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Monday, October 03, 2011

Remaking God in fiction, re-done

E. Stephen Burnett wonders if authors are on safe ground when they remake God in fiction. (He says that The Shack did that, for example.) He asks, but does not answer, three good questions, which he extrapolates from the writing of C. S. Lewis.

The questions (paraphrased) are:
1) Can a Christian writer write a story about a God who is different? (Different commands or personality.)
2) Can a Christian writer write a story with a character who defies God?
3) What purpose is served by doing either 1) or 2)?

Burnett is a good writer, but he does not make clear, at least to me, exactly what he is asking. I think he is asking if a Christian writer can do these things and remain in God's will.

Let me muse about these matters.

Question 1 - Can a Christian writer write a story about a God who is different?

As I see it, there is possible danger in such writing. I believe that it would be possible to write a story about a God who was so different from the Christian God that the story would be blasphemous. It would also be possible for a reader, or the writer, to become too interested in a false god -- a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments.

However, in a sense, the Old and New Testaments present seriously different views of God. The Old Testament God required sacrifices, and adherence to Jewish dietary laws. The New Testament God was a sacrifice, and Christians are no longer required to keep the dietary laws. But, of course, this was not fiction.

J. R. R. Tolkien, an influential writer, usually considered to have been a Christian, presented a false god, or several of them, in his writing. Sauron, although he was, in Tolkien's phrase, "but a servant,"of a more powerful being, was worshiped, and demanded such worship. He was clearly thoroughly evil. Melkor/Morgoth, the great enemy, Sauron's master, was even more powerful, and more evil, and also was a god, to some. In fact, Tolkien had a whole pantheon of lesser beings, some good, some not so. Was he blasphemous? Most would say that he was not. He was merely telling a story. These evil beings were the equivalent of Satan, the real enemy of God, and of God's people, and lesser demons. The good ones were something like angels. Some of them, possibly, were like saints, in the Roman Catholic sense of the term. (Tolkien was a Roman Catholic).

Even though Tolkien had some evil gods, they were not supreme. As in the real world, there was a supreme, good God.

It seems to me that it could be legitimate to present God in a different way, as Tolkien did, if maintaining his goodness, love and supremacy. Some readers might become too obsessed with such fictional deities, but that would be their doing, not the author's. It would be possible to fantasize lustfully about Salome, or Bathsheba, or to covet Solomon's wealth or wisdom, but that would not be the fault of Matthew and Mark, or of the author of 2 Samuel or of 1 Kings.

It seems to me that The Shack also presents God in a legitimate way, although apparently I disagree with Burnett about this.

Elizabeth Moon, an important writer of fantasy and science fiction, has written several novels in an imaginary setting. I have previously posted on the question of whether these works should be taken as Christian novels, or not. I am not sure if Moon meant to portray a polytheistic religion, with a supreme God, and lesser gods, or one that is like Roman Catholicism, with a supreme God, and saints, especially Gird, who was once a living man. As a Protestant, I don't believe in the efficacy of prayer to any but the Triune Supreme God, and believe that prayer to saints comes close to, perhaps is, a violation of the first of the Ten Commandments.* To expand on that, there are some Christian elements. (See my post.) Moon, who is an Episcopalian, and active in her church, has posted a summary of the religion in these books.

Lois McMaster Bujold is also an important writer of both fantasy and science fiction. Like Moon, she has incorporated religious ideas into the fabric of one of her imaginary worlds. (There is a fantasy series by Bujold that I have yet to read, and I would guess that she has done that for this sub-creation, also.) I have also written previously about whether one of her novels can be classified as Christian, and, again, concluded that, although there are Christian elements, it can not. Bujold has done some experimenting -- she has constructed a theology based on five more or less co-equal gods. These gods can reveal themselves to people, and are otherwise real to some of her characters. I do not know whether Bujold is a Christian. There are a few Christian ideas, and apparently a Christian character, in her science fiction series.

C. S. Lewis, perhaps the most important Christian writer of the twentieth century, wrote fantastic fiction, for children, and for adults, as well as about Christianity. In fact, Barnett uses Perelandra, a fantastic novel by Lewis, as a focal point in his essay. By emphasizing Lewis, I think Barnett has answered his own question, with a firm "yes." Why? Because Lewis also wrote a sequel, That Hideous Strength, wherein Merlin is possessed by angelic beings, a non-Biblical concept. And, especially, Lewis wrote Till We Have Faces, a book set in a pre-Christian time, with a pagan goddess, Ungit, who was represented by an idol, and with the god of the mountain, apparently the Greek Cupid.

Question 2 - Can a Christian writer write a story with a character who defies God?

Again, I turn to the Bible. Job and Paul defied God, at least at first. Pharaoh, and several Israelite and non-Israelite kings also did so, for their entire lives, or began by following God, but ended up defying Him, as apparently Saul and Solomon did. And let us not forget Satan.

Enough said. The answer is "yes."

Question 3 - What purpose is served by doing either 1) or 2)?

As to writing about a character who defies God, the purpose should be to set forth an example that we must not follow, or of the error of such defiance. (Kings David and especially Manasseh defied God, but repented, and so can and must we.)

What about writing about a different God, or god?

Till We Have Faces made a point that Christians must take to heart. That point is that God is not required to answer our questions. He is, Himself, the answer. Could this point have been made in a book written of a time and society where there were Christians? I suppose so, but it would have been a drastically different book, and perhaps Orual's defiance, had it been of the one true God, would have turned Christian readers off, whereas defying pagan gods is not so likely to. Defiance, and its answer, was necessary to make Lewis's point.

Bujold's gods of Chalion seem to me to be a different matter. She seems to have done what writers of fantastic literature should do, namely present us with a universe like ours, but with some substantial difference, then describe what that would be like. Ursula K. Le Guin did this about gender in her The Left Hand of Darkness, for example. What would it be like if gender was not fixed? But is it legitimate to tinker with a universe by imagining different gods? I'm not sure. Not to have done so would have made the story quite different, but there could still have been goodness, service, and sacrifice in it, as Bujold's Cazaril showed so well. And creating a theology with no single supreme being strikes me as dangerous.

Let me answer the question for Elizabeth Moon (I have used Bujold and Moon because I am familiar with their work, and because of their prominence.) What about Moon's whole zoo-full of gods (or maybe saints) and spirits? Is that wrong, for a Christian writer? Well, let's put it this way. I submit that Tolkien did the same thing. There are all sorts of evil spirits, and good ones, and a pantheon of gods, in his sub-creation. There is little or no worship of a supreme being, private or public. There is no clear Christ-figure. Yet what he did is accepted as having been good, even Christian fiction, by many Christian writers, probably including Burnett.

I would say that if there is a story that an author must tell, and the author herself is not in defiance of God, there may be legitimate reason to write such a story, even though it presents different gods. I think that's what happened to Tolkien. There are certainly dangers. Pride and idol worship, being attracted by the occult, or having gods before the one true God, come to mind. Prayerful care must be taken. I also think it is possible to write a story with a god who differs from God, or including defiance of God, if the author's intent is to present a lesson that is best presented in that way.

Thanks for reading. Read Burnett's essay.

*On October 2, 2011, I changed a key sentence about Elizabeth Moon's Paksenarrion novels, which was "In a word, they are polytheistic, hence not Christian," to the two sentences before the asterisk in the work above. The reason is that I have re-read the books, and it seems clear that they describe one Supreme God, who is to be worshiped. I didn't come away with that impression in my first reading, several years ago, but I should have. I also changed what I said about Tolkien, adding the idea that some of the good beings, who are no longer mortal, may have been saints, rather than minor gods, and made a few minor editorial changes, related to the ones just described, or to improve the clarity of the post.

This is a re-post, with some revisions, of a post from April 13, 2009. I have removed (unintentionally) the previous post.


atlibertytosay said...

I've been working on a science fiction story for a few years where the lead character is much like "Ellie" in the movie/book "Contact".

In "Contact" … she is an atheist who is asked before she is chosen to go on an important mission in the alien spacecraft … "Do you believe in God?"

Her answer is interesting and she challenges the relevance of such a question.

One thing I have struggled with is adding narrative and detail to a few Bible stories that are incorporated into my story.

This is one area of story telling I think "The Passion Of The Christ" excelled at.

Back to your point … I think stories like the Old Clash Of The Titans movie is good and portrays false Greek Gods ~ as you say the elements of courage and love are there. However, the new "remake" bordered on being blasphemous and by any measure was a horrible movie.

I definitely think that "occult and paganism" had HUGE implications on the psyche of both C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis' writing may have even contributed to his "off again, on again" acceptance of Christianity.

When we think of ANY story … we must make sure who is whispering in our ear, who and where our research comes from, and what exactly is inspiring us to write (or read) the story in the first place.

Martin LaBar said...

I agree with your last statement.

I wasn't aware that Lewis (after his youth) was "off again, on again."

Thanks for the comment, and all the best with that story.