Some friends and I have been having a discussion on the importance of fiction, specifically the importance of fiction in the life of a follower of Jesus. Some of us are more convinced than others. I tend to agree with the thought that there is usually more truth in fiction than non-fiction. A woman can write her autobiography and leave out the part where she stole from her employer. A man can write about the life of another man and leave out the part where the man cheated on his wife. A journalist can write an objective piece about a political candidate and leave out the part where the candidate lied about his military service. A story – perhaps a very good one – has been told, but truth has not been completely served. Opportunities to relate the realities and consequences of difficult situations have been missed.
Jesus, the Word and Truth himself, never missed an opportunity to relate truth in ways that impacted people – even cut them to their very core. Jesus was a storyteller. We know this generally from all the parables he told, but largely in almost every word he uttered. How can it be that Truth Incarnate, can be so intimately linked with Fiction? It can be because Jesus was also a master of metaphor, and that makes him a master of fiction. What is a metaphor, but something that is not real, being used to describe something that is real? In the gospel of John alone, Jesus uses a lot of fiction. (I found 29 examples in a rather quick perusal this morning.) Jesus was not literally a light; he was not a lamb; his body was not a temple; he was not water; he was not bread; his flesh was not bread, and his blood was not wine. Jesus made his living as a carpenter, but never as a shepherd; he was never a grain of wheat or a vine. People are not fields for harvesting; they are not sheep; they are not branches, and their bodies don’t bear grapes and apples. John the Baptist was not a burning and shining lamp. All of these ideas, taken literally, are completely fictitious. So, why did Jesus say them? Is he possibly modeling a way of conveying truth to us? I think so.
Jesus used quotidian objects to convey vital truths to which people could relate and respond to accordingly. People in an agrarian community know the beauty and the importance of a field ready for harvest. I remember being a child and standing in my father’s and my grandfather’s wheat fields, smelling the warm, yeasty grains, watching the golden stalks wave in the breeze, rubbing the rough tassels in my hands. Even then, I knew that time was of the essence; those fields had to be cut within a certain time to do my family any good. So when Jesus says that people are fields ready for harvest and other people are reapers, I can understand both the urgency and the potential bounty and blessing of the situation. But people aren’t really fields, and that leads us back to the question of fiction.
Fiction writers, in my opinion, take their cue directly from Jesus. They take things, situations, even worlds that aren’t real and show us truths that are real. And I’m not just talking about classic examples like what C.S. Lewis does in The Chronicles of Narnia or what Dickens does in A Christmas Carol. I’m talking about books like the one I picked up at random from the library a while back. I’d never heard of Big Wheat or its author, Richard A. Thompson, but what a fictional find. The story is set in the first part of the 20th century when the American farmer is grappling with mechanization and expansion possibilities. The main character, Charlie Krueger, is tricked by his “love” into getting her pregnant, so that she can further trick a land-owning, second lover into marrying her. (Already sounds pretty grim, huh?) Dismayed over the deception, Charlie gets up the courage to leave his abusive father and start out on his own to find a new life. The same night he leaves, a serial killer kills his ex-girlfriend, and Charlie’s absence immediately makes him the prime suspect. Charlie doesn’t even know what’s happened until he’s settled in with a threshing crew made up of determined down-and-outers like himself. As the story unfolds the heartening transformation of Charlie, it keeps you guessing whether good or evil will win out. It keeps giving you glimpses into the heart of man. I am not being dramatic or insincere when I say it caused me to reflect on the story of redemption as well as reflect on people I encounter in real life.
And doesn’t it all eventually come back to the people we encounter in real life? I love what my friend, Gail, had to say about this. She said, ” The people I encounter on the written page drive me to people-different people than I would normally be drawn too. When I meet someone I feel like I’ve met a mystery, God’s mystery and I want to unwrap them…”
Let’s get to unwrapping, and…take time to read more of the fiction that might help us do that.