51E0ZN6GHKL._SX288_BO1,204,203,200_Glenn Cook isn’t much of a fan of organized religion. Did you know that? I honestly can’t say that for certain. I don’t know him personally. However, that is the very, very strong feeling that I get from his novels. He seems to have it in for priests, religious fanatics, etc. Similarly, Steven Erikson dislikes (though perhaps despises is too strong a word) the idea of salvation by grace or by the sacrifice of another. Man must redeem himself because man is the only one who can redeem himself. Again, I can’t say this from personal knowledge, but the theme that man must redeem himself is certainly very strong in Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series. Similarly, Lars Walker believes that even truly evil men can be redeemed (Year of the Warrior) while C. S. Lewis believes that good guys can make mistakes and be redeemed, but truly even people cannot be redeemed but must be destroyed (The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; Voyage of the Dawntreader; The Last Battle; etc).  You might be surprised how much of your conscious and unconscious beliefs come through in your fiction. It’s possible to simply allow your ideas to be spread, unfiltered, through the stories that you write, and to some degree this probably happens with all of us. However, it’s also possible to be intentional about the messages that come through in the stories you tell. In his Poetics Aristotle argued that everything we write should have two goals: 1) to entertain, and 2) to educate. A work of non-fiction that isn’t entertaining is unlikely to do much to inspire the reader and stick in his mind, but a work of fiction that is trite and superficial has little, if anything, in the way of actual value–in fact it may even inspire vice (…Charlaine Harris, I’m looking at you…).

Victor_Hugo_by_Étienne_Carjat_1876_-_fullOf course, anyone can misread what you write. In fact, I just had a student who submitted a paper confidently explaining that Augustine believed that man was completely free of God and that he had no need of a deity for goodness, morality, happiness, or fulfillment. If you’ve every read Augustine you will recognize that this is literally the exact opposite of what he argued (I’m pretty sure that my student read all of half a chapter from Confessions). However, the fact that some people will probably misunderstand what you write through their own ignorance and carelessness is no excuse for you not to consider the messages that you are presenting. In fact, the best of fiction (whether modern fiction, science fiction, fantasy, etc) has always had something meaningful to say about the world. This is true of the Greek poets, of Plato, of Lucretius, of Thomas More, Jules Verne,  Victor Hugo, Miguel Cervantes, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austin, Gustave Flaubert, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, Robert Heinlein, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, and Steven Erikson. This is not to say that there are not good authors who aren’t trying to say something specific or solve some problem. For instance, I enjoy Kim Harrison’s books, but I don’t find much in the way of educational value in them. However, I also wouldn’t put Kim Harrison in the same league as any of the above authors and I don’t know anyone who would. So, just as we can use our own writing to figure out what we believe, we can and should use our writing to point others towards truth and goodness. Now, as any philosopher or psychologist will tell you, what Person A believes are true and good may not be the same as what Person B believes are true and good, and thus we wind up with a variety of opinion, presented in a variety of ways, both in fiction and in non-fiction.*

quote-art-for-art-s-sake-is-an-empty-phrase-art-for-the-sake-of-the-true-art-for-the-sake-of-the-good-george-sand-310004However, this doesn’t mean the the message should overwhelm the story. This is one of the mistakes that Heinlein has been accused of (though I think it is only true in some of his novels), and in my opinion it is one of the problems that tends to plague the Christian fiction genre. Remember that what you write should be educational and entertaining. If your message comes at the expense of meaningful and individual characters who as in consistently believable ways (like those Christian novels where everyone miraculously changes their minds and get saved at the end), or long philosophical diatribes overwhelm the flow of your story and action (Heinlein and Hugo both do this in places), then you wind up sacrificing entertainment for education and you wind up with a boring door-stop of a book. Similarly, if you cut out your philosophy for the sake of keeping the story ‘action-packed’ and ‘titillating’ then you wind up sacrificing education for the sake of entertainment and you wind up with a trite, meaningless, and mindless work. So, the key here is to balance entertainment and education in your novels. That is, to develop a world, characters, and a story that can convey the viewpoints, beliefs, and ideas that you wish to spread in a way that effectively engages the mind of the reader while simultaneously making him/her think deeply about the fundamental nature of truth, beauty, and goodness in the world.**


*This is not to say that there is no moral reality. I will and have argued stringently that the idea of a world lacking moral reality is not only terrifying, but also meaningless. If there is no moral reality than all of the concepts upon which we base society (i.e. truth, goodness, beauty, justice, etc) are entirely meaningless and there is absolutely no reason to prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany. However, it is very obvious that the vast majority of people from the vast majority of widely divergent cultures do prefer modern American society to Nazi Germany (though they may not be fond of either), and this should tell us that perhaps there actually is a reason to do so. Moral relativism, in all of its varieties, while popular on the street and with a few discrete groups of philosophers today has never been particularly popular among the majority of philosophers from a wide variety of different traditions throughout history. …In fact, did you know that relativism, in some form, has been presented in virtually every philosophical tradition (i.e. Chinese, Indian, Continental European, British, Greek, American, etc) and in virtually all of them it has been soundly rejected (I will argue that we are in the midst of seeing this happen in the American tradition). Looking at the history of relativism is actually kind of like watching a very long game a wack-a-mole.

**I refer here to three of the four fundamentals of classical metaphysics: the true–or the form of truth (i.e. reality), the beautiful–or the form of beauty (i.e. the truly pleasing), the good–or the form of goodness (i.e. the truly desirable). The fourth is the one–or the form of unity (i.e. the truly simple or that which has no parts).


One thought on “Fiction as Theology Part 3: Communicating Your Message

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