Why Most Modern Christian Allegories Fail (and How to Prevent This)

As of this Saturday, I’ve been reviewing submissions at Kingdom Pen for four years. During this time, I have seen several trends in content that’s submitted for publication.

Few are as prevalent as allegories.

Roughly half our fiction submissions are allegories of some form. But I can count on one hand the number of allegories I’ve approved to be published over the past four years.Why_Most_Modern_Christian_Allegories_Fail_(and_How_to_Prevent_This)

Simply put, most modern Christian allegories are terrible. Somewhere along the road, it seems that Christian writers began to believe that traditional rules of writing compelling, three-dimensional characters and subtle, non-preachy themes don’t apply to allegories. As a result, most modern allegories I’ve read follow the same blatant retelling of the Gospel story centered around a conversion narrative with flat characters and a predictable storyline. Bonus points if Christ literally shows up in the story or it’s set in a generic fantasy environment.

This problem largely stems from our culture’s general ignorance of what constitutes a true allegory. If you ask people to name some allegories, Pilgrim’s Progress and The Chronicles of Narnia are usually the first (and possibly only) allegories they list. Lewis and Bunyan both wrote magnificent allegories, but they wrote specific types of allegory. The genre of allegory is more expansive than Lewis and Bunyan’s take on it.

Writing good allegories requires learning that the genre surpasses Lewis and Bunyan. Studying other authors will reveal the secret to why most modern allegories fail, and how we can do better.

Defining Allegory

Before we plunge into this, it’s important to define our terms. The Cambridge Dictionary describes an allegory as “a story, play, poem, picture, or other work in which the characters and events represent particular moral, religious, or political qualities or ideas.”

However, we need to distinguish between two different types of stories: those in the genre of allegory and those containing elements of allegory. As our Theme Mastery students will attest, most characters will embody ideas or worldviews of some sort in great works of literature. Thus, one could argue that these literary works comprise allegorical elements even if they aren’t in the actual genre of allegory.

This is the difference between works like Pilgrim’s Progress and The Divine Comedy as opposed to Crime and Punishment or Pride and Prejudice. In all four works, different characters embody different worldviews. However, the former two are clearly set in an allegorical genre with deeper symbols while the latter two are not.

In this article I’ll concentrate on the allegory genre—where the story itself, not just its meaning, deals with transcendent realities.

Debunking a Central Misconception about Allegories

I’ve noticed that a certain myth is widespread in allegories I’ve read. Few authors explicitly tout this myth, but many infer it through their writing.

So let’s get this straight: allegories are NOT simply retellings of the Gospel with switched names.

Most of the allegories submitted to Kingdom Pen feature a character named “the Son,” “the Prince,” “the Knight,” or other Christlike figure who dies for the characters in the story before being raised from the dead. Many people have read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and I suspect they write this kind of allegory to imitate Lewis.

But The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is only one variant of allegory.

If you examine other allegories, you’ll see that no one else replicates Lewis. The great Medieval allegorists—men like Dante, Langland, Boethius, and Spenser—didn’t retell the Gospel with their allegories. They assumed the Gospel to be true and took their allegories in very different directions.

Or, you could peruse the greatest allegory of all.

I’m of course referring to the Old Testament.

Most (if not all) of the Old Testament points to Christ in veiled images. We have the tabernacle, the Temple, and the whole sacrificial system, all of which foreshadow Christ’s sacrifice. We have figures like Moses, Jonah, and Melchizedek, who were types of Christ. The flood prefigures baptism, Jacob’s ladder epitomizes the reunion between heaven and earth that would be accomplished through Christ, and so on.

All these examples allude to the Gospel, but without being simplistic retellings. The symbols are deep, the stories complex, and the purpose is not immediately apparent. As it should be.

Readers have already heard a Gospel retelling from another author. Give them something new.

The Central Rule of Writing Allegories

This leads us to the core rule I would like to propose on writing allegories. It’s short and sweet but requires a lot of work to implement—as all writing does. Ninety percent of the allegories I reject disregard this basic principle:

Allegories must present realities in a new light.

This is why most Gospel retellings flop. I haven’t glimpsed anything in a new light—I’ve only been reminded of facts I already know or have seen in other allegories. Contrast this to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which personalizes the redemptive narrative of the Gospel, or The Divine Comedy, which reimagines heaven and hell to show readers the true nature of sin and virtue. These works introduce new symbols and meanings that invite readers to look at familiar objects in a revelatory way.

Allegories are founded on symbols. And symbols work like metaphors: the more they’re used, the less effective they become. To write a solid allegory, you need to create distinct, intriguing symbols that revitalize familiar topics. If you can’t do this, ask yourself why you’re writing an allegory in the first place.

More than most other genres, allegories can’t be derivative. You can’t rely on other people’s symbols. When Lewis situated the Gospel story in a fantasy realm, it was fresh and original and caused readers to think about the story in a new light. But when writers today try to mimic his allegorical style, they often fail because it’s already been done. That’s not to say you can’t ever place the Gospel story in a fantasy realm. But if it will be the focus of your story, it needs to be unique like Narnia was.

The Basic Rules of Storytelling Still Apply

A second myth that many authors seem to implicitly believe about allegory is that it operates from rules divergent to normal storytelling. Subtlety is considered unnecessary and characters only need to represent a certain ideology instead of also being well rounded and fascinating.

Just to clear the table, let’s quickly review four pertinent rules of storytelling:

  1. Preachiness is still bad. As I’ve emphasized before, fiction works best if its message is unobtrusive and subtly moves the emotions. Sometimes authors think it’s permissible to be blatant with message and symbolism in allegories, but that isn’t the case. If you want to influence readers to view an issue differently, subtlety is the best method.
  2. Characters still need to be complex. Just because they represent an ideology or worldview does not excuse them being flat or boring. If you survey all the great allegories, you’ll observe that the characters have as much personality as the characters in other works of literature. Characterization is important regardless of genre.
  3. The plot still needs to be surprising. Like I mentioned above, I can often foresee an allegory’s conclusion from a mile off. Since most Christian allegories are tied to the Gospel narrative, the authors feel the need to close with the culmination of the Gospel as well. This makes a story predictable and dull. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use a Gospel narrative. But you need to make the story unique and suspenseful—like you should with any other type of story. Don’t presume that a Gospel narrative alone will generate a captivating plot. Give the reader something original.
  4. You still need to write difficult Focusing Questions. This is perhaps most relevant to my Theme Mastery students. As I explain in the course, exceptional novels are built around tough questions about morality and reality that are complicated to answer. The same concept relates to allegories. An allegory will be weak if it’s constructed around a simple question of whether Christianity is right or wrong, or if good will triumph over evil. (Although these questions certainly can be and are challenging to resolve in the real world, modern allegories often don’t explore them with much depth.) Instead, great allegories delve into enigmas like: “What are we created to be?” (The Divine Comedy), “How do you pursue holiness in a corrupt world?” (The Faerie Queene, book one), or “How do you find the power to achieve your desires?” (The Magician’s Nephew).

Examples of Good Allegories

After spending most of this article expounding the faults of modern allegories, I’ll now direct you to allegories that are worth studying to understand the genre. Two are Medieval, one is modern.

The first is The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri. Written in the thirteenth century, it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to literary perfection achieved this side of heaven. Although I had to read the epic three times to comprehend it, the story is a breathtakingly brilliant examination of what sin turns us into and what we can become if we allow ourselves to be transformed by the love of God.

The second is book one of The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser. This work explores the hardships of pursuing holiness in a fallen, complicated world and has a ton of symbolic depth. As fair warning, however, this is a difficult book to read as Spenser intentionally uses archaic language. If you’re going to read this book, pick up the Fierce Wars and Faithful Loves edition, which is much easier to understand.

Finally, the last allegory I recommend is the film The Song, directed by Richard Ramsey. This straddles the line of being in the genre of allegory or merely having strong allegorical elements, but it retells the story of Solomon in a modern context that powerfully puts viewers in Solomon’s shoes and leads them to consider the tensions between fame and family.

The Need for Well-Written Allegories

I think Christian authors tend to resort to writing allegory because it’s the only way they know to weave their faith effectively into their stories. (Hint: it’s not. At the risk of sounding self-promotional, check out our Theme Mastery course to learn a better approach to infusing faith in your writing.) If this is your reason for writing allegory, you probably should question your decision.

However, I’m not suggesting that allegories should be discarded. We need them—and that’s why I wrote this article. Many of the greatest works of literature are allegories and I believe the genre has immense potential. But you need to learn how to write one first. View allegories as a sub-genre of storytelling, use them to shed a new perspective on familiar concepts, and you’ll have taken the first steps toward writing an engaging allegory.

Profile photo of Josiah DeGraaf
Josiah DeGraaf is a high school English teacher and literature nerd who fell in love with stories when he was young and hasn’t fallen out of love ever since.
He writes because he’s fascinated by human motivations. What causes otherwise-good people to make really terrible decisions in their lives? Why do some people have the strength to withstand temptation when others don’t? How do people respond to periods of intense suffering? What does it mean to be a hero?
These questions drive him as a reader, and they drive him as a writer as well as he takes normal people, puts them in crazy situations (did he mention he writes fantasy?), and then forces them to make difficult choices with their lives.
Someday, Josiah hopes to write fantasy novels with worlds as imaginative as Brandon Sanderson’s, characters as complex as Orson Scott Card’s, character arcs as dynamic as Jane Austen’s, themes as deep as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s, and stories as entertaining as Wayne Thomas Batson’s. In the meantime, you can find him writing articles here or short stories at his website (link below) as he works toward achieving these goals.
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Comments

  1. Jada Morrison says:

    That is such a good point about all the allegories in the OT. They are so rich and deep!

  2. Hardly anybody I know has ever heard of Langland or Boethius, much less actually read them. And I love the Divine Comedy.

    I’ve had a lot of conversations about allegory, and it’s hard to find satisfying ones (even our own Hope Ann’s novellas fell a little short, probably in part because of the confines of word limits). But I hadn’t thought before that the root problem was that the point of an allegory is to be new, and most allegories fail at that.

    Maybe bad writing sells, and people like to read bad allegories, but I doubt they’ll last. It’ll be the good ones, like Dante, who stick around for centuries.

    • Can’t blame most people for not having heard of Langland. =P Boethius is amazing, though, and a lot more people need to read Consolation of Philosophy.

      I would qualify that slightly by saying that it’s less that allegories need to be new, more that they need to present familiar things in a new light or from a new perspective. But yes–the major benefit of time is that its a great way to weed out bad books and preserve the good ones. 🙂

  3. Thanks for awakening me to the potential of allegory. I like a good allegory, but this article made me more excited about it.

    This will be especially helpful since my next book will be part of a partially-allegorical trilogy I’m writing in (guess what?) a medieval fantasy world. Knowing theme pretty well and having read the Silmarillion certainly helps. I think my basic framework so far is very solid and takes an original twist on things, but this article is freaking me out and making me realize I need to be even more careful in developing my symbolism.

    Btw, Seasons Of Grey is a pretty good allegory of the life of Joseph. The storyline is predictable of course, but the characters are well done and it feels like its own story, not just a retelling.

    • Heh. Tolkien would probably have our heads for referring to Silmarillion as an allegory, but there are definitely some allegorical elements in there, even if I wouldn’t personally classify it in the allegory genre. Glad to hear this article was helpful!
      Haven’t heard of Seasons of Grey before, but I may need to check it out now.

      • Yeah, well, that’s kinda the point. His allegories were good because they weren’t allegories, at least in the standard sense. He used a couple twists of mythology to strip allegory of its strict form and yet still keep the same essence. Like how Melkor is basically Satan, but the focus is greatly removed from him because Sauron takes his place.

  4. … I am now half flattered, half horrified, in realizing the very narrow escape my very first submission to KP had from being dumped, especially as I now realize it had some pretty significant issues… 😛 *wipes brow**shivers*
    Beautiful article though, Josiah. The distinction between full allegory and stories with allegorical elements was something I’d been puzzling over and this helped me straighten it out.
    Question— am I the only person who thinks that the entirety of the Chronicles of Narnia was an allegory? Even The Horse and His Boy and Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair, that don’t have any one particular allegorical picture. They all have deep themes and pictures of different facets of Christianity— Prince Caspian being the grafting in of the gentiles, for instance, and The Silver Chair being, among other things, the struggle of the exiled church to maintain a pure faith in a world clouded with distractions and misdirections of every kind? Or would that just be a case of allegorical elements in a thematically excellent story?

    • Haha; as I recall, I liked your writing style a lot in the piece even if the allegory was bit more on the basic side of the spectrum. So yes. Congrats on being one of the few who made it through the gauntlet. 😉

      Ooh–I had not considered that before, but I really like those points. Especially the one of Caspian and the Telemarines being the grafting in of the Gentiles. Voyage of the Dawn Treader has always struck me as being a bit of an allegory of the Christian life, but I don’t know how much of that is the movie interpretation tinting my lenses as I haven’t read the book in a long time. =P My gut reaction is to say that most of them more have allegorical elements than belonging to the allegory genre, but with the exception of Magician’s Nephew, I haven’t read the books in at least six years, so I’d need to re-read them to have a more educated opinion on it.

      • … don’t even talk to me about the movie interpretation of TVotDT. *shudders* Just… no. It stripped away so much and just became a skeleton of cliche fantasy elements with cringe-worthy character development and just… no. *is good and doesn’t rant*

        You should read them again. I did recently, and picked up on SO MUCH that I had previously missed. C.S. Lewis wasn’t always right theologically, but my respect for him as an author went wayyyy up when I was finally old enough to appreciate the depth of meaning in those seemingly simple stories.

  5. This is an article that needed to be written—although it makes me all the more horrified at some of the stories I used to write. I still lean toward medieval fantasy in both reading and writing, but I think that’s mostly a matter of personal taste. 😉

    Have you ever heard of The Wilderking Trilogy by Jonathan Rogers? It’s an allegory of King David’s life, but the similarities aren’t obvious (I’d almost finished the first book before I realized the connection) and the plot isn’t predictable. The author’s style has an unusual vibe to it that’s amusing and fun to read (people have called it a mixture of C.S. Lewis and Mark Twain). 🙂 He wrote a hilarious spin-off book to the series titled The Charlatan’s Boy, which featured the same setting, but wasn’t allegorical.

    • Well, as an avid reader and writer of fantasy myself, I certainly wouldn’t want people’s major takeaway be to no longer write fantasy. xD

      I actually had that on my bookshelf for a long time since I was considering attending the college Rogers teaches at. Unfortunately, I never got around to reading the book (or attending his college), and had to return the book, but I’ve heard good things about it and will have to keep my eye out for it!

  6. I’m curious. Why and how do you think these faulty allegories became so popular? Is it because our society doesn’t value excellent art? Is it because church leaders wanted alternatives to popular books with elements they disagreed with? You’d think that people would search out and extol excellence rather than poorly written remakes. 😐

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately about why some people really like stories that by many standards seem to be objectively-terrible (or why some people dislike stories that by many standards seem to be objectively-brilliant). When I figure out for sure, I’ll probably write up an article on it, since I think it’s important for writers to understand what exactly draws different readers for these books. xD Right now, though, my running theory is that it has to do with what readers are familiar with. If you haven’t read many great stories, you may think faulty allegories are good because they /are/ good in comparison to what your reading selection has been. So a limited reading pool may be tied to that. But I think some of it may have to do with misunderstanding the role of stories. Some people (particularly in the Christian world, but I’ve seen this in the secular world as well; see: The Handmaid’s Tale) really just want stories that reaffirm their beliefs and explicitly state the story’s message without any artistry.

      I also wonder how much is tied to a disposition held by some Christians that fiction is just a waste of time (http://kingdompen.org/is-fiction-inherently-worse-than-nonfiction/). If you view fiction as a waste of time because it doesn’t directly “teach” anything, I think you’ll be more likely to like poorly-written stories because they’re trying to teach like non-fiction does instead of how fiction does (through use of examples and poetic justice).

      • I can’t wait for that article to come out. 😉

        I think all of those points are true, though in the Christian world, my personal observation leads me to suspect that the root problem is that people simply don’t have a proper understanding of what fiction is and aims to be, what its use is, and how it teaches. On the one side, we have people who see fiction as just a form of entertainment and read junk pulp fiction that turns them into junk pulp people. The other side doesn’t understand the point of darkness in fiction, is almost afraid of literature, and sees demons everywhere. I have to say, between these two wrong positions, I really honestly appreciate the thought behind this second one, but it’s so often taken too far. I think people in this camp have the problem of confusing what characters do and say with the point the author is trying to make. When these people go out to write their own fiction, I think their heart is so much in the right place that their mind totally is flying off in space and out of orbit. I think when they are introduced to the idea of making their story more emotional, they translate that as being more trendy, which is obviously ridiculous. The problem is that Christians treat fiction with a “good box, bad box” mentality instead of using principles based in a thorough understanding of what fiction is. Even if they are open minded, they don’t know what they are dealing with.

      • Ooooh. That really explains a lot. I think I’ve seen that sentiment running around-that fiction is a waste of time. I suppose that idea would explain why when I was little I thought the abridged version of A Little Princess was amazing. It was, compared to what I had been reading. But when I read the real thing, I saw how poor the abridged version was, compared to the excellence in the original.
        I’ll be looking out for that article, @aratrea And thank you @daeus for adding about the good box and bad box mentalities.

  7. Okay: question. I started out writing fantasy allegories several years ago, doing every single thing you shouldn’t do, i.e. retelling the Gospel with switched names. Recently I’ve developed a desire to make my writing more unique, but here’s my problem: every time I try to create a fantasy world and show Christian truths, I remember that you can’t have Truth without having Jesus. My recurring issue is that there has to be a higher power in order for Truth to work. So you have to have some sort of redemption and savior and deity. Which brings you back to a retelling of the Gospel story. Do you have any suggestions for me on how to figure this out? Does it simply take a reimagininf, as in Grieve MacDonald’s “The Princess and the Goblin”?

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