Interpreting fiction

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The power of the imagination

The imagination is the great vehicle of contact with reality.

All of our choices are made by imagining the nature, meaning, and consequences of our actions.

Every action we take answers the question, "Who do you think you are?"

The one who conquers the imagination conquers the whole person.

Fiction expresses conviction

  • It's not a defense of Dan Brown's works or The Shack to say, "It's just fiction."
    • This is a despicable reduction of the meaning and value of fiction in our lives.
    • Brown's hatred of Catholicism is palpable in his books; so, too, with the movies made by Ron Howard and Tom Hanks.
  • The stories reveal and teach a worldview.
  • A story need not be true to be true. There can be a little truth in a lie.
  • A story need not be non-fiction to be false.

The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter books are fiction. But Tolkien's world is completely consistent with Catholic monotheism and praises the virtues that the Church honors in her saints. Rowling's magical world is divorced from monotheism and advocates a very stunted and inadequate form of conscience.

Fiction portrays characters

There can be no storytelling without characters, conflict, choices, and consequences.

It does not matter whether the stories are about real or imaginary people. The actions taken in the story reveal the qualities of character that the author cares about, whether they are virtues to be imitated or vices to be avoided.

"Poetic license"

The convention of fiction depends on the reader allowing the author to just make things up that are not true and that are, perhaps, incapable of being true.

From that standpoint, the reader grants an author a license to lie:

  • What if animals could talk?
  • What if magic spells worked?
  • What if some humans possessed powers of ESP or telekinesis?
  • What if there is one night a year when the dead walk among the living?
  • What if there were a gateway into the realm of death?
  • What if there are intelligent aliens secretly visiting the earth?

"Poetic license" also allows authors to express things in non-technical language that, if pressed too far by a literal-minded reader, would not make any sense at all. "Let the dead bury the dead" is nonsense, because, by definition, dead people can't bury other corpses; but a technically accurate expression of Jesus' meaning doesn't have the same effect as the poetic paradox: "Let those who are dead to the call of the King stay home and bury the bodies of the dead."

If I'm going to be critical of Dan Brown for being a bad writer, inventing his own physics to suit the needs of his story, distorting history, throwing mud, then I have to be equally critical of bad Christian writers as in "I Am Gabriel," who make up photogenic maladies (death of the baby at birth, mother's consequent sterility, death and resurrection of the teenager, death of the doctor, blind girl). Artificial characters who are pushovers, like the Sheriff with the angel.

The Dan Brown defense: "It's just fiction. I can make up anything I want."

My response: "I am a reader. I can evaluate the choices you have made as an author. You have the right to make things up; I have the right to dislike your story."

The uses of fiction in theology

  • God is sometimes a character in a piece of theological fiction.
  • Good fiction cleanses the mind, lifts the heart, and gives us heroes and heroines to imitate (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Dorothy Sayers, the Inklings). Healing, deepening, strengthening the power of imagination.
  • The Scriptures are full of theological fiction: the stories of Creation (Gen 1-2), Noah's Ark (Gen), Jonah, Job, parables, fables, jokes, etc.

The uses of imagination in prayer

Beauty matters. It makes a difference whether the environment around us draws our minds and hearts heavenward or depresses our spirit. In Confucianism, the virtue dedicated to the cultivation of every form of beauty is "wen." One example of wen is sheng-fui which, when stripped of magical, superstitious, or animistic elements, can help produce a beautiful environment within which to live, pray, and work.

  • Christians have used every form of art to help teach us the right way to envision reality: architecture, sculpture, painting, sewing, embroidering, weaving, interior decoration, fiction, storytelling, history, music, song, dance, drama, poetry, calligraphy, bookmaking, technology, etc. Catholic liturgy is one of the earliest forms of multimedia, appealing to all the senses with "smells and bells."
  • St. Ignatius: the use of the imagination in prayer.

God as a character in Biblical stories

  1. God appears as a character in a story told from OUR point of view in many scriptural passages. This character does not have all of the attributes that we know belong theologically to God. For the sake of a good story, God appears to be just like us, involved in the flow of time, and making and unmaking plans in reaction to circumstances, as we do.
  2. The stories are not written from the standpoint of dogmatic or systematic theology; therefore, drawing dogmatic or systematic conclusions from the stories is a mistake.
  3. Notice the strange role of the word "evil" in Ex 32:14. God was planning to do "evil" to his people, but we know that God is not an "evil-doer." The source of all holiness cannot sin. We have to cut the narrator some slack here, and see that the story is being told colloquially, not theologically.
  4. We can "change God's mind" because God wills it so. It is He who commands us to pray and who promises that our prayers make a difference. Your premise that "we humans cannot change the will of God" is false as stated. The truth is that "we humans cannot change the will of God unless He Himself wills to give us that power." This is a grace, a free gift from God to us, not something that we merit or exercise by our nature. In the natural order, of course, no creature can act as if it were sovereign over the Creator. In the order of grace, God empties Himself and assumes the condition of a slave. I think this is how God gives us the power to intercede for others.
  5. God knows realities in the present, not as predestined events.


  • Harry Potter.
  • C. S. Lewis: Narnia Chronicles. Space Trilogy.
  • J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
Moreover, if the reader is at all attuned to the real magic of Tolkien’s work, his imagination will be less preoccupied with such things as the wizardry of Gandalf than with, for example, the elusive grace and poetry of the Elves; the earthy austerity and hardiness of the Dwarves; the ineffable stateliness, the sheer antiquity of the Ents; the battle-hardened majesty of Aragorn; the playful, fathomless mystery of Tom Bombadil; and, perhaps most of all, the Hobbits themselves, with their quiet and humble ways, their unassuming, humorous, gregarious, homebody, pipe-smoking, meal-loving, comfort-seeking, Shire-dwelling hearts, and, hidden just beneath the surface, their unguessed depths and disreputable capacity for heroism. Here is the true center of gravity in Tolkien’s Middle-earth: not the world of magic, but the magic of the world.
Yet reading Harry Potter by itself — or rather, reading Harry Potter as part of a well-rounded reading program including well-chosen books that might include the works of Tolkien and Lewis, the adventure stories of Howard Pyle, the fantasy of Lloyd Alexander, the frontier stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the apocalyptic fiction of Michael O’Brien, the fairy-stories of George MacDonald, or the detective tales of Encyclopedia Brown (and, later, Sherlock Holmes) — a child whose reading has this kind of breadth and depth is unlikely to be negatively influenced by having read the Harry Potter books.