In Part One, I responded to the suggestion that I believe “that theology ought not be ‘imposed’ on [Christian] fiction.” I clarified that I see it as a matter of degree.
“As Christians, theology should be a lens we view everything through, especially art… The question is not IF theology should be imposed on our fiction, but HOW MUCH theology should we impose upon our fiction.”
Point being that theology and fiction are two different things; imposition is not an option, degree is.
The imposition of strict theology upon our fiction leads to the inevitable nitpicking of tropes and story elements that we find in so many Christian circles.
Hence, why some Christians believe that Christian fiction should not contain zombies (unless they are not-really-dead ones).
In this post, I wanted to take up the second objection suggesting that I believe “a Biblical framework must by definition limit our imagination.”
II.) I DO NOT believe theology should limit our imagination.
Becky Miller, in her article Reading, Truth, and the Bible, and in response to what she believes my position is, writes (and I’m quoting her at length to assure getting the context):
…I suggest that the Christian is the best person to imagine. (See, for example, “’Christian Speculative Fiction’ Is Not An Oxymoron”). God has made us in His own image–which would suggest that we are, by nature of our similitude to Him, creative beings, though we cannot create from nothing. Rather, what we create comes from something already made, and therefore, from God’s world. We simply re-fashion what exists into something of our invention. Of course this is true of all humans. Nevertheless, the Christian’s imagination has been baptized by Truth.
Speculation, then, is not the problem.
The error, I maintain, is Mike Duran’s position that theology ought not be “imposed” on fiction. In my way of thinking, that statement is like saying, realism ought not be imposed on characters.
Instead, if anything should be true in fiction, theology–or “religious beliefs and theory” about God–ought to be true. (emphasis mine)
First, I agree with much of this. The problem is that Becky is moving to the false conclusion that “Mike Duran’s position [is] that theology ought not be ‘imposed’ on fiction.” Again, this is an inaccurate portrayal of what I believe.
Secondly, while I whole-heartedly agree that “the Christian is the best person to imagine” and our fictional imaginations should be “baptized by Truth,” Becky and I seem to disagree on the extent to which Truth should cordon our fictional imaginations. She writes,
“… good stories will tell some aspect of truth without muddling it or bogging it down with a lot of untruth. I’ll make the comparison again with fictional characters, which writers and readers alike seem to believe should be depicted realistically.
Would a character seem realistic if at some points in the story he were assigned two legs and at other stages, four? Clearly not. Now a world could be envisioned in which a character did have four legs; one might even exist in which the number of legs characters have, fluctuates. But that this imagined world worked this way must be shown if the change is to be believable.
Otherwise, readers would assume the author had made a mistake–perhaps left out the scene in which the character gained the two extra legs or that an editorial error left the discrepancy in place. At worst, the reader would fall into complete confusion.
So too with inerrant theology. Is there an omnipotent, sovereign, good God, or does a person look within to find enlightenment? The two beliefs are not compatible. One is Truth and the other, error.
Can both positions reside in a story? Certainly. Because there are people who hold those two disparate views, there can be characters who do also. But if an author doesn’t finish a story well, a reader may be left believing that either position is equally true.” (emphasis mine)
There’s lots to consider here. Becky’s essential point, as I see it, is that fictional characters and God “should [both] be depicted realistically.” Again, it’s in the application of these things that Christian expectations bog down
What I’ll argue here is that the imposition of theology on fiction by many Christian readers has less to do with a fictional universe containing a “realistic depiction” of “an omnipotent, sovereign, good God” as what constitutes “muddling” or “bogging [stories] down with a lot of untruth.”
- Do zombies “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Does a protagonist who believes in evolution “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Do magic spells or incantations “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Do ghosts “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Do R-rated elements (language, violence, sex) “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Do fictional gods “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Do immoral superheroes “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Does unpunished sin “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Does a good vampire “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
- Does inarticulate theology “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth”?
While I would agree in the necessity of our fictional worlds framing or postulating “an omnipotent, sovereign, good God,” the debate in Christian circles seems far more concerned with peripherals — like zombies, spells, unpunished sin, bad language, and good evolutionists.
In this way, I contend, Christian artists often DO allow theology — or a flawed application of theology — to limit their imaginative reach.
Apologist Francis Schaeffer rightly said,
“The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
Today’s Christian fiction reader, however, seems more worried about the means of flight and the nature of the stars we traverse, as they do the imagination God’s given to take us there. God forbid we fly in unbiblical ways amongst stars that don’t really burn.
The point here is to highlight how our approach to fiction can often be as problematic as the stories themselves. Am I suggesting that we should put down our “theological” guard when we read and be less discerning? Absolutely not. But we need to see fiction as doing something different than simply illustrating and reinforcing Bible doctrine.
About his then-recent viewing of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, C.S. Lewis wrote:
“…[the play] is merely the scaffolding whereby Shakespeare (probably unconsciously) is able to give us an image of the whole idea of resurrection, [and] I was simply overwhelmed. You will say that I am here doing to Shakespeare just what I did to Macdonald… Perhaps I am. I must confess that more and more the value of plays and novels becomes for me dependent on the moments when, by whatever artifice, they succeed in expressing the great myths.”
– C.S. Lewis from a letter dated September 5, 1931 (emphasis mine)
Notice that Lewis describes the actual play as simply “scaffolding” for a bigger idea. Scaffolding — I like that image. In fact, it is this big idea (here, the great myths), expressed “by whatever artifice,” that characterize the great tales. Alas, when we become preoccupied with a story’s “scaffolding” and niggle over literary “artifices,” we will inevitably miss the bigger story.
Nevertheless, many Christian readers seem to allow “scaffolding” (like zombies, magic spells, and bad superheroes) to “muddle” or “bog” a Christian story down with “a lot of untruth.” Discernment is inflated to mean not just what the story’s big idea is, but whether zombies, ghosts, leprechauns, or four-legged evolutionists are used as a means of conveying them.
The truth is, for some fiction writers, theology makes the world smaller, not bigger.
This is not meant to suggest that there are no moral, physical, or spiritual boundaries, but that the boundaries the Bible frames are bigger than what many Christians concede. Which is why Scripture contains fabulous stories about talking serpents, flaming chariots, angelic warriors, dead men caught up to the third heaven, and resurrected men who live to die a second time. The world of Scripture is, indeed, stranger than much fiction. Of course, there is such a thing as heresy and false doctrine, and believers do well to “test all things” (I Thess. 5:21). This, however, is not a license to “quench the Spirit” (I Thess. 5:21). A theology that strips the world of mystery is not only Spirit-quenching, it is out of whack with reality.
The tension between Christian theology and fiction is always on the believer’s end. By that I mean, the person without a theology, per se, has no coda by which judge their fiction (existentially speaking). Everything is permissible. The Christian reader and/or writer of fiction, however, SHOULD check their stories against the Bible. Conversely, sometimes those same readers / writers need check their theology there as well. Yes, some fiction is contrary to the biblical worldview, incongruous with Christian theology. But a world that is completely stripped of mystery is not only boring, it is not biblical.
G.K. Chesterton put it this way:
The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders.
Christian fiction should “make strange things settled,” and “settled things strange.” Sadly, the overly strict imposition of theology on our fiction not only renders our stories strangely unimaginative, it makes our imaginative muscles rather puny.
Rather than cultivating discernment and rendering creative license, we become “scaffold inspectors,” making sure every plank and cross-beam meets a theological standard. No wands. Check. No spells. Check. No ghosts. Check. No zombies. Check. No crystal balls. Check. No evolutionists. Check. No broomsticks. Check. All this in the hopes of not muddling or bogging down the tale with “a lot of untruth.”
So to summarize, I DO NOT believe theology should limit our imagination. I believe theology should fire our imagination. I believe that Christians should be the most wildly imaginative, creative artists on the planet! The real question for the Christian fiction writer is simply, how much theology should we rightly impose upon our stories?