Can Non-Christian Stories Tell the Truth? (with author Emily Hayse)
Ever watched a movie and loved it so much that you cheered at the ending? Back when movie theaters were a thing, I loved it when the audience gave a round of applause at the end. I particularly remember the packed theater giving a standing ovation to The Return of the King at 3 a.m. or likewise to the final installment of Harry Potter, when everyone was either weeping or breathless after that final battle.
Even though those moments of collective enthusiasm over movies are paused for now (some say they’re permanently over, but that’s another debate), we can probably all remember a movie that has stayed with us long after we’re finished watching it.
What is it about those movies? What makes them stick with us? We mull them over, and even days later the memory of our favorite scenes makes us smile.
In this, there is both a simple pleasure and a profound concept.
Today’s words from author Emily Hayse bring out this profound idea about story that I am thrilled to share with you guys and discuss.
The idea is this: even in stories told by non-Christians, truth is present, and it is this truth, when captured and portrayed well, that resonates with all of us. A good story is true, and that’s why we love it.
Here are Emily’s words:
You End Up Back at the Truth
The beauty about fiction—I am going to refer to it under the broader definition of story for a moment—is that the more honest you are in your craft, the more the truth gets out. A story, in its essence, must ring true; that's one of the major dividing lines between a good story and a bad one.
Because God made this world, it is impossible to escape the solid truths of the world: the nobility of sacrifice, the need for saving, the impotence of man to be good on his own, the list goes on—we might fight it, but we can't escape it.
My favorite storytellers—authors, directors, actors—even if they are not Christians, end up reflecting Christian truths in their very best stories, because when you pursue excellence in a story, you end up back at the truth. And the particularly powerful thing about fiction is that you get to wrap up these truths in a story, where the primary function is for it to be experienced and enjoyed, not picked through intellectually.
The reader comes to love and understand these truths in a way that they wouldn't have been able to if they had read them in nonfiction or heard them in conversation. Good fiction helps us to hone our tastes and our loves toward the truth so that when we or our readers see it in the world or in the gospel, we see it for what it is and love it there too.
- Emily Hayse
Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but I am so inspired by her words! She’s also brought up an interesting point that I want to discuss. This may ruffle some feathers, but let’s consider what she said about stories from non-Christians.
Non-Christian Stories Full of Truth
I’m going to step on a lot of toes here, but Harry Potter is full of truth, and that is why so many people like it.
Yep, go ahead and say what you want to say in the comments. I can take it.
But. Let’s think about Emily’s point.
If the good stories, the really amazing ones we can’t stop thinking about and cheering for, contain the solid truths that God ordained, then even in those stories that are not overtly Christian, we can see the vestiges of God’s design.
This reminds me of Paul’s words in Romans 1. Nature itself speaks of God. Even though the trees and the night sky and the snowcapped mountains can’t speak of Jesus, they shout of God’s “eternal power and divine nature” (Romans 1:20). Everything around us reveals God’s existence, even the things we may not think of as your typical evangelists, like raging rivers or blazing sunsets.
Everything Points to God
How amazing! God put Himself on display with His creation. Everything in the world around us should point us to God, and it does, if we let it. We can ignore it, and many people have, as Romans 1 and history clearly depict. The point is, things we may have overlooked as being God-glorifying can in fact bring glory to God when viewed with a proper perspective.
Thus, I believe stories, even ones created by non-Christians can have some good in them. These stories are some of the things that point to the existence of God in subtle ways, at times in ways unintended by the authors or artists or actors, because the truth simply is, and good stories rely on this.
Consider also that all people “suppress the truth” until God graciously opens their eyes to see the truth and see who God is (Romans 1:18).
It’s not that we don’t know the truth, we suppress it.
We choose to ignore it. We choose to turn away from it. But somewhere, perhaps beneath what we choose on a daily basis as non-Christians, there lies the truth. And guess what? Some of that truth shows up in stories, because it is in all of us.
I’m not talking about saving knowledge of Christ. That is the special revelation of God to those He saves. He makes Himself known in a real, relational, revolutionary way that changes our lives from completely dead in sin to completely alive in Christ.
We All Respond to Truth
In contrast, the kind of truth that shows up in stories made by non-Christians is the kind of truth that Emily mentioned: the nobility of sacrifice, the need for saving, etc. There’s just something about sacrifice that gets to us. There’s also something about salvation that gets to us.
On some level, we respond to these things. We cheer for these things.
Isn’t that powerful?
It points to the eternal power and divine nature of God, who made man in His image, to be saved by His Son.
It’s sad to me that so many people miss the real Sacrifice, the real Salvation offered to us in Jesus. If they could just zoom out and look at their own stories and see the truth they’ve written!
Let’s take Harry Potter, just briefly, as an example. The good guy, the hero, literally gives his life to save the rest of the people on his side. Forget everything else about the books and movies and just think about that part. Really just the idea behind it. Forget about the magic. Forget about the author. Forget about whatever other objections you may have to that series.
The series celebrates the sacrifice of one good man for the lives of his followers. And then, strangely enough, the hero comes back to life. I’m not trying to say Harry Potter is a Christ figure. He’s no Aslan. In fact, he’s not meant to point to something greater. But the concept of a sacrifice of that level is powerful, even among non-Christians.
To me, that says a lot. In fact, it says a ton.
It says people know there is something great in that kind of sacrifice. It is the most heroic deed that can be done.
Good Fiction Backs Up the Truth
Truth is present in that story and the world loves it. Odd, don’t you think, considering the world tends to hate the truth?
And that is precisely the thing. The world, I think, knows the truth when it sees it in a story like that, and the really suppressed part of them that knows the truth responds to the truth with great emotion. Fiction can house the truth in such a way that even those who suppress it can see it. Authors, that is something to remember.
The problem is, then people of the world have so blinded themselves to where the truth comes from that they think it simply exists in the story in a little bubble and that’s all there is to it. They miss the real source of truth.
Emily’s words resonate here as well: Good fiction helps us to hone our tastes and our loves toward the truth.
Yes, it does.
Fiction will never save a lost soul, but it points, it nudges, it hones, it highlights. Fiction from non-Christians doesn’t point us to the truth, it just points out that there is truth. Christian fiction, on the other hand, can actually help point us to the truth. And for that reason, the world needs more of it.
Let me know in the comments, which stories, books or movies, really stuck with you? What truths can you see in those stories?