When you claim to speak truth, opening your mouth is dangerous.
Words are not idle collections of syllables in a conversation or symbols on paper. The pen is mightier than the sword, causing both greater good and greater harm. Wars, racial slavery, and genocide are all carried out by the sword, but words provoked or justified those actions. On the other hand, the most joyous news ever told, the gospel, comes to us through the Word of God.
Words can be the most powerful weapons in the world, but they must be wrought for the task. As Christian storytellers, we’re trying to reflect the name of God we bear and the truth of God we profess. It’s a responsibility unique to us, but too often we fail without even realizing it.
The Danger of Sub-Creation
Sub-creation is a term coined by the Inklings to explain the act of creating an internally consistent world that is secondary to the real one. For the Inklings, sub-creation was closely connected to their Christian identity. They engaged in it to highlight the beauty found in God’s world. Under or within the umbrella of reality, sub-creation is not the making of new things but reworking the principles of God’s design.
Using our imaginations to create within God’s broader framework is our goal as Christian storytellers. We seek to artfully recast old truths. Sometimes, however, writers promote their own ideas instead. For a few, this is a conscious decision. But for many of us, self-glorifying habits creep in the back door and cause us to warp the themes in our stories.
According to St. Augustine, evil is not a separate entity. Rather, it is the absence or perversion of good—a grotesque mockery of what it attempts to replace and overcome. Yet it is dependent on good, because it needs something straight to twist. Not so with goodness. Light can exist without casting a shadow if nothing interrupts its radiance.
If we examine Tolkien’s works, we’ll notice a similar pattern. The evil beings in Middle-Earth are simply corrupted creatures. Orcs are the vicious form of elves, Saruman and Denethor both succumbed to Sauron’s influence, and even Morgoth, the first dark lord, devolved through the misuse of power and sub-creation (see the beginning of The Silmarillion for this fascinating tale).
People and spiritual beings’ lust for glory plunged the world into its current state. Satan fell because he wanted to usurp God. During the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, he offered Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world” if only He would worship him (Matt. 4:9). But God alone holds the kingdoms of the world in the palm of His hand, and He alone is to be worshiped. Satan sought to claim God’s power, position, and creation for himself, and in so doing, he tainted everything God had called “good.”
The Characteristics of a Self-Glorifying Imagination
When we’re developing our stories, we need to ask ourselves two serious questions: Are we emulating God’s reality, or are we manipulating it for our own purposes? And how do we discern the difference?
In my first article for Story Embers, I defended the merits of fantasy. Relying on arguments from both theology and anthropology, I showed that Christian storytellers honor God when they exalt truth and beauty in fiction. However, even if we aren’t deliberately trying to steal glory from God, we sometimes lose our daily struggle with sin. Since this can happen subconsciously, we need to be vigilant in three areas where our mindset will leak into our writing.
1. False Portrayals of Humanity
When we write unrealistic characters or arcs, we’re painting a lopsided imitation of humanity. Due to the medium of fiction, we may not be able to avoid inaccuracies altogether, but some are more malignant than others. I’m reminded of a scene in The Dark Knight where the Joker sets up a situation to reveal the fundamental depravity of man—and he’s proved wrong. As much as I love the film, and as deeply as it explores certain themes, man is not fundamentally good.
As Christian storytellers, we face a similar temptation with salvation arcs. After conversion, we tend to whitewash a character’s mistakes, because that’s how we wish our own lives looked. But repenting of continued sin and giving and asking for grace are as much hallmarks of a changed life as an increase in righteous behavior. Many Christian writers from the eighteenth century were so eager to illustrate moral lessons through characters that their representations were imbalanced. We can learn from their errors and do better.
2. Misleading Portrayals of Divinity and Grace
Depicting God in original ways—without straying from orthodoxy—is challenging. We could choose to follow Tolkien’s example and leave deity out of our stories, which is a relatively safe option. But it’s also problematic, because humans’ interaction with God can’t be entirely ignored. In contrast to Tolkien’s work, The Chronicles of Narnia, which targets a different audience and explores different themes, revolves around Aslan, an evocative metaphor for Christ. Though Lewis generally upholds orthodoxy, The Last Battle contains a confusing scene that seems to indicate salvation can be found outside of Christ.
Even if we cling to the clear teaching of Scripture, when we create messianic characters, we risk cheapening Christ’s sacrifice. Without the rich historical context of Jesus’ life and death, the full magnitude of His atonement is difficult to convey. At best, we can highlight a few details. At worst, we misrepresent the event. I prefer to put love and selflessness on display through non-messianic characters instead.
When communicating the transcendent magnificence of God, I feel that many Christian writers don’t go far enough. We often concentrate on the relational aspect of divinity, which has far less significance when we don’t simultaneously cultivate awareness that our Creator is immense and awe-inspiring. Showcasing both sides of God’s nature emphasizes how mind-blowing grace truly is.
3. Distorted Portrayals of Values and Consequences
This final category is where we’ll wrestle the most deeply with a story’s themes. How we portray the meaning and effects of death exposes the value we attribute to life. If characters die left and right without any psychological impact on the people around them, we had better be describing calloused humanity. Otherwise, that degree of violence, no matter how broken our world is, can’t be justified. Without a point or payoff, it’s senseless and wrong.
How we portray romance exposes our views on purity and respect. If romantically involved characters have a flippant attitude toward personal boundaries, that negative trait needs to be addressed by the plot. Invasive gestures tend to create stress and tension—not to mention guilt and shame if the man and/or woman claims to live by a higher standard.
How we incorporate family and friendships exposes our definition of healthy relationships. A character who isolates himself entirely isn’t just quirky and introverted. Solomon teaches against such reclusiveness in Proverbs, and the harm of that lifestyle needs to be implied within the story. The same is true of the opposite extreme. A character shouldn’t tie her identity to relationships so that any fight or betrayal threatens to destroy her.
Recalibrating Our Perspective
Our job as writers is to orchestrate our stories so that the themes align with biblical definitions of virtue and sin, not to make our characters perfect. They’re allowed to be flawed. Some of them don’t even have to change. Though an assassin who kills without remorse may accurately portray cold-heartedness, that cannot be the sole takeaway for readers. Good and evil have consequences—but those consequences are not identical. Weaving this into our stories is paramount.
We must remember that we write within boundaries of truth that have already been laid out. We retell the old, old story. We are not little gods inventing and broadcasting our own truths. Rather, we shine spotlights on hidden beauty that has existed for centuries.
The Christian Storytellers Manifesto can help keep us on the right track. The thirteenth resolution is especially applicable to this article’s topic.
“We resolve to base our confidence in God and not the opinions of others, to rely on God by praying over our writing, and to bury ourselves in Scripture, for we can only exemplify truth when we are immersed in it ourselves.”
Let’s tease this out a little:
1. We must believe God over man. The world brims with half-truths, and we can’t trust the opinion of man. Our standard is in God and what He has spoken.
2. We must pray through and over our stories. We may be reluctant to release the steering wheel when we’re writing. It’s an intensely personal art, and we insert pieces of ourselves into every story. But too much time spent inside our own minds can lead us to produce a self-reflection. Prayer reorients our focus onto the bigger picture.
3. We must study the truth. Above all, we need to be students of God’s Word. Our familiarity with His precepts builds a foundation of truth for our writing. Being skilled writers isn’t enough, because we’re called to do more with our stories than entertain.
Being a Christian storyteller is daunting, but it’s also a privilege and joy. Storytelling is powerful—and as long as we’re intentional and careful, we’re free to use the full range of our imaginations to create universes, magic systems, and fictional characters.
Although we can’t fully escape our incomplete understanding of the truth, we have the antidote. By immersing ourselves in God’s Word, holding fast to truth, and praying diligently over our writing, we can advance quality Christian storytelling that cannot be silenced.
The mantle is big and our calling high. But our God is bigger, and He dwells within us.
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 with his wife in South Carolina, where she keeps his sky-high hopes and dreams firmly rooted in the humble yet beautiful soil of reality.