Are you concerned about what your child is reading?

Some Facts and Fiction
About Reading, Truth, and Knowing
part 2

Peter Ditzel

That said, are “stories and imagination and figurative language” the way God has chosen to communicate to us? Granted, the Bible contains stories and figurative language. But it also contains enormous amounts of straightforward, rational propositions and commands. Even the vast majority of “stories” in the Bible are not fiction, but historical accounts. Some stories are also found in prophetic dreams, visions, etc., which are written in highly symbolic language. Fiction is found in parables, which account for only a tiny portion of the Scriptures. Old Testament sacrifices, days, dietary restrictions, and so many other points of the law, although they literally happened for the people at that time, are figures because they were shadows of the reality to come with Jesus Christ. Is Jones right when he says, “such fictions capture so much more of His reality and truth than arid intellectual descriptions could ever hope for. The figurative can be ‘more true’ than bare literal sentences. The literal cleaves off too much reality”?

If Jones’ statement is correct, we should prefer to be back in the Old Testament. We should prefer the animal sacrifices to the plain statement “Christ died for our sins.” We should desire the wave sheaf offering over “He is risen.” We should be dissatisfied with Jesus’ words, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20). Instead, we should crave that Jesus had instead sounded more like this: “And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the LORD out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD” (Isaiah 66:20). But the Bible says that the Old Testament is merely a shadow and a veil that is done away in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:14; Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 8:5; 9:24; 10:1). The stories of the Old Testament are examples, but that does not make them superior to the plain statements of the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:6, 11). In Mark 4:11-12, we see that Jesus spoke in parables, not to “capture so much more of His reality and truth than arid intellectual descriptions,” but so the multitudes would not understand. (After all, they had already demonstrated that they did not really understand the meaning behind the types and shadows of the Old Testament, so why should they be any better at understanding Jesus’ parables?)

Yes, stories, such as Nathan’s parable to David, can sometimes jog a response in us that a plain statement might not. If Nathan had walked up to David and simply told him his sin, David might not have repented. He might even have become angry and added to his sin by taking action to quiet Nathan. No doubt God inspired Nathan to use the parable to touch a soft spot in David’s heart that led to his repentance. But this does not mean that the parable contained more truth than a plain statement would have. “Fictions,” as Jones calls them, can also be useful in illustrating a point. With the appropriate background knowledge, we can understand the meaning of the prophecies and parables, as well as the historical stories and figures, of the Bible. But without that prior knowledge, without antecedent propositions, we would have trouble understanding them, and they might not convey truth to us. Doug Jones is simply wrong in his assessment that “fictions capture so much more of His reality and truth than arid intellectual descriptions could ever hope for. The figurative can be ‘more true’ than bare literal sentences. The literal cleaves off too much reality.” Without the “arid intellectual descriptions” and “bare literal sentences,” we would not know what the “fictions” were supposed to convey.

Grinding the Truth Out of Gradgrind

In the Summer 2007 Memoria Press catalog, called The Classical Teacher, appears an article, “Is Fiction False?” by Martin Cothran. This author likens “modern people” to Thomas Gradgrind, “the schoolmaster in Charles Dickens’ Hard Times, who, when he is introduced in chapter two of that book, asks his class to define a horse. He first asks Sissy Jupe, whom he calls ‘Girl number twenty,’ to define a horse. Her father is a horsebreaker, and she has lived around them her whole life; but when Gradgrind asks her to define what a horse is, she is perplexed and speechless.” Gradgrind then asks a boy named Bitzer, who pleases Gradgrind with his definition: “Quadruped. Graminivorous. Forty teeth, namely twenty-four grinders, four eye-teeth, and twelve incisive. Sheds coat in the spring; in marshy countries, sheds hoofs, too. Hoofs hard, but requiring to be shod with iron. Age known by marks in mouth.”

Cothran then observes, “Of course, Sissy Jupe knew what a horse was better than anyone else in the class, including the knowledgeable Bitzer. She had seen a horse with her eyes, looked upon it, and her hands had handled it. She certainly knew the truth of the horse better than Bitzer, who had simply memorized sterile facts about it.” Yes, no doubt Sissy Jupe knew horses better than Bitzer. But I challenge Cothran to explain how Sissy knew horses apart from facts. Cothran, Jones, and others of their ilk disparage “arid intellectual descriptions,” “bare literal sentences,” and “sterile facts.” (They also sneer at “modern people” and seem to be intent on injecting medievalism—remember the good old Dark Ages when Latin was king and people were brainwashed by the Roman Catholic Church?—into the homeschooling movement.) But again, if Sissy had expressed her knowledge of horses, how would she have done so apart from facts?

Cothran claims, “We, like Gradgrind, think that knowing about something is the same thing as knowing it. We think truth is possessed merely by knowing information, that by merely assenting to a proposition about something, we have understood it. But anyone who has read a great novel (Dickens’ Hard Times, or any other), knows that is not true. In fact, is there a better expression of the limitations of the modern lust for information than Dickens’ fictional account?”

Cothran has fallen for the notion that knowing something and knowing about it are two different things. What these people fail to do is satisfactorily explain how one can know something apart from knowing about it, and how we can know about something, perhaps know a lot about it, but not know it. We often hear this in regard to Jesus. A preacher might ask, “You might know a lot about Jesus, but do you know Jesus?” What is he talking about? It’s a good question.

Good Ol’ Bill

Suppose there is someone named Bill Jones. You know that he is a dealer in the poisonous snakes of South America. You know that he is now in his 50s, and has written a well-received book relating his capture and narrow escape from a head-hunting sub-tribe of the Shuar Indians of the Amazon Basin.

I, on the other hand, grew up with Bill. We were childhood friends, off on adventures after school every day. We even went through college together, dated the same co-eds, and married girls who were also each other’s best friends. Flying a two-seater plane together, we crashed in the Chilean Andes. After I slipped from a rock ledge, Bill risked his life to save me as I hung from a sapling overhanging a drop of 4,300 feet. We survived for 63 days with nothing but two knives, Bill’s compass, and my Roget’s Pocket Thesaurus before we reached the village of Baños Morales, where we were promptly arrested as American spies and spent 142 days, 9 hours and 17 minutes in a dungeon. I think Bill would have gone insane staring at those four walls if I had not forced him to memorize all 395 word entries, including the adjectives, in Roget’s for the word “success.”

We were finally released when a British archaeologist (name withheld) came through the village, heard of our arrest, and managed to bribe a high-ranking official with a copy of P. G. Wodehouse’s Mulliner Omnibus that he was embarrassed to find in his luggage (it was overdue by five months from the Wotton-under-Edge public library). Not wanting to be obligated, Bill repaid the man’s kindness with a generous contribution toward the refurbishing of the Wotton Electric Picture House (which then became famous as the first all-digital cinema in the UK, with sweets and drinks at modest prices but with no popcorn on environmental grounds). Yes, after spending that much time together, I know Bill. But is this really any different than knowing about Bill? No.*

Just the Facts, Ma’am

The real distinction between your knowledge of Bill and mine is degree. It lies in the number of facts and how well I understand the relationship between those facts. By spending so much time with Bill, in so many different circumstances, I have accumulated, both consciously and subconsciously, more facts about Bill than you have. I can put those facts together into a better understanding of Bill than you can. But knowing Bill is the same as knowing about Bill. There is no difference. You know a little about Bill: I know a lot about Bill.

Preachers who know what they are talking about know that knowing about Jesus and knowing Jesus are not what is at issue. What is important is that some people know many facts about Jesus, but they miss those that are essential, those that must be revealed by the Father in heaven. The unsaved person does not know Jesus as His Lord and Savior. Cothran’s distinction between knowing and knowing about is false because there is no way to know something other than knowing about it. It is a collection of facts and a synthesis of the relationship between the facts.

Oh yes, we might be able to express these facts from an internal point of view and we might be able to make them more vivid. Sissy Jupe might include in her description of a horse how riding one makes her heart pound as she feels the power of its muscles beneath her, how she can make it go faster by speaking softly into its ear, and how the smell of a horse being groomed always brings back memories of home. But these are still facts. They may merely have other, more subjective, facts tagged onto them. Thomas Gradgrind may have been mistaken to think that a handful of scattered facts could sufficiently sum up what a horse is to his students. But the problem was not in the fact that they were facts; the problem lay in not having enough facts!

What has this to do with fiction and nonfiction and what our children should read? Just this: facts are not something to be handled with ice tongs as cold and sterile and something to be avoided whenever possible. Nor is fiction always to be shunned as fluff and nonsense.

Fiction can convey truth. Truth can be conveyed in stories in a number of ways. One way is in historical events around which a story is woven (historical fiction). But truth can also be conveyed in the underlying meaning of a story. No one is going to say the following words from Alice are truth:

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
    Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
    And the mome raths outgrabe.

But the overall message of the story shows us the hypocrisies and inanities of our society, and does so in a way that is entertaining. Lewis Carroll and Jonathan Swift were masters at doing this. So, we might say their stories convey truth, but it is in the underlying meaning. But this underlying meaning is not isolated from fact. It is still a fact or a set of facts. What people seem to get confused over is that facts can be presented in many ways, but they are still facts.


* Of course, this is all just fiction. Or is it? Can you tell what’s true from what isn’t? Return

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Copyright © 2010 Peter Ditzel