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Volume 14, Issue 1: Recipio

True Fiction

Bwn Merkle

When a man comes home from work in a foul mood and explodes at his wife, he finds himself faced with one of two options. He may either confess his sin and get things right, or he may let the sin sit and fester. When he chooses the latter, he will quickly begin retelling the story of his encounter over and over again to himself, trying to find some way to put himself in a favorable light. "I really am not to be blamed. She should have seen that I've had a hard day, and I just needed a break. But instead of welcoming me, she instantly began listing off all the jobs I needed to do around the house. It was sin on her part, and I needed to point that out. I was harsh because it was the only way to get her attention." He will continue retelling the story, trying to tell it in such a way that he turns out to be the hero, or at least the innocent victim. Tolkien's Gollum exemplifies this well, spending his whole life in one long conversation attempting to justify his sin. "It was my birthday present," he explains again and again, attempting to justify the strangling of Deagol, his friend who had first found the Ring. But one of the things that we learn from Gollum is that, no matter how many times we retell the story, the whole matter will always lie heavy on our conscience until it is confessed. Despite our urge to retell the story over and over again, we can never make it get us all the way off the hook.

The urge to retell the story points to an odd predicament. We have an instinctive conviction that if we could just make the story work, our consciences would leave us alone. If we could tell the story just right, we would be the hero and the guilt would be gone. But for some reason we can't ever really get our retelling of the story to work. The cranky husband's story never really satisfies him. Only the confession of sin will relieve his guilt. Gollum had retold the story of his murder to himself for hundreds of years, yet he remained touchy about the subject to the end of his days.
Our compulsion to retell the stories of our sins and our inability to get the stories to do what we want them to do evidences the great power of the narrative. We often think of fiction as an infinitely malleable category. We assume that the realm of the imagination is an utterly unrestrained, no-holds-barred affair. But if that is the case, why can't our stories justify us? Why can't the husband declare himself the hero and his wife the villain? If we are the authors of our own stories why can't we make them say and mean whatever we want? The answer is that our assumption that the category of fiction is removed from reality is a foolish assumption.
It certainly is odd that we think of fiction to be amoral, value neutral, and capable of being bent to justify any atrocity, when we see Scripture use fiction as one of the most powerful expressions of God's law. When Nathan confronts King David regarding his sin with Bathsheba, he uses a story. Nathan's story, rather than being morally ambiguous and capable of any interpretation, is quite pointed and leaves David with no wiggle room. What is odd is that there is no argument other than the story itself. Nathan doesn't work from premise to premise, he merely tells the story of David's sin. The story itself is an argument. God's law is wrapped up in narrative. Could David have listened to the story and then declared that the rich man who stole his neighbor's ewe lamb was justified? He wasn't able to because God's law shines in fiction even when the reality is clouded in our own heads.
Jesus is the real master of story telling. He uses parables repeatedly to convict the Pharisees of their sin. In Luke 18:9_14 Jesus tells the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector who went into the temple to pray. The Pharisee thanks God for what a wonderful man he is, while the tax collector begs God for mercy. Jesus declares that the tax collector left justified. Is it possible to disagree with Christ's conclusion? Christ appeals to a self-evident principle that the proud will be brought low and the humble will be lifted up. Jesus uses a presuppositional argument, but one that couldn't be gotten to apart from telling a story. Ask someone who is pointing to his own righteousness as grounds for his salvation to explain this passage. The response is always a blank stare. Fiction declares the law of God to sinful minds with a clarity like nothing else.
Many Christians assume that somehow God is at a loss in the category of fiction, that fiction is an escape from His authority. We might trust in God's sovereignty, that He predestines all that comes to pass. We might believe in postmillennialism, that He will rule this earth. We might even believe in paedo-baptism, that He is the Lord of our children. But after all that, why do we suddenly believe that God had met His match when He saw the first short story? We act as if this was a category that He would have no say in. He is Lord of all; and when man, His creation, tells a story (even a sinful, fallen man), that man can't escape the law of God written on his heart.
Every story teaches a moral code. This is why sin loves to try to tell stories. It hopes that it can teach a moral code that will excuse it, relieve its guilt. But sin is drawn to story telling the way moths are drawn to the fire. In stories we meet the consuming righteousness of God. We come to stories thinking that we will wield them to justify ourselves. But every story depends on and points to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And when a story attempts to justify sin, that story will fail as a story, because God can't deny Himself.

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