Is it possible for a work of fiction—a story that is technically not “true”—to illuminate truth as deeply and poignantly as any number of scholarly articles and arguments? As we continue Theological Libraries Month, Kate Davis (Master of Divinity, ’16), Program Manager for Community Partnerships, reflects on how fictional narratives have framed her approach to theology.
The librarian’s request was the simplest invitation down a rabbit hole:
For Theological Libraries Month, please reply with books or films that are meaningful to you theologically or that have been formative in your theological education or imagination.
An inundation of titles began to flash through my mind. Gertrud Mueller Nelson’s Here All Dwell Free, a psychological read of a fairy tale that deeply informs my understanding of what it is to be human. Song of the Sea (2014) opened up the magic of the incarnation. The Book of Symbols, which continuously invites me into the mystery of the tangible everyday. Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. Rabih Alameddine’s The Hakawati and Guus Kuijer’s The Book of Everything, both of which weave the mundane with the mythical until questions of “what really happened” are irrelevant. David Eagleman’s Sum: 40 Tales of the Afterlife exploded everything I had been taught about heaven and hell. Away We Go shapes my eschatological hope. The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss forced me to shift my understanding of God. Anathem by Neal Stephenson.
As the wave of titles slowed, I looked over the list that sat in my drafted email reply, and it began to strike me what a strange list this was. In the last few years, I have read thousands of pages of theological material, and I have been formed by beautiful, intelligent, well-researched theological prose. Yet when asked what has been most formative for my theological imagination, my answers are immediately, overwhelmingly fictional narratives. Stories.
From fairy tales to science fiction to “serious” literature, it is stories that fundamentally shape my understanding of God, my awareness of the Kingdom, my insight into the human condition, my imagination for what makes a good life. It has been stories that mirror my own beauty and brokenness back to me. We talk a lot at The Seattle School about a person’s story: the way you understand your story shapes the way you understand yourself. In reflecting on my own life, it seems to be just as true that my identity has been shaped by the stories I have engaged about princesses and orphans, robots and prophets, detectives and diviners.
Of course, God’s own self seems to prefer to communicate through story. Some laws, letters, and poems aside, Christian scripture is largely a collection of stories. Stories, early on, about this profoundly messed up family trying to figure out how to live with one another and what to do with the hurt they can’t seem to keep from causing one another. Stories about a young nation trying to find its place in the world. Stories about suffering and anger and betrayal; stories about comfort and love and hope. Stories about a man who himself told stories that confronted previous theologies and invited a new imagination. Stories about a man who lived and died and lived again, and in doing so, changed the way we read all the stories that came before and shaped the stories that have been told since.
Perhaps the scriptural authors knew what they were doing, when they chose to record narratives. Perhaps they chose to forego a written form that would prove and persuade in order to write in a form that has the power to confront, invite, and shape. Perhaps they understood that a story is able to convey meaning at a formative depth that no logical syllogism or composed research is able to reach.
By the time my selections are on display in the library, I find I’ve made peace with the lack of “theological” works on the shelf. Why shouldn’t I find God within these stories? Our holy scriptures, the biblical texts, have taught me to see a shepherd boy as a king, an orphaned slave as a savior, a barren woman and a virgin both as mothers, and a pacifist dissenter as the Messiah. Our theology has always been communicated and shaped through stories full of unexpected characters and unbelievable narratives. My list simply reflects the culture in which I live, while it is my tradition that enables me to see handless maidens, lost selkies, and slave princes as the Holy Ones of God.