Saturday, August 19, 2017

God in Fantasy Fiction - To Be or Not to Be?

A Forward



About five weeks ago, while slogging through edits on The Brightest Thread, I hit a substantial snag. A capital G snag--God. In the novella version of the story, there was no mention of a deity at all, and I was quite all right with that. (More on that later.) But now that I was fleshing out the storyworld, I was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with


a) magic with no explained source,
b) a vaguely referenced act of creation,
and c) the existence of false gods but no True God.


I avoided the issue for as long as I could. When I was forced to face it head on, I hemmed and hawed, I complained to my family, and then I dumped the contents of my brain into a fresh document, which I promptly sent as an S.O.S.: DESPERATE HELP NEEDED to a writing buddy.


Turns out the brain dump and the following conversation were rather insightful, and probably a topic of interest to both writers and readers.


To Be or Not to Be?



Christian writers get hung up on a lot of things. One of the biggest? God in fiction. Should we include Him or omit Him? If we include Him, how do we keep from being preachy or trite? Will "religion" (for lack of a better term) feature heavily in the story, or will it be a light dose? If we omit God, does that run contrary to our faith, or can it be done in a way that still glorifies Him? Should we even be having this dilemma? Shouldn't it be a question of incorporating our fiction into God, not the other way around?


As you can see, many of us are bound up in fear over getting it right. How can we possibly fit all of God into a finite story? But that’s the thing. We can’t.


Even when writing a human character that literally exists only in your brain, you can't fit everything about them onto the page. Whether you're the kind of writer who keeps pages of details on your characters' personalities, appearances, and histories, or the kind of writer who keeps their characters as a cast of imaginary friends in your head, the fact remains. You know more about your character than what appears in the story. (And if you don't, you don't know them well enough yet.)


Now try writing yourself as a character—you can't fit even half of your personality on the page, and the bits you do write, you may struggle to portray accurately. (I suppose authors of memoirs and autobiographies have room for more of themselves, but even reading a book entirely about a single individual is still vastly different from sitting down and getting to know them face to face. There is always—always—more in person.)


So try writing everything about God's nature into a book. The only book that succeeded in that is the Bible, and I'm pretty sure there's even more we'll learn about Him in heaven! He is infinite, after all. Therefore . . .


Point #1: You can't fit all of God into your book. Instead, try to convey one or two aspects about Him, something that can be grasped or explored throughout the story.



And here's another:


Point #2: God can show up in fiction in two ways: as a theme or as a character.


Truth, love, and light show up anytime I write. That's just who I am. God is love, and He is the source of truth and light. So whether He is directly named or not, stories containing truth, love, and light bring Him honor because they are aspects of His nature. This is where God can be woven into a story's theme.

But sometimes a fantasy story calls for an allegorical representation of God. This is where He shows up as a character, and this is possibly the hardest thing to get right. (But remember point #1!) He may be visible to other characters and may interact with them face to face. Or He may be invisible, referenced only as other characters pray, worship, or think about Him.

Or there's a third option where God may show up as a character and as part of the theme.

So which is right for your story?


I can't answer that for you. That's something for you to think about, pray about, and experiment with. But I can offer a few thoughts and questions to get you going!

Pros and cons of God as a character


Pros
  • We've all wished God was physically here in front of us (at least I have!). Living vicariously through the characters, we get to imagine what it will be like to talk to Him face to face, touch Him, and hear Him speak. If written well, this can be very powerful for you, the characters, and the readers.
  • If you're writing an allegory, particularly if it's an allegory of Jesus's life on earth, you'll likely need a God-figure walking around.
  • It brings across an immediacy, a tangible presence.
  • It can breathe fresh life into our perception of God, especially when you shake up the uber religious picture of God as a stern, old man with a beard who zaps people from heaven. Let's see Him laughing, enjoying life and people! Let's see Him cry. Let's see the real Jesus of the Bible, but with different skin on.
Cons
  • You have to put words into God's mouth. That leaves you with two options: quoting directly from Scripture (which can feel shoehorned into the story), or penning your own words (and running the risk of portraying God inaccurately).
  • Therefore you may not feel comfortable writing Him as a character.
  • It takes a great deal of skill to write a God-figure that feels authentic and true to His nature. If your character falls short, well . . . Let's just say that chances are high He's quite important to your story, so a lot of it may crumble with Him.
  • Limiting an infinite being to a finite body can make Him come across as too small.

Examples that shone
  • Aslan (Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis) - Warm, mighty, mysterious, faithful, sacrificial. It's hard to even begin to sum him up! Perhaps the most succinct description is, "He's not a tame lion, you know." There's something wild, something awe-inspiring, about him. In this case, putting God in the finite body of a lion was not a disadvantage at all--as a reader, I always felt there was something more to him than what I could see. Something otherworldly.
  • Prince Aethelbald (Tales of Goldstone Wood, Anne Elisabeth Stengl) - As a picture of Jesus as the Lover of our souls, he persistently woos Una though she rejects him time and time again. Aethelbald is nothing remarkable to look at. Even his name is the furthest thing from romantic. But his heart beats truer and stronger than any of her other suitors, and by the time I finished reading Heartless, I was stunned by the incredible allegory. Again, presenting God as a flesh-and-blood character could have come across badly, but Anne Elisabeth Stengl gave him the same "something more" element that Aslan has. (Coincidentally, both characters hail from across the sea. Interesting.)

Pros and cons of God as a theme

Pros
  • This approach is more subtle.
  • It leaves the spotlight on human beings exemplifying Christ-like attributes, rather than putting them all into one character who represents God. These humans don't have to be perfect (in fact, please don't make them that way!), but they serve as examples for us to reach toward.
  • This can make your story more accessible to readers who don't consider themselves to be Christians, while still reflecting God in a beautiful way.
  • Not every story needs a Savior or Creator. Some are actually better off without it. It's all about the story's scope and purpose.
Cons
  • On the other hand, some stories do need a Savior/Creator character. In the case of The Brightest Thread, I had written in some false gods to give the storyworld more depth and texture. But by doing so, I created an imbalance, and then had to invent a God-like figure. If I had left God solely as the immaterial theme of the story, it wouldn't have sat well with me.
  • Without a God to rely on, your heroes' journeys may feel like they fall flat. Depending on what kind of story you're writing, your characters may need a higher power to bring about true transformation.
  •  Again, depending on the scope of your story, the themes you've so carefully woven into your story may be misconstrued as new age or a Disney-fied "follow your heart" sort of message.
Examples that shone
  • Lord of the Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)- Okay, okay, I know there technically is a God-figure (Il├║vatar), but to my knowledge he isn't really mentioned in LotR. However, we can all agree that numerous characters exemplify godly attributes like courage, love, kindness, wisdom, justice, grace, etc. Watching Frodo suffer as he carried the ring to Mordor, seeing Sam remain faithful to his friend the whole way, witnessing Gandalf face the Balrog . . . these examples impacted me more than some fictional God-figures have.
  • Reapers (Bryan Davis) - Technically this isn't fantasy, it's dystopian. (And God may come up later in the trilogy, I don't know.) But despite the fact that God isn't talked about, Phoenix embarks on a journey that will position him as a hero. A person who rescues the oppressed, who speaks for the voiceless, who defends the defenseless. All qualities that inspire us to do the same.

A note: these lists are in no way exhaustive, and they're not meant to sow doubt in your mind, dear writer! There are so many combinations of writing God as a character and/or as a theme (because you can definitely do both in the same story), and so many degrees therein. This whole post is meant simply to inspire careful consideration and deeper thought.

This isn't a salvation story


That's what I said when wrestling with the God question for The Brightest Thread. And even after deciding to incorporate a fictional God, the fact remained. This novel is not about a character "getting saved" or "finding Jesus." Some novels are, and that's great! But this particular novel is about two people sharing a love strong enough that they would each risk everything for the sake of the other; and about being willing to receive that kind of sacrificial love. That's it.

Characters briefly question God (who goes by another name in the novel), and they briefly reach out for His help. But these protagonists' journeys are not about faith.

I was discussing this with my writing buddy, and brought up the topic of evangelism. In leadership college last year, my leader said something that revolutionized the way I look at evangelizing. To paraphrase:

If a 0 is not knowing Christ, and a 10 is giving your life to Him, we often think that we have to bring someone from 0 to 10 all at once. But maybe all you're supposed to do in that encounter is bring someone from, say, a 3 to a 4. Just one step closer to knowing Jesus. You don't need to force a conversion on the spot. The next Christian to come along may bump that person up to a 5. Or you might be the person to meet someone at 9, and you get the chance to pray with them and see them become a 10.

"I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow." 1 Corinthians 3:6

[via Pinterest]
Maybe it's the same in fiction. We don't have to bring every character to a 10, nor do we have to do that for every reader. Maybe we just plant a seed. Or maybe the story is the water making it grow. What's important is that we are discipling.

Playing matchmaker



My writing buddy subconsciously uses a really cool method of figuring out how to portray God in her stories. She looks at what her story's theme is about--aka, what her main characters need to learn--and she traces that back to an aspect of God.


For example, one of her characters needed to learn about the importance of mercy over justice. So in that particular story, the God-figure's mercy and love are highlighted. She doesn't spend a lot of time on other topics, like God's wisdom or power or holiness. Just what's central to the theme. The result is a beautifully woven tapestry that doesn't bonk the reader over the head with an ill-written sermon.


However . . .



Please, please, PLEASE don't preach.


All of this stuff about figuring out how to portray God and tie in themes and character arcs may be better left as something to study after you've written your story! Especially if you're prone to write from a soapbox.


More and more, I'm learning that the process of writing a transformative story is supposed to transform me first, otherwise it's not authentic.


Writing themes that spring organically from the soil of character conflict and worldbuilding takes practice. A lot of it. But don't let that discourage you from trying, because that's how we all grow.


My friend told me, "Most of the time my characters teach ME things, instead of me trying to teach readers things." Couldn't have said it better myself! So when you're writing God into your stories, let Him surprise you. Let go of what you think you know, and see what happens.


"He who has ears, let him hear."



How and if you choose to convey God in fiction depends largely on your intended audience. But regardless of whether you're writing mainstream or for the Christian community, regardless of whether it's YA or middle grade or adult, resist the urge to explain yourself.


Jesus didn't. In the parables He told to the masses, His Father sometimes appeared as a landowner, a farmer sowing seed, a shepherd, a literal father, a master, a groom, and more. But most of the time, Jesus didn't explain the metaphor to His listeners. He left that up to them. Because when a person puzzles out the hidden meaning of a story themselves, the meaning sticks.


I think Jesus knew that those who were ready to know Him would find Him.

47 comments :

  1. YES to this post! This is honestly so fantastic. Often I struggle with trying to figure out how to incorporate God into my stories, and so often there is that fear you talked about, fear of portraying Him wrongly or not showing enough of Him.

    All of this is amazing, and it's helped me so much with my story already, so thank you so much! <3

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    1. I can relate! I guess we put double the pressure on ourselves--pressure as writers to create a captivating story, and pressure as Christians to do so in a God-honoring way.

      But I'm so very glad this helped you! Thank YOU, Melissa! <3

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  2. I love this! As a writer of mostly speculative fiction, I've thought about this a lot. Definitely going to save this to read again later!

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    1. Thanks, Meaghan! ^__^ Haha, I guess writers of contemporary or historical have it a little easier in the God department, don't they?

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  3. Religion in fantasy is certainly something I've been thinking about for my WIP. So much of culture and history depends on religious beliefs! But (as you said) I'm unwilling to create false religions without balancing it with the truth of God, and creating an echo of Christianity is difficult because I don't want to get it wrong.

    This is an excellent post and I'm sure it will help; thank you, Tracey!
    Jem Jones

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    1. Exactly! And I find fictional religion (true or false) comes across MUCH more realistically when it's bound up with the storyworld's culture and history, like you said. Glad to hear I'm not the only one wrestling with this!

      Thanks, Jem! ^_^

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  4. I made sure magic in my book came from the same source(The Maker) and I also weaved him into my book. (I call him Sher in my book.)

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    1. For the angels and supernaturals, I make sure if they are in human form, they make it known that's not their true form. Your cons and pros Tracey on a God in books is good. I think you did a good job bringing up something that not every author speaks about much less every person.

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    2. Sounds like you're off to a good start, Daisy! A book with magic AND angels--how intriguing... :)

      And I'm really glad you found this post helpful! I haven't read all that many articles/posts on this topic either, but I'm happy to start a conversation with all you awesome people.

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    3. I'm glad you find my book intriguing. I'll have to keep you in mind when I finish it. Advanced Readers are always an author's friend. :)

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    4. You may definitely keep me in mind! Depending on what I have going on when you finish, I may or may not be able beta read for you. :)

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  5. Very good post, Tracey! Well done.

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    1. Thanks, Mrs. D! Glad you think so. :D

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  6. Oh my gosh, this is a GREAT post! I've always struggled with this...do I incorporate a God and/or Jesus figure into my writing and make it into an allegory? Or do I simply let the story be and let the themes make evident that there is a God at work, even if He's not directly introduced...It's a dilemma. XD But this post really helps me! Thank you for sharing this! ^_^

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    1. THANK YOU! ^.^ It's so hard sometimes to decide which route to take, isn't it? I often think of Esther, the one book in the Bible which never once uses God's name. And yet His presence is all over the place! Esther's story is infused with it, and it's encouraged me many times.

      But anyways, I'm (again) glad to know I'm not alone in this and that the post helped you out! :D

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  7. Aaaahhhh! YOU POSTED THIS! I was soooo happy to see this on my dashboard. It's just SUCH a perfect source for figuring out how we want to incorporate God in our novels. All your points and pros and cons and examples are so helpful and really make me think.

    Your example of Lord of the Rings especially hit me. Because, you're right, it doesn't really mention the God-figure. BUT, those stories have helped my walk with Christ to an immeasurable level. God shines through that story probably more brightly than any other book I've ever read, and without there being a God-figure! But, as you said, the characters exemplify such godly attributes, and the story puts such stress on light vs. dark, God shines through it without ever having to be named! That example really makes me think, and reminds me that we CAN have good Christian books without blatantly putting a God-figure in them.

    But then there's things like Narnia and the Goldstone Wood books that also shine so brightly with God WITH the God-figure. I especially love what you said about shaking things up of this stern picture we often have of God and show Him laughing and crying and being the REAL Jesus. Such a good point!

    Anyways, I think it definitely all just comes down to the story and what the story NEEDS. What would Narnia be without Aslan, you know? It just all depends. And that's why this post is so perfect, because it helps us really think deeply about our stories and what direction we should take!

    Also, I was totally honored to be quoted! ^_^ And for you to use one of my methods. And I LOVE what you called it--"playing matchmaker". Perfect! XD

    Well, I thought this was going to be a shorter comment since we've already discussed all this, but I'm apparently incapable of short comments. XD And I LOOOOOVED this post and seeing the expanded, polished version! I am TOTALLY bookmarking it and coming back again and again before like...every book I write to help me decide how to incorporate God in it.

    Thank you, Tracey! This post and our discussions have been INVALUABLE. Seriously. They've helped me figure things out I've struggled with for YEARS. You're such a blessing! <3

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    1. Heehee, thanks to you! ;D

      I didn't specifically think of LotR until I sat down to write this post, but I agree! It's made such a big impact on me despite the fact God is never mentioned. I think fantasy as a genre more easily lends itself to themes of light vs. dark, which intrinsically mirrors Biblical truth. Sooo many things to think about on this topic!

      Yes, it can be beautiful either way! I couldn't imagine Narnia or Goldstone Wood without Aslan or the Prince of Farthestshore, just like you said... but neither could I imagine LotR being quite the same with an often-referenced God character.
      (On the point about the real Jesus, Ted Dekker's "A.D. 30" and Tosca Lee's "Iscariot" both take place during Jesus's time, and both offered a really cool look at Him!)

      I had to quote you! It was just such a great method! (And now that you've mentioned it was you I referenced, I guess I wouldn't have had to keep you anonymous. XD)

      Hahaaaa, never a short discussion with either of us, right? ;D *clutches heart* That's so sweet, thank you! I'm so glad it was a blessing! <3

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  8. You've got a lot of good points here. I'm much more likely to use Christian-based theme rather than actually incorporated God into my stories, especially because of the reservation against putting words in God's mouth or actions by His hands, etc. In my current W.I.P., I'm using a polytheistic deity system. I'm not sure how the themes will be as the story develops, but one of them is certainly about faith, even if the faith doesn't look much like the True Faith.

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    1. It's true, it's often easier to go the theme route. Good thing it can also be really powerful!

      A polytheistic system--now that WOULD be interesting to take from a Christian slant. All the best with that! :D

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  9. Thank you for this really thoughtful, thought-provoking post! I'm currently working on a fantasy novella, and the approach I'm going to take is, right now, just drafting it to get the plot structure right, and then going back and adding layers of character development and, finally, theme. I have a feeling there won't be an actual God-figure in the story, but there's lots of potential for themes that reflect who God is. So thanks for getting me thinking about how I can include that!

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    1. You're welcome! I'm glad it was thought-provoking! Ah, that's a good method. There's so much to think about when writing--plot, character, worldbuilding, dialogue, sentence structure, pacing--that leaving a few elements to build in during later drafts can be really helpful! The thematic approach is an excellent one! I hope the ideas flow for you.

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  10. This was so good, Tracey. I literally don't know what to say. . . Thank you for being vulnerable about your story and your writing journey, so we can learn from your journey too.
    "More and more, I'm learning that the process of writing a transformative story is supposed to transform me first". Seriously. I always prayed God would use the stories he put on my heart to bless others, but I had no idea how much they would teach ME!
    I've struggled a bit with how to do this with fantasy, and I'll remember this post. . . My favorite is usually something Tolkien-ish, that isn't explicitly Christian.

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    1. Your comment is so sweet, Hanna; thank you! <3 That is my hope, to share the journey with you.

      Yes, me too! I want these stories to help readers, but they also do so much for me. Isn't it amazing?

      Tolkien was a master at this! And when you look at the fans of LotR, doesn't it span the Christian AND the secular audiences? #goals

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  11. So thought provoking and important. I agree that Aslan and Aethalbald are the best examples ever of a God-character in fiction. I tend to do themes and not figures. But both options are valid and cool.

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    1. Aslan and Aethelbald--all the love for those two! <3 I'm glad to see so many commenters use themes. Allegories/God-figures are GREAT, but only as long as they're in the right place, you know?

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  12. You really gave me food for thought. I write Sci-fi, but I run into the same problem. Thank you so much!

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    1. Good point! I didn't even think of it from the sci-fi perspective. I'll bet that genre offers it's own problems to think through. (The humanity-or-not-humanity of cyborgs or androids, the implications alien life would have on salvation...the list goes on! XD)

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  13. This post is so on point and well developed! This is one I'll be coming back to! And yes, yes, yes to Narnia and LOTR as examples both made me grow as a Christian. Great post Tracey!

    Anna | www.worldthroughherheart.blogspot.com

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    1. Thank you, Anna! (And welcome to the blog, btw! *hands out cookies*) Narnia was huge for me as a kid and still is, and LotR really hit me as a teen too. It's wonderful how both series have impacted so many readers! :D

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  14. This is such a great discussion. I've also struggled with how much inclusion of God I want in my books and honestly it's different with each one. I love the line "spring organically from the soil of the character's conflict." That gave me such a beautiful picture!


    Storitorigrace.blogspot.com

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    1. It's definitely something to think about on a case-by-case basis! Every story is different. Aww, thanks! Metaphors are kiiiind of my favorite thing. XD

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  15. There is so much to talk about on this topic! I like those points you bring up, and how insightful they are. (also, I tip my hat to Christine, and her writerly wisdom!) Quite the meaty post- I'll probably be mulling over this topic for a while now.

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    1. I debated splitting it into two posts, but wanted to just heave it all onto the blogosphere at once. XD (Christine's just a fountain of that writerly wisdom!) I'm glad to have inspired some thoughts.

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  16. Wonderful post Tracey! I know I have struggled with this more than once.

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    1. Thanks, Skye! So have I, and I still do.

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  17. Lovely post, Tracey. This is something I have pondered in the past, and will ponder again in the future. I haven't settled this issue in my own mind yet, but I love what you've said and it's made me think. When I'm reading, I like seeing God as a theme more than a character because I think it's really hard to make God into a character and do it right (for the reasons you said). I also feel like it's easier to be preachy if God is a character.
    Whenever I put God into my own stories, I think I fall into the trap of trying to include everything about him in my story. I'll have to remember Point #1!

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    1. Many thanks, Abbey! I don't think there's ever a formula we can figure out on this. It's something that will be different for every story. Very true, it's SUPER easy to get preachy with God as a character. OH, that reminds me--I didn't delve much into God as an invisible character that we see characters pray/talk to like in real life. Haha, maybe there's enough there for a short follow up post in the future.

      Yes, point #1! We can't do it all! ;)

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  18. I love this! I have a couple novels where God is a character. I have some where aspects of His character are shown. And then some stories where He isn't outright obvious. I think each story needs to be told in a special way, but even if they don't out right say God, our words must still glorify Him.

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    1. Thanks, Keturah! Sounds like you've tried it several different ways. I agree, each story is special and calls for its own approach.

      I think even stories that don't necessarily talk ABOUT God can still glorify Him, like you said. Just think of Esther! God isn't mentioned by name once, and yet it's a book of the Bible--and we can see His work and His purpose all through Esther's life. ^_^

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  19. Tracey, what a wonderful post! This is something I wrestled with in TCATT, and then all over again in LesMisBook when suddenly I could no longer hide behind allegory! I suppose it comes down to writing every word trying to bring glory to God, and letting him work that out himself in the hearts of readers. I need to tell the story that God has put in my heart. That doesn't necessarily mean I'll put John 3:16 as the epigram of the book! But maybe the themes of the story can show the reader something that will lead them to thinking about Jesus. It is hard in the contemporary genre, and for a while I was worried that giving Nina a happy ending with Jesus was disingenuous. But in the end I decided that all I could do was convey Christian morals/the gospel (summarised for us in a coffee shop conversation by, guess who, Tracey Guthrie herself!) and leave the readers to think on from there. It is easier in fantasy, I think, though I still don't know exactly how my God figure will manifest himself finally in Some of the Trees, or how the characters will respond. But I can trust the Lord to guide me!

    Again, excellent post. I can tell how much thought you put into this, and you said some very wise things!

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    1. Thanks, Em! I feel as if I've wrestled with this in almost every single story I've written.

      But oh goodness, you're right--contemporary must be even more challenging! When you have almost zero options for allegory, how do you keep from preaching?? You bring up a good point, though. It's not ALL up to us, because God will speak through our words. Our job is to write the best we can, with our hearts in line with His, and He does the rest. <3

      Okay. Wow. I am now even MORE excited to read about Tracey Guthrie (have I mentioned I love the surname?) and this coffeeshop discussion! :D :D :D

      Another great point you made: leaving the reader to think. Bravo.

      Thanks again! I'm loving all the discussions that have come out of this post. ^_^

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  20. This is DEFINITELY a very real problem for us Christian writers... And something I've contemplated a time or two.

    For me, I like the Martin Luther quite that says a Christian shoemaker ought to make GOOD shoes, not tie little crosses to the shoes.

    (The funny thing is, that's my stance. I think Christian writers can write secular fiction and do it well and glorify God THROUGH that. But. In spite of it all, my book has a God-character???? Only lightly touched on, but STILL. Why. ;)))

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    1. I'm glad you found it relevant! :D

      Wow, that is a FANTASTIC quote! I think doing something with excellence, whether it's writing quality books or making great shoes, makes God look good. He's all about excellence too!

      (I've done it both ways! But lol, yes, my first fantasy novel has a very clear God figure.)

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    2. EXACTLY. Whatever is true and lovely and right. :)

      I guess that character was there even in the very early drafts and it felt weird to cut him??? Oh well. There are always other books. ;) I think I was so inspired by Elyon/the boy in Ted Dekker's Circle Trilogy that I may have stolen the idea just a bit...

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    3. Amen to that! ;)

      I hope the whole post didn't come across as saying that writing a God-figure is a bad idea! Because it CAN be done in a very real and dynamic way. (I just know personally that my first God-figure could use some work, lol.) Ah, what a great series to be inspired by! :D

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