Sunday, August 26, 2012

Must Christian Fiction Contain Sound Theology?

Things happen in life that don’t fit neatly into our theology. So why do we expect our fiction to?

I was thinking about that after reading THIS REVIEW of my latest novel The Telling. The author gave it three-stars, called it “eerily good,” and said some very nice things about the story. Nevertheless, they had some issues. At the top of the list:

The theology. It was definitely wacko, so unless this book is entitled STRICTLY Science Fiction, then some people could possibly be deceived into thinking this was reality… Use caution when reading this book
It’s one of the most peculiar, yet most defining, characteristics of the Christian fiction community: We demand sound theology in our fiction.

Confession: I don’t think that’s reasonable. In fact, I don’t think any work of fiction can possibly encompass and/or articulate any theological system. In whole or in part. Furthermore, can any one person or a series of events — especially fictional ones — ever live up to theological scrutiny?

  • Did King David’s life fully represent sound theology?
  • Did Jonah’s life fully represent sound theology?
  • Did Rahab’s life fully represent sound theology?
  • Did Judas’s life fully represent sound theology?
  • Did Samson’s life fully represent sound theology?
  • Did Peter’s life fully represent sound theology?

So why should we expect any single story, much less a single story about a slice of life of any particular character, to be a model of sound theology? 

I’ve gone on record about my issues with Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, both the book and the movie. What I haven’t done is deem it (specifically, the movie) as artistically flawed because I don’t agree with its entire theology. Despite my reservations, I really appreciated pastor Larry Shallenberger’s recent critique of a review of the Blue Like Jazz film. 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 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.” Much less one person! I mean, does your life always reflect good theology? All the time? Could I determine what God is like, what the Gospel means, the nature of God’s relationship with Man, grace, evangelism, eschatology, prayer, atonement, etc., by simply observing you? (Much less doing so over a short period of time, which most stories encapsulate.)

So why do we expect our fictional stories to? 

Good fiction can contain bad theology in the same way a bad life can contain good theology. Just ask King David, Moses, Saint Peter, Mother Theresa, Jimmy Swaggart, Ted Haggard, etc., etc., etc.
“Good Christians” live in ways that don’t match “sound theology.” Things also happen in life that don’t fit neatly into our theology. So why do we expect our fiction to?

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 TellingThe Resurrection, and an ebook novella, Winterland.  You can visit his website at


Iola said...

I hope that reviewer doesn't read The Reason by William Sirls, or The Shack by William P Young, or (heaven forbid) those Narnia books that have talking animals!

Elaine Stock said...

Mike, I appreciate this piece. Thanks for sharing. And I agree. What is truly frustrating about creating fiction--whether in literature or movies or any other art form--is that there will always be a segment of the population that simply doesn't "get" what the definition of fiction means. Why these people won't stick to reading non-fiction is beyond my comprehension.

Jennifer Major said...

After reading my WIP, my mom told me I needed to put in more praying. Let's see, my heroine is either being pummeled by her husband or treated like crap by the guards in a mental asylum. Methinks there's no room for "now I lay me down to sleep". More like "God, why the (badword) have you let me rot in hell?"
My hero is a agood guy who rebels after 30 years of pure hearted obedience and goes off the deep end when his most important promise to God doesn't appear to be what he wants. So, he talks back to God and gets a smackdown.

Life is only pretty when you're a Brady. For the rest of us, it can be full of messy, unGodly crap that makes us look stupid and shames Jesus on a daily basis.

Christian fiction writers have an obligation to entertain while showing that grace wins after alot of crap gets tossed in the fan.
Dont forget that Jesus tossed tables and yelled at people. He gave us license to get angry and call out the hypocrites while we're at it. I like to remind myself that He CHOSE the fishermen and tax collectors for a reason. They were probably a heck of alot more fun to hang with!

jubileewriter said...

This is a great piece. Life isn't perfect. Our relationship with Jesus is not always perfect. The many layers of our life past and present can create problems that we don't always respond to correctly. God allows trials and tests in our lives that can stir it up and make it messy. The scripture is a powerful tool but we don't always use it. Characters that discover their flaws and work through them draw the reader. Real-life stories make a bigger impact. And many readers aren't analyzing the theology in the story as they read. They are in the story cheering the hero, hating the bad guy and pondering the next possible twist.
And maybe a line, a piece of dialogue, a scene may grab hold of their mind drawing them to a place in their heart that needs to be uncovered. well-written realistic fiction is an awesome thing.
Thanks for sharing.

Nicole said...

Funny how The Shack and Amish fiction were and are huge sellers. "Good" theology goes out the proverbial window if readers enjoy certain novels and objections resound with roars if some readers decide they're "offended" by others' "theology".

Margo Carmichael said...

Well, because we'll be held accountable for leading others astray with bad theology. I'm showing voodoo, but the seeker is miserable. I have to consider how Jesus said we're better off with a millstone tied around our neck and cast into the sea if we cause someonoe to stumble. Whoa. It seems to bother Him a lot, huh? So, seems to me that since Christians love the Lord, we can show (or tell) bad things, but we can't present them as all right. Ultimately, someone must pay a price or change their minds about it. That's how I see it, anyway. My friends are free to differ. I just keep thinking about that millstone. : )

Nicole said...

I'm just wondering, Margo, how this particular scripture applies to denominational conflicts . . . in life and in writing fiction.

sally apokedak said...

Mike, I don't think you're asking the right question. I think we have to have good theology, meaning we ought to rightly represent God in so far as we are trying to represent him. Your reviewer and I use "theology" to mean different things, I think. When I use the word, I mean "the study of God." Theos=God, ology, from logos=the treating of a thing, the speaking of a thing. Hence, theology=how we think about and how we speak about God.

Do we want to write books that speak wrongly about God?

Of course not.

I'm guessing that your reviewer is a literalist.

He thought since your demons and your prophets did things that we don't see in the Bible or the world, that meant your theology was bad. He is using "theology," I'm pretty sure, to mean something like "a factual representation of life."

But, fiction should be metaphor, right? Nonfiction is fact and fiction is a picture of something. We tell the truth in fiction but we don't give the facts. We often tell the truth by twisting the facts.

I saw your book as giving us a glimpse into the feelings of an OT prophet, for one thing. I thought you were dealing with the whys and wherefores of how all Christians struggle, by looking at the struggles of a prophet, for another thing. I didn't see your book as really studying God so much as it was studying the condition of God's people when they are persecuted and tested. I thought you were comparing what happens when a man hears God's voice and hardens his heart and what happens when a man hears God's voice and softens his heart.

I thought you had a lot of stuff going on in the book and I think I mentioned in my review that I would have liked to see more definition of theme so that the book's parts all pointed to one theme, or something like that. You didn't lay out a neat theological premise, though, and I think the charge that you had bad theology is unfounded. I didn't see you talking about God as much as you were talking about man's response to God.

So, yes, I think our books should be full of good theology...but not full of facts about God or angels or demons, necessarily.

Nicole said...

"Nonfiction is fact and fiction is a picture of something."

Sally, in my opinion the only non-fiction containing facts is the bible. Commentaries, studies, self-help books, etc., all contain opinions from personal or borrowed interpretations of the Word.

Fiction, of course, is allowed to take liberties because it's story. For example, when readers concern themselves with a few words in a story and ignore the redemptive content, claiming a word or two will mislead (or cause a reader to stumble), the "theology" has been scattered and immobilized.

Stories are not mandatory reading (except in school of course), and people who think the theology is off enough to cause them a problem can stop reading. If I quit reading every novel with the representations of "the study of God" I thought was off, I would've put down the majority of the fiction I've read from CBA.

Brandi Boddie said...

Thank you for this post, Mike. I agree with your thoughts and those of Shallenberger. I think that many Christian writers and readers feel the same way, that they want stories showcasing the grittiness and beauty of life, not simply an overly sanitized and sheltered view of the world. When I read CBA books, I want to be entertained, not simply preached at. How some individuals expect a crash course in Christian theology each time they crack open a CBA romance or thriller is beyond me. Why read fiction if your expectation is merely to find parallels and moral allegories that don't even reflect the faith walk of people in the Bible?

Sally Bradley said...

I'm with Sally and Margo. The question is a bit off. Does our fiction have to include theology? No, but when it does, it better be right.

Example--A few years ago I read a CF book that had someone get saved in it, have a salvation experience, whatever terminology you want to use. The Bible's clear on what salvation is; this story had it being something not in the Bible and something that so confused the person who'd gotten saved that they had to ask a friend what had happened to them, and the friend told them, "Why, you've just become a Christian."

Um, okay.

Why does that matter? Because of Galatians 1:8-9. "But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed!"

It's such a big deal, Paul says it twice.

Do CF books of any genre need a salvation experience in them? Or the concept taught? Nope. Can our characters, even our saved characters, make sinful choices? Absolutely. That's not theology unless we're teaching something crazy like grace is a license to sin.

What matters is an author portraying any theological concept as God shows us in the Bible because we answer to him for whatever truths or lies we teach our readers.

Nicole said...

I would counter with it's a rare day when fiction is used for "teaching concepts", and most Christian writers can get the salvation experience right. If they can't, the reader can always inquire as to its authenticity. I loved Peretti's version of spiritual warfare and happen to think there's more truth than fiction in his books. Anyone who really wants the Truth goes to the Word, not fiction. And can we all agree that Amish novels are theologically correct? Really?

Chihuahua Zero said...

What happened to the other post that was up? I was going to put it into my round-up.

Ane Mulligan said...

Gina took it dow, but she'll post it again another day.

Margo Carmichael said...

Nicole, re denominational differences, there will always be good people who see some doctrines differently. I don't think that's a problem. But I love what Sally Bradley said, and I have shared that with some of the dear people who knock on my door. There are other gospels, other jesuses. For our own sakes, we'd better be sure we represent them accurately, plus not lead others astray. Jesus and Paul were both very emphatic on those points. Do I mean we have to recite doctrine? No. Just show consequences, ultimately, for those that do wrong. That's how I see it, anyway. : )

Nicole said...

I can't speak for Mike here, and I'm not trying to do so. No one says anything about the Amish doctrine(s) potentially leading anyone astray. No one seems concerned at all that these books flourish in the CBA. I don't hear any complaints about possible errors in Amish theology cited in these discussions. But let one author write a touching, redemptive novel and use a couple of words or situations which don't appeal to or "offend" some Christians, and they're all over the book about those words and situations, completely bypassing the redemption in the story. Accused of potentially causing a Christian to "stumble", etc. The correct theology is included in the story, but yet some readers whine about a couple of words. Something is wrong with this picture.

Mike Duran said...

Margo, the problem is, if you feel you must remove all gray areas and make your characters "pay a price or change their mind," you're removing any ambiguity and mystery to the story. Scripture allows for tension. King David is one of the biblical heroes, yet he was a murderer and adulterer. Moses, the greatest of all Jewish leaders, was prevented from entering the Promised Land. Intentionally deceiving people with false doctrine is one thing. Allowing for ambiguity and mystery is another.

Mike Duran said...

Sally, you said, "Can our characters, even our saved characters, make sinful choices? Absolutely. That's not theology unless we're teaching something crazy like grace is a license to sin."

The fact that Christians (and Christian characters) can and do sin is part of a larger theological framework. It doesn't BECOME theology "unless we're teaching something crazy like grace is a license to sin." It is under the umbrella of theology. Then, in the case of sinning Christian characters, the Christian author is forced to clarify in her story that grace is NOT a license to sin in order to satisfy the theology police. Why not just leave the ambiguity, much like real life?

Sally Bradley said...

I think I'm with you on this, Mike. In my WIP, I have a Christian who's really far from God, living a very sinful life, and he doesn't get it figured out in the book. He's not the main character, just a side character, but it's clear that he's not living right without going into a whole sermon on it.

So you're saying if our characters live incorrect theology, some people think we need to explain it away or teach/show what they should have done or else it's bad fiction?

I think we can show characters living sinfully without having to tack on a SS lesson or sermon. It is fiction. I suppose there will always be people who have a problem with that, but they're probably not our target audience. Real fiction lovers, CF or otherwise, get that fiction was never meant to be a sermon for any belief, even though every writer tends to promote their own worldview.

So do we agree after all? :D

Sally Bradley said...

I'm with you, Nicole. I don't know much about Amish, but most of what I've heard is that their works save them. I've heard one example where they said it was Jesus.

Sally Bradley said...

I agree with you totally on the Amish point. It's probably a part of why that genre doesn't interest me. I'd love to see some of the houses that are big into Amish stories say how they deal with this works vs Jesus issue. Anyone know?

April Erwin said...

I'm posting this a second time, because I think it didn't go through properly.

A Christian's calling is to live a life that witnesses of Jesus, to let His light shine through them to others and share His love. Do we all accomplish this every day? Sadly, no. Jesus knows that, it's why He forgives. And He turns those screw ups followed by forgiveness into a beautiful testimony of His grace and power. As writers, I believe we are called to witness this truth.

Philippians 4:8 "Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just; whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

So creating characters and stories that present situations that are true to life is a must, but without representing the Hope of Jesus, the joy found in forgiveness and the love found in a new life, where does our witness stand? Does every book need to show a conversion or baptism? Not if it doesn't suit the story. Must they all have happy endings? No. But did it lead the reader to look at life with a different eye? Did it in any way inspire them to look toward Jesus or reaffirm His truths?

The fact any follower of Jesus Christ would ask the question, Should Christian fiction contain sound theology, makes my jaw drop and it should make us take a closer look at why we write what we write. If our work doesn't reflect Jesus in a positive manner, however you choose to do that; if it only represents the evil of the world as an example of what real life is without the effort of shining Christ's light on it, then why do we even choose to separate our fiction into a CBA category? Just because we leave out the steamy sex scenes and most of the swear words, doesn't make our work a reflection of Christ - Not unless we use the truth of God's word as a foundation to show in some manner that evil is evil, even if a good character is taking part.

Must our work have sound theology? YES. There will always be differences of opinion on how certain things are done, different denominations aren't new. But God's word is unchangeable and the foundation, the truth of the Gospel should be easily agreed upon by any Christian. If we don't represent that light of Jesus Christ, then we shouldn't call our work Christian fiction. Publish it in the main stream market and call it what it is, a cleaner version of what every one else is publishing.

Nicole said...

April, I would agree that your "theology" is sound, but I think you're missing Mike's point here. Hopefully he'll speak to it because, as I said previously, I can't speak for him.

Denominational differences speak to theology and doctrine. Those differences are clearly demonstrated throughout CBA literature. And occasionally cause friction or disagreement, but obviously some "theology" doesn't even cause a wrinkle to the eyebrows of readers and/or publishers (i.e. Amish doctrine), so as a general consensus it could be assumed that only SOME theology/doctrine must be "correct" for Christian authors.

It's hard to screw up salvation, you know? But as you pointed out, April, conversion scenes aren't a requirement in a good novel. Beyond the salvation that only Jesus Christ provides, denominations start veering into doctrinal differences based on their "theology".

Most of us who write Christian novels don't intend to purposely divide, offend, or appropriate incorrect theology, but obviously, in my opinion, some do by the slightest of word choices or by the more obvious cultish subject matter.

I think Mike's closing words really capture the reality of story:

"Things also happen in life that don’t fit neatly into our theology. So why do we expect our fiction to?"

Jenna said...

Alas, plenty of people live sinful lives and are successful and happy by worldly standards. Justice comes in the end, but not necessarily in our lifetimes. It is more "happily ever after" than Truth to make the wrong-doers suffer for their actions. Lots of times they do. But lots of times they don't.

April Erwin said...

I can see where you're coming from Nicole, all though that is not the same sense of things I got when reading Mike's article. Maybe it's a matter or terminology and how it's interpreted. But I would say that King David, Peter etc's lives did represent everything taken as a whole, because despite their sins, the truth and consequences were shown for their sins.

The quote from Larry Shallenberger "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…" is only partially true. None of it bears the full task, but as Christians we are called to always reflect the light of Jesus Christ, so the art should affirm your beliefs and in some way make an effort to share the gospel with those who read or see or hear your art. It doesn't have to be overt, but it should be the purpose behind anything we do.

I'm not disagreeing with the fact that there is bad and good belief systems in the real world, nor that Christians seldom live up to them completely, thank God for Grace and Mercy. I do disagree with the ambiguity issue in that one person/character may not understand, but the scriptures are very clear. If there is to be ambiguity represented on one side, show the way to find the truth somehow, whether the character chooses to do it or not. Unless it's shown in someway, through consequences or some other way, then how does a reader know which is good and which is bad theology or beliefs?

An earlier commenter stated that "Anyone who really wants the Truth goes to the Word, not fiction." I would hope that's true, but how many non-believers or those weak in the faith will read something untrue and accept it as truth because it's been published as a Christian book. They SHOULD look to the scriptures, but not all will. Is that our responsibility? YES. Even if it was unintentional, by stating things wrong without showing the truth or the way to find it, we are accountable for causing someone to stumble or go astray. Just as that reader is responsible for his choice of what to believe. I see Speculative Fiction moving this way and I think it's a really fine line that has to be walked.

Yes, there is ambiguity in life, but only in some's eyes. Mike mentions that King David was a murder and alduterer and yet was beloved of God and that there was ambiguity in his story. I see no ambigiuity. We may not know every detail, but we know his sin and how he was punished and suffered, how he came to repent before God to recieve His blessing again. There is no ambiguity as to whether David sinned or whether he repented and recieved grace.

I really don't want to start arguments or hard feelings, that's not my intentions in commenting. I think my biggest point here is, that I do want us all to look at that question a little closer.

Maybe there could have been a better way to phrase Mike's question, but how many non-Christians will stumble upon this post and wonder if we even care to tell the truth or whether they can trust anything we testify to them. People do share their Christian novels as a way of testifying or breaking the ice, not all CBA books are read by strictly Christians. They may be our target audience, but they are not our only audience. Words are powerful, we are responsible for those we use.

Nicole said...

I only have a couple of statements with which I disagree, April, and I hope you don't perceive me as trying to argue with you. I'm really not. I appreciate what you're lining out here and understand your points, all well-expressed.

"Unless it's shown in someway, through consequences or some other way, then how does a reader know which is good and which is bad theology or beliefs?"

This question is too much to put on a story. An author can absolutely believe they've given a clear doctrinal/theological perspective in their fiction and a reader can misconstrue or disagree with what they've presented. The intent can be there by the author, but that doesn't always mean a reader "gets" it. That's up to the Holy Spirit.

"Even if it was unintentional, by stating things wrong without showing the truth or the way to find it, we are accountable for causing someone to stumble or go astray."

I think this is overstepping the requirements of an author. Causing someone to stumble or go astray is a serious charge and it implies an intentional action. Readers have some accountability here. I don't mean to keep beating up on Amish fiction, but, hey, no one seems concerned about these novels causing someone to stumble . . .

And in light of - once again - denominational doctrinal/theological differences, it's impossible to insist on absolute correct theology beyond Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, the only way to God, which of course is not a necessity, obviously, within the content of CBA fiction. People tend to think their theology is the best, the most accurate, while others think they're in error over several issues. How can all of that be addressed or "covered" in a story?

simusone said...

"Good theology" is not about santizing the lives of characters - that would be BAD theology, avoiding the reality of the effects of sin.

Good theology is representing GOD correctly and not misrepresenting the gospel just for the sake of a story.