Because Western culture is becoming unhinged from its past, particularly it’s Christian heritage, should Christian writers eschew the use of Biblical symbols and allusions? That, of course, is one option. In place of a lamb, a vine, a staff, any use of symbols or allusions would be connected to contemporary images, sans Christianity—9/11, Pearl Harbor, “I have a dream”; or a flower, a dolphin, a crystal.
Another approach would be to use only the Biblical symbols and/or allusions that would be familiar to the majority—parting the Red Sea, eating the apple, killing the giant; or a manger, a cross, a stone tablet of the Decalogue.
A third option is to dispense with symbols and allusions and concentrate on story—write to entertain, to provide a few moments of escapism. I think of this as the Nancy Drew approach to fiction, and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. Many a reader (myself included) got hooked on stories via Nancy Drew.
The fourth way of handling Biblical symbols and/or allusions is to search for ones that are central to the story — not in some superficial way, but in a thoughtful way that causes me as a writer to dig to understand what God is saying through His Word, first and foremost to me. It is as I allow Scripture to influence and affect me that I become passionate about sharing that insight and understanding I’m gaining.
If I choose this last route, it is with the understanding that I might be the only one who “gets” the symbols I am including. But the thing about symbols, they sort of become like buried treasure. Once readers get a whiff that something’s there to be found, they start unearthing all kinds of things.
So it seems to me, one part of including symbols is to tip your hand, ever so slightly. Like beginning your novel with a line like “Call me Ishmael.”
By employing Biblical symbols or allusions in this way, is an author talking in a hidden language that will fail to reach the intended audience?
That’s a tough question. I’ll rely on my usual definitive answer—yes and no. 😉
I really do think reading can be equated to a treasure hunt, so part of the author’s job is to let the readers know there is treasure to be had. If you’ve ever hidden Easter eggs, for example, you know that it’s important to put some in the easiest places so the youngest ones can find them while hiding others in more challenging places for the older ones. So with symbols.
Finally, the symbols in the Bible were used so ordinary people would more easily grasp spiritual truth — the concrete illustrating the abstract. That fewer of us live in an agrarian society perhaps clouds some of the symbolism, but in this communication era, though we may never have tilled a vine, for instance, what is involved in that process isn’t foreign to us. In other words, I think the symbols used in the Bible translate pretty well to our culture and can still communicate those spiritual truths.
If an author chooses instead to use less well-known symbols, he should aim for clarity. This must be achieved without spelling out what symbols stand for. So I suppose the logical thing to discuss next time is technique in employing symbols.
Originally posted as part of a series on symbolism at A Christian Worldview of Fiction