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Can Good Fiction Contain Bad Theology?

Can Good Fiction Contain Bad Theology?

by Mike Duran · 39 comments

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?

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Nissa Annakindt June 28, 2012 at 7:04 AM

I read a lot of secular authors who are either atheist/agnostic or neopagan in their religion, and who sometimes express open anti-Christianism (bigotry against Christians). I put up with it for the sake of a good story.

It seems a little wrong for me to then turn to a book written by a fellow follower of Jesus Christ, and pick it apart because the author is Protestant, Evangelical or Mormon rather than being Catholic like me and like the rest of the correct-theology Christians (in my view).

I don’t really want to find out in heaven what Jesus really thinks of His followers treating the heathen better than we treat our brothers and sisters in the Kingdom.

Yes, good theology is best. But the sad thing is in this sin-filled world, we can’t come to a common agreement on what that good theology is. If we can’t agree on this in the real world, we shouldn’t expect it in fiction.

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Christian June 29, 2012 at 7:06 AM

Uh. Mormons aren’t Christian.

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Johne Cook June 28, 2012 at 7:35 AM

I wonder if we’re in this ghetto because we’re trying so hard to be good that we forget to love God, love our neighbors. Love conquers all, even well-intentioned echo-chamber hollow goodness. Goodness will come from love. So will honesty, which may be more ragged than our effort to serve goodness would normally allow. (Goodness, for example, would frown on throwing out the money changers, the very act motivated by love for God.)

This is a really smart post, Mike. I love what you’re doing, here.

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Jim Hamlett June 28, 2012 at 8:03 AM

Mike,
I’m with Johne in applauding your efforts to raise interesting questions. Often the objection to “wrong” theology in a Christian work has more to do with how it’s presented rather than its “wrongness.” I haven’t read The Telling yet, so I can’t comment on it, but I plan to read it. (Saw your giveaway at Goodreads; would like to know how that goes for you. I’m considering it myself for my novel.)

Thanks again for your efforts here.

Jim H.

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sally apokedak June 28, 2012 at 8:06 AM

I loved your book. I hope to do an Amazon review this week. I was going to say something about the theology in it, myself.

I don’t believe we do have to have to good theology in all the parts of our books, but I believe the theme or the lesson we are going for has to be good.

IOW I can read about your modern-day prophet even though I don’t believe God has modern prophets as you depicted. It’s a speculative story, after all. Do I believe that demons can…affect people…as they did in your book? Not at all. Does anyone believe that? I thought that was right out of your imagination, and it was good story stuff.

But the overall message is what matters to me in books. I want truth in the whole even if the parts are false.

I’m not sure what your theme was and I want to give that some more thought.

But just on the face of things, the book read to me as a wonderful fantasy. I thought that Little Weaver was a brilliant depiction of his race, as far as he went. I thought he embodied two things about his race that were wonderfully drawn. He alone made the book worth reading. But I also loved Zeph and Annie and Tam. And even Dieter and the cactus-jelly-making neighbor were good, though they were only minor characters. All your characters were very real and lovable.

No, I don’t believe that demons can use technology and scientific advances in the way you depicted in the book. Who cares? That’s not theology. Theology is the study of God.

What did your book say about God?

That’s what I’m still noodling over.

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Jessica Thomas June 28, 2012 at 9:34 AM

Wow. I’d planned to read it anyway, but this is great advertisement. Now I’m even curious-er.

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Heather Day Gilbert June 28, 2012 at 11:24 AM

Jessica, come over to my blog and read my review! I loved THE TELLING and highly recommend it. It is SPECULATIVE fiction, but I felt it was theologically sound. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. No one understands all the ins and outs and mysteries of cherubim/demons etc. That’s why all such fiction is speculative. But we can extrapolate things and interpret it into fiction, all the while understanding that it’s fiction. You need to read it, Jessica!

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 4:21 AM

“The theology. It was definitely wacko”

Pretty much a big reason why I’ve LOVED this book more than any CBA book since the last T. L. Hines novel. This definitely puts you on T. L. Hines territory, in my opinion, Mike. I’ve a review coming, also….

On a side note, thinking about the disparate paths of Fergus and Zeph, you outta check out Mystery Walk, by Robert McCammon. Take your novel, make it even more wacko (lots of Indian mysticism, but still with Christian overtones), and spice it with Southern Gothic flavor…and imagine if Zeph went “bad” and exploited his gift, and Fergus was “good”. An excellent read.

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 4:22 AM

NATIVE AMERICAN Indian mysticism, that is.

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Katherine Coble June 28, 2012 at 8:54 AM

Not having read the book yet, I can’t speak to your work directly in this instance.

I think it’s a knife-edge on which to balance, and it’s one of the reasons–the main reason, in fact–why I eschew writing Christian fiction.

If your goal is to write _fiction_, then by all means do that. The theology in fiction isn’t going to please all the people all the time. (Just look at the universalism at the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle.)

HOWEVER, if you are taking advantage of the Christian marketplace for your book’s distribution and readership, I think you sign on to the very definite CHRISTIAN aspect. Lewis did not publish the CoN for the Christian market, so I don’t expect to find a firmly agreed-upon theology in there. Likewise LOTR, Dean Koontz, John Grisham, Flannery O’Connor, etc. Frank Perretti DID publish for Christians. His books are in church libraries. So I take real issue with his messed up theology.

As someone who has heard and read countless Christian authors talking about Their Ministry (as though writers who author general fiction are excluded from ministry) I think that it’s all too common for Christian authors to claim an adjunct-pastoral mantle. As such I do insist that if they’re gonna play the part they learn the lines.

If you want to make stuff up, you can always just sell your book in general market. Of course it means leaving the cozy comfort of the Christian distributorships…but then you don’t have to be careful about orthodoxy either.

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Jenni Noordhoek June 28, 2012 at 9:28 AM

I heard an interesting thing on another blog which based on Peretti’s general teaching – I’ve heard some of his conference talks – is likely to be true. The theology in This Present Darkness/etc wasn’t meant to be true (angels/demons/etc stuff) and after people started taking it seriously he stopped writing more of them because it wasn’t supposed to be so. I’d have to do some research to find out if this is true, however.

But an interesting thought.

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Heather Day Gilbert June 28, 2012 at 11:25 AM

That is VERY interesting, Jenni. I know lots of people took that book as the gospel truth. I think it was theologically sound, though. Just imaginative!

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Rebecca LuElla Miller June 28, 2012 at 10:05 AM

Mike I haven’t read Blue Like Jazz, and I have yet to read The Telling, so this is general, not specific to the two books you used as illustrative of your point.

I happen to agree with Mr. Shallenberger when he says art exists to reveal beauty and truth. I happen to think that means spiritual truth as much as it does “emotional truth”–the latter being somewhat laughable since Scripture says the heart is deceitful and wicked.

To pit emotional truth against spiritual truth and to say that the former must win out so stories won’t be stilted is to short-change God. If theologically truthful stories are stilted, I don’t think we must conclude it is because of the theology.

I do agree with you that no story can reveal the entire body of theology. I doubt if anyone would think otherwise–in the same way that a story about WWII could not possibly show every facet of WWII. However, I do think there’s a difference between “incomplete” theology and bad theology.

I’m with Sally on this referring to a story’s theme, not the particulars of the story. In my Spec Faith post this week, I called into question reviewers or rating systems that camp on externals and judge a story according to such outward standards. People sin, and it would actually be bad theology to have a story that doesn’t show people sinning. But there is also a judgment, and it would be bad theology to have a story where everyone goes to heaven.

Those aren’t truthful, so in what way can they fit into the artistic definition of revealing truth?

Becky

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Mike Duran June 28, 2012 at 2:03 PM

Becky, I think what you say towards the end of your comment is a good illustration of where I think our difficulty lies. You wrote:

“People sin, and it would actually be bad theology to have a story that doesn’t show people sinning. But there is also a judgment, and it would be bad theology to have a story where everyone goes to heaven.”

Okay. So showing people sinning in a story is theologically accurate, right? People sin. You counter, but there is also judgement. Question: So must a fictional story show BOTH sin and judgement to be biblically sound? If showing people sinning is “good theology,” then isn’t it enough to stop right there? King David committed adultery and murder. Samson caroused. Rahab sold sexual favors for money. Can that “biblical truth” stand without qualification in our tales, speak to the conscience of the reader without our explanation? Or must the author show the consequences of their sin. And then there are the “bad people” who never lose, who never get just desserts in the here and now. Their judgement comes in the afterlife. So is it biblically realistic to write a story about a sinner who isn’t judged in this life? Because that is also biblically realistic. See, I think this is the type of minutiae we strap our fiction with by even imposing that question on them.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller June 28, 2012 at 3:07 PM

Mike, I don’t think all truth needs to be present in a novel.

I agree with your premise: An artistic book reveals truth and beauty. To the extent that a book does this, then it is a good book.

If a book lies about anything (saying that everyone gets into heaven, for example), then it doesn’t qualify as artistic.

If a book tells some truth, then perhaps we can say it is somewhat artistic (assuming the beauty part). Some books have no intention of dealing with the supernatural. Should we discount them from being artistic even though they reveal truth about the human condition, truth that is in line with a Biblical worldview? I think those books can be considered truthful as far as they go. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev comes to mind as one of the most truthful books about the human condition. Or any of Steinbeck’s books. Those show man’s depravity is stark terms.

If a writer wants to show man’s depravity, it would indeed be truthful.

It would not be truthful to show evil winning. Someone dying with all the toys in this life might be true as far as it goes, but if the book implies that this is all there is and therefore the evil person got ahead because of his evil or in spite of it, it simply isn’t truthful. Citizen Kane was so popular, I think, because it showed in such poignant terms just such a story, and how he didn’t win, even though on the outside it appeared as if he had.

Personally I think there is a great deal we Christians should explore and write, all with the intention of telling the truth, not in some cliched way with a predictable ending.

The alternative, however, is not to start infusing our stories with bad theology. That’s untruthful and disqualifies them as being artistic.

Becky

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R. L. Copple June 28, 2012 at 10:19 AM

An interesting question, and it seems somewhere I said something very similar to what you’re saying. Don’t recall where, but I think I was making the point that on works of fiction, even some non-fiction, the book should not be given the job of supporting a complete theology. Oh, I remember. I had a blog post about two stories which lamented the lack of overt Christianity in the stories, one dealing with Veggie Tales, and the other with the movie review of October Baby. I concluded toward the end of it:

But I think this attitude that it must always contain the Gospel message in a fairly overt form is what will keep Evangelicalism from really using the arts to get their worldview and message across to more than a limited number, because it is a one-size-fits-all approach not only to the Christian life, but to evangelism and art itself.

Morality vs. Christianity
http://blog.rlcopple.com/?p=638

A similar topic that you’ve also addressed here before, for what this boils down to is whether any one piece of fiction can or should include the whole theological ball of wax, if each story should be “all things to all people.” Obviously it can’t, whether you are talking about the lack of an overt Gospel message in a story, or that the theology in it doesn’t match this or that group’s theology.

But, I will say this. I think while no one piece of fiction should try to do it all, and be the perfect theological expression in all characters and circumstances, because you are right, if we’re showing life, none of us are perfect, I think the underlying theme and message of the book should reflect the author’s theology. IOW, what does the book end up supporting, glorifying, or showing as a negative path? Does our story inadvertently suggest that if you commit adultery, for instance, that there aren’t any negative consequences to that? As an example. Are are we suggesting it purposefully because our theology says that’s not bad, it’s just society that has made it a bad thing?

So maybe a related question is can we have “bad theology” in the whole?

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xdpaul June 28, 2012 at 10:31 AM

Good theology is terrible for fiction.

A) There is very, very, very little good theology in world history. Good theology, as it only deals with the mind, is not a tenet of faith, it isn’t a part of our creed, and it certainly isn’t a matter of salvation. In fact, Christian theology is primitive and small. Jesus never said, “Get your thinking about God straightened out…” because His point is we can’t.

We could lose a huge portion of Chrisitian thought and all its rich traditions, and rediscover the importance of Christ’s sacrifice in the Gospels and testimonies of other believers.

B) Christians aren’t the only ones whose theology falls apart. Atheist mystery writers happily accept universal truths such as facts, evidence and, well, whodunnit. Pagan poets end up inadvertently praising the Creator’s work, even while crediting it to unseen forces. A certain famous Mormon writer reinforces the Christian ideal of monogamy. A better theologian than Melville could not have written Moby Dick.

C) Authors don’t write their symbols, they write their stories. Stuffy old English teachers with a room full of hostages make the kids look for symbols and themes. Only then does the theology get canonized, and, half the time, it gets canonized all wrong.

So the fact that theology hunters find the dumb theology in books where none is delivered is merely proof of terrible literacy.

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 4:28 AM

Good theology is terrible for fiction.

AMEN. I’ve always thought this, but have often been afraid to say out loud….

And, though I don’t consider myself old, stuffy, and do my best to make sure my students don’t feel like hostages (because in ten year of teaching, I’ve discovered that a positive, energetic approach makes all the difference in the world), and allow them lots of room to form their own opinions, as an English teacher, I agree with this:

Authors don’t write their symbols, they write their stories.

And in the defense of GOOD English teachers who AREN’T stuffy, they clearly articulate their goals in admitting that authors DON’T write their symbols, that the academic analyzing of literature is about self-discovery and intellectual exercise, not about “figuring out completely” what the “author meant.”

Sorry. Didn’t mean to get ranty.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller July 1, 2012 at 12:51 PM

Kevin, I think if good theology makes for a bad story, then we can’t use the definition Mike quoted about artistry reflecting beauty and truth. You can’t have truth and have bad theology. So the definition of “good story” has to be something else.

Becky

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Scathe meic Beorh July 1, 2012 at 1:27 PM

What about truth and bad theology mixed together? Or, maybe we have different definitions for bad theology…. Jesus was a bad theologian according to some.

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 1:34 PM

Okay, so how about this, then: forcing a story into “good” theology (whatever that might be considered to be) – regardless of what the story really “needs” can be detrimental to the story on a whole.

And of course, keeping in mind every has different preferences and all…

Does that make sense? Not to be needlessly self-referential, but I finally “couldn’t” make myself write for the CBA, because I felt my hand was forced, all the time. I’d think to myself – “Wow, this would make for an awesome story…oh, wait. It says in Chapter 7, Verse 3 or NAME THE BOOK OF THE BIBLE that can’t happen. Scratch that.

Again, I hate to refer to myself – but I recently sold what I consider to be one of my best – and favorite – short stories in the highest market yet. Not to give it away, but it deals with forgiveness, guilt, eternity, redemption – but it’s “theology” is decidedly Catholic. But I don’t care, but it made for a great story.

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 1:35 PM

And I really should type these blog responses while making dinner…

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Kevin Lucia July 1, 2012 at 1:36 PM

And I really shouldn’t type these blog responses while making dinner…

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Jenni Noordhoek June 28, 2012 at 10:41 AM

I personally am not a stickler for theology in the fiction I read. (Often not in the fiction I write, either, though I am more careful)

I’ve gotten some pretty interesting insights on life and God from the most unlikely of storytelling. (TV shows like Doctor Who, Supernatural, Stargate SG-1. All theologically incorrect to various degrees. Some more than others, lol. But they’re stories about people, and people with personal struggles of faith even if they don’t share my beliefs relate to me a lot more than people who don’t struggle.)

So I think good stories can be good without good theology.

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Bob Avey June 28, 2012 at 11:09 AM

I definately agree that good fiction can contain bad theology. I’ve read some extremely well-written books that contained horrible theology. And I agree that not any single work of art should be expected to shoulder the burden. However, I do not agree with the notion that any work of fiction could not, even in part, articulate a theological system.

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Tom Canfield June 28, 2012 at 11:16 AM

Absolutely! It’s fiction. Fiction has the freedom to be whatever it wants to be. As a writer who is also a Christian, I want to tell engaging stories of good versus evil, grace, and redemption while exploring characters and their emotions. Theology has no place in it, at least for me. I love the horror genre because it sets up an extreme backdrop; a great stage for redemption. In my life experience theology has been more destructive than productive. Theology overemphasized can migrate into legalism which gives birth to hypocrisy. The destructive picture of legalism and hypocrisy inside the church gives many an unfair and warped view of God and pushes them away. This is what I believe was at the crux of the confessional scene in Blue Like Jazz that you discussed. It was an apology of sorts for misrepresenting God, hoping He would be given a second chance. If we are worried about theology in fiction, we are missing the point. Fiction creates environments, real and imaginary, to explore human emotions, create conflicts, and find resolutions that resonate with readers, and hopefully, push them further on their journey towards God.

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Johne Cook June 28, 2012 at 11:21 AM

Here’s the thing – I don’t go to fiction books for theology. I go to fiction books for art and truth. (It’s one reason I ‘got’ what Frank Peretti was doing with angelic warfare books.)

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Rebecca LuElla Miller June 28, 2012 at 11:39 AM

But Johne, isn’t “good theology” the truth you say you go to fictions for?

This is what is confusing me in this discussion. It seems to me that anyone who says they don’t care about theology in fiction should just as well say they don’t care about truth–or at least about spiritual truth. Maybe by “truth” they mean what Modernism means: that which we can prove with our rational faculties. But isn’t that precisely what sets Christian fiction apart from any other? We know that there is a God who rules sovereignly. So are we going to write our stories as if He does not exist? Is that truthful?

Becky

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Johne Cook June 28, 2012 at 11:57 AM

Let’s say it this way – when I read Frank Peretti, I wasn’t hung up on whether angels really had swords or wings, what I got from his stories was the collision of supernatural entities we don’t usually see with mortal eyes and how our actions in the real world resonate in the larger spiritual world. I think there is room to talk about larger true issues without being completely accurate about the mechanisms of how that really works.

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Katherine Coble June 29, 2012 at 6:51 AM

Since I brought up Peretti I should clarify what my issue is. I’m not worried about cosmetic things in fiction (“ooooh, the Bible says angels don’t have wings”) or that sort of thing.

My specific concern with Peretti’s theology–or the theological heresy many people assumed after having read TPD–was the idea that GOD IS POWERLESS TO ACT OR INTERVENE FULLY WITHOUT OUR PRAYERS. That is a _real_ problem. I don’t care if angels do or don’t have wings or swords or walkie-talkies. But I do care if people take from a book that prayer is something it isn’t, that God is something God isn’t. I care that they think Satan is more powerful than Satan is.

I _know_ from interviews I’ve read with Peretti that this was NOT what he intended. He just meant to use a story to convey the importance of prayer and the reality of those warring supernatural factions. Unfortunately there are people– a lot of people– who read the book and think that because it was in their church library or for sale at Family Bookstores that the theology is accurate. So they have a belief in Christian prayer that more corresponds with Witchcraft. Biblical prayer is not about us commanding the supernatural through words–that’s a Witchcraft element–but about opening a relationship with God.

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R. L. Copple June 28, 2012 at 11:58 AM

I’m not sure what many of us mean by theology is what others of us are thinking it means.

Bad theology can lead one away from God, and can affect people’s salvation. And is related to beliefs, underlying philosophical perceptions, and if you want to get into the traditional understanding of it, say early church, was the experience of those who became close to God and talked about it (John, the disciple of Jesus, is known traditionally as “The Theologian”).

Some seem to relegate it to only ivory tower discussions about God, or nitpicking at the ontological status of demons and angels (a discussion that went on in our theology class for several weeks when I was in college in the 80s), etc. Others equate it to legalism. Others dismiss it because there are too many beliefs in what is important or not important, etc., etc., etc. So naturally, no one book is going to be “theologically sound.”

But I disagree with the idea that you can’t have good theology in a good book. It should be the background of the story, not the up front preaching of it, but it can be there, and it can be decently consistent within that author’s belief system. I think the book of mine that came out has some awesome theology in it. But I know some will disagree with it, and no doubt a reviewer will label mine as “crazy theology” at some point. After all, I have no illusions that I’m describing exactly how Hades is going to look. But I also think it tells a good story. YMMV. Other of my books, like Mind Game and Hero Game don’t contain any theology at all, at least on any sort of level you’d say, “Ah, he’s saying this about God.”

Yes, some that are out to promote a certain theology have a hard time writing a good story that naturally goes with it. Some can pull it off. Many can’t.

But the danger of theology in a book, is when people encounter it, often they only want a book, if it contains any theology or politics, to affirm the views they already hold, not challenge them with new perspectives and ideas. If they agree with it, it’s a great book. If they don’t, it’s too preachy and/or should be avoided by all good Christians who don’t want to find their souls sucked into Hell.

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Rebecca LuElla Miller June 28, 2012 at 12:26 PM

Rick, I’m glad you clarified the use of the term “theology.” One of the speculative books I’ve touted as being a good example of truthful theology is Angel Eyes by Shannon Dittemore, but she has said she started out with, What if halos were actual, tangible things? I could throw in the question, what if angels actually have halos as part of the speculative, but some people might call these matters “theology.” I think they are simply imaginative elements, and it isn’t “bad theology” to imagine.

It would be bad theology to say, I imagine it this way, therefore I know for a fact it is exactly this way. I think it’s also bad theology to present as truth something that contradicts what the Bible says is true.

As to whether or not books with bad theology can be good, I’d say they can only be good up to a point. As soon as they don’t tell the truth, then they don’t meet the artistic standard of “beauty and truth.” They might contain some truth, as the stories Jenni mentioned did, but there’s a point of separation where a book or movie or TV program that abandons or ignores spiritual truth can be considered truly “good,” as in, a work of artistic accomplishment.

You said

But I disagree with the idea that you can’t have good theology in a good book.

I’d take that a step further and say we must have good theology to have a genuinely truthful, and therefore, by definition, Good book. Anything short of that might be small “g” good because it tells the truth in its own limited way. But how can it be considered artistic if it leaves unrevealed the greatest Truth or any part of it?

Becky

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R. L. Copple June 28, 2012 at 1:21 PM

I’m with you up to a point, Becky. :)

The age old question, “What is truth?”

For those of us not in the relativistic camp, that is still a question, if not in theory, in practics. Because whatever the truth is, it is colored by our perception and world view and interpretation of the perceived facts. Many of us would agree on many things, maybe even most of the “central” things, but then on others, even some central things, not so much.

For instance, just by way of example, some of the Christian groups believe that the Lord’s Supper actually becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, and by eating of Him, they have life and are in large part saved through that. And all that can be amply supported by Scripture. Meanwhile, other groups believe it isn’t important for salvation, is just bread and wine(grape juice), and its a take it or leave it thing.

One group thinks it is key to our spiritual life, the other, not so much, though maybe still viewed as important on some symbolic level. But certainly whether you eat or don’t eat doesn’t play a part in one’s salvation.

So I write a book, and in it, it is clear that my characters believe, and the book itself seems to hold up as truth, that it is the Body and Blood of Christ and needful for salvation. Some Evangelical will read that and consider it not truth, but heretical and a lie, despite the fact it can be documented as truth from Scripture. Oh yes, I know people have their explanations as to what Jesus really meant, but that’s all they are, explanations to avoid taking Him literally, but it is there. He did say it. So which view is “truth,” the one that interprets Scripture one way, or one the other?

Even when we come down to “saved by faith alone,” there are different understandings on what that means. If my definition of faith I present in my novels doesn’t match yours, will it be considered bad theology, not telling the truth?

I think we can have “good theology” in a novel in a good way. But I can get a lot out of other perspectives that don’t agree with my theology. For instance, Star Trek, especially NG, is very secular, evolutionary, there is no God, based stories. Sometimes that comes out very overtly. But I can watch them, and get truth from them, sometimes they are right about some things from my perspective, sometimes I realize things by what they try to portray. Same I’ve noticed with Dr. Who. It hasn’t be quite as overt, but it pops up here and there that it is based upon an non-God evolutionary understanding of the world.

And then there is the next issue. Me. I’m a fallible human being. I try to keep things in my story, the overall theme and meaning, consistent with theology as I understand it. But even then, I’m going to make mistakes. I’m going to unknowingly “say” something with a character’s actions, or showing something in an approving way as “good” when most would consider it bad, maybe even something I do consider as bad but I just missed that I did that. I’m human. There is no way all the theology in my books can be even accurate and consistent with my own theology, as much as I might try to do so, much less be consider “truth” based upon the beliefs of everyone else.

So, the point being, fiction isn’t, shouldn’t stand in for a systematic theology. It isn’t a catechism. No one should derive their theology from a book I write. Maybe and hopefully be inspired by seeing a new perspective on things, maybe, but I’m just a fallible human being. The goal of my books isn’t to teach theology, even though I hope the underlying premise of them is truth and theologically consistent with my own beliefs. But it shouldn’t be treated as the infallible Word of God. It isn’t meant to instruct one in the Faith. It’s to help the reader experience fresh perspectives on life and hopefully truth as well, that will resonate with them, and they will investigate them further, through the art of story telling.

And so, I can write books that don’t present the Gospel. Or even mention God, and still present a good story that conveys something of God, even if just a morality. That’s not a bad goal.

How God uses it to guide someone into The Truth, Jesus Christ, is left in God’s hands. Because only he can take my meager offerings and use them to lead to truth, despite my feeble attempts.

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Becky Doughty June 28, 2012 at 1:19 PM

Hey Mike,
You’ve opened a can of worms with this one, haven’t you?

I’m jumping into the fray because I’m actually doing a series of posts on Ministry or Malarkey – this whole topic of fiction being “inspirational.”

Yesterday I posted about the blurry line of sex in particular, but I think some of my thoughts really apply here, too.

I wrote:
“But that’s exactly what makes this story REAL, you declare. Purity is lovely, but unrealistic, you cry.

Really? The lies of the deceiver are what make fiction real?

Here’s what Charles Spurgeon notes: “Worldly wisdom recommends the path of compromise and talks of ‘moderation.’ According to this carnal policy, purity is admitted to be very desirable, but we are warned against being too precise; truth is of course to be followed, but error is not to be severely denounced.“

You see, the truth is that carnality, the “odd journey to Vanity Fair,” is IN REALITY the fulfillment of a lie. Gratuitous sex only brings shallow and short-lived satisfaction, not deep fulfillment. Beauty and physical charm are delightful, but not measures of the quality of love. It is UNREALISTIC to believe that giving in to lust and giving up self-control is beneficial for any relationship – it is purely self-gratification and only leads to division. Indulgence brings dissatisfaction, not peace.

So does this mean that I cannot write about sex, pornography, abuse, slavery, or violence and still qualify it as Inspirational Fiction? I mean, these things do happen in real life, right?

Maybe the question should be asked this way instead: IF I am going to write about carnal things, shouldn’t I portray them as the fulfillment of lies? Shouldn’t I depict carnality as the direction AWAY from truth and not a stepping stone towards it? Aren’t we writing inspirational fiction with the intent to inspire? To motivate our readers toward better, more hopeful thoughts and desires?”

Mike – your reviewer probably wasn’t REALLY talking about theology. I think it was more about the direction you were leading your characters, and hence, your readers. When we write anything that depicts untruth as truth, fiction or not, we are NOT taking a parallel path towards truth, but a path that leads in the opposite direction. If we write about “bad theology” it is our responsibility as authors to assure that our readers understand that.

Just my two bits. Because I respect your voice in this market.

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Jessica Thomas June 28, 2012 at 8:12 PM

Mike, sometimes it takes a bit for your posts to sink into my brain. I just realized, what you’re talking about here–the incomplete theology–is one of the main reasons I’ve kept some of my old poems under wraps. Taken alone, they might seem to incorporate some wacky theology. Out of fear of “leading someone astray”, I hid the poetry in the bytes and bits of my computer for over a decade and a half. A couple weeks ago when I was reading through them, it struck me that they aren’t just dusty artifacts of my old self. They still have worth. They reveal truths about the human experience…gritty details about one life’s journey toward God. I think He appreciates when we jot down some of the specifics of our journey, and He appreciates it even moreso when we share those notes with others who might be struggling along the same path. And… He’s already written the Bible so… No need to rewrite it.

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Jason H. June 29, 2012 at 10:09 AM

Great post Mike, and an important thought to discuss.

“He’s already written the Bible so… No need to rewrite it.”

Unfortunately, some people struggle to see the distinction between a fictional story written by man and the inspired Word of God. We have an imperfect understanding of God, so it follows that theology in our work could be flawed. However, this does not mean something flawed cannot be useful and beneficial. A wise friend once told me that when reading to “eat the meat and throw away the bones”. As a Christian, my responsibility to discern all things in comparison to God’s Word, glean the truth where it is found, and leave the rest.

As for requiring theological completeness – this “rule” was not imposed even upon Jesus’ parables, which were designed to address specific truths, not all truth. So, I choose to live in freedom.

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Scathe meic Beorh June 29, 2012 at 1:35 PM

I needed this encouragement. My latest release is filled with “bad theology,” yet the absolute focus is Jesus who, by the way was, according to the Pharisees and Sadducees, a bad theologian.

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John Van Vliet July 2, 2012 at 3:50 PM

You asked some interesting questions at the opening of the article:

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?

The answer is: of course not. The Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t whitewash the wrongs they committed in their lives. Correct Theology is always used to show the error.

So to your original question: Can Good Fiction Contain Bad Theology? Only in the way that it is presented by the characters in the story. Like a Christian right-wing fundamentalist Messianic figurehead devising a devious plot to bring about global Armageddon and the Second Coming of Jesus. There’s an interesting plot. A lot of bad Theology in that mind I’m sure.

In all other cases I think we should be true to what we know to be Theologically correct.

Haven’t had a chance to read any of your books yet, but plan on doing so in the near future.

Blessings.

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