The apologetic of story



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I’m not sure what set off this train of thought, though I think it was something in a rather good novel I’m reading, which I’ll review in a few days, I expect. The thesis I’d like to defend tonight is this—that Christian fiction carries out a valuable apologetic (that means an argument for the faith) function for the church, an form of apologetic that has only one superior among the weapons in our arsenal.

I’ve long held the opinion that the chief reason people leave the church nowadays is a desire to be rid of Christian morality, particularly (but not exclusively) sexual morality.

But perhaps the number two reason (I suspect) is suffering. Suffering experienced oneself, and suffering observed second-hand, or even heard about. Often even fictional suffering.

One thing I noticed in college was that professors loved to assign reading that contained subtle (or not so subtle) attacks on Christian theodicy (the branch of apologetics that deals with what C. S. Lewis called “the problem of pain”). This wasn’t entirely the professors’ fault. Modern literature abounds in stories carefully framed to prove to the reader that this world is so horrible, so unjust, and so disordered that it’s ridiculous to imagine there could be a God, unless He’s evil.

Movies, I think, are even worse, because the mind interprets things seen as realities. We leave movie theaters with an emotional sense that we’ve been witnesses to real life.

I’m sure you can think of stories and movies that have tested your faith. Narratives that you find yourself worrying at, late into the night when you can’t sleep. Narratives that trouble your faith. I know I have some.

There’s a place for rational apologetics in dealing with those kinds of doubts. I would never deny that.

But here’s a spiritual and psychological truth—stories, by themselves, are infinitely more compelling than arguments. The human mind can hardly help saying, “Well yes, your arguments may be very neat, but when you experience real evil and suffering you see right through all that.” Or, as Shakespeare said, “There was never philosopher yet could endure the tooth-ache.”

That’s where stories come in. Where bad stories (by which I mean morally bad stories, though they are often technically good) tear down faith, good stories build it up. Just as a cynic’s story will set us down in a character’s shoes and take us along the road that leads him to apostasy, so a Christian’s story (if it’s well done) can walk the reader through “the valley of the shadow of death” to a deeper, stronger faith.

No logical argument will carry the force of a well-told story.

The only superior weapon on the Christian side in the theodicy debate is the personal testimony of someone who has actually walked that road in real life—your Corrie Ten Booms, your Joni Earickson Tadas.

My watchword, as always, is the Incarnation. The Word became Flesh. Not reason at the expense of feeling, or feeling at the expense of reason. Both at once.

That’s what good stories do.

10 thoughts on “The apologetic of story”

  1. Yes, I’ve been trying to think through what distinguishes good Christian fiction from poor attempts at the same. And I think you’ve hit on something: the good stuff is not only technically excellent—good use of words and images, good characterization–it’s dealing with the hard stuff in a way that leads to hope rather than to despair. As Ms. Ten Boom said, “There is no pit so deep that He is not deeper still.”

  2. Great post. I got another mouthful of this a couple weeks ago when I commented on a video embedded on a site that appears to enjoy poking fun a Christians. The video was a compelling story of a man who had suffered from cancer twice, seen his mother die maybe of cancer too, and had most of his Christian friends desert him. He believed the Internet saved him by good people networked together and using their influence to pressure the doctors to help him.

    I commented, thinking it was friendly territory, that his story was sad and why didn’t his Christian family or friends rally around him to encourage him to remember God’s faithfulness through horrible times. That became the target for many strong comments from people who had a good bit of pain and believed God didn’t care about them. There’s only so much you can say to that, and it doesn’t appear to matter that many other people have suffered greatly and seen the Lord’s promises come through for them.

  3. Yes, a few people were arguing that God had even deserted Jesus because of what he said on the cross, but you can’t take that cry of pain and make it Jesus’ summation of his whole relationship with the Father.

  4. I remember how Shasta’s journey across the desert (when the mountains never seemed to get any closer) was the image that my husband and I kept in our mind during a long (thankfully) and high-risk pregnancy. Thank you for this post: it articulates why that story was so important to us in that time.

  5. I agree about the temptation to abandon Christianity in order to be free of moral restrictions, particularly about sex. I think the problem is acute in those of us who are quite conflicted about the moral validity of Christian sexual proscriptions, as I was in youth, or about the moral validity of submission and obedience to one’s Creator — a difficult attitude for someone raised in a rationalist, liberationist tradition in which independence is everything. I never felt the urge to abandon Christianity, for instance, merely because it forbade lying or cruelty.

    As for suffering, I have almost the opposite experience: I found pain and fear impossible to deal with as long as I adhered to a materialist or mechanistic worldview. Even today, I can be more easily tempted to fall away when things are bright and sunny and I don’t feel I need any help. Let me begin to fear a cancer in myself or a loved one, and it comes right home to me how impossible it is to live in a world without meaning, where pain and death await us all. So I’ve always been extremely puzzled by people who believe in God until they can no longer ignore the pain, even though they always obviously knew that pain existed. The life of Christ could hardly leave any doubt about whether the most ardent and perfect Christian should expect a pain-free life.

  6. I had a similar experience. I was raised to be a rational atheist, with the philosophy that truth had to be sought in the world. Evil was explained as mistakes that people made, that they could be educated out of. But the older I got, the more evil I saw, until I couldn’t accept that, and had to switch to nihilism and the idea that the world simply was meaningless and thus evil.

    But reality occasionally showed me actual goodness, as well, and in a evil world there would be no goodness (hence the argument that everything is really done for selfish reasons, for example). And so I was troubled.

    And then I saw an X-files episode where a character, trying to defend himself against the charge that he was selfish, said, “I have love in my heart!” And the reply given him was, “you have love like a thief has money.” And I realized that the love I saw in the world must come from outside it, and this led me to Christ, who reconciles the contradiction of an obviously evil world that yet contains love.

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