The Trouble With Theme

I love to talk about art with artists, and had the opportunity recently when my wife and I had dinner with our friends, Terry and Regina Jacobson. Terry is a talented architect who specializes in designing churches, and Regina is a wonderful painter (as you can see in her painting, "Spinning in Infinity" at left) who explores spiritual themes. We had a good talk about the joys and challenges of expressing our faith in our work. At one point in the conversation I mentioned the strange fact that there’s no faster way to start an argument among people who write Christian fiction than to bring up the subject of theme.

“Right away, we divide into two camps,” I said, making two fists and putting one on the dinner table to my right, and the other on the table to my left. Lifting one fist I said, “Over here are authors who insist Christian novels have to kowtow to the most prudish people in the pews, and speak about the gospel so plainly it crosses the line into propaganda.” Lifting my other fist, I said, “But the authors over here think being authentic and relevant means we must show profanity and violence and sex realistically, and they’re willing to avoid all hint of Christianity rather than risk being seen as preachy.”

Nodding, my friend Regina zeroed right in on the problem. Pointing to one fist she said, “Too much truth.” Then she pointed to the other fist. “Too much grace.”

Regina knows her Bible. She knows you can never really have too much truth or too much grace. What she really meant was, not enough harmony.

People are like pendulums. We can’t seem to stop swinging from one extreme to the other. Sometimes this is good. Passion is important. But in addition to passion, all the finest things in God’s creation have a sense of harmony. It’s true in Regina’s world, where the best painters pay as much attention to the background, or “negative space,” as they do to the subject matter, or “positive space.” And it’s true in fiction, where the best writers devote attention to theme, style, setting, plot and characterization without giving any one of those fundamental elements too much emphasis, or too little. Everything works together, harmoniously.

When we swing so far in one direction that we ignore or oppose the other end of the spectrum, it’s a sure sign we are lazy. It’s easier out there on the ends. The gray areas in the middle require much more work. In those middle places we can’t thoughtlessly accept simple black and white ideas; we have to think about everything. This applies to writing, and it applies to Christianity itself.

It’s lazy writing to layer a theme onto a story superficially and it’s lazy to turn one’s back on theme for fear of overstatement. That’s why a good writer will wrestle with a theme, always aware of the dangers of going too far, and always aware it’s just as dangerous not to go far enough. Some wrestle with their theme up front; others let the theme develop as they write and then go back to wrestle with it later. Either way this is a lot of work, but it’s also the only way to write a novel that matters.

Similarly, it’s lazy writing to demand thoughtless compliance with rigid rules simply to avoid causing offense, and it’s just as lazy to break those same rules merely to appear relevant or authentic to the outside world. A good Christian novelist will offend even fellow Christians if there’s no better way to make a point that should be made. A good Christian novelist will also do the extra work it takes to write about the fallen world without contributing to the fall. Jesus ate with prostitutes and “sinners” but not once did he emulate them.

A long time ago I was advised by a Jewish agent and an unbelieving editor to add a stronger spiritual subtext to a plot, only to be told later by a Christian author that the novel was too preachy. More recently, another Christian author assured me that my upcoming allegorical novel about God’s love is a waste of time, because only people who already know God will understand the symbolism. (I could not help remembering that God is not mentioned in the book of Ester, nor does that book contain any commentary on the actions of the characters. Apparently God trusts readers, even if we don’t.)

These experiences are fairly typical of what I’ve found in several organizations where Christian authors discuss writing. We often talk about how to create sympathetic characters, or how to write a page-turner of a plot, but amazingly enough, we almost never discuss how to communicate a theme. When it comes up we tend to flee to separate corners, with those on one side saying, “You abandon the gospel!” and those on the other side saying, “You write sermons, not novels!” The finger pointing is easier than doing the work it takes to speak to readers deep down, between the lines. Although we are all in the business of writing about Christian ideas one way or another, theme is a touchy subject.

Oh, the irony!

Whether the genre is romance, speculative fiction, mystery/suspense, general fiction or chick lit, writing about Jesus means letting go of safe assumptions and easy shortcuts. It also means approaching every novel as if it’s the first one we ever wrote in order to encounter our stories in a middle place where life is gray and complicated, because that’s where true harmony is found. This is only natural, since that harmonious yet complicated place is also where Jesus lives. The apostle John tells us Jesus came “full of grace and truth.” Jesus never compromised on one for the sake of the other, and He calls us to live our lives the same way. Imagine the power and the glory if our novels did that, too.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 5:53 PM  


Hilarey said... November 8, 2009 at 1:56 PM  

How poetic that an unbeliever said it needs more spiritual subtext but a Christian said it was preachy.

Athol Dickson said... November 9, 2009 at 7:36 AM  

Yes, I thought that was interesting too, Hilarey. As a Christian author, I must tell the truth with artistic integrity, but at some point, the truth must actually come out, otherwise I've forgotten the whole point of writing Christian fiction. And the interesting thing is, many non-Christian readers are okay with Christian themes, so long as they are honestly and artistically presented. But many Christians seem to think we must either sneak the theme in so low under the radar that it becomes completely invisable, or else shout it at the reader like they're deaf. Balance is so important in this, as in all of Christian living.

Fridaydreamer said... November 11, 2009 at 8:22 PM  

It's the "Yes and Yes" you wrote so wonderfully about in "The Gospel According to Moses," a personal favorite. One of my first blog posts was about balance--I'd love to get your feedback if you have a chance to look at it sometime.


P.S. I can't wait to read some of your fiction--which one would you recommend I start with?

Athol said... November 12, 2009 at 6:49 AM  

Shaunie, I was just over at your blog. Your post on balance was very thought provoking. Thanks for that.

On where to start reading my fiction, I think it depends on what you like. My first three novels are fairly straightforward mystery or syspense stories. (WHOM SHALL I FEAR?, EVERY HIDDEN THING, THEY SHALL SEE GOD) Then with number four, RIVER RISING, I started to explore the magical realism genre. I've been working in that genre ever since, and have no plans to change. (THE CURE, WINTERHAVEN, LOST MISSION)

Kim said... November 16, 2009 at 6:59 PM  

Hi, Athol,
Thank you for this post. I think also that gray area in the middle of a believer's life is so filled with paradox it is often very unsettling i.e., we die in Jesus that we might live in Him. Perhaps in addition to laziness we swing out to either end so much because of fear. Somewhere I read another way to refer to that gray area might be "living the questions." I've noticed as I get older (60 is coming up too fast!) it is blessedly easier to let go of that perpetual need for answers. The pendulum swings less vigorously. The gray area where Jesus lives is home.

You really achieve this balance in your writing.

Kim said... November 17, 2009 at 7:52 AM  

Oh, also... I live in SoCal, too, and am really looking forward to seeing Regina's paintings in person some day.

Rebecca LuElla Miller said... November 20, 2009 at 12:48 PM  

Athol, this is an outstanding post! So my next question. Have you considered teaching on theme at a writer's conference?

You'd be just the one I'd want to hear from.


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