In my last post, I argued that competing in the marketplace of ideas sometimes requires that Christians use “non-religious” arguments. Rather than citing Scripture, it can be advantageous to cite medical, historical, scientific, or sociological evidence, even evoke more primal, existential yearnings. If “All truth is God’s truth,” then using “general truth” is not only valid, it can be a springboard to moving a person toward “specific truth.”
This same principle applies to fiction.
In the article Why Fiction is Good for You, Jonathan Gottschall writes:
It’s an ancient question: Does fiction build the morality of individuals and societies, or does it break it down?
Until recently, we’ve only been able to guess about the actual psychological effects of fiction on individuals and society. But new research in psychology and broad-based literary analysis is finally taking questions about morality out of the realm of speculation.
This research consistently shows that fiction does mold us. The more deeply we are cast under a story’s spell, the more potent its influence. In fact, fiction seems to be more effective at changing beliefs than nonfiction, which is designed to persuade through argument and evidence. Studies show that when we read nonfiction, we read with our shields up. We are critical and skeptical. But when we are absorbed in a story, we drop our intellectual guard. We are moved emotionally, and this seems to make us rubbery and easy to shape. (emphasis mine)
Christians often talk about how a writer’s fiction is shaped by their worldview. But apparently the opposite is equally true: A person’s worldview can be shaped by fiction. Stories can affect a person’s morality and beliefs; stories persuade through image and emotion rather than “argument and evidence.”
I believe this is the same reason why using “non-religious” rhetoric and/or imagery can be and important apologetic tool: It bypasses our intellectual censors, our “shields,” and touches us at an emotive, conceptual level; it appeals to “general truth,” knowledge that is more instinctual, than codified and dogmatic. For example, the story of the Prodigal Son disarms us. Deep in our hearts, we understand the wayward son, the forces that drove him, and marvel at the father’s gracious acceptance. Why? Because it is the story of Humanity! On the other hand, telling people that they are sinners and that God loves them can easily prompt a “shields up” response. (Please note: This is not an argument for tip-toing around the Gospel message as much as it is an argument for being tactful and discerning where people are at in the process.)
Understanding this process is, I think, is hugely important for the Christian storyteller. People move from “general revelation” to “special revelation.” We move from a generic belief in a Supreme Being to more specific belief in a certain kind of one. We move from a general sense of personal brokenness and guilt, to a more specific knowledge of a Moral Law and a Moral Lawgiver. Rudimentary truths precede dogma. Thus, a goal of the Christian author could be to connect people to a Larger Truth first. Rather than articulating Scripture, we could seek to evoke something more primal, archetypal. As one Christian author noted, Our stories should declare the glory of God in the same way the heavens do (Ps. 19:1). Brilliant! But how do the stars declare the glory of God? They don’t do it by preaching.
Infusing our stories with a Christian worldview is natural for a Christian writer. Shaping our readers’ worldview is another story. And there is no quicker way to get a reader’s “shields up” than by moving away from telling a story, to articulating a religious message.