Recently, Stephen Burnett wrote a post on SpecFaith about how we depict God in our fantasy. Entitled “Fighting man-centered monsters in fiction,” it used the recent Voyage of the Dawn Treader film as a jumping-off point to address man-centeredness in our fiction:
I won’t say names here — partly because, sorry to say, the titles and authors can be forgettable! — but I’ve read a few fantasy books whose authors are trying to Imitate Lewis. But there’s a catch: their Christ-figures, a la Aslan, aren’t much like Aslan, much less so the Biblical Christ. Sure, they have all the loving-humble-helpful parts, but few to none of the sovereign-holy-kill-his-enemies parts. And these Christ-equivalents exist, not with their own missions, but mainly as sidekicks for the real hero of the story, the Self-Doubtful Often-Angsty Gifted protagonist, who is on a Quest.
Well, parts of the above description fit The Wolf of Tebron to a tee (even though Stephen hadn’t read Wolf and wasn’t referring to it, so not surprisingly, Susanne Lakin was one of the commenters. She wrote,
I cringed a bit at your attack on writers (like myself) who write fantasy books where many of the qualities and character of Christ is embodied in a character or animal (like Aslan) to accompany a hero on his journey, or whatever. In my case, I am not trying to make the wolf in The Wolf of Tebron BE Christ. Like Lewis said, he was not trying to teach Christianity, only help others experience it. For me, portraying a wolf with qualities of loyalty, faithfulness, encouragement, fierce protectiveness, kindness was where I could explore some of the facets of God’s nature. Books like this are not meant to belittle or cheapen God, his power, or sovereignty but I believe they are very important in helping a reader be drawn to God.
The whole discussion is well worth reading, and both writers make some fantastic points. These are questions I’ve also wrestled with. How do we depict Christ in our fiction — especially in fantasy fiction, where we are not actually depicting the real world? My own faith has drawn me to two extremes: trying to write any Christ figure in such a way that he becomes an exact representation, doctrinally accurate and characteristically exact, or (once I’ve failed at the first extreme) avoiding writing Christ figures at all. Who could possibly ever depict everything that Jesus is? I’m not even sure the Bible does that!
It was another great fantasy writer, George MacDonald, who helped me find a balance — ironically, not in his fantasy. He also wrote novels about Christians in England and Scotland in his day, but they were exemplary Christians. In their own way, every one was a Christ figure. Michael Phillips, who has edited many of MacDonald’s novels for modern audiences, wrote in a preface that MacDonald’s characters show different facets of Jesus’s character, and if you were to put them all together, you would get a composite of Christ.
Aha, I thought. That’s it.
As a writer, I can’t possibly embody him “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge,” he “who is the brightness of [God’s] glory, and the express image of his person” in words and an artificial plot. But I can, like Susanne said, explore facets of who Jesus is. I can take parts of his character and see how they would be expressed in another world, or how another person who possessed them might act. I can take the yearning he provokes in me and transfer it to my characters (that is why yearning is such a major theme in my Seventh World books — almost the first thing Maggie and Virginia learn to do is to long for the King’s presence).
I can sometimes show how the world centers on him. And at other times, I can show he helps others on their quests, not as a sidekick, but as a servant — like Ruyah the Wolf or the Holy Spirit himself.
In the end, the whole argument makes me realize anew that God both invites and defies description. He is holy, entirely “other,” and worth spending all of our talent, strength, and time getting to know.