I wrote this post in May of 2006, but I thought bringing it to the fore would be a good idea, given my recent conversation with a friend about great fiction. Since that time, I’ve embarked on my 101 in 1001 quest, and read a lot more besides.
Christians should read more fiction. A lot more.
Why, you ask? To describe stories, I would borrow the words of Leif Enger, author of Peace Like a River, about miracles: stories are like the "swing of a sword." They're not gentle, though they may seem so. They slip under your ribs like a shiv, right into your heart, without your realizing it. It reminds me of the scene in The Village where Joaquin Phoenix's Lucius Hunt looks down to find Noah Percy's (Adrien Brody) knife in his gut. And a story keeps coming back, just like Noah, to give you the knife again. Without you even realizing it.
Story is violent. Stories can effect the kind of "armed" revolution Fidel and Che dreamed of, the kind of revolution Jesus effected on his first-century hearers.
Which is one of the reasons Jesus told parables. (ONE reason; the other key reason, of course, is that Jesus was retelling the Jewish story: the return from exile was imminent and Yahweh was returning to Zion. See my previous post about the good Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright). Jesus acted, which drew questions from those who wondered who he was, etc, which he answered with a story.
Wright goes on to say that our role in the world, our vocation as Christian human beings, is to be for the world what Jesus was for Israel. In practical terms that means, Wright says, we must act in ways that will elicit questions of the sort that Jesus' hearers asks, which will enable us to respond with stories. That's impossible, though, if we don't understand stories.
I'll leave aside the point that we don't act in the ways Jesus did. (That's another, much longer, post.) But too many in the church have traded the stories that would explain our actions for dim imitations. We do shadow plays on the wall of the cave we've trapped ourselves in. (If this makes no sense, see or read Plato's Cave immediately. Or there's an excellent introduction to the Cave in Homesick for Eden by Gary Moon. He probably included it in his revision, called Falling for God.) The result is that far too few people receive the kingdom Jesus preached, the freedom He promises, the new life that awaits those who believe in His name. Far too few, in other words, ever see the light outside.
So to begin with, we must read stories. Not the pabulum that passes for "Christian" fiction. I'm not its enemy, but we must not suppose that most Christian bestsellers have anything to do with what Jesus had in mind. They are, for the most part, evangelical fiction. Their agenda is preset; it does not arise from the questions people ask about our actions in the world.
There are exceptions: the aforementioned Leif Enger, I think, though he might not say that. The novel that was just named fiction book of the year by Christianity Today. The novels of Frederick Buechner and Walker Percy, some of Wendell Berry's. I'd put Ron Hansen's Atticus on that list (maybe one or two more). A novel by Athol Dickson, They Shall See God, belongs there too. (Athol's latest, River Rising, has its moments
There are others, too, that I think belong on that "list" even though (perhaps because) they do not claim any Christian agenda. I'll try to post a few of these this week. (Sorry for the tease, but it's already late.)
But we must come to understand story–its power, yes, but also its origin in the story: that we live in exile, but we need not remain there, weeping by the river in a foreign land. Our God heard and answered before we called, and He came to us, and redeemed us, in the person called Jesus of Nazareth.
So we've got to read more stories. Got to make more sense of them. Got to, in the end, do what we must to get the opportunity to tell more stories, and then tell them.
Thanks for reading.