Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

Christian fiction writers are often accused of being preachy, but in fact, secular authors also routinely write for the purpose of communicating some message about which they are passionate.

So why do Christians alone get tagged with the preachy label?

I think one reason is the familiarity with Christianity in the western culture. The western world has become, if you will, a Christianized culture. Not that this familiarity has resulted in the embracing of Christianity. Just the opposite. It’s as if western societies, instead, have been inoculated against Christianity by repeated exposure, because, as you know, “familiarity breeds contempt.”

What does this have to do with symbolism and the preachy label? I’m postulating that this Christianization allows for ready identification of Christian symbols and rejection without contemplation of the ideas behind them.

What’s a writer to do?

One possibility is to avoid using Christian symbols. Some writers make religion or faith the centerpiece of their stories, thus avoiding the dangers of symbolism.

For the fantasy writer, this solution doesn’t offer much. In a struggle between good and evil, how does one represent God without being transparent, without using a symbol that makes the Christianized skeptic roll his eyes and go, Here comes the evangelism pitch.

CS Lewis did a masterful job in choosing a lion to represent God—one reason his fantasy series still resonates. Not that Lewis came up with the idea on his own. Scripture calls God the Lion of Judah, and certainly Lewis drew upon that image.

Perhaps that’s the secret—choosing symbols that are lesser known, not so easily identified as symbols. Ones that require contemplation first by the author himself.

Interestingly, our culture is no longer as Biblically literate as it once was, which may explain why some Christians choose the symbols they do.

“Call me Ishmael” was the opening line of Herman Melville’s classic novel Moby Dick. With those words Melville announced that his story was more than just a tale about whaling.

How so? Because the name created an allusion to a familiar Biblical story. As did the name for Melville’s protagonist—Ahab. As did the White Whale antagonist.

Back in 1851 London, Melville’s readers would have been familiar with the stories about Abraham and his disinherited son Ishmael, evil king Ahab and his conflicts with God’s prophet, Job and leviathan, Jonah and the whale God used to chastise him.

Granted, rather than symbolizing, the names allude to these Biblical accounts, but they can serve my purpose.

There was a time in Western culture that the Bible was well know. The average person was familiar with Gideon, Joash, and Festus. Mention of manna, a burning bush, a lamb caught in a thicket, brought to mind whole stories and the truth contained within.

Times have changed. Through a complex set of circumstances, we now find ourselves in a society—with the exception of a core group of Christians—that is nearly illiterate when it comes to the Bible.

My guess is, what people do know is, Jesus born in a stable and dying on a cross. Adam and Eve eating fruit in the garden. David killing a giant. Moses parting the Red Sea. Ben Hur racing his chariot. (I did say there was near illiteracy, remember. 😉 )

Seriously, the average reader will no longer immediately recognize Biblical allusions or Biblical symbols. I am assigning no blame, just stating a fact. A pertinent fact for writers because our job is to communicate.

So what do we do if the reading public no longer recognizes Biblical allusions or symbols? Perhaps we rely on the core group of symbols and stories the audience does recognize.

And inoculation sets in.

Inoculation, when what we need to generate is contemplation. Meditation. Thoughtful self-scrutiny. Worship.

I’m not trying to be mystical about this. I really do believe that the best fiction is the kind that makes us think and rethink and days later remember and talk over what we read with someone else.

Producing stories that rework the same ground over and over will not accomplish this.

Does that mean Christian writers should no longer look to the Bible as a source for symbols and allusions that will communicate the ideas we wish? I think that question is worthy of further exploration another day.

Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction



Filed under Symbolism

4 responses to “Symbolism, Part 2 – Symbols in Christian Fiction

  1. If a “Christian” writer doesn’t look to the Bible for inspiration, then why take the title “Christian” writer?

    If our goal as a Christian author is to represent Biblical principals then we should not stray far from the source. After all, Jesus set the best example for us to follow in using parables.

  2. Becky, I think you’re being generous with what the general public (including many church goers) know about the Bible. Of course, it’s not just that traditional Western literary source: aside from some cliched lines used as aphorisms, I would say more people know there was movie called “Shakespeare in Love” then understand anything about the plays written by the protagonist. Same with “The Canterbury Tales,” or Roman/Greek mythology (“Clash of the Titans” myth-making excepted).

    I think that is the real problem with symbolism in literature now: symoblism works best when one has a well of common cultural archetypes to draw from. With much of classic literature obscured by disinterest and Hollywood, one has to turn to other cultural touchstones to reach a modern audience (if one is reaching for the genral public, and not a smaller, more literary subset). Hence why “Use the Force” and Superman/comic imagery are often employed in media to evoke a certain audience response.

  3. I agree, Shawn. Interestingly, Jesus’s parables were about things common in His day — shepherds and sheepfolds, vineyards and vines, lost coins and wayward sons. And the symbols He used for Himself were commonplace, too: door, water, bread, shepherd, light.

    I wonder if we shouldn’t be capitalizing on those images more. But again we face the problem that much of society will miss the significance.


  4. Michelle, I think you’ve made a good point: Western culture is becoming unhinged from the past. I agree that much of our knowledge of literary allusions is poor, “aside from some cliched lines used as aphorisms.” I’m certain all people know about David and Goliath is that the underdog won. Actually that’s why I slipped in the Ben Hur mention because my guess is some people believe his story came from the Bible.

    Using contemporary touchstones to reach a modern audience is tricky because so fee of those have Christian overtones and they change so quickly. We might use something today that seems current, clear, and relevant, but by tomorrow it is passé.


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