Last year, I read two books back-to-back (Wishtress and Once I Knew) in which God or the allegorical God figure speaks directly to the characters. (Actually, I’m not sure I’ve read a Nadine Brandes book in which this isn’t the case.) As such, this topic was near the top of my thoughts and I mulled over it quite a bit because the idea of God speaking directly to characters in a work of fiction is something I always wrestle with to some degree or another when it comes up.
This post might sound familiar to those who follow my social media or are subscribed to my newsletter, since I wrote out my thoughts sometime last year, but I wanted to compile and expand on them here as part of my “How should Christians write about…?” series. As always, these posts are intended as food for thought and your conclusions should be guided by Scripture and your conscience, not my musings here.
When and how does God speak?
The first thing I want to establish is that I do believe God speaks audibly and directly in some cases to some people. Have I ever experienced this personally? No. But I do believe it happens. We don’t serve a silent God, He is the Word, and He has spoken to His people throughout history; of course He speaks. Because of this, I don’t think it’s strictly unrealistic for authors to portray God (or a figure representative of God) speaking to characters.
On the other hand, I don’t know that this is a particularly frequent occurrence. God is the Word, but He also gave us His word in Scripture and it is “profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) We’re also told in Proverbs 25:2 that “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter.” God doesn’t often make it easy for us by speaking directly; He desires that we earnestly seek Him in His word. That doesn’t make the two concepts mutually exclusive—He gives us guidelines for testing new revelation by His existing inspired word—but both are pieces to be considered.
To speak from personal experience, much of what I’ve “heard” from God in my life has been through Scripture or through thoughts that popped up unexpectedly, were in line with Scripture, and had some sense of peace and/or prompting attached even though they’ve seemed to naturally arise from my own thoughts rather than obviously being from outside myself in their delivery. (I hope that explanation made sense.) They’ve required discernment, and some thoughts along these lines have proven to be genuine God things and some have proven to just be my own wishes.
Some of the God dialogue in books I’ve read has seemed along these lines, though often being obviously presented as the God figure speaking. In many of these cases, these thoughts are questioned by the character and they have to determine where the thought originated, so the differentiation of portraying it as God’s speech is almost more for the reader than the character. This is the portrayal that I’m most comfortable with and that seems the most relatable to me. (It would be interesting to see more books that do this without clarifying for the reader, so the reader wrestles alongside the character, but at that point we almost leave the present topic altogether.)
Of course, I think the primary way that God speaks today is through His written Word: Scripture. This has more or less bearing in a fictional setting depending on how the religion of the world is set up. In a world where there is no Bible or equivalent, it makes a lot more sense to show a personal God by way of direct dialogue. When the Bible is around, it makes more sense (to me, anyway) to make use of Scripture and the characters’ study of it and use direct speech more sparingly. (Which I should acknowledge Nadine Brandes largely does, if I’m going to mention her books as an example.)
But I think generally the question of how we should translate these principles into a fictional setting are matters of personal preference. I think that all of these methods–characters who hear directly and clearly from God/a God-figure, characters who experience the prodding of the Spirit, and characters who rely on God’s written Word–are biblically sound and make sense within particular fictional contexts. The question in a “secondary world” is which of these make sense within the constructed allegory/spiritual parallel built into the world.
Concerns with God-speech in fiction
Something that makes a difference in how I personally see God-speech in fiction is whether the book talks about God Himself or an allegorical figure. I’m generally more comfortable with an allegorical figure speaking directly (as in Wishtress) than with God speaking directly (as in the Out of Time Series or, arguably, Once I Knew) because there’s a bit less concern of putting words in God’s mouth that way. It’s still something that should be taken seriously, of course, because that allegorical figure is representative… but with less of a direct tie it feels like the stakes are a little bit lower. (I could see an argument being made that even direct portrayals of God in fiction are allegorical because we know they’re representations of God and not truly the real thing… That’s not an argument I’ll get into within this post, but it’s another angle that could be considered.)
Putting words in God’s mouth is my primary concern with direct dialogue from God or a God figure in fiction. We are warned not to add to God’s Word (Proverbs 30:6). Maybe the concern is misplaced, since I know authors who portray these dialogues give it a ton of thought and prayer and research into Scripture, and in the end it’s all weighed against Scripture anyway. It just makes me a little wary of it. I think as an author you take on a lot of responsibility to be true to Scripture when you go this route, and you come under stricter scrutiny for it. Which might even be a good thing, both from an author’s perspective in portraying truth carefully and from a reader’s perspective in reading critically and testing things against Scripture.
An easy way to avoid this concern is to base dialogue from God or the God figure heavily on Scripture (as is almost entirely the case in Once I Knew), which is often safer but then runs into the question of why it should be direct speech instead of a study in Scripture (again, in a setting where Scripture is available).
Another risk with direct speech is that of alienating readers. This can be a lesser or greater concern depending on the author and their purpose for a particular book; alienating readers is actually not always a bad thing, as it can challenge them or simply turn away those who are not your ideal reader. But the direct speech of a God-figure can be a divisive topic for Christian readers (as is the case with most of the topics I discuss in this series), and you can jolt certain readers out of a smooth reading experience if they’re the sort to stop and question the direct speech of a God-figure.
Context is important
I’ve already talked a bit about context in this post–certain portrayals of God/a God-figure’s speech make more or less sense depending on the context of the setting, and whether your God-figure is actually meant to be God or meant to be representative plays a role–but perhaps no topic I’ll discuss in this series is more affected by the genre in which you’re writing. I, of course, tend to tilt these posts toward fantasy writers since they’re my target audience, but I know that I have readers who write in other genres–perhaps especially readers of this series–so allow me to get into the question of genre expectations and the context of God-speech within them.
Fantasy, I think, offers the most flexibility on this topic. Even those who question the supernatural in the real world let down their guard and appreciate the transcendent in fantasy worlds. If your God-figure speaks and that is established as part of your world, you’re less likely to alienate readers than a contemporary author doing the same thing. And the way you choose to portray this speech can make a difference, as well; does it come in the form of a disembodied voice or does the God-figure visit and speak in an embodied way? Do they receive the God-figure’s guidance while asleep or awake? These sorts of details can shape your reader’s perception of the topic within your story.
Historical fiction authors, too, will be working with different reader expectations than authors portraying God’s speech in more modern eras. Readers will excuse in biblical fiction what they won’t believe in post-apostolic historical or modern fiction, because even cessationists accept that God tells us that He spoke in those times.
Contemporary authors run the most risk of alienating readers, because the cessationism debate is such a big dividing line today. Contemporary fiction has the least degree of separation between the reader and the story’s setting, which means readers let down their guard the least and read things much more personally. This has its strengths, but you must be aware of its consequences in both directions.
This will probably be the most “neutral” post in this series, the one I have the least solid conclusion on for myself. Portraying a speaking God in fiction is complicated and I haven’t figured out a solid personal rubric for it yet. I don’t do it in my own writing (though that could change down the line); I have mixed feelings about it in books I read. But hopefully these points have given you something to think about and the building blocks to construct your own personal conviction on the matter.
What are your thoughts on this topic? Were any of these points things you’d thought about before? Do you have a solid stance, or are you still trying to figure it out? Comment below and let’s discuss!