Gospel fiction, ungodly truth? Why Christians should recover the art of storytelling

Christians should love stories. After all, the Bible – the greatest story ever told' – is full of them. But 'Christian' fiction these days has unfortunate reputation for not being the best, to put it kindly. Meanwhile the more 'ungodly' tales seem to also be some of the most profound, engaging – and even theological.

The tale of God and human storytelling is a complex narrative. It's a puzzle that was engaged this week by the think tank Theos, whose event 'Fiction or Gospel truth: can good stories tell a godly story?' hosted a fascinating conversation on fiction and theology.

Theos director Elizabeth Oldfield mediated a dialogue between two writers using fiction to cast new light on Scripture and human reality. The theologian and biblical scholar Paula Gooder is on a quest to tell the story of a sometimes-forgotten figure from the New Testament: Phoebe, the female deacon commended by Paul in Romans 16:1-2.

Far more than just a 'helper' to Paul, Phoebe may have been his 'patron' – an influential interpreter of his writings to the Roman community; the letter's 'first exegete', Gooder ventured. Her forthcoming book Phoebe (Hodder & Stoughton, £14.99) is an effort of 'historical imagination', exploring 'what it would feel like' to be Phoebe in the first century world.

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Working in the opposite direction, journalist and author George Pitcher's book A Dark Nativity (Unbound, £18.99), a 'psychological thriller' set in the contemporary Middle East, narrating a young woman priest's 'descent into madness and violence in the worlds of international aid and diplomacy'.

Pitcher described how human beings 'make stories our own'; his novel draws on the biblical Nativity story, but highlights its murkier themes. Cosy Christmas cards might neglect them, but Pitcher points to the more distressing events surrounding Christ's birth: misogyny, antisemitism, abuse, genocide, refugees in a flight from terror.

In its embrace of 'brutality', A Dark Nativity somewhat contradicts the status quo for 'Christian' fiction. Asked why this genre of the Christian novel tends to be sentimental, two-dimensional and 'quite bad' (in Oldfield's words), Pitcher suggested it was because many Christians apparently want a story void of violence, sex or profanity – but committed to a happy, revelatory and 'salvific' ending. His book aims to be a more 'ugly...un-sanitised' perhaps even 'cynical' work.

Rejecting the 'happy ending resolution' because 'life 'aint like that', Pitcher's tale focuses more on 'God's absence', promoting not a 'dualism' between dark and light, but their intimate relationship – and discovering God's 'vulnerable availability in a broken world'.

Gooder's book seeks to illuminate the past with a fresh perspective from the present, adding colour to what many often only read in 'monochrome'. In contrast Pitcher's story re-evaluates the present drawing on stories from the past. Both represent a kind of Christian fiction, imaginative works using 'made-up' stories to illustrate 'truth'.

In the session's Q and A, the group heard from Luke Walton, a Christian film-maker/producer who offered insight into  the challenge of communicating biblical stories in the medium of film. Film demands emotional affection, he said: 'If you didn't feel, it didn't work.' In contrast Christian stories or particularly sermons 'primarily try to make people think rather than feel'. In that case, the challenge for Christians is to better engage the heart, and not only focus on the mind. That said, if, as we heard, a problem with modern Christian fiction is that it is overly sentimental, that impulse to provoke 'feeling' might require restraint.

Gooder reflected on early Christianity's 'sharing of stories' that wove human experience into divine narrative. The ancient Greek word for conversation is 'homileo', Gooder said, from which we get the English word for a sermon: - 'homily'. 'How did we go from a conversation to a monologue?', she asked.

'Early Christianity was about sharing stories, if we can't recover that we won't be affective or effective...Can we craft stories about God so that readers don't realise his presence in them, but recognise him when they meet him?'

The evening provoked fascinating, wide-ranging conversation though it inevitably asked more questions than it answered. It was open about the struggle of Christian creativity and communication, but also held out hope for the 'impossible' enterprise of theology. Narrating divine truth might be like 'grasping at clouds' in Gooder's words, but it's an 'exhilarating' adventure.

Writers like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis threw down a heavy gauntlet with their towering works of fiction – fantasy that re-enchanted a materialistic, world, inviting downcast audiences to imagine a deeper, more magical reality – one made and graced by God. Thankfully, that torch of 'gospel fiction' or even 'ungodly truth', is still being carried today. Christian storytelling faces the paradox of being familiar and human enough to be believable, while offering enough daring hope and imagination that readers might at least 'want to believe' that God exists, to go beyond what they know.

Such works we might properly call 'evangelical' – not dour dogmatism but announcements of 'good news' that take the form of fiction, but invite readers into something profoundly real.

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