“If it’s not real, I don’t waste my time reading it.”
On occasion I have heard this from a senior citizen. But from an 8 year old? My first response was sadness at the wonderful worlds that this child will never visit, and the fantastic places that will remain unknown as so many stories—”timewasters”—don’t make the cut.
Previously, I debunked the idea that stories threaten certainty by showing how such certainty (and the security that accompanies it) are pathological desires for an absolute or ultimate perspective that only God can have.
But what about the related idea that reality is more important than what is imaginary, particularly for Christians?
Interestingly, this view comes from the 8 year old’s church-going parents. And for Christians—people whose beliefs are deeply informed by a book replete with stories—such a view amounts to believing that biblical narratives are truly (and only) historical. Historical writing, or historiography, is good; fictional writing is not.
But does this view mesh with the Bible itself?
In a word, No. The form and content of the Gospels resists such a view. For when read in this light, they are eminently contradictory. Matthew portrays that this happened before that; Mark portrays the opposite. Luke indicates that Jesus was X days between his arrest and resurrection; John indicates Y days. The list goes on.
On the “historical reality” view one of the Gospels may be true, but not the others. Or maybe we need to weave them all together somehow. Or . . . On such a view the gospel writers are at very least confused (and not worth our attention), if not liars.
No, weighing the gospel (or biblical) narratives according to such a view is misrepresentative because this view itself is false. Two points demonstrate this.
First, the gospels are ancient documents written according to first century conventions and standards of historiography, not according to our own. For example, the gospels are clearly not concerned to present historical reality as “what really happened,” because the same events in Jesus’ life could not possibly have happened in two different ways.
Instead, the Gospels are fictionalized history: texts based on actual, historical events yet artistically composed with a goal of cultivating belief in Jesus as the son of God. Expressed differently, it does not so much matter that Jesus healed this person in this way after having healed that person in that way (and before healing this third person). What matters is that Jesus truly healed. And most significantly, I will later argue that (in ways yet to be specified) Jesus heals now, and can heal even us.
Second, the “reality trumps all” view undermines the most crucial of biblical claims: that God loves you and deeply desires relationship with you. On the historical reality view these are simply facts to be accepted: take it or leave it. And facts are assessed using reason (to determine whether these claims make sense to us) and responded to with the will (to make ourselves act upon them).
But Christian faith is not foremost an act of the will, but a disposition of the heart. Nor does belief primarily originate with reason. This is reflected in the very nature of the Bible’s key claims: they are not dead facts but living dispositions of an entity who is love.
And just as love invites, woos, and inspires so if God’s love is real it cannot be expressed by (or constrained within) historical reality alone. It far bigger (and more real!) than that. As historiography, the Bible has the power artfully to express what happened in the past, while as fiction it has the power to transport the events of the past into our own lives by drawing us into its unique world. Thus the Bible not only recounts what is real but champions what is possible: these claims become living possibilities waiting to be actualized.
And how are they actualized? It begins with human imagination.