Fiction v. Scripture?

“Words are powerful things and none can be more injurious than many to be found in fiction. For the reason stated in the second part of the book, I believe the Bible is not fiction.”

From Iain Murray’s latest book, The Undercover Revolution (p. viii), his argument that, based upon the undermining of British ethics by fictional lit in the 19th and 20th centuries, fictional literature poses a danger to the non-fiction genre of Scripture.

All words, even fictional words, are powerful, mind-shaping tools—either powerfully bad (The Shack) or powerfully good (C.S. Lewis). Murray tips his hat to good fiction on the first page, but I don’t think this is enough. Few literary genres provide more untapped potential for the spread of the gospel in the 21st century than fiction. May the Church run towards the genre of fictional literature and celebrate those who use fiction to communicate eternal truth.

6 thoughts on “Fiction v. Scripture?

  1. Amen (to your response, that is)! The last thing we should be doing to fiction is running from it or demonizing it. While I am sure that ficiton has played its role in undermining ethics, this only serves to prove that the ethics which were undermined were not based on a solid foundation (that is upon the Gospel). The literary world wants to have a conversation with us, they are writing thousands of pages per year, but we’re running. As Christians I believe we should inhabit their stories and relate to their characters in order to better soeak to the world about the archetypal narrative of the Gospel of Christ crucified for sinners, which is at one and the same time the greatest tragedy and greatest comedy ever written. And it is not fiction…

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more. As a voracious reader of fiction from age 4 on, I know that my worldview has been influenced from the stories I’ve read. Recently I’ve been reading more Stephen Lawhead, a truly excellent Christian writer, and my husband bought me Donita Paul’s first book, DragonSpell for Christmas. I’m amazed at how these well-crafted stories preach the gospel to my heart without falling victim to being a thinly disguised gospel tract. They exhibit great depth of understanding regarding the struggles of both the believer and the unbeliever.

    It also puzzles me that the church recognizes the power of story in oral cultures for missional purposes but doesn’t see that we too live in a culture that values stories, in fact, entertainment of any kind.

    May God rise up many great writers to reach the lost and to encourage the saints through the power of stories. Thanks for sharing these quotations.

  3. Tony –
    With all due respect – and for the rest of the world to know, Tony and I are good personal friends (you owe me a lunch, by the way!), your post title and brief paragraph do not accurately represent what this book is about. Here is the preface (see below). I encourage others to read this for themselves, but also the brief 103 pages of this thought-provoking paperback. John MacArthur read the book and wrote us, “Iain Murray has put his finger on the turning point that sent western culture down the path to immorality. It is a persuasive explanation that we need to hear.” I think it is obvious that Iain Murray is not speaking against fiction, but making some very valuable observations, based on history, that we would all do well to give attention to. Get the book! Read the book!
    It’s available at http://www.banneroftruth.org.
    (thanks for the plug)
    :-)
    ———————————-
    PREFACE
    THE UNDERCOVER REVOLUTION
    by Iain H. Murray
    Published by The Banner of Truth Trust

    Several years ago, when spending a few months in Sydney, I was without my own books but near to a good library. That led me to read biographies of several authors whom I had previously known chiefly by their published writings. The outcome of that reading is the present little book.

    My theme – the influence of fiction on society – is worthy of much more expansion than I have given to it here. I hope I have said enough to alert others to the importance of what is too commonly overlooked. It is not my belief that the writing of fiction is wrong in itself. John Milton and John Bunyan knew long ago that such writing can serve a moral purpose. Others have since used it to that effect, and there are currently books available to guide the reader to them, for instance, “Invitation to the Classics: A Guide to the Books You’ve Always Wanted to Read,” edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1998). This acknowledgement does not, however, weaken the warning which the following pages contain. Words are powerful things and none can be more injurious than many to be found in fiction.

    For the reason stated in the second part of the book, I believe the Bible is not fiction. It is given to us as a standard by which we are to judge all things, although, as we seek to do this, we Christians know that our own lives would be utterly condemned by God were it not for his grace freely given to us by Jesus Christ. My hope is that these pages may lead others to the Saviour of the world.”

    Iain H. Murray
    “The Undercover Revolution: How Fiction Changed Britain”
    c Iain H. Murray 2009

  4. Thanks, my friend. This is why I wrote, “Murray tips his hat to good fiction on the first page.” You posted the first page. My point is that if you want to talk about the power of fiction to communicate morality, then don’t stop with tipping the hat and writing a book criticizing fiction. Encourage fiction. How can the church use this culture transforming medium? This is where the book fell flat. Sorry, Steve. I love the new Pocket Puritans. But I don’t feel the same about this title. — Is it my turn to buy lunch. Gosh. Well let’s do it soon. Tony

  5. Hi Tony, I’m sorry that you are ‘sticking to your guns’ over your misunderstanding of the basic argument of Murray’s new book even after my good friend and colleague, Steve Burlew, posted a comment to see if you would revise what you had written a few days ago.

    May I now be so bold as to challenge you to prove from Murray’s own words your claim that his argument is as you allege: that ‘based upon the undermining of British ethics by fictional lit. in the 19th and 20th centuries, fictional literature poses a danger to the non-fiction genre of Scripture.’ My friend, I read your brief comments with interest, then took the book up and read it again, and have concluded with regret that you seem to have not only misread the book, but misrepresented the author in public, and unintentionally misled at least two other people (and who knows how many other readers of your very attractive blog).

    Let me explain my reasons for saying this.

    1. Murray has done more than ‘tip his hat’ to good fiction. (By the way, ‘tipping one’s hat’ in our culture is a sign of deference and respect, but Murray has done more than just ‘talk the talk’.) The Trust of which he has been a trustee for over 50 years has a fine deluxe edition of Bunyan’s masterful work of fiction, ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress’ and has also now for many years kept in print the 3 vol. edition of his ‘Complete Works’, which, if my memory serves me correctly, includes a whole volume devoted to such a genre. Moreover, in the Preface to his book Murray specifically mentions by name 2 authors who have used this medium well (John Milton and John Bunyan), and makes appreciative reference to others who have done the same down through the subsequent years. Far from appearing to be a reluctant confession on his part, Murray then proceeds to cite a valuable reference work for those who (presumably like him!) want a reliable guide to this fascinating genre of English literature, (Cowan and Guinness’ ‘Invitation to the Classics’). C’mon, Tony, give credit where credit is due – there’s no need to damn with faint praise!

    2. Now for the main thesis of the book. The book is, in fact, divided into 2 separate parts which are only loosely linked by the word ‘fiction’ (1. ‘What Fiction did to Britain’; 2. ‘Is Christianity Fiction?’). Nowhere does Murray claim a direct link between his thesis in Part 1 and his thesis in Part 2. (Why, even in the sentence you quoted from the Preface, Murray states that ‘For the reason stated in the second part of the book’ [N.B. ‘in the second part’ not ‘in the first part of the book’!] In other words, the two parts of his book are not dependent on each other. They deal with two different theses and develop very distinct arguments. Now, since we probably don’t have any difference of opinion about the way he handles his answer to the question under discussion in Part 2 (‘Is Christianity Fiction?’), I will confine my comments to Part 1 only.

    The key paragraph which opens up the theme of this first part of the book is found on pp. 6-7, and I have highlighted Murray’s thesis in caps –

    ‘A most potent attack on Christianity in modern times has been little recognized. Most of the writers to whom I shall refer used fiction to present something they believed to be better than the Christian life. Their presentations were to become the accepted wisdom of the succeeding generations and they have powerfully affected society down to the present day. Yet it can be shown that their motivation did not spring from the finding of something better; it came rather from a dislike of the evangelical truth which most of them knew in their childhood. I SHALL ARGUE THAT THEIR CLAIM TO HAVE ARRIVED AT A BETTER KNOWLEDGE, WHEN TESTED BY THE EVIDENCE OF THEIR LIVES (NOW FULLY DOCUMENTED BY MANY BIOGRAPHERS), WILL BE FOUND TO BE FRAUDULENT. THE TRUTH IS THAT IT IS UNBELIEF RATHER THAN CHRISTIANITY THAT DEPENDS UPON THE IRRATIONAL FOR ITS SURVIVAL.’

    This is Murray’s thesis, in his own words, and this is what he then proceeds to demonstrate from the lives of Robert Louis Stevenson and Thomas Hardy in the main; but also called to give evidence for Murray’s case are H. G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw, and Bertrand Russell.

    He concludes with 4 General Lessons. Tony, it is only fair to say that none of these lessons bears a resemblance to the thesis you claim Murray is seeking to advance.

    What are they?

    (i.) The change in outlook and morals came gradually and with a degree of deception.

    (ii.) It was not science or new the discovery of ‘truth’ but the hostility of the human heart that was the motivation behind the attack launched by these writers on the Christian faith and with the aim of overthrowing the morals of the English speaking world.

    (iii.) The claim that the way to personal happiness and fulfilment as advocated by these proponents of a ‘brave new world’ was contradicted in graphic terms by the unhappiness and misery that marred their own personal lives and relationships. Russell’s poem on p. 2 is a poignant self-confession of this very fact.

    ‘Through the long years
    I sought peace;
    I found ecstasy,
    I found anguish,
    I found madness,
    I found loneliness,
    I found the solitary pain
    That gnaws the heart,
    But peace I did not find.’ (Bertrand Russell, ‘Autobiography’)

    (iv.) Art not only reflects life it shapes it too. Words are powerful and have an influence for evil as well as good.

    Tony, I’m sorry for having taken up so much of your space with my too lengthy reply. I hope you will read the book again bearing my comments in mind, weigh up the author’s argument more carefully perhaps, and reassess the relevance of the general lessons every Christian can all learn from what was such a critical period in the history of the English-speaking peoples.

  6. Jonathan, thank you for your comment. I appreciate the time you invested in the discussion and want to make sure I am clear on two points before moving into the third.

    (1) Readers now may read the full preface to see how closely or loosely the two parts of the book are associated. So I will not try and defend what I have stated previously except to say that I personally understand the subtitle of the book to encompass both sections. Thus, for me there is an uneasy connection between the dangers of fiction and the nature of Scripture as non-fiction. I still think the two sentences I pulled make this uneasy connection apparent. Why even refer to scripture as “non-fiction” to begin with if this connection is not the intent? Why not refer to Scripture as “truth” and “bad fiction” simply as “error”? I will let others make this conclusion for themselves—I take this as an intended contrast.

    (2) On the sentence that the author “tips his hat to good fiction on the first page.” The context of this statement is obviously within the book itself, not the scope of Banner’s legacy. Where else in the book is “good” fiction mentioned? Was all of the fiction in Britain during this period only “bad” fiction? Once I moved past the preface (the hat tip to “good” fiction), fiction literature as a genre seemed to take a thrashing, only to set up a second section on how Scripture is not fiction.

    But while I don’t believe the distinction between part one (bad fiction in Britain) and part two (Scripture as non-fiction) was made clear, this was not my main concern with the book. My main concern is the absence of constructive lessons.

    The lesson I most appreciated about the book—that words are powerful things and that fiction literature is a powerful influence upon society—led to single-sided conclusions. I was waiting and expecting for the constructive application.

    After convincing the reader of the power of fictional words, then let us ask constructive questions. How can the Church use the powerful force of fiction to reinforce and encourage godly ethics today? How do we encourage young fiction authors today? How should they be trained and where? Is there a vision for how the Banner is identifying and encouraging new authors, praying for God to raise up the Bunyans of our own age?

    Yet the second part of the book reinforced that scripture is non-fiction (ie “true”).

    I greatly appreciate the material published by the Banner and am one of the most vocal supporters of the Banner in the blogosphere (tell me who in the world has taken more attractive photographs of Banner books? Anyone? [smile]). But this doesn’t mean everything the Banner prints is above challenge. And this book, in my opinion, is one book that needs to be challenged, both for its confusing message (or at least its confusing organization) and for its lack of constructive vision.

    Perhaps a later edition of the book will draw a clearer distinction between “falsehood” in fiction and the “truth” of Scripture, rather than speaking in terms of “fiction” and “non-fiction.” And I pray a later edition will provide the Church with a helpful vision for using fiction for God’s glory.

    Those changes would be appreciated.

    Together for the Gospel,

    Tony

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s