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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.