This is the first of a couple posts I have planned on controversial topics among Christian authors of fantasy. Beyond this post, I want to write one about writing magic and I might add one about writing God’s speech (or the speech of an allegorical God figure). They won’t be consecutive, but they will all crop up eventually.
Do note that while these are titled “How should Christians write about xyz,” these are all topics I think are dependent on personal conviction and spiritual maturity and my goal is more to present my thoughts and provide food for thought and biblical insight than to say “This is the one right way to do things.”
With all that out of the way… How “should” Christians write about false gods?
Perspective One: Just Don’t Do It
Some Christian authors will say it’s never a good idea to write about false gods, whether because it’s idolatry, it detracts glory from God, it could mislead readers, or for some other reason. And some of these are valid concerns (certainly any of them can be depending on the author and their attitude toward the false gods they’re writing about). But I don’t personally think this is the right approach across the board. For some people, certainly, avoiding fictional religions in their work is the wisest option, but I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all solution.
(As an important side note, this post tackles fictional religions that are false within your fantasy world. Writing a truthful religion into your world raises its own challenges, which would be extensive enough to fill an entire future post. In the meantime, you can check out this general post about creating foundational truth for a fiction world.)
Since my thoughts on writing false religions into fantasy worlds line up fairly neatly with these three arguments, I’ll address these concerns as a framework: Is writing false gods idolatry? Does it detract from the glory of God? Will it mislead readers?
I don’t think that writing about false gods as false gods is inherently idolatrous. Scripture says that we are to “have no other gods before [Him],” to “not make for [ourselves] a carved image–any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.” (Ex. 20:3-5, emphasis mine) Our worship is to be dedicated to One God alone, and we are not to place anything or anyone else on His throne. No one and nothing else is to usurp His power and authority. But if we were to say that portrayals of God or of false gods are automatically putting up idols, then we would have to exclude all portrayals of religion in fantasy and that’s simply unrealistic and unfeasible.
For that matter, God Himself doesn’t shy away from talking about false religions. Scripture is full of references to and even stories of false gods, each one revealing them for the weak substitutes they are and demonstrating His power over them.
We must recognize that false gods have and do exist–be they the sort we think of or not–and that they do try to steal the glory that is rightfully God’s, but also that they are ultimately in subjection to Him. They don’t truly have the power that they claim, and they do not satisfy. I don’t think it’s wise for all Christian authors to pretend away these influences; I do think it’s our responsibility to reveal them for what they are: cheap replicas of the real thing, stealing what rightfully belongs to the Lord of Lords.
As with many other topics, I think there is a way for Christian authors to reveal the world for what it is, to refuse to shy away from the reality of sin and the broken or wicked parts of the world, without promoting wickedness or falling into sin themselves. And, beyond personal discernment and knowledge of one’s own weaknesses, I think the key really does lie in revealing the world for what it is. Sin does bring pleasure… temporarily, and alongside guilt. But sin also has dire consequences and it can never truly satisfy. To shy away from either truth–sin’s appeal or sin’s consequence–is to portray life with a false veneer.
“For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness, righteousness, and truth), finding out what is acceptable to the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them. ” – Ephesians 5:8-11
Of course we ought not participate in evil, but we can’t expose sins without showing the truth of them, either.
I won’t lie and say that it’s easy to strike this balance–or lack thereof, since ultimately good should win out and does win out, and if we portray sin as too pleasing or virtue as too painful we are being just as dishonest as if we portray sin as toothless and virtue as easy–but it is important. And this is a principle that I believe can be applied to the issue of any sort of sin in fiction, idolatry or otherwise.
And portraying sin does not automatically equate to participating in that sin. Can it? Absolutely. If you’re prone to lust, it’s probably not a good idea to write lust in more than the barest terms, for example. This is where wisdom and discernment come in. If writing the sin will tempt you to sin–or if you start writing and find yourself unexpectedly tempted–don’t do it! But just as it’s not inherently sinful to write about a character committing violence or lying, it’s not inherently sinful to write about lust or idolatry or whatever the topic may be. If you’re reveling in it… that’s a problem. If it’s carrying into real life… that’s a problem. If you’re writing it for the sake of the story, to show its consequences, to reveal it as the sin it is, that’s not a sin.
Maybe I’m diving into this point more than I need to for the topic at hand, but all of this is fundamental to some of the other subjects I want to talk about (magic, for example) and my view of Christian fiction as a whole.
Detracting from God’s Glory?
As with the idolatry point, whether or not a false religion contests God’s authority depends on how it’s written (as well as the perspective and maturity of the reader). God is glorious. Nothing can truly take away from that. He is as glorious now as He was in the beginning and will be in the end. However, our attention can be drawn away from His glory so that we honor other things… resulting in idolatry.
If we create fictional religions that fulfill the characters’ needs, that give them the peace and success they crave, we’re prone to mislead readers. If, however, we create fictional religions that leave doubt and emptiness, even a sense of guilt and wrongness, we are revealing idolatry for the hollow façade that it is.
Beyond that, even false religions can point to Christ and bring Him glory. Truth is woven through everything; the world is built on His true Word. The enemy can create nothing new, only twist what already is. As such, we can see biblical themes and parallels to truth in pagan mythologies in the real world, and we can do the same in our fictional worlds. Not to mention, we can show the same struggles of faith in characters who follow false gods as the struggles we face in our own lives. The difference being that we have an answer to our doubts, which leads back to the part about portraying false religions as insufficient and unfulfilling.
As yet another strength of portraying fictional religions, false religions create contrast to the truth. In the real world, we wrestle against those who believe in false gods–even if those gods are greed, selfishness, governments, corporations, or anything else put in the place of honor that rightfully belongs to Christ. We struggle to learn how to love them while exposing the falsehoods they believe in for what they are. We might struggle with grief, with anger, or simply with the balance of truth and kindness. We might struggle to hold to the truth when it feels like we’re alone in the fight. Having the stark contrast of a false religion within a fantasy world can provide great opportunities to explore these themes, also, and point to Christ as the only truth and our only fulfillment, who is faithful through everything.
My approach in Calligraphy Guild was to show a fictional religion that doesn’t satisfy those who follow it, that fosters doubts, and that makes the truth stand out as perplexing and appealing for its stability. Most of the characters believe in this false religion, but it’s not the answer to their problems and it’s hardly even a comfort. Sure, it’s helpful to believe in something, but the only character to find supernatural peace is the one who believes in the truth. I’m sure there are flaws in the way I wrote it all and I don’t claim to have it perfectly figured out. As I said, this is just my personal conviction on the matter. But hopefully this provides a more concrete example of what I’m talking about.
We can also draw attention to God’s glory by revealing the false gods’ place under the true God’s authority. By subjecting powerful beings to the proper authority of the all-powerful God whose place they can never truly take, we give readers a glimpse of God’s ultimate victory and the hope that even the most powerful evil does not compare to Him.
Yes, you could mislead readers with the portrayal of a fictional religion. We have a very real, important call not to cause our brothers to stumble, and we should take that seriously and do what is in our power to honor our brothers and sisters in the faith. But the fact of the matter is, anything could be a stumbling block. We ought not to knowingly put a stumbling block in front of someone. I think we should be clear about the content within our books so that readers who are sensitive to false religions (or magic or lust or violence…) can go in with their eyes open and avoid books that would be a stumbling block to them. But we can’t simply avoid exposing sin altogether. Just as we can portray sin without glorifying it, we can also portray sin without blindsiding readers.
We are responsible for our own words and actions. If we write about a topic that we’re convicted against writing about, we are in sin. If we write about a topic that we have no conviction against writing and then put it in front of readers who do have convictions against it, we are in sin. If, however, we write about a topic that we have no conviction against writing and we give readers the information they need to avoid it or not as their conscience demands, we’ve done our job and it is now a matter of the reader’s discernment to decide whether or not to read what we’ve written.
If we believe that the portrayal of idolatry is not inherently sinful (and that is an important “if” which you’ll have to answer for yourself), then the (willful) misleading only occurs if we fail to be honest about the contents of what we’ve written. Should we still take responsibility for any problems that our writing does cause? Absolutely. We do have a solemn responsibility to honor our readers and be considerate of what we write, in a similar way to teachers having a heavier responsibility to those they teach (James 3:1). We do not abdicate all responsibility when reader discernment becomes the primary issue. Rather the failure is no longer due to authorial neglect but human error.
This is a big topic, which different authors will come to different conclusions about based on their own personal convictions and their understanding of Scripture, but those are the primary points behind my own conviction based on my understanding of Scripture. I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, along with other Scripture verses you think apply to the subject!
Also comment below if you have any topic requests for this series. What issues would you like to hear a Christian perspective on within the writing sphere and worldbuilding?