Theological Fiction: Should There Be Boundaries? : 2008-08-03
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Some Christians believe that fiction legitimizes any theological approach to writing. After all, it's "just a story." Not all faiths agree. Many Muslims decided that Salman Rushdie crossed a forbidden line with the publication of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Apparently at least one would-be bomber has died attempting to fulfill the Iranian fatwa issued against Rushdie in retaliation for the book's perceived insult to Muhammad. While no Christian is going to call for the death of an author, are Muslims correct in taking the theological message of novels seriously? Let's consider some of the factors.

The word "fiction" comes from a Latin word meaning "to create." Good fiction is an imaginative work that entertains, but often instills values and teaches beliefs as well. I define "Christian fiction" as any story that seeks to present a Christian worldview, with some explicit mention of Jesus Christ and Christian doctrine. "Theological fiction" is more narrow, as it seeks to teach us something about God and Christianity, not just about people who are influenced by Christianity in some way. Current examples include Brian McLaren's A New Kind of Christian series and William Paul Young's The Shack, while an older example would be In His Steps: What Would Jesus Do?, written by Charles Monroe Sheldon in 1897 (you thought WWJD was recent?).

In contrast to those novels, I would not classify The Chronicles of Narnia as theological fiction. Lewis insisted that it wasn't even allegory, although his distinction between allegory and supposal slips past most of us. In short, Lewis does not mean for Narnia to parallel our world exactly, as a strict allegory would. Rather, if we "suppose" there was a world like Narnia, how might redemption look in that world if God became incarnate there? This approach gives an author a great deal of flexibility, and requires the theology of the supposed world to be judged on its own merits rather than to match up exactly with the theology of our world. Since Lewis does not purport to teach theology about our world (although one may argue that his views of our world are bound to color the imaginative world of Narnia), the series is not theological fiction.

John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, however, explicitly claims to be a Christian allegory, and the characters and places are easily matched up with our world. The pilgrim, formerly known as "Graceless" and now named "Christian," has a dream wherein he learns much about life, and in his journeying to the Celestial City teaches the reader Protestant theology. Bunyan had an agenda and permanently impacted the world while remaining true to orthodox Christian theology.

How do more recent works compare? A New Kind of Christian lives up to its title, explicitly teaching a departure from old-time Christian faith (read my review for details). The succeeding novels in the series grow ever more skeptical of evangelicalism, and ever fonder of evolution (the primary focus of the second novel). However, my primary interest in this essay is The Shack (read my review).

On the front cover of The Shack, author Eugene Peterson draws an explicit comparison to The Pilgrim's Progress:

This book has the potential to do for our generation what John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress did for his. It's that good!

I already expressed my skepticism of that assertion in my review, but what fascinates me about the quote in the context of this essay is that the authors, publishers and endorsers of The Shack appear quite determined to see The Shack as a theological work. The back cover claims that "the answers Mack gets will astound you and perhaps transform you as much as it (sic) did him." This is not a mere "story" meant to entertain and inspire with some vaguely spiritual ambiance, but rather The Shack is intended to transform your life. My negative response to the book's theology has been countered with claims that "it's just a dream." Recall that The Pilgrim's Progress was a dream as well. Does setting theology within a dream render it immune for criticism? Not at all. Bad theology can transform you if you accept it, regardless of the vehicle. I've also heard from those who read The Shack as merely inspirational fiction, not looking for theology. Well, the theology exists nonetheless, and theological claims are scattered throughout the endorsements. Author David Gregory writes:

An exceptional piece of writing that ushers you directly into the heart and nature of God.
Kathy Lee Gifford (NBC) adds:

The Shack will change the way you think about God forever.

These are not modest claims about an inspirational dream or story; these endorsers insist that The Shack is a work of theology. Just in case you're still skeptical about that, Gayle Erwin states:

Riveting, with twists that defy your expectations while teaching powerful theological lessons.

We've established that The Shack claims to be a theological work--the only issue is whether a work of theological fiction has a responsibility to be doctrinally orthodox. Are there boundaries that should not be crossed? The primary author of The Shack apparently believes that writing for children removes responsibility:

No, I am not a universalist!!!  There is no ‘agenda’ behind my book - I wrote it for my six children.  The Shack is not scripture, not a book on systematic theology, it is fiction.

Read that carefully once more, especially in light of the endorsements Young decided to use. The "I wrote it for my six children" excuse is a non sequitur at best. In an interview Young admitted that he did have an agenda in writing this story for his children:

I don’t want them to believe God is a white Zeus looking for every opportunity to blast them.

I want them to know it’s much more complex than that. It’s about a relationship with a God who is full of affection, who knows our stuff and meets us in the middle because it’s about a relationship, not about religion.

So which is it? Did he have an agenda, or didn't he? As for the universalism Young so vigorously denies, read this quote by family friend James B. De Young:

About four years ago Paul embraced Christian universalism and has defended this on several occasions. While he frequently disavows general universalism, the idea that many roads lead to God, he carefully affirms that Jesus Christ is the only way to God, and that all will be reconciled to God either this side of death or afterward.

It appears that his strong denial applies only to general universalism, but Christian universalism arrives at the same result by different means. In either case, all are saved and no humans end up in hell for eternity. Despite the documentation of Young's views and the obvious problems with the book itself, the orthodox Southern Baptists should be hanging their heads at this quote from Young's website:

After two weeks of theological review, Lifeway Bookstores (Southern Baptist) has madated (sic) that The Shack be returned to their shelves nationwide because they found nothing theologically unorthodox that would warrant the book being removed.

That's just a sad commentary on whoever Lifeway had evaluating the book. Traditional Southern Baptist doctrine conflicts with The Shack, and as we've shown, playing the "it's just fiction" card is an illegitimate defense for a book such as this. There are excellent points about God's love and our need for forgiveness in the book, but anyone who reads The Shack and thinks it's teaching orthodox evangelical theology isn't paying attention.

2 comments for Theological Fiction: Should There Be Boundaries?

1. Matt Email Web 2008-09-07  5:07pm

Hey Randy,

to answer the question in your title - yes. There should be boundaries. The trouble arises with where the responsibility lies, though.

If authors, publishers, booksellers, and readers all took seriously the supremacy of Christ in all things (including our choice of entertainment and reading), then I suppose it wouldn't be an issue. Everything would glorify Jesus Christ and give Him honour.

In an age of self-fulfillment, self-estemm, self-aggrandizement, self-sufficiency, and the desire to be entertained rather than fed, it's not so easy. Authors will write things that will direct praise to themselves rather than to Jesus. Publishers and booksellers will print and sell whatever makes the most profit, and readers often prefer ju-jubes to steak and potatoes.

So yes, there should be boundaries. But who carries the ultimate responsibility for what we read? Author, publisher, seller, or self? Personally I believe that the buck stops with ourselves, but it sure makes it easier when others who profess Christ help us rather than distract us.

2. Randy Brandt Email Web 2008-09-08  5:44pm

Matt, I like your point about personal responsibility, but also the thought that others bear some as well. I think publishers need to keep an eye on their authors, but then guys like Young just self-publish.

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