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Fact, Fiction & Truth: The Perils and Joys of Writing Religious Fiction by Elizabeth Cunningham
This appearance at a public library was the last of long drawn-out book tour. I'd presented my novel The Passion of Mary Magdalen close to eighty times all over the country in all sorts of venues. People always asked if my book had stirred up controversy, but in all that time I had never come up against this. Until that night.
"Your book is offensive. It is blasphemous. It has hurt me. God has anger," the woman warned. "If God were in this room right now," (which apparently he was not) "God would be so angry with you. You cannot escape the anger of God."
The rest of my audience -- mostly senior citizens from my aunt's Congregational church -- sat in embarrassed silence, except for one seminary student in the front row who clearly wanted a theological brawl. But this was my show.
"I hear that you are hurt," I said in my best counselor mode (my other hat) "and for that I am truly sorry. But I am not sorry I wrote the book. It was not written with intent to offend. It is my witness, my act of faith. But I will take what you say into my prayer life. Thank you all for coming."
And so I claimed the last word, the high moral ground, and a semblance of control and brought the harrowing evening to a conclusion.
The woman who informed me of God's wrath was the last to speak that night of a phalanx of conservative Roman Catholics. (At the other end of the continuum I count a Dominican Nun who once embraced me and said, "On with the revolution, sister!") The group did not identify themselves at the beginning of the presentation, just said they had seen the flyer for the event and were interested in the subject matter. I opened my performance with a dramatic recital of the prologue, set in "the hottest holy whorehouse in the Galilee," so my goose was well-cooked from the start, and there was nowhere to retreat when I finally realized who -- and what -- I was facing.
"Doesn't your conscience bother you?" one of the men had demanded, giving me my first clue. "God has given you a talent. You are responsible for its use. Don't you think you should use it for good? For telling the truth instead of misleading people?"
"No, my conscience doesn't bother me," I answered brightly. "And I'll tell you why. There are four Gospels, each one a different account, told from a different point of view for a different audience. The chronology of the Gospel of John in particular differs from all the others. The Gospels are much more like novels than they are literal, historical accounts. They are sacred stories intended to bring meaning to the lives of the listeners."
Needless to say, this claim that the Evangelists were fellow novelists did not cut it. Repeatedly I was told that my book was harming people's faith, because they might think my story was true. And if I wanted to know what Mary Magdalen was really like, I should read The Lives of the Saints, which tells the true story.
As people were leaving, my husband, who could not resist a parting shot, suggested to the delegation that perhaps they ought to buy the book and read it.
"Oh, no," said one of the men. "I never read fiction."
Interesting, I think, that this man eschewed all fiction, not just my blasphemous novel in particular. In our time fiction has come to mean the opposite of fact, and fact has become synonymous with truth. The concept of story, of poetic truth has gotten lost. Witness the furor over the not-very-original theories presented in the conventional thriller The Da Vinci Code. Do we even know anymore what a theory is? It is not fact. It is someone using their mind -- their imagination -- to tell a story that might, or might not, turn out to be fact. Now the faithful are in an uproar over James Cameron's documentary about the discovery of what might (or might not) be the bones of Jesus and (gasp) his wife and child. One Baptist was quoted as saying that if the bones turned out to be authentic, it would destroy his faith, because then the doctrine of bodily Resurrection could not be true.
I want to say to this man: Why would you allow some dry bones to rob you of a powerful, living story? Bones or no bones, the Resurrection is, always has been, and always will be a Mystery. Yet I am sympathetic to anyone undergoing a crisis of faith for whatever reason, as I did when I lost my belief in orthodox Christianity, not because of facts, but because the Christianity I knew could not encompass a powerful and unexpected encounter with the divine feminine. The church had been my container, and I had spilled out of it with no structure to take its place. No matter what I believed or didn't, I felt anguish and even terror to think that I might be abandoning and betraying Jesus. One sentence in a book by The Reverend Alan Jones got me through that time. I paraphrase: "If you have to choose between belief in Christ and your experience of the truth, choose the truth and trust that Christ will reveal himself to you in a new way."
Christ did reveal himself to me anew through the eyes Maeve, my fictional Mary Magdalen, a feisty, unrepentant Celt, who loves Jesus with all her heart, yet refuses to be a disciple. People frequently ask me if there is any evidence that Mary Magdalen came from the British Isles. My answer is: No. There isn't. The fourteen scriptural references to Mary Magdalen tell us very little except that she traveled with Jesus, helped support him, and stuck by him to the end and beyond. She is an open invitation to Midrash -- a Jewish tradition of storytelling to fill scriptural gaps. And I mean storytelling. The Rabbis were not out digging up facts, collecting evidence to mount new theories. They were spinning numinous tales to give us a deeper experience of divine and human nature.
C.S. Lewis, the Christian apologist, was also a brilliant novelist, best known for The Narnia Chronicles. I have never forgotten Lewis's spirited defense of story in The Silver Chair. The true prince of Narnia is a prisoner in an underground realm, and the children (from our world) accompanied by the dour Marshwiggle Puddleglum, have been captured by the wicked queen in their attempt to rescue the prince. She tries to hypnotize them, telling them that their memory of the world above ground is just a fairytale. At last Puddleglum rallies himself and cuts through the spell she is weaving:
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things -- trees and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones . . . That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there is no Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live like a Narnian even if there is no Narnia."
The best stories teach us to be courageous in the face of danger, resourceful in times of hardship, kind to strangers and animals, discerning in making choices that are often not what they seem. They teach us listen to the wisdom within and beyond ourselves.
Maybe you can find God in a fairytale.
Copyright © 2007 Elizabeth Cunningham
About the Author
Elizabeth Cunningham is the author of The Maeve Chronicles, featuring the Celtic Mary Magdalen. The Passion of Mary Magdalen, published to acclaim in 2006, is followed by the prequel, Magdalen Rising, April, 2007. The author is at work on the sequel, Bright Dark Madonna. For more: www.passionofmarymagdalen.com