Poet Malcolm Guite says, From the first moment that he proclaims the Kingdom of God, Jesus appeals to our imagination …”1 During his earthly ministry Jesus told fictional tales — parables — to transport his audience from their current reality into an imaginative space that sidestepped their assumptions and helped them have ears to hear.” Abstract concepts came to life in the stories Jesus told, illustrating how God’s will can be done on Earth, as it is in heaven.”

Still today, the parables of Jesus invite us to align our stories with his, to step away from what we know, or think we know, and into what he wants to show us. And this is true of all good stories. Fiction ignites our imagination. It invites us to see possibilities. By awakening our senses, story creates a thin space” where we can see beyond the visible to the invisible.

We may think fiction and fairy tales will make real life seem dull by comparison, but these stories actually vivify God’s glory in our ordinary lives, helping us see our story entwined with God’s mysterious, mystical, and marvelous metanarrative. We are born into God’s ongoing love story — the circumincession2 of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — where the Trinity is the protagonist. Jesus helps us discover our unique place in this story as we follow him, and sometimes the best way to envision ourselves there is with the help of a good fictional story.

Fiction whisks us away from our current life and location into an imaginary storyworld, where we become either a watchful bystander or one of the characters. As we read, whether we experience life with or as the character, we are immersed in the story experience. Here, we can reflect on the good and bad, much like reviewing our consolations and desolations in the classical prayer practice known as Examen. Ignatian Examen is a reflective way to discern with God at day’s end where we were open to the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives (consolation) and where we were not (desolation) in whatever we were doing, whether eating, exercising, interacting with someone, thinking, resting, or reading.

Three invitations of the Examen are to notice, understand, and respond. In The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today, Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV says that this noticing, understanding, and responding to the different spiritual stirrings of our hearts … leads solidly toward God in daily living.”3 In other words, through the habit of nightly reflection we begin to bring this rhythm into our everyday moments, so we can discern, and consciously choose to accept, God’s invitations. Just as the Examen helps us notice and respond to God’s movement in our lives, fictional stories help us analyze longings, motivations, and actions — first in the characters, then in ourselves. Even though the drama is fictional, we long for difficulties to resolve and goodness to prevail. We learn from the way characters respond to internal and external conflict, and characters who echo Kingdom qualities or who grow in that direction draw us to them. What is their vision? What motivates them? Do they work through their circumstances or buck against them? Do they magically grow in goodness, or do they enter into practical strategies or means” that help that change come about?

Vision, Intention, and Means — Dallas Willard said that these three elements make up the general pattern of personal transformation, which also applies to spiritual formation in the Christian tradition” and is the pattern of all human accomplishment.”4 V‑I-M” shows us how spiritual growth occurs. When we are immersed in a storyworld and inspired by a character’s transformation, we can gain a vision for a different kind of life, and if we are determined to have that different kind of life, we can take hold of means such as spiritual disciplines and practices that open us to God’s transforming work in our lives.

If we believe God can form us through fiction, engaging with stories in this manner will become intuitive. As we observe the characters, we will begin to observe ourselves. The next time you read a work of fiction involving character transformation, think about the following:

  • How does the character’s growth ignite within me a vision for a better way of life?

  • What is the character’s longing or motivation, and how can it spark my determination to work, with God, toward transformation?

  • What influences, circumstances, and processes shape the character, and are there similar (or other) means that I can, with God’s grace, implement in my own journey into Christlikeness?

Story is all around us. With God’s grace, it can ignite our desire to become more like Christ, show us how to arrange our life in such a way that would give us space for change, and lead us to means that help us yield ourselves to God’s transforming work. Whether it is the glorious and heartbreaking drama of our own story or that of others, real or fictional, story is a vehicle God can use for our transformation when we watch for the Spirit’s invitations and make a conscious choice to join in what God is doing. After all, we were created to live our personal story within the grand Story.

  1. Malcolm Guite, Lifting the Veil: Imagination and the Kingdom of God (Baltimore: Square Halo Books, 2021), 26. ↩︎
  2. Mer​ri​am​-Web​ster​.com defines this as the theological doctrine of the reciprocal existence in each other of the three persons of the Trinity.” ↩︎
  3. Timothy M. Gallagher, OMV, The Examen Prayer: Ignatian Wisdom for Our Lives Today (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2006), loc 387, Kindle. ↩︎
  4. Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2002), 85. ↩︎

Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

Text First Published November 2022 · Last Featured on Renovare.org November 2022

📚 The 2022 – 23 Renovaré Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shaping journey features four books, old and new, prayerfully curated by Renovaré. Now underway and there’s still time to join.

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