Did Paul Oppose Fiction?
Last time we were together, we looked at a warning text in the Bible that applies to our media diets. Hebrews 2:1 was the text. It encourages us to focus our attention and not get distracted from the cross. It’s an incredibly important text for our lives inside the “attention economy,” as it’s been called.
Today’s question also relates to our media diets. It comes from an anonymous listener asking about a Christian view of fiction. Here it is: “Pastor John, hello! I have been struggling to understand 1 Timothy 1:4 and Paul’s warning against ‘myths.’ What implications does this verse against ancient myths have for a culture like ours, which is full of contemporary myths and fictional storytelling? Jesus told stories. C.S. Lewis wrote great fictional stories. Harry Potter is a bestselling series of contemporary mythology. So how do we view our own cultural myths — our captivating novels and superhero movies and long-running TV series — considering Paul’s warning to believers to not be devoted to myths? Do we face a spiritual danger in our fiction today or not?”
That’s a good question, exegetically, for what Paul meant. We want to start there and then relate it to some things today. Let’s put the New Testament word “myth” — Greek mythos; it’s the very same word in Greek — in front of us. It’s used five times in the New Testament: four in Paul and once in 2 Peter. Here they are:
Charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine, nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the stewardship from God that is by faith. (1 Timothy 1:3–4)
Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness. (1 Timothy 4:7)
The time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths. As for you, always be sober-minded. (2 Timothy 4:3–5)
Rebuke [the Cretans] sharply, that they may be sound in the faith, not devoting themselves to Jewish myths and the commands of people who turn away from the truth. (Titus 1:13–14)
We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. (2 Peter 1:16)
Those are all the uses of the word myth in the New Testament. The dictionary definition, if you look it up in a Greek dictionary of the first century, means a tale, a legend, a story that over time became fictional narrative over against a historical account of things.
Myths Among the Apostles
Now, the way Paul and Peter are using the term, it’s clearly negative. If you take those five texts that I just read, here are the associations with myths: Myths promote speculations. They are like endless genealogies — they don’t get anywhere; they don’t land anywhere solid (1 Timothy 1:4).
Paul calls them “old wives’ tales” in 1 Timothy 4:7 (NIV). Maybe that’s because there were vulnerable women that we meet at the church in Ephesus who were “always learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 3:7). In other words, there was this endless, speculative approach toward things there that never got its feet on the ground of God’s reality, and myths were feeding into that.
Myths were irreverent and empty; they were the opposite of training oneself in godliness (1 Timothy 4:7). They were a wandering away from truth (2 Timothy 4:4). They were cleverly devised and not based on eyewitness accounts (2 Peter 1:16).
If you step back and say, “What’s the big picture here?” Paul’s main problem with them is that they weren’t serving what he calls oikonomia, the household plan of God — namely, the upbuilding of faith (1 Timothy 1:4). I think that would be his summary criticism. These are not doing what God means to be done in his house: Build people up in faith. Give them a firm place to stand, and make their faith strong.
In summary, myths, as Paul and Peter dealt with them in their letters, were not just false, but they were destabilizing. That is, they didn’t result in helping people plant their feet anywhere in God’s reality. They promoted speculations, endless openness, never coming to a knowledge of anything.
G.K. Chesterton once said there’s a good reason to open your mouth (in other words, to be open-minded): you open your mouth in order to bite down on something. You don’t just stand around with your mouth endlessly open. That’s what Paul was concerned with. I see that today in a lot of places, just an endless opening to possibilities but never a closing of your mouth on anything enriching.
Types of Myths
Now, what about myth today? The word has ordinary meanings and technical literary meanings. It’s kind of complex. For example, the second meaning in the Oxford English Dictionary is “a widely held misconception.” That’s like saying, “Oh, that’s a myth. It’s an erroneous belief.” In that sense, a myth is the opposite of reality. It’s false to what is.
Or it can refer to stories in general. They might be true and communicate truth and help truth advance, or they might be misleading.
Or thirdly, it can refer to something quite technical — say, in C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, as they develop the term and work on writing that kind of literature. A myth, they would say, is a structure of ultimate reality that can be pointed to, hinted at, or embodied in lots of different forms: fables, epic poetry, novels, dramas. In that technical sense, myth is the ultimate story within various literary forms and not reducible to any literary form.
The really important thing to grasp for Lewis is that he means to say that Christianity is true myth. He’s got this essay called “Myth Became Fact.” Here’s a quote: “The heart of Christianity is a myth” — if you stop there, that’d be heresy (I mean, given the ordinary meaning of the word).
The heart of Christianity is a myth which is also a fact. The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens — at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. (God in the Dock, 58–59)
Let’s step back now and ask whether myths, as Paul used the term and as many use it today, is a problem or a danger for Christians who love the truth, what really is. That’s what I mean by truth. Truth is God and all that God has revealed about his thoughts and his ways. It’s his view of things. It’s not just what human imagination can make up, but what God says is real.
Paul’s warning was that myths were leading people away from the truth and thus destroying people. They were, in fact, creating an indifference to the truth as anything fixed and stirring up endless speculations. They were fascinating. They were intriguing people, but not helping them land anywhere.
“The use of stories to lead away from truth is always going to be a problem.”
I get nervous when I’m around people who constantly use the words intriguing or fascinating. They don’t ever use categories of truth: right, wrong, good, bad, beautiful, ugly. It’s just intriguing. I think Paul was dealing with that all the time in Ephesus. They don’t get their feet on the ground of truth, and they’re not stable, with a clear sight of God and his ways and his will. That is what we should watch out for. That’s the way I would sum up the issue today.
The use of stories to lead away from truth, and the use of stories to destabilize people by replacing the very concept of firm, true, stable reality with open-endedness, is always going to be a problem. “Ever learning, never coming to a knowledge of the truth” (see 2 Timothy 3:7). That might happen through novels, or TV dramas, or movies, or theater. Do they serve the truth or lead away from it and diminish the importance of it?
But here’s the reason we must not lump all fiction into the category of misleading myth or destabilizing myth. Fiction, as a way of leading to truth, is firmly embedded in the Bible. That’s why we can’t toss it out. God inspired it. God used it. For example, Jesus told parables. The point of these little, short fictional stories was to tell the truth in a peculiar way. The prophet Nathan convicted David of his sin by telling him a fictional story about a lamb. Isaiah developed parable-like stories throughout his prophecies, like the one in Isaiah 5:1–6, where Israel is compared to a vineyard. He goes on and on about Israel as his vineyard.
“Fiction, as a way of leading to truth, is firmly embedded in the Bible.”
The Bible rings — I mean, literally rings — on virtually every page with hundreds of similes and metaphors, which you could describe as tiny fictional pictures of things. Jesus says, “I am the door of the sheep” (John 10:7). That’s a little tiny piece of fiction. Or in Revelation, Jesus says to his obedient people, “I will make [you] a pillar in the temple of my God” (Revelation 3:12). That’s a little piece of fiction that tells a glorious truth. I don’t expect to be like Lot’s wife, made out of marble in the kingdom to come. It’s a picture. It’s a fictional picture of something glorious and real. These are what you might call micro-fiction, clearly intended to lead us to the truth. Not all fictional storytelling is anti-truth.
Four Questions for Fiction
So how shall we be discerning? I would ask at least these four questions.
1. What kind of literature or drama are we reading or watching? Do we know it’s fiction or nonfiction?
2. Do we know how fiction can tell the truth or mislead? We need to be aware of both and not be sucked into a view of the world that distorts reality as God intended it to be known. Measure the fictional portrayal of nonfictional reality by the reality revealed in God’s word.
3. Does it increase or clarify our knowledge of and enjoyment of the truth? Do we understand reality better? Do we feel about reality the way God intends for us to feel about the reality being spoken of?
4. Does it leave us with a greater love for truth — not just knowledge but love for truth? Or does it destabilize us and make us more uncertain about the very concept of truth, suspicious of truth, confused about truth?
The apostle Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 that people are perishing because they did not “welcome a love for the truth in order to be saved” (my translation). He didn’t just say people are perishing because they don’t know the truth; he said they’re perishing because they don’t love the truth. Our salvation hangs on loving the truth.
That was Paul’s great concern with myths in his day. They were leading people away from truth. They were undermining the very value of truth. They were knocking out the foundations from under faith and godliness. So they were destroying people. Yes, that can and does happen today.