Books Besides the Bible: NOT Finding God in Literature
Every Monday in Books Besides the Bible, Ethan Bartlett considers the value and pleasure of reading for Christians.
This may seem somewhat hypocritical considering my Hunger Games column of a few weeks ago, but today I’m going to talk partly about how not to find God in works of literature.
It seems as though every time a novel is made into a popular movie, thereby popularizing or re-popularizing the novel, we inevitably see a book with a title like Finding God in [Fill-in-the-blank]. This is not necessarily a bad thing. I have seen these sorts of books done well, and I have seen them done poorly. I don’t have any particular example of these sorts of books in mind as I write this—there is a new book titled The Gospel According to the Hunger Games, but I have not read it, so these comments should not be considered a critique of that work. It’s just that there are certain pitfalls to watch out for when evaluating a text from a Christian perspective. I have seen these in Gospel According to books, and in blog posts, and in conversations.
One of these dangers is assuming that any work of literature, even (perhaps especially) one written by a Christian, is a sermon. In a sense, writers write a novel because they have to write a novel; there is no other form of expression that would embody what they have to say. There’s a reason that Mark Twain threatened anyone attempting to find a moral in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with banishment. For most novelists, the meaning of the novel is the novel itself, with all the complexities and ambiguities inherent in the form. There’s a reason that Tolkien hated it when people took The Lord of the Rings as an allegory, as if each character had a one-to-one relationship to some biblical figure.
This warning is complicated by works like Lewis’s Narnia series, which were consciously written as Christian allegories. But short of the author coming out and saying, “This is a specific Christian allegory,” it is a better assumption that an author is writing a story, not a sermon. Even a work like Narnia functions, like all stories, on the level of mythology.
A related pitfall, one I touched on in my Hunger Games column, is the confusion between Christ and Christ-figure. Let’s define terms: Christ is the savior of the human race, who died and rose from the dead, thereby breaking the power of death over the human race. He is the Savior. A Christ-figure is a character in literature who takes on characteristics of Christ within the world of the story; usually a Christ-figure is someone whose actions are salvific in one way or another. It is significant to note that Christ-figures are consistently found in both literature and mythology the world over; more on this in a bit.
The confusion comes when well-meaning people assume that a Christ-figure in literature needs to be a theologically correct representation of Christ Himself. There is no reason this needs to be true. Literature is about story, and story is about identity. We tell stories to explain ourselves to ourselves, and to others. Therefore, literature is also incomplete, as people are incomplete. A story is a question, and the best stories raise more questions than they answer.
What is the upshot of all this? In his essay “Myth Become Fact,” C. S. Lewis argues that Christ was the fulfillment of all myth, of humanity’s desire for eternity: “The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history.” Elsewhere he says, “To be truly Christian we must both assent to the historical fact and also receive the myth (fact though it has become) with the same imaginative embrace which we accord to all myths. The one is hardly more necessary than the other.”
To treat literature as it is (a story) rather than converting it into something it is not (a sermon or a systematic theology) is not to somehow do violence to our worldview or our theology; it is to embrace the fact that in Christ we have the fulfillment of all story. This frees us to see Christ as he is present throughout literature, rather than trying to insert him, cookie-cutter like, into every story that comes into view.
Ethan, great article. I think the distinction you are making is a helpful and needed one for readers to keep in mind.
One note on C.S. Lewis… he was pretty clear that The Chronicles of Narnia are NOT allegorical. He viewed them more as a “how God would express himself in a different type of world” sort of way.
Again, very helpful. Thanks!
Probably one of the most obvious recent example of a literary “Christ-figure” is Harry Potter, although no one (I hope) would argue that Rowling was writing an allegory. I think Harry’s self-sacrificial identity would be a perfect example of Lewis’ thesis that Christ is the fulfillment of all myth.
Thanks again for a great post.
Or, as George MacDonald put it, if I have to write “This is a horse” under my drawing of a horse, then it’s probably not a very good drawing.
I’m not quite sure what you mean that “story is about identity,” however. “Identity” is a slippery term these days. If you mean that good stories must, at some level, exist for their own sake rather than for the sake of conveying some “message” that can be abstracted from the story, well and good. But if you mean that good stories avoid dealing in types, analogies, or even allegories, I might quibble. It is true that all analogies, however valid, break down at some point. That’s why they’re analogies rather than identities. (I frequently remind my students that no literary “Christ-figure” is ever fully like Christ, otherwise he or she would BE Christ, rather than a Christ-figure.) But I think that good stories tend to evoke strong analogies in readers’ minds, even if that wasn’t quite the author’s intention.
Ben, thanks! And thanks for the correction, too. Having looked further into it, I may now have a problem with Lewis’ definition of allegory, but that’s somewhat beside the point. :P
Leslie, thanks also. Harry Potter is one of my favorite recent very-Christian works–the Christ symbols in that series are amazing! And there are a ton of them, involving both Harry himself and characters and events surrounding him.
Steve, good quote. What I mean by “story is about identity” is sort of an anthropological point. Stories have always been a way of explaining things that we couldn’t put any other way, and of creating an identity for ourselves. For example: the Iliad and the Odyssey, and the Greek stories of gods and demigods and heroes, were not only analogies but were ways the Greeks used to explain their own identities to each other and to themselves. Modern literature does this too; not only do I think Harry Potter is an analogy for Christ, in some ways I take him as my own identity, as a way of explaining who I am. If this doesn’t make sense… maybe I’ll have to write a book.
I do love how even terrible stories of sparkly vampires and bad romance can be redeemed… I’ve only just discovered this approach to culture and am loving it. I see your point about taking it too far however, but it won’t dampen my enthusiasm!! :)
Thanks for the post.
Thanks for the clarification, Ethan. It makes more sense that way.
Regarding Lewis’s definition of “allegory,” we need to remember that Lewis was a medievalist professionally, and he was well aware of the complex ways in which the term “allegory” has been deployed over its roughly 2000 year history in Christian hermeneutics. Very roughly, in the Patristic period the Greek term could be used to describe any story with a strongly symbolic, typological, or moral element. Only later did the medievals try to distinguish between “allegorical” and “moral” interpretations of a text, though in practice the distinction could get pretty murky. Later biblical exegesis would also attempt to distinguish “allegory” from “typology,” the former being a story whose significance lies mainly (or solely) in its dramatizing of abstract concepts, the later being a story that either foreshadows later narratives or repeats patterns from earlier stories.
All that to say, “allegory” has covered a different range of meanings in different eras, and Lewis knew it. I think that when Lewis warns that Narnia is not an allegory, he means it in the fully modern sense. That is, one mustn’t read it as one would Pilgrim’s Progress or Everyman. No character’s identity is to be found in some abstraction that the character supposedly represents. (Father Christmas in Wardrobe may be an odd exception.) This is not to say that the stories do not retell and rework biblical or classical themes–they can be read typologically, as many fantasy stories can. That doesn’t stop people from doing it, however. It’s hard not to read Edmund as representing all of fallen humanity, for example.
Thanks for that expansion, Steve–it’s fascinating. I guess my problem lies in that I tend to think of allegory more in the sense of what you call typology, though maybe that’s not the term for it either. I tend to assume that an allegory (does or can) take events that happened historically and make them into a story. By Lewis’s definition, wouldn’t a book like Animal Farm not be considered allegory either, since the characters in that story don’t represent abstract concepts, but actual historical figures?
I think Lewis would call it merely a beast-fable, which is not strictly allegorical in the modern sense, but a symbolic, moral tale nonetheless. Not all symbolic tales must be either typological or allegorical. The way I usually explain it to my students is that a true allegory really doesn’t make any sense apart from its correlation to abstract ideas. You don’t “get” the story unless you recognize that the characters, places, and events represent something else. (There are stories that, while not full allegories, include allegorical elements, such as Milton’s Paradise Lost in which “Sin” and “Death” are characters.) But you can read a typological story and make sense of it without noticing the typology.
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