Once upon a time, I vowed to be consistent on this blog.
I’m currently on fall break from seminary. It’s been nice to have my morning’s back. I’ve watched very little TV and have done a lot of reading and writing. I’m looking forward to answering a few personal letters today. My Cardinals are on the verge of coming back in Game 6 to force a final victory in the World Series. The Rangers? That great and worthy opponent? That quixotic band of dreamers That gallant team from Texas without a Series title? And they think to challenge the mighty Cardinals, a franchise with no less than ten championships? It baffles the mind. I hope Pujols doesn’t cut them too deeply.
Some news on the book front. I’ve decided to pull my story from the publishing house that was courting me. It’s been about 3 months since I first sent my manuscript to them and I think I need to pull back from that whole process. Little progress. So, my little owl story is looking for a new nest. If you have any Christian children’s publishing houses in mind, please let me know. This whole sh’bang is mighty exhausting.
Dearest Tess, You Teach Me Much
I’ve been working my way through Tess of the d’Urbervilles. It’s this beautifully depressing novel by Thomas Hardy. Tess, the heroine of the story, makes herself the victim of most every single thing. Nobody blames Tess more than Tess does. The entire novel is a series of hope and despair, hope and despair. Hardy sets you up for love, and then throws you down in a pit of rejection. Merciless.
Why am I reading it? A few reasons. 1.) A good friend recommended it. 2.) I love sad things. 3.) I feel that, because of reading it, I understand the human condition better.
Let me harp on this last one. I understand that Tess is fictional (more’s the pity), but I’ve known people like her. So have you. They are victimized at every turn and they daily shovel guilt and shame over their own heads. They are convinced no one could ever love them because of the mistakes they’ve made in the past. Tess is a victim of careless physical and crushing emotional abuse. And reading about her generates empathy in my cold soul.
I can put myself in her shoes and feel her pain because I see it all unfolding on the page in front of me. Now, that might sound silly. What good is it if I learn to empathize with some figment of a dead Englishman’s imagination? Tess is a picture of so many faces. If I can learn to feel her pain, I will be better prepared to care for that pain when I see it in the real world.
There is value in fiction. But for a surprising number of Christians today, literature is escapist nonsense at best and a dangerous distraction at worst.
What is Fiction?
There is a certain level of discomfort among Christians with respect to literature. For some, it is a vague uneasiness, a dim and unsettling suspicion. For others, it is sheer mistrust. Fiction, poetry, what the Romantics once called “poesy”: all hazards for the devout Christian soul.
At least, this is one popular misconception.
Fiction is often seen as the opposite of fact. Fiction, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “that which is imaginatively invented; feigned existence, event, or state of things; invention as opposed to fact.” Opposed to fact. And Christianity is all about facts. Jesus is God. The Bible is God’s Word. Paul was a man. In love with facts, Christians tend to shy away from fiction and poetry as dishonest and silly slight of hand.
For sure, there are many Christians who simply don’t see the value in fiction or poetry. Time is precious and if a Christian is to make the most of her time, should she really spend a few hours reading a Jane Austen novel? If the saints are to be edified, is it worth the effort to bury our noses in a book of verse? Surely, God would have us take our reading seriously. Why bother with a book if it is not Scripture (or if it is not a book about Scripture)?
But there is another historical definition in the OED for fiction: “the species of literature which is concerned with the narration of imaginary events and the portraiture of imaginary characters.” There is “a category of poetry that is truly ‘fictional,’ in the sense that the poet is neither lying nor relating erroneously held views, but is…telling a story that he had made up to be like reality without claiming that it is reality.” It is this flavorful definition of fiction with which I am concerned here.
Is It Real?
Even if the Church seems to be enamored of facts, we need not shun fiction as a tangle of lies. “Truth in the genre of fictional literature, then, is not what is empirically verifiable, but it is what is considered true within a particular conceptual system, whether rooted in an ideological worldview, or, as in the case of Lewis’s Narnia or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, created out of the cloth of the author’s imagination.” There is a shade of truth in fiction that is no less real, though it is “breathed through silver”.
To hold a keen appreciation of literature as antithetical to Christian devotion is both wrong-headed and insensible. For one thing, such a false dichotomy ignores the spiritual titans of church history (Donne, Milton, R.C. Sproul, George MacDonald, and C.S. Lewis, to name a few). If we count hymns as poetry apart from music, we could add old lights like Charles Wesley and Martin Luther as writer-pastors. If fiction and poetry hold no legitimacy in a Christian worldview, we neglect, by extension, the wisdom of our forefathers in the faith. And what a baby to be thrown out with the bath water!
To quote Gene Edward Veith Jr.,
“Fiction lends itself well to the exploration of spiritual issues, since the form gives life to ideas, making them tangible and relating them to human life. . . . And yet, good Christian novels are rare. . . . It is preachy, contrived, and it does not ring true. The story is often formulaic, and the characters are stock “good guys” or “villains,” with no complexity or inner lives. The obligatory conversion scene is often unrelated to the on-going plot, coming as an interruption rather than as a believable development in the character’s life. And, ironically, much of today’s Christian fiction is moralistic, rather than evangelical, presenting good characters to emulate, rather than sinners being forgiven.”
Christians should not be so eager to dismiss fiction because it isn’t “real”. If they do, they do it at the risk of diminishing their own selves. More thoughts on this tomorrow. Oh, hey look! Footnotes!
 E. L. Bowie, “Lies, Fiction and Slander in Early Greek Poetry,” in Lies and Fiction in the Ancient World (ed. Christopher Gill and T. P. Wiseman;Austin:University ofTexas Press, 1993), 20–21
 Estes, Daniel J., “Fiction and Truth in the Old Testament Wisdom Literature”, in Themelios, vol.35, issue 3, Novemeber 2010
 “Fiction as an Instrument for the Gospel: Bo Giertz as Novelist,” published in A Hammer of God: Bo Giertz, 2005, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, MN
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