Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Tale of Two Cities, and the Praise of Fiction

As I finished Dickens great tale, I reflected on how much I enjoyed it. It is sad to state that prior to January 1st 2009, I had not read a fiction work since I was forced to in as a freshman in college English Lit. (and that was a long, long time ago).

As I thought about the joy my adventures in fiction have brought me, I was wondering why such a short time ago I couldn’t stand them.

I really think that the reason that I devoured books on theology, philosophy, science . . . anything but fiction, was a warped sense of time-management and my old Evangelical eschatology. The bad thinking went like this. Novels were produced for entertainment purposes. How could I justify spending hours entertaining myself when the whole world was going to hell? I know, sad.

But after finishing Dicken’s magical work and reflecting on my friends over the past year, you know, guys like Joyce, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Vonnegut and Hemmingway, I felt that my prior thirty years had been the dark ages of my soul.

I still do love reality very much. But I don’t see novels as just entertainment anymore. I see them as secret windows into a deeper part of reality, that part which can not be captured in a photo, a movie or a diary.

When I look at the tapestry which Dickens wove with his words, I am stunned. It is the same way I’ve stood in the Louvre and am mesmerized over a Dutch realist. I must whisper outside my own head, “How do they do that?”

The words on the page were first inside the head of Dickens in the most intimate way, over a hundred and fifty years ago. He had to think them first. He had to observe them in the world around him even before that. He was able to craft the emotions the personal conflicts that no photo, movie or diary could ever capture.

Because of the works of these masters, I know men and women and the reality of them, much better. I also know myself much better.

Any time I see the beauty of human creation, art, dance, music, or writing, I know with more assurance that the Grand Creator is really there.


Anonymous said...

Over at Slacktivist, there's been an ongoing explanation as to how Left Behind became not only a Christian bestseller, but got mistaken by its fans for non-fiction "history written in advance", i.e. "THIS is How It WILL Happen!"

If you were raised in the Evangelical Wilderness (such as the Navs and/or the more extreme Baptists in MJ's past), you have very little experience with fiction. (MJ has said he hasn't read much in the way of classics like Tale of Two Cities until now, when he's a fiftysomething empty-nester.)

What you were limited to is Officially Approved Christian (TM) fiction, which tends to be very didactic, propagandist, and of low quality. From sheer inexperience, you will have little Discernment, unable to distinguish good writing from bad. And (with the low quality of the Official Christian stuff), your experience has not familiarized you with the sheer power of strong fiction.

That is, if you had any tendency towards fiction at all, instead of More Important Things. ("Novels were produced for entertainment purposes. How could I justify spending hours entertaining myself when the whole world was going to hell?" Work! For the Night is Coming!!!)

When you DO come across something with power behind it (such as Left Behind, basically a disaster technothriller) which you are actually permitted to read, and are unfamiliar with it, the power of fiction can overwhelm you.

And total inexperience like that means you can easily mistake the chaff for the wheat, the dross for the gold, the goats for the sheep. And be as vulnerable to exploitation and deception as any of the Worldly you denigrate, just this deception comes with a coat of Bible paint. "Just like Fill-in-the-blank, Except CHRISTIAN (TM)!"

Anonymous said...


Headless Unicorn Guy (who else?)