Poll: Theology in Fiction

Both as an editor and as a writer, I have to deal with the issue of theology in fiction. Even if a writer is not deliberately writing to espouse a particular theology, his or her own views do tend to percolate through. How much does it matter? What if the writer wants to speculate a little, especially about areas where theological thought is vague or divided, such as the afterlife or the world of spiritual beings? Must fiction be held to the same firm standard as nonfiction lest the weak be led astray?

Please note I’m not primarily talking here about the kind of fantasy that invents whole other worlds. I think people who enjoy fantasy understand that an invented world, even if it doesn’t play by exactly the same rules as the real one, can still communicate fundamental truths.

I’ve created a poll about our attitudes as readers. Please feel free to comment at greater length as well, since this is hardly a cut-and-dried issue. I’m really curious to hear what you think.

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12 comments on “Poll: Theology in Fiction

  1. I voted based on what I would most likely do, but feel the need to explain further. It would really depend on the book for me and to what extent I was disturbed by the theological difference. If I agree with the general worldview of the book, then I’ll just make a mental note and happily continue reading. However, if it is something that really goes against my grain or changes the feel of the story to the point I am uncomfortable at where it is going, I may just put it down and wish I hadn’t started.

    • I agree, I was going to comment in much the same manner. It’s important to reflect on the implications of said theological difference, to be conscious of just how it affects other beliefs and one’s manner of dealing with the universe, whether one continues or not.

  2. Jan says:

    If it’s done honestly and openly, warts and all, I especially like reading a different theological worldview. Because it’s exactly that — a world-view — and that’s what I read fiction for.

    But some nauseating, tra-la-la, propagandistic claptrap, well, if it’s not my faith I just laugh out loud, but if it is my faith, it makes me angry and depressed.

  3. John Hyde says:

    Some imagery or theological spin can have an insidious effect.
    I once and a great while I don’t finish something because I feels weird.
    Rereading Eddington’s Worm Ouroboros was like that. Artistic but I tired hearing about the demons being the good guys. They were heroic humans by all appearances but it gave a weird spin on things. I think that there is a kind of moral compromise that happens when you start playing too free with the meaning of symbols. Sort of a sophistic messing with the meaning of words tweaking meanings to fit the argument.
    Like Ransom debating with the Unman on Perelandra. One tires and can’t go on.
    Often one must not let ones guard down.

    • My daughters absolutely refuse to read any fantasy where the fairies are evil. I think the thought actually makes them angry. Though it doesn’t directly relate to religion, I think it is this role reversal that is disturbing- the idea of the good or admirable being twisted or demeaned or the absolutely unacceptable being acceptable or even admired. For them, the suggestion that something they innocently enjoy or admire could be evil or twisted is offensive, especially when it takes the form of a book.

      • Joshua says:

        Except it’s actually the other way around; in medieval folklore fairies were mischivious, unpredictable, and sometimes malicious. They were never called “fairies” because saying their name might attract their attention, and that was not considered a good thing. Modern portrayals of fairies (from, say, the 1990s) are the role reversal and fairies that are evil, morally questionable, or just plain alien were the original role.
        In fact there are even hints of this in Disney movies! Go back and watch The Sleeping Beauty, even the good fairies are occasionally disturbing in their un-humanity (for example considering changing the princess into a flower to protect her and only deciding not to because “she might get stepped on” not because it would be horrible being stuck in the body of a flower) and Maleficent is… terrifying. Still I can see your point about how this relates to the meaning of symbols and how much it can effect us.

        P.S.: Not all folklore-fairies were evil, some were vaguely good-ish!

  4. Steve says:

    A lot depends on the book. Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s end is based on Buddhist theology. I disagreed with it, but enjoyed the story. I’ve read it 2-3 times.

    Then you get rubbish like The da Vinci code, bad theology and bad history, which misleads people and a lot of undeserved publicity based on media hype. So I read it and wrote a review on my blog pointing out some of the more egregious errors (you can see my review here Notes from underground: The da Vinci code (book review).

    Others I just read or abandon. If it is something that other people recommend to me I might plough all the way through, so that I can say that I have actually read it, so I’m not just saying that I don’t like it out of prejudice. One such was Interview with the vampite by Anne Rice. All sorts of people told me what a marvellous book it was, but I was bored out of my skuull, but gritted my teeth and ploughed on to the dull, dull end. I wouldn’t want to review it. But Dracula I’ve read five times or more. Don’t agree with all the theology, but it’s a good story.

    • I know what you mean, Steve. Egregious nonsense like The Da Vinci Code I would just want to throw at the wall. But The Secret Life of Bees, for example, which included a heretical cult, I loved because it was a great story.

    • Joshua says:

      How is Childhood’s End based on Buddhist theology? I’ve read that book (sort of liked it) and I studied Buddhism (esp. Theravada) a lot back when I was a “spiritual seeker”, and I gotta say… I don’t see the resemblence. Maybe you were thinking of Hinduism??

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