Wineskins Archive

December 20, 2013

The Write Side: Story and Truth – Part 2 (Nov-Dec 1997)

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(part 2 of a 2-part essay on story and the transmission of faith)

by Thom Lemmons
November – December, 1997

29Previously, I discussed the place of story as a vehicle for the transmission of religious and spiritual truth. Now I turn to the next question: what value, if any, is therein the creation of extra-biblical stories; either about biblical people and events or about non-biblical people governed (or, in some cases, refusing to be governed) by biblical principles? is there a place for Christian fiction? Or, to use phraseology I find more palatable, is there a place for fiction written by Christians? And if there is such a place, where is it, and would anyone else want to go there? As you may recall from the last discussion, there is not universal agreement, even within the Christian book-selling industry, that fiction is useful for communicating truth. Indeed, some regard the phrase “biblical fiction” as a rather unfortunate oxymoron.

Remember, though, that story is no stranger to religious purpose. Previously, we considered the use of story by both God’s prophets and Jesus Christ himself. Further, in the early fourteenth century Dante Alighieri published his Divine Comedy, a towering allegorical journey through Hell and Purgatory into Heaven, regarded by many literary scholars as the first novel. Three and a half centuries later, John Bunyan composed The Pilgrim’s Progress while imprisoned for preaching without a license. Fyodor Dostoevsky, a devout Russian believer fo the latter nineteenth century, produced Crime and Punishment and, perhaps more to the present point, The Brothers Karamazov, two novels that deal with the problem of good and evil from a frankly Christian perspective. And others could be named who have produced great literature informed and shaped by eternal truth.

But in the late twentieth century we don’t hear much about the Christian literary artist. And, in all fairness, the late twentieth century is not entirely to blame. While it is true that most literature nowadays could hardly bee called Christian, it might also be suggested that much Christian writing could hardly be called literature. With certain notable exceptions, much of the material that comes from evangelical Christian publishing houses contains wonderful theology clothed in mediocre literary raiment.

I believe this is a shame. Why? Partly because, as I have stated above, humans have always had an insatiable need for stories. if they can’t get good ones, they will listen to bad ones. This has never been more true than in our time. W. Fred Graham makes the following observations on the imaginative poverty of modern life: “We inhabit a flat world where discoveries of unimaginable glories and mysteries in [celestial] space are received with sullen inattention because experienced life is ‘just one damned thing after another ….’ The place to start … is not with argument but with stories that startle the imagination or whet the appetite for mystery.”

I include Mr. Graham’s expletive not to shock, but to make an important point. Many people’s lives are indeed “one damned thing after another” – with nothing to exalt, nothing of grace or salvation, nothing, in short, to lift their eyes above the doomed, poverty-stricken material horizon; nothing to challenge the ultimately damned view that reality consists solely of what we can see, feel, buy, sign a contract for, or analyze in a laboratory. It is story, Graham tells us, which has the power to remind us that we were meant for bigger and better things.

In this bleak, mystery-starved landscape, who better than the Christian novelist can remind us that there are things beyond our experience which can never be explained and are best seen through the eyes of faith? Who should know better than the Christian novelist that mystery is alive and well and living in any human who has eyes to see and ears to hear? Surely those of us who have heard the one story in all human history that must be heard ought to be about the business of spreading the word. And in a story-starved culture such as ours, why shouldn’t the word go out in the form of literature which embodies the central message of the Christian faith; the message that hope is not dead; tat hope emerged alive from a tomb in Palestine almost two thousand years ago. Our culture has heard plenty of hoplessness. Isn’t it about time that it once again heard the Good News?

What should such Christian fiction be like? To whom should it be addressed, and in what language? One difficulty I have with the current state of the Christian fiction market is that it seems to expect plot lines, characters and dialogue drawn from experiences comfortable to churched insiders. But are those the folks we’re really trying to reach? Why would an unchurched seeker want to read a story about people who speak in evangelical Christian jargon and operate from a set of assumptions which he doesn’t share? I long for the day when Christian writers can stop talking to each other all the time, and start talking to the people who need to hear the message. It’s the sick, not the well, who need the Physician, and if we know the Doctor’s address, we need to give it to the folks who are ailing.

Another way of making the point: if someone has to go into a Christian bookstore to buy my books, I’m probably missing the audience that most needs to hear what I’ve got to say. Those who already know where to look for the answers may not need my message as much as those who browse the philosophy and personal improvement sections at Waldenbooks or Borders. Unless my craftsmanship can stand on its own in that marketplace, I haven’t employed my talent in the most effective way.

To communicate with the outsider in his own language, am I suggesting that we put in all the smut and filth that the world expects of its fiction? Not all. But the quality of the work, its merit as story and entertainment, must be of the very highest caliber. It must accurately report on the human condition from a point of view firmly grounded in Christian beliefs and assumptions. Only by doing so can the Christian fiction writer make any legitimate claim to have a message worth hearing. The light of good theology is necessary, but not enough. The salt of uncompromising literary craftsmanship is also needed. When these two ingredients are present, God will be glorified and lives will be changed.

In this connection, I’m reminded of a statement attributed to Martin Luther. Luther was a great composer of hymn lyrics, and he would often set his verses to the popular tunes of the day, scandalizing many in the ecclesiastical hierarchy. Luther’s rationale was simple. “Why should the devil get to use all the good tunes?” he is supposed to have said. It’s interesting that such a controversy predated the movie Sister Act by almost five hundred years.

Some in the Christian publishing industry maintain that there are “gatekeepers” in the secular publishing establishment who will bar the way for any God-affirming material to enter the larger literary marketplace. I wouldn’t deny that such conditions exist, but I would make the additional observation that the writings of C.S. Lewis, Stephen Lawhead, Madeleine L’Engle and Walter Wangerin, among others, have managed – at various times – to find secure places on the pages of the Book-of-the-Month and Barnes & Noble catalogs. These authors may have to share space with the latest novel about the gay experience or the goddess movement, but they are there, all the same, and their presence creates the possibility for the secular reader to be exposed to the work of Christians who are consummate literary artists.

And so, I mistrust books in which all the characters come to a saving knowledge of Jesus and all the questions are answered by the close of the final chapter. The unchurched reader knows real life doesn’t work that way. The Christian life is one of struggle and unanswered questions – even though we know, as the unbeliever does not, that God grants strength for the struggle and peace in the midst of perplexity.

You see, I don’t believe its necessary or advisable to sugar-coat the call of faith. The task of the Christian novelist is not to propagandize for Christ – he doesn’t need propaganda. The task of the Christian novelist is to hold up a mirror to the darkness of human experience in a way that reflects the only ray of hope any of us have – the saving knowledge of Jesus. We shouldn’t try to make life prettier than it is. We should try instead to present a faint glimpse of God just as he is, and convince the searcher that she is welcomed by that God, just as she is.

Is it possible to present the entire gospel story in a single book and still maintain credibility for the unchurched reader? Probably not. But if the Christian literary artist can, by means of a well-told tale, nudge the unchurched reader in the direction of hope, or honesty, or faith in the unseen, or fidelity to family, his labor will not have been in vain. I think we need to honor the goal of “speaking a good word for Jesus.” My audience may not sit still for the entire sermon, but if they hear a good word or two here and there, and if my skill as a storyteller is adequate, and if they are even slightly intrigued by the implicit message which underlies the story, and if the Lord is preparing a seedbed for such tiny mustard seeds as I may be able to scatter, then who can say what the eventual result may be?

I suppose it’s somewhat inevitable that an essay like this should end with a story. Actually, this is the story behind a body of stories. You’re probably familiar with tales like Sinbad the sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. And unless you’ve been under a rock for the past few years, you’ve heard of Aladdin and his magic lamp. All these tales come from a group of stories known in Arabic as Alef Laillah – the Arabian Nights. Legend has it that, once upon a time, a certain cruel caliph would wed a new wife each day, only to have her put to death the following morning. That is, until he met Scheherazade.

Scheherazade was not only beautiful she was also quick-witted, resourceful, and a gifted storyteller. She, of course, knew of the caliph’s marital dysfunction, and so had concocted a plan. On their wedding night, she began telling a story to the caliph. using all her skill and charm, she wove a tale of such beauty and wonder that the caliph was quickly enchanted. And then, at the crucial point in the story, Scheherazade played her trump card. She informed the caliph that she would conclude the story – on the following night. I suppose you could call it the first mini-series.

Well, what’s the good of being supreme ruler if you can’t bend the rules a little, once in a while? The caliph, of course, had to hear the rest of the story, so he had to allow Scheherazade to live long enough to finish. Lo and behold, she not only finished the story the next night, but began another even more entrancing than the first, with the same tantalizing promise as before. Once again, the caliph had no choice but to allow her to live another 24 hours.

And so it went, night after night, for almost three years – for a thousand-and-one nights, to be exact. And you already know the final result. in the end, the caliph was so enchanted by Scheherazade herself, by the marvelous mind that could endlessly spin such perfect, enthralling tales, that he renounced his cruelty and proclaimed her as his one true love from that day forward.

If a Christian analogy can be drawn from a Muslim legend, I would say Scheherazade’s experience proves that story can be a vehicle of salvation. her stories not only saved Scheherazade from the caliph’s cruelty, but they also produced a turnabout in the heart of the caliph.

In much the same way, the Christian literary artist can provide a medium of transformation for the modern secular reader. Through our stories, we can give hopeless humanity a reason for the hope that lies within us. Our stories can become salt and light in a dark and tasteless world. The task is by no means easy or sure of success, but our times demand the effort.

The first part of this article is at Read The ArticleWineskins Magazine

Thom Lemmons

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