July 12, 2010

The Noetic Value of Fiction

by Eric Simpson
July 7, 2010
Huffington Post

My primary vocation is as a writer of fiction. I am also someone who takes Christianity seriously, but I do not write for the "Christian fiction" market, nor would I ever want to do so. Most of my fiction, when read by my religious friends, and some of which has been published in the book, Destination: Short Stories, comes across to them as maybe a bit too frank. They wonder, sometimes aloud, why I do it, what purpose it serves, and I've known some to even question or denigrate the value of fiction.

American popular culture, including the Christian subculture, is not interested in truth, beauty or the arts, but in entertainment and self-gratification. If Americans do not have a low view of art as something to merely occupy one's time a few moments, then we tend to denigrate it into formalized tools for propagating ideology. The Christian may want to see a strong moral lesson or morality play as the engine of any artistic endeavor, whether it's fiction or a play or a painting, or it isn't legitimate. Other ideologues may want to see fiction reduced to a similar function to serve their political or social agenda. Both amount to the same thing: a denigration of art in utilitarian subservience to ideology. Whether one seeks art as a means of self-gratification or as an ideological tool, the reality that genuine art can enrich the soul and enliven spiritual intelligence is lost.

So, it seems like I find myself often trying to defend that which I believe has its own value. There are many reasons I believe fiction is not only valuable, but has the capacity to be a vehicle of transformation and salvation. Here's my attempt to explain what I mean.

Fiction, like myth, conveys noetic truth, or spiritual vision, which is an aptitude that subsists in the human person quite differently than discursive intelligence. Part of the spiritual vision fiction encourages is the essential communion all people have with each other, and our relationship to nature and the earth as well. Our mutual communion can be amplified and expressed through the writer's appeal to universal themes. Fiction to this end serves as a means to envisioning experience and reality beyond the parameters of one's own circumstance, and leads to understanding his predicament more fully; it is a way to transcend ourselves in order to see ourselves more clearly. One of the most obvious and conventional claims about fiction and the use of story is that it serves as a conduit for compassion, a mapping out of what is means to put oneself in another person's shoes. In this sense, empathy is itself a form of fiction, the virtuous act of imagining what it is like to experience the suffering of another, and acting upon that implicit deceit.

Through the power of imagination, good fiction delivers us from the constraints of time and helps us to begin to envision a sense of eternity, the felt spiritual insight that there is more to reality than the succession of events that composes human history. As a Christian, I believe that God transcends His creation, that He is timeless and not under the seemingly deterministic influence of our perception of sequential time, cause and effect. I also believe that God is immanent in creation, that He is everywhere present, that He fills all things and "in Him we live and move and have our being." Fiction has the capacity to indirectly provoke us to begin to see the presence of God in all things, and to understand the world of temporal matter as an epiphany of the eternal, spiritual realm. Ultimately, I think it can initiate us into the preliminary path of appreciating the mystery of ourselves as created in God's image.

Fiction expresses the inexpressible. Personally, I find it difficult to convey concretely perceptions about reality that cannot be easily formalized or understood, such as may be evidenced in this article. Some truths are intuitive or discovered through spiritual intelligence, and lose content and meaning when set forth as points of doctrine, disparate from the context of the reality in which they exist. A truth can be a human situation itself, a description of existence, not necessarily a lofty idea.

Some time ago, I wrote a story titled, "Confession," about a young man who confesses adultery to his young wife not because of a genuine feeling of guilt and repentance, but in order to quench his own conscience. The marriage was doomed. There was no repentance, no authentic sorrow for his infidelity. On its deepest level, this story is a comment on Crime and Punishment by Dostoevsky, where the anti-hero commits murder, then finds redemption initially through confession. I did not set out to write my story as a comment on Dostoevsky's novel. However, I am telling the truth that in human relationships, not all confessions are redemptive, that adultery is harmful and has many ramifications. But more than that, the story is about how far we penetrate into the world as authentic people, the vulnerability of the wife who is hurt, the lack of reality and myopia in the heart of the husband. It ends on a note of intuitive doom and despair, as the husband, having confessed, retraces in his mind the surprising touch and feel of forbidden skin. Bad confessions have deep internal consequences which may never be made manifest.

While truths may be revealed to the initiated in novels, they are also veiled under layers of plot and action. A basic form of a story that tells the truth without denigrating into propaganda or trite three-act play is the parable. Jesus taught spiritual truths primarily by telling stories, which, we presume, he made up in His imagination, in order to express truth in a veiled way for those who have the ears to hear. Those with hardened hearts were not open to the noetic vision implicit in the stories of Jesus, which resulted in their further condemnation.

Given the transcendent personality of God immanent in all things, reality is beautiful, particularly human beings created expressly in His image. Beauty is unveiled through good fiction most poignantly by skillfully describing human situations, or uncovering the interior realm of human personality. This may involve a great deal of ugliness or evil or profanity, which are part of the human situation and really should not be ignored in the name of upholding some conventional and puritanical moral code; often, these are merely rules that serve to evade and conceal truth. On the other hand, of course, the satisfaction of lurid concupiscent energies in the name of truth is an equal deception and error.

Any arbitrary flip-through of prime-time television, be it network or cable, adequately speaks for itself regarding the poverty of the American approach to beauty, art and truth. I need not say more on that; I have yet to meet anyone who would aggressively defend the artistic merit or quality of most television programs (though there are recent exceptions); most t.v. is formalistic fodder created to sell unnecessary products to consumers, and very rarely contains anything of value. There are a few exceptions, but not many; yet this is the primary form of artistic expression for most Americans: the visual equivalent to watching someone solve simple algebraic problems. Boring. Building from that base, most popular novels on the market are not worth much either, they are badly composed words produced by cranks who write primarily to make money. Yet, such a novel, like a two hour movie, passes the time. If art is just decoration, or just there to pass the time, then it truly does not have much value.

It's sad to me that many of those people, like myself, who take fiction seriously are regarded by religious people as "weird" or as elitist, cultural snobs -- or worse, as irrelevant, not rooted in reality, not pragmatic, wasting time. "Nonfiction" is "hard" and valued for its pretense to the facts, and preferred. Reality television trumps carefully written fiction. The real problem, however, does not lie in the person who takes fiction seriously, but in those who hold an egregiously low view of it.