Dignity of Causality: Characters and Prayer

I don't read a lot of "Christian" fiction. Abigail wrote two very good pieces on Christian fiction some time ago (What is "Christian" Fiction? and Light in the Darkness) which more or less sum up my own view on the matter. I hope I'm not the only one discomforted by the general swell of thin, watered-down Christianity that oozes in fiction. I don't think this is necessarily limited to our time, though I think our time is remarkable for its Godlessness. A hundred years ago, it was uncouth to say you were an atheist, even if you were one. It was just socially unacceptable. People understood what was Proper. So I tend to steer clear of nominal Christian fiction for that purpose: I'm not going to trifle with my intelligence and respect of God by entertaining novels that don't try to scratch an inch below the surface of our faith. These are Laodicean novels: lukewarm, neither warm nor hot, and I have no recourse but to spit them out of my library. There is very little time to read all of the good works out there, and no time at all to spend on the works of Laodicea.

We don't want to be writing these sorts of novels, do we? We want upright, God-fearing literature, even if we're not specifically writing Christian literature. We want an exceptionally good understanding of godly morals, we want to be fluent in circumspect conversation, etc. We want, in short, to write the sort of literature that brings people "further up and further in" to God's nature, inasmuch as we are able. Any of you, having sat staring eye to eye with a half-written novel, will probably be familiar with the sudden overwhelming rush of despair that breaks over you when you wonder if your work is worth anything, if anyone will get anything out of it, if it is even True. The agony and the ecstasy of writing can be intense.

So today I want to deal with one aspect of Christian fiction that I have seen which needs a great deal of adjustment. This adjustment is probably necessary because, by and large, I don't think the topic is taught properly among Christian circles in general. I will address it on the literature front, but please understand that it applies to flesh-and-blood-clad spirits as well.

in this manner, therefore, pray...

The necessity to pray crops up just as frequently in stories as it does in our lives. Things go wrong, characters have close shaves, people fall on their knees in thanksgiving. But prayer is more than a means of saying, "God, aaaaahh...!" in a panic, and gasping even an honest, "Thank God!" in the wake of the aftermath. I say prayer is more than this - I do not say that prayer does not include the call for divine help, nor does it exclude gratitude for that help. These two aspects are essential to our relationship with our Father: the psalms of David are chock-full of these. But you can't stop there. I've seen too many characters cry out to God merely to say, "Halp!" (sometimes even the prayers of gratitude are forgot) and this is simply unacceptable.

Do the characters understand why they are praying? Say they are taking the moment to recognize their futility and finiteness to call upon the arm of the Lord. Do they recognize, too, the nature of their God who delights in mercy, who has said "I will go before thee, and make the crooked places straight: I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron: and I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places, that thou mayest know that I, the Lord, which call thee by name, am the God of Israel."? There is a gravity as well as a confidence to be had in understanding the promises of God. Do your characters appreciate this? Can your characters cry, "Lord, help me," and expect to be answered in the hiding place of thunder?

for your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask him

We are told to, and therefore there is nothing wrong with asking for our daily bread. But why? If our Father knows what we have need of, why ask? Especially in a story, wherein the character is at your mercy, and you mostly know your own mind, why is it necessary that a character should bother to ask the Almighty for safety and sustenance? Fledge the flying horse in The Magician's Nephew put it rather simply: God likes to be asked. But not only that (it comes off sounding a trifle petty, don't you think?), the very act of saying, "Lord, help me," or "Lord, give to me the bread of my sufficiency," recognizes the person's dependence upon the Father's hand. The act is deeper than a mere petition, it is a gesture of worship. It is, therefore, necessary. Prayer is a means of grace: we must not take it lightly, and we must take it all the time.

Prayer is not merely asking for our daily bread, we understand that. So what else is it? It is rude of our characters to yelp for aid whenever they find themselves in a tight place, and to make no other effort to communicate with the Godhead, but how can we make them understand what prayer ought to be? I found a passage from C.S. Lewis' essay "The Efficacy of Prayer" rather helpful.

"Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision of God its bread and wine. In it God shows himself to us. That he answers prayers is a corollary - not necessarily the most important one - from that revelation. What he does is learned from what he is."

Prayer is far deeper, and far more important, than merely asking for one's daily bread. By it we are drawn into union with the divine will: by it we learn what to ask for by learning who God is. My characters and I ask for our daily bread because we know God hears the cry of the needy, because he delights in mercy, because he has said, "In this manner, therefore, pray...give us this day our daily bread." But even more than that prayer is communion with the Godhead. It is a serious, grave, joyful thing to participate in. Do our characters appreciate this?

What is it that you say? she wondered, casting a baleful, wistful glance out the window. You have gone before me and behind me, and set your hand upon me. And yet still I am afraid. How do I know that you have not meant for me to fail? What do I really know of anything?

To avoid the thin, childish cry of "God, aaaaah...!" in our stories, we and our characters must have at least some understanding of God's nature (it goes without saying that this understanding is vital on entirely different levels). Elwin Ransom's order to "Say a child's prayer, if you cannot say a man's!" is not meant to be comforting. It's a reproach. We must start at a child's prayer, but for heaven's sake (and our own) we mustn't stay there. A lot of prayers that I have run across in Christian fiction have been petty complaints and, most often, the voicing of confusion and misunderstanding on the character's part. "God, I don't know why you are doing this to me. God, I don't know what to do. God, I'm lost. God, I'm scared. God, why this? God, why that? God, wouldn't you just do this?" Now, taken individually, there is nothing necessarily wrong with many of these petitions. The last three grow presumptuous, though even Christ cried

Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani!

The problem is the plethora of these prayers, and the seeming inability of authors and their characters to come to any sort of answer, or even to move deeper than them. "God, I don't know why you are doing this to me, nevertheless your rod and staff comfort me. God, I don't know what to do, nevertheless your word is a lamp to my feet. God, I'm lost, guide me beside still waters. God, I'm scared, be with me through the valley of the shadow of death. Your thoughts are far above my thoughts and your ways far above my ways. I know that my Redeemer lives: though he slay me, I will hope in him."

Do you mark the difference? From an attitude of petrified terror the character is moved into a stance of peaceful submission, from a railing child to patient communion. The character appreciates the word and promises of God, and understands that the will of God is omnipotent. We cannot too lightly regard the importance of God-fearing prayer. What your character thinks of God, and how he communicates with God, define who he is. Who we are is only determined by our relationship with our Creator: this must penetrate to our characters as well.

We've had enough of fear and uncertainty. We all know what it is like to wonder, "Will God answer me?" The truth is that, yes, God answers: but he does not always grant. A character who understands this and accepts it as the way of the all-knowing Father is a character who stands on solid ground: he is a character worth reading about.

"But courage, child: we are all between the paws of the true Aslan."

A character who understands this can face anything, knowing he does his Father's will. He can come in frank and reverent communion before the Godhead: his prayers will be even more than "Help me," though "Help me" will be in all his petitions. It is high time our characters had a better understanding of prayer, and can speak better things before God than frantic babblings of terror. If we mean to write better characters, the sorts that readers can look up to and emulate, if we mean to write Christ-like people, here is one aspect that we can work on to improve them. Prayer in a story is more than the acknowledgement that a story is "Christian" - it is the acknowledgement of our dependence upon God and our privilege of communion with him.

awake to righteousness, be sober-minded

2 ripostes:

  1. Thanks for this piece Jenny. Your criticisms are true, and your suggestions good. I hope many a "Christian" author may heed your advice.

    Ajnos >'.'<

  2. I try to incorporate praying into my books; to me, it's an important part of the Christian faith. =) Great post, Jenny.