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2 Ways Writers Can Portray God in Fiction (and Which Is Better)

June 3, 2021

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.

 

1. Gloom

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.

 

Always Present

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?

14 Comments

  1. Brian Stansell

    Thank you, Martin!
    Very astute points. I love that you show both the benefits and potential pitfalls of including theophany!
    Much appreciated, sir!

    My WIP has a Christophany at the end of a trilogy plan, akin to Revelations 19:11, and I struggle over it because I do not want to mischaracterize anything.

    I do not want to dare put words into God’s mouth.
    Every word of God is pure; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. Don’t add to his words, or he will rebuke you, and you will be proved a liar. [Proverbs 30:5-6 CSB]

    One of the types and shadows I use is this concept that I see being used over and over again in Scripture of the representation of God as a Rock, a Foundational Stone upon which all creation rests.

    Be a rock of refuge for me, where I can always go. Give the command to save me, for you are my rock and fortress. [Psalm 71:3 CSB]
    Psalm 18:2, Ephesians 2:19-20, 1 Peter 2:4-8, etc.

    I realize that while the image of a Stone evokes the idea of reliability, permanence, solidity, strength, unchanging, and durability, it can feel distant, austere, and cold. One cannot limit God to such an image, though He possesses the positive qualities, but the scriptures do use the image/symbol to depict certain attributes of God. It sets up what seems paradoxical in stating that God is represented as a “Living Stone”.

    I know God speaks to mankind according to our ability to understand so He uses familiar imagery with us, to depict the aspect of Himself that He wants us to see.

    I wonder what your thoughts are on representing God transitionally according to the unfolding of the character’s understanding/perception of Him. For instance, early on, new Christians, young in their walk, might see Him as something imposing and rigid, adhering to the perfection of Himself and His ruling governance, and, never to diminish those truths, they might, over time and through becoming more familiar with Him through a more evolving personal relationship, begin to know Him as more personable and touchable and finally as their Abba Father. (Romans 8:14, Galatians 4:6)

    Over the course of my WIP, (which has “discovering Lordship: the Christian walk: the outworking of salvation [as Philippians 2:12 terms it]) the MC learns that to become empowered to pursue the Kingdom quest, he and those called to journey with him, must learn that the path lies in surrendering to God’s Lordship, rather than seeking to conquer or obtain “power” on our own terms.

    As such, the perception of what “The Marker Stone” is, changes with each realization and discovery, and the inner voice coming from it in verses of scripture speaking into the “unqualified” leader, changes his view of himself and those around him, in light of a deepening fellowship with The Stone which bears their names engraved upon one of its seven sides. A transition that makes each member of the yielding travelers more of a living stone themselves consistent with the concept in 1 Peter 2:5.

    5 And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple. What’s more, you are his holy priests. Through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you offer spiritual sacrifices that please God. [1 Peter 2:5 NLT]

    Reply
    • Tiffany

      This sounds fascinating! I would love to read a story like this.

    • Martin Detwiler

      Thank you for your encouraging words, Brian!

      I love what you’ve laid out here concerning your WIP. I think it’s a great idea to show an evolution in your character’s understanding of God. In fact, I think this is a very important aspect that definitely should be included. Change denotes growth and shows that the character’s relationship with God is transformative and not a static set of beliefs. This has been true in my life, and I think many people of our Faith have had similar experiences coming to understand God from new perspectives as they mature.

      If you portray this well, I think it will help give the impression that there is more to God than we are capable of fully grasping in our minds all at once, and will be a testament to the bigness and complexity of God’s character. However, the central image of a Stone will help to anchor all of those variations into something solid, easy to grasp, and unchanging. I like the paradox inherent in the idea of a Living Stone.

      Rather than portraying a changing God, doing so will help underscore the reality of a changing individual as their relationship with God and others grows.

  2. Zachary Holbrook

    Thank you, Martin! This article gave me a better understanding of what I’m trying to do as a Christian storyteller. Your description of preachiness as trying to create an exact replica of truth from the real world in a story-world is especially insightful.

    Reply
  3. Joelle Stone

    Wow, how true. (AND THE REFERENCE TO THE WINGFEATHER SAGA!! *sniffs and wipes tears* He is SO good at writing heartwrenching scenes.)

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Right!? I had my heart tugged on so many times in that series. Btw, have you heard that the Wingfeather Saga is being turned into an animated series? So exciting.

    • Joelle Stone

      I have!! (Sry it took me so long to respond.) AND THEY’VE GOT THE FIRST SEASON FUNED YIPEE!!!

  4. Elisha Starquill

    This was so helpful! I especially loved that bit about us storytellers capturing the emotions, the essence instead of literally repainting things. That was so clarifying.

    But I have a tricky situation in my WIP and I was wondering what I should do about it. My MC and her family live on Earth in Russia, so she knows about Jesus and such from the Bible, but her parents actually come from another planet, a magical fantasy world, where there is a divine being (Davatel, as they call.) God, of course, is the same in all universes, but he can be known by different names and through different ways (like in Narnia.) What I struggle with is what her parents tell her about “Earth” God? Would they teach her about Davatel? Would they treat our God/Jesus/Christianity as history? I guess it is just the balance that I struggle with, what these characters would believe. I would really appreciate any help!

    Reply
    • Elijah

      I think the answer can be found in culture. What is the culture her parents are from like? What do they believe, why? Remember not to write a mono culture. If you’re stuck coming up with ideas think about how the world they come from functions. How would the land they live on effect their society. And then, how would their society clash with earth Russia? How does that effect how they see their daughter and how she’s been influenced by Russian society?
      If you can’t figure out what her parent’s believe, develop a culture, and figure out how her parents personalities react against their culture.

      I hope that was helpful.

    • Elijah

      Also think about how Davatel effected her parents culture. In what ways does their society fail Davatel? In what ways do they act in ways pleasing to Davatel? Also, how does their religion function and how does it differ to Christianity? You could also think about the history of their religion and how it evolved. And also prayer never hurts.

    • Brian Stansell

      Hi @Elisha Starquill

      That is an interesting premise. My wife was born in Russia but is a US Citizen now.
      The prevailing “Church” in Russia, even post-Communism, was the Russian Orthodox Church, but there were a few “Protestant/Evangelical” Churches that exist. Often certain denominations filter their representation of God through their particular filter.
      What we found was that many times the formal liturgy of the Orthodox did not stress the idea of a personal God, but more as if He was a remote iconic persona only accessible through priests.
      Under the long Communist rule, religion became more of a ritualistic superstition, where people would pay for favors and not fully understand the concept of a personal, loving Savior.
      I wonder is the version of the “Earth” God in your WIP shown as depicted by the Russian Orthodox?
      Did the MC’s alien-born parents witness or know of the events that occurred with Messiah on Earth?

      I would love to chat sometime.

    • Martin Detwiler

      Thank you, Elisha! I’m glad this article was helpful to you.

      Wow, what a neat premise! I love it.

      I think you’re asking realistic questions about your story and characters, so awesome job there. I might have a few things that could help you develop this further and possibly lead to some greater clarity for you, but I’ll be honest that this is a complex situation!

      First, how your MC’s parents react to Earth’s God, and therefore what they teach your MC, depends on whether they understand that He is the same as Davatel. If they don’t understand this, they might think that Christianity is a false religion just like the other false religions of Earth – particularly because there are several theistic religions which rely on (portions of) the same Bible. I don’t know the themes or directions of your story, but this misunderstanding could be an option if it fits with your story. It definitely feels like a powerful source of conflict.

      As you mentioned, God is the same in every world, so your MC’s parents would likely begin to realize the truth of Christianity, and come to see that God is simply another way by which Davatel makes himself known. You could really lean on the foreign perspective they have to organically reveal some of the errors that have crept into different branches of Christian tradition. Or, vice versa, you could have them re-examine errors that have crept into their worship of Davatel. Or both. There really are a lot of possibilities here, and would allow you to explore new angles on old questions in a way that fits the story seamlessly.

      Second, I think it’s important for you to determine whether Jesus’ sacrifice was effective for all worlds in whatever dimension they are, or if it is specific to Earth. If Jesus’ sacrifice is specific to Earth, then you would need to determine where the Davatel planet is on the redemptive timeline: before, during, or after the incarnation and life of their Savior. Because God is the same everywhere, He will redeem everywhere, via incarnation. So it either hasn’t happened yet, is currently happening, or has already happened.

      Personally, I would go with saying that Jesus’ sacrifice is Earth-centric, because He is undoing the curse brought about by Adam and Eve. I think it’s problematic if Adam and Eve brought the curse upon every world in every dimension, condemning the beings in all those worlds to the effects of the curse without any willful Fall of their own.

      Hope these questions help jumpstart your development! I’ve enjoyed thinking about this story and the possible directions one could go with it.

      – Martin

  5. Daeus Lamb

    I like me some direct theophany. 😎

    Reply

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