One Can Still “Do Unto Others” Even If The Book That Teaching Comes From Is Fiction

Fiction: literature in the form of prose, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people. By comparison — nonfiction: prose writing that is based on facts, real events, and real people, such as biography or history. Going strictly by definition, it’s damned hard to call the Bible anything but fiction. Yes, yes — it’s based on reality, it even uses historical characters in its storytelling and more than a little of it sorta kinda took place (meaning it’s closer to historical fiction), but it’s not even remotely reliable as biography or history — none of it. The only truly contemporaneous writer is Paul whose letters and epistles to the burgeoning new Christian communities he’s nurturing across Asia Minor make up the bulk of the New Testament.

And Paul is inventing a mythology based on an invented mythology.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this. It’s how religions get invented. To Paul’s credit, the religion he helped create (I’d say he was instrumental in Christianity’s creation — take Paul out of the equation, the faith never gets off the ground) did something no organized religion had ever done before. It crossed borders (that is, without being forced upon a defeated population). It touched something inside people — as it still does.

And — not that it needs me to okay anything — there’s not a damned thing wrong with that! But, please, let’s not confuse a masterful human creation with something elemental — that is, with the actual nuts and bolts of how the universe we actually live in works. There’s nothing wrong with elevating the esoteric above the scientific inside your own head. But what works inside that soap bubble will be meaningless out here where reality laughs at us. What’s that old joke? How do you make God laugh? Tell him your plans.

Yeah — that. Even people of faith recognize that reality and faith are two separate paths. There are people of faith capable of holding two contradictory thoughts in their head — where the point of their faith is contradicted by reality. Instead of denying the reality, they aspire to make reality acknowledge the goodness of its faith. We can do things differently. Essential messages don’t have to be based in stories that are literally true.

A good idea — “Do unto others”, say — is valid no matter what literary form it appears in. Jesus could be entirely fictional yet that profound teaching would still resonate. See what I’m saying? One doesn’t need all the complex, dogmatic rigmarole to sell Jesus’s simplest, most essential message. Or is that message not actually the point? Are we actually selling a different message altogether?

Hmmmmm… we’ll avoid that rabbit hole for the moment.

Whatever message they’re selling, I think they owe it to themselves to be honest about their product. They certainly owe it to the people they’re selling it to. And — provided the people buying the product are buying it because they really and truly want it? There’s nothing wrong with it.

The problem — for me — begins when someone deliberately tries to sell a lovely work of fiction as nonfiction. For starters, I want to know why they don’t trust their own book’s message? Isn’t it good enough on its own? The world that J K Rowling created around Harry Potter, while magical, feels real. That’s the point — to make the magic feel as real as possible. But, it’s not magic the Harry Potter books are selling. It’s a hero story about redemption. About a prophecy fulfilled (though possibly derailed by “evil”). Harry Potter could easily be the basis for a religion.

It does not make him real — and he never needs to be.

Think of all the ways literature — and other other art — impact our lives. The whole point of artists creating art is to impact the art’s patrons. But even the most detailed sketch of reality is only ever that — a sketch; reality as interpreted by the artist.

The Bible was written by human beings who named their inspiration “divine”. We can call our muse anything we like. It doesn’t mean a muse actually sat there. It doesn’t mean a deity actually put the words into our head then sat back as we typed (or etched) them. There’s nothing wrong with human genius. I just wish we’d be a little more generous toward all our geniuses.

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