Fiction and Spirituality: Learning from the Greatest Storyteller

Bethany Mackay

He captivated crowds with his parables. Thousands stopped to hear him speak about the lost sheep, the good Samaritan or the persistent widow, drawn in by his engaging storytelling. Jesus did not tell these stories as a distraction from the real world or as trivial entertainment. Rather, he used fictional stories in order to engage people in a way which was practical, culturally relevant, and, yes, even entertaining. In the process, societal taboos were broached, political establishments were criticised, and personal prejudices were challenged. For example, the parable of the good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) depicts an act of altruism by a Samaritan man towards an injured Jewish man. Given that the Samaritans were the enemies of the Jews, this example of cross-racial kindness would have been deeply provocative for the crowd listening, as it spoke directly into their deep-seated racial prejudice. Jesus led by example in confronting real, contemporary issues, by using storytelling, allegory and metaphor in order to convey a meaningful message.

In today’s society, I believe that fiction can still function in a similarly radical and thought-provoking way. The first book to truly challenge my worldview was Knots and Crosses, by Malorie Blackman. It reverses racial hierarchies by imagining a society in which the black population are the ruling colonial power over the white population. Reading this book as a child allowed me to temporarily adopt the experiences, motives and inner thoughts of a racially oppressed character. For me, as a white reader, such an experience of racial oppression is obviously completely fabricated and bound to the limits of fiction. Nonetheless, I credit Malorie Blackman with being the first person to powerfully challenge me on my complacency and ignorance with regards to racial injustice. To be clear, I do not wish to conflate Jesus’ teachings with fictional novels, however, I believe that Jesus’ use of parables can provide a useful framework for reading fiction. Just as the crowds in Jesus’ day had to be open to receiving encouragement, rebuttal, challenge or warning, we too should approach reading with a willingness to learn and have our worldview questioned.

As well as disrupting society’s status quo, fiction reflects the whole complexity of life; encompassing people’s faults, desires, achievements, attributes, relationships and fears. I would argue that this complex view of humanity is in fact rooted in Christianity. Central to the Christian faith is the idea that we’re all unconditionally loved and made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27), whilst also being fallen, broken people (Romans 3:23).

This double-edged aspect of human nature is reflected in many of the world’s best-loved literary works. One author who immediately springs to mind is Dickens, a master of intricacy. Dickens clearly understood the varying spectrum of human nature, as he depicted the shades of good and evil in astonishing detail. In other works, such as Hamlet, Oedipus Rex, and Death of a Salesman, the protagonists are all tragic heroes, who at different points display both virtue and malice. When I read Trainspotting at university, I was shocked by much of what I read by both the actions of the characters and society’s rejection of them. This gritty novel deals starkly with class discrimination in Scotland, as well as drug-addiction, and in doing so it invites the reader to sympathise with, or indeed to criticise, the characters’ behaviour, as well as the system which fails them.

Ultimately, the common thread throughout these plays and novels is an understanding that we are all complex and nuanced beings, prone to making mistakes. Social media, and to some extent the traditional media, tends to oversimplify complicated situations, condensing them into shocking headlines, 280 character twitter posts, and edited news snippets. The ever-growing ‘cancel culture’ on social media has created a dichotomy between those who are accepted and those who are deemed too problematic to be worthy of an online space, leaving them ‘cancelled’ on the rubbish heap. To me, this brutal approach stands in direct opposition to the forgiveness, reconciliation and earnest dialogue that Jesus modelled in his life. He walked humbly alongside those who were cast out, loving and forgiving them without condemnation.

Fiction is clearly not the sole answer to the stark division in our society and, as a Christian, I would never suggest that it could come close to replacing the Scriptures. However, to read about experiences that are different or far-removed from our own can be a powerful tool in developing our capacity to understand, to empathise and to relate to others, all of which Jesus did and continues to do. In reflecting upon my own experience with reading, there have been countless books which have seriously moved or impacted me in one way or another, including: The Chronicles of Narnia, Anne of Green Gables, A Thousand Splendid Suns, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Secret Life of Bees and Wuthering Heights. Each with their own unique story to tell, they gave me a glimpse into unknown cultures, fantastical worlds, startling injustices, moral dilemmas and beautiful, complex relationships. I truly believe that God can speak to us powerfully through the art of storytelling and literature. This is evident in God’s word: the Bible itself is a stunning piece of diverse literary work, filled with poetry, songs, apocalyptic literature and historical accounts. God created us with a curiosity to learn, an imagination to create, and a heart to feel moved. In his lifetime, Jesus modelled the importance of listening to others’ stories and amplifying the voices of those who were marginalised. Karl Barth famously said to ‘Take your Bible and take your newspaper, and read both.’ I agree wholeheartedly with Barth, only with one important addition: a good novel.

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