Fact, Fiction or Truth … or Why Aren’t You Reading Novels? Bradley Jersak
I frequently encounter surprise and even occasional disdain when I recommend works of fiction as a critical element of one’s spiritual or theological diet.
“What’s the point? Novels aren’t true,” I’m asked with incredulity. Or sometimes, “I only read spiritual books,” with a judgmental edge. As if works of fiction are neither spiritual nor true.
This belies a fundamental lack of understanding about the nature of truth. Truth, especially God’s truth, is true regardless of the genre by which it is delivered, whether fiction or nonfiction; prophecy, poetry or parable; apocalyptic or dystopia, and so on.
Add to the literary genres other mediums, such as movies and television (and not just documentaries!), stage plays, art shows and music of every type. All of these forms suggest the possibility of a message and where there’s a message, there may be truth (or a lie, just as in nonfiction).
The “facts” sometimes convey untruth, whether in skewed polls, political propaganda, or worst of all, in loveless theology.
On the other hand, the Truth is often conveyed best through works of fiction because drama engages the mind and heart of the reader as a participant, sneaks past our defenses and exposes our blindspots.
Who, having read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or Lewis could overlook the forest of truth composed of the trees of fiction? Who would dare say that the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan aren’t true, just because they’re fiction. The plots, themes and characters are true in a way we can never access in the glut of Christian ‘how-to’ books or so much devotional syrup.
Unfortunately, when Christians have set to writing fiction, the problem can be reversed and we may end up believing the Left Behind series is prophesying fact … a sort of historical fiction in advance of events that the authors mistakenly believe are biblical truth.
Others, however, are nailing it and we ought to notice for our own nourishment.
Case in Point: Monte Wolverton’s novel, The Remnant, is an exceptional piece of fiction, a story set in post-apocalyptic America (2131). Religion and religious books have been banned because of their role in the catastrophes that destroy much of the world’s population.
The protagonist, Grant Cochrin, has a remnant–a fragment of the Sermon on the Mount–and with it, leads a company of friends and family on a dangerous quest for authentic Christian community.
In this post-IC (Institutional Christianity) world, they long to find a faith where they can settle and belong. The search leads to encounters that range from ominous to cringe-worthy to humorous.
Question: does Monte actually think he’s predicting a factual future that we need to worry about? Of course not. Rather, he is addressing the real experience–the truth–of so many ‘nones’ and ‘dones’ at this very moment.
The fact is that the world already blames religion for its role in sowing seeds of apocalypse. Tens of millions have already made their exodus from the IC and almost none will ever return. Of these, a great multitude still love Christ or at least feel their spiritual hunger acutely. Many are already seeking to instantiate their faith in fresh forms and emergent communities. And many are already creating bizarre new aberrations of pseudo-Christianity like those Monte imagines. What he is describing is neither mere fact or fiction, but something deeply true.
Most of all, the great take away for me is his pun on “the Remnant.” Will it ever be our exclusivist remnant mentalities that leads us to truth? After Christendom, has sectarianism ever fulfilled itself as the post-exodus Promised Land? Hardly.
The one Hope, the Anchor, the true Remnant, is the remnant of Truth found in the life and teaching, death and resurrection of Christ, symbolized in Cochrin’s fragment. In the end, it won’t be a grandiose new spiritual construction that saves us from Wolverton’s dystopia, but the poverty of spirit that makes space for the indwelling Christ around Whom all authentic faith revolves.