For most authors, this may sound like a silly question. If they’re Christian, then of course they’re featuring the God of the Bible, the Father who sent His Son into the world. There is only one God they could possible feature in their writing…right?
Well, not exactly. I just read three different novels that I would consider to be “Christian”–insofar as they all had God of the Bible or His fantasy equivalent somewhere in there–yet all three handled God’s part in the story very differently.
- God in the background. This is how God is presented in books like The Lord of the Rings or A Cast of Stones by Patrick Carr. He is there if you look for Him, showing grace to the heroes and favoring their cause, making miracles happen and sending people back from near-death (or should’ve-been-death, like in Gandalf’s case), but He makes no real, concrete appearance. Some characters may believe in Him and may trust Him, but He remains a shadowy, unknowable entity for the main characters (or the entire book). Removing Him merely changes things from “wrought by God” to “wrought by coincidence/luck.”
- God in Heaven…and Heaven only. This is the version featured in The Beautiful Pretender by Melanie Dickerson and also can be found in many works of English literature, like Pamela and Mansfield Park. They mention God quite often, and they spend a great deal of time praying to God or trying to live lives that would honor Him, but they have no real relationship with Him. The characters are Christian by their deeds, but not in any relational way. God is not a character in the stories; He plays no particularly dynamic role. Removing him would take away a great deal of the justification of why characters do what they do, but we wouldn’t feel like we’d lost a character, with likes, dislikes, and any kind of personality.
- God in the flesh. This is the model used in books like The Chronicles of Narnia or The DragonKeeper Chronicles by Donita K. Paul. Somewhere in the story is an actual, flesh-and-blood character who is the Christ-figure, who is the incarnation of God, thus giving other characters an opportunity to literally reject or accept Him, to work with Him or against Him. But I’d also argue that “God in the flesh” can happen in less direct ways, as in Penny White and the Temptation of Dragons by Chrys Cymri. The main character is a vicar in the Church of England, which would easily bring God to the level of “in Heaven…andHeaven only.” She could’ve prayed to Him and strived to live for Him, and have left it at that, yet the author went further. Penny demonstrates a relationship with God where she talks to Him…and He answers, not in a spooky spiritual way, but still, one can get a clear sense of His personality, His thoughts on her actions, and His direction on her life.
I used to think that all Christian fiction ought to have God impact the story directly rather than make Him a minor character or someone to pray to and live for and nothing more, yet the more I write and read, the more I find this simply wouldn’t work. Some stories require the God-interaction level of the book of Esther from the Bible, where the characters know they are placed where they are to further His kingdom but are so busy doing that task that they don’t necessarily take the time out to “know Him and interact with Him in a personal way.”
Certain stories seem to call for a certain level of interaction by God. If He were in the flesh in The Lord of the Rings, He might upstage Aragorn and Frodo and all of the human struggles against evil. If He were in the flesh in Mansfield Park, it would be anachronistic, as He wasn’t physically on earth in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and even having a “talk to Him and expect an answer” sort of relationship would turn Fanny Price into a more mystical character with a spiritual sensitivity that might be more at home in a convent than a British estate.
And there will always be people who favor one version of God over another. Some may feel that God in the flesh is a kind of replacement for Jesus, watering down what He truly did by repeating it in a fantasy way, in another world–that to write a Christ-figure character is sacrilege (or beyond them). Then, there will be those who feel that God in the background is so barely Christian that He might as well not be there, or that God in the Heavens…and Heavens only leads to pious and preachy characters who carry the burden of salvation in Christ’s stead.
Ultimately, you have to write the sort of story God has placed on your heart and trust that it will contain His grace, even if His face never shows up (or shows up more often than some readers would like).
Copyright 2017 Andrea Lundgren
Photos by prawny and alice10, Creative Commons