Tuesday, June 10, 2008

the Jesus fictions

Every author has certain pet stories, some of which are recognized by the reading public and some of which aren't.

For instance, I am so used to people reading The Divine Game Of Pinzatski that I am delighted when someone contacts me because they liked a different story, the more obscure the better. An author likes all his children, not just the more well-known ones.

So here is something. If I was asked to relate which story most hit the nail on the head in terms of an accurate description of an actual experience, maybe in a sentence, maybe in a paragraph, which story would I point to? Pinzatski? Boj? Mister Good Morning? The Emperor of Ice Cream?

Good Night, John King is a fictitious retelling of a boy's experiences in America in the spring of 1968. His parents are heavily involved in the social justice activities of Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and Robert Kennedy (RFK). Some people have been comparing the summer of 2008 in America with the summer of 1968 and maybe that is something to talk about in another blog. For now, this story is the context for a paragraph which perfectly describes one moment in one morning in my life.

In the story it takes place in a motel room. In real life it took place in my bedroom. Dad usually called up the stairs to make sure I was awake for school. This time he came upstairs, asked me very gently if I was awake, then began wandering aimlessly about the room. I watched, surprised, from my bed, because he had never done anything like this before.

I can't tell you how long it took me to write the paragraph that describes this moment. If I had my original draft, which was in longhand in ballpoint pen, I would be able to see immediately what had been scratched out, what retained, what added. I can almost see that page in my mind's eye right now and I'm pretty sure it wasn't one of your got-it-right-first-time pieces of prose. But I do remember that when all was said and done and I re-read that paragraph, I knew that was it, those words described the moment and the feeling perfectly, nothing could or should ever be altered. I still feel that way. I like other things I have written, of course, but nothing, I believe, has come so close to accurately describing a critical moment in my human experience as that paragraph. That's how I felt, that's exactly how it was that early morning in June.

And what could my Dad not tell me that he finally did tell me? That Robert Kennedy had been shot. And because he felt it, he needed to talk to someone. He risked that I would feel it too, so he told me, and then we were both alone with the awfulness of what we knew . . .

You see, a work of non-fiction might have been able to describe to a certain degree the impact of Robert Kennedy's assassination on my father and I. Only fiction has the freedom and power to re-create the moment - sounds, smells, light, shadows, personal sensations - and even put it in a different place to suit the story, and yet more accurately describe the emotional impact of the moment than any fact-finding essay could do.

It is time Christians, in particular, start waking up to the fact that fiction is the great purveyor of truth. It is not simply a vehicle for end time thrillers or murder mysteries or western romances. It can carry very well indeed the weight of truth that even non-fiction cannot, to the extent of placing the reader right in the middle of the truth both emotionally and spiritually.

Jesus knew this all along. That's why he had stories, fictions, suitable for every occasion. "Without a fiction, he did not speak to them." And his fictions, along with the truths they convey, have remained with us for over 2000 years. Where books of fact and history lose stature over time, and are often declared obsolete and set aside as museum pieces and curiosities, his stories never fail to strike deep into the human heart and imagination.

It is time Christians increasingly wrote and spoke fictions of simplicity and complexity just like Jesus did. A world turns precisely on such profound tales of morality and mortality.