One blustery autumn weekend I drove a few hours west to Fort Wayne Indiana, and had a blast talking with a room full of creative people about writing stories for children. In the process, we discussed an idea that influences both my writing and my reading of stories. (And I’m reading fiction almost constantly.)
As often happens, I found someone else had already articulated the idea better than I could:
“All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you.”— Ernest Hemingway (a letter from Cuba)
Now, Hemingway was wrong about some stuff, and he was right about some things, too, but this is an audacious claim. Can a fictional tale be more true than an account of something that actually happened?
Well, yes it can. I believe the work of good fiction on the human heart is sheer God-given magic. Here’s an example:
The Prophet Nathan Rebukes King David
In the eleventh and twelfth chapters of 2 Samuel, we read that king David was smitten by Bathsheba, a beautiful married woman whose husband was deployed with the army. David exercised the right of a pagan king to take whatever he wanted.
But David was not a pagan king—he was Israel’s king, sworn to uphold God’s law before the people. So when Bathsheba sent word of her pregnancy to the castle, David launched a series of attempts to cover up what he’d done, climaxing with an order to have Bathsheba’s husband purposefully sent to his death in battle.
To David’s fanatically loyal general, I think this might have looked like generosity. Bathsheba’s husband had offended the king in some way deserving of death. But instead of the shame of trial and execution, David gave the man an honorable death in battle, and took his pregnant widow into the royal family, providing for the bereaved family.
To Bathsheba, this may have looked like the hand of providence. The king wanted her, she could not refuse, and when it seemed like she would be shamed as a result, her husband died unexpectedly, opening the way for her legitimate marriage to the king.
As far as we know, only David knew both halves of the story. But God knew, and he sent the prophet Nathan to confront David.
Now Nathan had a problem. He had to confront a sovereign monarch to expose a secret the king had already killed to hide. Only a prophet with a death-wish would open the conversation by pointing the bony finger of accusation. Instead, Nathan began with a story. A fictional story.
“There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.
“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”
David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”
Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man!”—2 Samuel 12:1-7
The prophet told a fictional story that was more true than the story David had been telling with his actions. The truth did its work on David’s heart, and then the prophet pointed his finger.
As a result, Nathan survived his mission, and David went on to write one of the most beautiful Psalms of repentance in scripture.
Of course, not all stories are good stories. But Hemingway was right: “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened.”