How Can Fiction Build Faith? The Power of Story

Understanding how fiction can build faith becomes clearer when we define terms.

  • Fiction can refer to either literature of imaginary events and people, or to something untrue.
  • Faith can refer to either a confident trust, or to a set of doctrines.

In daily life, few people want to rely on what is untrue, or base their deepest beliefs on made up details. On the other hand, I contend imaginative literature can illustrate and reinforce real faith.

Authorities from classical to modern times proclaim the power of story. Philosopher Plato claims “Those who tell the stories rule society.” Writing consultant Robert McKee states “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”

Book sales can demonstrate that power to captivate readers. The Left Behind series of sixteen novels has sold over 65 million copies in multiple languages. Author Tim LaHaye said he received more letters from readers who came to faith by these stories than he did in response to all of his non-fiction. C.S. Lewis’ seven books in The Chronicles of Narnia have sold over 100 million copies in 47 languages. In comparison, Lewis’ apologetic anthology Mere Christianity, has sold over 3.5 million copies in English alone, and has been translated into more than 30 languages.

Why are stories powerful? Psychologists theorize we have two main types of memory: semantic and episodic. The first holds meanings and the second holds events. For example, a dictionary or an encyclopedia primarily engages semantic memory, and a drama or visiting a dentist invokes episodic memory. The two are interdependent, yet the episodic more readily holds the sensory and emotional aspects of an event. Thus reading of a character’s experience can awaken those associations, especially when one identifies with the character.

Widely recognized as a great teacher, Jesus appeals to the whole understanding. For example, a beatitude makes a concise statement, and a parable, such as the story famously known for a prodigal son, touches people with the reunion of the son and his patient father. However, holding parables up as a great teaching technique, overlooks a limitation Jesus points out. When his disciples ask Jesus why he speaks to the people in parables, in Matthew 13 he gives the surprising answer “though hearing, they do not hear or understand,” which fulfills a prophecy “for this people’s heart has become calloused.” A parable can be remembered by many, but its full meaning breaks through only to softened hearts and open minds! Authors know their literary devices can be missed by the inattentive or disinterested. A modern example is that an actress in the Narnia movie is said to have thought it simply symbolized World War II, so she completely missed its extraordinary symbolism of Christ and redemption.

Another caution is that stories can either help and uplift or harm and deceive. For example, Arthur C. Clarke’s highly acclaimed Childhood’s End, portrays a future where alien Overlords help the human race evolve to their next level. Not only is that theme antithetical to Biblical teaching, the Overlords’ appearance as devils is reframed as innocent because their previous visits to earth had simply been misunderstood.

Such stories are all the more reason for compelling, Christian fiction to compete for attention, hearts and minds.