Embracing Jesus-Fiction: Why Fiction Fuels Faith in a Skeptical Age

Road to Cana

I’m reading/listening to Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana (not finished yet) and am quite moved by it.

I usually chafe at Jesus movies and Bible fiction. I am deeply conditioned by my obsessive Protestant caution keeping watch for deviations from the canonical teaching.

This isn’t unique to Christians of course, when almost any beloved book (Hunger Games, Potter, LOTR) is turned into a movie the faithful subject everything in the film to enormous scrutiny. “Jealousy” is not “envy” and it has its place. We want to protect the good that we love.

Anne Rice noted in the CT interview when she publicly left the Roman Catholic church that she was very aware of the pitfalls of fictionalizing canonical material. It would probably be a morass that no one could navigate. Part of me hopes she doesn’t bother trying, another part of me does.

Jesus Fiction

I’m only tiniest bit familiar with the ancient literature that was not accepted as canonical but I can understand why such literature would arise. When there is something we love we want more of it. When there is something we care about we want to promote it usually within our own vision of what we found beautiful in it.

When a movie maker needs to turn a book into a movie there are many gaps that need filling in and the creator of this work needs to do so based upon hopefully some informed imagination, but imagination nevertheless. This means that the work is a product of their imagination, even more than “normal” life which is also, in some ways, products of our imagination at times.

So Anne Rice set about the task of writing a compelling non-canonical story about Jesus. I would not have picked up the book apart from a comment made by Skye Jethani in the Phil Vischer podcast.  I’m very glad I did.

Right away I was surprised, and initially horrified that Anne Rice decided to tell the story in the first person. Of all things that both mystify and attract us about Jesus it is the question of what the interior life of the God/Man might be. Could anyone dare to try to portray such a thing and do so in a way that didn’t seem to betray one side of the other?

Other have also noted that portraying evil characters is almost always easier than good ones. This comment is often made of Aslan in the Narnia chronicles, but Aslan is of course a sort of allegorical figure. To try to enter and portray Jesus’ mind? Outrageously ambitious! But so far in my reading of the book I’ve found her treatment attractive and compelling. I’m VERY impressed.

Remaking Jesus in Our Image

All Jesus fiction, however, will remake Jesus in our own image. Ancient apocryphal Jesus fiction often created a docetic miracle man, because that was where their cultural imagination lead. Our culture leads us to the introspective, tortured, man-in-search-of-himself narrative. Tim Keller often points out that Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings movies was the tortured-man-in-search-of-himself figure who is not at all how Aragorn is in the books. This is Peter Jackson’s bias, not Tolkien’s. Tolkien’s hero was not constantly insecure, pre-occupied by self. Aragorn left middle school all by himself. He didn’t need to take us all with him.

Cultural differences are always helpful in exposing our own biases.

Given that necessary bias that even the best intentioned and most artful portrayal can accomplish, is it helpful to even attempt the project? Don’t we simply run the danger of creating an idol and thereby damaging the canonical witness?

We should also be fair to note that preachers like me who try to treat the canon “scientifically” or with a “historical-critical” approach really don’t escape the trap either. All our interpretations and re-articulations of the canonical material all bear our own biases. You could argue as does the canon is full of its own human biases as well. Organic inspiration asserts that the authors brought their own cultures and personalities to the text. There is no human expression free of its own culture. It would be like trying to imagine words without language.

Yet I think it is a fair question to ask Jesus fiction.

Belief Requires Plausibility

It dawned on me this morning as I was in tears hearing the story of Jesus trying to save Avigail (I was SO THANKFUL it wasn’t poor Mary Magdalene who is perpetually cast as Jesus’ love interest…) that this fictional story is helping me to believe.

As a Roman Catholic Rice was navigating some thorny material that separates Protestant from Catholic (and Orthodox) including the brothers and sisters of Jesus and the perpetual virginity of Mary. James (the Just) is Jesus’ older brother, son of Joseph but not Mary. Rice doesn’t go into details here, but the subtly is important. She isn’t on a soap box trying to mediate our church feuds, she’s just telling a story. It’s fiction. She knows it. I know it. We’re telling a story about someone we both love. As the author she’ll have her say. As a reader I get to do my own evaluation. It’s all good.

She’s got to manage the miracle side of Jesus, which without letting out spoilers I think she does wonderfully well. She also manages Jesus’ sinlessness and humanity in a compelling and believable way. Not forced, like so many other clumsy attempts that I think usually fail due to docetism. Again, wonderful art.

As I listened my analytical, Protestant watch dogs kept reminding me “don’t forget it’s fiction. Avigail and the rest are products of her imagination, they aren’t historical and no one is claiming they are…” and then I had to ask myself “why all the defensiveness? Why the insistent fearful interior watchdogging? What are you afraid of?”

Lack of Evidence or Proof

My philosophical side likes to listen to the atheist and theist philosophers contend with each other. One of the points that gets thrown back and forth is the justification of belief.

In Tim Keller’s recent book on Pain and Suffering the question of God and evil rests on whether God might have reasons we don’t understand. This is an important point when it comes to evil and difficult things that come our way. We quickly jump to the conclusions that there CAN BE no good reason for God to allow this or that or all of it.

It is a bit ironic, however, that a culture that celebrates skepticism on all sorts of things is blindly biased about our own limits of knowledge. Keller follows Charles Taylor in noting that the Christian liability in the problem of evil seems itself to be a rather modern experience. When there was commonly less enthusiasm about our own assurance of our own ability to know the world our doubts about God’s ability and disposition to protect us were also less. Like an adolescent, the smarter we imagine ourselves to be the more stupid, negligent, and intolerable we imagine our Heavenly Father to be. In all our skepticism we don’t doubt ourselves. We are full of ourselves and lack wisdom.

What Jesus Fiction Gives

It is into this space that Jesus fiction I think finds an important place. It is not possible for us to know THE reason that God might have to allow this or that, or even frankly to understand how all of this works. My little dog has zero understanding of what our family does to keep it warm, safe, healthy and happy. It just lives naively, selfishly in my home oblivious to our love, concern and commitment to this 12 pound creature’s welfare.

Similarly even as my children grow into adolescence and adulthood there are many things about their parents that deeply impact their lives that they will probably not be able to understand for decades to come. It will be when they have marriages of their own, children of their own, loss of their own that they will grow in greater understanding of what we, their parents whom they know so well, do for them and regrettable at times against them.

In all of this is it easy to know that there are many things which if there is a God that loves us, that is committed to us, and that runs history as Jesus says he does, which we cannot know of understand. Knowing this, however, isn’t necessarily in itself great emotional comfort. Not knowing a story isn’t easy for human beings who are eager for power and control of which knowledge is a necessary tool. We love to remind each other that knowledge is power. We want to know but when our feeble imaginations cannot provide us with a plausible story we wilt.

I’m finding that The Road to Cana gives me a plausible story. It doesn’t need to be a true story of Jesus, but it needs to be a compelling and plausible story to help my doubt and unbelief. God doesn’t need to tell me why he does what he does and it is the best just like it was for Job.

Keller follows Francis Anderson into the question of why the LORD doesn’t explain the back-story to Job, the back-story that the reader knows.

It is one of the many excellences of the book that Job is brought to contentment without ever knowing all the facts of his case. . . . [T] he test would work only if Job did not know what it was for. God thrusts Job into an experience of dereliction to make it possible for Job to enter into a life of naked faith , to learn to love God for himself alone. God does not seem to give this privilege to many people, for they pay a terrible price of suffering for their discoveries. But part of the discovery is to see the suffering itself as one of God’s most precious gifts. To withhold the full story from Job, even after the test was over, keeps him walking by faith, not by sight. He does not say in the end, “Now I see it all.” He never sees it all. He sees God (Job 42: 5). Perhaps it is better if God never tells any of us the whole of our life-story.

Keller, Timothy (2013-10-01). Walking with God through Pain and Suffering (p. 283). Penguin Group US. Kindle Edition.

Job needs to trust, but sometimes trusting even in a story that we know is imaginative, but provides the emotions with even just a plausible, compelling image is enough to satisfy the heart. We often cannot know the truth, but sometimes fiction can create for us a space in which the heart can rest by resisting our cynical untrusting, doubting heart.

To this the fiction can boldly step forward say cast doubt upon the doubter’s false certainty.

Fiction can say to the fearful-ironically-overly-certain doubter “You say you cannot know this and that, then own what you cannot know. Let me show you that there is a story, a good story, that although you may not know it in the ways you think you know the past through history and the contemporary paths of ‘certainty’ that you value, that there is a story that speaks grace and love to you. Let your heart rest in this good story while you embrace the philosophical void that your rules tells you you must embrace.”

Fiction whispers to our hearts that our fears may not be true. Fiction whispers that good dreams can come true. Fiction fuels faith.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
This entry was posted in book review, Culture commentary, Devotional Reflection, How to become a Christian, theological, Wisdom and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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