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The Problem of Depicting God in Fiction

I’ve been thinking about a question raised by blogger Becky Miller a few weeks ago in a post entitled Realism in Fiction wherein she asks why those of us who pine for “realism” in Christian fiction (meaning inclusion of taboo subjects like sex and language) aren’t as concerned about the portrayals of God in our novels. The gist of her argument could be summarized:

Why do Christian writers who want realism in fiction not demand as much realism in the depiction of God as they do of human behavior?

In other words, those of us in the “realism crowd” would like to see a grittier, less sanitized depiction of life. But according to Becky, our blindside may be that we aren’t equally passionate about realistic portrayals of God.

It’s a terrific point and I really encourage you to read Becky’s entire post. Let me quote a chunk of her piece just to set the table:

Why are we not up in arms about how shallow or weak or absent God comes off in novel after novel bearing the Christian label? We complain about humans appearing out of touch with the world or behaving in ways that are not consistent with reality, but we are silent about God appearing as out of touch with His creation or inconsistent with His self-revelation.

God might be incidental to a story, an add-on “faith element,” and no one is complaining. No one is standing up and saying how such stories aren’t real.

Why is it OK to do a poor job of showing God in a real way, but it is not OK to show humans in a real way? And if it’s not, why aren’t we saying so with the same frequency we decry the absence of realism in human behavior?

…As I see it, pushing for realism ought to start with showing God as He is. (emphasis in original)

This is such a huge, yet important subject. Here’s some of the questions the article raised in my mind, followed by some brief thoughts:

  1. What constitutes a realistic portrayal of God?
  2. Must that portrayal be the primary “distinctive” of Christian fiction (as Becky suggests)?
  3. How does that distinctive practically reveal itself in a fictional setting?
  4. Is it even possible in the context of a single novel to accurately do so?

God’s character and nature is such an immense subject. My initial response to the post was to ask what constitutes a realistic portrayal of God? That may seem like hair-splitting. But unless you’re actually showing God doing something (through a vision or divine revelation), you’re pretty much consigned to showing Him through flawed characters, much like the Bible. Which leads me to ask, can you ever accurately portray God through sinful characters?

Furthermore, a realistic portrayal of God is not always edifying, encouraging, or enlightening. In the Book of Job, watching Job’s family and property be systematically ravaged is part of a realistic portrayal of God. In the Book of Genesis, witnessing the horrors of the Flood is part of a realistic portrayal of God. The slaughter of firstborn Egyptian males reveals the character of God, as does the Red Sea, the Jewish wandering in the wilderness, and their exile into Babylon. King David revealed the nature of God… just not when he committed adultery and murder. Solomon showed forth God’s wisdom… until his concubine stole his heart. Point is, a realistic portrayal of God could leave one angry, perplexed, and un-inspired. When we think about accurate portrayals of God, are we simply thinking about His “positive” attributes?

Also, is it possible for a single work of fiction to accurately depict God’s nature or any one (much less all) of His attributes? He is merciful, holy, infinite, just, compassionate, omniscient, omnipresent, loving, gracious, etc., etc. So where do we start in our portrayal of God? And if we resign our story to just highlighting one attribute of God, we potentially present an imbalanced view (like those who always emphasize God’s love and not His judgment). Furthermore, we have the luxury of the Bible and centuries of councils and theologians to help us think through this issue. But when we bring this body of info to bear upon our novels, we must remember that others often don’t possess such detailed revelation… including our characters.

Maybe my main reaction to Becky’s post was slight affront. You see, it is inaccurate to portray those of us who want realism in Christian fiction as being dispassionate about portrayals of the character of God. I may be arguing for allowing expletives, but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of Bible quotes or theology in my fiction. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, sweet, sanitized fiction may also be guilty of wrongly portraying God. Just because a work of fiction is “clean,” and involves a Christian protagonist who quotes Scripture is no guarantee of a realistic depiction of God. In fact, I could argue that those who want more realistic Christian fiction are more committed to portraying Truth than those who argue for G / PG-rated novels.

Anyway, there’s a few thoughts. What’s your feelings about portraying God in fiction? Is it really possible? Is it something Christian writers should actively aim to accomplish in their stories? And do you agree with Becky that many of us aren’t nearly as concerned about misrepresentations (or lack of representations) of God as we are realistic portrayals of our characters?

 

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{ 27 comments… add one }
  • Katherine Coble July 27, 2011, 5:47 PM

    Maybe our first attempts to “show God as He is” fall nose-over-nuticals because God, well, ISN’T A MAN.

    Except in the incarnate person of Jesus, God is transcendent of Gender.

  • Sally Apokedak July 27, 2011, 6:27 PM

    One reason I don’t read biblical fiction is that I don’t like speculation about real Biblical characters. I think if we are going to write about God, or any historical figure, what we say needs to be accurate, not exhaustive.

    I have no opinion about whether people who want gritty fiction, as a group, care about God being accurately portrayed or not. I can’t know what individuals want unless they tell me. Some people who complain about Christian novels being too clean seem to me to just want to exercise their “freedom” to drink and smoke and curse. I don’t hear them talking about God’s holiness much. I hear them speak of their freedom more often than I hear them speak of God’s wrath and justice and his command that we be holy as he is holy. Others who want grittiness in fiction, clearly want to present a real God, who is not afraid to get his hands dirty, to a hurting world.

    We have to look at these things on a case by case basis, I think.

    • Michael Trimmer (@MichaelSTrimmer) July 29, 2011, 12:34 AM

      I think there is a fairly obvious reason why people do not complain of not being free to represent God in Christian circles, largely because no one is limiting that freedom, at least in the Christian publishing circle.

      • adam shields July 30, 2011, 11:24 AM

        Wasn’t that the main complaint about The Shack? Most people I know that didn’t like The Shack were offended by the portrayal od God, many that Young even attempted to portray God.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller July 27, 2011, 7:33 PM

    Thanks for the link, Mike. I actually had many of the same questions you had and ended up writing three more posts on the subject. I’ve edited each of them to include the links to the others for those interested.

    Becky

  • Jennifer K. Hale July 27, 2011, 7:48 PM

    What a great, great post. So many wonderful questions.

    Portraying God accurately seems nearly impossible, but we can certainly try. What that involves, though, is making sure that we, as authors, are in the Word enough to understand the nature of God, and all that entails. I don’t like the idea of picking and choosing characteristics of God and focusing on only a few, for obvious reasons. No one can put God in a box.

    However, every person’s experience with God is different, so our characters must reflect that. Flawed, sinful characters must have realistic experiences with God. Not everyone “goes deep”, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to read a novel that is nothing but apologetics. I want characters- real meat. I want realistic situations that play out with realistic endings. Not all of them are always happy. If we can get our characters right, depicting God accurately becomes much easier.

    Thanks for the post. It goes will with what I wrote the other day about “Conversion Cheese,” and takes it to the next level. I’ll be reading Becky’s too!

  • R. L. Copple July 27, 2011, 8:33 PM

    One problem is that there are so many ideas of what God is like, even among Christians, that you’ll hardly ever get most everyone to agree that a portrayal of God is realistic or accurate. In my Reality series, I have God an active player, but like real life, you never hear him speak words (He speaks to the inner heart) and people struggle with what they believe God said, meant, and wants them to do just like in real life. But I’ve avoided anything smacking of the Monty Python God coming out of the clouds to talk to someone. Or hearing audible words. Instead, I’ve tried to have it reflect how the saints through the ages have related to him in one way or another.

    Theology is another animal, in that I doubt everyone will agree with my theology, and I fear that without realizing it, I may write something that goes against my own theology and doesn’t portray God’s activities in this world accurately at all. But my novels are not inerrant, so I would hope people would take them with that truth understood. I can certainly get it wrong.

    But I would agree, to portray real life as realistically as possible (the structure and dialog of a novel isn’t realistic in itself, we just make them appear realistic if we’ve done our job), that part of that is a realistic portrayal of how God interacts with us, within the bounds of the world we’ve created if it is a fantasy.

    But anyone who takes a fiction novel or even seven novel series to be the equivalent of a systematic theology needs to go re-read the definition of fiction, fantasy, science fiction, and speculative fiction in general. The goal is to show, not classify.

    • Mike Duran July 28, 2011, 8:03 AM

      I think you’ve described the difficulty well, Rick. Unless we have God speaking directly to everyone, we are forced to interpret Him through our character’s struggles, actions, and impressions. But seeing God through our characters does not always align with an accurate biblical characterization, as well it shouldn’t. For none of us have a perfect picture of God.

  • Patrick Todoroff July 28, 2011, 5:11 AM

    My goodness, where to begin…

    First off, never get your theology from comic books or movies. That isn’t fiction’s job.

    I know He’s the same yesterday, today and forever, but God by definition defies classification. You can’t pin Him down like a bug on a board.

    Who is to say He isn’t portrayed realistically? There are times He does ‘stand off’ and work behind the scenes. Sometimes He intervenes dramatically. Sometimes He spits and rubs mud in your eye to help you focus.

    Besides, if concerned readers dissect fictional portrayals of people, I shudder to think what will result from them turning their ‘critical’ faculties toward God-events in those same stories.

    I suspect authors – consciously or otherwise – portray God the way they understand and have experienced Him. That some of them are feeble or insipid is more tragic for them than their novels.

    • Kevin Lucia July 28, 2011, 4:08 PM

      First off, never get your theology from comic books or movies. That isn’t fiction’s job.

      THANK YOU.

      It’s always amazed me. Still does. When I want a great read that keeps me on the edge of my seat, takes me to new places, makes me think, weep, cheer, to improve my own writing…I go to fiction. And usually secular, with a few select CBA authors whose craft I respect.

      When I want edification, illumination of God’s will, when I need to grapple with something in my spirit, I turn to God’s Word and my daily prayer time/devotions. Even the Christian authors I enjoy – they’re still human. Would be a mistake to let my spiritual walk be too informed by them.

    • E. Stephen Burnett July 29, 2011, 8:27 PM

      First off, never get your theology from comic books or movies. That isn’t fiction’s job.

      And yet Christ Himself taught truth using … fiction.

      Seems to upend the notion that fiction and true are somehow separate.

      • R. L. Copple July 29, 2011, 9:04 PM

        Well, if our novel is one giant parable, yes. But they tend if anything to be a very complex allegory, or simply illustrations of truth.

        And really, that’s the point. Our stories are not systematic theologies. We can’t *get* our theology from stories and such, for sure, but our stories should reflect and show whatever truth about God it does as accurately as we can make it. It won’t be exhaustive because that’s not the purpose of fiction, which is to primarily entertain, and for a Christian author, to entertain in an illustrative way about us and our relationship with God.

        But I do agree, we shouldn’t base out theology on works of fiction. We don’t get it from those, even if they accurately illustrate such truths, which is really what Mike is talking about, I believe. Can we show God in our fiction in a realistic and accurate manner, and if so, can we divorce that from showing us realistically as well.

        I don’t think anyone is suggesting we base our theology on works of fiction. But that doesn’t preclude the question Mike is asking either.

      • Patrick Todoroff July 31, 2011, 7:15 AM

        Jesus used parables. He didn’t take creative license with truth for entertainment’s sake.

        Different animal.

  • Justin July 28, 2011, 6:06 AM

    Is it possible to argue for both — realism from characters and realism from God? Does it have to be either / or? I agree with the author: those who don’t want real depictions of people are hypocrites if they say they want real depictions of God. How can a writer say they want a genuine depiction of truth but keep their characters muzzled?

    • Mike Duran July 28, 2011, 8:30 AM

      I didn’t use the term “hypocrites,” Justin. But I agree that being truthful (about God and people) is (or should be) a goal of Christian authors. It is ironic that many of those who want “more God” in their fiction often want “less human” elements (no explicit language or sex).

      • Sally Apokedak July 28, 2011, 8:55 AM

        Do you think that explicit sex is acceptable for a Christian author to write?

        • Mike Duran July 28, 2011, 9:11 AM

          Sally, I don’t want to drift too far off-topic. What’s “acceptable” for Christians to write should be left up to the individual Christian and their relationship with God. What Christian readers think is “acceptable” is another story. But the real difficulty in answering your question is that “explicit sex” means different things to different people.

  • Katherine Coble July 28, 2011, 8:23 AM

    My longer response is this:

    I argue for realistic characters and situations because that is how a writer “accurately” depicts God.

    The entire Bible is the story of God’s relationship with humanity. We learn about God by seeing how God deals with people.

    You see God the way you see the wind–by how it affects other things. And you develop a greater sense of the awesomeness of the wind by watching it blow through tall pines and gnarled oaks than watching it tickle the fringes of new-mown grass. Just so, when you have complex, well-developed characters in real situations of conflict and desperation, you can better see God at work than in washed-out cardboard characters in idealized “safe” places.

  • Michael Trimmer (@MichaelSTrimmer) July 29, 2011, 12:29 AM

    As someone who has worked on a story where the central character was supposed to be an alagory of Jesus, I can tell you that such a character is increadably difficult to write!

  • Bob Avey July 29, 2011, 4:19 PM

    I think you hit the heart of this debate, Mike, with your question: Are we, as writers, able to accurately portray, or depict God in our work?

    I don’t think we are capable of this. We should just pray that our writing is inpired by God and let Him do the rest.

  • Rebecca LuElla Miller July 29, 2011, 5:31 PM

    Patrick, of course we aren’t to get our theology from comic books or movies, but when we are writers intent on telling the truth, why wouldn’t we want to tell the truth about God in our stories? It’s readers’ job, then, to measure what we write with the truth of Scripture.

    The ONLY distinctive in Christian fiction is that we can tell the truth about God. Non-Christians and Christians alike can writer moralistic, legalistic stories or realistic, gritty novels that show man as he is. Only Christians know the truth about God. That’s what sets us apart and what ought to set our writing apart.

    Bob, you may not like this, but in one of my follow-up posts I postulated that perhaps one reason so few Christians push for truth-telling about God is because it’s so hard to do.

    But we’re not trying to invent the Internet or some new thing. God told us what He’s like. We’re not putting Him in a box, either — not unless we limit him to one attribute, such as love, which it seems so much of current Christian fiction does.

    I think Katherine is right in stating one of the ways (but not the only way) we can show God. I think it’s great to stretch ourselves and push toward depicting the greatest truth and the one the whole world needs to hear.

    Becky

    • Patrick Todoroff July 31, 2011, 11:10 AM

      I’m not saying we shouldn’t portray God truthfully, faithfully.

      My statement is more directed at those who fail to exercise discernment when analyzing fiction, either swallowing all events and characterizations as divinely accurate, or denouncing the same metaphors and illustrations as imperfect when compared to Scripture. Equal and opposite errors.

      While I wholeheartedly believe fiction should have substance, its aim is escapism and entertainment. Didactic fiction becomes propaganda. I have little use as well for ministers who think their primary job is to entertain and placate.

      The problem with much of Christian art and fiction is it’s contrived, thinly-disguised exposition. Self-control becomes self-censoring and they wind up not trusting God or their chosen medium enough to let it be misunderstood. Which is very odd because God lets Life be what it is. He very specifically does not have Post-it notes on everything.

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