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Are Your Stories Subtly Undermining God’s Truth?

March 23, 2020

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.

26 Comments

  1. Chris M

    Beautifully written, and a wonderful message. A message that is so important to remember.

    Reply
  2. K.M. Small

    Wow. This is such a thought-provoking and important article! It takes such a balance. On one hand, we need to be extremely careful with our stories, specifically in the three areas you highlighted. On the other hand, we can’t become so scrupulous that we stop writing altogether for fear of making mistakes; we have to trust that God in His goodness will help us if we make a sincere effort to portray truth.

    I am curious: what was that confusing scene in the Last Battle? I haven’t read Narnia in a while, but I’m interested in going back and seeing which scene you referred to.

    Reply
    • Zachary Holbrook

      The controversial scene is toward the end and involves Emeth, a Calormene soldier who recounts how his life has been spent in search of the God he knew as Tash. He meets Aslan and has the following conversation:

      Emeth: Surely this is the hour of death, for the Lion (who is worthy of all honor) will know that I have served Tash all my days and not him. Nevertheless, it is better to see the Lion and die than to be Tisroc of the world and live and not to have seen him.

      Aslan: Son, thou art welcome.

      Emeth: Alas, Lord, I am no son of thine but the servant of Tash.

      Aslan: Child, all the service thou hast done to Tash, I account as service done to me.

      Emeth: Is it then true, as the Ape said, that thou and Tash are one?

      Aslan: It is false. Not because he and I are one, but because we are opposites, I take to me the services which thou hast done to him. For I and he are of such different kinds that no service which is vile can be done to me, and none which is not vile can be done to him. Therefore if any man swear by Tash and keep his oath for the oath’s sake, it is by me that he has truly sworn, though he know it not, and it is I who reward him. And if any man do a cruelty in my name, then, though he says the name Aslan, it is Tash whom he serves and by Tash his deed is accepted. Dost thou understand, Child?

      Emeth: Lord, thou knows how much I understand. Yet I have been seeking Tash all my days.

      Aslan: Beloved, unless thy desire had been for me thou wouldst not have sought so long and so truly. For all find what they truly seek.

    • Daeus Lamb

      I wouldn’t exactly call it confusing. Lewis presents the same idea in Mere Christianity.

    • Martin Detwiler

      Thanks so much, K. M.! Zachary was so kind as to post the text of the scene that I was referring to. It was definitely much more confusing to me as a young reader than it is to me now – but I’ve had the opportunity to study and read more of Lewis’ fiction and non-fiction at this point.

      As Daeus pointed out, Lewis did not simply throw this into his story without thinking it through. The same argument appears in his non-fictional work as well. It’s been a hotly-contested question for many years (by far more than just Lewis), so it is no surprise that Lewis tackled it in his fiction. He had a tendency to tackle big topics, which is one of the things that I love about his writing. But it just means more is at stake, and more care must be taken.

      God help us not to shy away from those questions, though, simply because they are difficult.

    • K.M. Small

      Ah, I remember that one now. Thank you, Zachary!

    • Naiya Dyani

      *comes in a bit late* Goshes, I need to actually buckle down and read Narnia. XD
      Khylie, one thing you said really struck me: “On the other hand, we can’t become so scrupulous that we stop writing altogether for fear of making mistakes; we have to trust that God in His goodness will help us if we make a sincere effort to portray truth.”
      That’s so true. It’s something I’ve battled with, and it’s a huge relief when I remember I’m not trying to do this on my own. God is in this with me. So yes, thanks for the reminder. It’s an immense comfort.

    • Reagan Ramm

      Lewis is not at all saying Salvation can be had apart from Christ. He’s just pointing out that Salvation through Christ isn’t always as formulaic as we sometimes make it out to be.

      If someone never heard the gospel or the name of Christ, does that mean they are doomed to Hell? I don’t think so. The Bible says that the heavens proclaim the glory of God.

      I think Lewis is saying that it’s possible for someone to receive salvation, and be saved through Christ, without actually hearing the name “Jesus” or hearing the gospel.

      God isn’t restricted like that. Anyone anywhere can be reached by God and can be saved, so no one has an excuse.

  3. Lilly

    Thanks so much for this post, Martin. It’s given all of us something to think about as we work on our writing. I really appreciate your second point; sometimes we just want to focus on only one aspect of God, like His Love. Which is true and wonderful. But He’s also Sovereign and Holy. And Faithful. These are also a part of His nature.

    By the way, just out of curiosity, which verse in Proverbs addresses the issue of being too reclusive?

    Reply
    • Coralie

      This is so true! Is it not absoultely amazing to take in the very many sides of our awesome God?!

    • Martin Detwiler

      Lilly,

      The verse I had in mind particularly was Proverbs 18:1, “Whoever isolates himself seeks his own desire; he breaks out against all sound judgment.”

    • Lily

      I totally agree, Coralie! And when we consider it all, it leaves us amazed and full of praise.

      And thanks so much for getting back to me on that verse, Martin. Hope you guys have a safe week!

  4. Coralie

    A thought-provoking article, certainly. There are some ideas in here I need to chew on and stew on a little. Though, I particularly enjoyed the last portion and found it highly encouraging. The call to prayer and immersing ourselves in God’s word, to leaning into Christ, knowing truth, and growing in our understainding and faith is strong. And it will infect every aspect of our lives, including our writing. Thank you so much for sharing this with us!

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Coralie,

      I’m glad this has been encouraging and thought-provoking to you. There’s definitely a lot of big ideas here that have been bouncing around upstairs for a while – and it’ll be a continual process to walk the line between self-expression and subcreation.

    • Coralie

      @karthmin Do you have any resources you can recommend to further learn about and understand what subcreation is?

    • Martin Detwiler

      Coralie,

      In paragraph 66 of Tolkien’s essay On Fairy-stories, he seems to define sub-creation as the end product of Imagination being filtered through the lens of Art to create something that has the inner consistency of reality.

      If we look inside Middle-Earth, Tolkien used the term to describe the creative/artistic efforts of anyone who was not Eru.

      In making the race of dwarves, Aule reveals the limit of sub-creation: he cannot give them being apart from himself. Though his intent was pure, he sought to make something entirely new and different. He intended it to co-exist with Eru’s creation in harmony, but they could not truly be independent of him – not until Eru gave them individuality/free will, which is a spark of Eru’s primary creation.

      Morgoth abused sub-creation entirely by twisting and imitating Eru’s creations in mockery, intending them to function completely opposite the created order.

      Of the two examples, we as Christian authors are far more prone to be like Aule than Morgoth. We fall prey to the wrong mindset – not from maliciousness, but the myopia of being finite.

      If we look at paragraph 50 of On Fairy-stories, Tolkien gives more information about what it means to be a sub-creator. It’s someone who has made a world of such internal consistency that those who read it are able to exist (in their minds at least), within that world. More than a simple suspension of disbelief, a sub-creation actively compels one to enter and experience it. In a way, it communicates a standard of excellence in storytelling.

      More than that, though, it reveals the broader idea: this is a creation that exists within a broader Creation – God’s creation. The sub-creation operates according to fantastical rules (that is what makes it fantasy), but the act of making it connects us to the original Creator. This connection and likeness to divinity is in itself a responsibility. If we are imagers of God (and we are), we ought to properly reflect him even in our artistic imaginations.

      If you haven’t read On Fairy-stories, I highly recommend it. It can be a bit dense in places, but I believe the ideas explored are well worth the effort.

      If you’re interested in filtering through the results, there are some interesting academic articles out there if you do a simple word-search. As an example, here’s two of the results:

      http://www.cslewisinstitute.org/node/1207

      https://ensemble.wheaton.edu/hapi/v1/contents/permalinks/Cc43Ndm5/view

      Lastly, although I haven’t read it myself yet, The Christian Imagination: The Practice of Faith in Literature and Writing (a collection of essays edited by Leland Ryken) looks like a minefield of thought-provoking content for serious Christian writers (or readers). From the table of contents, however, I don’t see anything directly addressing sub-creation.

      Hope this gives you a starting point for further research!

  5. Libby

    This was really encouraging and full of truth. Thank you for writing this and sharing this with us. I really appreciate it.

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Thank you for these kind words, Libby. I really appreciate this and I’m so glad you found it of use to you!

  6. Naiya Dyani

    Wow, I’m a little late, but this was really an amazing article! I especially love how you pointed out ways we can work on our mistakes in this area instead of simply showing where we go wrong. It’s both helpful and comforting.
    There was so much good stuff in this article. I’ll probably have to keep it open on my laptop for a while to glance back at while I’m writing! :’D Thank you so much!

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      Wow! So glad you found it to be worthwhile, Naiya! Really love hearing this from you.

  7. Bella D.

    Thank you so much for this, Martin! I clicked on it right away because one of my characters is the Apostle Paul, and for a while now I’ve been deathly afraid of putting words in his (and therefore God’s) mouth, and making him a puppet of sorts or mouthpiece to get my personal thoughts out there. This has been extremely helpful!

    Reply
    • Martin Detwiler

      What a goal! I love that you’re not afraid to tackle Biblical fiction, Bella! It’s a tricky genre, but there’s so much potential for powerful payoff, especially for a Christian audience. I’m so glad this article was helpful to you! God bless your efforts!

    • Bella D.

      Thank you! I really am quite passionate about the genre. I pray often that I’ll be able to reach other believers with that power I’ve seen when all’s said and done. Thank you again for your encouragement and time spent in the writing of this thoughtful article!

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