Avoiding Fiction

Written by Douglas Jones

Avoiding fictional stories is one of the most dangerous things Christian parents can do to their children. Yet it’s rampant. Too often I hear parents almost righteously declaring that they don’t want their children anywhere near fiction, especially fantasy. For others, it is just a very low priority by default; they don’t see any need for it, and so fiction rarely shows up in their homes.

The reasons for this sort of aversion sometimes have to do with the fact that fiction often assumes an opposing worldview. Other times parents think fiction doesn’t “redeem the time” well. They are “practical” people, and fiction isn’t useful.

Most of these objections, though, tend to assume a pagan view of truth, a view of truth drawn from modern opponents of Christianity. We tend to ape those thinkers in the Enlightenment who viewed truth as something utterly imageless, purely literal, bloodlessly formulaic. Truth is pictured as white spine only, no limbs, muscles, organs, eyes, or lips.

The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke speaks in these terms about truth: “if we would speak of things as they are, we must allow, that all the artificial and figurative application of words are for nothing else but to insinuate wrong ideas, move the passions, and thereby mislead the judgment; and so indeed are a perfect cheat.” Here truth has nothing to do with images, figures of speech, or fictional worlds. All such things must be stripped away from life in order to get to truth.  But the Christian faith has little patience for such arrogance.

In Scripture, truth isn’t just in the spine; it’s in the whole body. Truth isn’t just intellectual propositions; it involves images of the imagination. Enlightenment notions of truth capture only the most surface-level intellectual concerns, but Scriptural truth invokes images and metaphors that connect to the very deepest parts of our lives.  Stories and imagination and figurative language are not simply nifty decorations on truth; they are the heart of truth. They are the means God Himself has chosen to communicate to us. Christ could have easily described Himself as the “prime mover” or “divine being” or “ground of reality” (all of which are still partly figurative), but instead, He revealed Himself with the “fictions” of a lamb, lion, door, bread, path, star, image, and word. Why? Because such fictions capture so much more of His reality and truth than arid intellectual descriptions could ever hope for. 

The figurative can be “more true” than bare literal sentences. The literal cleaves off too much reality.  Consider the prophet Nathan’s fiction given to David. Nathan knows of David’s sin against Uriah, and he could have easily confronted David’s intellect alone with a literal, courtlike accusation. And David, like most sinners, would be equipped to do battle with a host of intellectual rationalizations and excuses. Instead, Nathan tells David a fictional story about a rich man, a traveler, and a poor man’s lamb. In other words, Nathan calls on David’s imagination to make a judgment about truth. The story involves all of David, not just his intellect, and David is thus able to see the truth and call for judgment on the offender--himself.

Stories can go deep because they exercise all of us—imagination, affection, intellect, body, and much more we will never be able to identify.  Christian parents who disdain fiction, then, are begging for trouble. They are shaping narrow descendants, fractioned people, unable to exercise their imaginations. Those who lack a dynamic imagination will never be able to grow into mature wisdom. They will always be stuck in very narrow, self-centered mental grooves, only able to follow infantile rules. Christ called such persons whited sepulchers full of dead men’s bones (note His use of imagery again).  The most basic aspects of wisdom assume that we can imagine or fictionalize ourselves in another’s place—“You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:39). Similarly, we are commanded to “esteem others better than themselves” (Phil. 2:3). We need to picture others as better than ourselves and act upon that. 

Over and over again Scripture assumes that we can step in and out of imaginative stories in order to make wise moral and rational judgments.  Now where are our children supposed to learn how to fictionalize like this? Are we really supposed to believe that we can starve our children’s imaginations for twenty years and then magically expect them to have any ability at all to imitate Christ? That’s like making a child sit still for his whole childhood so that he can sprint in the Olympics when he’s twenty. That’s far too late to start. The same goes for imagination.  

But a well-exercised imagination isn’t just central to being a moral and rational person, as great as that is. It goes far beyond this. It is central to delighting in the play of life. We are called to live joyfully amid the repeating vanities of life (Eccl. 9:9). We are told that Christ came to give us life—not just existence—a life that could be lived more abundantly (Jn. 10:10). But if we can’t read the world around us in the imagery and subtle meanings of Scripture, then we will never be able to enter in to the full play of life. We will remain narrow-visioned Pharisees, never rising above the pettinesses of existence. 

The life of fiction enables us to see deeper and live better and play fully at life. One of the greatest images of the future success of the gospel is the image of the Mountain of the Lord in the book of Zechariah. There we learn that that “City of Truth” (Zech. 8:3) “shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets” (Zech 8:5). The road to such a city is lined with all the best fiction.