Why Do You Write Fiction? Part I: The Sola Scriptura Objection, or, Isn’t the Bible all we need?

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From time to time I am asked about why I write stories and novels when there is “no spiritual value in it.” I disagree with the idea that there is no spiritual value in literature, both in and of itself, and as a furrowing force for the later harvest of truth. Here I want to focus on the latter. May I present some guy you’ve probably never heard of, Dr. Martin Luther:

“I am persuaded that without knowledge of literature pure theology cannot at all endure, just as heretofore, when letters [literature] have declined and lain prostrate, theology too, has wretchedly fallen and lain prostrate; nay, I see that there has never been a great revelation of the Word of God unless he has first prepared the way by the rise and prosperity of languages and letters, as though they were John the Baptists. . . . Certainly it is my desire that there shall be as many poets and rhetoricians as possible, because I see that by these studies, as by no other means, people are wonderfully fitted for the grasping of sacred truth and for handling it skillfully and happily.”

Martin Luther, Letter to Eoban Hess, 29 March 1523. Werke, Weimar edition, Luthers Briefwechsel, III, 50.
HT: Justin Taylor

So bouncing off of Luther’s quotation, and in an effort to directly answer the charge that love of literature is an attack on the sufficiency of Scripture, I write.

Scripture is sufficient. Preaching is needed for people to hear. If someone is deaf, they cannot hear. Since the Bible is in words, we need to develop ears to hear by understanding the use of language, words, and meaning. Reading good literature cannot help but aid this.

The Bible is not one long letter written in outline form with footnotes. It is made up of multiple genres and replete with figurative language and creative literary expressions. Reading widely has many benefits, and helping us to understand the Word of God on a few different levels is only part of those benefits. The fostering of wholesome imagination alone is a deeply beneficial spiritual blessing. Bathed in test-tube modernity we chart and graph truth until it is a mere set of facts with no power, no beauty, no glory. The truth is that we are saved by a story–by news. It is an unbelievable story from the hand of the sovereign Author of life.

Am I saying the Word of God is not important? No. It is infinitely important. It is the Book of books, God-breathed, inerrant. But it is a book. Books are read. By people who can read. And reading to understand usually requires extensive and wide reading.

Am I saying the illuminating work of the Spirit isn’t necessary? No. The Holy Spirit illuminates his Word, but he uses our faculties as he does in so many other of his actions. Can he overcome our ignorance of poetry and allow us to understand and teach well the Psalms? Sure. But I don’t think willful ignorance of helpful resources is his prescribed method. Can God heal? Yes. Does he usually heal every ailment directly by miracles? No. He usually calls doctors and others to serve, and they learned how to do this by engagement.

We must engage with words–stories, literature, poetry, figurative language, etc.–if we are to properly understand, appreciate, and help others to love God’s Word.

Is there a danger in our post-modern culture of over-emphasizing the value of stories? I think so. Particularly if we are so obsessed with ourselves as the point of view characters that we lose sight of the Authorship (and Authority) of God. If we inflate the importance of our own finite perspective and correspondingly diminish the authority of the Word of God (which, sadly, is a very fashionable fad right now) then we are on the wrong street going the wrong way.

But let us not be guilty of the very problem this post-modern fad has succumbed to and that is the problem of overcorrection. Stories do matter. They matter deeply. And we benefit greatly from expressing stories to one another, both wholly invented and parabolic. Let us do both. Let us love the Word. Let us also, for the glory of God and the Gospel of Christ, love words.

The Bible is in words. When we love literature (different genres, as in Scripture: poetry, songs, wise sayings, letters, narrative, etc.) we become better equipped to hear.

It is discouraging to hear “biblical” teaching from a man who has read so little and understands language so poorly that he falls into trap after trap of understanding which just a little reading would aid. Is it essential to be widely read? No. God in his mercy can superintend. But if you are handling words (the Word of God especially –and we are all called to this) then it is wise to have a more than surface understanding of how that works.

In my view Christians ought to love books, love words, and love expression. This is how truth is conveyed. Art enables this.

In other words, as with justification by grace through faith, I agree with Luther. Thankfully for him, Luther isn’t down here to be frightened by my agreement.

That’s my two cents worth. Anyone have some insight to add? I would love to hear what you think.


43 Comments

  1. Chad

    Wow, never really thought about reading like that. Very good perspective on it, and it makes a lot of sense. I’ve talked to a lot of people who have “read” the Bible, but say they just don’t understand it, and I can see where you are coming from. True, I do believe the Holy Spirit can enlighten them to what the Word says, but we need to give an effort to understand. And a very helpful effort is simply reading more. And not things like the Christian “self-help” books that are so prevalent, but all forms of literature. From the classic Christian books like Mere Christianity and Orthodoxy, to even things like The Lord Of The Rings or 1984. Whatever it is, it helps build on understanding, and sparking that creative part in our brain (and everyone has it) to help imagine what we’re reading, to give it life. Again, very good article. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with the rest.

  2. Today at the Rabbit Room: Why Do I Write Fiction? | S.D. Smith

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  3. Don Smith

    “Am I saying the Word of God is not important? No. It is infinitely important. It is the Book of books, God-breathed, inerrant. But it is a book. Books are read. By people who can read. And reading to understand usually requires extensive and wide reading.”

    That is simple enough for even me to grasp. Thanks for saying clearly what many of us have thought. Excellent post.

  4. Chris from PA

    I do find it rather fascinating that the more I read, even blogs, the more I become enamored with the stories in the Bible and constantly find myself wanting to get back to the “Good old Book.” It’s stories are timeless. And for some reason…they don’t whither and fade away like ours.
    Thanks…well said.

  5. Eric Peters

    @ericpeters

    S.D. (if those are your real initials):
    I appreciate your brain (as do your fingers and toes, I’m certain). Intelligent, funny, witty, appropriate, artful; all words that come to mind when reading your posts. Love it.

    Unfortunately for us, Luther isn’t down here to partake of various cold beverages after a toilsome work day.

  6. Loren Eaton

    If I may put my oar in, the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture means that the Bible contains everything we need for life and godliness. Ergo, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t anything else useful but the Bible.

  7. P

    I think it was Spurgeon who said something along the lines of: He who is not well read is not worth reading.

  8. Amy Sturgeon

    Very well-written! I totally agree, and not just because I’m a bibliophile. Sometimes a story retelling THE BASIC STORY of creation, of the fall, of good vs. evil, of life as a journey or quest full of purpose, can resonate with the reader in a way that only enhances the truth of scripture. The best in literature (or any art, for that matter) only points the way to God, making one hunger for the Word.

  9. Robert Treskillard

    Very cogent thoughts, Sam, I couldn’t agree more.

    We need to be people of books and of the Book. The desire to read is foundational to understanding Scripture. The desire to create books that communicate truth is foundational to God, and we walk in his shadow when we do the same.

    -Robert

  10. Kathy Krueger

    Excellent article. I hate it when I hear someone say ‘I only read the Bible’ as if somehow God doesn’t speak through other written means. As already said, he is Creator God and he still does a lot of ‘creating’ through his people in many different mediums.

  11. Dick Kendrick

    Well said. As one who is struggling to become a “Christian Writer” it was very helpful and encouraging. I find that people are much more open to discussing a work of fiction then they are the Bible. Fiction can be a great jumping off place for starting down the road to salvation with a non-believer.

  12. becky

    Very good post, S.D., and I wholeheartedly agree. Jesus did not speak entirely in scripture quotes. He used parables–fictional stories–to convey the truth in a way that sparked the imagination of the listener and showed how the truth applies to individual lives. We would do well, in this as in every aspect of life, to follow his example.

  13. Ruben

    I really don’t get the idea of the Bible being sufficcient so literature is not necessary, it is as if one is saying the Bible is sufficient so eating is not necessary. We are human beings and we desire stories, songs and poetry to nurture hope and love in our hearts. The Bible shows us Christ who is God’s revelation of Himself, this is a foundation we have so that we can enjoy and write our own stories.

  14. Janet

    I haven’t done the research, but I’ve heard that when Jesus told stories, he used more examples from the world around him (nature and people) then he did from the Old Testament. So stories, fiction or non-fiction, along with being entertaining, can teach us.

  15. Mark Cook

    On a side note, I think it’s absolutely fascinating to study the story of the transmission of the Bible and how it has been translated and passed along through the centuries. It is replete with incredible stories of danger, intrigue, etc. and gives a whole new appreciation for the legacy of faith that it took to get the Living Logos to us moderns.

  16. Benjamin Wolaver

    Great post. On a side note, I think reading (and understanding) of the Bible has suffered from a lack of creative translations. If you were to compare all of the Protestant translations of the Bible, you would find that nine times out of ten they are almost exactly the same and mostly uncreative stylistically.

    All you have to do to see this is compare the variety of translations for a book like War and Peace (which vary greatly and have distinctive styles, etc…) and the ESV, NIV, and RSV. Thus far, the (Old) Jerusalem Bible is the only one I know of to actually diversify and remain true to the text.

    Maybe more people would read the Bible if we had better translators and better prose stylists (just read Tolkien’s translation of Job in the Jerusalem for a good example).

  17. Eric (not EP)

    Can somebody please pass Aaron Roughton the neosporin for the scrapes on his knuckles.

  18. Brendt Waters

    My first reaction when I read this was that it was terrifying that you’d HAVE to write this. Then I had a flashback to my childhood when it was made clear that if you loved God, you became a pastor, a missionary, maybe a Christian school teacher, or the wife of any of the above. There was room made for the “Christian businessman”, but it was clear that he was a second-class citizen at best. I guess fiction authors are, too.

    Thank God (literally) that I learned that that was all a big pile.

  19. whipple

    “…a furrowing force for the later harvest…”

    Grazi, signore. I can’t count the times that I have felt the need to reintroduce myself to the wonder of the one True Myth through someone else’s work (i.e., Rich Mullins’, the Proprietor’s, C.S. Lewis’, etc.). My sense of wonderment is given to atrophy, and to see that I have trusted brothers who are passionately caught up like Elijah in a whirlwind gives me a reason to remember majesty and mystery and to release my death-grip on cynicism.

    Let’s face it, Numbers doesn’t have the dramatic draw that Genesis and 1 Samuel carry. But when my curiosity is aroused by seeing how the Silmarillion informs the War of the Ring, then I am more willing to give myself to the unlocking of Numbers and all that God has to teach me through it.

  20. Pete Peterson

    I meet people all the time that claim things like, “I don’t read fiction because it’s not true.”

    This is the source of a great deal of tooth-gnashing on my part. The fact that an article like this actually needs to be written deeply disturbs me. Thanks for doing a great job of it, Sam.

  21. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Sam,

    As a Christian in a band playing mostly secular music I have sometimes heard the same wonderful idea: “If you were really sold out to Christ you’d play only Christian music.” Which, as Brendt said, is a great big pile (I would add, “of crap”). Secular songs are often, in fact usually, little slices of lyric story that tell us it’s okay to be human.

    I find it interesting that many overemphasize the deity of Jesus and downplay His humanity; we think we’re exalting Him by shoving His humanity into a lesser status. But His humanity is a large part of His glory; it is His kinship with us which has allowed for the transmission of His deity into us. Likewise, we think we are exalting God’s Word by downgrading story, but God is the creator of story. He likes stories; He has spent thousands of years authoring billions of living stories. Reading and writing stories is one of the ways we are like Him.

    Thanks for a great post, Sam

  22. Cara

    Being well-read and willing to read diverse material seems to me not only important in reading the Bible, but important in relating to the world. If we, as Christians, hide away within the Bible (feast that it is) we will gain little respect from people who have not yet grasped the power of the word of God.

    On another note, this seems a relevant quote from C.S. Lewis that makes me feel like a conspirator every time I write a piece of fiction:

    “Any amount of theology can now be smuggled into people’s minds under the cover of fiction without their knowing it.”

  23. Tony Heringer

    As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’ – Acts 17:28

    I’ve always loved Pau’s appeal to the Greeks from their own literature. He develops this idea further in 1 Corinthians 9:22-23 “To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.”

    Those who would dismiss the rest of culture on the basis of reading only Scripture are not taking in the whole counsel of the Word they claim to love nor following the example set by One they claim to follow. Jesus was a great story teller.

    Pete,

    The next time you hear “I don’t read fiction because it’s not true.” Quote Pilate “What is truth?” Of course I’m assuming they read. Which brings me to…

    Aaron,

    You perfect for manly man Twitter. It called Grunt. Only 14 characters. Me think that too many but Ron want to use it. He talk much. Use of emoticons result in virus that will change all ringtones to Barney theme. You try…grunt.org

  24. sd smith

    Wow, so many great comments I don’t know what to say. Thanks a zillion (note use of deliberately exaggeratory language). I guess I’m not the only one who has come up against this kind of thinking.

    Since that is the case, maybe we should all be aware that we ought to be clear that we have no less respect for the Word of God than our concerned brothers and sisters, but that we love it all the more and agree with our perplexed brothers and sisters that it is sufficient, true, inerrant, powerful, beautiful, etc.

    We should bear with them, and (not in condescension) try to help them understand, and be willing to hear the areas where they have it right and we have it wrong. And if you are like me, you have much opportunity to listen to those very people who are thus concerned.

    One area I think people who are artistic, or who appreciate art, are severely tempted in is arrogance. That won’t get us anywhere helpful. Maybe if we really listen well to their concerns, they will be able to hear us when we speak. Man, I feel pompous even saying this. I’ve got problems.

    Aaron. You are an idiot. I love that.

    Thanks for all the great comments, fellow Rabbitheads (or whatever the cool swag of the future says we are). I am benefiting from hearing them.

  25. Bret

    I, too, have had that Luther quote simmering in my mind since I ran across it on Justin Taylor’s (excellent) blog. Thanks for your excellent post furthering the discussion… Great stuff.

  26. Ruben

    Mark Cook called the Scriptures “the living Logos” in a comment above, I hope people don’t get this the wrong way, but isn’t this title exclusive to Christ? I just could not let this one go, the Scriptures are inspired and preserved for us, but don’t we elevate it to levels it was not meant to be when we call it thus?

  27. Benjamin Wolaver

    Ruben,

    I agree with your point. Scripture is special because it is the only true revelation of Jesus, but biblically Jesus alone is Logos. Lewis liked to say the Scripture was “taken up” so to speak by the divine presence, not actually divine in every grammatical/stylistic sense. Otherwise, of course, translation itself would be an abomination since, as Umberto Eco points out, there is no such thing as a true parallel between the words of different languages.

  28. Marit

    Ruben, Benjamin

    In Hebrews 4.12 it says that the Word of God is living. And Steven talks about that Moses received living words in the desert (Acts 7.38). I love the beginning of the gospel of John where Jesus is called both the Word and God.

    In some sense I believe this can mean that the Bible is Jesus. Jesus is our image of God, and the bible is where we can get to know God. It is like when Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches, or that we are different parts of his body. It is spiritually true, but not physically true.

    If there is verses or points I have overlooked, please correct me.

    I looked up the verses in my Norwegian bible, so the wording might be different in English.

  29. Tony Heringer

    Marit,

    It could be that we are missing each other’s meaning if we are going from Norwegian to English. Here’s my two cents and thanks for seeking clarification. This is the sort of dialogue that makes this place special.

    The Bible is a significant book (or 66 books) because in the original transmission it was “God breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) or inspired by God. The Bible gives us revelation about God (who He is) and His truth and wisdom for all of life.

    To say any book, even the Bible, is Jesus is like saying a biography of Andrew Peterson is Andrew Peterson. The Bible does tell us about Jesus. The Spirit uses these words of God in our lives to transform us from the inside-out. I believe that is the “living and active” part that Hebrews 4:12 talks about.

    As for the use of Word or Logos in John 1, commentator Ralph Earle had this to say on that name for Jesus (from NIV Study Bible):

    “The Greeks used this term not only of the spoken word but also of the unspoken word, the word still in the mind—the reason. When they applied it to the universe , they meant the rational principle that governs all things. The Jews, on the other hand used it as a way of referring to God. Thus John used the term meaningful to both Greeks and Jews.”

    I had not thought much about the Jewish use before, I’d only considered this from the Greek side. I don’t know in what context the Jews referred to God this way in the Old Testament. Anyone know? My guess is its related to the Law. The Hebrew name for Deuteronomy literally means “words”. Is that Earle’s point?

    On a side note, Michael Card has a great song about that book. I’ll close with that great tune:

    Chorus:
    The word is so near
    To your heart and your tongue
    With the one you confess and acknowledge the Son
    With the other believe and are justified
    And find life in knowing it was for you he died

    No its not up in heaven
    Where your thoughts could not reach
    Nor beyond the ocean
    On some distant beach
    No, the word is so near
    In the innermost part
    It’s alive on your lips
    It abides in your heart

    Chorus

  30. Will Goad

    I found this recently…great story, even 6 years later. God At Work by Gene Veith touches on how this message plays out in all of our vocations.

    Likely, no one will read this 1/2 decade late response, but if you do…Veith is great.

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