The Value of Theological Fiction

It’s woven into the human fabric: we are all story tellers and story-listeners. “Narration is as much a part of human nature as breath and the circulation of the blood,” says British novelist A.S. Byatt.[1] She’s right. Story is one of the ways we engage and make sense out of our world. For the elements of our world that are not empirical and sensory – the mystical, the ethical, the theological – it is the primary way.

The Old Testament writers knew this. So did the Gospel writers. So did Jesus.  Yet only Jesus was unabashedly narrating fiction when he expounded his parables to get his message across; the other Biblical authors never tell us whether they are narrating fact or fiction. It is fashionable to assume the former, and even considered heresy in conservative and evangelical Christian circles to hold to the latter. But whatever our views on the inerrancy of Scripture as to factual details, the real value of all Biblical stories lies in their theological truth, as to which the historical accuracy of each and every detail related is often irrelevant. Nothing in the ultimate message is diminished if the gospel authors (or their sources) embellished the extraneous details.

And therein lies the value of theological fiction even today. The Biblical canon may have closed in the Fourth century, but we are still exploring the nature of the Divine and our relation to it – and we are still telling stories to express and test our understandings. As long as mankind continues to formulate and reformulate our ideas about theological truth, stories will be used as a means for reaching it and expressing it.

Not every novel that passes as “Christian fiction” will aim toward this goal. Visit the “Christian Fiction” section of your local book store, and you will find its shelves taken up almost entirely by what look suspiciously like romance novels (even their covers virtually scream this), written overwhelmingly by women and distinguished from secular novels – to quote the Wikipedia characterization – “merely because one of its characters either comes to a proper understanding of God and of man’s need for salvation from sin, or faces a crisis of his or her faith,” with a story line that “typically promotes values, teaches a lesson, always has a happy ending (good prevails over evil in all books), adheres to a decency code (certain boundaries such as sexuality, strong language, and topics of such cannot be crossed).”[2] Their goal is to reaffirm the reader’s faith rather than to challenge it or explore its roots. I do not denigrate this genre at all; its popularity proves its place.  But I think of theological fiction as a learning tool, as a spark for thinking about our faith in ways we might not have thought about otherwise. Henry James, in his 1888 essay The Art of Fiction, attributes to the novelist the ability “to guess the unseen from the seen.” Is there a better description of theological inquiry?

The collective religious experience of humanity cries out for articulation and exploration. Deeply personal it may be, but we can’t keep it to ourselves. We have an innate need to express it. And if, in the telling, a glimpse of the profound is received, it strikes us with a power that would be absent from an academic treatise. For story provides a context, extracted directly from the human condition, providing a ready means of assimilating what the heart and the head agree upon. And there, in that consensus, is truth.

[1] On Histories and Stories: Selected Essays, Harvard University Press (2000) p. 166


Frank Spinella

About Frank Spinella

Frank Spinella has been a practicing trial attorney for over thirty years. A partner in the Concord, NH firm of Hall, Morse, Anderson & Spinella, he is listed in Best Lawyers in America® in the field of commercial litigation. He has authored a number of law journal articles, primarily in the field of antitrust law. The Cloak and the Parchments and Heresy are his first two novels. Frank and his wife Linda, an Episcopal priest, live in Bow, New Hampshire.

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