Thursday, May 3, 2012

What is Allegory?

Allegory is traditionally labeled as a retelling of the Bible. The Pilgrim's Progress comes to mind, and C. S. Lewis's Narnia books.

But far too often, allegory comes out predictable and preachy. (On the predictable part, I'm thinking of Chuck Black's Kingdom series. While I enjoyed them, I didn't love them because they were a blatant retelling of the Bible. You probably disagree, but it IS rather predictable, no?)

So what do we do? Christians who want to write Christian fiction have two choices: write allegory or write Christian fiction—that is, fiction with Christian characters. Most go for the latter, but I believe there's a power in allegory that today's writers have not completely harnessed.

My upcoming novel (codenamed Tornado C) is somewhat allegorical. But more and more, I'm rebelling against the traditional way of labeling allegory. Retelling another story isn't much more than copying. Too often, allegory comes out cliche and predictable.

So how can we write allegory and keep it unpredictable?

We need to change our definition of allegory. Writing that is deep and meaningful AND allegorical is hard to come by. Really, all the allegory I can think of that really works is Lewis's Narnia books.

And yet, Lewis didn't intentionally "copy" the Bible. He instead said that it was the story of Christ coming in another world and another time.

Therein lies the key, I think.

Allegory is not retelling a story: it's retelling a truth.

Can you see the difference? Retelling a story leads to a strict copy of the Bible: retelling a truth leaves room for speculation and truly original story.

Tornado C has something of a Christ-parallel in it. (Don't look at me like that.  I promise you, it's good.)  And yet, if you tried to formulate theology off of that parallel, it would come way off. Because the purpose of that parallel is NOT to retell Christ's story, but to retell self-sacrifice and show the importance of the voice of God in our lives.

And really, thinking of allegory in this way frees us. Trying to copy the Bible not only fails (because we're human), it harnesses us to the theology of the Bible; we HAVE to tell it in this way, otherwise our theme would be skewed. You can't have Christ coming in a sinless world if you're writing allegory; otherwise, the theology behind the book wouldn't work! If there's no sin to save us from, then that could translate into the real world and make people think that they don't need Christ!

And yet, that's what Hopper does in his White Lion Chronicles, because he didn't write traditional allegory. He retold the truth of a Savior, not the story of Christ.

This could transform the way we look at Christian fiction. It would free us to speculate and thus write truly original novels.

If you only remember one thing about this post, remember this: don't try to retell the STORY of the Bible, but instead show the TRUTH of the Bible. That's true allegory. And that's how we can write powerful, original Christian speculative fiction.


Hannah Joy said...

Jake, you really keep posting stuff that really has been applying to me! Keep 'em coming!! :-D

But I've been toying with different allegorical ideas, and really coming to a blank. But what you say about telling the TRUTH rather than the story....YES! That's what I was trying to find out, I just hadn't gotten there yet!

But those are often the things that stick with me about Bible stories. The truths. The values. The themes. When I read the story of Moses freeing the people of Israel from the Egyptians, here's what sticks out for me:
The willingness to do anything for God; God's power; God's way of working through people; freedom; love; and passion.
And all those things are heavily inspiring my new book, but I am not retelling the story of Moses.

Anyway, GREAT thoughts. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. :-)

Writer4Christ said...

I really enjoyed this post too. It was needed. I had recently read a fantasy book that felt like the Bible story had been ripped out of earth and stitched into fantasy land. Not that it wasn't a bad book, it just wasn't as good as it could have been.
After reading it, I wondered how I would write my own 'allegory' in the second book of my series. Putting John the Baptist in there in fantasy form leads to another thing and another.

Elizabeth L.W. said...

That was a really thought provoking post, Jake. Really enjoyed it!

Ninja Tim said...

"Allegory is not retelling a story: it's retelling a truth."

Well said! Interestingly enough, I recall C.S. Lewis saying somewhere that when he wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, he didn't mean for them to be an "allegory." I think he called them a "supposal." Suppose Christ came (as you said) into another world and time... And it grew from there. =)

Nathan R. Petrie said...

Technically allegory is any highly symbolic work--where every single thing is a symbol. But, I digress ;)

I LOVE solid allegories. Lewis was a genious though, let's me honest, it was practically a blatant retelling. He pulled another allegory out in his Space Trilogy. Solid stuff.

The Old Man and the Sea is allegory-ish. FAntastic.

The Chains of Hethra ::cough:: is an allegory ::cough:: ;)

In writing that, I sought to interpret our symbols literally. So as to hide the allegory in plain sight. Scott said the allegory was clear, but super-anti-preachy. BOOM. I'm excited haha.

The hardest part was pulling off a "fall" sort of scene in the novel version, that wasn't cliche. When/if you read it, I hope you'll agree with's interesting.

Solid post! :)

-Nathan Keeneye