In ancient Greek drama, a common climax was to have an actor playing a god flown onto the stage with a special effects machine to solve the other characters' problems.
If you were actually in a Greek theater and actually saw a man with a really cool, brightly colored mask appear to fly through the air, the spectacle may have been enough to take away both your breath and your sense of story logic. The convenient miracle might have seemed perfectly acceptable.
But on paper, the deus ex machina moment is pretty underwhelming. If the story makes us feel the deep nobility of human struggle, it's disappointing just to have a solution handed down from a god. And so today, young writers are often taught to avoid any convenient solutions from the outside.
But where does that advice leave a religious writer whose actual life experience involves the active influence of the divine? How do you balance a desire to depict life-changing spiritual experience with traditional cautions against the deus ex machina?
A fourteen-year-old's talk on the Holy Ghost just before my daughter's confirmation on Saturday gave me what seems like a good answer: in life, revelation is typically the beginning rather than the end of a story. Because for every prompting of the Holy Ghost that comes, there's an immediate human question: how will you receive it?
The culmination of your spirituality doesn't come when you feel God, but when you find your own way to live in accordance with that experience.
Once the talk pointed this out, I realized the principle is everywhere in the scriptures. If the Book of Mormon were structured like Greek theater, it would open with a long sequence of Lehi in a decadent Jerusalem searching for goodness which would end with a god showing up and showing Lehi the light. But the Book of Mormon starts with Lehi's first vision and then goes on to ask how he's going to live it out. And opening with the divine is far stronger than closing with it.
Or consider the story of Alma. You could write a play where young Alma fights the church and does bad things and his father worries until--cue the angel--divine interference simply solves the core inter-generational problem. But the Book of Mormon doesn't tell the story like that. Scene one ends with an angel: the rest of Alma's long saga is about where that experience takes him and how he deals with the painful and difficult situations his choice to become a prophet later land him in.
In the Book of Mormon, revelations don't end our problems. They launch our journeys.
So sure, in a relatively agnostic era, where even many people who believe in God don't really believe he talks, it may be tempting to treat God as the surprise and to try to show spirituality by giving readers a sense of the guidance or comfort it provides.
But people don't read to see people change without effort, and the Bible doesn't teach that belief in God solves anything on its own.
I am a very religious person, but I think I would be disappointed by a story that starts with a young man puzzling over what to do with his life and ends when a revelation shows him what to do. I'd be interested, though, in a story that starts with something like: "On October 18th, 2008, the voice of the Lord came to Felix Hernandez, saying: go to grad school, my son."
We deserves stories that show the richness of revelation and the unique setbacks and triumphs people experience through deep religious commitment.
Will taking this structural cue from the scriptures help us write them?