"Fiction?" he said. "You think it has the power to transform marriages? Isn't that a bit of a stretch? I mean … seriously."
"No," I said. "I am being serious."
Did this conversation really happen? No, it's fiction. I made it up as I anticipated how some might react to the claim in this article. But I really do believe well-written fiction can do far more than just entertain; it has the power to change people's lives.
I know it's true. It certainly has changed mine.
Before I began reading and writing fiction, I was a pastor for many years. Most pastors don't read fiction (not sure you knew that). Oh, they read. They read A LOT. They mostly (if not exclusively) read thick theology books and nonfiction books on Christian living. Books with answers to all the big questions of life and faith people keep asking them about.
I noticed a significant change in the way I thought about people, even the way I treated them, after I began reading fiction books. Even more so, after I began writing fiction myself. To put it plainly, I cared more. I noticed more. And I felt more.
I actually cry, sometimes several times, with every book I write. I cry while certain scenes are coming to me, as I write them, and months later?in some of those same places?when I edit the story. It doesn't seem to occur to me that I've made all this up in my head. The things the characters are going through just get to me. They affect the way I think and the way I feel.
I've read countless emails from people who've told me how God has changed their hearts in amazing and unexpected ways as they've read my books. Some people have felt stirred to forgive a spouse they'd been bitter toward for years. Fathers have felt convicted to put their families ahead of their careers. Wives have been inspired to believe God really could restore their marriages.
As a pastor for 25 years, besides officiating at weddings, my wife and I did a lot of premarital and marriage counseling, and I taught marriage and parenting seminars on many occasions over the years. Most of the content for those activities came from nonfiction teaching books on Christian marriage (books that had helped my wife and me in our own relationship). I still believe in those books, and many other good ones have been written since I retired from pastoral ministry.
But like I said, now I write novels.
The Reunion, my latest and sixth novel with Revell, has just released this month. For those who haven't read my books, magazine and blog reviewers often compare my work to bestselling authors Nicholas Sparks and Richard Paul Evans. Apparently, we are rather odd birds (male authors who write emotional love stories and family-life dramas). My novels are similar to theirs but carry a stronger Christian message.
So … why do I write fiction now, and why do I believe God can use fiction to change lives?
Can Anything Good Come out of Nazareth?
Maybe you recall the story in John's Gospel. Philipp had just met Jesus and became convinced he was the Messiah. He quickly found his friend Nathanael and told him the good news. He mentioned Jesus was from Nazareth. Nathanael, being an astute Bible student, knew that the Messiah must come from Bethlehem, so he replied, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"
Jesus certainly was something good, and he really was from Nazareth. Phillip had no way of knowing Jesus had been born in Bethlehem and, apparently, he didn't know the prophecies as well as Nathanael. A small problem, on the whole. But Nathanael's assumptions almost caused him to reject a very good thing without giving it a second thought.
I've discovered a similar attitude in the body of Christ since I began to pursue my dream of writing fiction. Not by all, certainly, but by some. It's as if they are asking, "Can anything good come out of fiction?"
Most Christian radio and television talk shows, for example, are happy to have authors come on and talk about their books … as long as they are nonfiction. Why? I'm not sure. But I think some people put fiction into the category of the purely "make believe." I talked with one pastor who never reads fiction. Ever. He said, "I don't read things that aren't true."
Yes, fiction stories are … well, stories. But dismissing them on that basis alone will cause us to miss out on a very powerful tool in God's arsenal for changing hearts and minds. The power of story is used constantly in the Bible.
Jesus used fictional stories throughout the Gospels. There's the story of the Good Samaritan, the story of the Prodigal Son, the story of the Unmerciful Servant, and so many more. Of course, we call these stories parables. But in essence, Jesus was drawing on the power of story to impact people's hearts and minds with life-changing truths.
Marriage Expert Gary Smalley Believes in Fiction
Dr. Gary Smalley is one of the country's best known authors and speakers on marriage and family relationships. He's the author and co-author of 16 bestselling, award-winning books. He has spent more than 35 years teaching and counseling couples and has appeared on national television programs such as Oprah, Fox and Friends, and The Today Show.
And Gary Smalley is a serious believer in the power of fiction to transform Christian marriages.
"When I first got involved in fiction," Smalley said, "I thought it would be a fun way to try something new as an author. I never dreamed that the Redemption series (with Karen Kingsbury) would be among those most often cited by my fans as having changed their lives. That experience taught me how much power exists in story to transform lives and marriages."
Gary believes in the power of fiction so much, he wants to do it again. I have the privilege of co-authoring a new series with Gary, the Restoration series. We've recently finished the first of four novels, The Dance, which draws from his bestselling non-fiction book, The DNA of Relationships.
We are convinced God will use this series of books to help transform thousands of marriages in this country through the power of story.
Fiction's Ability to Enter through the Back Door
I believe fiction stories can get through to some of us in ways and at times when nothing else can. Like music, stories have a way of coming in the back door of our lives. Before we know it, we're pondering and considering things we might have been totally closed to just moments before.
When fictional characters go through challenges we can all relate to, we can be swept up into their lives. They become like real people we care about. Sometimes through reading what they go through, we'll pick up valuable insights about how we might do things differently in our own marriages and family lives. Or, just as important, we'll see in some of their consequences things we should stop doing in our own lives before it's too late.
I read a blog post from a married woman who realized while reading an inspirational romance novel that she was being lured into a trap with a man at work she had become increasingly enamored with. Things had started off innocently enough, but as she watched the patterns unfold in the novel, she saw how her own heart had slowly drifted into the danger zone.
That's the power of story.
Good fiction can even increase our understanding and compassion for our spouses, help us gain a glimpse of what they might be going through, and show how they might be processing things they've been unable to explain. We see characters in a story working through challenges similar to what we face, and suddenly "the lights come on" as we consider our own stories.
In short, reading good fiction can lead to some very good nonfiction fruit.
So … here's some great marriage advice from a former pastor turned novelist. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, pull up a chair, turn on the lamp, and dive into a good Christian novel.
Dan Walsh is a fiction author who served as a pastor for 25 years. He lives with his wife in the Daytona Beach area. Dan's most recent book is The Reunion (Revell).