July 12, 2011

Not a Tame Lion

Within the genre of Christian fantasy, as it is known in that vague place called "the market," perhaps the most used tool in making the fantasy world "Christian" in some way is allegory. This can be as slight as having a different word for God, or it can be as broad as having a Christ-figure, angelic beings, demons, and a Satan-figure. Writers want their stories, whatever genre they fall into, to reflect God's truth and to have Gospel elements, and in the difficult genre of fantasy, the simplest way of doing this is to employ allegory.

Sadly, the rise of allegory can probably be traced to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia, some of the best-loved children's books since their publication in the 1950s. Most fantasy authors will admit that their primary inspiration came from such works as Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings and Lewis' most famous The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, even though neither man wrote his book intending for it to be taken as an allegory. The Chronicles of Narnia are "what if" tales, as Lewis specifically stated: "...[Aslan] is an invention giving an answer to the question, 'What might Christ become like if there really were a world like Narnia and He chose to be incarnate and die and rise again in that world as He actually has done in ours?' This is not allegory at all." This is made clear at the end of The Voyage of the 'Dawn Treader' when Aslan tells Lucy, Edmund, and Eustace that in their world he has another Name, and that they must learn to know him by that Name.

But even this is a dangerous position for an author to take, for when he writes a being like Aslan, he is making a statement about Christ. In fact, he is essentially writing Christ. This is taking on one's self a massive amount of responsibility, but because Lewis got away with it (and in doing so created a classic), many writers now operate under the assumption that they can do the same. The shelves are filling with allegorical fantasies that feature Christ or a Christ-like figure as a dragon, as a canine, as a feline - and authors have lost sight of the magnitude of what they are attempting to do. The process of writing an allegory has become as simple as picking some creature that seems in the author's mind to represent some attribute of God, and then enhancing that attribute to make the creature into something which (again, in the author's mind) is "like God."
"The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God
that are unworthy of Him."

This quote by A.W. Tozer sums up the state of affairs in modern American Christianity. God has been put in a box. His perfections have been diluted and cheapened into "what God is for me," and this personalized, subjective, and unbiblical way of looking at Him cannot help but overflow into the writing of professing believers. Thus, Christians have no problem with portraying Christ as a dragon or of comparing God to their dog. In fact, it seems perfectly natural to them. They never stop to think of the horror the early Christians would have felt at the thought of applying such base images to a holy God.

One argument that might be raised in defense of such allegories is that it helps readers to understand God better, or at least to understand certain of His attributes better. But unworthy thoughts do not lift the mind to see God more clearly; they lower God to the level of the human mind and thus degrade Him. In the pages of Scripture, God does not express much enthusiasm for man's self-made ways of worshiping Him. He has given us His Word in order to reveal Himself to us, but too often we forget that in the Bible we have God Himself speaking to us; if we recalled that to mind more often, why would we think we need weak word-pictures to reveal Him to us? God does not need help in revealing Himself to us.

Is all allegory evil? I would not go so far as to say that. I do think that Lewis, in portraying Aslan as a lion (a scriptural term for Christ - the Lion of Judah), in pointing always to Christ, and in grounding the representation in Scripture, did an excellent job with his Chronicles of Narnia and created a deep, thoughtful story worth reading over and over. But writers ought to be careful with this method of Christianizing their stories - and, indeed, with any method of Christianizing anything - and should stop marching on as though they had every right to portray God however they want. Although they may think they are sharing the Gospel and proclaiming Christ, it is quite likely that they are doing more harm than good. The nature of God is not a thing to be taken lightly.

16 comments:

  1. "God does not need help in revealing Himself to us."

    Thank you. so much. This badly needs saying - it badly needs saying a lot. People simply don't appreciate the grandeur, the exalted worth, the majesty, the unattainable splendour that is the Being of God. We think so flippantly that we can portray him, thinking (since we learned "Jesus Loves Me, This I Know") that we know enough about him to do so. Hardly! In what manner at all can a finite being with a created mind hope to accurately express the totality of his Infinite Creator?

    The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. There is not enough holy fear among us. This a most serious business.

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  2. Excellent post, Abigail...while I enjoy reading various books by various authors in the genre of "Christian fiction", I, too, get tired of the shallowness of much of it. When you think of Lewis' mind, his deep intelligence and educational background, then compare it with the LACK of depth in most American education, how could today's writers even hope to measure up? But, of course, the bottom line is that all things must be held up to the plumbline of Scripture. Thank you for your excellent reminder.

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  3. This was part of the reason, although not the major one, why I wrote Wordcrafter the way I did. I'm not comfortable with the way some authors of fantasy make up their world's names for God, as if there was nothing very spectacular or important about His names as He reveals them to us. Maybe He does have names that He has not chosen to disclose to us. Probably He does. But we've no business making up our own for Him!

    Anyhow, thank you both for commenting. I love to read your thoughts. ^.^

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  4. It's certainly a good dash of cold water in the face. I think this problem is prevalent because no one (though they do respect God) stops to think about what he is doing. People don't stop to take their ideas to their logical conclusions. They don't mean any harm, but, as the old Princess Irene queried, do they mean any good? Because therein lies the difference. We must be very conscious of our thoughts of God, particularly when our thoughts are not just our own, but being published and put out for others to read and ingest.

    And so we come back to Tozer, who said it so well: "The essence of idolatry is the entertainment of thoughts about God that are unworthy of Him."

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  5. So true, Abigail. My WIP, Valiant Journeys, is placed in a semi-fantasy world, but I've chosen not to have my own "name" for God. It does bother me a bit that so many writers are beginning to just create their own versions of God for the sake of their stories. Especially when the God-figure is a key character. :P

    For a while, I wavered between using a different name for God, cutting explicit Scripture references, etc, because one person had told me it confused them--was the story in the real world or not?--but I don't feel comfortable renaming Jehovah.

    Who are we to say that Yahweh needs a new Name?

    Just my two cents. :)

    ~Keaghan

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  6. Good for you, Keaghan! I do appreciate it when writers take the time to think through their stories. I read a fantasy some years ago called "Beyond the Gloesmur," and one of the things I liked about it was that the other-world's name for Christ was a pretty obvious variant of Jesus. At least, if you're going to have allegory, you ought to base it on God's revelation of Himself.

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  7. A related issue - how to avoid presuming upon the sovereignty of God - is one that I've been turning over for some time with regards to writing. I've considered it mainly in the realm of realistic fiction, but I suppose it applies equally to allegory: how does one portray acts of Providence without assuming to know the mind of Providence? The plain teaching of Scripture is that God is at all times in absolute control of all things. He directs every event that comes to pass, and He does so to two purposes (well, one purpose and one sub-purpose): the good of His people and His own glory.

    The best authors (you touched on this regarding Dickens) will weave a sprawling web of characters and intrigue and yet manage to wrap it all up into a tidy package that the reader never saw coming. But their characters number at most in the dozens, and only their most important activities, as they pertain to the plot, are depicted. As Mom pointed out to me the other day, God's cast of characters has to this point eclipsed roughly a dozen billion, has spanned countless overlapping generations, and His direction extends to every moment, every thought, in the lives of each. And while He always keeps His promises, and always supplies the needs of His children, the ways in which He does so will day by day leave us in awe of His wisdom and mercy. How can I, with my limited perspective and finite understanding, hope to craft a narrative that will do justice to His all-wise, hidden counsels? How can I have characters who profess the sovereignty of God in their lives, when the events to which they are reacting are the product of a human mind, and probably not at all the ones that God would have ordained? In short, how much liberty do we have to put words in the mouth of the Most High?

    I suppose the answer, as has been pointed out in these comments, is that we don't put words in His mouth. Instead we do our best to echo the Word He has given us, and make sure that even our fictions adhere to Biblical principles. Still, the task remains a daunting one, and most of the time I feel very inadequate to it.

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  8. Good point. I've turned that over in my mind a bit recently, specifically in reference to alternate-history novels. I'm not quite sure what I think of them, but my gut feeling is that they are presuming to mess with a history that God has already crafted, as if they could craft a better one. Again, gut feeling, and I don't think I could be dogmatic on that.

    This may be a lame excuse or defense of fiction in general, but Jesus did use "fiction" - His parables were, after all, fiction. So yes, I do think that fiction is legal and useful, but that we should, as you summed it up, adhere to His Word in our finite story-making.

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  9. Thanks for this Abigail. We had an interesting conversation on chat yesterday about Aslan's plans regarding the Pevensies and the fact that the Pevensies' reign was brought to such a sudden end and that only years later Narnia was again given strong and "good" authority under Caspian X's dynasty.

    Part of our problem was trying to compare Aslan to God. And although Lewis did an excellent job, the fact is he could never quite portray all of God's characteristics in him.

    I don't know if you've read any of the "Dragon Keeper Chronicles". On the whole, I enjoyed them (especially the second and third books, but one of the major problems I had with that series is that the author seemed to shift her view of the world's leader, Paladin. At first it seemed quite obvious that he represented Christ, but as the series wore on, it became apparent that, though a good leader, he could not possibly be "Christ" in that world. He had too many flaws. My first thought was that I'd been mistaken in thinking he was intended to be an allegory of Jesus. But when I finally got a copy of the first book (I hadn't been able to get it for some time) and read how he was described there, I realised that I wasn't wrong.

    In the first couple of books he clearly has god-like qualities, but later on he loses this. That's an example of where attempting to put a "Christ" in a fantasy series is dangerous. I know enough to realise when a Character stops being "Christ" but I pity the young readers and unsaved (whom clearly she is trying to reach as well) who could get quite confused by these books. In addition, it undermines the integrity and continuity of the series. As much as I enjoyed it, I can't fully revel in it as I can in the Chronicles.

    Getting back to Aslan. I've noticed in our Reading Challenge just how well developed Aslan's character is in The Horse and His Boy. I think more than any of the other books, Lewis hit the nail on the head with that one.

    Love and Snugs (I'm missing you)
    Ajjie >'.'<

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  10. Lewis did a great job with Aslan in all the books, but there are certain passages in The Horse and His Boy that always move me to tears. However, I do think that debates about such things as Susan's departure, Emeth's "salvation," and Aslan's purpose frequently miss the point. Lewis was fallible, and after all, his books are just stories.

    I've heard of the "Dragon Keeper Chronicles" and I believe we have several reviews up on SCR of them, but I've not read them myself. I think what you mentioned is both a danger of creating a Christ-figure and a common pitfall in writing a series; you get several books in and realize that you want to change something that would affect all the novels that came before. Maybe that's what happened there.

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  11. I think there may be some good to giving your book's deity a different name. If you name it Jesus (or an obvious variant), then it has to BE Jesus, and as you said, you simply cannot write God. He is far above being boxed up into a character in a fictional story.

    BUT- if you name it something else, it does not have to be Jesus. It is a fictional world with a fictional god who may share some attributes, but is not the same.

    I found it SO hard creating a "religion" for my characters. Christ is perfect, how do I explain it in the confines of the Coinedh? The answer is either I don't, or I set the story in our world. So while the story's god is certainly relational and shares some attributes with our Great God, it's a different world with a different history and a different plan for the future. The Cross would not have come were it not for disobedience in the Garden. There are specific historical points which lead one into the other, so I cannot blithely insert the Cross into my story without reason.
    I can, however, acknowledge a Creator. If the basic scientific laws carry over into this fantasy world, there must be a Creator, and it must be higher than Man.

    I do not think it presumptive to create a deity for the world you created, if faith plays a role in the tale. The whole thing is fictional, after all. The presumption comes when you create it and say "This is Jesus".

    I think the late hour is making it hard to not repeat myself, and I'm sure I've left big gaping holes in my arguement, too. If you point them out before I do, I'll be happy to try and tie them up and/or explain my bad wording and misrepresentation.

    Basically, I recognize I cannot squish God into a pigeonhole, but cannot wholly leave him out.

    The hard part comes in making one's readers understand the line between reality and fantasy, when they've been so conditioned to see the word "Fantasy" and read "Allegory".

    Until (a hopefully more clear-headed) tomorrow,

    ~Lys

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  12. The problem with that, though, is that to create a god for your world - even if it shares some of the attributes of God - is to create a pagan religion. You can't pretend to be writing "believing" characters if their whole religion is fictional and untruthful. The fact of the matter is that, if there are other worlds, God is the God of all of them. He is God and there is no other.

    It is presumptuous to try to write a character who is or who represents Christ. Making Him a "main character" and trying to manipulate Him like a main character is taking a great deal of responsibility; maybe that's why Aslan wasn't around all the time. But that doesn't mean that you have to do away with true faith or create an entirely different God in order to make religion a part of the story. There's no point in having faith in your story if the faith is misdirected.

    I think part of the trouble comes in when people assume that because it's a fantastical world, it shares nothing with our world. Keaghan brought this up when she said that people were confused by her use of Jehovah. Everything has to be entirely new, entirely different. But that's not necessarily so. Some things are the same the universe over, and it is possible to touch upon the redemptive history in a world that is not Earth. I'm not going to go into great lengths on how to do that, but it isn't impossible. It's not necessary to hit upon every biblical point - fiction is not the ordinary or preferred venue of bringing people to Christ; that's reserved for the preaching of the Word - but whatever spiritual points we do have in our stories, I think they ought to be true.

    Another note, and hopefully Google won't hate me for the lengthy comment. There should always be a healthy fear in Christians when they write that they do not diminish God or His Truth. But at the same time, we do not let that stop us from continuing to write. There must be a balance. We can't say, "Well, if I have God in my story at all I'm just going to put Him in a box, so I'd better cut faith from the book altogether." No; we must be wise and prayerful, and in our fear we have to be bold.

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  13. I would like to follow up the comment about making another god-figure. That is paganism. Sorry, there's no other definition for it. I have, and many of the authors I have read, have noticed numerous points in paganism that echo, to varying degrees, the truth of God's revelation of himself. Man is not without reason in the world, nor he is exempt from a knowledge of God. It haunts him, and the specter manifests itself through religion and, in some cases, very nearly hits the mark. Nevertheless these religions were pagan and an abomination before God. The facts that Mithraism understood the Inexorable Light, or that Odin was slain on a tree, do not move him.

    And Abigail is right. If he is all-powerful, there can be no creature anywhere, at any time, that possesses more power than he, or that possesses a single power that he himself does not have. If he is all-knowing, he must know all there is to know of all there is. If he is just, he must be judge over all. If he is God, he must be God over all. If there were other worlds they must all (Lewis, too, understood this) answer to a single God - ours.

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  14. Paganism. Yes, I agree. That's the big gaping hole that was staring at me and I couldn't grasp at near-midnight.

    This is why it's so blasted hard to write fantasy. Because God is there, and yet cannot easily be conveyed.

    If you are writing a history for your world, you are writing how God would act in the lives of the people of your world.

    It seems almost as if you're (pardon my language) damned if you do and damned if you don't.

    I think we both of us are still missing something, or at least it has yet to be addressed. There is a niggling in my mind of something not yet satisfied on this subject. I'll give it some more thought.

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  15. Well, really, the whole idea of fantasy is based on presumption. Presuming the existence of this world, presuming the actions of the people in it, presuming God's providence in it. The same goes for any genre of fiction. We are presuming. The point is to not "put words in His mouth" but to "do our best to echo the Word He has given us, and make sure that even our fictions adhere to Biblical principles" (to quote Chewie way up there in the comments list). Obviously we are making all of this up; that's what story-telling is. But as long as we ground our story-telling on the rock of God's revelation of Himself in His Word, I don't believe we are as likely to fall into error or to displease Him.

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  16. In a venue such as a blog post, it is unlikely that all points will be touched on. The chief point stands: that God is "not a tame lion," as it were, and that writers (as well as all Christians of any vocation) are duty-bound to see to it that, in whatever they write, however they write, their portrayal of God is as he has portrayed himself, and that their approach to him is holy.

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meet the authoress
I am a writer of historical fiction and fantasy, scribbling from my home in the United States. More importantly, I am a Christian, which flavors everything I write. My debut novel, "The Soldier's Cross," was published by Ambassador Intl. in 2010.
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The Soldier's Cross: Set in the early 15th Century, this is the story of an English girl's journey to find her brother's cross pendant, lost at the Battle of Agincourt, and of her search for peace in the chaotic world of the Middle Ages.
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Tempus Regina:Hurled back in time and caught in the worlds of ages past, a Victorian woman finds herself called out with the title of the time queen. The death of one legend and the birth of another rest on her shoulders - but far weightier than both is her duty to the brother she left alone in her own era. Querying.
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Wordcrafter: "One man in a thousand, Solomon says / will stick more close than a brother. / And it's worthwhile seeking him half your days / if you find him before the other." Justin King unwittingly plunges into one such friendship the day he lets a stranger come in from the cold. Wordcount: 124,000 words

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