Storytelling is as ancient as man. We have always told stories. It is no coincidence that the bulk of the Bible is made up of stories. Not only narrative, but people telling stories to make points, teach, and convict. Yet in our day, non-fiction sells better than fiction. Especially in Christian circles, novels are often seen as inferior compared to a Bible study or a book on how to better one’s marriage. Many even consider novels a waste of time. Mere entertainment.
Yet, studies reveal that when it comes to transmitting truth, a story is a better vehicle to incorporate those truths into our lives. Not only truth itself, but how we learn to interact socially with one another. Non-fiction activates only the language sectors of our brain, while stories can activate not only the language sectors, but smell, feeling, motor movements, and others if descriptive words are used. The studies show evidence that stories actually make changes in people’s lives based on the truth they convey because a reader experiences it. Not merely reads about it.
In fact, this information illuminates the power of stories–they are teaching us something whether it is intentional or not. Through experiencing the reality of a set of characters, we gain a degree of their experience as our own, and it becomes a part of our history and memory. This is why we may have trouble recalling the points in the last seminar we attended, but can easily rattle off a story told in that same seminar.
I would agree with Mike Duran’s recent blog post here, that fiction is not a good vehicle for systematic theology. I would contend, however, that all fiction will convey some type of theology, philosophy, or moral worldview, and that fiction exposes a reader to the practical experience of that truth better than non-fiction. Fiction helps to make truth concrete and contextualized into our daily lives. Non-fiction is better for defining and describing truth, but it lacks the ability to effectively internalize truth. Storytelling takes theology out of the academic and makes it concrete in everyday life.
I would suggest that what plagues much Christian fiction isn’t so much the desire to convey theological truths, but the mixing of non-fiction with fiction. Both forms are valid and have their place, but when they are mixed into a story, the result tends to be a story that isn’t engaging and/or sloppy/incomplete teaching. The two forms have very different goals and purposes. Non-fiction’s goal is to convey information in an interesting manner. Fiction’s goal is to provide an experience in an entertaining manner.
Non-fiction can use snippets of stories to illustrate truth. However, the more that non-fiction is inserted into fiction, the more problems that arise for that story. The more a section sounds like, “And the meaning of this story is…,” the more non-fiction you have. The less natural a point is to the narrative and characters, the more it will feel as if, instead of enjoying an experience, the reader is being fed information. The more the story smells like a set up to make a point, the more it will appear to be non-fiction disguised as fiction. None of those make for effective fiction or non-fiction.
On the opposite side of the mirror, readers—especially Christian—tend to force a Christian story into a systematic, non-fictional framework. It’s as if they have a checklist: “Bible quotes ? Check. Call to salvation? Check. Good Christian example from lead character? X …what? Fail!” Readers who do that are expecting a story to hit on all points of theology, which is impossible. Even Jesus’s stories didn’t do that. You can’t take the parable of the merchant who sold everything to buy a pearl of great price and deduce a whole systematic theology from it. If you do, it will be very messed up. Stories should be evaluated on the points they do make, not on the ones they aren’t aiming to hit.
Jesus intentionally told stories to make specific points. He refused to explain them save to His disciples when they asked. He left it for the listener to get the point and apply it. But the rest of his audience? If they didn’t get it, they missed out. Many Christian authors have a hard time doing that. They fear the reader will not get it. For sure, many of them won’t. But those that do, it has a significant impact. Do what Jesus would do: tell the story and allow God to use it as He wills rather than forcing an interpretation of your own upon it. Communicate an experience of truth more so than a message.
Reality is that storytelling is the most effective way to convey truth from person to person. That is why God chose to use it, both in the Old Testament and with Jesus Christ in the New Testament, instead of a systematic theology. People have been interpreting it ever since.
What benefits and dangers of using stories to convey truth do you see?
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As a young teen, R. L. Copple played in his own make-believe world, writing the stories and drawing the art for his own comics while experiencing the worlds of other authors like Tolkien, Lewis, Asimov, and Lester Del Ray. As an adult, after years of writing devotionally, he returned to the passion of his youth in order to combine his fantasy worlds and faith into the reality of the printed page. Since then, his imagination has given birth to The Reality Chronicles trilogy from Splashdown Books, and Mind Game, Hero Game, Ethereal Worlds Anthology, and How to Make an Ebook: Using Free Software from Ethereal Press, along with numerous short stories in various magazines. In his Texas Hill Country residence, he continues to create and give wings to new realities so that others might enjoy and be inspired by them.