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:
- What constitutes a realistic portrayal of God?
- Must that portrayal be the primary “distinctive” of Christian fiction (as Becky suggests)?
- How does that distinctive practically reveal itself in a fictional setting?
- 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?