I have a confession: I find it infinitely easier to find God in fiction than I do in church. It may sound obvious, but a book doesn’t have to be by a Christian author to be able to strike at heart of what Love is. One of the most compelling stories of relationship I’ve read recently was a science-fiction work called the Dreamhealersby M.C.A. Hogarth, where two aliens establish a telepathic emotional bond. This is just one example of many. Other favourites include Marilynne Robinson (Gilead, Home), Stephen Lawhead (Empyrion, Pendragon), and C. S. Lewis (Narnia, Till they have faces). All these works manage to convey the compassionate and frustrating love of a God who demands authentic relationship and submission, whereas my experience of church has frequently, although not always, been a little lonely.
Maybe I find God in fiction because, like the divine, a story is a nebulous thing. You might think it would be easy to grasp onto, to carve up, identify, categorise. We divide it into plot, character, setting, and talk about first-person narratives, poetic structure, and underlying ideology. But whatever attempt is made to cement meaning, it is almost always immediately frustrated. My own experience of academia has given me insight into the sheer volume of conclusions that can be drawn from a single written work. Arguments rage between scholars as to how we should receive a text: is the author dead, or does their intent still remain within ancient words awaiting discovery? (Frequently ignoring the, perhaps, more prescient question: does anyone care?)
I, for my own part, am interested in what happens in the space between the words being uttered and their reception by another. My doctoral thesis consisted of 85,000 words on a single epic poem, Statius’ Thebaid, its premise being that interaction with others, loving or violent, is what makes an individual who they are. Isn’t that what all story is? An attempt to close the impassable “gap” between our “selves” and an “other”? Perhaps that’s why I find telling my own story so difficult – I am anxious that my words make it safely across. I don’t wish to be misunderstood.
I wonder if God feels the same?
If you’ve got this far into my meandering thoughts, thank you. I think what I’m trying to begin to talk about is this: being a Christian is really all about how we negotiate the space between ourselves and others. One of the ways this has played out in my own life is, rather embarrassingly, my inability to pray for someone without crying. I simply need to put my hand on someone’s shoulder and the tears begin to build. Soon I am rendered a soggy mess whilst the person on the receiving end is in all likelihood absolutely fine. This is particularly infuriating as I really dislike displays of emotion. When I was a young teenager I used to judge girls who would cry in school, deeming them emotionally manipulative. Yet, for some annoying reason the single most frequent way I experience the Holy Spirit is through a debilitating wave of compassion. Crying makes me vulnerable, it leaves me exposed.
However, as fearful as I am of the space between the ‘I’ and the ‘non-I’, I am even more afraid of those who ignore it. When we refuse to acknowledge the difference between ourselves and others we can end up erasing the other entirely. It is far better to be misunderstood than to destroy. Sometimes I have been on the receiving end of an imposed idea of what a Christian should look like, made to soften and change in order to fit an ideological mould. When I refused it seemed that relationship was no longer available. Yet, my hope lies in the fact that more and more it seems that small pockets of Church seem to be embracing expressions that seek to maintain difference. It is with friends whom I trust that I can be myself without fear. In small gatherings I can allow myself to love others and share my story, just as God, whom I find in the stories of others, loves me.
– Joscelyn Cole