Wednesday, December 18, 2013


When I first started writing stories and novels, I made a deal with God that I wasn't going to write about him directly.

That might sound really strange, but I had a reason for it. Most explicitly Christian novels I had read presented God to me in a way that struck me as so trite, cliched, and unreal that it actually had the effect of driving me away from him--I would come away from those books feeling like God lacked the fascination, power, and personality that I saw in books that included supernatural elements but were not written from a place of faith in him.

And when I tried to write about God, what came out was . . . trite, cliched, and unreal.

Maybe part of the problem is that as Christians, we so often tend to think and talk in cliches. We use language we have not really explored and tend to give quick and simplistic answers to very complex questions. In any case, it takes time to develop maturity in any area, and I didn't have the maturity back then--or the long-term experience of relationship with God--to write about God in a way that I thought actually honoured him or accurately represented him. So I decided not to try until I had more skill.

As I got older, though, and grew as a writer, God became more and more important to me--and I wanted to write about him more than anything else. And that's where other writers began to show me the way.

First, there were the fantasy writers I devoured as a kid. Lloyd Alexander (The Chronicles of Prydain), Madeleine L'Engle (A Wrinkle in Time and other books), Susan Cooper (The Dark Is Rising Sequence), and of course C.S. Lewis and his Narnia chronicles. I read J.R.R. Tolkien later, and his work opened up veins of spiritual power and beauty. Some of these writers are Christians; some aren't.

But fantasy always contains elements of wonder, of discovery, and of reality beyond what its characters initially know is real. In that sense of wonder and a greater reality, I realized that they were writing about what we experience when we experience God. And the sense of longing they awakened in me was in fact longing for God--and I still long for him, and he fulfills that longing as no one and nothing else can.

George MacDonald, the 19th century preacher and author who is probably best known for his influence on C.S. Lewis and for writing the children's fantasy The Princess and the Goblin, took this a step further and gave me hope that I could write about God in more specific terms without being cliched. The key was to write from reality. MacDonald had some unorthodox doctrine and struggled to keep a job in the Scottish church; he wrote novels to feed his family. He wrote quite a few non-fantasy stories for grown-ups, about real people in Scotland and England (most have been edited by Michael Phillips for modern readers and reissued by Bethany House: some of my favourites are The Shepherd's Castle, A Daughter's Devotion, The Gentlewoman's Choice, The Peasant Girl's Dream, and The Highlander's Last Song). Not only do all of MacDonald's heroes love Jesus passionately, they also represent him in beautiful, startling, and unique ways. Reading these books actually increases my love for God.

Although I don't agree with all of his theology, I think the key to MacDonald's amazing presentations of God is that he wrote from his own experience of God, not from a preconceived idea of what things "should" be included in a "Christian book." I strive to do the same.

Stephen R. Lawhead's series The Song of Albion and The Pendragon Cycle gave me another way to write about God. His stories are set in a Celtic milieu (they are sometimes called "historical fantasy" or "mythic history"), and he used old Celtic imagery, prayers, and practices to make God seem strange and new and wonderful again, even while being familiar. The way the characters interact with God is beautiful and poetic. I learned from Lawhead that bringing poetic and cultural sensibilities into the way I wrote about God could take away from that sense of triteness and cliche I hated so much. I could use stories to help readers see God through a new lens.

Today, I continue to discover writers who really can write about God in ways that reveal him to me, challenge my thinking, and increase my devotion. Jeffrey Overstreet is one of my recent favourites, and his books are a fantastic example of writing that is deeply spiritual and Christian, but avoids the expected and the trite.

These days, I still try to write about God in a "slant" way. I think coming at things sideways, using fantasy settings, and exploring ideas instead of just "giving answers" are powerful ways to approach writing about the Lord I love--powerful for me, as a writer, and hopefully for readers. I owe a debt to all of the writers listed above, as they have done their best to be faithful believers and great writers.

No comments:

Post a Comment