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Teaching from fiction and teaching from fact

I have argued, as have others, that the distinctive nature of Christianity (and for that matter Judaism) is that God teaches mankind through real, historical facts. God says to Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses knows that that refers to a God who has done certain things in the real world. Then, throughout Israel's history, God says that he is the Lord who has brought them up out of the land of Egypt. The nature of God is declared in what he really does in the world.

In God's revelation of himself in Jesus Christ, as well, God writes his message in the language of fact. Jesus is really born of a virgin in a particular place and time. His fulfillment of prophecy at multiple points occurs in reality, not in legend. And at last he really suffers under Pontius Pilate and really rises from the dead.

The God of the Judeo-Christian religion is a God who speaks in facts, who dips his pen in the material world and writes his message in providentially guided historical events, which would not have that same message if they did not really occur.

But some scholars, including unfortunately some evangelical scholars, think otherwise. They think that God, even in those paradigmatically historical books, the Gospels, teaches us through incidents and sayings that never historically occurred. Hence Craig Evans tells us that the Johannine community wrote that Jesus said, "I am the bread of life, I am the true vine, I am the light of the world" because they said to themselves, "He is to us the light of the world." His real teachings were other teachings, and these sayings were extrapolated. Michael Licona apparently considers it quite likely that John merely used the invented story of Jesus' breathing on his disciples to "weave mention" of the sending of the Holy Spirit into his Gospel. In other words, it did not really happen historically (Why Are There Differences in the Gospels, p. 180).

Craig Keener questions the historical reality of that event as well, as I have discussed at length here. At most, he acknowledges that there might have been some event earlier than Pentecost that represented an "encounter with the Spirit" for the disciples. He is very unsure of the "historical events behind John's Gospel" at this point. Yet oddly, Keener has a devotional blog post here about these very verses in which he speaks with confidence as if the events happened as described and tells his readers that Jesus' breathing on his disciples means that Jesus "granted his disciples the power to carry out his commission" by breathing on them. He applies this to our lives with the lesson, "How can we dare to attempt to fulfill God’s mission? We must trust him and the power with which he has equipped us." But does that passage really support that assurance if the incident didn't happen?

I believe that a serious misunderstanding has arisen in evangelical scholars about the difference between the way that fictional literature teaches and the way that historical events are used by God to teach. They apparently believe that, since we do speak of fiction as teaching, we can speak (especially to laymen) as if passages of the Bible teach us certain things without clarifying to our audience that we don't think those events really happened in history. And we can do that even if the laymen are quite likely to think that the events did happen in history.

I believe this is a very bad idea. If you think that a passage of Scripture that is reasonably taken to be historical and widely taken to be historical was ahistorical, and if you want to draw a moral or message from it, you have a duty to tell your audience that that is what you are doing. If you want to draw lessons for our lives from the book of Jonah or the book of Job but think that these are non-historical books, you should tell your audience that in the course of giving them an inspiring post or sermon on those books. All the more so is this the case for the Gospels, where the passages that scholars are now calling into question are woven seamlessly and realistically into books that are obviously intended to be historical in nature.

But this is not just a matter of full disclosure. It is also important to understand why history and fiction teach in different ways.

When I was studying for my PhD in literature, the question of how fiction teaches truth was a current one among non-postmodernists. For all I know, perhaps it still is. Postmodernism, of course, was already taking over the English departments like a siroco, and there were few of us around who really talked about things like authors, stable meaning, and the enduring value of the work of literature. But those few of us did like to think and talk about the question, "If fiction teaches truth, how does it do so?"

I think that now, more than twenty-five years later, I am perhaps in a better position to answer that question than I was then. Someone--whom I would cite if I could find the citation--once said something like this: The philosopher tells us that what is true of the postman is true of all men. The novelist shows us that what is true of all men is true of the postman.

That seems to me to be a key to the difference between the philosopher and the novelist and also (in the context of this post) a key to the way that the novelist teaches truth. The philosopher, when he is thinking about human nature (as not all philosophers do), tries to find universal truths of human nature. He is after absolute metaphysics. The novelist takes things that may be known in the abstract as truths of human nature and makes them concrete, showing vividly that they are really true of individual people. It could happen to you or to me.

Hence, perhaps we know in the abstract that jealousy destroys lives, but it is in watching or reading Othello that we find that truth brought home with horrible vividness. Perhaps we realize at some level that people are more complex than we might think and that the supposedly hardened sinner may be harboring a repentance of which we cannot guess, but it is when one reads Gilead that one comes to understand that at a heart level (and many other truths as well). A philosopher might say that literature shows us the conceivability of particular states of affairs. And that is true. If you thought it too implausible that a person could romantically love two people at once, a novel may show you that it isn't that implausible after all. But literature goes beyond that. It brings things home. It forces us to pause, ponder, and meditate on truths that we know otherwise but perhaps would rather not think about or simply don't otherwise take the time to think about.

Of course, literature may teach falsehoods as well. The women's novels of Rosamunde Pilcher teach (I believe) that sex outside of marriage is often no big deal as long as the people involved are mature and consenting. They sometimes teach that wives or husbands are understandably disregarded in the decision to commit adultery, and so forth. And they cast a soft, kindly light over all of this that makes it appear romantic and sweet. Pilcher has enough talent (she really is quite talented) to make these moral falsehoods (which she probably believes herself) plausible. She partly does this by not entirely whitewashing the consequences of adultery and fornication. At times things are rough for the characters. There is the occasional cad who takes a girl's virginity without realizing that she will fall in love with him. But we aren't supposed to judge even him too harshly, as long as he had some affection for the girl and didn't realize how much she would be hurt. And so forth. One is able to judge that the novels are teaching falsely in these areas by having a clear, independent moral compass and measuring the apparent message of the novels against it.

In contrast, one recognizes the truth of Elizabeth Goudge's sterner message that it is ultimately better for all concerned to stay in a sad marriage than to run off with the local doctor (The Bird in the Tree) by having both independent life experience and moral knowledge that confirms this truth. Goudge reminds.

In this sense, no writer of fiction can really teach de novo, things that were not known before or otherwise. If the moral of the story or the insights into human nature embodied in a work of literature found no echo in our own independent knowledge, we would be at a loss to evaluate them, and we should not take them to be true simply on faith or because the work is well-written and appeals effectively to our emotions.

The teaching we receive from historical facts is otherwise. It bears its evidential value in itself. This is true even before we bring God into the matter. The existence of Stonehenge, and its artifactual nature, really mean that mankind can build a Stonehenge. The stones are there--hard and incontrovertible. Stonehenge in a story would be science fiction. Stonehenge in England is archaeological fact.

If a hard-hearted man of your acquaintance really does shed a sincere tear over a sad or touching human event, and you witness his weeping, this is actual evidence that he has an unsuspected soft spot. If a mutual friend wrote a work of fiction, putting the historical Scrooge into the work, and sent a tear sliding down his face, you would be understandably skeptical. You would rightly consider your friend's vivid imagination to provide little evidence of a real soft spot in the other man's heart.

If Jesus' breathing on his disciples is a figment of John's imagination, then it has far less value for teaching us that Jesus empowers his disciples for ministry. The incident teaches us that in the Bible, and gives us strong evidence for it, by telling us that it really happened.

Consider an analogy in a different passage. This is not, I wish to clarify, a passage that (to my knowledge) has been specifically called into question by evangelical literary device theorists. But I think it makes the point quite well. (I also note that, if literary devices, including fabrication of some incidents, were really "part and parcel" of the Gospels' genre, as literary device theorists have claimed, we have some reason to question the incident right there. A large question mark hangs over many incidents in the Gospels. The theorists do not have the luxury of confining our skepticism only to those passages that they personally choose to question, since the realistic devices they advocate would leave no clear tag to mark them out in the text itself.) Suppose that you seriously questioned whether the Gospel incident ever happened in which Jesus takes children in his arms and blesses them, telling the disciples to allow the little children to come and not to forbid them. And suppose that you wanted to emphasize to an audience the proposition, "Jesus loves little children."

The passage in which Jesus takes up the children in his arms is ideally suited for teaching this proposition. It is ideally suited because it asserts that Jesus really showed love to little children in the real world, while he was walking around on the soil of that strip of land next to the Mediterranean Sea. It is ideally suited because it asserts that Jesus really uttered, recognizably, the injunction to allow little children to come to him.

If this incident never happened, and if you realized that it never happened (or thought that quite plausible), then the passage doesn't really provide any significant evidence at all that Jesus loves the children. It "teaches" that Jesus loves the children only as an apocryphal story "teaches" that. It may make us meditate on the love of God for all men (and little children are part of mankind). It may give us some extremely weak reason to think that maybe, somewhere, sometime, Jesus said or did something nice about little children that got converted, or translated, or retold in legendary fashion, as this story. But ex hypothesi, it wasn't this "something"--recognizably this event. This event is at most a distant echo of something else, and we can get only the dimmest notion of what that something else might or might not have been. Or the story may be entirely apocryphal. (The resemblance to the theories about Jesus' breathing on his disciples should be clear.) If the story of Jesus and the little children is just a pious, devotional insertion into the Gospels, its independent, historical, evidential value for "Jesus loves the little children" would be virtually nil.

It is the duty of scholars to be clear-minded and to teach the laity clearly. For that matter, it is the duty of scholars to speak to other scholars clearly rather than to teach them (by precept and example) that euphemisms and vagueness are not only acceptable but laudable.

Unfortunately, these standards of clarity, and an understanding of the differences between the teaching of history and of fiction, are not held constantly in view by those who are trying simultaneously to move in the circles of mainstream biblical scholarship and to speak inspiringly to laymen. The unclarity is especially tempting when one's intended audience would be (understandably) disturbed at the dehistorization of a passage they previously thought they had good reason to take as historical.

In the case of the Gospels, I submit that the layman's instinct is right. We would lose a great deal if various stories about Jesus "teach" only in the way that fiction teaches rather than in the way that history teaches. After all, we don't need to have a personal relationship with Othello. Our salvation does not depend upon the death of Julius Caesar; the historical accuracy of Shakespeare's version of that event is an academic curiosity. Our sanctification does not depend upon the personal imitation of Sam Gamgee, however much we might love him and wish to emulate him as a fictional character.

Let us bear in mind that history and fiction teach in fundamentally different ways; let us never confuse them. And let us remember, too, that God seems to have a bias in favor of teaching by way of history.

Comments (9)

Excellent, Lydia!

Likes "Let us bear in mind that history and fiction teach in fundamentally different ways; let us never confuse them. And let us remember, too, that God seems to have a bias in favor of teaching by way of history"

Thanks for writing this; it is sorely needed in a time when there is an increase in undermining Scripture, and in this case, the Gospels, as factual. It is sad that eminent theologians such as Craig Evans and Craig Keener question certain Gospel accounts as factual. As one who majored in Literature, I especially appreciate your points in this blog. I think your examples are good illustrations of the problem and, as you say, if certain events given as historical in the Gospels did not really occur, then any value in the account is ineffective and made worthless.

Thank you, all, very much.

I note, too (though heaven knows it should not need to be said), that Jesus' parables are not "woven seamlessly and realistically" into the narrative, as if they really happened. Jesus always uses signal phrases, such as "there was a man" or "a certain man went down," which, in conjunction with the non-specific nature of the entire story and its obviously allegorical nature and structure, make it clear to his audience that he is telling a fictional story. I am quite sure (and for what it's worth I'm sure that all NT scholars worth their salt are quite sure) that Jesus' audience was never in the slightest doubt that the parable of the Good Samaritan was not an historical narrative. This is why the Gospels themselves, and Jesus' own disciples, expressly mention the fact that he teaches in parables--because people knew what a parable looked like and sounded like and were not historically confused by it. They saw the tags and knew what they were dealing with, much as we would if someone began, "Now, once upon a time..." etc. And this is why discussions of historical hermeneutics have always rightly mentioned the special status of parables--because parables *are obviously* fictional, and tagged as such in the documents. In contrast, the vast majority of Christians throughout history, beginning with the earliest readers, would have had every reason to think that the narrative of Jesus' breathing on his disciples was a narrative of something that really happened. There is no tag whatsoever to the contrary, as there is in the case of parable.

Analogies between parables and the fictionalizations claimed by literary device theorists are completely wrong, both because they deliberately ignore the obvious disanalogy in the "tags" that show that a person is telling a parable, and because they ignore the very point made in the post--that history and fiction teach in fundamentally different ways. Indeed, Jesus knew this as well. When he says that "in the beginning it was not so" concerning male and female and the permanence of marriage, he is clearly saying that God *taught* about marriage by *historically* making man in this way and uniting man in the first marriage. This is not remotely like the way that Jesus teaches from made-up stories (fiction) when he openly tells a made-up story to make a point.

Lydia, thank you for standing our evangelical ground collectively. I greatly respect your thinking and writing for the sake of the gospels' complete historicity. I draw deeper knowledge and courage from you as I likewise endeavor to defend the historical nature of the gospel message.

Those who have liked this post, be sure to share it on Facebook. You can follow my public content on Facebook as well. You can click "share" from there if you want to do it that way, or you can share the link on your own wall.

The books you link to look interesting [on apologetics] but they are not in PDF. Is there any remedy for that?

Do you mean Leon Morris's Studies in the Fourth Gospel? I'm afraid it is still in copyright and hence, as far as I know, the full text is not available electronically. There are some cheap used copies from Amazon merchants, though.


I highly recommend it.

Thanks for the reference. In the meantime I am seeing some other interesting links to apologetics on your site that look very interesting. I already found a good answer to the question seeming difference between the gospel accounts on when the crucifixion was-before or on Passover. Your husband's approach also helped answer a lot of my questions.

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