The divine is an elusive subject to capture, yet humans have been fascinated with it since the beginning of time, exploring it through poetry, stories, music, art, and various other mediums. Whether God shows up in a burning bush, as a thunderous voice accompanied by fire and lightning on a mountain, or in the humble person of Jesus Christ, incredible wonders are guaranteed to happen. Any moment that He steps into the story of humanity is powerful and purposeful.
As Christian writers, how are we to approach these visitations in a way that is both faithful and accessible? Before we tackle the how, we must answer another question: Should we even attempt to tuck theophany into our stories? We’ll be offering the world an image of God that’s outside the revelation of Scripture, after all.
Theophany is direct, physical interaction with God Himself. The problem is, we must cast Him as He actually is, removing our own opinions and impressions as much as possible. Can flawed humans even accomplish a task of such immense gravity?
I believe the answer is yes, we can. But it’s a serious undertaking requiring caution, and keeping four guidelines in mind will help us avoid distorting God’s nature.
1. God Is Not a Thing within the Universe
Whenever God enters a scene, we must remember that He isn’t confined to any perimeters or subject to any rules. He is the ground of being. Every molecule subsists because of Him. This fact sets Him beyond the bounds of the universe. When we place Him within a story, we must be diligent to convey that He surpasses all limitations. We can only accomplish that if we manage to represent what cannot be represented.
In the Bible, encounters with God are shrouded in mystery and change from one instance to the next. Because any conception of Him is inconceivable—even by the highest angel—we must strive to preserve His unparalleled complexity within our stories. That could mean deliberately withholding information.
In C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, he ushers his audience into a meeting with Aslan, who is a type of Christ-figure yet not Christ Himself. Lewis never supplies much detail regarding Aslan’s father, “the Emperor over the sea,” which packs a meaningful amount of distance between the readers, the characters, and the symbol for God.
2. Descriptions of God Are Necessarily Incomplete
When we write about visible or audible contact between God and our characters, we’re drawing a line around an immeasurable deity. Every language on earth springs from the Word spoken before time and into eternity, and therefore no combination of letters and syllables can ever completely express their own origin. Neither can we. While that doesn’t bar us from trying, we must realize that anything we set down in print will be imperfect.
We don’t have an easy, straightforward manual we can follow, but we can steep ourselves in the passages of Scripture that expound on who God is and how He engages with His creation. What does He reveal or say about Himself? These truths are an ideal starting point, but even the Bible cannot contain God’s magnitude, because our minds lack the capacity to process and communicate it.
3. Stories Can Shape an Audience’s Perception of God
The prospect of influencing another person’s imagination through a story is both appealing and terrifying. As Christians, we carry a weighty responsibility to accurately depict the fallenness of our world while also honoring God. The responsibility grows heavier, perhaps too heavy for some, when our characters venture into the presence of God Himself.
Theophany can be very impactful but also very dangerous, because what if we misconstrue it?
William P. Young’s wildly popular novel, The Shack, is a modern retelling of Job that revolves around a protagonist who undergoes intense suffering and wrestles with the problem of evil. Mack comes face to face with God at the shack where his daughter was murdered. The unique aspect of Young’s technique is that each member of the Trinity appears in bodily form. While this makes God tangible and relatable, it also positions the author to impart conclusions about Him that readers will accept as authoritative.
We could argue that it’s fiction and everyone knows the events aren’t real, but whether writers are aware of it or not, stories become a type of catechesis: a moment of teaching. When we allude to or mention God, we pose questions about the divine, and when we deposit characters at the foot of His throne, we begin to provide answers. While Young is to be applauded for crafting a moving story about love and trust in God, he also built a concrete likeness that is prone to human error.
4. Be Wary of Putting Words into God’s Mouth
God’s commands are life-giving. He brought the universe into existence out of nothing. In the Old Testament, He warned the Israelites that they should treat His edicts as sacred: “You shall not add to the word that I command you, nor take away from it” (Duet. 4:2). And the New Testament reiterates that “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12a). As writers seeking to glorify God in all of our work, we must be careful that the dialogue we assign to Him is reverent.
In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoyevsky achieves what I believe to be the most veracious exchange between God and man outside of the Bible. Christ Himself comes to earth to stand trial before the Grand Inquisitor, but His response to all the accusations of evil isn’t biblical platitudes or theological explanations. It’s a kiss. This decision is brilliant because it neither puts words into God’s mouth nor ignores His solution to the world’s suffering: His love in sacrificing His Son on the cross.
Again, we don’t have a handbook that instructs us how to script a fictional conversation with God. So if we do choose to have God speak in a story, we need to adhere closely to the attributes we know from Scripture.
Pursue Humility and Courage
The beauty of stories is their ability to pull readers into eras, countries, and situations they’ve never experienced. When our characters physically encounter God, we’re giving readers a chance to interact with the divine in their imaginations. A scene like that can change lives, but if it’s not executed with humility and courage, I suggest that it shouldn’t be done at all. But don’t despair—the goodness of God is more than worth the effort.
How do you gain the wisdom you need to address the divine effectively in fiction? Because of how broad this topic is, we’re going to cover it in a couple more articles. This Thursday, Martin will examine the pros and cons of two possible methods for portraying God in fiction. Then, next Monday, Lori and Allison will team up to discuss another facet of the supernatural—angels and demons. Hopefully our advice will equip you to encompass the spiritual realm in your stories.
At the end of the day, God is the reason we write. He can and does use our stories, whether we mention Him explicitly or point to Him through veils and shadows. So let’s recognize the enormity of the task and stretch ourselves toward excellence.
Return on Thursday as Martin continues our series on theophany. In the meantime, we’d love to hear your thoughts! What’s the biggest challenge you grapple with when depicting God in fiction?
Rose Sheffler is a Kentucky native who began her writing career in the seventh grade by hijacking a simple assignment and turning it into an elaborate creative piece. Her teacher reprimanded her for not following the instructions and said, “You should be a writer.” She studied English Literature in college, with a focus on creative writing, and returned to teach seventh grade English at the same private school. Her favorite genres are fantasy, historical fiction, and fairy tales.
This summer she completed a manuscript of new fairy tales and hopes to have them traditionally published. Until then, she homeschools her three kids, feeds her philosopher husband, grades papers, engages daily with her church community, talks to herself, updates her blog, reads too many children’s books, considers the brevity of life in the face of eternity, and takes bookish photographs for Instagram.