catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 12, Num 15 :: 2013.07.19 — 2013.09.05


Facts and fictions

The great narrative, to which we as Christians are called to be faithful, begins at the beginning of all things and ends at the end of all things, and within the arc of it civilizations blossom and flourish, wither and perish.  This would seem a great extravagance, all the beautiful children of earth lying down in a final darkness.  But no, there is that wondrous love to assure us that the world is more precious than we can possibly imagine.

Marilynne Robinson, When I was a Child I Read Books

Over pulling weeds from the onions at White Yarrow Farm a couple of weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a friend about reading fiction.  A student of philosophy, he finds great pleasure in reading philosophical and theological works, from both the past and the present.  Last summer, as we worked together on projects other than weeding, I decompressed with a novel, while he decompressed with classics of Western thought.  And yet, he feels compelled to learn how to enjoy fiction.  I recommended digging into something like Dave Eggers’ What is the What, which bridges fact and fiction with a true story structured like a novel, but I also continued to consider the question of what makes fiction valuable.  Why read made-up stories?

In this the season of “beach reads,” by which most people mean novels that absorb the reader and don’t ask us to think too much, I found myself thinking about the fiction that has challenged and changed me.  The Facts and Fictions of Minna Pratt by Patricia MacLachlan has never been on any YA fiction best-of lists that I know of (especially not compared to her Newberry winner Sarah, Plain and Tall), but as a middle-schooler, it impressed upon me that quirky people can be interesting, that it’s okay to be smart and love art, that boys and girls can be friends, that a vivid imagination can be like a companion.  Minna’s mother, a writer, has a provocative statement tacked to her bulletin board: “Fact and fiction are different truths.”  In some ways, this story, which came my way inconspicuously via my teacher grandmother’s classroom castoffs, is one answer to the question of why made-up stories matter.  And this particular one mattered a great deal to me.

And yet I also remember being changed by non-fiction.  In grade school, we had to read and report on books from a variety of genres.  Merely to mark one off the list, I checked out a biography of Zebulun Pike, an orange hardback that I judged harshly by its worn, monochrome cover.  Despite my low expectations, Pike’s story thoroughly absorbed me as I realized that factual stories could be interesting, too.

Pike was still there somewhere in my subconscious when I encountered Jonathan Kozol’s work in high school.  I bought his book Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation after our journalism teacher took us on a field trip to hear him speak.  As a journalist with a strong social conscience, Kozol has always been one to share the stories of those who are suffering in an attempt to call our structures and systems to account.  After a recent debate with a family member about the significance of broken families among the poor in the United States, I was attempting to track down the origins of my rebuttal that it’s not the exclusively the poor who are broken, but the system.  The exploration culminated in rediscovering over Kozol’s poignant prose, weeping over a particular passage which is really just an extended quote from one of his many interviewees:

Perhaps this is one reason why so much of the debate about the “breakdown of the family” has a note of the unreal or incomplete.  “Of course the family structure breaks down in a place like the South Bronx!” says a white minister who works in one of New York City’s poorest neighborhoods.  “Everything breaks down in a place like this.  The pipes break down.  The phone breaks down.  The electricity and the heat break down.  The spirit breaks down.  The body breaks down.  The immune agents of the heart break down.  Why wouldn’t the family break down also?

“If we saw the people in these neighborhoods as part of the same human family to which we belong, we’d never put them in such places to begin with.  But we do not think of them that way.  That is one area of ‘family breakdown’ that the experts and the newspapers seldom speak of.  They speak about the failures of the mothers we have exiled to do well within their place of exile.  They do not condemn the Pharaoh.”

Without remembering many of the particulars of Amazing Grace, I realized in that moment how the stories Kozol told in that book of children trapped in worlds of instability, scarcity and fear has fundamentally shaped not only my theological and political beliefs, but my life’s work.

We read stories like these because they soften our hearts, because they make us more human, more of the tender, breakable creatures that we are.  Of course, we can also read stories that make us harder people who align our self-interest with greed, power and privilege, but as Robinson writes, Christians adhere to “too great a narrative to be reduced to serving any parochial interest or to be overwritten by any lesser human tale.  Reverence should forbid in particular its being subordinated to tribalism, resentment, or fear.” Fact or fiction, the best stories are shadows of the great story, witnessing to the infinitely complex creativity of the original Word who hovered over the waters, waiting to set the story of this beloved earth in motion.  They make us more loving, more curious, more awake to the wonders of the world that is our home, and the world that is to come.  

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