Cover Story


"TRUTH AND FICTION" Continued...

Issue: "Summer Books 2004," July 3, 2004

While biblical narratives are true stories, there is also a sense in which the Bible enabled the invention of fiction. The early church proclaimed that the pagan myths were untrue. They were just stories. They could be appreciated as stories, said the early church, as long as they were not believed to be true. Christians were encouraged to look at myths as stories that may be pleasing and even instructive and worth studying, as long as they understood that the events they recorded never happened. Thus, the early Christians, as far as Western literature is concerned, invented fiction.

Life as it should be

The highest biblical authority for fiction, of course, is the example of Jesus Christ, who taught the kingdom of God by means of parables. Indeed, says Matthew, "He said nothing to them without a parable" (Matthew 13:34). The term comes from the Greek word for "comparison" and was a common ancient genre that explained a truth by comparing it to a hypothetical tale. Jesus used parables to communicate vast spiritual truths to the fallen human mind. His parables, though, did not make the truths He was revealing simpler or easier to understand. Rather, He used parables not only to make things clearer but apparently sometimes to make them more difficult (Matthew 13:10-17), since one symptom of the fallen human mind is to seize upon some superficial knowledge while remaining blind to the full truth and failing to "understand with the heart" (Matthew 13:15).

Some Christians, historically, have objected to fiction on the grounds that it consists of "lies." But Sir Philip Sidney, with his Puritan sympathies, decisively answered that objection in 1595 in "A Defense of Poesy." A lie, he said, is something affirmed to be true when it is not true. A piece of fiction, though, "affirmeth not." It is not presented as something true, but, by its very name, something made-up, an imaginative construction. History, philosophy, even theology, said Sidney, are full of lies: statements put forward as true when they are really false. Fiction, on the other hand, because it never affirms, never lies.

And yet, Sidney says that fiction is connected to a larger truth. Fiction, he said, presents life not as it is, but as it could be and should be. Sidney believed that literature had an important function in the teaching of morality. Fiction can instruct us in the human condition and provide models for us to emulate or avoid, training us to take delight in what is good and to be repulsed by what is evil.

William Kirk Kilpatrick, in Psychological Seduction and Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong, has shown how the moral formation of children is shaped by stories. Children learn to root for the "good guys"-and to identify with them-and to fear and be repulsed by the "bad guys." It is not enough to tell children abstractly what is right and what is wrong. For them to internalize morality, it must be brought to life.

Fiction does not need to be moralistic to be a good influence. The very act of entering into a character's point of view is training in empathy, the ability to "rejoice with those who rejoice" and to "weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). Fiction also gives us vicarious experience, the ability to imaginatively experience something without having to experience it in real life. It becomes possible to undergo life-shaping experiences-the danger of war, the trials of love, the stimulation of travel, the overcoming of suffering-from the comfort and safety of one's easy chair. Though vicarious experience is secondhand and nowhere nearly as powerful as actually experiencing such things in real life, the benefits of reading fiction in broadening a person's horizons should not be underestimated. Reading fiction can also be a way of reflecting upon the human condition-its tragedies and comedies, its complexity and glories-and it can serve as a mirror to help readers know themselves.

Of course, that fiction can have such a powerful positive influence means that it can also have a negative influence. Vicarious experience can be sinful, with some fiction encouraging evil fantasies and emulation of models that are destructive. Readers need discernment and taste, and they need high-quality books to read.

Romance novels

The earliest fiction in Christian Europe was the genre known as the romance. This refers not primarily to love stories but to medieval tales of knights, chivalry, and adventure. Love was usually an issue in the medieval romances, which led to the later meaning of the term, but their main characteristic was an emphasis on plot, external action, and fantasy (as opposed to hard-edged realism).


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