God in Fiction (Haunt of Jackals, Day 3)

As my review made clear yesterday, I was bothered by the representation of Christ in Haunt of Jackals. In some ways I found it more pagan than Christian. But that brings me back to a question I’ve asked myself a thousand times since I began writing: how can we faithfully represent God in fiction?

As God is real and alive in the world, and so writing about Him is not like writing about a character who was born entirely of my own imagination — as I am a Christian and responsible to glorify my God and represent Him accurately — as we who write fantasy try to tell the truth about the world even while we explore the possibilities of the imagination — how shall we then write?

I’ve long objected to Christian fiction that gives lip service to God in ways that are trite or shallow — God is a sort of shadowy absence, possibly because we don’t want to cross the line and misrepresent Him. (But then again, depicting God as an absence is certain misrepresentation.) William P. Young’s The Shack was the farthest thing from trite or shallow, yet I don’t feel Christians ought to put words directly into “God’s” mouth as Young did. C.S. Lewis created Aslan, a character allegorical of Christ who was not actually Christ, and this to my mind worked tremendously well. Tolkien created fallible characters who in various ways were types of Christ, much as Moses and Joseph were types of Christ in biblical history. This also works well.

But what do we do when we’re not working in allegory or in purely other-world fantasy? What do we do when our stories intersect with this world, when the God we’re writing about is the same one we know in reality? How can we write about Him without resorting to shallowness on the one hand or to dangerous misrepresentation on the other?

Two examples come to mind of how this can be done. One is Karen Hancock’s The Enclave, which we toured back in July. (See my posts here, here, and here.) In The Enclave, God more than once spoke directly to characters or led them in supernatural ways — but each time, Karen carefully used the words of scripture itself, and she never tore them out of their context. God comforted Cameron by saying “My strength is made perfect in weakness”; He called Zowan out of darkness through the words of Genesis.

This method of involving God as a character isn’t without its drawbacks — we can take scripture out of context and thus misrepresent it, and the use of only scripture as “God’s dialogue” is limiting. But it does work, and I think it works well.

A second method is to involve God through His impact on people. This doesn’t mean the classic Mandie out of quoting “What time I am afraid, I will trust in thee” every time the heroine gets into trouble and having the words comfort her. I’m thinking in the veins of George MacDonald’s adult novels, like Malcolm, Sir Gibbie, or Heather and Snow. (MacDonald’s books, which are in the public domain and hard to find, are available to read online here.) Charles M. Sheldon’s In His Steps is another example.

In these books, we don’t hear God speaking or see Him walking around on earth, yet He is unquestionably there, active, and life-changing. We see this in the relationships the characters have with Him. MacDonald’s characters do not give lip service to Christ: rather, their devotion to Him is their key motivation. Their struggles, doubts, joys, and triumphs are inextricably wrapped up in their faith. I can easily imagine a Cal Nichols without Christ; I cannot imagine a Malcolm without Him.

In this type of Christian fiction, God has changed the lives of fictional characters just as He’s changed the lives of Christians in the real world, and just as we are called to live out the faith in such a way that others can “read” his work in us, so our characters can live out their faith and make God a real, present, active character in our books.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this issue, so please comment! How do you handle this tension in your own writing? How have you seen it handled? Of my conclusions, where do you agree and disagree? What facets am I missing?







22 responses to “God in Fiction (Haunt of Jackals, Day 3)”

  1. […] Undead Trilogy. A number of tour participants have weighed in on the religious elements including Rachel Starr Thomson, Keanan Brand, and Fred Warren. Interestingly, Rachel focused her thoughts on the absence of […]

  2. […] Instead I want to give you the link to an interesting discussion over at Rachel Starr Thompson’s blog. Rachel took part in a blog tour for Eric Wilson’s book Haunt of Jackals. She reviewed the book and started an interesting conversation about dealing with God in fiction, which carried on in this post. […]

  3. Rachel Avatar

    “Perhaps as Christian institutions such as Harvard caved to humanism, we gave up the fight and let the intellectualism go to the non-believing world.” … which is a sad, sad statement, considering that the Word of God is the only true basis for intellectual understanding.

    But I think you’re right. Let’s take it back, shall we?

  4. Eric Wilson Avatar

    Thanks again, Rachel.

    As I mentioned in the other thread, my non-Christian readers seem to have little problem with allegory and metaphor. Would modern Christian readers find all sorts of symbolism in “Frankenstein” or “Lord of the Flies”? Sadly, I don’t think so.

    But the general market studies such books with a keen eye.

    I think we, as American Christians, have lost a lot of the constructive thinking and literary analysis in which Christians used to be forerunners. Perhaps as Christian institutions such as Harvard caved to humanism, we gave up the fight and let the intellectualism go to the non-believing world. I do hope, in some small way, to challenge Christians to get back to our roots–loving God with all our heart, soul, and mind.

    The conversation here has been great. I encourage all other writers here to keep knowing Jesus personally and letting that come through story in non-preachy, but vibrant ways. If I’ve managed to do that in even a few pages of my own, I’m happy.

  5. Rachel Avatar

    Eric, you said, “I don’t ever feel I capture the full majesty and beauty of what God has done for us or who Jesus is.”

    Can any of us possibly ever do that? Probably not. And I am not censuring you for “failure” to do the impossible :). I think you’ve done your best to glorify God in the public arena, and for that I’m grateful; I hope to do as much!

    Your point about blood being central to vampirism is well-taken. I disagree somewhat with your interpretation of symbols but don’t think that’s really worth going into here–again, thanks for coming on here and making your intents so clear. I think you’re giving us all some great things to think about.

    As I hope I’ve made clear by now, especially in my last comment on the previous post, my biggest problem with the whole book is that I’m not sure the line between allegory and reality is clear enough. Because so many elements of the book are NOT allegorical, I’m not sure that it’s clear enough that the way to salvation is.

    Melissa, you said, “I looked at the drinking of blood in this book to be equal to saying the ’sinner’s prayer’ and the dying to self being the continuing relationship with Jesus. Since we cannot literally drink Jesus’ blood, I would hope most non believers would understand that portion to be an allegory.” I think that level of understanding is asking a lot from nonbelievers, especially those without a background understanding of grace and faith and atonement.

    But with all that said, I do believe God can use Eric’s book, because I fully believe God can (and will) use Eric :). I greatly appreciate both of you for making this such an excellent and meaty conversation. Thank you!

  6. Melissa Avatar

    Thank you for your response Rachel. I did not see your response to Eric’s post last night before posting my comments.

    Rachel–“Now, here I realize that probably 70% of evangelical Christians are going to disagree with me, so it’s my turn to be highly controversial . (Also, I made that statistic up on the spot.) When in “Haunt of Jackals” the nature of salvation was clarified, it was in the way you describe here: as “a day by day decision, a dying to one’s fleshly nature.” I actually vehemently disagree with that description of what it takes to be saved, and even though so many sincere (and godly!) Christians believe it, I think it’s another pagan idea that’s snuck into the church…..The idea that we are saved by dying to our fleshly natures every day is, I think, not a Christian idea.”

    If I misunderstood your comments, please correct me. I never got the impression that Eric was suggesting salvation is an on going work. The dying to self daily was living daily for Christ, not a continual attempt to attain salvation. In the quote I listed, I interpreted it to mean the result of faith is surrendering to God, not the means to salvation. If I believed Eric was suggesting salvation was attained through self-sacrifice, I’d fill his inbox with some rather unkind emails 🙂

    Rachel–“Would a nonchristian, who does not have access to Christ’s literal blood any more than you or I do, come away from this series with an understanding of what it means to be saved? I don’t know.”

    An understanding of what it means to be saved? Definitely. The specific steps to salvation, I don’t know. Where we might see things differently goes back to the dying to self daily aspect. I looked at the drinking of blood in this book to be equal to saying the ‘sinner’s prayer’ and the dying to self being the continuing relationship with Jesus. Since we cannot literally drink Jesus’ blood, I would hope most non believers would understand that portion to be an allegory. The reason I didn’t see a problem with salvation being presented as drinking blood, was because Gina’s main struggle was with belief. She spent many years wearing his blood, but never drinking it because she wasn’t willing to surrender, believe, or ask for help. She experienced struggles similar to nonbelievers, but when she actually did drink the blood it was with belief. For reference, pages 362-365 is where she makes her salvation decision. If Gina did not have faith and continued to doubt in the saving power of Jesus’ blood, she would never have drank it. Even if someone doesn’t get the complete knowledge of asking for salvation, I think at the very least they would get an understanding that Jesus is the means to salvation and something most be done. Of course, that something is asking through faith.

    Rachel–“I also haven’t said that I felt Eric’s portrayal was “wrong.””

    I need to clarify what I meant. I wasn’t directing that comment at you specifically. That was a general statement in response to portraying God in fiction. My apologies. Responding at midnight often leads to vague thoughts. 🙂

  7. Eric Wilson Avatar

    Rachel, I agree that symbolism and allegory can always be tricky to employ. And, no, I don’t ever feel I capture the full majesty and beauty of what God has done for us or who Jesus is.

    The blood in this series is a direct counter to the improper view of blood in vampirism, and that’s why it is used as a focal point. But I don’t think any reader can ignore the fact this blood has power because it comes from Jesus and His sacrifice. I make it very clear that He is still alive, that He was resurrected, that He alone could cleanse the sin in our veins.

    All throughout Scripture, we see examples of symbols having power–the idol of Dagan falling before the Ark of the Covenant; the handkerchiefs bringing healing in Acts; Moses’ staff that turned into a serpent and swallowed the magicians’. I think Catholics overdue the symbolism idea, and I think Protestants sometimes undervalue it. Nevertheless, I make it clear in the books that the symbols have power primarily because of the fears of the Collectors. As for the Blood, I believe it is a real thing that was shed. I believe the apostles took communion with the understanding, in a very real way (they’d just seen Jesus crucified and resurrected), that it was the life force and cleansing flow of their Lord. To this day, when I take communion, I often get chills when I drink the cup. It is a powerful reminder to me of what Jesus did. And a huge cause for celebration for the sin and He conquered at Calvary.

    All of that I hoped to show through the series.

  8. Rachel Avatar

    Melissa, thank you also for stopping by and giving such a detailed response. I’m really glad that anyone reading this blog will get more than one side of the issue!

    You said: “Pagan is not a word I would ever use to describe the JU series.” Again, as I stated above and in my response to Eric on the previous post, I wouldn’t (and don’t) call the whole series pagan. I’m specifically bothered by the representation of Christ and the drinking of His blood as a way to salvation. And again, I found it particularly troubling in this book because the lines between allegory and non-allegory are very blurred. Would a nonchristian, who does not have access to Christ’s literal blood any more than you or I do, come away from this series with an understanding of what it means to be saved? I don’t know.

    I also haven’t said that I felt Eric’s portrayal was “wrong.” As I mentioned in my first post, I’m glad he wrote this book. I’m glad these kinds of conversations can happen within the Christian book industry. I felt it had some pagan elements, yes (I also think C.S. Lewis crosses that line). But whether it’s right or wrong to include such things in a Christian work isn’t a call I’m making.

    Ultimately, that’s the conversation I hoped to start through my review of this book — how CAN we represent God? How should we? How shouldn’t we? Are “should” and “shouldn’t” even applicable words when it comes to fiction? As a Christian writer, these are questions I face almost daily, so I want to explore them — with help from people like you and Eric Wilson 🙂 — more fully.

    Finally, in reference to the last quote you included (“it’s a lot harder to give your life not just one time, but every single day”), you might want to read the end of my response to Eric in the Day 2 post. That quote speaks specifically of sacrifice in following God, which I agree is honorable and good and necessary. But I do make a distinction between dying to self in the line of duty and dying to self in order to be saved, which I’ve written on with a bit more detail there.

    Thanks again for contributing to this discussion :).

  9. Rachel Avatar

    KC, thanks for commenting and helping this conversation continue in so many great directions! I appreciate your gracious response :). I should clarify that I didn’t see the entire story as pagan, and I didn’t miss the presence of certain truths within it. Believe me, I am the last person to want the characters saying “sinners prayers” to wrap things up all neatly. (Really. Truly.)

    What I did say, and still say, is “I was bothered by the representation of Christ in Haunt of Jackals. In some ways I found it more pagan than Christian.” I didn’t find every element of the book to be more pagan than Christian, and I didn’t find the representation of Christ to be pagan through-and-through. But I still felt that the idea of drinking blood to be saved had a more pagan feel than a Christian feel, mostly because Jesus Himself didn’t come through to me. I certainly saw that His blood had power, but Jesus’ blood has power because of who He is, and I didn’t see Him clearly.

    As to authors who’ve “gotten it right” — honestly, I’m not sure any of us have! I know I haven’t. I love how MacDonald depicts Christ as a living being through characters, but much of his theology is off the wall, and while I felt Hancock did a good job, I didn’t think her book was the watermark for representation of God in fiction :). Another of my absolute favorites is “Father Elijah” by Michael D. O’Brien, but this is a very Catholic work and I’m not Catholic — so again, I have some theological issues with it. Yet I saw its depiction of a walk with God as incredibly deep and true.

    In much older fiction, where a biblical worldview still underlaid much of western culture, I like the way biblical truths will sometimes stand out and affect characters, revealing God to them in a new way or influencing the paths of their lives. For example, there’s a conversation in one of Montgomery’s “Anne” books where Anne talks with a dying friend and realizes what it means to lay up treasures in heaven — that this girl has been so earthly-minded that even if she got to heaven, she wouldn’t like it. Conversations like that aren’t at all forced or preachy, but I’m not sure how we can achieve them in a post-Christian world.

  10. Melissa Avatar

    This is commented is related to all three entries on this book.

    Rachel, I’ve read all three of your post on this book, and I have to agree with KC. Pagan is not a word I would ever use to describe the JU series. There are many ways to portray God and salvation in fiction. Some are allegorical and some are specific. Our particular preference does not mean another’s representation is wrong. Salvation is ultimately faith. How an author chooses to represent that step of faith is their creative liberty. I felt Wilson did a wonderful job of infusing this series with accurate Christian teaching.

    Here’s an excerpt from the review I wrote for HOJ. The complete review is at http://www.inside-corner.com/bookreviews/ericwilson.html#hoj The page also has my review of FOB.

    Around page 90, I was amazed (not surprised) at all the Christian symbolism and ideas Wilson had neatly tucked into Haunt of Jackals. Since I knew I’d never remember them all, I decided to start writing them down. I picked up 38 unique Christian ideas or biblical accounts, subtly mentioned and worked flawlessly into the story. I’ve read close to 200 Christian fiction novels in the last five years, no other author does as good a job infusing a book with Christian ideas, without preaching, and without repetition. Wilson knows his Bible and has a deep grasp of Christian life, which enriches his novels and contrasts the light of Christ with the darkness of sin. Not once did I feel lectured and not once did I feel as though he was annoyingly overt in his Christian themes–both features which irritate me about many Christian novels. However, given that some actually questioned the spiritual nature of Field of Blood, let me give you an idea of what’s in Haunt of Jackals.
    –Strength in numbers
    –Free will/our choice to choose Him and our daily decisions
    –The fallacy of purity before salvation
    –“The answer dies within” Dying daily to self
    –Proverbs 6:16 What Wilson creates with this passage is a masterpiece.
    –Jesus’ death and resurrection
    –Christians are living temples
    –Jesus is the only way.
    –Jesus is the only way.
    –Jesus is the only way. The repeat was not by accident. Wilson is clear on this point
    –The Bronze serpent in the dessert and connecting it Jesus
    –Bitterness and thorns
    –The concept of the scapegoat
    –Fall of man
    –Others before self
    –All have sinned and the wages of sin
    –Significance of the Passover
    –Opinions of Jesus
    –Names of Jesus
    –Jesus is the Messiah
    –God’s love for us
    –Our sin nature
    –The true church

    Here’s a couple of quotes from the HOJ.

    Cal—How could a man bearing the Letter, resurrected by the Nazarene. Lose sight of his own commission? With fellow sojourners at his side and the life force of Yeshua at his disposal, why had he drifted into desperate solitude?..I guess as you get older the infection spreads. You start believing things that aren’t true and doubting things you once would have died for.

    There is my personal favorite

    Cal—When you’re young you imagine giving your life for a cause, or maybe throwing yourself into the path of a bullet to save the one you love…We need those kinds of people. The real heroes…are those willing to die over the long haul—twenty years, fifty, a hundred. When it comes down to it…it’s a lot harder to give your life not just one time, but every single day….and that’s what it means to have the Nazarene Blood flowing through your veins. It means letting go of your own selfish desires and giving into the desires of your Maker. It’s self-sacrifice. Day by day by day.

  11. KC Avatar

    Sally said:
    “It’s impossible to show all of God in one novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that if we highlight one aspect of God in a book we’ll be doing well.”

    This is what Eric Wilson did. He portrayed the battle between good and evil. He is showing that good triumphs over evil. No doubt in the last book of the trilogy that will be even more evident.

    I respectfully disagree with you, Rachel. Pagan? I think not. This story is obviously not meant to be taken literally. Neither is it strict allegory. It is a story with truth in it. It is entertaining and enlightening. I do not see Cal Nichols without Christ. He would not be alive and still battling against evil if he didn’t. He is an imperfect servant, as we are. I don’t think he needs to show his characters saying sinners’ prayers to be acceptable. His world may be our own world, but it’s still a fictive world.
    Things work differently in his fictive world. I daresay they work differently in many of our own writings.

    I would be interested in hearing the titles of novels in which you think the author “got it right” aside from Hancock and MacDonald (I agree with you in the case of Hancock–I haven’t read MacDonald).

  12. Rachel Starr Thomson Avatar

    I’m not sure that I set out to do it that way, but that’s how it ended up. Obviously the motif I played on most in “Taerith” was the “shadow of his wings” concept found throughout the OT. But it’s not an exact science — if you go looking for NT concepts in “Taerith” you’ll probably be able to find some ;).

  13. Elisabeth Avatar

    I have definitely read the Narnia Chronicles and the Space Trilogy, but I don’t have big problems with Aslan in Narnia because that concept is an allegory. I need to reread the space trilogy to see its representation of God. C. S. Lewis was actually my inspiration to begin writing!
    I knew the God was represented in “Taerith,” but I didn’t pick up that you were representing an “Old Testament God,” as it were (’cause I’m a little slow :-)). That’s very interesting.

  14. Rachel Avatar

    You’ve got some great thoughts, Elisabeth. Have you read the Narnia books or the Space Trilogy (C.S. Lewis’s, that is) with some of these thoughts in mind? I think he was tackling some of the same ideas and questions.

    Personally, I don’t like making Christ exactly the same in a fantasy setting, either. In “Taerith,” which has a strong God-figure, I got around that by assuming a more Old Testament world. I’m still representing God, just not God after Christ’s death and resurrection, necessarily.

  15. John Knapp II Avatar


    I like what you say. I’m sending this in response to your commentary above (in particular, my take on your idea in para. 4), not the book in question.

    Grace Bridges, from New Zealand, said in her extended review in Title Trakk of my novel, EARTH IS NOT ALONE (Ephemeron Press, 2009), that “This is the first book I’ve ever seen that truly tackles the concept of life on other worlds from within a Christian worldview.”

    My 500p. YA romance/adventure, in a time after EMP destroys all electrical power, records, etc., a highly moral atheistic English teacher accuses his two best students (Christians), one a local mtn. boy and the other a mysterious girl with no documentation, of an absurd act of cheating. The 3, along with their pastor, put everything they believe on the line in the strangest P-T-S encounter of all time. Contact with fallen humans (sim. DNA & appearance) from “somewhere else” suspected. Any Christian responsibility to such people out there?

    Reviews on Amazon and Title Trakk. One pending on Edenstar.

    Interested in more?


  16. Elisabeth Avatar

    I’ve got a few more things to say. First, I hope I didn’t come across as accusing–those were just the problems I have with the real God in a fantasy world. And second, I meant to say, “If His death here on earth…” Sorry I didn’t make that clear!

  17. Elisabeth Avatar

    I see your point about heaven Rachel :-), but my mindset is this: If other worlds really do exist, then did Jesus have go to each world and die for the sins of its people? If His death covered the sins of the people of other worlds (assuming there are others), then did those people ever see Him in His humanity? I would guess that in His human state, He could be only one place at a time, but I could be wrong. 🙂
    Thanks for answering my comment!

  18. Rachel Avatar

    Elisabeth, thanks for your in-depth comment! You said, “I’ve also considered just presenting God as He is with no representations in my fantasy, but that would give the impression that God rules over more than one world–which He doesn’t.” I wouldn’t say that unequivocally, since the Bible doesn’t tell us that we are all there is. In fact, as God is the God “of heaven and earth,” I think you could say He rules at least two worlds (as we understand them), though they’ll someday be one.

    Sally, I agree re: “The Shack”–though I haven’t read it, so I refrain from voicing my opinions TOO loudly lest my ignorance betray me. I do think he’s on incredibly shaky ground. I like what you said about showing one aspect of God. I think you’re absolutely right :). Michael Phillips wrote of George MacDonald that each of his characters shows a facet of Christ, and when you put them all together, you get a clear picture of who He was.

    Becky, thanks–it’s been a challenging tour, and I’ve really enjoyed the discussions. I need to read more of Polivka’s work! “Blaggard’s Moon” was exceptional, but so far it’s the only one of his books I’ve had a chance to read. And I agree–I like the “types” method as it gives a lot more freedom and has less chance of actually leading people into error.

    KM, thanks! You’ve been an important part of the conversation :).

  19. KM WILSHER Avatar

    Nice post, Rachel. This book, HAUNT OF JACKALS, sure has stirred up a great conversation.

    The fantasy story I am writing presently is unfolding with surprises. God is the Creator and the one true God. It wasn’t how I saw the book. . .but somehow it is all falling into place.

    I loved Sally’s comment.
    “It’s impossible to show all of God in one novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that if we highlight one aspect of God in a book we’ll be doing well.”

    Again, great post – all three days!

  20. Rebecca LuElla Miller Avatar

    Rachel, all three of these tour posts are outstanding.

    I like the two ways you mention as options for showing God in the real world. I’d add George Bryan Polivka’s books as examples, too, though they are set in a fantasy world framework. He shows how godly characters think about God and His will and how that influences their actions.

    I, on the other hand, have opted to show God through types. I find this method freeing because I don’t have the kinds of worries trying to depict Him as He actually is would create.


  21. sally apokedak Avatar

    Great post, Rachel. This is a huge struggle. With every book I write I have to revisit it. How am I to show God? Do these characters believe in God and how does that affect their actions? Is there a god in my fantasy world and how does he affect the characters? How does he look like the real God? What am I showing about God in this work?

    It’s impossible to show all of God in one novel. I’ve come to the conclusion that if we highlight one aspect of God in a book we’ll be doing well.

    But what I think I will never write is a book set in the real world, with a god who doesn’t look like the real God. I was offended by Young’s book. I hated the words he put into God’s mouth. I think he’s on very shaky ground.

  22. Elisabeth Avatar

    I often struggle with presenting God in my fiction–fantasy fiction especially. I don’t want to “create” a god for my fantasy world (like in the Song of Albion Trilogy) to represent the real God because it might give the impression that there are two Gods of two different worlds–which there aren’t. (I could write a story that way with the knowledge that it’s a just picture of reality, but that doesn’t work for me.) I’ve also considered just presenting God as He is with no representations in my fantasy, but that would give the impression that God rules over more than one world–which He doesn’t . Another option would be an allegory like Aslan, but I don’t feel theologically qualified to handle allegory just yet. My fantasy often reflects Biblical principles only.
    As for my own writings, I have this set of science fiction novels that is on my “to write” list that deals with the last few years before Christ’s return. In these books, I will use the Bible as the authority on who God is and as the authority for the gospel. But I also intend to use the testimony of other characters to spread the message.
    I think your examples of accurate presentations of God are excellent ones, and I agree with this whole post completely. I despise cheesy stories where God is improperly presented, or comes across as weak and distant, or is referred to ambiguously.
    By the way, I know this is a long comment. 🙂
    Thanks for posting!

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