The Place Of Truth In Fiction

Truth in FictionFiction as truth? Almost any novelist will tell you that truth is an important component in storytelling. The setting needs to be believably true, the characters need to be true to their personality and experience, and the story needs to be true to its setup and foreshadowing. And all of it needs to ring true with the reader.

Behind the curtain, though, is a story’s theme, and the truth of the theme seems to be at the heart of understanding the place of truth in fiction. According to R. L. Copple in a recent article at Speculative Faith, there are two primary views of truth in fiction:

One view is that fiction is a teaching tool.

In that understanding, Christian fiction’s primary goal and purpose is to relate Biblical truths (as interpreted by a specific community of faith) in a systematic and accurate fashion. Ultimately, it should convey the Gospel message. The fear is that if it doesn’t do so, it will teach people untruths and lead them away from God, not to Him. Thus, any deviation from their perception of Biblical truth is cause for alarm and condemnation.

The other view is that fiction conveys an emotional experience of Christian themes.

Unlike God, who is infallible, authors are not writing the Bible, nor a systematic theology, but a story about fallible characters who may believe the wrong things, misunderstand God, in short, sin. It is a story depicting theology lived out, and thus like real life, messy. Not every question gets answered. Not all resolutions are in tidy, neatly wrapped packages.

The purpose of this type of Christian fiction is to wrestle with Christian themes in an emotionally engaging manner. To help people encounter and incarnate the truth within themselves. The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.(Emphases in the original.)

“The details are only important in conveying the story arc and theme in an engaging manner.” There’s some truth to this statement. In The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe, for instance, the important details about Aslan dying on a stone table as a substitute for Edmund didn’t need to be true in the sense that a real lion talked and walked or sacrificed himself. Nor did the details have to match up with precision to that which the allegorical sacrifice depicted–Jesus Christ dying on a cross as the substitute for sinful humans.

However, there were details that did need to remain truthful if the story was to be true. The White Witch, for instance, couldn’t win the battle and become the new Aslan. Such an ending could well have been engaging, and there might even have been an engaging theme, perhaps even a truthful one, such as “Looks are deceiving” or “It’s better to obey those in authority than to rebel.”

Nevertheless, such themes do not mitigate the falsehood of evil winning out against good.

Does that mean, then, that fiction is supposed to teach? Well, sure! Fiction is supposed to teach the same way all of life teaches. For the Christian, this is mandated in Scripture:

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. (Deut. 11:18-19)

And when you tell stories.

OK, the text doesn’t add he line about stories, but Jesus modeled the use of stories as a teaching device.

I honestly wonder what people mean when they question the idea that stories aren’t supposed to teach truth. It’s as if “teaching” has somehow become a suspect activity. We don’t want to indoctrinate our children or our readers or our colleagues or our friends.

Teaching is not indoctrination! In fact, the best teaching spurs the learner to think critically, to ask the hard questions, to dig for answers, to mull, cogitate, meditate, debate. The best stories, the truthful stories, ought to do that.

The problem isn’t that some stories teach truth and others let readers experience. Rather, it’s that some stories which teach truth do it badly. Of course, some stories that let readers experience, do that badly, too, because they aren’t truthful stories. The Shack had lots of people praising it because of what they experienced, but in the end, the story was filled with falsehood.

The place of truth in fiction? Right dab in the middle, as far as I’m concerned. Stories by Christians should be all about truth. But they ought to be artful in their expression of it, and yes, they should show truth instead of telling readers what is true.

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One Comment

  1. Good points, Becky. I don’t see you really disagreeing with me here. If the White Witch had won, that would definitely change the validity of the theme, not to mention be quite depressing. But, let’s say, if it had been Peter instead of Edmund who “sinned”, that would not have necessarily affected the theme of the story,

    To the extent a particular detail plays into the development of the theme, then it is relevant. However the “truth” of the detail does not need to be valid. For instance, Gandolf is a wizard in Tolkien’s world. Scripturally, such men are practicing evil. It isn’t truth that one who dabbles in magic, real-world-wise, is doing God’s will and/or be one of the “good guys.” Yet, Tolkien uses him to communicate some truth in the themes Gandolf participates in that are truth.

    Some would say that because a wizard cannot be a good guy and remain scriptural, that no matter the overall theme, that book is teaching kids it is okay to become witches and wizards, leading them away from God. Pretty much what happened with Harry Potter.

    The truth the content portrays needs to be truth, even if the content itself isn’t truth. That would be the second view. The first would say all content has to be Scripturally true for the story to be of value or teach any truth.

    The danger with the first view is that it tends to straightjacket stories so as to make them overall not ring true. It tries to fit fiction into a non-fiction purpose, and so comes off artificial.

    Can it be done right? Most certainly. By focusing on the overall theme and letting that flow from the story rather than trying to fit the story into an answer. Like Jesus did with the parables. He didn’t use the parables to give His hearers plain answers, but so they could discover them.

    That’s the tactic I took with Reality’s Dawn, and most seem to agree it worked. As D.M. Dutcher says in his review of the book:

    The book almost reads like a collection of parables, where Sisko encounters different things that teach a lesson while helping others. This doesn’t mean it’s dry or didactic, because the stories are unusual enough to get your attention.

    To pull that off still starts with story and theme. The rest of the details need to ring true for their genre, but don’t necessarily have to all be Scriptural truth to teach Scriptural truth.

    I hope my rambling cleared up any misunderstandings as to what I was getting at.

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