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How Fiction Shapes Worldview

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.

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{ 16 comments… add one }
  • Heather Day Gilbert May 10, 2012, 10:03 AM

    YES, totally agree that fiction can change worldview. For example, when I read Gone with the Wind for the first time, I gave my Yankee husband quite an interrogation about stuff the Yankees did in the book. Finally, I realized that Mitchell had her own worldview, which may or may not jibe (jive?) w/reality. But it did alter my perception of the “right” side in the Civil War, nonetheless.

    And look at C.S. Lewis–changing people’s view of God through fiction (ASLAN!). “The Shack” also changed people’s view of God, and we could debate whether it was in a Biblical way or not.

    Fiction is one of our strongest tools in reaching the lost. They can hear preaching at church. But using fiction to change the way they view things they’ve accepted as truth (such as historical inaccuracies) can lead them the right direction, w/out pulling them by the nose. There’s a place for preaching and evangelism, of course! But sometimes we can draw them to the truth just through a story, well-told.

    • Katherine Coble May 10, 2012, 12:16 PM

      1. Jibe is the word you’re looking for. It means “to agree”. A “Gibe” is a taunt and “jive” is either a dance or the act of dancing to Jazz.

      2. I’ll stay mum on The Shack

      3. As Mitchell herself said “Just as Andersonville was a name that stank in the North, Rock Island was….” So yes. Both sides had atrocities in that dreadful war. In many cases the atrocities in the south at camps like Andersonville were worse not because the CSA were crueller, but because they were already starving and blockaded. They couldn’t feed themselves, much less their prisoners.

      4. “Fiction is one of our strongest tools in reaching the lost. ”
      That’s generally why I prefer to write for a wider audience. I’d like the Lost to pick up my books.

    • TC Avey May 10, 2012, 12:31 PM

      I agree Heather. I can think of several fiction stories that have underlying Christian tones/meanings. God can use anything to speak to people, we shouldn’t limit God by our own perceptions.
      I have to remind myself not to put God in a box.

  • Cherry Odelberg May 10, 2012, 10:09 AM

    “…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.”
    Thunderous applause.
    The writer must appeal to “general truth, knowledge that is more instinctual, than codified and dogmatic.”

  • Jill May 10, 2012, 11:18 AM

    I have to agree that this is generally true; however, I can spot manipulation really quick, and I rarely drop my analytical hackles. A good story, though, will definitely move me the way the author intended. But honestly, the story doesn’t have to be that great, so long as I don’t feel manipulated! Hence, my 5-star rating may be for different reasons than yours. That was a kind of an OH! moment. Now I understand my own motivations better.

    • Katherine Coble May 10, 2012, 12:21 PM

      I agree with you on this. I’ll go along with a well-written story. The Wire changed a lot of my opinions on Welfare. (Not too much. But they toned down some of the more strident views at least.) The Corner gave me much to mull on when considering the effects of drug addiction on minority populations.

      But “Treme”, overseen by the same writer, came at a different point in his life when he felt like he’d earned enough street cred as a storyteller that he could start soapboxing. I turned it off after about 5 episodes because I could see where the strings were being pulled.

      That’s the most concrete example I can think of to speak to what you’re talking about and articulate how I feel in the matter. It’s also why I tend to praise subtle Christian messages in fiction (like Dean Koontz) but get riled by the obvious stuff that so often shows up in fiction released by Christian-aimed publishers.

      • Mike Duran May 10, 2012, 1:30 PM

        Katherine, since you mentioned some cable shows… one of the things that sparked this post was Joe Biden’s comment that Will and Grace did more for gay rights than all the other human rights groups combined. I’m not sure I can really argue with that.

        • Katherine Coble May 10, 2012, 10:06 PM

          That’s funny that he said that. I hadn’t heard it.

          I always thought that show was more of a homosexual version of a minstrel show. It didn’t treat the subject seriously. But I suppose it did make people feel less threatened by homosexuality overall.

    • Katherine Coble May 10, 2012, 12:23 PM

      Oh, and I never drop my analytical hackles.

  • Marcia May 10, 2012, 11:37 AM

    Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. You know, that somebody is FINALLY saying this AND being heard is an answer to prayer. Maybe it’s just that the time is now right and you are the chosen vessel.

    When a Christian opines to me that fiction is useless, trivial, and not worth their time, I bring up II Samuel 12 with them. It illustrates exactly what Gottschall is saying about nonfiction vs. story. With a nonbeliever, I’d take a different approach — except it’s seldom the nonbeliever that considers fiction useless. If only the church would open its eyes to the idea that indirect methods of being salt and light are not only okay, they can at times work better than preaching. It’s a big world, there are a lot of people, and God is a big God.

  • Jason Brown May 10, 2012, 11:49 AM

    The way many use the Bible actually reminds me of a lyrics from a Five-Finger Death Punch song,
    “You talk and talk, you preach and b***h, but your words don’t mean a thing!”
    What should that tell us about how we approach people about anything spiritually? Definitely not using cookie-cutter styles. In fact, when Jesus presented a speech to the masses, He didn’t simply tell them things in a storytelling fashion, He normally mentioned things people took for granted then shocked them by using revolutionary talk (things that hadn’t been thought about before even with the same ol’, same ol’). We tend to use cliches on overload. It’s no wonder many see Christians as something akin to “Church robots”.

  • sally apokedak May 10, 2012, 12:51 PM

    Good post. I always say it’s not my goal to preach the gospel, but to make teen girls long for a love that is bigger than they have imagined, so when they hear about Jesus in the fullness of time, they will recognize him as the lover they’ve been longing for all along.

    I think some are meant to sew and some are meant to water and some are meant to harvest. So I don’t have anything against fiction that boldly preaches the gospel. But I also don’t have anything against fiction that never mentions God.

    • sally apokedak May 10, 2012, 12:52 PM

      heh heh I saw “sew” right after I clicked “submit” blech

  • Nissa Annakindt May 11, 2012, 7:04 AM

    In addition, preaching in Christian fiction can irritate Christians of another denominational background, as well as utter non-believers. And personally I prefer sermons from someone who’s been to seminary.

    Telling a good story, however, can move people, we hope in the right direction. And since reading good stories is something people do for fun, it gets you a wider audience.

  • Bob Avey May 11, 2012, 11:05 AM

    Very well put, Mike. If you think about it, it’s like one of the general rules of fiction: Show don’t tell. It’s always better, in fiction, to show or demonstrate through the actions of character rather than explaining through prose.

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