In Christian communities, we commonly study literature with an aim towards assessing the worldview of a particular work. We may look at the characters and their choices in order to determine if they are moral or not and if the author seems to be encouraging or discouraging that behavior. For authors who encourage virtue and discourage vice, we might praise the book as promoting, or at least echoing, the Christian worldview. In books where the characters are praised for vice, however, we assess the book as poor literature and discard it on account of its rejection of the Christian worldview. Approaches like this are common and can be summarized methodologically as allowing Christian worldview to speak into, or above, the discipline of literature. This approach is helpful in many ways, though it is subject to several possible missteps. The purpose of this series, however, is not to debate the relative merits or demerits of such an approach to literature; rather, I want to suggest that it is not only possible, but perhaps as or more helpful to allow literature to speak into the realm of Christian worldview. More specifically, I want to propose that we can actually come to a deeper understanding of theology through the eyes of fiction.
Immediately, many object on the grounds that fiction is escapist. A surprisingly large number of Christians reject the value of fiction, either actively by speaking out against it as a waste of time or passively by neglecting to read it. But fiction is, in fact, compatible with a Christian worldview. I may even go so far as to say that it is vital to the Christian worldview. Why? One of Jesus’ most common teaching techniques was the use of parables. Parables are fictional stories that highlight something about our reality that we tend to miss in our day-to-day lives. Fiction, like parables, helps us to see our world from a different perspective by viewing it through the lens of another world. Moreover, this lens helps illuminate our own world. In his work Reading Between the Lines, Gene Edward Veith suggests that fiction can be like a lamp: “Literature as a lamp projects what is in the mind into tangible forms. A lamp is outward-looking, shedding its light throughout the room, illuminating dark corners. When a lamp gives off light, it enables people to see not only itself but the external objects around it.” As one reads through the gospels, the parables serve a similar function. And not only does this suggest that Jesus viewed fiction as a helpful endeavor, but we can also argue that developing our ability to read fiction well should therefore also help us to read Scripture well, as many of the skills are the same.
Despite the fact that Jesus used fiction to communicate theological truth, few today seem to use the same approach toward theology. Part of the problem is that few today take the time to study theology. Theology has been relegated to the realm of a select few academics who spend their careers in libraries writing books that only their colleagues read. But theology, rightly understood, impacts our everyday life. We need to recapture a vision in which the individual members of the body of Christ see theology as integral to their personal and communal life. At the heart of the problem, I propose, is the misconception that theology is a collection of propositional truths to be memorized by the brain. Yes, theology communicates truth about God, often in the form of precise, propositional truth claims. But theology is also felt. We should be emotionally moved by the doctrine of redemption. If studying the crucifixion of Jesus can be done completely devoid of emotion, then we have ceased to understand the magnitude of the cross. But if theology extends beyond the truth claims to the emotions, if it truly is necessary for us to feel it and be moved by it, what better vehicle do we possess than fiction to help us bridge the gap between mind and emotion? This belief is at the heart of the purpose of this series. I aim to supplement the work of systematic theologies to provide a more well-rounded study of theology that impacts both the head and the heart and should therefore lead to the work of the hands. Fiction can help us do this since, as Veith argues, “the creation of a good fantasy writer pays homage to the creation of God and increases our perception and our love for the mysterious reality that God has made up.”
In the posts that will follow in this series, my hope is to demonstrate how reading fiction can spark deep theological reflection. We should not only allow worldview and theology to evaluate fiction, but we should also allow fiction to deepen our theological insight and move us to feel theology more deeply in a way that will impact how we live.
Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature (Wheaton: Crossway, 1990), 118.
Veith, Reading Between the Lines, 148.