Depicting God in Fantasy
February 12, 2020 at 3:48 am #105942
Hey there! This is my time in these forums; they seem to be a cozy place with good people.
Anyway, what’s your opinion on portraying God, Jesus, and/or the holy Spirit in fantasy? Should He be depicted at all? If so, how?
In my WIP, my underlying theme is finding hope, peace, and beauty in a war-torn world. While the story itself is about a family trying to reunite after their village is raided, this theme guides the story in how the characters go about making decisions, influencing others, and so on.
Where do you find hope when your battle is lost, you’re enslaved, and there is no foreseeable escape? How do you find peace when all you hold dear is torn away? Where is the beauty when death and destruction surround you, and it seems the world itself is falling? Simple…in the one thing that goes beyond those, that is eternal, shining even in the deepest darkness. That one thing is God. His love carries us through brokenness, and His perfect plan holds the final victory. I want my characters (and readers) to find this. To find Him. But how can He look in a fantasy world without preaching about Him?
I love Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. He invented Aslan as a beautiful character for portraying God, both as a Creator and Savior. Yet I don’t feel completely satisfied with this portrayal (I’m sorry to say it, but that’s just me). I want to see the raw, omnipotent power that brings good even from the worst suffering. I want to see that life-changing omnibenevolence made as personal as the deepest of romances. I want to see the Spirit’s presence burning in a character’s veins, guiding, speaking, empowering. I want to see His love shown as something more real than the fading world, something that is not earned through religious deeds but is a gift of mercy that is simply accepted.
But how? Do you create a character that goes through the whole death and resurrection story of Jesus? Do you have your MC pray to an invisible representation of God, maybe encountered through visions or dialog with “saved” characters (but dialog will quickly turn it preachy)?
This is long post, and I hope it makes sense! But the representation of Jesus is something I’m struggling to decide on in my story, and hearing your opinions would be great. 🙂February 12, 2020 at 4:07 am #105945
Oh dear! It seems once you post a topic, you can neither edit it nor delete it to repost. Or am I just blind?
I meant to say it’s my first time in these forums. A few other mistakes need fixing, too.
Lesson learned: edit first, then post.February 12, 2020 at 6:31 am #105949Taylor Clogston@taylorclogston
@michael-erasmus Yeah, when you post, you have a very short time in which you can edit it, and I don’t believe you can delete your own post at all. Also, editing (or sometimes even posting) a very long post, especially one with external links in it, will probably get your post sent into the spam filter and you’ll need to reach out to @ Josiah to get it reinstated.
I strongly dislike Judeo-Christian God being copied and pasted into fantasy worlds. Narnia is an exception because of its purpose as a tool to help kids know Jesus better, but I immediately put Christian fiction down (unless I’m beta reading it I guess) if I think the author is just trying to spin me the Gospel in another world. And I guess Lewis’ view that all good things in the world and all devotion and reverence to the divine is likewise God’s is something different enough to what I hear every day that it doesn’t rankle me so much =P
I guess my first issue is the closer you get to “actually just God,” the closer you come to putting words in God’s mouth and actions in His hand. That really rubs me the wrong way, and was a huge problem I had with Fawkes by Nadine Brandes, which we were going over as a whole website some months back.
Second, it makes me feel like the author was… too scared, I guess, to write anything different? I get the feeling sometimes that fantasy authors want to have another world full of wonder and magic but don’t want to wrestle with theological and worldbuilding questions of morality that arise from having another world with different supernatural forces than just “literally God.”
When we divorce all virtue and the idea of what it is to live a good life from Jesus as we understand Him in the New Testament, can we not still have a life worth living? Okay, that came out terribly. I mean that in the Old Testament, yes, people believed in the Christ yet to come, but God loved them for their love toward Him, and for their love of what was good in the world, and for their obedience to Him. Their idea of virtue and a good life was still rooted in God’s presence in their lives.
I think we can use that as, at least, a strong starting point in a fantasy world. Devotion to and reverence for the divine is a universal theme. Lewis recognized that. Missionaries for thousands of years have played off it to convince people to give the devotion and reverence they have within them to Someone worth that love.
I believe it’s a much better way to go about anything not intended for eight-year-olds than literally having a Son of God come and die for the sins of humanity in the Ochre Mountain-Turtle-Plains of Arre’Bacedius.
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaFebruary 12, 2020 at 9:10 am #105955
I guess my first issue is the closer you get to “actually just God,” the closer you come to putting words in God’s mouth and actions in His hand
This! It can be dangerous. Even when the author’s intended meaning is good, they might word it such a way that it can be misinterpreted.
I get the feeling sometimes that fantasy authors want to have another world full of wonder and magic but don’t want to wrestle with theological and worldbuilding questions of morality that arise from having another world with different supernatural forces than just “literally God.”
Fair point. In my case, I started off with the character being pagan, with what I consider well-established culture and religion. In fact, for at least a first third of the story, the “Christian” faith is not represented at all. I’m nearing the point where I would put it in, if I decide to see it through, hence this post.
Their idea of virtue and a good life was still rooted in God’s presence in their lives.
This is where it gets…difficult. See, there’s a point where being Christian goes beyond any other religion, even Judaism. It’s when you walk with the Holy Spirit. Sure, you don’t need Him to live a good life, but when you personally experience Him, nothing in all the world can come against that fire He ignites inside you, and life turns into an awe-filled journey despite its pains. This is something many Christians miss; they either focus on being religious and “good enough” to the point of thinking His intimacy is earned (as opposed to being a gift), or they simply don’t bother, settling for salvation and nothing more.
It’s that wonder I hoped to convey. Not necessarily the Gospel itself, but how a relationship with God changes everything. Perhaps I should save it for a different story set on Earth. Or, you know, not include it in any story ever. I don’t know. I’ll spend some time thinking and praying about it.February 15, 2020 at 5:59 pm #106261PenSword@pensword
It depends on the set up of the world for me, I think. If it’s set up like a “lost country” or something that could have existed, and the world behaves the same way any other story on our world would behave, it’s not out of place to portray God as you would in a his fic.
When there’s any kind of magic though, that’s when things get iffy for me. Copy/pasting Christianity into a world that’s obviously made up seems easier to me to be dismissive of everything in the story, including God.
Narnia/Aslan actually bothers me a little for this reason. Especially everything outside “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” I don’t mind the allegory in that specific book, but the entire series being held as highly as I’ve seen some people regard it feels concerning, and there’s a lot that feels off to me.February 15, 2020 at 8:23 pm #106274DeepRun@deeprun
That’s fascinating to me because reading The Dawn Treader, as literally the above mentioned 8 year old, I found it instrumental to embracing the Christian faith.
You do not have a soul. You have a body.
You are a soul. - C.S. LewisFebruary 16, 2020 at 5:03 am #106286
@pensword fair enough. I have seen it work though when a representation of Christianty is woven into a story’s world (such as the characters in The Wingfeather Saga that already believe in the Maker). In my case, my story’s world has no magic and draws inspiration from our own history (think Rome’s invasion of Germania). I certainly wouldn’t consider it “high fantasy”.
In our world, there is darkness. War is real; not glorious but destructive. We lose what we love, and our lives can easily be shattered. People look for satisfaction in the world but find emptiness instead. The only thing that is unshakable—a true source of hope, peace, and joy—is Jesus. So if I want my characters to find hope, peace, and joy that go beyond their war-torn lives, where else could those be but in Him?
In other words, I don’t think I can instill a TRULY hopeful message without including God. I could drop the message of hope entirely and just focus on story-telling, still with Christian values, morals, etc, but that feels…I don’t know, I guess wrong, like an easy way out. We don’t need more stories telling us to be good people. We need stories showing us the depth and beauty that can be found, not through religious works, mind you, but through Christ’s personal intimacy which is a gift we need only accept. This is something even many Christians miss out on.
Or, that’s how I feel. I may be wrong about such storytelling. I understand that allegory can not only ruin a story, but be dangerous if misinterpretation. And so, this is my struggle.
@deeprun I agree. It was in those stories that I caught glimpses of God’s beauty. I didn’t find Him in them, but they got me thinking and feeling. They set me on the path.
February 16, 2020 at 12:29 pm #106301Taylor Clogston@taylorclogston
- This reply was modified 3 months, 1 week ago by Michael Erasmus.
@michael-erasmus I’m not comfortable with the idea that David, Solomon, and the prophets had no communion with the Holy Spirit. I guess that’s just a fundamental philosophical difference that will shape how we look at the role of religion and spirituality in fantasy.
Given your perspective, considering that this is something you feel strongly about, maybe a contemporary this-world story would be the best way to do it. I certainly wouldn’t advise you to avoid it entirely =P
"...the one with whom he so sought to talk has already interceded for him." -The Master and MargaritaFebruary 16, 2020 at 1:16 pm #106304
@taylorclogston Oh, I believe they communed with God; that much is made very clear. Granted, they were bound by the Law (which Jesus freed us from), but in His presence, they still had personal interaction with Him.
I was referring to Judaism after Christ’s coming. Does a priest trying to earn His way into God’s favor commune with the Holy Spirit? I think not, as (1) the Spirit’s presence is a gift to be received, not earned (John 7:28-39, Acts 8:20, Acts 2:38, and more), and (2) by turning away Jesus, they turn away this gift.
Also, yes, I’m starting to think the same. I think I’ll save this message for a more contemporary setting and let the fantasy story rather focus on other values.February 19, 2020 at 11:20 am #106669Daeus Lamb@daeus-lamb
@michael-erasmus I really like what you’re trying to aim for. There’s a quote by Flannery ‘O Connor which goes something like, “The greatest dramas feature the salvation or loss of a soul. Without an eternal soul, drama lacks life.” I think playing with salvation and damnation, a capital G God, and man’s relationship with him is high drama. It’s also something few writers capture well. (Contemporary-emeritus fiction writer Alan Paton succeeded, I would say.)
I would also say, the way you described the way you want to show God was powerful, so if this is something real and alive to you, you automatically have decent chance of handling it well.
Some narratives can give us a powerful look at man’s relationship with God without a specific gospel narrative (i.e. Till We Have Faces), and these can be fantastic–worth writing. But I think it’s a shame if we can’t also write books that focus on the greatest of all stories (the gospel) without butchering the very art that comes from the one who wrote the gospel into living history. We ought to be able to handle this.
One stumbling block may be emphasizing allegory over story. Just because a Jesus character dies for your sins doesn’t make it interesting. Just like you could write a story about a bomb going off in New York City that’s a dry as the Sahara. Cool premise does not equal masterful execution. Period.
Another stumbling block may be a lame gospel. This could either be something unorthodox like “God loves everybody just the way they are and that’s what the cross symbolizes” or something orthodox but cookie-cutter and not very dramatic, like, “Protagonist spend 7/8ths of the plot whining over their sin problem only for the Christ figure to come along and now we break every show/don’t tell rule as the protag tells us how happy she is to be forgiven.” I believe the gospel is a dire thing, where God is our antagonist who saves us anyway and kills our chosen one in order to adopt us. It’s every cliche story flipped on it’s head. It’s startling, but you don’t find that in many stories. I think this is not the gospel’s problem, but a lack of theological meditation on the part of the writers. Read G.K.Chesterton and how he geeks out over the paradoxes of Christianity or read the Psalms for crying out loud! Those authors understand the drama of God.
Finally, I believe stringent orthodoxy can get out of hand with fantasy fiction. The virgin birth is a major doctrine of Christianity, but if you’re freaking out because your Christ figure arrives mysteriously on the scene with no earthly mother or father, calm down! Fantasy fiction is supposed to point to the truth. Like a metaphor, it’s not meant to be taken 1027% literally. I really like the Wingfeather Saga because it’s totally a gospel story, but yet it’s not. What’s his name the Christ figure is totally human and sinful and he doesn’t actually save anyone from their sin. It’s all symbolic. We could use more stories like that. I did something kinda similar in my novellette God of Manna.
Also, for crying out loud, 2/3 of human history has been pre-messianic! So I figure at least 2/3 of fantasy can feature orthodox religious systems with promises characters look forward to than allegory. I would say OT saints were saved by faith, rather than love, but my main point is something about pre-messianic stories just fits with the mythic, ancient vibes of many fantasy stories. I’m working on a literary universe with several different fantasy worlds, and only one ever reaches what I would call a definite new testament era.
I do agree with you that some thematic questions can only be answered from and explicitly Christian worldview, plus all morality ultimately goes back to your worldview (I.e. Protestants and Mormons would both have similar answers to how people should conduct themselves in a moral way, but if were were to ask “Why should people conduct themselves in a moral way?” or “where does morality come from”, I think we’d have slightly different answers, and one I would favor over the other. ;)) But on the other hand, Taylor is right–you can have a positive impact on your readers even without sharing an explicitly Christian worldview. It just depends foremost on the theme you’re addressing and then your convictions, then preferences.
Finally, Christians aren’t the only ones trying to get away with writing religious literature. I would call Brandon Sanderson’s novels very Mormony–but you won’t find me calling them cliche or trite. (Well, okay, some of the moralisms he throws in his stories are cliche and trite, but the stories themselves aren’t.) And I’m wasn’t trying to pound Mormons in this post here. 😛 It’s just incidental I brought them up twice. I think we have one or few Mormons on this site, so if you’re reading this, I appreciate you guys, I just draw a distinction between Christianity and Mormonism because they have very different views of salvation and God.
That was a shotgun-effect post. I just spewed a bunch of ideas everywhere. 😛 I guess I could narrow in on one point if necessary.
👖 🐢🐢🐢🐢🐢February 19, 2020 at 4:53 pm #106693
@daeus-lamb Thank you for the detailed reply. It helps a lot.
But I think it’s a shame if we can’t also write books that focus on the greatest of all stories (the gospel) without butchering the very art that comes from the one who wrote the gospel into living history. We ought to be able to handle this.
This is a good point. From a writing perspective, Jesus’ life story is amazing–the perfect hero stands strong and fearless, teaching, leading, working wonders. He faces temptation, rejection, betrayal. Falsely accused, He is put to death. But that’s just the climax, not the end. He overcomes what no man could; He conquers death and sin. He, our Father-King whose breath ignited the stars and birthed our universe, won the victory for us, all for love’s sake. What story can be greater? No writer can do it perfect justice, but the potential is there.
Fantasy fiction is supposed to point to the truth. Like a metaphor, it’s not meant to be taken 1027% literally.
True. Jesus’s parables are an example of this, aren’t they? His stories were sometimes vague or cryptic, but held powerful truths for those willing to look deeper.
We could use more stories like that. I did something kinda similar in my novellette God of Manna.
Ooo, I need to give your novellette a read!
But on the other hand, Taylor is right–you can have a positive impact on your readers even without sharing an explicitly Christian worldview.
True. Even secular fiction can have positive messages; it often has in the past (not so much recently though, from what I’ve read/watched). But what I’ve not seen much of is fantasy that hints at the raw potency of God’s love and wonder. There are stories depicting the Gospel effectively (Chuck Black’s Kingdom Series for example, even though it “tells” rather than “shows” waaay too much), but they end there. They don’t show how a character, once walking with God, sees His beauty in life, despite the mundane or darkness. They don’t show the Spirit’s personal intimacy. Nothing in life is as exciting or fun!
I don’t know, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s a good reason we don’t see such stories.
That was a shotgun-effect post. I just spewed a bunch of ideas everywhere. 😛
Oh, I appreciate your shotgun-spray post! Here, let me respond with one of my own.
May I share a brief overview of what I’ve been writing to give you a better understanding? Please, do be critical of my ideas.
It’s a story about a family living in a village in a northern kingdom (with influences from Germanic and Celtic tribes and Norse religion). Despite their simple lives, the family is happy.
Then an empire invades (think Rome’s Northern Frontier campaigns). The village is raided, but while the villagers are being taken as slaves, aid comes. The mother and father are among those rescued, while their son and daughter are taken to the slave ships.
The two POV’s are the father and son (though I might change it to the daughter’s for more of a different perspective). The father’s story is one of war. With his wife by his side (their strong love is the only romance in the story), he is determined to do whatever it takes to help his people turn the tides. Victory in war, he believes, is his only chance of seeing his children again.
The son’s story is less adventurous, more dramatic. He and his sister are now slaves. They struggle with the hardships of cruelty, including despair and depression. Escape attempts fail.
Now, here’s where God and the fantasy elements come in: both father and son (or daughter?) are the prophesied “Dreamers.” Dreams reveal to the father how the gods’ thrones are empty (his people’s rites and faith in their false deities will not bring victory). His dreams call him to find aid beyond their forests, leading him and his wife on a journey that, while tainted with battle and terror, reveals how vast and beautiful the world is. Overwhelmed by the masterful creation, yet convinced that his gods are false and incapable of such art, he comes to find “God” through these dreams (of the “Lion-Lamb”).
The son’s dreams are more related to what he’s experiencing (in fact, I could drop his dreams entirely; this will make the father more unique). While he experiences life’s pain, the Voice in his dreams whispers of true freedom. He arrives to find an empire that, despite its wealth and glory, is enraptured in its sinful ways and drunk on pleasure, yet discontent and unfulfilled. He questions life’s purpose. Still the dreams insist there is more than the world, more than the mundane; there are joy and destiny to be found.
He finds it either through dreams, like his father (in which case the “Christ’s” death and resurrection have already occurred, and he’s converted to this new religion much like many Muslims, Islams, Buddhists, etc. that don’t know of Jesus yet encounter Him through visions), or through meeting a living character that will be “Christ” in the final stages of ministry (in which case he will witness the physical miracles, death and resurrection).
From there, both their journeys continue (though I won’t flood you with the remainder of the story). Salvation is not the end; it is the turning point, where the son experiences the Spirit’s presence and starts living a new life, even as a slave. A life that maybe, just maybe, will affect an empire. The father finds a living God to draw strength from, and though he still endures battle (now with appreciation for mercy), a new fire guides him.
Is it necessary for them to encounter God at all? Well, I’m not sure a boy enslaved could find any such hope and peace but in God. I’m not sure any man in the father’s position could face the terror rushing at him with a positive heart unless he knew the victory is already won.
Anyway, I’m still in my first draft, so these ideas aren’t set in stone. My plan was to write a trilogy, but I’ve been considering dropping the son’s POV and structuring the story into a single novel, which could easily remove the whole salvation story. It’ll then just be a father fighting for his children, which I guess can still hold a good message.
Wow, these comments really don’t have length limits, huh?
(This is a repost. Either I accidentally deleted it the first time, or something weird happened.)February 20, 2020 at 2:02 pm #106770PenSword@pensword
That is interesting. It’s neat how different stories can come across to different people.
I don’t know if I have much to say about what you wrote (brain isn’t working right now) but it does sound really neat, and from what you described of your story world it sounds similar to a story world I have that I’m including some form of Christianity in.February 21, 2020 at 11:50 am #106908Daeus Lamb@daeus-lamb
The story sounds good. I feel like you’ll probably write it well because the characters seem to have very clear aims, which helps keep a story cohesive. I like the dad being a dreamer. I could see it either way with the boy.
I don’t know what you think of it, but it could be cool of the pagan gods, while not Gods could still be involved in the story. Like, I believe demons find worship through pagan idols and it might be interesting if they try to keep the dad from switching sides. It could be another villainous force to add to your story and maybe make his conversion more dramatic.
You might want to read Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country. It about many things like racism and inner-city crime, but most of all I think it’s about the main character’s (an African pastor’s) relationship with God. It’s handled beautiful. Maybe that could give you an image of what it could look like in your story and help you decide whether you want to do something like that or not.
👖 🐢🐢🐢🐢🐢February 21, 2020 at 4:34 pm #106952
Thanks; it helps to get feedback like this. I reached a point where I was utterly stumped, not for lack of ideas, but doubt as to whether they were good ideas.
As for the pagan gods being demons, I actually have something similar in the section I’m on. The “gods” show a religious group that the Dreamer will be their downfall, so they try to stop him. The demons aren’t actually shown, just communicated with, but I guess if they’re already in there, I might as well make them a more powerful opposition.
I haven’t heard of Beloved Country, but I’ll definitely give it a look. I’ve been needing something new to read. 🙂March 24, 2020 at 2:37 pm #109359Corine@corine
Hello 🙂 I’m a bit late, but I thought this was an interesting topic and wanted to mention something that struck me as I was reading.
This is clearly not a view accepted by everyone but I really don’t think that it’s necessarily wrong or lazy to portray the God we know, as we know Him, in a fantasy world.
I understand that a simple copy and paste job can come across as negligent but I think there’s an amazing amount of scope opened up by introducing the same God in a different world. It can sometimes be very valuable to approach well-known truths from a different angle.
I just think there’s a danger in pushing the boat so far away from reality that it’s no longer decipherable. Just because it’s not as artistically profound to write about God in the same way that we experience Him in our world doesn’t mean it’s lazy; it’s certainly easier for people to relate to. Portraying the Gospel in a fantasy world can be done well, and might very well still offer a fresh perspective that resonates with readers in a way that their day-to-day experience of the Gospel might not.
Execution is vital; there is plenty of writing advice that acknowledges exceptions to rules; examples of books that didn’t heed a certain convention but still managed to execute their message well. At the end of the day, I suppose we have to agree that what works for one person’s story might not work for another’s.
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