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From the May, 2009 issue of Touchstone


Truths in Fiction by Phillip E. Johnson

Truths in Fiction

From time to time, I like to turn away from the scientific themes that are the most common subject of my writing for Touchstone and turn to matters of the literary imagination. The idea for this edition of the Leading Edge came to me when I saw an article by Benjamin Plotinsky in the Winter 2009 issue of City Journal: “How Science Fiction Found Religion: Once overtly political, the genre increasingly employs Christian allegory.” Plotinsky based his thesis on this synopsis of the storyline of two popular films:

There is a young man, different from other young men. Ancient prophecies foretell his coming, and he performs miraculous feats. Eventually, confronted by his enemies, he must sacrifice his own life—an act that saves mankind from calamity—but in a mystery as great as that of his origin, he is reborn, to preside over a world redeemed. Tell this story to one of the world’s 2 billion Christians, and he’ll recognize it instantly. Tell it to a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and he’ll ask why you’re making minor alterations to the plot of The Matrix or Superman Returns.

These two films were not produced by a religious organization seeking converts. They are both commercial products aimed at filling theater seats with young people who want to be drawn into a thrilling story. Since successful American movies have a worldwide impact, I hope we will receive reports about the popular reaction to these films in post-Christian Europe and the Middle East. I have heard reports that a great many Muslims around the world are having dreams about Jesus that motivate them to want to learn more about the Christian savior, and it would be very interesting to know if something of that sort is happening in the minds of popular moviemakers.

Anne Rice’s Imagination

I have for some time been fascinated by the Christian inspiration I see in the fiction of two mega-selling American novelists. One of these is Ann Rice, who, after attaining spectacular success writing about the inner life of a vampire, has recently returned to the Catholic faith of her childhood and is devoting her impressive gifts to writing imaginative, well-researched stories about what it might have been like to grow up and live as the young Jesus. Her first effort in this Christ the Lord series portrayed the period in Jesus’ boyhood when his family lived in exile in Egypt to hide from the murderous wrath of Herod, returning eventually to Palestine to encounter a land seething with a combination of banditry and rebellion.

I had always pictured the place of the Holy Family’s hiding in Egypt as a desert wilderness, but Rice convinced me that the Holy Family most likely stayed in Alexandria, the most sophisticated city in the world at that time. There she has the precocious Jesus receiving training in clear thinking from the great Jewish-hellenistic philosopher Philo. After depicting the return to Palestine, Rice provides a captivating account of the extended family life of Jesus in the midst of a chaotic environment. Throughout, she imaginatively probes the psychological drama of a young Jesus eager to know his true identity, but whose parents are reluctant to explain the full story of his miraculous birth until they are sure the time is right.

It seems to some that Rice’s reconversion to Catholicism marks an abrupt break with her literary past, which included erotica as well as vampires, but one can also perceive a thread of continuity. Rice was always brilliant at portraying the inner lives of exotic characters, bringing out the traits they might share with us ordinary folks as well as the traits that make them so different. It is just that she is now interested in a different sort of character.

There is another thread of continuity carried over in Rice’s writing from the time she was outside the church. She has a gay activist son, and she strongly desires to persuade her church to be as accepting of homosexuality as she is. Probably some bishops will be a little uncomfortable with the return of this eloquent sheep to the fold.

Materialist Villains

The second of my two writers is Dean Koontz, in whose skillful hands the airport bookstand thriller becomes a vehicle of literary art. There is nothing explicitly Christian about Koontz’s novels, but his fiction is set in a world in which life assuredly continues after physical death, and in which only the villains are moral relativists or materialists.

In one novel, In One Door Away from Heaven, a utilitarian bioethicist lives out his philosophy by murdering disabled or disfigured people whose existence he thinks detracts from the pleasure of the greatest number. In another, The Face, a nihilistic literature professor seeks to hasten the coming of chaos by committing horrific crimes that arouse feelings of insecurity in the public.

Every one of Koontz’s hundreds of novels has sold millions of copies in English and a variety of translations, so his worldwide impact must be huge, although I am not aware of any movies or movie contracts resulting from his work.

In any event, whatever may be going on in the kind of science that enforces materialism as an article of faith, the creative imagination in our time seems to be drawn to an awareness of a source of meaning that transcends the material world.

Phillip E. Johnson is Professor of Law (emeritus) at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of Darwin on Trial, The Wedge of Truth, The Right Questions (InterVarsity Press), and other books challenging the naturalistic assumptions that dominate modern culture. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.

“Truths in Fiction” first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.

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