This is part of a series where guest authors will share their views on how their belief systems affect the fictional worlds they create. Not all of these people will be religious. If you’re interested in participating, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I was raised with the belief that every creative act is—or at least can be—a way to give glory to God. From painting a picture, to knitting a scarf, to building a brick wall, every time that we shape the world around us by making something with our minds or our hands can be a form of prayer or even an act of worship. For as long as I can remember, even as I have struggled with the things my parents and my church taught me, this belief is something that has remained steady. It is one of few ideas that have weathered the various storms of doubt and fear and anger in my life with very little wavering. When I didn’t know how to pray, when I wasn’t sure what “worship” really meant, creativity was something that helped me to still connect with God.
I believe that the capacity and drive to create are part of what it means for human beings to be made “in the image of God.” As God is the creator of the universe, so are we imbued with the ability to participate in that creation, to reflect that aspect of God’s nature in our own nature. This is one of the many reasons why, in the Orthodox Church, we sing the services and paint icons of saints and Biblical events to hang in our churches and homes. Creativity is part of our human inheritance, not just a proclivity of the imaginative or those talented in one or another of the arts, but something that belongs to all of us and each of us and that we express in many different ways.
Since my early adolescence, when I first began to see writing as a craft, I have turned over and over in my head questions of how to apply this belief and offer up my writing to God. Writing fiction, in particular, has offered challenges that my other creative hobbies have not because stories portray human beings with all their flaws and foibles. Stories contain conflicts that do not always have clear solutions and moral choices that can be as muddy and ambiguous as any faced in real life. I asked these questions first about the stories I consumed: was it OK to read a novel about an assassin, to root for the thief in a heist movie, to seek fictional vengeance as the player character in a video game? The questions became even harder when I asked them about the stories I wrote.
What did it mean to give glory to God through my writing? Did it mean that I could only portray the good, the light, the joyful? Or that I had to make it excruciatingly clear and obvious what was good and what was bad, what was right and what was wrong? Did my protagonists have to be paragons of virtue who made no mistakes, or only made well-meaning mistakes out of ignorance or misunderstanding? Did the good guys always have to win? Did the bad guys always have to be punished? Did I have to mention God or religion? If I somehow messed up, would I be leading my potential readers astray?
Perhaps surprisingly, I was never troubled with concerns that writing fantasy, the genre I am most drawn to, might be un-Christian. My father fed me the fantasy of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien from an early age. My godfather, a retired physicist who is now an Orthodox priest, loves Arthurian legend and has a special fondness for Merlin. When the Lord of the Rings movies came out, he took all of the teenagers at our church to see each installment as a group. One of the most straight-laced, traditional women of the parish introduced me to Harry Potter. It wasn’t until I was nearly an adult that I even realized there are some Christians who have a problem with fantasy. What concerned me far more than genre were the morality of the characters and the messages of the stories.
My first attempts to express my faith in my writing were painfully clumsy and unsubtle. My protagonists were saints, or at least they kept their sins hidden from me. I thought that I had to shoehorn in some good old fashioned moralizing every time an opportunity presented itself. Most of my stories concluded with a deus ex machina—emphasis on the “deus”—and my attempt to imitate the allegory in The Chronicles of Narnia is a thing best not spoken of, much less revealed to the light of day. I knew that it wasn’t working, that my writing was flat and stale, that the end results were more sermons than stories.
But I didn’t know how to fix it until life kicked the stuffing out of me.
I sat down during one of the worst periods of my life, and I did something I had never done before—I wrote a story that I never intended another human being to lay eyes on. I wrote without care for craft or style. And I wrote without worrying that I would be leading others astray or that others would see my characters’ poor choices as a reflection of my own morality. The result was more auto-biographical than fictional, poorly structured and barely coherent. It was part confession, part railing against the injustice of my suffering, and it was more a prayer than anything else I had ever written.
My fiction changed after that, and it took me a while to understand that I wasn’t giving up on my long-standing beliefs about acts of creativity. Eventually, I realized that I could still give glory to God without sugar-coating life or the stories that came out of it. My fiction could still hold messages of hope, forgiveness, and love even as my characters, like me, sometimes acted out of fear, anger, and pride. Instead of sermonizing, I could have an honest conversation.
Most of all, I found that both my writing and my faith are stronger for recognizing that God’s light can shine through any darkness, all the brighter for the contrast.