As much as I appreciate saying “you” instead of “thou,” I can’t help feeling that modern English has lost some of the richness our language once possessed. The word awful is a prime example. Today we use it to mean “bad” or “disgusting,” but its original definition was more along the lines of: “inspiring such awe and admiration as to border on terror.”
I don’t think we have a word for that emotion anymore, or even any concept of what it looks like.
In my opinion, an understanding of the sheer awfulness of Christianity is the primary ingredient missing from Christian fiction today. I hope to combat this deficiency by delineating three areas where writers can improve their portrayal of Christianity.
God as an Antagonist
I will start with how we view God, since this forms the cornerstone for how we view everything else. We are in grave danger of misrepresenting God. Whatever led the ancients to craft gods in their own image is still at work today. Yet it has evolved. Instead of fashioning gods in the likeness of ourselves, we treat God as a servant who is beneath us. In Christian literature, God is often cast as the one prompting people to come to him and find the answers to all their troubles. God is essentially a mentor figure or sidekick. He is there to help the protagonist reach his goals through gentle reminders and friendly persuasion. Of course, God usually isn’t an actual character in the story. He’s seen indirectly, but this is still the impression we get of him. Although he seems nice, it’s like he’s tacked on to the plot.
Technically this view isn’t wrong, because God is the answer to all our problems, but we risk minimizing him if this is the only side we display. In many ways, God is also our antagonist. Note that an antagonist is not the same as a villain. A villain is an evil character. An antagonist opposes the protagonist, but may do so for benevolent reasons. Let’s examine Scripture concerning God as an antagonist:
“And the word of the Lord came to me, saying, ‘Son of man, set your face toward Jerusalem, preach against the holy places, and prophesy against the land of Israel; and say to the land of Israel, “Thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, I am against you, and I will draw My sword out of its sheath and cut off both righteous and wicked from you.'”‘” (Ezekiel 21:1-3, NKJV)
“For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights.” (Proverbs 3:12, NKJV)
I could rest my case here, but since this is such a prevalent issue in our age, I feel burdened to emphasize this point more. We don’t like the God of the Bible whose majestic presence would instantly cause us to fall on our faces dead. We’re more comfortable with a tame, gentlemanly Zeus. Worse, this may be the type of god we actually believe in. It’s tempting to make God kind and relatable so Christianity will appeal to readers, therefore bloating the statistical number of “converts” to a deceptive level that will eventually come to rue. How can a god who is below readers call them to higher ground?
God is equally and fully love and wrath. Unfortunately, you might not assimilate this from much Christian fiction. The Bible testifies in Galatians 3:24: “The law was our tutor to bring us to Christ.” Thus God should be shown primarily as an antagonist and not an amiable helper. Although I certainly believe in God as a good shepherd, he begins as our enemy until we are reconciled to him, and many novels are based on the need for reconciliation in one sense or another.
Though it was unintentional, God ended up being the main antagonist in my novel Edwin Brook. It’s not immediately obvious, but it is the case. That aspect alone deepened my story without adding anything cliché or cheesy. Try it for yourself.
How this plays out will depend upon your story, but basically God should be resistant to the protagonist’s goal. In my own story, the protagonist sought an immoral goal he considered laudable, but he was continually thwarted by uncanny events and tragedies. God appeared to be his enemy. He found no comfort in God and no hope.
Only when a character affirms that God is omnipotent will he experience the fullness of God’s mercy. Then the grace and love will be believable and intense. Readers will comprehend this depiction of God because that is how they sense him in their own lives. Christians will remember the dark times when God seemed distant and uncaring, even though he was simply guiding them away from destructive actions and desires.
A non-Christian reader will be able to look at the evil and suffering in the world and realize that God is his enemy because he’s rejected him. Maybe he won’t be that honest, but because your story reflects real life, he will at least enjoy it.
The Weight of Morality
Christianity is a religion that takes morality seriously.
“For the one who obeys the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10, NET)
“If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off! It is better for you to enter into life crippled than to have two hands and go into hell, to the unquenchable fire.” (Mark 9:43, NET)
Thankfully, God provided a way for us to be saved, but his holiness is still important. We need to present it in our literature. This does not mean we proclaim how terrible sin is, but we do write from that perspective. We also must not ignore the allure of sin, but we should address how its attractiveness is deceptive. (Hint: making God an antagonist in your story can help demonstrate the consequences of sin without being preachy.)
If we merely settle for stereotypical, jolly old good-behaviorism, we will cheat our stories and our readers’ souls. We should be terrified of sin, or we may belittle it.
Don’t ignore your character’s conscience (if he has one). Confront moral issues that puzzle you personally instead of simply glossing over the dilemmas in your novels. Show that the heart is desperately wicked and that it’s not enough to have the “right motives.” Be willing to explore the dark recesses of the human soul to bring the light there.
You may presume that stressing the repercussions of sin will make your book seem like a cheesy, in-your-face Christian story, but the exact opposite is true. Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Nathaniel Hawthorn, and William Golding (who as far as I know were not Christians), all wrote books that grapple with the results of sin and are among the best of the classics. Since God created the world and is incredibly artistic, those who write accurately about his world must be exceptional artists. As Christians, we have a distinct advantage over the moral relativists of our age, because we are willing to wrestle with the world’s greatest conflict (sin), whereas they won’t admit it exists. Everyone instinctively knows sin is a problem though, and thus the moral conflict in our stories will be relatable to all readers.
We tend to treat morality as a side issue compared to our story’s conflict, but we are being flippant if we do so. Morality is the conflict. It is an awful reality we must face, but it is also a beautiful thing that can reveal our need for mercy.
The Vastness of Eternity
Man is deeply concerned with the future, but God’s plans are too marvelous for him to fathom.
“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also He has put eternity in their hearts, except that no one can find out the work that God does from beginning to end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11, NKJV)
All humans are obsessed with their eternal state in some way or another. For the pagans, this manifested itself in deceased kings being buried with piles of treasure for the afterlife. For the modern man, since he doesn’t acknowledge an afterlife, storing his treasure in a tomb seems a waste, so he saves up as much money as possible to enjoy his current life to the maximum. Nevertheless, when he dies, it is not more money he wishes for, but to have done more acts of eternal value. Eternity wins again.
When I was young, I spent many hours pondering what I would do in heaven. I worried I might run out of things to do and get bored. Now I understand how infinite God’s creation and wonder really is, but despite my early folly, eternity was on fire in my heart, and that was a good thing.
As Christians, we realize that all humans will spend their eternal destinies either in a lake of fire or a kingdom of unending glory. This should make our skin crawl, but also give us incredible hope. How can we sit on the brink of a future so terrible and majestic, yet write empty stories?
Not all novels need to encompass the idea of heaven, but they should always awaken a longing for such a place. I’ve adopted this as a core element of my mission as a writer: whether my stories are overtly Christian or not, I want to stir up the yearning for eternal bliss that is within every person and show them how shallow their current satisfactions are.
Novels about protagonists seeking temporal satisfaction turn out temporal as a result. Stories that reach for the eternal, however, transcend time.
One of the best examples of a story with an eternal focus is Cry the Beloved Country. Under a section titled “Note on the 1987 Edition,” the author, Alan Paton, cites himself on what his book is about:
“It is a song of love for one’s far distant country, it is informed with longing for that land where they shall not hurt or destroy in all that holy mountain, for that unattainable and ineffable land where there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying for the land that cannot be again, of hills and grass and bracken, the land where you were born. It is a story of the beauty and terror of human life, and it cannot be written again because it cannot be felt again.”
I cannot encourage you enough to read that book. It is a thematic masterpiece. No other book I’ve ever read grows so much the longer I have been away from it. It reaches for the infinite.
I don’t think Alan Paton was a master storyteller, or that he reached for eternity through a formula. He had an instinctive grasp on theme, but in the hands of another equally skilled writer, the story wouldn’t have been anywhere near as powerful. Alan Paton couldn’t contain his longing for eternity and it spilled onto his pages.
We shouldn’t be able to hide it either. If we recognize the awfulness of eternity and what is at stake, it will naturally flow into our writing.
The Heart of the Matter
“Out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34, NKJV)
Although compelling writing is primarily wrought through practice, patience, and mentorship, the state of our hearts also influences our stories. I fear that shallow worldviews are to blame for the lameness of Christian literature today. We depict a god who is below us, actions without weight, and “purpose” without eternity, and we wonder why our stories are pathetic.
Perhaps we’ve been placing work done in the name of Christ above Christ himself. I struggle to keep my ambition to do great deeds for Christ from obstructing my relationship with God, trusting and relying on him, and exploring his personality more intimately. Only Christ can make our novels magnificent, not us.
We can never write stories that will truly awe readers unless we are in awe of God’s glory and the paradoxes of his nature. Let us never forget the immense love of our God, or the awfulness of his nature.
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