What Makes a Story? (Building a Better Christian Novel Pt 10)

I review Christian books, mostly nonfiction ones but I do get a Christian Fiction novel or two each month. Occasionally I’ll get one that I enjoy, and frequently I’ll give 3 or 4 stars just because I know the author means well and it’s not too terrible. However, most of the time I’m just not impressed. There are certain flaws that routinely come up with Christian Fiction books, things which seem to be trends that make the books predictable or one-dimensional.

However, most people aren’t interested in long lists of everything being done wrong. It’s usually more effective to talk about what could be done better than to focus the entire discussion complaining about what’s being done poorly. Therefore, I’m doing a series about traits I would like to see more of in Christian Fiction, thus addressing flaws in a more constructive way.

In an earlier post in this series, I argued what works in real life does not always translate to fiction. Strangely enough, this seems to be a problem for some Christian Fiction fans.

Last year, a friend send me an article which described a debate on whether Christians could write science fiction stories involving aliens. Two of the basic arguments were that the Bible doesn’t mention sentient beings on other planets, and if aliens look different than us, that creates problems since the Bible says humans are made in the image of God (i.e. humans look like God, so any sentient beings must look like humans). Interestingly, I reviewed a sci-fi novel two years ago that made the first objection a main plot point.

I pointed out to my friend that the Bible doesn’t make it clear that humans are physically in the image of God, in fact it says that God has no physical body. It’s also deliberately selective about what it tells us (for example, see Cain and Abel’s story), so there are many things about the cosmos which aren’t mentioned in the Bible. The fact many Christians miss these basic theological points says something about Biblical literacy in American Christianity. However, I think the bigger question is why Christians should feel fictional stories taking place in fanciful places (deep space, space stations, whatever) with the fanciful elements we see in sci-fi (laser guns, warp drive ships, etc.) should have to literally fit point for point with the world as they understand it. That assumes that the readers aren’t smart enough to distinguish fact from fancy, concepts the author wants readers to take seriously versus plot devices that get the story going.

On a similar note, I was web surfing recently and found a blog critiquing The Shack. Among other things, the blogger argued the book favors individual revelation over the Bible, since the main character learned everything from a vision. The blogger argued that ideally the book should have been about the main character visiting The Shack, then finding a Bible and getting all the lessons by reading it. I will admit I have my own reservations about The Shack, but this particular objection seemed odd, because the authors assumed the book’s plot had to totally realistic.

The problem with this view is there’s a long history of using visions as a fictional device. John Bunyan’s book Pilgrim’s Progress starts with the narrator falling asleep and dreaming a dream the rest of the story takes place in. C.S. Lewis sets up his book The Great Divorce as a dream the narrator is having. More recently, Dillon Lunn used this idea in his thriller The Kingdom vs. John Reid, where the main character finds every time he goes to sleep his dreams let him see past events from others’ perspectives, discovering his past mistakes. All three of these writers come from a Christian viewpoint and use the dream idea to make a point that couldn’t be made any other way. The vision plots allow them to take theological ideas and explore them in narratives. Narratives work differently than essays, and they accomplish things that essays can’t do (each medium changes what you can say).

There’s also a long tradition of vision stories which feature historical figures or the author himself as characters. Plato uses his mentor Socrates as the main character in his works, having various conversations with people. C.S. Lewis includes George MacDonald as a character in The Great Divorce, and seems to base the narrator on himself. Peter Kreeft produced an interesting riff on The Great Divorce in his book Between Heaven and Hell, where Lewis, John F. Kennedy and Aldous Huxley (who all died on the same day) meet in an antechamber area before going to Heaven’s judgment seat, and they debate Christianity. Neither Lewis or nor Kreeft claim that these are true stories (unlike people who asked that question of James Bryan Smith’s book Room of Marvels). In fact, Lewis ends The Great Divorce with George MacDonald warning the narrator not to pass off this tale as a vision, just a dream which may have elements of truth or a true point to it.

Taking these two points together, we can conclude a Christian may write a story that uses religious visions (even ones mentioning real people) as a plot device without being heretical. This goes along with the point about sci-fi that stories may use fanciful concepts and locations as a plot device and don’t have to be literally true on every level to be orthodox. To quote an Oscar Wilde play, “that is called fiction.”

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