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The Downside of Symbolism in Christian Fiction

When talking to Christian authors about their novels, I’ve recently begun by asking them to describe the content of their book in terms of explicit Gospel content. On a scale of 1 to10 — 10 being straight-forward, conspicuous lamb-1Christian themes and 1 being inconspicuous or non-existent biblical elements — where does the book fall?

It’s interesting to watch Christian authors mull that. Mainly because they realize the risk of ambiguity. The further one moves from explicit Gospel content, the less  genre readers may consider their novel “Christian.” Contemporary Christian fiction readers seem to be intolerant of a lower standard of symbology and allegory in order to confirm a much higher standard of theological clarity. They’d rather not be left guessing as to what something might mean.

Back in 2008, I posted an article Is Christian Horror Becoming a Trend? over at Novel Rocket. I was especially interested in something Tony Hines, author of The Falling Away, said in his comments. Tony was comparing ABA (general market) readers with CBA (Christian market) readers. He concluded,

…I do feel there’s a difference between ABA and CBA readers. And to be brutally honest, ABA readers are more sophisticated. I’m a little shocked when I see some reviews of my work on Christian book sites, with people decrying the lack of “Christian” content in a few of my works. I think, symbolically and metaphorically, the Christian content is rather obvious. Maybe a bit too obvious, as Publisher’s Weekly said of their review of my second book, “The Dead Whisper On.”

I do find it troubling that a fair amount of CBA readers (at least in my experience) have a hard time seeing symbolism; we should, after all, be BETTER about seeing these kinds of things since many of Jesus’s teachings were told in parables. (emphasis mine)

No doubt some could misinterpret this as suggesting that CBA readers are simple-minded, naive, or uneducated. I’m sure that’s not what Tony was implying. But how is it, in this case, that a secular review site (Publishers Weekly) picked up on the Christian symbology that some Christian readers missed?

Which brings me to one of the downsides of symbolism and allegory in Christian fiction:

Symbolism in Christian fiction is risky because it’s open to interpretation.

And if it’s open to interpretation, some could interpret it wrongly. Or maybe even miss the symbols altogether.

In one of his sessions at the 2010 ACFW Conference, keynote speaker and novelist Tim Downs used a wonderful illustration to describe the use of symbolism, metaphor, and allegory in Christian storytelling — an Easter egg hunt. For the the younger children, Downs said, we hide Easter eggs in open sight, so that they can be found easily. But for the older kids, we must be more “sophisticated” and cunning, go to greater lengths to actually hide the egg. Likewise, sometimes Christian writers must put their message in plain sight for the younger, less mature, reader. At other times, Christian writers must be more crafty about their message , thus inspiring a harder “search” from the more mature reader.

The downside is obvious — some Easter eggs can be so well hidden that they are never discovered.

In my last post, Christian Fiction, Evangelism, and Parabolic Storytelling, I discussed how Jesus altered His message to suit His audience.

  • To the multitudes, Jesus spoke in parables.
  • To His disciples, Jesus spoke more directly.

Jesus spoke in parables not to conceal the Truth, but to lure His listeners to think, “in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” The downside of this method is obvious, some will miss the message or misinterpret it. Which is why many Christian fiction writers opt for overt symbology: it limits interpretive wiggle room and guarantees a higher probability of theological clarity.

But there’s another downside to symbology and metaphor:

Using symbolism is risky because it trains readers to read in code.

Perhaps the worst part of writing fiction laden with symbols and allegory is the effect that reading such fiction has upon its readers. Like a literary version of “Where’s Waldo?” the reading experience is reduced to a search for “clues” rather than aesthetic enjoyment.

Are readers who are accustomed to looking for particular symbols in their stories more or less likely to be good readers, sophisticated readers, discerning readers?

Of course, every author has a worldview, agenda, or message they are (perhaps subconsciously) bringing to their stories. Some are more or less overt in revealing that “message.” However, Christian fiction is especially reliant upon symbolism to either communicate or cloak its message… depending upon the author’s audience and aim. As Jesus revealed in His use of parables, speaking in metaphor and symbol is a powerful way to get readers to think. In the case of the mainstream Christian audience, however, the use of symbology has a downside.

For like that young child, we’ve come to expect the Easter eggs be “hidden” in plain sight.


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{ 9 comments… add one }
  • Brent King November 12, 2014, 7:56 AM

    Regardless of the downside, I believe there is safety in following Jesus example of hiding Easter eggs in plain sight, but I like what you said about how Jesus altered the message for His audience. And, of course, “know your audience” is one of the most familiar mantras we hear from our writing mentors.

  • christopher clack November 12, 2014, 8:15 AM

    “Jesus spoke in parables not to conceal the Truth, but to lure His listeners to think, “in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.” The downside of this method is obvious, some will miss the message or misinterpret it” the way you talk about symbols and parables i cannot help feeling you confusing it with car manual instructions. Parables are not a set of instructions with one possible outcome, there is no downside its the nature of parable,what you will not like is that some will as you see it ‘misinterpret it’

  • Jessica November 12, 2014, 8:35 AM

    Some very interesting points. I’ve found in a number of my conversations with Christian readers in particular that there’s a general dislike for openness. If it’s possible to misinterpret a symbol or a situation, then it’s bad. The downside to that then is that stories and characters are crafted where one is not given the opportunity to form an opinion. It’s so over the top and crammed in that it feels forced, in my opinion.

    It always feels risky because as writers we sometimes feel like we’re responsible if folks don’t get the message. I’ve been trying to work past that. The point that some Easter eggs may never be found is a particularly good one.

    Although something else that’s interesting is when symbolism crops up unintentionally. One of my books is not intended to be symbolic at all. It’s an epic fantasy targeted more at a secular young adult audience. But some of my readers have started messaging me about whether the main character is a Christ symbol. The funny thing is that they’re not Christians! When I asked some of my Christian readers about it, they said that they hadn’t thought about it because a few of the traits they would have expected weren’t there. But on the plus side, it let to some great Gospel discussion with a couple of my non Christian readers.

  • Karen P. November 12, 2014, 10:00 AM

    Great food for thought Mike, as always. I understand what you’re saying that as authors we want to convey a good story and struggle with how to do that while still getting our message across. But, working toward someone else’s idea of what our writing should look like is self-defeating and stifles the creative process. Let’s not forget Who we write for. I say let us be led by God into how to craft the story, seeking to do our best to weigh how much to reveal or cloak while keeping our audience in mind (as others have said here). But in the end it’s not really up to us whether someone “gets it” – let God handle that and allow Him to use our writings for His glory.

  • Jill November 12, 2014, 10:01 AM

    Symbology can be very overt, especially for those who are aware and are able to make connections. But it really resonates on a subconscious level in the same way that dreams do. Dreams are, in fact, concocted by the subconscious. Our subconscious knows what those dream symbols mean. That background layer of understanding affects the conscious mind. That is why spiritual parables resonate with people, even causing them to have gut negative reactions against them, even if they don’t understand why in the conscious parts of their mind. Hence: “And they were seeking to arrest him but feared the people, for they perceived that he had told the parable against them. So they left him and went away.”

    So many people want to understand only with their conscious minds. This goes back to your Facebook discussion yesterday on the overemphasis of logic and reason in Christianity. When the symbols affect a person on a deeper level, it can be scary; many people don’t want to go there. But what they don’t understand is that they are already there, despite their beliefs to the contrary. They are inside Plato’s cave, seeing shadows, believing they empirically understand those shadows, and believing those shadows are the extent of reality. Those shadows, though, are being cast by something much larger outside their reality.

    • Anne Hamilton November 13, 2014, 7:45 PM

      Hi Jill – I thoroughly agree with you about symbols resonating with dreams and also with Christian readers generally – and this, of course, has all the limitations of a sweeping generalisation – wanting to understand only with the conscious mind. I’m not sure I can agree however with the notion that dreams are invented by the subsconscious or that it knows what the dream symbols mean. In all too many instances I’ve discovered that the weirder and more detailed a dream is then the more likely it is to be a communication from God on a subject for which there are no English words.

      Symbology tends to be like that: it extends our language beyond the limitations we’re used to and plunges us into a foreign country where not only are the sounds around us unfamiliar but so is the way people think and act. Symbols take us out of our comfort zone, out of our secure nests and into the potentially dangerous places where we can’t rely on anything we think we know. We need a guide – or better still, a Guide.

      And that Guide is – as a great symbolist once said – not a tame lion.

  • Shari November 12, 2014, 8:08 PM

    Some people like symbols, and some people don’t. Some people love literature, and some people hate it. It all comes down to preference, and whether you like to read a story that has more depth and meaning to it, or something that doesn’t require you to think.

    I say, just write the story you want to tell, and don’t worry about it. You’re work isn’t going to be accepted by everyone, and those who don’t accept it aren’t your audience anyway.

  • Randall Allen Dunn November 12, 2014, 8:40 PM

    Good points raised. I especially agree w/ Shari. As a writer, I want my story to be entertaining. As a Christian, I want it to also have a point – which also makes it a story I feel is worth reading. But whether that point is symbolic is a matter of a writer’s preference and style. I think it’s more important and more valuable to show moral and spiritual truth through a character’s decisions and actions, not just a symbol.
    I also find that secular readers have different expectations than Christian readers, which changes how they view a story. I knew that my story about a teenage girl fighting werewolves would not do well in the Christian market, as Christian readers would focus on the presence of werewolves and a teenage girl killing people. Whereas a secular reader would have no qualms about these elements, and would focus instead on the intriguing character of the priest. In that story, a secular reader would receive more of a spiritual message than many Christian readers would.

  • Alan R Joiner December 16, 2014, 11:33 AM

    I think I would take issue with this statement (sorry if I misinterpret, or missed something else in the article that would deal with the subject):

    “Jesus spoke in parables not to conceal the Truth, but to lure His listeners to think, “in order that they might find their way into the higher mystery.””

    Jesus spoke in parables with two intents:

    (1) So that those with ears to hear could receive the message in a form they could understand. i.e. Teaching fishermen, farmers, tax collectors via symbolism of fishing, farming and money… (I think you wrote of this beautifully in the sentence I quoted. But I think it fails to take into account the second reason.)

    (2) So that those who were spiritually dead to the message would not understand.

    Matt 13: 13 For this reason I speak to them in parables, because looking they do not see and hearing they do not listen or understand. 14 Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says:

    You will listen and listen,
    yet never understand;
    and you will look and look,
    yet never perceive.
    15 For this people’s heart has grown callous;
    their ears are hard of hearing,
    and they have shut their eyes;
    otherwise they might see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears,
    understand with their hearts
    and turn back?—
    and I would cure them.

    Jesus did speak in such a way that spiritual truths are concealed from those who are incapable of understanding. If this is the case, perhaps evangelicals should lighten up a bit on requiring blatant theological symbolism. Perhaps the Christian author should be freed up to write stories that subtly teach the mature, while it comes across as just a good (or confusing) story to the spiritually deaf.

    What I find interesting is that Jesus taught the public in parables and then gathered the 12 to explain the meat of them. Perhaps one should look at their stories this way, if one considers the subject at all. Create the symbols. Know that some people won’t get them. Know that some will. Be willing to explain them if asked about them. Trust that if they’re good eggs, Jesus’ Spirit will minister them in private. If they’re bad eggs, maybe they won’t be found at all. lol

    Just a thought…

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