• The second commandment reads: “You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them” (Exodus 20:2-5). Moreover, the Israelites were condemned for the creation and worship of the golden calf (Exodus 32). Does your account mean it is impossible to break the second commandment?

Not at all! On my understanding, the creation of the calf was not inherently sinful, nor would any analogy between the calf and God have been inherently sinful, but the purpose for which it was created – worship of another god – was wicked. The creation of these idols was forbidden because of their use. An example of creating such an image, using it in a representative capacity, and not breaching the second commandment would be having a little eagle key-ring, and saying, “It reminds me that I find refuge beneath the shadow of His wings.” Such is the role, I argue, of Octavia Spencer in The Shack. 

  • Every narrative relies on a theology, and not every theology accurately represents the Biblical God. One major criticism of The Shack is not that it represents God, but that it misrepresents God. Of course, that’s partly a function of length. Nobody expects even a story as rich and moving as the Prodigal Son to say everything about God, because it is a very short story with a pretty limited subject matter. But a whole book’s worth of material is going to touch, explicitly or implicitly, on an awful lot of theology.

Definitely. This post is not inconsistent with criticising the theology in Christian fiction. It is meant to make Christian fiction possible, rather than indefeasible. Aslan might say “God, I really hate blondes,” and we would be right to say, “That doesn’t sound like God to me.”

Instead, I have two issues: critiques of incompleteness and disparagement of the craft itself. I think it would be wrong for Peter to say “but Jesus, vines are incapable of showing mercy!”  I also think it is wrong to say, “You shouldn’t be attempting to write anything like this. You shouldn’t create any analogical representations of God. No such book or film should exist.” Finally, I think it is normally wrong to say, “God definitively cannot be represented as, for example, an African American woman.” If a vine will do, so will a woman. Both are capable of demonstrating true aspects of God’s nature; neither are capable of providing comprehensive images of God.

  • Take ‘The Great Divorce’. Lewis doesn’t claim that the afterlife will be exactly like that, and one shouldn’t press the detail. But the fable has no space at all for a God who is actively inflicting wrath, who is punishing the wicked rather than leaving them to punish themselves; such a thing is not even hinted at. So, on its central subject matter, the Great Divorce deviates from the Biblical account to the extent that one must say, “There may be some helpful things in here, but if you take this story as a whole to heart, your image of God will be seriously defective.”

As you say, this is perhaps an issue of length and detail. But how much detail you can absorb before you start erroneously taking something as comprehensive is an issue of the reader, not the writer. I find it very easy to read The Shack and think “this is talking about this side to God, but not that side to God”. Equally, I find it easy to read The Prodigal Son without thinking that God has no disciplinary or wrathful nature. Reading The Great Divorce, I could hold a view of hell which involved active infliction of wrath by God and still internalise a sense that those in hell punish themselves. Just as I can hold in mind the Lion and the Lamb. And that ‘sense’, though just a sense – some shading to a true theology – could be worth 100,000 words, so long as those words are understood as a microcosm. “The wicked fall into the pit which they themselves created” (Psalm 7) – here is a biblical analogy which is also seriously defective if taken as a complete representation of how the wicked meet their end.