The problem with Christian allegory

I’m both a fan/not a fan of Christian allegory. If it’s done well, it can be amazing. The problem with Christian allegory is that many attempts are not done well.

There are classics, of course:

  • Dante’s Divine Comedy (1308-21)
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667)
  • Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678)
  • Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843)

And more recent classics:

  • Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe (1950)
  • L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (1962)
  • Hurnbard’s Hinds Feet on High Places (1955)

There are modern allegories too, of course. Some are fantastic, and others are, well, not.

Gate to heaven made in 3d software

What distinguishes good allegory?

  1. Complexity – There are many stories today that allegorize salvation. There are allegories for sin, allegories for redemption.

    It’s the stories that use allegory (symbolism?) as a part of a larger story that are better. If the entire book is about the salvation process, well that’s already been done. Several times.

    Morgan Busse’s book Daughter of Light had a splendid redemption scene within the larger context of her story. I remember reading it and thinking, wow, this is well done.
    Daughter of Light

  2. Subtlety– This goes along with #1. If within the first page you realize you are reading a heavy-handed allegory, then as a Christian, why would you read on? I mean, we already know where the story is headed.

    Now, if I’m reading a story that is fresh and it’s not until I get farther into the story that I realize that’s it’s an allegory, well you’ve caught me. Then I’m engrossed in your story world and enjoying the ride.

    Jill Williamson’s newest book, King’s Folly, is a fantastic example of this. It’s an allegory of Old Testament times, but you don’t really figure that out until you’re in the last third of the book. It points towards the erosion that sin causes and the hazards of tolerance. She handles the allegory (symbolism?) with deftness and grace.

    King's Folly

  3. Creativity– An allegory is, by definition, a story that uses symbolism to retell a story. (OK, so that’s MY definition). If you are retelling a story that has already been told, especially a popular one, then you are going to have to add some spice into the mix. Flair can make the difference between good and bad allegory.

    I recently listened to Jim L Rubart’s Rooms as an audiobook. In this one, he inherits a crazy magic house that brings him step by step closer to God. It’s original, and it has parallels with the Christian life in the context of our culture. So while it’s obviously allegorical, it’s creative and you can’t predict how it will end.Rooms

  4. Originality– Finally, if you’re going to tell an allegorical Bible story, choose one that hasn’t been done a million times. Give us something more than the story of salvation (unless the Holy Spirit has put it on your heart that’s the story you should tell).

    One of the most fantastic biblical allegories is Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers (which is in itself an allegory of Israel’s actions towards God). She’s placed the story of Hosea in the Old West. A man of God told by God to marry a prostitute? Great story. And yes, that happened in the Bible.

    A new book that is out that I haven’t read yet, but really want to, is Valor by R J Larson. This is her reimagining of the story of Jephthah. Not familiar? It is one of those hidden biblical gems that makes you wonder.

    And then, of course, we have our very own Vanessa Morton’s Moonfall. A reimagining of the story of Rahab.

Now, I realize I’m probably mixing up my literary devices a bit in this post. Sometimes when I’m talking about allegory, it might be more correct to refer to symbolism. (I’m sure Tim Akers will correct me.) But you get the idea. 😉

SO WHAT’S YOUR TAKE? DO YOU LIKE ALLEGORICAL FICTION? WHAT ARE SOME OF YOUR FAVORITES?

 

 

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10 thoughts on “The problem with Christian allegory

  1. I love allegory, but you are right, it has to be done right. I love the Tales of Goldstone Wood. 🙂

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    • I’ve only read one – The Goddess Tithe – but didn’t find it particularly allegorical. Plenty of people seem to like her books quite a bit.

      What about you? Are your book allegorical?

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      • Perhaps the allegory is more with the first book, Heartless where Una represents the church and Prince Aethelbald is a representation of Jesus. It sets the stage for the rest of the series, so if you haven’t read that one, I can see how The Goddess Tithe might not seem very allegorical. It’s more of a telling of what happened with Prince Lionheart during Heartless to give us a glimpse of why he did what he did in Heartless, but also setting the stage for Veiled Rose and Moonblood.

        My books….well…that’s a loaded question. Ha! When I first started out, my desire was to create a story where Lord of the Rings met Pilgrim’s Progress, but focusing more on the journey of faith. But I didn’t want it to be obvious like Pilgrim’s Progress. As I learned more about the writing industry and all, I scrapped the allegory and focused more on telling the story of how a young half-elf and her companions free the plains people from a curse all the while discovering true love amid lots of peril. ha!

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  2. You left out Paradise Lost which is a retelling, but this work defined a form of poetry in western literature. This work is studied and adored by heathen and believer a like. One of my favorites by Swift, is Gulliver’s Travels. What makes Swifts work so wonderful is he parodies important people and institutions of his time and does it well. The guy hid out for a couple of months once the book was published because of whom he was taking on. The mini-series starring Ted Danzen is a good adaptation.

    One of my complaints about many attempts at Salvation allegories is that they deal only with the moment of salvation. There is life beyond the cross and Jesus isn’t up there anymore. You don’t go back to the cross, you pick yours up and take it with you when you follow Jesus. Christian writers don’t get this and I blame their pastors. The horizon is open to the Christian life but writers want to narrow down to one moment and no more. A few good examples of books the go beyond salvation moments: The Screwtape Letters and Lewis’ Silent Planet series.

    You also left out the anti-salvation allegory, committing the sin that cannot be forgiven. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus deals with this very topic. Frankenstein by Shelly, what happens when a man tries to become God, or EX Machina (movie) which modernizes the Frankenstein story in a deliciously fascinating way.

    Until believers stop using doctrine as a “do not cross this line” and start using doctrine as a step ladder to greater discovery, those silly salvation allegories will keep coming.

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  3. I like allegory, usually if it’s not too heavy-handed. Like CS Lewis’ famous quote says. I’d rather have tiny bits of allegory than one heavy thread of it. Although the classics like Hind’s Feet and Pilgrim’s Progress are classics for a reason. 🙂

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