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.

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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?