From the same pen which birthed the ever-important fictional town of Gilead, Iowa, came a collection of delightful essays entitled, “When I Was a Child I Read Books.” In one of these essays, novelist Marilynne Robinson writes regarding the concept of “imaginative love” in which she describes the capacity for humans to feel genuine affection for those who are not really there. Using fictional characters, or real authors of the past as test-subjects, she stated, “I love the writers of my thousand books. It pleases me to think how astonished old Homer, whoever he was, would be to find his epics on the shelf of such an unimaginable being as myself, in the middle of an unrumored continent.” She concludes, “All together they are my community.”
The Teacher Who Is Not There
Those who have spent much time in the presence of well-crafted fictional characters need not be swayed by Robinson’s logic. For, the evidence of such a possibility resides in their deep inward adoration for their favorite characters. Those of us who find fiction as a well of joy are more than equipped to recite the real lessons we have learned at the feet of the fake. One of Dickens’s orphaned boys—Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, or Pip—may have taught us to adore the mundane; one of Rowling’s students, Longbottom perhaps, may have taught us the worthiness of bravery. These characters’ lives, in their entirety, find their full existence inside a few pages, but their instruction lives large within us.
Fiction has the power to instruct all those who would dare dive into the world of the imaginative. She’s equipped to act as the schoolmaster on an endless assortment of topics; she knows lessons of love and heartbreak, hope and despair, fortune and loss, friendship and traitors, work and leisure, and the list could almost ever-flow. Fiction’s wisdom is as vast as her contributors and is increasing with each new page published. When one surveys the list of potential lessons taught from fictional literature, they may not suspect theological realities to be present, yet the theologian has much to learn from novels.
A Real Lesson From the Fake
The roads of fiction and theology cross at a number of intersections. However, the jurisdiction of this essay will be confined to a brief examination about the lesson fiction literature might teach us regarding the task of theological interpretation of Scripture. Even with this delineation, the points of contact between novels and theological interpretation proliferate. For who would doubt that well-crafted fiction has a lesson for theologians and theological interpretation when it comes to articulating plot development, or pursuing a robust understanding of character, or developing empathy with those caught in the drama, or visualizing interlocutors and antagonists. Yes, in this very incomplete list of reasons, the theologian has ample justification to crack open their next Jane Austen novel.
However, there is a benefit which exists at a more basic level about which the novelists or fiction reader can instruct the theologian. Namely, the novelist can instruct the theological reader about the inherit relationship between the ontology and functionality of a piece of literature.
We would all think a reader crazy who picked up Alexander Dumas’s classic, The Count of Monte Cristo, and proceeded to read the gathered chapters as an anthology of loosely, but not explicitly, related content. This reading method would be unthinkable and would undermine any hermeneutical effort or impact. No one cracks a novel and reads chapter two assuming that it has nothing or little to do with chapter nine. Nor do readers set out to read a great work of fiction with the assumption that it matters not where they begin working through the drama.
These acts strike us as silly since anyone who picks up a novel has a deep underlining conviction about what a novel is and even when they are not seeking to apply their convictions regarding the literary piece’s ontology, they do so, nevertheless. When a reader reaches for a novel, they do so with the intuition and assumption that what they hold is a unified story and this internal belief shapes how they proceed to work through the words therein. Their understanding of the book’s ontology will not allow them to interpret chapter two as having nothing to do with chapter fourteen. Yes, readers of Edmond Dantes’s tale know that the wisdom of Abbé Faria—discovered towards the beginning of the novel—will pay dividends in the plot against Gérard de Villefort throughout the rest of the masterpiece. Moreover, they need not be schooled in an academic form of literary method to have this correct intuition. The fiction reader’s intuitive hermeneutical method is rooted simply in what they know a novel to be—a story, unified by author and theme, which is taking them to somewhere, to something, or to someone.
This is a real lesson which theological readers can learn at the feet of the fake. A piece of literature’s ontology will always impact how we are to handle the content of that piece. Or, as the late theologian John Webster stated, “bibliology is prior to hermeneutics.” Practitioners of theological interpretation put the proverbial cart before the horse when they set out to outline methods of handling and applying the Biblical data before coming to terms with what the Bible is in the first place. We must know what the Bible is before we can properly ask what we ought to do with it.
When readers rearrange their theological and hermeneutical method to put ontology before function, they learn, says Scott Swain, that “the Bible is an extraordinary book” and therefore “the reading of the Bible is an extraordinary enterprise.” The Bible’s extraordinariness comes from the reality that with it and in it, the triune God of the universe—who tells the stars where to hang and the oceans where to stop—has revealed himself in order that wicked creatures might find themselves reconciled in and to himself.
While the contents of this divine self-disclosure were constructed by diverse hands—authors spanning multiple centuries, continents, and cultures—it nevertheless has a unified divine author who threads a yarn of consistency through all its content. This divine author, and his telos for the Scriptures, assures readers that they can have the same intuition intact when they approach the pages of Scripture as they do when they discover the drama of a great novel. Theological interpretation, which approaches the biblical data with theology and presuppositions in hand, is done best when the ontology of the Bible dictates the function of the interpreter. The divine authorship actually bears hermeneutical responsibility that would bar interpreters from treating the Scriptures as an anthology of loosely related material.
So, as we sit at the fictitious school of the imaginative, may we learn a real lesson. A lesson which declares that literary ontology must precede literary function and that the proper interpretation of speech will always have the speaker in mind. For our purposes, that speaker happens to be the a se, simple, immutable, impassible God of the cosmos. May each new great novel we read remind us that the literary intuition of the interpretative community may serve her well or for harm, but it will indeed show up in how she treats the text.
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.