Fact or Fiction, the Blurring of Theology

               In the category of truth is stranger in fiction, we find that Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mocking Bird, and author and gadfly Truman Capote grew up together.

               Capote’s 1966 sensational book In Cold Blood was the first true crime written in the way fiction is written. The 2019 book The Furious Hours by Casey Cep is about Harper Lee and tangentially about Capote. This book documents just how much Capote fabricated, invented, stylized for the sake of reading more like a novel and less like a court reporter’s transcript.

               This was a big difference between these two American literary lights. Lee opposed the writing of nonfiction as fiction. The library which she liked to visit, says Cep, had a bank of card files separating fiction from nonfiction and that’s the way Lee liked it. Actually, that’s the way most of us thought and dealt with reality. There was history and there was legend and myth; there was storytelling and there was fact telling. There was spinning a yarn and giving testimony.

               Even though Capote’s book was exposed for the farce that it was, this way of writing true crime came to dominate. It is highly readable, entertaining, yes, but how much of it is fact and how much of it is fiction?

               In the 80s, when Church Growth thinking invaded conservative Lutheranism, every theological point began with a story, an anecdote, a drama, a narrative. That’s still the way it is today. I’ve dissed The Lutheran Study Bible for beginning each book of the Bible with a story that continues through the Bible. That’s a 2009 publication. Dr. Hal Senkbeil’s book Dying to Live is a 1994 book that does the same thing on a smaller scale. This is how he brings home the power of the Absolution:

“Confess your sins to each other. James 5:16

It was a blue-chip company, and the owner built it from scratch. He had invested his blood and sweat in this enterprise, yet now he announced he was moving on. The mangers stared incredulously at each other across the table. No one could imagine operations without him. How would the company carry on?

‘If you forgive anyone his sins, ‘ said Jesus, ‘they are forgiven’” (70).

               Let me tell you right off: I love this book. It’s a far better introduction to the Confessional Lutheranism I know then the Concordia Publishing House’s heavily promoted and hyped Spirituality of the Cross. Senkbeil’s book hits on all Lutheran Word and Sacraments, Church and Ministry, Liturgy and Piety cylinders. My problem is not with the contents of this fine book but the facile blending of story and theology.

               I know what you’re thinking. What about the parables? What about poetic and allegorical language in the Bible? When you resort to fiction to empower, enhance, or even to expose nonfiction, it’s the same as introducing myth into history. You can tell a myth, a story, a legend, but when you mix the two in one book without clearly delineating where one leaves off and the other begins, you’re blending what can never stay together. And it’s the fiction floats to the top of people’s minds leaving the nonfiction at the bottom.

About Paul Harris

Pastor Harris retired from congregational ministry after 40 years in office on 31 December 2023. He is now devoting himself to being a husband, father, and grandfather. He still thinks cenobitic monasticism is overrated and cave dwelling under.
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