This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
My dad, Michael Phillips, is a Christian novelist, so as I was growing up fiction played an important role in our lives. His career began by editing the novels of George MacDonald before he branched out to begin writing his own novels.
Though my father was a good story-teller, he never intended to just tell stories as an end in itself. Rather, he sought to use his fiction ministry to draw people closer to God the Father, and to spur believers on to a life of more faithful obedience to the commands of scripture.
Growing up it was sometimes interesting to hear people object to my father’s writing ministry. “Why not just tell the truth plainly, instead of putting it into stories?” I would sometimes hear people say. Other times I would sometime people say something like this: “If I wanted to learn more about the Lord, a novel would be the last book I would pick up. Why not go straight to the Bible or to works of theology?”
Fiction: A Clever Lie?
In its more extreme manifestation, this prejudice against fiction expresses itself in the idea that works of fantasy are little more than clever lying. The Christian evangelist Charles Finney seemed to hold this idea because he once dismissed both Shakespeare and Sir Walter Scott as nothing more than “a host of triflers and blasphemers of God.”
The same idea was expressed earlier this year by someone interacting with the ministry of Zondervan publishing. “Fiction is wrong because it’s not true” the person said. “As Christians we should hold fast to the truth and not saturate our minds with falsehoods regardless of what ‘good’ they seem to bring about.”
The Christian Case for Fiction
There are many things we could say in response to this prejudice against fiction. We could point to the example of our blessed Lord, who constantly told stories to illustrate important spiritual truths. Or we might draw attention to the fact that the Bible’s definition of truth is far larger than mere factual accuracy, and so a novel can convey truth even if it deals with characters and situations that are purely imaginary. We might also point out that this prejudice against the novel often arises as a symptom of an unbiblical rationalism—a rationalism that fails to come to terms with the importance scripture attaches to the imagination.
While all the above points are crucial for developing a Biblical defense of fiction, I wish to share a more subtle and often overlooked reason why fiction is important, even crucial, for our sanctification as men and women of God. In developing my argument, I will be drawing on the incredible insights of screenwriter and film critic Barbara Nicolosi, editor of Behind the Screen: Hollywood Insiders on Faith, Film, and Culture.
Living Through Someone Else’s Experiences
In a fascinating interview with Barbara Nicolosi, titled ‘What’s the Story? – Today’s Filmakers Don’t Know the First Thing About Decent Narratives’, Nicolosi observed that it is through experience that we gain wisdom. But, she went on to point out, wisdom is the sum of way too many experiences for any one person to fit into his or her lifetime. Moreover, some of the experiences which lead to wisdom are devastating for the person who goes through them, and therefore these are experiences that none of us would wish to have.
Nicolosi then went on to point out that one of the important functions of story is that it allows us to vicariously participate in experiences that are not our own, and to gain wisdom as a result. A great story—whether in a novel or a movie—takes us on a journey. If the creator has done a skillful job, the journey becomes our journey, and we feel like we are really there. In the case of a good film, it can engage the emotions so skillfully that we actually have the same visceral response as we would if the events on the screen were actually happening. Our body actually experiences the physical symptoms associated with awe, terror, sadness, suspense, joy, confusion, etc. The physical response means that we have entered into the story and, on one important level, it is happening to us.
I’m not talking about shallow stories that simply manipulate our emotions, but stories that move us because the journey they take us on is so vivid that it feels like we’re really there. In the process of making the journey with the characters in the movie or book, we are able to grow in wisdom, in a way similar to what would happen if we were really having those experiences. Through story we can participate in the same experiential value that we would have if we lived those experiences ourselves.
Experience and Wisdom
Think for a moment about the experiences in your own life that have helped you grow in wisdom, to become a richer, deeper, more complex and well-rounded person. If you are like most people, the experiences that lead to this type of growth are those which force you to wrestle with things over sustained periods of time. Wisdom only comes to those who are prepared to grapple with the pain, confusions, mysteries and ambiguities of being human and living in this type of a world. A day is all it takes to be taught the knowledge of the truth; but to grow in wisdom we must grapple with the truth over long periods of time. Often this is a process that we may not even be aware of, as we brood (often unconsciously) over the things that have happened to us and our friends.
The type of wisdom we gain from story likewise arises from grappling with the complexities and ambiguities of experience, but in this case experiences we have shared with fictional characters. Good fiction (whether a novel or film) draws you into the paradoxes that underlie the story, so that even when it is finished the story continues to haunt you, forcing you to brood over it. I have in mind some of the stories of Flannery O’connor right now, which I always read whenever I travel. These stories are filled with haunting moments that work on the reader long after you have put down the book. Another example would be The Godfather films. I watched these films about six years ago but I am still brooding over the paradoxes of Michael Corleone. What was it that changed Michael from being a nice guy who wanted to live the normal American life, to a murderous lonely gangster?
Another way to make the same point would be to say that the value of good fiction (whether in a novel or a film) isn’t that it teaches you a lesson, at least not in the straight-forward and didactic sense that we would expect from a fable. This is where so many of the recent “Christian films” miss the point completely. Many of these films take cheap short-cuts and simply spoon-feed a quick lesson to the viewer instead of doing the far more difficult (but ultimately, more rewarding and long-lasting) work of taking us on a journey that the viewer then has to come to terms with for himself. Now to be sure there is always some kind of a lesson or logos in every story, but in a good story it is diffused throughout it rather like a lump of sugar that has dissolved throughout the entire cup of tea.
One movie I have in mind which does a masterful job at this is The Lives of Others. In this movie you see the characters change and mature, but it is not always clear how and why, and because of this the story continues to haunt you long after you have watched it.
Another movie that does this very effectively is the 1998 film Les Misérables. There is a powerful scene at the end when the police officer Javert kills himself to save his long-time nemesis. The scene is so unexpected, shocking and disconcerting that it forces the viewer again and again to ask, “Why?” Eventually it hits you: it is because of the mercy that Jean Valjean showed to his enemy.
To sum, a truly great story sets the narrative up in a way that forces us to grapple with the paradoxes, ambiguities, complexities and poetry of life because the journey of the characters becomes your journey. In so doing, the story simulates the type of lived experiences that, in real life, can change us and work wisdom within our hearts.
Enriching Our Experience Outside the Book
Great artists and authors have always understood these important truths. But now scientists are also coming to appreciate the incredible power that fiction has for simulating experiences that are not our own. I’d like to close by sharing a quotation from Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows, about some of the recent discoveries of the power of fiction. The research relates specifically to novels, but the same facts also apply to other mediums of fiction such as film:
“In one fascinating study, conducted at Washington University’s Dynamic Cognition Laboratory and published in the journal Psychological Science in 2009, researchers used brain scans to examine what happens inside people’s heads as they read fiction. They found that ‘readers mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative. Details about actions and sensation are captured from the text and integrated with personal knowledge from past experiences.’ The brain regions that are activated often ‘mirror those involved when people perform, imagine, or observe similar real-world activities.’ Deep reading, says the study’s lead researcher, Nicole Speer, ‘is by no means a passive exercise.’ The reader becomes the book.
The bond between a book reader and book writer has always been a tightly symbiotic one, a means of intellectual and artistic cross-fertilization. The words of the writer act as a catalyst in the mind of the reader, inspiring new insights, associations, and perceptions, sometimes even epiphanies. …writing and reading of books enhanced and refined people’s experience of life and of nature. ‘The remarkable virtuosity displayed by new literary artists who managed to counterfeit taste, touch, smell, or sound in mere words required a heightened awareness and closer observation of sensory experience that was passed on in turn to the reader,’ writes Eisenstein. Like painters and composers, writers were able ‘to alter perception’ in a way ‘that enriched rather than stunted sensuous response to external stimuli, expanded rather than contracted sympathetic response to the varieties of human experience.’ The words in books didn’t just strengthen people’s ability to think abstractly; they enriched people’s experience of the physical world, the world outside the book.”
Personal Challenge: The next time you hear someone say that fiction has zero spiritual value, be prepared to answer them with the insights in this article. Also, take some time to reflect on the books and films that have most deeply affected you. What was it about them that moved you?