Editor’s Note: This is the second installment in our three-part series exploring how Christian writers should depict the supernatural. You can read the introductory post here.
Christian writers who want to involve God as a character in their stories face an ongoing struggle. We’re acutely aware of how monumental the endeavor is, so we hesitate. If we’re too bold and dive in without forethought, we may make mistakes that mislead readers. But if we’re too timid, we risk tiptoeing around the real source of story, beauty, and truth—God Himself.
In the opening of this series, Rose Sheffler laid out the guiding principles that writers should keep in mind when including physical manifestations of God in their stories. I’m going to build on that strong foundation by comparing various forms of direct and indirect theophany, plus the pros and cons of each.
The Advantages of Showing God Directly
This list won’t be exhaustive, as I’m sure you’ll be able to name more, but I’ll outline three that have a noticeable impact.
1. You’ll Confirm That God Is Active within Your Story World
When your characters see or hear God, it will be such a soul-rattling experience that their reactions will shape their arcs—and, by proxy, readers will be startled too. Rather than having to impart objective truths circuitously, God Himself can be the conduit, which irreversibly ties Him to your plot and theme.
2. You’ll Demonstrate That God Is Reachable
God uses aspects of His own creation to interact with human beings. The ultimate example of this is Jesus, God in the flesh. Of course, because of your fallibility, any representation of Him that you carve won’t be comprehensive. But if you seek to honor the revelation of Scripture, you can still introduce readers to God’s love and compassion.
3. You’ll Enhance God’s Aura of Mystery
This effect balances the previous one. Theophany in fiction is like trying to fit the night sky into a pinhead—the infinite speaking through the finite. To underscore how unfathomable God is, you must suspend the rules of your story world. Whether a bush burns yet isn’t consumed, a pillar of smoke by day and a fire by night hovers over a caravan, or a child is conceived without human seed, the miraculous and the mysterious can’t be separated from theophany.
The Disadvantages of the Direct Approach
Now that you’ve evaluated the positive results of direct theophany, the next step is to watch out for areas where your efforts could go awry.
1. Deus Ex Machina
If you rely on theophany to resolve the central plot conflict, you’ll instigate a deus ex machina. Remember, by definition, theophany should break your story world’s laws because the infinite is inserting itself into the finite. Treating it as a device that eliminates all of your protagonist’s problems is poor storytelling. Instead, make theophany the trigger for plot questions and character conflicts. In Prince Caspian, Aslan’s appearances to Lucy heighten the tension between the characters.
2. A False Version of God
Theophany is incredibly sensitive because of its intricacy and connection to a holy, omnipotent God. You could botch it in hundreds of big and small ways. However, if your goal is to communicate truth through stories, you’ve already committed to a weighty task. The challenge lies in your responsibility to be factually accurate, or else misrepresent God.
3. Preachiness and Predictability
Sometimes writers extract a truth from the real world and insert an exact replica into their story world. But that tactic defies a storyteller’s mode of operation (regardless of genre): recreating the known to reflect a specific angle. The more you focus on realities that are identical in both worlds, the farther you’ll stray from an artistic mindset. That doesn’t guarantee you’ll build cardboard worlds, but it’s a potential drawback worth noting.
4. An Obligatory Redemption Timeline
As the term suggests, Christophany refers to encounters with a messiah or Christ-figure. Although compelling, this form of theophany forces you to tackle the concept of the Trinity, address the circumstances surrounding Christ’s sacrificial death and resurrection, and convey an understanding of the gospel as a whole, all of which must retain verisimilitude to biblical canon.
As I mentioned before, if you incorporate an entity that cannot be tampered with, you’ll lose your artistic license. Christophany can be achieved, but the process will be complicated. Simply alluding to a messiah or Christ-figure is much easier than integrating one into your narrative.
4 Methods of Showing God Indirectly
Fiction is uniquely suited to reveal God through types and shadows. That’s because it filters all of reality through types and shadows, encouraging readers to reexamine their perceptions of the world, themselves, and even God. This is true of every genre—each one just applies a different lens.
You may be wondering what I mean by “types and shadows,” though. Basically, it’s anything that reflects or imitates God. I realize how broad this definition is, but it allows us to probe the full range of our imaginations for ways we can point to God. When characters embody justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, or righteousness, they’re mirroring God’s attributes. When they sacrifice themselves to save others, they’re living out the messianic archetype. The more visible God’s fingerprint is on them, the more readers will recognize the pattern.
Before moving on to the strategies that do and don’t work, I’ll share four of my favorite types and shadows to help you get ideas flowing.
Against the backdrop of characters and situations that are devoid of hope, God’s silhouette stands out. When you put the evidence of His absence on display, you can stir up longing for His intervention—which is essentially the purpose of the first half of Ecclesiastes.
This technique isn’t appropriate for every writer or reader, however, so be sure to consider the amount of darkness that you and your audience can tolerate before you attempt it. Despite the dangers, a bleak story can be carefully and prayerfully executed so that it inspires readers to search for the good, the true, and the beautiful. The nihilistic ending of Uncut Gems, for instance, left me reeling with the need to ground myself in God’s promise that life has eternal significance when lived for Him. I imagine that parts of the infamously dark TV series Game of Thrones could prompt a similar response. (Disclaimer: Due to the graphic content, I can’t recommend either. Also, I had to dig deeply into my Christian worldview to provide the greater context that gave Uncut Gems any positive meaning.)
If Christian writers could brave grim storytelling without sinking into the murk of immorality, powerful novels would emerge.
2. The Supernatural and the Magical
As a fantasy writer, I have a special attachment to hallmarks of the genre that call back to God. Supernatural beings can either demonstrate individual traits belonging to God or the fact that the world is more than a random collection of debris whirling through space. Sometimes they can even offer a glimpse of God’s transcendence by being far above and beyond the POV of mortals, like several of the characters in Brandon Sanderson’s epic fantasies.
Magic systems (especially ones that are linked to deities) can hint at union with God. Spell-based magic always reminds me of the Word (Christ Himself, God’s voice, and Scripture) and can serve as a thematic nod to the centrality of Logos in the Christian worldview.
3. Positive Embodiment
Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy continues to enchant me partially because of how the characters pursue goodness and cling to hope in the face of evil and despair. They aren’t perfect images of virtue—if they were, they’d be uninteresting. But flawed characters can still make noble decisions that exemplify God’s nature.
4. Messianic Archetype
Mortal characters who fill messianic roles cast Christ’s shadow across the page. Although the true gospel requires a divine savior to be effective, if you restrict the breadth of your messianic character, you can craft moving analogies. Think about the end of Fellowship of the Ring, when Gandalf somewhat unintentionally sacrifices himself to protect his friends. The scene, though miniature in scale, tugs on similar heartstrings as Christ’s atonement.
A much fuller example would be the heart-wrenching conclusion of Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga (I’m omitting details to avoid spoilers). It’s one of the most profound messianic tributes I’ve ever seen in Christian fiction. I can’t get through it with dry eyes.
Our joy as storytellers is not in imitating reality, but in capturing the essence of it. We don’t repaint the infinite canvas of stars above us; we express the awe we feel when we gaze upward. Likewise, when we place saviors in our stories, we aren’t reprinting the gospel. Rather, we’re striving to recapitulate the emotions that overwhelmed us when we first understood the cost, the joy, and the piercing beauty of Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection. When we trace His footsteps, we can evoke those intangible qualities in readers, even if the actors and scope differ from the gospel account.
The gospel is the greatest story ever told. Little wonder that fiction reaches elevated heights when echoes of it ring throughout a novel.
The Advantages of the Indirect Approach
The benefits associated with this method, though fewer in number, are no less significant, and the single pitfall that offsets them is especially important to be wary of.
1. You’re Not Confined to Precision
Instead of needing to get every detail correct or else fall into blasphemy, your goal is only to relay the sense of divinity, like an arrow directing a traveler heavenward. You’re free to exercise your imagination and let whispers of God arise organically. You can find a world-class example of this in C. S. Lewis’s Till We Have Faces. The divine isn’t described in biblical terminology, but readers can’t miss God’s preeminence.
2. You Maintain an Artist’s Mindset
This correlates to the third disadvantage of the first section and reduces your chances of cranking out one-dimensional, preachy stories. When you view the real world as the assumed context of your story (instead of cloning it), you’re simply labeling the dots and trusting readers to draw the lines that connect fiction and reality. Because the real world encompasses your fictional one, you can make references to God without additional exposition.
The Disadvantage of the Indirect Approach
As I implied earlier, types and shadows of God carry only one hazard, but the damage you can do is grave.
You may accidentally obscure the truth.
Many modern readers doubt that God exists, so you can drop dozens of arrowheads pointing to Him without sparking any revelations. Or the symbolism may confuse them, even if they’re familiar with Christian theology. That’s because your attempts to portray God, whether directly or indirectly, will always contain the potential for misunderstanding. If you have the humility and courage to acknowledge your own insufficiency, that’s an indication you’re ready to handle theophany.
To minimize errors as much as possible, adhere as closely as you can to the hard-and-fast truths of Scripture, bathe your manuscript in prayer, and seek feedback from both Christian and non-Christian beta readers.
Whether we’re conscious of it or not, all of our stories say something about God, because He is bound up in the fabric that comprises our plots, themes, settings, and characters. But, as image-bearers engaged in sub-creation, we need to be deliberate about how we present our Creator to audiences who may or may not have a relationship with Him.
If you’re looking for a simple approach that won’t confuse even a young audience, direct theophany is ideal. But if you prefer more subtlety and imaginative freedom, indirect theophany is the answer. Neither option is objectively better than the other because your goals determine which one enriches the story you’re writing. Whether you show God through theophanies or Christophanies, types or shadows, if you take earnest care that the message you’re sending is beautiful, winsome, and true, you’ll depict Him accurately.
After all, we are artists with words. We pull the mundane strands of reality into our heads and hearts, wash them in the pool of sanctified imagination, and then, woven together, we breathe them out in fiction that’s meant to catch the eyes, pierce the hearts, and, by God’s mercy, transform the lives of readers.
Next Monday, Lori Z. Scott and Allison Raymond will conclude this series by discussing one last facet of the spiritual realm—angels and demons. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts! Which approach to theophany do you gravitate toward?
Martin Detwiler is mostly normal. For a writer. He is, like most of us, a mess of paradoxes. Dreamer & cynic, philosopher & clown, hopeless romantic & grim realist—if there’s a contradiction, you’ll find it in him somewhere or another. But at the heart of it all, Martin is a man made new by Christ, the Author of that cosmic tale we call history. He has had a passion for stories from his earliest teen years, and the transition from reading others’ stories to writing his own seemed a foregone conclusion. His greatest inspirations are C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both of whom stirred a passion for stories that combine the aesthetic and the true in such a way that the reader is given an experiential glimpse of God’s reality.
Martin lives in Ohio, and his hopes and dreams are nestled in the stars.