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  Faith in Fiction

by Kimberly Allen

Enter literarychristian.com’s essay contest:
“Can writers incorporate their faith into their fiction without being dogmatic?” (500 to 2,000 words.) >>READ MORE


"Christian art is the expression of the whole life of the whole person who is a Christian. What a Christian portrays in his art is the totality of life. Art is not to be solely a vehicle for some sort of self-conscious evangelism."
Francis A. Schaeffer, Art & the Bible

Dogmatic. The first time I heard that word, I pretended I knew exactly what it meant. Dr. Hallberg, a neat-sandaled-ponytailed-sixties-kind-of-guy, sarcastically informed me my short story was "sappy, boring, and basically bad" because it was too dogmatic. I smiled, turned my paper face down on the desk, and politely agreed. After class, I darted to the University's library, flipped through a dictionary, and sank into writing despair. How dare that stranger burst my pristine bubble so early in my freshman semester?

Of course, it didn't take long to realize he was right. I cringed when I read other students' stories that concluded with a grand moral lesson. I didn't really enjoy reading about a character's sudden conversion to Catholicism and the "miraculous" good things that begin to happen, or learning how one young man quickly overcame alcoholism, drugs, and addiction to rock music after attending a religious crusade to pick up girls. It wasn't that I, a believer, did not appreciate those types of testimonies, but rather I did not enjoy reading about them in a fiction class. I desired something that left me thinking and wondering. Something that really grabbed me and touched me profoundly. Something real and conflicting that wasn't always resolved in 3000 words. If I didn't like reading such fluff, why was I writing it?

And so my journey to understand the relationship between faith and writing began. Many Christian bookstores sell stories I just can't swallow. I call them Pulpit Fiction. Carefully constructed plots and dialogue unfold lost Christians, usually urban successes, that come full circle by the last page. I can certainly appreciate the Christian writers, their efforts, and their desire to glorify God in their books; I just don't enjoy the airbrushing. The Christian life is not airbrushed. Christians hurt deeply, love deeply, and often encounter situations beyond earthly repair. Many lives are not restored, redeemed, or ever sanctified. The Christian writer that remembers this can incorporate faith without being dogmatic.

Incorporating faith into fiction is not a matter of dogmatism, but rather a matter of allowing the truth of Christianity to speak for itself. The Christian worldview offers the hope, light, and beauty that humans crave. Through strong characterization, it can be revealed in contrast to the numerous choices and worldviews void of faith. In Art and the Bible, Francis A. Schaeffer declares that "if Christianity is really true, then it involves the whole man, including his intellect and creativeness. Christianity is not just dogmatically true or doctrinally true. Rather, it is true to what is there, true in the whole area of the whole man in all of life."

Stories about real life, Christians and nonbelievers, fall under one grand story. God's story. His story, revealed in Scripture, unfolds Truth, but it also unfolds the rejection of Truth. And that rejection, and its consequences, is ultimately found in all great literature. From Shakespeare to Flannery O'Connor, unbridled autonomous man is revealed so powerfully that the yearning of Hamlet and Hazel Motes is understood generation after generation. Such characters may haunt us and force us to delve beyond a shallow, simple, materialistic worldview. Such characters send us into the immaterial realm of man's soul and spirit. They send us to the place where God patiently waits.

More than ever, powerful literature that moves, provokes, changes, and ignites both mind and heart is needed to offset an increasingly post-Christian culture. A Christian author has the unique position of offering meaning and purpose to life based on truth outside of autonomous man. Christian writers can give an account for the faith that drives them. Their optimism is not based on uncertainty. It is not based on a temporary cultural consensus, but on a fundamental truth that transcends our particular time and space in history. And it is through fiction that this truth can be revealed over and over again by showing humanity's fallen nature and relentless pursuit of self-fulfillment. Fiction can reveal both the earnest seeker and the angry deserter.

Dogmatic scripts are not inviting. They are barriers to self-reflection. A reader does not have to be told what to think if a writer does his or her job. A story that offers contemplation and creates a longing for truth outside of ourselves is a story that points to the mystery of the Gospel. For it is the Gospel that addresses this longing. The longing poignantly revealed in Hamlet and O'Connor's Wiseblood. There are no pulpit moments between the author and the reader. Instead, the reader is invited to journey alongside the character(s) and witness life's struggles. The struggle to locate meaning and purpose. Christians can use their creative gifts to lead readers into the depths of human longing. Christians can allow their own faith to guide the creation of bold characters and honest dialogue. It is the author's faith that undergirds the story.

Serious fiction taps into universal truths (whether one admits they exist or not). And a dogmatic approach is not required to reveal truth. A Christian's keen insight and awareness of depravity can be revealed through a strong character that may or may not be "religious." The strong character attests to what is, not necessarily what should be. Anguish, deceit, lust, and brokenness are not just found in Barnes and Noble's fiction section, but in the inspired Word of God. Biblical stories contain all the elements that reflect the reality of our world. God doesn't airbrush the bad parts and advise the prophets to edit their strong voices. Rather, the beauty of scripture is revealed in its entirety. Every story, every verse, every scene is weaved into one masterful work ultimately glorifying truth and hope over falsity and hopelessness.

A writer concerned with incorporating faith into fiction can carefully craft Christians and nonbelievers as they really are. A strong character reveals a deeper truth that may be further explored, or rejected. That strong character can be the woman at the well. A sinner, a seeker, a woman confronting Christ. We, the readers, are not sure how it all turned out. Did she strive to "sin no more?" Maybe the shock of meeting Jesus wore off and she readily succumbed to her old ways. Either way, we have something important, crucial, and life-changing to think about. We are left wondering. We are left contemplating. We, too, are left with choices.

Kimberly E. Allen

posted June 10, 2003
Judy Alexander, webmaster