Don't you feel guilty?" a man in the audience demanded. "For writing fiction about the Holy Bible? You might lead people astray! They might think things happened the way you say they did."
"No, I don't feel guilty," I answered, "and I'll tell you why. There are four Gospels in the Bible, each different from the others, the Gospel of John dramatically so. Each Gospel was written for a different community and each writer emphasizes what is meaningful to his listeners. In that respect the Gospels are much more like novels than strict historical accounts."
Ergo (I did not say) God sanctions fiction writing or, if the Bible is God's Holy Writ, then perhaps God is a novelist. Things had gotten out of hand. I was busy trying to pacify everyone, and thinking about the shot of whiskey I would throw back as soon as the event was over. When the crowd dispersed, my husband could not resist a parting bit of provocation.
"Have you read the novel?" He held out "The Passion of Mary Magdalen" , a book nearly as big as a Bible with a very naked Magdalen on the cover.
"No!" the man recoiled. "I never read fiction!"
I encountered hostility to fiction in other quarters as well. What I might call New Age fundamentalists eyed me balefully. They channeled Mary Magdalen or knew someone who did, and I had (once again) gotten the facts wrong. Someone recently wrote me to wanting to know if I acknowledged the historic (if esoteric) "truth" that Mary Magdalen and Mary Baker Eddy were Jesus's lovers.
"I'm a fiction writer." I gave my all-purpose response, thinking what a hell of a novel that could make.
I grew up reading C.S. Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia," which contain elements of Christian allegory but first and foremost are riveting stories, as are Lewis's lesser known novels for adults. Reading is perhaps too mild a word. I lived in them. I dreamed them. Whenever I opened a closet door, I half expected and fully hoped to find myself in Narnia. Children (and adults) today must feel that way about the world of Harry Potter.
What good fiction does whether it's a Bible story, a fairytale, a popular children's serie, or a detective thriller (think of Stieg Larsson's Lisbet Salander) is to invite the reader to identify with a flawed human being (like us) who faces harrowing choices and odds. Discernment is not always easy, as J.R.R. Tolkien noted, "All that glitters is not gold." Heroes as diverse as King David and Frodo confront temptation and find their way back to grace. Sometimes like Jesus, (and like Harry Potter!) they must submit to death. Though many stories turn on the struggle between good and evil, fiction also makes it possible to see from the point of view of an enemy or of a person or group that is despised or misperceived.
Jesus himself taught through stories, parables that spoke to the conditions and challenged the assumptions of his listeners. The spiritual truths he gave us still compel and confound us, because he is the central character of what some call "the greatest story ever told." I was once asked why I would want to tell that story again. After pointing out that I was not telling his story but hers, I answered more seriously: Because it is a great story. And the great stories always need to be told again -- and again.
It is through such stories that we learn courage, ingenuity, honesty, endurance and compassion. If a story awakens in us those virtues then that story, fiction or fact, cannot mislead us. That story embodies truth. It is holy writ.