In my previous post, I tried to show that Sally Lloyd Jones uses two broad ways of finding Christ in the Old Testament: 1) historical and 2) symbolic. For instance, when we approach the story of Abraham and Isaac, we must first admit that these are real people in space and time. (For a wonderful exposition of what you lose without it, see Francis Schaeffer’s Genesis in Space and Time.) God is speaking first to them, and he is doing something through their lives to draw the line of history—a line which runs from Eden to the cross of Calvary and the empty grave, through the 2,000 years since, past our skyscrapers and cemeteries to a final, redeemed, new heaven and earth. Jones calls this God’s Secret Rescue Plan, and it simply stands for the events in history–including the near sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham–through which God brought Christ into the world and rescue His people.
The symbolic interpretation Jones gives Abraham and Isaac’s story? In this case, she points out that Isaac typologically represents Christ, the true sacrifice for our sin.
My hope today is to take this framework and find Christ in literature beyond the Bible. In particular, I’d like to focus on fiction.
1. Fiction is by definition outside of history, and my first argument is that as such, it need not present us with the historical Christ. Even historical fiction which is embedded in real places and times past is imaginary. It exists in a fictional—i.e. not real—timeline which I imagine running next to the timeline of God’s history, or perhaps shooting off His timeline like the branch of a tree.
Much of the confusion we get into as Christians over whether God is present in fiction is related to this difficulty. I mentioned in my first post a reviewer who said that the Harry Potter books were worlds without God. However, if we allow fiction the freedom to be the story of people and events totally outside the real timeline of history, then that aspect of the story is no slight to the real Lord of heaven and earth. In fact, my understanding (and correct me if I’m wrong, here) is that Shakespeare and writers of His day used pagan gods as a kind of alternate reality because they wanted to make a clear distinction between history and pretense. It was out of reverence that they included gods and goddesses in their stories instead of the real, risen Lord. He was someone they didn’t want to pretend anything about.
If we ought to have the history of Christ in every story, then some of the more recent Christian fantasy fiction makes sense. Stories in which three-headed dragons and magical wizards interact with the historical content of the gospel. Now, I’m not saying these are bad or wrong per se–I admittedly haven’t read any of them yet. But are they more glorifying to God than Lord of the Rings? I doubt it. The Lord of the Rings trilogy occurs in an alternate reality, with an alternate history that does not include the sacrifice of the historical Christ. For that reason, it will never be The Gospel. But does that mean it somehow falls short as fiction?
I don’t think so, and here’s why. All fiction–even fantasy stories or historical fiction that include Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection–departs at some point from the timeline of God’s history. And in that departure, it creates an alternate history which is properly human invention. As creators made in his image, God gives us the freedom to invent alternate histories, and so long as we keep the line between fiction and history in place, it is my belief that we do no damage either to our own stories or His. In fact, sometimes a story which attempts to mix the history of Christ with fantastic, ahistorical elements ends up not honoring Christ, but undermining the gospel of some of its beauty and power.
2. However, the practice of first finding the historical meaning of Biblical text is I helpful for our task in one way. As readers, we ought to allow a text–formed by an author in a particular literary tradition and culture–its own intellectual integrity. That is, when we read Anne of Green Gables, we ought to approach the text to find out what it is saying in its own imaginary historical context first. So many hermeneutic systems go straight to the symbolic, and they never let the text just speak on its own. I am reminded of a discussion I had in college with a professor who argued that classic texts were primarily about phallic symbols. Now, there may be a symbolic meaning to these texts, but we ought first to let the story speak for itself.
And in all honesty, doing so doesn’t have to take that long. Novels take one moment, one action, or event, and pour meaning into it both forward and backward. If you want to know the meaning of a text, identify the alternate history–the timeline–of the story, and put your finger on the climax. Then ask, what need was finally met or unmet in that moment? Generally, that’s the key to a novel’s meaning. There may be many layers of meaning, many themes, but this is the point of the thing. (And in many great novels, all the layers coincide there.)
In the case of the The Prodigal Son, the climax is the son’s return home and reconciliation with the father. What did he need? That’s a little trickier. But he certainly needed his father, and he needed to know that he needed him. And the rest of the story is a way of helping us–and the son–see the glory of the moment those needs are met.
Once we have found the meaning of a story arising from its internal intergrity, then we may seek Christ. Which is exactly what I hope to talk about next time!
I had hoped to get into symbolism today, but I think there is enough here to chew on already. Perhaps I can finish the series next time. In the meantime, though, feel free to chime in. My guess is that some of you have insights about this that might be helpful!
To read the previous posts in this series, see Christ in Literature: Worlds Without God (pt. 1), and Christ in Literature: Old Testament Lessons (pt. 2) or Christ in Lit: Symbolism (pt. 4). Or read some of Janie’s reflections on the topic in her review of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie.