Faith in Fiction

I had a first time experience recently, and that's saying something for someone well into his midlife. I completed my first novel. While completing a 70000 word work of fiction is a first for me, it's not the first I am speaking of in this entry. I had the experience, while writing the novel, of meeting the viewpoint character, the protagonist, as though he were a real person. I heard his voice and understood his point of view. His name is Tim, and while he is a character I created, I experienced him throughout the writing process in his otherness. He was not fashioned after someone I know per se, not really a reflection of a younger me, and not a construction whose sole purpose was to move the story forward. I found myself almost channeling the dialogue and wrote the last 200 pages of the book in less than 3 months with almost no revision in plot.

This morning, during breakfast, I thought more deeply about how real this character is to me. It occurred to me that some of the people I most admire are characters from books. Admittedly, they are not real the way my wife, students, or coworkers are. And, they do not exist for every reader in the same way. Nevertheless, I regard these characters as alive to me. I can point to the specific times and places where, through the almost mystical experience of reading a book, I met them.

I met Jesus as a character in a book. The story of his life captured my imagination and helped me see possibilities for living and loving. The fact that he, unlike a character in novel, is a real person, means that I cannot ascribe attributes or events to him that have no basis in the facts we know. I can't easily imagine him as married with children, I can't see him as an old man, I can't envision him with blue jeans and a baseball cap. But isn't the same true for characters from novels who share the same space in my imagination as Jesus does? I can't make Atticus Finch a rich lawyer with two brats for children. And how is it that, in a certain sense, I don't make a compartmental distinction between the true feeling of connection I have with Tom Sawyer and Jesus Christ? In other words, I don't think of Tom Sawyer as a fictional character - though I know he is. For that matter, I don't feel compelled to sort out the historical Jesus from the one I have read about.

For many people of faith, this is an unacceptable line of thinking. To suggest that the real, albeit limited, relationship I have with a fictional character can be on par with my relationship to Jesus, is not something I would have admitted several years ago. But why not? Isn't faith ultimately a function of imagination. And isn't imagination one of the most unique aspects of our humanity. Could we genuinely embrace a notion of "other," whether other be God or Tom Sawyer, without imagination? Could we place ourselves at the feet of Jesus as child without using our imaginations? And how could we ever internalize a sensibility that does not match our own without imagination?

And why did Jesus tell stories to get his point across if not to engage his followers' imaginations. The Bible says that without vision, people perish. In all of my years of doing therapy with people, those who were best able to experience deep change were those who had ready and unshamed access to their most imaginitive selves.

Faith, for me, is not belief in doctrine. Rather, faith is imagining that the connection I have with compelling characters (real and fictional) is as real as the keyboard I am using to write these words. Real connection leads to real dialogue which leads to real encounter, real impact, and deep change.

Want your faith to grow? Read a good novel!

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