Reincarnation as a Fictional Mechanism

by Mike Duran · 30 comments

This weekend, I had the pleasure of joining a panel of authors live-chatting the subject of Christianity and Speculation. (Thanks to Thea van Diepen for making things happen!) We seemed to represent a fairly broad swath of religious perspectives. So it wasn’t too surprising to discover we all approached the subject from different angles.

On this blog, you will most often find me suggesting that Christian writers allow theology to be too restrictive. We avoid including ghosts, zombies, wizards, and good witches in our stories because they represent something that is not true. I personally think it’s dangerous to superimpose too much theology over fiction. So rather than measuring the moral or spiritual message of a tale, we get caught up in things like counting cusswords and whether vampires are legit archetypes. Which misses the point of storytelling.

Oddly enough, in this weekend’s chat, I found myself defending the need for theological parameters in our writing. Things seemed to turn lively when I brought up the subject of heresy. The example I used was the movie What Dreams May Come,  and how I felt the ending sequence — in which two characters are reincarnated as children to work out their bad karma — was a letdown. However, I was in the minority believing that using reincarnation as a fictional mechanism may cross the line.

This is a rather long video, but I encourage you to watch from about the 1:07:00 to 1:17:00 mark to get a feel for the discussion.

So is reincarnation a valid fictional mechanism for a Christian writer? Provided the story is moral or redemptive, what harm is there in employing reincarnation to reach this end?

As I said in the chat group, using reincarnation in a story is not equivalent to using anti-gravity or multiple moons. One has to do with spiritual, redemptive models; the other has to do with fictional worldbuilding. One has to do with Moral laws, the other with Material laws.

Reincarnation is not a biblical concept. The idea that through multiple incarnations one can undo bad karma and work their way to heaven is decidedly heretical. Karma is antithetical to grace and mercy — sometimes we get what we don’t deserve and don’t get what we do deserve — which are at the heart of the Gospel.

While I’d be reluctant to posture myself as an arbitrator of what a Christian writer can and cannot include in their fiction, it seems to me that using reincarnation as a fictional mechanism runs the danger of undermining the very worldview a Christian professes.

So, what do you think. Is there anything wrong with a Christian using reincarnation as a fictional mechanism?

billgncs February 24, 2014 at 7:57 AM

It seems OK to me. What if Christ had failed – would God have sent him back, a reincarnation so to speak? If fiction asks “what if”, then I think
all possibilities are game. I admit it is a delicate thread to weave a non-christian idea in, but what better vehicle to examine our faith than the foil of other beliefs.

Kat Heckenbach February 24, 2014 at 8:03 AM

Let me ask this question: Is it the reincarnation itself that’s the problem, or is it the idea that you can “earn” your way into heaven?

What if you created a story world in which reincarnation was a way to allow someone whose life was cut short more time to accept Christ? So, you’re not going from lower life form to higher life form or anything, or being expected to live a “better” life each time….but instead, say, someone is killed in a car crash before having heard the gospel and they’re allowed to “come back” in order to get that chance.

Just, of course, speculating :). But my point is, I don’t think that kind of “reincarnation” goes against the concept of God’s grace. There are really two different ideas at work when you talk about traditional reincarnation, and I think it has to do with how you present it.

PS–My friend Diane Graham wrote a YA fantasy (“I Am Ocilla”) in which a girl was chosen by God to come back life after life in order to fight a villain. It was a special circumstance for only her, and she stayed the same person (although each time she had to regain her memories from the old lives in order to move forward with battling the villain). While she got a couple of complaints by readers for the “reincarnation” aspect (she never once uses that word, btw), for the most part her Christian readers had no problem with it.

D.M. Dutcher February 24, 2014 at 8:43 AM

Most people quote Hebrews 9:27 to argue against this, because it says it’s appointed once for men to die, and then the judgment. This is part of the problem Mike runs into with using ghosts as a fictional device, too. While there’s examples of people existing after death and visiting the world, Christianity is pretty serious about people not living multiple lives.

You’d also have to be careful that you’re not making a “better than Jesus” world even if it’s just making a point. Kind of hard on the one hand to use a world where we can endlessly reincarnate to be saved, and then say someone like Rob Bell is wrong about universalism, for example. Don’t go too far in preaching grace.

Kat Heckenbach February 24, 2014 at 9:33 AM

I agree it would need to be handled with the utmost of care. I’m just saying you could, conceivably, use something like reincarnation so long as you do *not* use it in a way that would override the message of grace.

D.M. Dutcher February 24, 2014 at 10:11 AM

Oh yeah, I agree. It’s possible, but it’s something you’d have to really watch out for. In a fantasy world, you can speculate and have different theology based in the concepts of their world, or in a science fiction world aliens could do a physical form of reincarnation, and you could speculate on how they’d react to the Gospel. But once you start linking spiritual reincarnation to Christ as Christ, and real-world Christianity, it can get weird.

I had a similar problem with James Rubart’s The Soul’s Gate. He did a lot of weird stuff in a real-world setting that made me raise an eyebrow.

Johne Cook February 24, 2014 at 8:32 AM

I was going to say, ‘absolutely not, never,’ until I read Kat’s post. Now I’d say ‘It depends on how it’s handled.’ By that I mean, if God is still in control of His Creation and allowed a special dispensation explained in the story, I’d buy that. If there were no God in the story’s underlying framework, I’d personal have more of a problem with that.

Janet February 24, 2014 at 9:06 AM

If it is true, as Stephen King says, that ‘the primary duty of literature is to tell the truth about ourselves by telling lies about people who never existed’, then our goal is truth.
Reincarnation is not true. Therefore, we should only use it to reveal truth, not as truth itself.
Personally, I would never use it except in a manner to show how people get caught up in lies, but I wouldn’t use it as part of a way of accessing truth. Then you are presenting as a true method.
I think there are theological boundaries in which we can talk about anything we want to, but it is how we talk about it to keep ourselves in step with Gospel truth, that is important.
Reincarnation is living lives over and over – maybe as a cat or a bug or as a human and so you are stuck. In India, the caste system is built on reincarnation beliefs and so people are treated badly because it is their fate to be in the place they find themselves – poor, leprosy, etc. People just want by them on the streets. So, I can’t ever see using reincarnation in any link to the Gospel message. But I can see it juxtaposed to it. Or perhaps used in a comic manner, where someone comes back to life but thinks they have been reincarnated, only to learn they haven’t.
Anyways, I think the important thing is not to use it in a manner that presents it as actual truth.

Janet February 24, 2014 at 9:12 AM

I wish there was an edit function. 🙂

edits – should say:
“presenting it as…”
“People just walk by them on….”

Also, reincarnation is about works righteousness. You are suppose to do better in the next life, and if you don’t, you get sent back again. Once you live a perfect life and attain the right thinking and living, then you can end the cycle and go to Nirvana.

Johne Cook February 24, 2014 at 9:15 AM

I think you could make an argument that Groundhog Day was a type of reincarnation story, and it’s a powerful one. While darkly funny, it’s also a story of an unrepentant destructive man who is practically forced to change into a better human being so that he is capable of loving and being loved. It is the sort of story that changes just one thing and then is internally consistent thereafter. I think there is room for such storytelling that bends reality to tell us the truth about God and ourselves.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tSVeDx9fk60

Johne Cook February 24, 2014 at 11:35 AM
Jill February 24, 2014 at 9:20 AM

Since I don’t write books of theology, I would look at it as a plot device rather than a religious idea, and I would examine it in a case-by-case scenario. I once read a book that was extremely pro-life, and at the end it became clear why: the baby that was being born was somebody who had died tragically and was getting a second chance at life (although I’m not sure why abortion would matter at that point because there would just be a 3rd chance and then a 4th, etc). So, I don’t know. I guess it’s how it’s treated. I know a person who doesn’t believe in disciplining children, but she often uses the term “kid kharma”, which to her means “what goes around comes around”. A child who bullies will eventually be knocked down, etc. That is a truth in the cosmos, so to speak. Reaping what you sow is a biblical concept. In other words, we get what we deserve. Reincarnation and ancestor worship are both religious methods of social control that involve divine consequences for bad behavior. Christianity goes beyond other religions, however, in its concept of undeserved grace. Do we always have to take this next step in our stories? Should all so-called Christian works be about undeserved grace, or can they be more proverbial in nature?

Kat Heckenbach February 24, 2014 at 9:37 AM

Totally off-topic, but I’m glad to see I’m not the only person to ever put an “h” in “karma”…a friend of mine teased me relentlessly about that. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I always seem to type it “kharma.” I do actually think it looks cooler spelled that way :P.

Jill February 24, 2014 at 3:40 PM

It has to do with the Sanskrit vs Pali word translations. I should know it doesn’t have an “h” by now, but I always confuse it with “Dharma”. And so do a lot of people, apparently. I’m guessing the English version will officially add the “h” at some point because it seems to be about 50-50 how it’s spelled.

Thea van Diepen February 24, 2014 at 10:37 AM

Heh. How did I know you’d make a blog post about this? 🙂

“The idea that through multiple incarnations one can undo bad karma and work their way to heaven is decidedly heretical.”

I definitely agree with this. I also think it’s possible to have a story with reincarnation in it that doesn’t rely on this kind of thinking, where it’s just that people can be reborn, and the theological ramifications don’t necessarily include karma. It could be a world where people can be reborn over and over, but, no matter what good deeds they do, those are all still as filthy rags, like the Bible says. The question that then comes is what redemption would mean, and what it would look like for the people in that world.

It’s a thought I’ve played with, at any rate, but haven’t developed in a way that’s satisfied me yet. Once/if I do, I’ll write a story about it, mostly because now I really want to know if I even could. 😛

Thanks for coming to the chat! Your thoughts definitely make the conversation richer and more thought-provoking. It wouldn’t have been the same without you participating in it. 😀

Melissa Ortega February 24, 2014 at 12:19 PM

I am absolutely curious about everyone’s responses as my acting troupe is currently preparing to perform a Christian-worldview play whose whole premise can only be created through the inclusion of reincarnation. Without that plot device, the story would be impossible. That said, reincarnation is not the focus of the story, rather what these certain historical figures might do/say to one another if they happened to meet over dinner. It is easily one of the most brilliant things I’ve ever read and not once did I detect something heretical in using the reincarnation as a plot device – but a couple of our troupe members initially felt uncomfortable that it was in there at all. The writers did emphasize to us that the script never once says that these icons are actually reincarnated, but definitely believe that they are – a thing left more to the audience’s own discernment. I think that premise is entirely acceptable. Of course, I’m sure we’ll have audience members who disagree? Depends on how we sell it. As a parable of sorts, I think it totally works.

Johne Cook February 24, 2014 at 12:43 PM

I think the fact that the piece is a play is a clear indication by context that you’re not presenting a docudrama of Biblical fact, rather an Artful story. What you’ve described sounds interesting. I’ll be interested to see how it is received. (And not to put too fine a point on it, if it were genuinely heretical, I would trust you to know and either ask for changes or to decline. The fact that you are involved argues to me for it being acceptable because of your demonstrated reputation over time. It helps that we know something of your character and interests and your love for God.)

Teddi Deppner February 24, 2014 at 4:03 PM

Kat pretty much nailed the distinction that occurred to me: is the problem really living more than one life or is it the concept of earning your salvation?

The bible says it is appointed for men to die once… but that doesn’t exactly cover instances IN the Bible in which people clearly were resurrected and presumably died normal deaths (again) thereafter.

So maybe the distinction here becomes “living another life in a new body”. But again, why is that a problem for our theology? Why does that bother us? What spiritual principle does it violate?

Do we feel it is unfair for someone to gain more life experience or be “more sanctified” or get more chances to hear the gospel? How is that different from the fairness or unfairness of somebody in the bible living 600+ years and most people today living under 100 years? How is that different from the fairness or unfairness of someone dying at 20 years vs. 80 years?

We seem to have certain hot buttons, generally associated with spiritual vs. physical.

For example, the mechanics of the universe and “what if” scenarios about how the physical universe works are generally considered fair game in speculative fiction written by Christians. We don’t have as many objections to the idea of faster-than-light travel or transporter beam technology or stepping into another dimension (Narnia, etc). And yet, we have no idea of the spiritual implications of how the physical universe operates. What if changing those things has spiritual implications?

Why do we consider it more dangerous theological ground to write fiction that says “What if God handles salvation by making sure that every living soul gets a chance to live a life in which they encounter the gospel, even if that means they experience life once as a Native American in 1000 B.C. and then again in 2,000 A.D.?”

Is it fiction, or not? Isn’t speculation “just exploring an idea”? Why is it okay to speculate about the nature of the physical universe but not about the spiritual?

I would guess it’s because we fear leading anybody astray, leading anybody to consider something untrue as possible truth. And maybe that’s a good enough reason not to. I suppose it’s because we wouldn’t want to mess with the eternal destiny of another human, and we don’t want to be responsible for someone missing salvation because they mistook our speculation as fact.

This question of “Does my fiction need to operate within certain boundaries in order to avoid leading another soul further from God and His truth?” may be troublesome, but I suppose it’s worth wrestling with, given the potential cost of a poor choice.

Jenni February 24, 2014 at 5:39 PM

THIS ^^

Kessie February 24, 2014 at 6:15 PM

I read a book where the dragons only live a year. But the next generation hatch as the previous generation dies, and all their memories are handed down. So it’s kind of like reincarnation, only not. It makes for a really interesting story, though.

Abimael February 25, 2014 at 4:33 AM

Hello
My understanding is that a Christian writer should not use reincarnation. It’s by definition in the Bible incorrect and, it can cause that those people that are not Christians but read these fictional books think that reincarnation is “also available” in the Christian and can cause confusion about what is the proper Redemtion via Jesus Christ.
Unfortunely, people usually think that what is a movie or book is correct, even when it is a fiction (not a real history). So, if a Christian writer uses reincartion with “the best propositions” and “with the best intentions” when writing the book, it can cause misunderstanding.
Taking another point of view, you do not read books from people that are related with “witchcraft” or related with other religions that believe that reincarnation is a way for change “karma” or something, using Jesus Christ as redeemer or that Jesus Christ is the proper way. Why do they not do? Because they do not believe it!
So, this is my opinion..

Jill February 25, 2014 at 8:59 PM

“Taking another point of view, you do not read books from people that are related with “witchcraft” or related with other religions that believe that reincarnation is a way for change “karma” or something, using Jesus Christ as redeemer or that Jesus Christ is the proper way. Why do they not do? Because they do not believe it!”

This is true. However, they don’t mind using the idea of sacrifice and redemption; they just leave Jesus out of it.

Jill February 25, 2014 at 9:07 PM

I should add that I don’t believe we should incorporate ideas from other religions simply because other religions incorporate Christian ideas into theirs. Even in fiction, it’s bound to lead to confusion.

Samuel Choy February 25, 2014 at 9:46 AM

Here’s a question. Jesus said that John the Baptist *was* Elijah returned. Now, I realize that most Christians (as do I) interpret that to mean John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, not that he was Elijah reborn.

Sooo…and I’m stepping out on a ledge, do any of you think it would be acceptable to have a character reincarnated, not as a means of salvation, but as a continuation of his or her mission? I’m already thinking of problems with this, but thought I’d throw it out anyway.

Sam

Johne Cook February 25, 2014 at 9:59 AM

You can do practically anything you want in service of the story with a few brief underlying assumptions, imo.

As Christians, we deny reincarnation as a literal truth but in fiction you can take liberties with reality to tell a compelling fiction that tells us something about us. Take Field of Dreams, for example. It’s essentially a modern sports fable but it tells us a lot about family and loss and love and sacrifice using baseball and a magical realism field in a cornfield in Iowa. Roger Ebert put it like this: “As “Field of Dreams” developed this fantasy, I found myself being willingly drawn into it. Movies are often so timid these days, so afraid to take flights of the imagination, that there is something grand and brave about a movie where a voice tells a farmer to build a baseball diamond so that Shoeless Joe Jackson can materialize out of the cornfield and hit a few fly balls. This is the kind of movie Frank Capra might have directed, and James Stewart might have starred in — a movie about dreams.” How do they come back from the great beyond to play in this cornfield? Is it reincarnation? Is is a miracle from God? Maybe the answer is the story requires Shoeless Joe and John Kinsella to reappear out of the mists of time to rescue a young family from unbelief and predatory lenders and unbelief, and they do, and are thus redeemed themselves in the process.

So, to answer your question, sure – go for it. If it’s fiction, it’s not intended to be Biblical fact by definition and you have room for poetic license in my opinion. Story tells the truth about us in fantastic ways.

D.M. Dutcher February 25, 2014 at 11:48 AM

Field of Dreams isn’t a Christian film though. This whole question has two different forks to it.

1. Can Christians write fiction with reincarnation in it?
2. Can Christians write Christian fiction with reincarnation in it?

I think the former you can have little problems with, but the latter is right out. I worry about reincarnation when it’s linked to Christianity, not as a device just use to tell a secular tale. Then again, I read secular stuff less on average than I used to, for what that’s worth.

Melissa Ortega February 26, 2014 at 8:17 AM

The delineation between “Christian” fiction and “secular” fiction may be one of the underlying issues. (I know, I know – AGAIN) Before this distinction existed, the question simply would be can any story which uses reincarnation as a plot device operate from a Christan worldview? I think the answer is yes. Certainly not every time and in every way – but the possibility exists.

However, once we smack “this book is a Christian book” on the cover of anything, we introduce a whole new set of laws by which the story now has to work from. The plot figuratively thickens to include the “real” morals/views of the writer and not just the outcome of the story’s arc. In many ways, the author becomes a character in his own story because everyone is saying “how can he write that? what does he believe? what can he mean? what is he suggesting?” as much as they are paying attention to story’s actual characters and reflections. It’s a bit of a millstone – but it’s what it is. Because of that, the reincarnation issue is sticky.

In Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, in which his characters are incarnate gods who have immigrated from other places to be lost in the confused American landscape, nobody ever asks if Gaiman is suggesting that these gods might be real (EVEN when he says so in the opening lines) – they understand it as a means by which he questions the ignorance of a culture that still clings to and rejects said gods. His “Shadow” is exactly that – a shadow – a question mark with a body. But if the same novel asking the same (I think pertinent) questions about religion in America were published under a Christian label – well, bedlam would ensue.

On that note, Mike, I think your own “The Telling” is not far from AG in some of its inclusions of pagan/fantasy mechanism. It didn’t bother me, but I could see how some were confused by its meaning ONLY because of where it was published.

Teddi Deppner February 26, 2014 at 11:28 AM

Great way to put it, Melissa!

“…the author becomes a character in his own story because everyone is saying ‘how can he write that? what does he believe? what can he mean? what is he suggesting?’ as much as they are paying attention to story’s actual characters and reflections.”

That’s exactly what happens.

Kat Heckenbach February 26, 2014 at 11:50 AM

I totally agree–the same thing popped out at me. Well said, Melissa.

Lyn Perry February 28, 2014 at 5:26 AM

I think I had this conversation in my previous life.

Linda Thayer July 17, 2015 at 11:06 AM

Great discussion. I DID write a book, Past Imperfect, that deals with both. Jules Mullins has had dreams since childhood of places she’s never seen and people she’s never met. Through a series of events she becomes convinced that she lived before and, with a few other like minded individuals who also have strange dreams regarding Tudor England, travel there to try and resolve their karmic puzzles, largely without success. Upon returning to the US, Jules is introduced to Misty, a co-worker, who is a born again Christian. I get a chance to talk about a number of issues through her – what it means to be born again, pleasing God and serving Him with your life, forgiveness, demonic bondage, truth vs. error – backed by scripture. However – how does one market this kind of a book? I would like to reach young adults caught up in new age beliefs as well as others who just toy with ouija boards, tarot cards and hypnotism, and explain how their actions can expose them to oppression and bondage – but if the book is marketed to Christians, they’re appalled by the occult aspects, and new agers are equally appalled with the one-way-only, turning from sin and surrendering to Christ aspects. I’d sure love to hear from you and your readers, Mike, about how to get this book “out there.” Thanks!

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: