Depicting Christ in Fiction (Wolf of Tebron, Day 3)

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.







5 responses to “Depicting Christ in Fiction (Wolf of Tebron, Day 3)”

  1. Rachel Avatar

    Hi Jeff —

    Interesting thoughts! Ruyah is not a perfect character, no — he’s not a Christ-figure in the sense of sinlessness. And yet, don’t we speak even theologically of Moses, Joseph, David, and others as “Christ figures” — and they all were human and guilty not only of covering their motives but of murder, adultery, pride, etc? In literature, most Christian readers would view Tolkien’s characters of Aragorn, Frodo, and Gandalf as Christ figures, yet again, all three have characteristics that are not Christ-like.

    Ultimately, that’s my point. In fiction, we can write Christ figures — characters who typify Christ in some work or aspect and thus help us understand Him better — without trying to write perfect representations of Christ Himself. (I contend that is impossible.)

    On quite another note, I would argue that Christ did hide His intentions, quite often in fact. He stated that He told parables so that some would NOT understand. The story in John also comes to mind where He told His brethren to go to Jerusalem without Him, and then went secretly on His own afterward.

    Just a few more thoughts :).

  2. Jeff Chapman Avatar

    Hi Rachel,

    I don’t think Ruyah works as a Christ figure. He is not completely honest with Joran about his reasons for accompanying Joran. At the end of the story, we learn that Ruyah was on his own quest to obtain a sunstone and hijacked Joran’s quest to obtain the stone and the “pure heart” required to use it. I found this aspect of the story troubling. I thought Ruyah was trustworthy, but he’s not. He hides his intentions when it is convenient. Christ did not hide his intentions. I suspect Ruyah would argue that he is going to use the sunstone to defeat evil but this is just someone saying the end justifies the means which is a very shaky defense in this case.

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  4. Rebecca LuElla Miller Avatar

    Excellent post, Rachel. I’ve come to a similar understanding in my writing. I painted myself in a corner at one point, trying to show in a theologically correct manner, the Trinity. That did it! I decided that, No, I wasn’t capable of pulling that off. The best I could do would be to suggest, show aspects through various type characters. It’s really what Tolkien did, I think.


  5. Fred Warren Avatar

    Nice post, Rachel. Also see Shannon McDermott’s analysis of Lakin’s use of allegory, where she comes to a similar conclusion. I liked your idea of a “composite” picture of Christ, which is a great way to look at this.

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