Entire bookstores and TV stations dedicate themselves to producing literature and entertainment demonstrating the power of Christ and recounting the ways lost sinners turn to Christianity. It’s an every-day story, where people find comfort and purpose in the Christian faith and convert. They’re heartwarming, uplifting, and hopeful. On the other side of the spectrum, however, is the story of a person who grows out of the faith instead of into it.
The Loss-of-Faith Arc (hereafter abbreviated as LFA) does not necessarily have to be about Christianity, or religion in general. A character can lose faith in a power structure or government system. For the sake of this article, I will be breaking down what makes up an LFA with an emphasis on religious arcs, with a few examples of other LFAs.
Step 1: Foundations
Before breaking from a system, the system must first be established. In the early stages, the character learns about the faith and grows with it, accepting it as their way of life. The faith is all they’re taught, and that isn’t a bad thing. It offers a meaningful existence with a relief to all hardships.
In the graphic novel Blankets by Craig Thompson, he makes sure to call awareness to the fact that he fully believed in his Christian upbringings. Blankets is a memoir, retelling Thompson’s experience growing up in the Midwest, and trying to balance his feelings for his first love with his religious background. The first chapter shows why Christianity played such an important role in his life. After showing the reader various traumas from his early life, he writes “at that moment, I knew what I wanted… I wanted heaven. And I grew up striving for that world — an eternal world — that would wash away my temporary misery” (51-52).
For Thompson during his childhood, heaven was a promise that all of the trauma he endures would be rewarded. As long as he proved to be a devout Christian, his suffering would be worth it. Thus, he builds a strong foundation of faith.
Step 2: Little Discrepancies
As time goes on, the character notices small things that don’t quite add up or align with their faith. Think of it as cracks forming in the foundation that aren’t strong enough to completely shatter the person’s faith, but they still weaken the structure’s stability.
In Blankets, Thompson laments how the promise of heaven for all the faithful ended up being one of those cracks. He says, “the personal savior concept of Christianity is what appealed to me — the Good Shepherd neglecting the herd to search for the lonely, lost lamb, not this mass mentality” (106-107). Thompson also highlights some of the un-Christian behaviors of his peers at a Church Camp, including a bunch of boys discussing sexual acts they’ve performed.
In the graphic novel Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy, a boy is cloned from DNA found on the Shroud of Turin and filmed on a reality TV show. The boy, Chris, experiences a Bible-centric upbringing with a lot of anger and hatred from extremist religious groups that deem his existence blasphemous. Living in a reality TV setting, he begins to notice more and more discrepancies between his life and the life of the man he was cloned from. Over time, all of these cracks build up to the next part of the LFA.
Step 3: The Big Curveball
The character comes across something, possibly another person or an event, that forces them to confront their religious upbringing. This is the moment where the character begins to reevaluate their current understanding of faith. It’s an accumulation of all the cracks in the foundation where the structure is finally weakened.
For Thompson, his curveball comes in the Book of Ecclesiastes after discovering that some of the passages contain different voices. When he asks his pastor about the nature of the text, the pastor explains that perhaps scribes would add commentary while translating, “but don’t let that discredit the word of God” (549). Thompson cannot digest this: “it suddenly struck me as absurd that something as divine as God’s speech could be pinned down in physical (mass-produced) form. My faith came crumbling down so easily” (549-550).
In Punk Rock Jesus, Chris watches his mother die, and attempts to revive her with his divine powers — after all, he spent his entire life being told he was the second coming. When he fails to save her life, he begins teaching himself a secular education.
In terms of an arc, this moment serves as a sort of Point of No Return, potentially even the climax. After this point, the character faces a sort of falling action, heading towards a resolution.
Step 4: Adapting
The character now must come to terms with a life without faith, or at least a reimagining of faith. Perhaps they take up some other religion, or they violently reject all structured religions altogether. Either way, there’s a learning curve involving a rediscovery and redefining of the character’s identity. For Thompson, it’s becoming an artist; for Chris, it’s becoming a punk-rock symbol.
Are they better off than before? That’s hard to say. Some find peace, others take more time to achieve that same comfort. But for the character, it’s a necessary transformation.
As you can see, the LFA follows the traditional story arc fairly closely: there’s an exposition, a rising action, a climax, and a falling action. These steps, however, are internally focused struggles within the character. It’s an arc where the character sees that they might have been “wrong”, and experiences things in a new light.
Your character might believe something at the start of your story, but as your narrative progresses they may change their views. At which point, following the Loss of Faith Arc can help you develop them, serving as a road map for their paradigm shift. Identifying these kinds of arcs can enable us to incorporate similar patterns into our own work and improve our character development.
Here are some stories containing Loss of Faith Arcs, and not all of them deal with religion:
is a writer based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Graduating in May 2020 with a degree in English Literature with a Writing Emphasis, Ian writes comics, poetry, and scripts. He is currently an intern for The Brain Health Magazine and aims to work in the comic publishing industry. In his spare time, Ian plays Dungeons & Dragons, board games, and bass guitar.