Faith, Fiction, Fantasy & Truth – Brad Jersak
“Sometimes fairy stories may say best what’s to be said.” —C.S. Lewis
“C.S. Lewis taught me that in fiction, stepping into magical realms means encountering earthly concerns in transfigured form.” —Lev Grossman
CAN FICTION BE TRUE?
I frequently encounter surprise and even disdain when I recommend works of fiction as an essential element in one’s spiritual or theological diet. Indeed, as a professor of theology, I’ve contended with students who were intent on exemptions from the classics I assign as coursework!
“What’s the point? Novels aren’t true,” I’m told with incredulity. Or sometimes, I hear, “I only read spiritual books,” with a judgmental edge. As if fictional stories are neither spiritual nor true.
This response 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 as fiction or nonfiction; prophecy, poetry or parable; mythology, apocalyptic or dystopia, and so on. The authors and characters of Scripture are entirely comfortable with narrating the truth in any of these literary forms.
Today, in addition to written literature, other mediums and formats have proven effective for the gospel message. These include movies and television (and not just documentaries!), stage plays and musicals, art installations, and music of every type. All of these forms have the capacity to deliver a message, and where there’s a message, there may be the truth (but also a lie, just as in nonfiction).
We know the dangers of presenting “facts” that actually convey untruth, whether in skewed polls, political propaganda, or worst of all, in loveless theology. On the other hand, the Truth is often portrayed best through works of fiction because drama engages the mind and heart of the reader as a participant. The characters sneak past our ‘watchful dragons,’ denial and defenses to expose blind-spots where we’ve been resistant to a straightforward challenge.
Who, having read Shakespeare, Dostoevsky or C.S. Lewis could overlook the forest of truth composed of the fictional trees that we call ‘characters’ and ‘storylines’? Who would dare say that Jesus’ stories, such as the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan are not true, just because they’re fictional? 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, even when Christians have set to writing fiction, all too often the outcome is mediocre. Some books come across as heavy-handed and preachy, loaded with an agenda that strangles the story. In other cases, the readers (and authors!) may end up believing that the Left Behind-type fantasy novels are prophesying facts … a sort of historical fiction in advance of events mistaken for biblical truth. Others, such as Paul Young, author of The Shack absolutely nail it and we ought to consider their creative contribution for our nourishment.