One of the earliest installments in this series covered how to write about false religions, those that aren’t even real within your world. But today I want to cover the separate issue of how to write about religions that are designed to reflect the truth of who our God is within the context of a fictional world.
As always, this is intended to be food-for-thought, not the one proper way for Christians to write about this topic. Abide by Scripture and the Lord’s leading in this topic as in all the others discussed.
The Purpose of Allegorical Religions
There may be a couple purposes to including an allegorical religion in your work–whether it’s full allegory or whether it bears some intentional resemblance to the truth while remaining distinct to your fictional world. (The choice of how much allegory you want will likely be informed by which of these camps you fall into.)
Reason #1: We want to reflect truth and true religion in our world, in a way that suits that fictional world and can “sneak past the watchful dragons.”
Reason #2: We want our fictional world to be distinctly Christian, with 1-to-1 correspondence between the characters’ god and our own.
These two different reasons will result in two different kinds of allegorical religions–either a religion that faithfully reflects God but weaves His truth in seamlessly with the rest of the world, or, often, a religion that reads like you copied and pasted Christianity into a fictional world. I’ve read both types of allegories–as well as those that hit a sweet spot in between, being clearly allegorical without feeling like you just hit copy and paste (Narnia, for example).
A more blunt allegory is not inherently a problem; it can be done well, especially in fantasy worlds that are connected somehow to our own world (e.g. Narnia, The Door Within). Personally, I prefer a bit more subtlety in most cases. I don’t think that an allegorical god figure has to match our own God in every last feature and detail–though obviously in order to represent Him accurately we must leave the foundational elements the same.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Knowing Who God Is
In order to truthfully reflect God in the fictional religions we build, we must have a clear understanding of who He is. We must know Him before we can imitate His character in a way that effectively points to Him and brings Him the glory.
We know that God is the Creator and He is the Author of our faith. We know that He is just, holy, merciful, omnipotent, faithful to His people. We know the relationship He has with us as our Savior, Redeemer, and King, as the authority over us. We know that He is truth and in Him is no shadow of turning.
There are many, many other attributes we could ascribe to Him through the revelation of Scripture, and we should be studying our Bibles to gain a greater understanding of God’s character and His relationship toward His people if we intend to reflect Him through the allegorical religions we create. Without a strong knowledge of Him, our allegories can become skewed and ineffectual toward revealing Him.
Holding Onto the Fundamentals
We don’t have to reflect every single aspect of who God is in our fictional counterparts; they’re meant to be like God, not to be God. But there are certain fundamental characteristics that we should take into account in order to reflect His character rightly.
While different authors may see different attributes as critical, these are a few I think fall into that category: He’s our creator, He’s holy and righteous, both just and merciful, He is omnipotent and sovereign, He is faithful even when His people are not, He is our Savior from sin, He is the King of kings and the authority over us and the world (and He’s masculine; He is a He, and that is tied in with His authority and the authority structure He’s given us as a reflection of Himself. See Ephesians 5 and 1 Corinthians 11).
These are the characteristics that I always incorporate into the fully true religions of my fictional worlds. Other religions I write may get parts of this right but not others, and those fall into the false religions category in the way they’re written and constructed. Whatever religion I’ve designed to be true in these worlds must reflect all of these traits of God.
Your list may look different, but try to think through what elements of God’s character would make Him into a totally different kind of god if they were removed–or would drastically alter the moral structure of the world–and avoid tampering with those, or at least be aware of the consequent differences in the world’s moral law and make sure they’re not going to misrepresent God if they’re alongside qualities that are clearly His.
Creativity in the Details
Your allegorical god figure doesn’t have to be called by exactly the same names, speak through exactly the same text, or have precisely the same story as our God in the real world when it comes to the details. Is it important that the God figure have some plan of redemption for His people? Absolutely. Should there be a defeat of death involved? Yes (per Romans 5:12,18-21). Does that have to look like dying on a cross and coming up from the grave in worlds where those details don’t make sense or there are other ways to show the same conquering? No.
Your allegorical god figure can be called by a name that makes sense in the culture(s) in which he’s known–linguistically and/or as far as meaning is concerned. The allegorical god figure in Deseran, for example, is known by several different names depending on which culture is referencing him:
- In Sachara, he’s known as Aomlan; holy, whole, complete, perfect… etc.
- He has the most names in Veldan. First, Veldan-Arba, or Father of Veldan (Veldan being an ancestor, similar to Israel’s namesake). Then also Saving-Father, Perfect-Father, Valiant-Father, Just-Father, Healing-Father and, of course, simply Arba. (All of those titles translated into the Veldani language.)
- To the Virilen, he’s known as All-God, or Complete-God.
- In Mordon, he’s Utmost-Conqueror.
- In Eilis, he’s Truth.
- In Teraco, he’s simply God.
- In Osanar, he’s Life-Giver.
- In Piradi, he’s Peace-Father, with “peace” in the Piradi tongue and “father” being the native Veldani “Arba.”
- In Rasell, he’s Creator.
Our own God is referenced by several different names in Scripture (I AM, Yahweh–with various names afterward such as Yahweh Nissi, Yahweh Jireh/Yireh, etc.); I don’t think different names reflecting different attributes of God’s character or different tongues are problematic–unless a culture begins calling the true god figure by the same name as one of their false gods.
As for the details of His story, the question is whether the details or the themes are more important to carry over when crafting an allegory.
If the themes are more important than the details, then draw out those themes and think about how they fit into your fictional world. For example, say you have a world in which there is a genuinely real “god” figure over death (see the portion in the false religions post about “gods” that are in subjection to God); it may be effective allegory to Christ’s death and resurrection to show your redemptive figure being imprisoned by that “god” for a time (and showing the consequences of that imprisonment) before breaking free and defeating that “god” in a way that saves mortals from his thrall. Or maybe your redemptive figure is simply killed by mortals despite his innocence (scorned by those he came to save), but he’s killed in a manner befitting the judicial system of the culture you’ve built. He must humble himself and give himself up for his people, and he must come out the victor, but the details are where you can weave that story into the world you’ve built. (For example, look at Aslan submitting himself to be killed by the White Witch on the Stone Table, then rising again. It’s a clear allegory, but the details suit the world of Narnia.)
If the details are critical–the cross, for instance–then you’ll need to figure out how to incorporate those details into your world in a way that feels natural. Develop the reasons for the culture within your world to use crosses as a means of execution. (Are they intentionally brutal? Do they have a lot of trees, so wooden crosses make sense for their resources? Does the cross already have some cultural or religious significance which is upended by the crucifixion of the redeemer and given new meaning–like the Egyptian ankh may look very different to a Christian than it did to an ancient Egyptian?) There’s nothing wrong with maintaining the details as long as you construct your world in a way that supports those details instead of giving those details the impression of being shoehorned in for the sake of allegory alone.
Weaving Our Worlds With Truth
If we’ve created worlds that operate on similar foundational principles to our own, according to similar laws of morality (in particular), then it should be (relatively) easy to fit a truthful religion in without it feeling like a copy-and-paste job. Truth goes with truth. If there’s any sense of true justice in the world, a just god is the logical source and standard. Likewise with mercy, righteousness, sacrifice, etc. All of these things must stem from some standard, and a god who fills all of these roles is a logical standard–just as in the real world.
Build off of truth, hold to the fundamental pieces of God’s character, shape the details around the edges to connect with your world, and you’ll be left with a truthful allegory that doesn’t stand out from your world to slap readers in the face but simply reflects truth as it ought.
How do you construct your allegories? What traits are non-negotiable for you in an allegorical god figure? Please share your thoughts in the comments!
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