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When Fiction Speaks Truth

Posted on: December 05, 2021

Category: Theology

When Fiction Speaks Truth

A fiction is a made-up story, and truth is something that really happens. That’s the way we normally think. No one who testifies in a court of law agrees to tell the fiction, the whole fiction, and nothing but the fiction. Yet, there are some noteworthy ways, even in a court of law, that fiction is used to support the truth.

The Bible is a book of fiction, but it is used in law to symbolize the truth. As a witness to an event, it is only possible to offer your point of view. For many observers, your point of view will seem like fiction. Jesus holds the power of a truth-teller in our society, but the story of his life is a work of fiction. When it comes to another great story, the ancient story of Thecla, fiction again arises to reveal some important truths.

Let me start with Jesus before I comment on Thecla. Jesus told parables, and parables are fiction. The way Jesus talked about truth was through fiction. Though there was a road leading from Jerusalem to Jericho, there never really was a Samaritan who serviced a destitute Jew beaten and left for dead. Obviously, there were no witnesses. It’s just a story. But the story plays with reality, bending the enmity between Jews and Samaritans into an image of a world beyond hatred. The world in which the parable unfolds is “outstanding,” to use a Bob Funk term. Funk meant that the world of the parable is both here and not here. It is present, but it is outstanding—lying beyond the present, at its cusp.

The only way the parable world becomes the real world is if people start living the parable. If we live without enmity, or we learn to see that divisions between people are false; if we learn to see that we create divisions among ourselves and that we manufacture enmity ourselves, then we learn to live inside the parable where there is no enmity. In the act of living inside the parable, the parable becomes reality. It is no longer a story. It is the real world. The saying of Jesus that relays this “outstanding” hope is well stated in the Gospel of Thomas” “The empire of God will not come by watching for it. No one can say, ‘look, it’s over here or look it’s over there.’ The empire of God is spread out on the earth but people do not see it” (Th 113:2). This saying is how the Gospel of Thomas adopts a Jesus saying to make the point that the reality of parable is already here. It is a question of allowing the fiction to be true.

The story of Thecla is not well known anymore, but it used to be a popular story from about the second century into the Middle Ages. Thecla is a Saint even though the story of Thecla is fiction. It is unknown if she was a real person. In story, she was a follower of the Apostle Paul, and her story was part of a non-canonical book called The Acts of Paul and sometimes separated on its own as The Acts of Thecla.

Thecla is engaged to be married, but when she hears Paul preach, she is converted to follow the way of Jesus. She leaves her home and her fiancé behind. Her mother thinks she is possessed, and her fiancé delivers her to the local governor for judgement. Thecla is to be burned at the stake, and her mother actually approves of this act. Thecla is miraculously delivered from this and other calamities by acts of God. She becomes a teacher and Apostle. In the end, she leaves her home for a mission in Seleucia (in modern Iraq).

The story of Thecla is the story of a woman who does not marry, becomes a teacher and Apostle, and travels on her own to a foreign land. It is easy to imagine that many writers in antiquity did not like this story. How can a woman be admired for giving up marriage and teaching in public? The ancient theologian Tertullian was particularly contrarian. Tertullian was convinced that the Thecla story was the imaginings of an accursed but unnamed presbyter and that the story of Thecla could therefore not be used to promote women as teachers and baptizers. For Tertullian, this “fiction” of Thecla was very real, very threatening, and very dangerous. The fiction of Thecla was speaking truth to Tertullian, but the truth hurt for this chauvinistic theologian.

The value of fiction is not imaginary. To be sure, fictional stories rely on our imaginations, but that’s the point. Fiction stirs imagination, but imagination is the substance of what is real and of what can become real.

When we read the Act of Thecla, it is easy to imagine ancient people without cinema indulging in the fantastic images the story provides. And Thecla, unlike the usual depiction of Mother Mary, is not quiet and submissive. She is active as a teacher and traveler. She may be fiction, but she was a strong and admirable symbol of integrity for women in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Her voice still resounds today with inspiration from the second century even though her voice is from a story about things that never happened.

It is strange how things that never happened matter a lot. Fiction is the outstanding element of imagination. Fiction is a glimpse of a reality that can be and even a reality that should be. Fiction requires lives to make it live. It requires imaginations that become flesh-and-blood people living in the moment, making the outstanding the real, experiencing the unbelievable as the believed.

Words about fiction may sound fancy, idealist, and meaningless, but they are not. Tertullian was afraid of a fiction. The Roman empire shook before a parable. The Soviet Union had the habit of exiling novelists. Many evangelical Christians regarded as demonic The Last Temptation of Christ. I confess that I returned the compliment by refusing to see The Passion of Christ. The odd thing about fiction is that it changes the world.

What might be needed in the world today is an awakening to how fiction translates into reality. It’s not that we should all start making things up. It is a question of recognizing the way of the world as we know it is a human creation. The crises of the planet are consequential of the values human beings hold and enact. We cannot turn to new solutions unless we first imagine them, and that means imagining different values, different ways of thinking, and different ways of living. Making fiction like the integrity of Thecla or the loving-kindness of the Samaritan into reality is the task of being human. It is a task spread out upon the earth if only people could see it.

© David Galston

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