did a decent job of portraying ‘bad’ people being saved.

        Beyond that point, though, I do like the article. Many Christian authors try to defend their faith in their fiction. This is useless, though. If your reader agrees with you, there’s no need. They already believe. If they don’t agree with you, I can pretty much guarantee that a human author writing a human book won’t convince them (the Bible is another matter). If they’re undecided, then they’re probably going to consider points from both sides and apply their own reasonings.

  2. There is a difference between a person who has some poor character qualities (for instance Edmund was weak and easily manipulated; Eustace was a selfish jerk) and people who are truly wicked. While you are correct the Narnia was intended for children there are multiple instances of truly wicked characters in the stories. For instance, Andrew Ketterly, Rabadash, Ahoshta, and Miraz, just to name a few.

  3. Thanks for this post. I have struggled recently with story ideas (more like pieces of setting) which I think are compelling but are not Christian in nature. I do think a good story may develop, but I want to be careful that I am, at the least, not promoting decidedly ungodly traits. It is a struggle that must happen first in the writer’s heart.

    The comments about Narnia make me think of Madeleine L’Engle’s books. Her kids were essentially good too, and each struggled with only one main flaw in each book. I actually find her stories more interesting now than as a kid.

    • My advice is this. Remember that a story does not necessarily have to be ‘Christian’ in nature. You deeply rooted beliefs will come through in what you write (Tolkien is an excellent example of this as he was intentionally trying to write something not particularly Christian in nature and his beliefs still come through). Let your beliefs come through in your writing naturally and, if you find that you have written something that you believe to be untrue 1) Figure out why that is and 2) Fix it in the editing process.

      My second piece of advice; God created this world and there are many things in it that are not ‘Christian’ in nature. While Christianity has been an important part of our worlds history remember that it is not the first way in which God interacted with the world (Even Judaism doesn’t really appear in Scripture until after Genesis), and that the world is a fallen place and there are many things in it that simply do not conform. Even now Christianity is a relatively small part of the world we live in. Of approximately 7 Billion people in the world barely 1 billion are Christian. While that is a huge number that still means that 6/7ths of the worlds population are not Christian. There should be room in our stories to reflect this.

  4. A related issue in Christian fiction to the flaw of trying to defend God in one’s fiction is the equally troubling flaw of trying to defend one’s interpretation of a particular doctrinal issue, or just as difficult, presenting one’s interpretation of a Scripture passage or doctrine as the only truly Christian understanding. Sadly, while Christians are supposed to be one Church, the 1 billion Christians do not all agree on major doctrinal questions. And to assert in one’s writing that “you have to believe this or you’re not really a Christian” is automatically insulting to all the sincere Christians who disagree. Of course those readers are free to vote with their feet and not read that author, but it gives to all the other readers an inaccurate view of what Christians believe.

  5. Good article, though I’m not sure that I entirely agree that there is no place for what you might call “necessary apologetics” in Christian literature. I’ve found that people often put God and religious questions into a completely different category of discourse from everything else, and they often arbitrarily hold it to a higher standard of evidence. For instance, I once had someone loudly object to an article I wrote on Intelligent design by declaring God as Ultimate Cause “stupid and ignorant” and then turn around and say that humanity is the result of extraterrestrial seeding. The idea of God was “a whole keg of stupid” but little green men make perfect sense!

    So, I think that there are times that we need to lay groundwork, but I agree that the groundwork can never become an end in and of itself. If we know that our audience is going to find “impossible” to suspend disbelief on certain subjects, we have to give them a reason to do so. That’s the same whether we’re talking about God, a particular system of fantasy magic, or some sort of science fiction technology. But the key is keep the explanations to such a level that they compliment rather than eclipse the story. In the case of the former, it enhances the story–in fact it might make it possible for some people to enjoy it who would otherwise have just dismissed it. In the case of the latter, the story becomes little more than a vehicle to cram an opinion down someone’s throat.

    Of course I also find that with certain audiences, certain ideas are so loathed and hated that no matter how they are expressed people will accuse you of “proselytizing.” Lewis is a good example of that. People constantly rail about how bad his “allegories” were in the Chronicles of Narnia, when in fact they aren’t intended to be allegories at all.

    • You have a point, and there is a difference between apologetics (for laymen apologetics is generally seen as defending the faith, however here it is appropriate to point out that the practice of apologetics is better termed as defending the rationality of the faith) and attempting to defend God. There is a place for the former in any system of belief (hello Ghosthunters) while the latter is generally impossible. As Bob mentioned, there is (and must be) a place for our beliefs in our fiction, however when the story is eclipsed by an attempt to prove that a certain dogma is the only correct belief then it stops being good fiction and starts being religious pundicy.

      It is also worthwhile to note that Lewis was not a theologian (something that he continually pointed out himself) and so his understanding of the theological mistakes he makes is suspect in the first place. If Lewis had a more concrete understanding of theology he may have changed the way he wrote aspects of his Narnia novels, he may not have; I can’t pretend to know. However, I do think that Lewis’s allegories (outside of Narnia, especially in the Great Divorce) show a distinct loosening of theological consistency in order to bring across his philosophical message.

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