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Theology and Fiction

Anabaptist Theology Forum


Different Truths: Fiction and The Bible


If you’ve ever been accused of telling stories, you probably weren’t being congratulated on your ability to communicate truth.  If Christianity is true, if the bible is reliable – then we have to say that it is based upon fact, not upon myths and stories and fiction.  So, on the surface – it can seem very much as though fiction and scripture are – as the title of this session suggests – different truths.


If truth is something concrete, solid and unshakeable, then fiction is not a particularly helpful category of truth, if we want to get inside the dynamics of Scripture.  I suppose you could take this topic in any number of directions.  Narrative theology seems like the most frequently trodden path from this kind of question, so I thought we would try to take a different one.


I thought it best to proceed with question of hermeneutics: which in current usage is pretty much just a Greek word for reading.  But no sense in using a short word when a long one will do.  Although the word for Hermeneutics is not without its problems.  It’s become a pretty trendy subject at the moment, so there’s endless literature on the field.  But if we could just dwell for a few moments on the meaning of the word:


Biblical hermeneutics, we generally take to mean Biblical interpretation.  But Hermeneutics is a Greek method, assuming the assistance of the demi-god Hermes: a messenger from the gods and, at times, a  messenger from the dead.  Now, in the twenty first century, distanced as we are from the authors of scripture by twenty centuries of unbridgeable chasm, we need Hermes to help us leap the gap.  How can we get our heads around what these Greek and Hebrew people thought and felt and believed?  By studying the language, getting to grips with the historical context, and doing our very best to unearth whatever truth we might discover in Scripture. Then seek to apply that truth to our contemporary life.  It would seem impossible to access these ancient cultures and their beliefs.  


Three cheers for hermeneutics: because in Hermes we have a messenger from the dead.


The trouble is: if you believe in the resurrection, Hermes is left redundant!  If you believe that the Holy Spirit is active in the process of reading Scripture, why on earth would we need the assistance of a Greek demi-god.  Now, I don’t think that this is quite so picky as it might sound, because we are not simply playing with words here.


Hermeneutics as a whole, is still – by and large – preoccupied with only one, single problem: the gap!  The gap that stretches out across the centuries between first century authors, and twenty first century readers of Scripture.  When we allow Hermes to shape our interpretation of Scripture, we adopt a worldview in which the absence of the Trinitarian god is assumed.  Almost invariably, hermeneutics assumes the all-encompassing dominance of something called ‘Historicisim’.


Historicism, in brief, is belief in a linear view of time, the world in a state of constant flux, with the result that people separated from one another by time are thereby rendered mutually incomprehensible.  ‘This stuff happened so long ago, there is no chance of us ever understanding who these people were and what they meant.’  Whenever I read about this false historical humility, I think of my grandmothers.  I only ever saw them meet each other on two occasions.  And on both occasions, the interaction was incredible.  Both smiled and nodded.  Both were thrilled to be in the company of the other.  Both were silent as the other spoke.  And despite the fact that they took it in turns to speak, they had two entirely different conversations: both of them self-reflective monologues; and both of them kissed goodbye, delighted they had enjoyed such a wonderful time together!  Being in the same room as the person with whom you are communicating is no guarantee of hearing another person.


But hermeneutics in its present usage, has tended to assume that if only we could bridge the gap of the centuries, we would then be in a position to hear the Authors of Scripture properly.  And for this reason, until recently, the uncovering of Scriptural truth has tended to focus upon digging around in the text to unearth the correct meaning, by which it was assumed we were unearthing the true – meaning.


One of the key turning points in this modern form of hermeneutics, was a 1960 book called Truth and Method by H.G.Gadamer.  He wanted to broaden the practice of hermeneutics from exclusively addressing textual interpretation, to incorporate wider extra-textual considerations embracing the life of the reader more generally. But even for Gadamer, hermeneutics is a discipline that attempts to bridge the historical distance between modern readers and ancient writers.


Of course we want to recognise that historical distance demands humility from the interpreter, but it is not the only, or even the most important problem to be addressed by the reader of scripture.  Other issues are important for biblical interpreters, such as the manner in which the text is enfleshed in the lives of believers.  When historicism dominates hermeneutics, these questions are regarded as a secondary concern.


We all know the logic:  the text contains something called truth or meaning – so, the modern interpreter must strain away in their study, using all available tools, to unearth that truth or meaning – to extract it from the text as though we were mining for gold.  And then, once you have extracted the truth from the context that actually made it true, you can set about making it true for contemporary people!  It was the kind of approach Rudolf Bultmann received a lot of criticism for, and it’s the same approach that tends to dominate contemporary patterns of preaching.


So, to look for alternative patterns of grappling with truth, it seems helpful to go back through Gadamer to Gadamer’s teacher, Martin Heidegger.  Heidegger recognised that there are various different ways of encountering truth:  


There is the correspondence theory of truth.  Does a description match with the evidence?  Truth corresponds to facts.  Therefore, if you are a sound Christian and you offer your assent to all the correct facts of the Christian faith: the truth will set you free!  All you need to do is unload the Christian facts in someone’s general direction, and you have preached the gospel.  


Then there is Pragmatic truth – one that is prevalent among Baptists and increasing numbers of other traditions.  That is, William James is the name most frequently associated with Pragmatism – saying that truth is proven by its results.  If it works, it’s true – the Alpha Course is successful, therefore it is blessed by God.  Pragmatic truth.


There is the relativity theory of truth: this is my truth, tell me yours.  Stanley Fish, Richard Rorty. Everyone has access to their own version of truth.  You may have gone to the trouble of learning the biblical languages, you may have been studying the historical context, learning the text itself by heart and worked it into your prayer life.  But I just read it in English for the first time, and my view is no less valid than yours.  


Of course the caricatures are wildly unfair to the philosophies of truth, but to some extent they are manifestations of these different theories.  Heidegger however, adopted a rather different approach to truth.  He goes back to the original Greek words for truth.


You may know the Greek word, Aletheia.  But – before Plato, Heidegger argues, it was a word that came in two parts.  Letheia refers to that which is concealed, and the alpha served as a privative.  So A-letheia is an event, an occurrence.  I suppose in English the nearest equivalent would be un-veiling.  In essence, that is as far from a concrete notion of truth as it is able to get.  That is the kind of truth that you can actually imagine being liberating – Truth, for Heidegger is active and dynamic, there is a reverberation, something that you grasp with both hands so the electric shock runs through you.  Truth is a shaking, a disturbing event.  And it presupposes confrontation – not in the sense that you exchange fisticuffs in order to discover it – but in the sense that there is mutual coming together that has an impact upon who you are: truth, is self involving – and requires an encounter with another.


But – at the same time, Heidegger also had diagnosed modern western society with a kind of ontological amnesia.  We have forgotten what it is to be – to consider the world beyond the immediate, the pragmatic, the familiar.  And to let that world and all the otherness it represents to have any kind of impact upon us.  In this sense, our capacity for disruption is minimised.  


We view other people, other nations and cultures, as resources to use for our immediate purposes.  And we do this, whilst maintaining the genuine belief that we are open, that we do experience other cultures.  I’m not racist!  I am open-minded.  I am culturally aware because I have travelled widely.  I suppose the best example is a television advert on one of my kids’ dvds – for Disneyland:  “Experience the culture and cuisine of fifty different countries.”  In Disneyland – as part of your fanstastic Disneyland experience…  Now, that says a lot!  


If we were created to use things and love people, the era we now live in, says Heidegger, expects us to love things and use people.  The word he used to describe this era, was Technology!  We want to use everything and everyone at our disposal – we treat everything as a resource.  In fact, we unashamedly use the language now of Human Resources.  But think of how people born in the technological era are likely to use Scripture: well that’s it – scripture is something to be used: like everything else it becomes a resource.  Something for us to use, for some other purpose.


But we never consider what that purpose is.  I think this is the brilliance of the super-computer in Hitch-hikers Guide to the Galaxy: as it calculated the ultimate meaning, to life, the universe and everything – the answer – as you know – is 42!


The technological world is one we are stuck inside, says Heidegger.  We are imprisoned within it.  We may like to think we use technology, but technology shapes us – we have become resources.  The aeroplane sits on the tarmac, he says, apparently awaiting our use.  But really – we have allowed the world to shape us to the extent that we cannot see how the aeroplane is using us… the tail is wagging the dog.


In this technological prison, says Heidegger, Aletheia – this active reverberation of truth, grinds to a halt. There is no un-veiling.  We cannot be confronted with otherness.  Cultural, spiritual, even relational.  Aletheia loses its dynamism.  Truth abandons us, and we are left only with truth that serves us as a resource.


If Heidegger is onto something with this description of our culture, then how would biblical interpretation be understood?  It will be understood as Hermeneutics – where we employ the services of Hermes to provide us with technically correct readings of Scripture.  


When I was studying theology at Oxford, I used to read commentary after commentary on the different books of the bible.  


When I’d finished the Bible Speaks Today series, I moved onto other things – critical commentaries on Scripture, which focused in so much detail upon the individual words and meanings of Scripture – I was convinced it would be great for my spiritual life.  I read the whole of Sanday and Headlam’s International Critical Commentary, Driver on Genesis, Vincent Taylor on Mark.  And I was astonished that, having read these books so earnestly – there was no great out-of-this-world spiritual experience.  After all, I jolly well felt I’d earned it!  But commentary after commentary simply re-inforced the presumed Christian values of the day, and gave nothing I didn’t already know.  Jesus became tedious, predictable – and despite the best efforts of the Alpha course, he became boring.  


And at that point, I met Karl Barth.  Yes, he’d died the year before I was born – but when I read his epistle to the Romans, even though he’d been dead for thirty years, I encountered Barth – and it was poetry.  Whoever said that Barth’s Epistle to the Romans was a bombshell in the playground of the theologians, was not simply giving a sycophantic appreciation of Barth.  And it was a bombshell precisely because it was poetic.  And I don’t mean poetry as flowery language – it was written in German!  Although – I can’t remember where I read this, but very early in his career Barth had won awards for the literary beauty of his style.  (Actually, I think this may be in the preface to his volume ‘The Word of God and the Word of Man.’)  I can remember when I first met Ruth, she told me that her experience of reading Barth on Romans was her first real experience of Theology.


And I think it is because it was poetic.  And there is good reason for this.  Going back to Heidegger’s diagnosis of modern western society: we being stuck in a technological world where we love things and use people, this world in which we forget any ultimate purpose beyond the practicalities of life, this technological era from which there was no escape.  Heidegger, the virtual atheist, threw his hands up in despair and said ‘only a god can save us’.  And if a god were to save us, how would it be?  Through Poetry!  Through Poesis, in the Greek.


Art – in whatever form it comes to us, be it through literature, poetry, dance, music and so on, has the capacity to confront.  In Greek, poesis is constructive – in English we might think of the word ‘creative’.  And what art does, according to Heidegger, is confront us.  It forces us to realise that there are other ways of seeing the world – and as such, it confronts us with ‘otherness’.  Art is not simply something we observe, but something that impacts upon the way that we observe and encounter and engage.  Not something that looks pretty in an otherwise ugly world – but something that changes the way that you see the whole world.


For Heidegger – in the first instance, the confrontation with ‘otherness’ – places a question mark against the universal validity of your own worldview.  Something from beyond that disturbs, discomforts us, questions us – when this happens, it reveals at the very least – that there might just be other ways of understanding ourselves and our place in the world.  There might just be other ways to be.  Until I was in my mid twenties, I was convinced that Radio 1 was the only Radio channel that existed.  But becoming aware of the fact that you are actually tuned in, alerts you to the fact that you could be listening to Radio 2 (which was where Radio 1 DJ’s went to work after they die).  The awareness that we are attuned, says Heidegger, alerts us to the fact that we could be attuned to other ways of being and seeing and acting and relating and believing.


And poetry is the word he used to describe this salvation from technological imprisonment.  And Barth is one example of these people who confronted his readers with something that constituted ‘otherness’.


So – if we pause for breath here and scan back briefly at the ground we have covered so far…

Truth was originally a verb – Saint Paul uses it this way!  Truth is an active, dynamic, relational encounter.  But, when the technological worldview dominates – truth becomes something static, lifeless, and dull.  However – the purpose of poetry and art and literature – is to awaken again the dynamic quality of truth, by exposing us to genuine otherness.


So – if truth is something that we expect to experience in Scripture, we would hope that it is not simply the correspondence version of truth: where we can equate words that are written with events in the real world.  But truth as genuine Aletheia – unveiling, rug-pulling, penny-dropping, gob-smacking truth.


And that kind of truth hurts – and Hermes isn’t much help in bearing that kind of truth.  But, if the Holy Spirit is active in the reading process, then it may involve more than quietly ensuring that our grammar grinding and etymological efficiency is maximised.  If poetry is concerned with confrontation with absolute otherness, then who embodies such genuine Wholly Otherness and the Holy Spirit?


Or – translated into God-talk – the Holy Spirit is a poet.  In Heidegger’s sense, confronting us with holiness, with otherness, and leaving our understanding of ourselves and the world, forever changed.  That otherness may come to us from the words of someone who’s been dead for a generation, or for two millennia.  That otherness may fail to come to us from someone in the same room as us – thinking back to my grandmothers.  But, in engaging with the truth that we encounter in Scripture, we are engaging with Holy Scripture.


And if Holy Scripture confronts us with otherness, in all its glorious disturbance and disruption – then it entails death and resurrection as part of the hermeneutic process.  And resurrection is an act of the Holy Spirit.  This is made clear in one of Barth’s earliest pieces on Biblical interpretation.  Barth spoke about the strange new world of the Bible – seeing the bible not as a resource – but as an undiscovered territory.  The further in you enter, the stranger it gets, and before long – instead of being the one asking the questions, you find yourself being questioned at the deepest level by your experience of what you find in this strange new world.


In other words – scripture is not a resource that you take up and use.  It is rather a world that constitutes otherness – and when you open that book, you are baptized into that world: again, and again, and again.  In fact, perhaps we should say that reading is fundamentally an ana-baptist practice!


But what about reading Fiction?  I’m conscious that’s the first time I’ve used that word and we’re three quarters of the way through!  Well, maybe the first question is – is the Holy Spirit active only when we are reading Holy Scripture – or when we are reading anything?  What is the difference between reading the bible and reading any other book?  


There are lots of different answers to that question, but I think – if we believe in the Holy Spirit – we have to say that there is No qualitative difference.  To answer this question properly, I think we have to back up even further.  And ask what actually constitutes a text?  Is reading a text different to observing an image?  My dvds are texts.  My car, my house, my wardrobe, are texts.  My children, are texts.  Every person I meet is a text.  I hope to treat all of these things and people as though they have voices!  (obvious the people actually do!)  And if I am an obnoxious individual who refuses to listen properly to other people – how can I expect to hear anything worthwhile in Scripture?  If you cannot listen to your brother whom you have seen, how can you listen to God, whom you have not?


If we cannot read other texts with a genuine capacity to encounter otherness, how can we expect to encounter it in Scripture?  Openness is not a switch you can flick on and off.  It is part of an attentive disposition, which is cultivated in relationship with other people.  Reading is not simply the act of processing information – it entails every dimension of our being.  Part of maturing as a person, is surely listening well.  I suspect this is why, throughout Scripture, the Israelites are encouraged to welcome the stranger!  Because that stranger constitutes otherness, and as such, the stranger can be a messenger from God without us realising it.


So, learning to read – is learning to cultivate an attentive disposition to all that we encounter.  The attentive disposition is not simply a function of our spirit that we activate whilst reading Holy Scripture, and turn off again when we close the bible.   Truth is exposure to others, and to otherness.


So – what is it that makes Scripture so holy?  I would suggest – it is nothing other than the proximity of the authors to the events they witnessed.  In the first instance, witnesses to the resurrection and the ministry of Christ; and from there, we could speak about those who witnessed, because they felt and experienced key events in YHWH’s dealings with his people, from the Exodus, to the Exile, to the return from Exile.  From the Resurrection, to Pentecost, to the persecutions and the growth of early Christian communities.


The authors of Scripture are stood closest to events which Christians believe are foundational to their own experience of God and the world.  And at precisely at that point, we want to affirm a reliable, historical foundation. Fiction is stories with theological significance, but lacking historical foundation. Scripture is not fiction.




So, if fiction is concerned with stories which are made up, and have no historical foundation – and scripture, whatever else it may be, is rooted well and truly in historical events: the kind of truth they communicate is entirely different.


But then, Scripture is not just one book or one genre.  Plenty of scholars would take books like Jonah and Daniel, not to mention the parables of Jesus, and regard them as fiction.  That is, stories that are made up to serve a particular purpose.  Fiction, in this sense, is a biblical genre – but reading fiction today?  Can reading fiction today help us to hear Scripture more faithfully?


This was a question I had in mind when, three years ago, I was granted my first sabbatical by Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.  And, one or two projects had fallen through, so I embarked upon a brief fiction-writing course off the back page of the Guardian – worked away at that for a month and then spent the following two months writing a novel.  

If Hiedegger was right about the technological era, and its ability to drown out the voice of the other, how can we read the Gospels and encounter the otherness of Christ?  

For Heidegger and the other hard core existentialists, Christ has been domesticated.  We want a Christ who greases the wheels of our technological society – not one that brings disruption.  So, with my little project, I tried to come at Christ sideways.  Instead, I had a crack at writing historical fiction about the most notorious terrorist in History: Barabbas.


I wanted to use fiction (without historical foundations) as a vehicle for bringing history to life.  I took Barabbas as a nick name, to keep his identity secret for half of the novel.  The hope was that, by the time you realise he is such a despicable figure, it is too late because the reader has warmed to him.  I wanted to have Christian readers rooting for Barabbas to be released over Christ.


Now, there is nothing novel about trying to root for the widely perceived baddy.  This has become a recurring theme in cinema in recent years.  And when we get to the point this month, when Lady Gaga releases a song called “I love Judas”, you know that there is a non-conformist bandwagon waiting to be boarded.


But historically, with the aid of hermeneutics and the frequent telling of the Gospel story – we know who are the baddies and who are the goodies.  In fact, we know these things so well, they are no longer historically accurate.  And what is the most appropriate genre for disrupting our readings of history?  Another history book outlining just how people in Galilee and Judea would have felt about life, the universe and everything?  Or fiction?


Fiction in which the modern reader is baptised, with emotions fully engaged, into an ancient world where injustice and oppression are not just words – but are grim realities that batter people’s lives, forcing them into pain and grief that has to be worked out one way or another.  Fiction has the capacity, to draw the reader into a deep, emotional engagement with the main characters – and forcing them to think about what would come naturally to them in such circumstances.  


And when the reader is walking around first century Judaism, looking at what Barabbas and his friends were trying to do – and looking at what Jesus had failed to do – then you are likely to come back and read Scripture rather differently.  In this sense, history is learned not simply by reading about events – but being part of those events yourself!  That, it seems to me, is the purpose of historical fiction.  


I’m not sure if I achieved that with my first novel, but one or two folk have come back to me and said they could not believe how much sympathy they felt with the criminals crucified either side of Jesus, and how much relief they felt that Jesus took the place of Barabbas.


In this sense, I would argue, fiction is more faithful to historical events than lots of historical books which emphasise events without any emotional dimension to those events.  But it is not only historical fiction that can be truer to life than history.


Let me ask you – which is a more realistic picture of the human condition?  Coronation Street, or Star Trek?  Is it possible that life on the Starship Enterprise could be more realistic than life on the backstreets of Manchester?


In Star Trek – the mission is to encounter strange new worlds (the precise Language that Barth used to describe scripture).  There is the constant exploration of humanity’s engagement with otherness – and in this sense, it is – poetry.  


I suppose good fiction, whether it comes in the form of movie, television or literature, evokes some kind of engagement with otherness.  When it has the capacity to disrupt, to disturb, and to bring about a different way of seeing the world, we should call it ‘Holy Fiction’.  On the one hand, it is made up, so it is right to call it fiction.  On the other, if it genuinely changes our worldview then it will make an actual, historical difference in the real world here and now.  Fiction may not have historical foundations, but it can have historical effects.


No end of theologians have written at length about this kind of fiction – I just wish more of them actually wrote it.  But then, maybe it’s better for theologians to recognise that all authors of fiction are theologians.  



23rd May, 2011

Anabaptist Theology Forum