Fiction in faith formation: Stories that act as mirrors

After King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and arranged for her husband to be killed, God sent the prophet Nathan to David. He said to the king: “There were two men in a certain city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. … Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.”

Then David, feeling tremendous anger toward the man, said to Nathan, “As the Lord lives, the man who has done this deserves to die.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man!” The prophet did not condemn David with a quotation from the Ten Commandments, accusing him of breaking the rules against murder and adultery. Instead, he told him a story which acted as a mirror, helping David to see himself clearly (2 Samuel 12:1-7).

Story as mirror

We are story-telling animals. In his book “After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theology,” philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre wrote that a human being is “a teller of stories that aspire to truth.” The Bible is just such a set of stories, and so are books of church history, stories of particular congregations and personal testimonies about how God has been involved in individual lives. These stories are not just colorful narratives, but are accounts that reveal to us what is true about our faith, our community and ourselves. For an expert in moral theology such as MacIntyre, they also give us guidance about how we should act. In “After Virtue” he wrote, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”

The Bible contains many stories that are based on historical events, but it includes fiction as well — such as the story that Nathan told David about the rich man, the poor man and the little ewe lamb. I am convinced that fiction plays a role in faith formation, offering a mirror that we can use to see ourselves more clearly. In addition to helping us identify our failings, as Nathan’s story did for David, fiction can help us wrestle with difficult moral questions, draw us into conversations that we might otherwise avoid and help us see new possibilities for our lives as Christians. As MacIntyre said, the question of what we should do? can be answered only after we answer the question of what story is ours?

I recently participated in a church book discussion of “When the English Fall,” a novel by Presbyterian pastor David Williams. A catastrophic solar storm causes the collapse of modern civilization, leaving only the Amish community with the resources to survive. But when “the English” – the Amish name for all non-Amish people – become desperate, the Amish are threatened and have to decide how to respond as followers of Christ. The novel led the church members into a rich discussion of moral questions: How much are Christians obligated to share their resources? And, when is violence an appropriate response to aggression? This work of fiction gave our group a mirror to hold up to ourselves, helping us to discover how we would respond as followers of Christ.

Fiction can also draw us into conversations that we might otherwise avoid. As a pastor, I often preach about the importance of interfaith cooperation and invite people to attend events such as the Fairfax Interfaith Friendship Walk, which has linked our community’s diverse houses of worship for the past three years. But I find that sermons and invitations have their limits. People naturally push back against sermons — in fact, a common expression is, “Don’t preach at me.” And invitations to interfaith events can be easily declined by those who don’t want to leave the comfort of their religious traditions.

Now I’ve written a novel called “City of Peace,” and I’m finding that a story can be better than a sermon in terms of drawing people into difficult conversations. Not that this approach is original to me: Jesus didn’t lecture people, but instead taught through parables such as, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground” (Mark 4:26). When people heard the beginning of a story like that, they leaned in and wanted to hear more.

My message about the need for deeper interfaith relations, especially in a time of Muslim bans and terrorist threats, is being delivered through my novel about a Methodist pastor named Harley Camden, sent to the small town of Occoquan, Virginia. Soon after his arrival, he is asked – as the only pastor in town – to visit a prisoner named Muhammad Bayati, arrested on suspicion of murdering his daughter. The two men talk about justice, God and even Jesus — a prophet for Muhammad and the Messiah for Harley. Then Harley said, “Our Bible says that God is love.”

Muhammad cocked his head slightly and replied: “That is different from our understanding. We have many names for God, but love is not among them.”

“For Christians, love is at the core of who God is,” explained Harley. “God reveals his love by sending Jesus. And the response we are supposed to make is to love one another.”

“I would agree with that,” said Muhammad. “Loving God does require that we love the people around us.”

I am seeing that church members who have little interest in interfaith relations are attracted to the whodunit aspect of the story. They are being exposed to new ideas about how Christians and Muslims can talk and work together, and are learning about Muslim attitudes toward God and Jesus as the mystery of the novel is solved. “City of Peace” shows me that a story can change attitudes in a way that sermons or lectures cannot, by holding up a mirror to our increasingly multicultural and interfaith society.

Story as possibility

Fiction can also show us new possibilities for our lives as Christians. In his book “The Language of Grace,” Yale Divinity School professor Peter S. Hawkins explores the stories of three very different writers: Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy and Iris Murdoch. In his opinion, the similarity of these parable-tellers “lies in their desire to overcome opposition and resistance, to communicate an alien vision by indirect means, all to the end of bringing the reader to a new state of consciousness and self-awareness.” In short, all three want to open up new possibilities. “Each will work to disorient the reader through miracles and mysteries of storytelling,” he writes, “precisely in order to bring about some basic reorientation of vision.”

In a sermon titled “Jesus the Stranger, Guest and Host,” I began by telling the story of pastor Harley Camden at dinner with a couple named Youssef and Sofia Ayad, Coptic Christians from Egypt. When he first met them, he was surprised to learn that they were friends with Muhammad Bayati and his family.

“The Bayatis have become some of our closest friends here in Occoquan,” Youssef told Harley, “largely because we have shared so many meals. Back in Egypt, Christians and Muslims are getting together less and less, which has caused the animosity and violence to increase.”

“Food is important to us,” Sofia said. “Think of the many times that Jesus sat down to eat with people — even tax collectors and sinners. Christian hospitality is very important to Youssef and me.”

“I do appreciate it,” said Harley, enjoying the food Sofia had prepared. “Think of how much better the world would be if people actually sat down and ate with each other.”

After this brief vignette, I admitted to the congregation that although Harley Camden is a fictional character from the novel, his discoveries about hospitality are not fake at all. In fact, they are absolutely foundational to our Christian faith. Hospitality is at the heart of the story of the walk to Emmaus in the Gospel of Luke, in which Jesus appears to his disciples as a stranger, as a guest and as a host. “Each of these roles can provide guidance to us,” I said, “as we try to do a better job of welcoming and including people in the life of the church. Harley Camden was right to say that the world would be a better place if people actually sat down and ate with each other. I’m convinced that the path to peace passes not through the head or the heart, but through the stomach!”

Fiction can show us new possibilities for the practice of Christian hospitality. Yes, we know that the Bible says, “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Hebrews 13:2). But what if the strangers are Muslim immigrants from Iraq? Youssef and Sofia Ayad discover that the Bayatis become some of their closest friends when they eat and drink together in the United States, even through Christians and Muslims have become increasingly antagonistic in their homeland. The Greek word for hospitality in the letter to the Hebrews is philoxenia, which means “love of strangers.” The Ayads take a chance and show Christian love of strangers to the Bayatis, instead of showing them the attitude so much more prevalent in the world today: xenophobia, “fear of strangers.” Through this story, Harley Camden learns about the power of Christian hospitality to break down barriers between Christians and Muslims, and between immigrants and native-born Americans. By extension, all who hear the story are exposed to the potential of philoxenia as well.

Story as formation

Our Christian faith is formed by stories, whether they come from the Bible or from a work of contemporary fiction. We learn a great deal from the Gospel of Luke, of course, and in one of the best surprise endings in all of Scripture, the walk to Emmaus concludes with Jesus hosting a meal and breaking bread with his disciples. “Then their eyes were opened,” says Luke, “and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight” (Luke 24:31). But we can also learn about Christian hospitality from stories of Amish farmers trying to feed their neighbors after a catastrophic solar storm, and from tales of Coptic Christians breaking bread with Iraqi Muslims in a small Virginia town. Fiction plays a role in faith formation when it is used in book discussions, Christian education classes and sermons, acting as a mirror for us to see ourselves and the world around us. It helps us wrestle with moral questions, draws us into tough conversations, and offers us new possibilities for our lives as Christians as we continue to play important parts in the story that God has been telling since the beginning of time.

henry-g-brinton-lg.jpgHenry G. Brinton is pastor of Fairfax Presbyterian Church in Virginia and author of the novel “City of Peace.”