Stories As Communicating Truth

[This is one part of a multi-part series. Please start at the beginning:

                Stories clearly have a role in the communication of truth. The Bible is full of stories. Even Jesus taught with stories. Can we justify fantasy from the storytelling of Scripture?

                Before we go any further, I must point out that the vast majority of stories in Scripture are true and historical. When God seeks to teach us using stories, he most often uses non-fiction stories. These historical stories are told honestly, briefly, and selectively. Human beings are neither glorified nor excused. God is at the center of the action from the beginning to the end.

                However, there are quite a few fictional stories in the Bible. Again, these stories are brief. Jesus employs parables – which mostly fall into the categories of allegory or extended metaphor. The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps his most complex story. It is still pretty simple, and it is allegorical.

                There are other fables and allegories. Jotham tells a fable in Judges 9 – complete with talking plants. Nathan accuses David by means of an allegory about neighbors and sheep. The opening of Proverbs makes use of some extended metaphors for Folly and Wisdom.

                The book of Job is probably best categorized as a type of fictionalized history. I believe that the opening and closing of the book recount historical events, but the meat of the book is a poetical disputation between Job and his friends. Although the general ideas of their arguments may be historical, the poetic retelling is probably retold with considerable license. The genre of Job would be closer to the dialogues of Plato than to any fictional genre today.

                So the Bible selects the most didactic fictional genres to communicate truth. These genres are usually avoided by anyone seeking to write “great” literature. Fantasy authors especially will studiously avoid employing any obvious allegory. Allegory can break the spell of secondary belief (a/k/a, suspension of disbelief).

                Perhaps it is helpful to think of fantasy authors on a spectrum from Tolkien to Bunyan. In the middle of the spectrum is Lewis. Most readers and critics of fantasy tend towards approving of the Tolkien end of the spectrum. Lewis might be tolerated, but he is often considered to be poor art. Bunyan is another matter. I think most people today would not consider Bunyan to be much of writer of fiction. It is interesting that the storytelling of the Bible resembles Bunyan far more than the other two.

                The New Testament especially focuses on the clarity of communication. Paul declares clarity and openness to be a foundational principle of God-honoring communication (2 Cor. 4:1-5). Therefore, the New Testament emphasizes direct verbal communication: preaching, teaching, personal testimony, etc. The New Testament also employs genres that strongly embed truth within historical reality: gospel, history, and epistle. Even the book of Revelation includes epistles.

                So as a Christian, when seeking a proper vehicle for the communication of truth, is a fantasy novel a legitimate or profitable choice? I wonder if Jesus or Paul would ever have written a fantasy novel. Somehow I doubt it. Sure a fantasy novel can convey themes, but there is usually a more effective means to convey the same truths.

                And as a Christian seeking truth, is a fantasy novel the best place to find it? Why drink from a murky cesspool when there is a clean, untainted well available?

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7 Responses to Stories As Communicating Truth

  1. Daniel says:

    I agree with much of what you say in many of your posts on this subject; nevertheless, I don’t have time today to interact with all of your posts. However, since you probably don’t want a discussion chain that reads, “Pretty much on point, very busy,” I offer these two criticisms:
    1) I think it is an error to assume that most people who write fantasy do so to communicate truth. Most do it as an avocation, and a few do it as a vocation. To say that Jesus and Paul probably would not have used a fantasy novel to communicate spiritual truth is to ignore the fact that most fantasy writers probably would not use a fantasy novel to communicate truth if being didactic was their primary purpose in writing.
    2) I am not sure that speaking in parables qualifies as a “straightforward” or didactic genre. Although you didn’t say this, many argue something like, “Jesus spoke in simple agrarian metaphors so that his audience could understand and it would be memorable.” This is flatly untrue: his audience often didn’t understand and needed interpretation, and when asked specifically about why He used parables, His answer was not so that it would be plainly obvious but rather so that He could conceal truth. So I’m not sure that part of your argument is persuasive.

    I’ll try to make some time later. It’s an interesting subject.

    • Thanks for reading over my posts in spite of being busy! Let me respond to each of your criticisms. 1) I agree that most fantasy authors are not writing to communicate truth — at least not as their primary intention. My final post was just to consider the POSSIBILITY that fanasy might be a fitting method for communicating truth. 2) I have two thoughts on parables. First, I believe I meant straightforward and didactc in the sense that parables have no story for story’s sake. They exist purely for the purpose of making a point. The details included in the story are all necessary to either make the parable work or to make the point or both. Second, you have picked one of the characteristics of parables at the expense of the other. If you look over the center section of the parable of the sower (Luke 8:9-10; Mark 4:10-12; Matthew 13:10-17), you can see that the purpose of the parables was to BOTH conceal and reveal. I believe there is another passage referencing the clarity of parables, but it is not coming to mind at the moment. At the time that the parables were first spoken, they were very effective at concealing. Now the Gospels have set them within context (and sometimes provide us with interpretation), so we are able to more easily make sense of them. The power of context for understanding the parables is demonstrated by how the Jewish leaders were able to make some sense of Jesus’ parables during the confrontations of Holy Week.

  2. billhoard says:

    As I have mentioned elsewhere, I have a few issues with your analysis here but more fundamentally, I just don’t think that the communication of truth (in the way you are discussing it) is the primary purpose of story.
    I do think you are missing a significant psychological argument here as well though. Some people learn (at least some things) better through story than they do through didactic lecture or presentation. And some aspects of Truth can only be communicated through story, or at least can only be communicated to the human mind through story – God may well understand everything propositionally, or not at all propositionally, or entirely through narrative, or (I think most likely) in some entirely other way. After all, Truth is a person and so we know Him relationally (which is a wold combination of propositional, narrative, emotional, and other forms of knowing) and it is worth keeping in mind that God’s most complete self-revelation was neither narrative nor propositional but personal.
    So I guess the problem is that I just don’t really relate to your final two questions. If I try to answer the penultimate question I think the best I would say is “it depends on which truth, and which fantasy novel you are talking about”.

    • I have responded about the purpose of story elsewhere. And yes, this post is primarily aimed at particular ideas that are out there.

      I am in total agreement that stories are often the best means of communicating truth. Why do you think that a HUGE percentage of Scripture is story? That is part of my assumption in writing the post. I do NOT think that God understands truth primarily as propositional. I think that is pretty obvious from a whole host of evidence in Scripture. I could research the percentages, but I am pretty sure that poetry and story accounts for the majority of the text of Scripture. I find it appalling that both are used so little today (well, stories are often featured in some preachers’ sermons).

      So, my underlying assumption is that story is absolutely critical for the communication of truth. If that is the case, then what kinds of stories should be used, etc.? It is curious what kinds of stories are employed in Scripture — mostly history and something akin to sermon illustrations. Other genres were available to the authors within their culture. And of course, God has no limit to his literary capacity. Why were these particular choices made? Was it arbitrary? I think the choices were made for the reasons laid out in my post. Clarity of communication is a primary value when revealing truth. Of course, clarity does not preclude telling truth “slant,” and truth does not mean exclusively propositional truth.

      I have more I could say, but that is enough for the moment.

  3. billhoard says:

    Also this post strikes me as an example of the regulative principle run amok 🙂

  4. billhoard says:

    By the way I would love to get your thoughts on CS Lewis theology in general. Mostly because I trust that I would get an honest evaluation from you. I know where I agree and disagree with the man and I find it odd how often he is seen as a hero to evangelicalism. Many conservative evangelicals will praise him out of one side of their mouths then turn around and condemn people for espousing views Lewis held (remember “farewell Rob Bell” over a view Lewis espoused?), Just a thought for some future series, I have enjoyed the back and forth!

    • I have enjoyed this as well.

      I have read enough C. S. Lewis to know that he is a theological grab bag who deserves to be no one’s theological “hero.” He is certainly not an evangelical by today’s understanding. He says some stuff that is mind-blowingly brilliant, but then in the next chapter he gets all heretical. Once I realized that, I stopped trying to read all things Lewis, so I am not well-qualified to evaluate him in detail. I will say that Screwtape Letters is one of the most insightful books outside the Bible I have ever read. I wonder if Lewis did better when he was practical rather than theological. I do think he made the mistake of not knowing his limits.

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